Greetings from Vinnytsia. We hope you are all well, and enjoying the holiday season. Our holiday season is a big strange this year – it goes from December 25th, which is when the Catholics and the few Protestants here celebrate Christmas, to January 7th, which is the Orthodox Christmas. But the real holiday is New Year’s, and that is the one they celebrate with a tree in each home, presents, parties and family gatherings. Last evening being New Year’s Eve, we decided to go out to dinner with the other new Peace Corps volunteer in Vinnytsia. Fortunately we went out early because we only found one restaurant, a pizza place that closed at 8:00, to be open. We were surprised to find just about all other restaurants closed, including even the local McDonald’s. The town is very nicely decorated with large Christmas/New Year’s trees and many lights along the streets and outlining the larger government buildings. Ukraine seems to be slowly starting to understand what can be accomplished by commercializing Christmas/New Years; most all of our students said they had a Christmas/New Years tree in their homes, but only a couple of them said that Santa Claus visited them. Don bought us a Christmas tree (green plastic), about 2 feet high that we set on a shelf and decorated with a “garland” we bought at the bazaar. Christmas Day was a working day in our world, but we did have a small dinner party in the evening and invited 4 people over. (6 is our limit for dinner - we have 6 plates and 6 sets of silverware, plus a very small apartment.) One of the invitees was vegetarian, so we had spaghetti for Christmas dinner. Plus we do not use our oven (it is too old and dirty and scary looking), so we really couldn’t cook a turkey, assuming we could have found one. But the party was a success, and it was past midnight before everyone left, so we think they had a good time.

The week of January 1st is the week they all take vacation, so there is much that is closed. We tried to get cash from the ATM at our bank yesterday, and found that the ATM was closed also.

We are watching with some interest the situation between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine gets most if not all of its gas from Russia, and there are also pipelines through Ukraine that Russia uses to deliver and sell gas to other countries in Europe. But it seems that Ukraine has not paid Russia for gas used in the past couple of years, which is further complicated by the fact that they also have not even established the price for this gas delivered and used in past years.  And Russia also is accusing Ukraine of diverting and using gas that was intended by Russia to be delivered to other countries. Not to mention they can’t decide what the price of gas should be for the current year. Russia has traditionally sold gas to Ukraine at prices significantly below market price, assuming that this price concession would buy some loyalty from Ukraine to Russia, but it seems that all Russia got for its efforts was noise from Ukraine that they wanted to join NATO and condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Georgia. So if it seems to readers of this that we have at least some sympathy with Russia in this deal, then you are reading correctly, especially since Germany has been paying about $4.25/1000cm for the past two years while Ukraine was only paying about $2.00, plus in the negotiations that fell apart yesterday Russia dropped its demand to $2.50/1000cm, but Ukraine said that was still too high. Go figure that one out.  But now according to news sources, Russia says it will be cutting off the gas supply to Ukraine sometime very soon, and possibly as early as today. Ukraine says Russia will not because they have reached a deal. Russia says they have not reached a deal. We will keep you posted. But Ukraine also has some gas reserves (which Russia says Ukraine stole from Russia), so that may buy enough time for Ukraine to figure out a way to come up with a billion or so dollars to get the bill paid and keep the gas going.

In the meantime, our immediate concern is our personal hot water supply. The kolonka (the magic heater of water in our apartment) is vintage Soviet, probably 50 years old, and is not long for this world. We are hoping we can get 18 more months out of it, but it probably will not be so. We are trying to be quite nice to it, even though we were without any hot water at all for 14 days (but who was counting) the first part of December. We are however happy to report that we do now have a brand new toilet, and we only had to stay home 5 days waiting for the plumber before he came. And our new toilet is firmly cemented to the floor in proper Soviet fashion, so that it will never be able to be repaired or adjusted. Even though bolts and other appropriate installation devices came with said toilet. We think the Peace Corps should maybe send plumbers to Ukraine to explain the basics.

We have been somewhat following the economic meltdown, both here and at home. Our daughter Amy says we are lucky that we have “safe government jobs”; somehow we never quite thought of this that way but she maybe has a point. Recent events since our last friends and family post in late November have kept us busy and added some interest to our lives. On November 22 Ukraine observed a nationwide remembrance and memorial to the 6 million who died in the forced starvation and famine instigated by Stalin in 1931-1933. This event is called the Holodomor (Hunger). In Vinnitsia we attended the public dedication of a new Holodomor memorial in a nice little park situated next to the Oblast administration building. It was snowing and sleeting but a huge crowd showed up. At the end of the ceremony most brought out candles and lit them and placed them all around the new stature. We then came back about two hours later for a separate memorial sponsored by Nasha Podyllya, which is Karen’s organization where she works.

Thanksgiving passed without much notice as it was a work day here. We had fun teaching our students at Vinnitsia Language School all about how Thanksgiving is celebrated back home, and we did the same regarding Christmas a few weeks later. We finally got snow a day or two before Christmas, and we now have about 8 inches. Since both of our offices are closed from December 29 to January 8, we decided to hop on the train and go visit Lviv for a few days. Lviv is a 700 year old city located in Western Ukraine, and very modern by Ukraine standards. It was part of Poland until 1945 when Stalin and Churchill re-drew the map of Europe and then it became part of Ukraine. What is special about Lviv is that it did not get destroyed in World War II like so many other cities, and as a result it looks like an old European city with countless winding narrow cobblestone streets and row after row of old stone-faced building 3 or 4 stories high packed side by side, each one with interesting architecture and outside ornamentation ranging from statues to murals to gargoyles to other embellishments. Also several huge churches dating back to the 1600’s and later, including one with maybe the only statue in the world of Christ sitting beside the cross. There is also a very large grand old palace, built by a Polish nobleman in the 1880’s. The guy who became famous as a mashochist was from Lviv and the hottest new restaurant in town is named after him. The food was great, but the real attraction was the décor, interesting to say the least.

There is good news and bad news with regards to the Language School where we teach part-time. The good news is they seem to like us - but the bad news is they added two classes to our schedule. Except they have all learned British English, and in British English it is not schedule, but shedule. Anyway, we now have a new class of three adults to teach, plus another class of upper high school / lower university type students. Except this one is out of town and involves a trip of an hour and a half each way to get there. But we get to travel in the Language School’s owner’s Mercedes (he drives, Peace Corps says we cannot drive in Ukraine no matter what), so that part is kind of fun. We are not sure how the owner of a small language school in Vinnytsia gets to own a very nice Mercedes - unless it is by marketing his Peace Corps Volunteers to get students to come to his classes, but that is probably another story that we shouldn’t go into…

Tomorrow we are going to a friend’s apartment who has satellite to watch the Nebraska bowl game. It is a delayed  broadcast – starts at 2:00 in the afternoon here – so we are going to be very careful not to look at any news before that so we can watch it “live”.

Anyway, we wish you all the best in the New Year. Take care. Don and Karen

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