April 20, 2008

Greetings to all!All is well here and we hope you are fine also.   We have been here three weeks now and are gradually getting settled in.   Life here is certainly different than what we left -   but no regrets.    We have figured out that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what is really here and what the Peace Corps is really all about, and we seem to go back and forth between just being ex-pats living in Ukraine and being serious Peace Corps types.  Most of the time we think that if we really ever do any good deeds over here it will be completely by accident.  
Things we have learned:
Not all buses go all the way downtown.  Don’t ask how we got out of that little mess, but if a reporter had happened to have a camera in the area he could have filmed two Americanskis with full briefcases running through the downtown so as not to be late for Oxana……   (aka Nurse Ratched / please consult Google if you don’t remember).
How to buy pop out of the pop machines on the sidewalks.  This is harder than it looks and way not obvious and we failed the first time we tried it.  
Toilet paper:   We have it sometimes.   We are supposed to use very very small quantities because the plumbing is not that good.   It is about the consistency and color of thin brown paper towels.   The toilets in schools (including those for our classes), libraries, public places, etc. are Turkish however  (for those of you who have missed this wonderful experience please consult Google), and there is no toilet paper in Turkish toilets.   
Notebook paper -   interesting.  In the US when you buy a notebook it has lines in it.   In Ukraine when you buy a notebook (and we have looked at several places) it has grid lines in it.   Looks like our graph paper.
Don has learned that cognac tastes best when followed by a small piece of lemon with a little bit of salt on it.    He says it is a lot better than vodka.   We have learned that there is no peanut butter in Ukraine, or most anywhere else in Europe for that matter, and no Gatorade.   The Peace Corps sends Gatorade to Don as part of his medical supplies !
The food is good.    Most of what we eat is from our family’s large garden, and is what Galina canned/preserved/saved in the cellar from last summer.   Last night’s supper was typical:   potato soup, plain boiled potatoes, cold cabbage (sort of a coleslaw, with carrots and an oil based dressing), and cooked cabbage.  Plus tea and dark bread.  She also makes really good borscht (beet soup).    She makes really good jam, but she thinks we are strange because we put jam on bread when we have soup.    They do not use butter, and they eat most of their bread plain.
Hot water:   The heat for the town in general was turned off April 15   (and then it promptly got down to almost freezing for a few days).   So for the town in general the hot water has turned off also.    These will be turned on again on October 15, so we will hope there are no cold spells before then.   As we are in a small private home, however, we have our own heating and plumbing system and we sort of have hot water.   It is the kind of hot water system that heats the water in the pipe with natural gas as you use it.  A funny coincidence is that when our hot water tank went out last winter I (Don) investigated replacing our water tank with this kind of system because it is more energy efficient, but I found out they only work well with clean city water and our mineralized water at the lake would have plugged it up in a few years. The system here is a lot smaller than what we would have done at the lake, though, and the water is closer to warm than hot.   But it never runs out, which is an interesting trade off.  We try to shower every second or third day, and it mostly seems to work.   Good news though -  we now have two towels !    (Our host family had missed the instruction that we each got our own towel and for the first two weeks we shared one towel.   At the end of two weeks it got washed, and somehow we then were given two towels.)
One night we cooked spaghetti from scratch for our family.   We had made it on Friday at Olia’s for our cooking lesson (we were learning how to talk about food and cooking), and Galina heard about it and wanted some too.   It was fun putting it all together – we went to the outdoor market and bought tomatoes, garlics, bread, etc.  and did it all from scratch.  We think it went okay -  Nastia didn’t eat very much, but Sergei had seconds  and then broke out the Armenian cognac for him and Don.   We hadn’t seen the cognac before – we think it must be only for special occasions.
We continue to find and explore what the Soviets abandoned and left behind when they moved out.  (It must have been strange to have had the personnel, funding, and structure for many of your town’s largest institutions and manufacturing plants just disappear overnight.)    Sergei said that many of the Russian cosmonauts had trained there.  There were many many large buildings, not big in terms of height, most were 3-4 stories, but large in terms that most were at least a city block long and a city block wide.  Most were still empty and abandoned and in stages of disrepair, but some have been restored and are being used now as sort of an educational institute.   Then in the middle of this abandoned flight school there is a small area with about 8 MIGs  (Russian fighter planes) from the 1960’s and 1970’s).   These too had been abandoned by the Soviets when they left.   Amazing to see.  The area including the MIGs is now used by the neighborhood children as a playground and place to congregate.
We spend a lot of time studying Russian, and unfortunately it is taking a lot of time to sink in.    Olia adds new stuff everyday (she needs to -  there is a lot to learn in 3 months), but it doesn’t leave much time to go over what we supposedly learned the day before.    This week was nouns.   They divide all nouns into three categories – masculine, feminine, neuter, and they all behave differently and have different endings,  except there is no rhyme or reason as to which one is in what category.   Masculine includes the words for tea, garlic, and house;   feminine includes the words for teacup, carrot, and book;   neuter includes the words for apple, village, and ocean.    Go figure.    Each category has its own group of endings, and  it is further complicated by the other additional endings they have for nouns depending on where the noun is in a sentence:   a feminine noun being used as a direct object has a different ending than a feminine noun being used as the subject of a sentence;   any noun following a preposition indicating location has a different ending than when it is used as a subject;  any noun following a preposition indicating togetherness (with) has a different ending than when it is used as a subject;  any noun following a negative or indication of quantity has a different ending than when it is used as a subject.   And the list goes on.   Oh – and please note that any adjective being used to describe a noun has to agree and have the correct endings on it also.    This is just what we have after three weeks of language lessons.  Next week we work on verbs.   This is not good.      The Peace Corps does have a good language program though -  we are not complaining about the teaching, just about the impossibility of teaching old dogs new tricks.
We have finally found some time to explore some of the history here.   Yesterday through a friend of a friend about 6 of us went with a Ukrainian history major learning how to be a tour guide (plus he speaks English), and in exchange for lunch he took us to a couple of the oldest churches.   There is one very large cathedral that was built about 1000.  Amazing to see the icons and murals and bell towers and priceless artwork, not to mention the very large building itself.  Ukraine has 6 churches built before about 1300, and 5 of them are in Chernihiv.  They are all Russian Orthodox (not Ukrainian Orthodox – we really do seem to be more in Russia than Eastern Europe), and there are no pews.   Everyone stands for the service.   We haven’t made it to a service yet, but hope to soon.   They seem to have places for choirs, but weI have yet to see a piano or organ and suspect they are all a capella.  The oldest one was a cathedral started in 1036.  Kievan Rus was only Christianized in about 987.  Before that they were “pagan” as the Christians like to say, but in fact were a variant of the ancient Isis religion, which emphasized the four seasons and used the Sun as a symbol of God.  Well, right there on the outside of this Church built in 1036 is a Sun, reflecting their Isian past, and inside the Church at the four corners of the dome supports are frescoes depicting the four seasons as well as their names in the old Slavonic language.  Our guide explained this was done in order to blend the new faith with the old faith, just as Christianity in Western Europe adopted the Easter bunny from the Germanic tribes. 
We went to a birthday party Monday night for Galina’s 10 year old niece, daughter of her brother Sasha and his wife Maria.   She told us before we went that they were really really poor.   Their apartment was very old Soviet, and quite small.   A little kitchen, about 3’ by 5’, a very very small bathroom, a normal size bedroom for their two daughters, and a smaller living room that doubles as a bedroom for Sasha and Maria  (the couch in the room makes into a twin bed;  these are quite common and it is the same thing that we have for our bed).    (They also have a very busy dachshund, and a small something that looked like a hamster with fur.)   We had assumed that Sasha and Maria were poor because of no education, etc., but we are finding out that this is not necessarily true in Ukraine.   Sasha has a graduate degree in microbiology from a university in Kiev, and he and Maria both have their equivalent of a doctor in veterinary medicine degree, both of them in large animals (cows, horses, etc.).  Maria is currently not working, but Sasha is working in research and has published several papers and is working on a larger paper, but his salary is quite small.   We found out later that the two lowest paying professions in Ukraine are medicine and teaching.   Medicine because it is all controlled by the government, and who knows on the teaching.  We still have a lot to learn about our new home….  
One night we went to a language school and we each visited an English language class and talked to them.   We are amazed at the number of Ukrainians who are studying English.   Some of our tech classes are held in a Ukrainian elementary school, and we are usually accosted by small children who want to practice their English on us.   (They also giggle a lot, it is cute.)    The last bunch was about eight 10 year olds, and they said they have been studying English for 4 years.   And their English was better than some Americans we know !  
Not much else -  time to get back to the homework.   Take care, and thanks to those of you who write back !   Please accept our apologies for not writing back to you all individually, and we will try to do better.  But please believe us when we tell you we really are busy !  

 Don and Karen

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