Sunday, 08 May 2008. 

Greetings from Ukraine!   We are finishing up the training part of our sojourn;  now that we all know where we are going and we no longer need to schmooze with the powers that be in order to influence their decision as to our fate we are finding it a little harder to study.  Except for this small event called LPI, stands for Language Placement Interview.   The Peace Corps brings in language people from Washington especially trained to evaluate our language skills after our 10 weeks of training, we each have a private 30 minute interview in which they ask us questions and we talk to them (without any notes) and they record us for posterity, then later we get a written report in a sealed envelope detailing our level of (in)competence in Russian.  So no one is going to get sent home because we failed in our ability to communicate, but we still all want to do what we can.   If for no other reason than to reflect well on our language instructor, who we think has been wonderful.    So – in spite of the fact that this is the home stretch and we actually could relax a little, no one is.

We have established the fact that there is nothing that can’t be purchased at the bazaar.   We found a bazaar in Chernihiv last weekend that sells wedding gowns.   Beautiful ones, they are probably rejects from an American or Italian or French market, but they are still gorgeous.   The only thing that differentiates these booths at the bazaar from other ones is the small curtain that cordons off a portion of the booth to serve as a dressing room.   The other booths at the bazaar have no such “dressing rooms”, in spite of the fact that many of them sell clothing, including men’s suits and women’s dresses, plus jeans and shirts and shoes and underwear for any and everybody..   For ourselves we cannot imagine buying jeans without trying them on, and it appears that the Ukrainians share this thought.   It is common to see customers trying on jeans and anything else right there in the booth, maybe behind whatever table or counter they have and maybe not.   We have also in our observations at the bazaar established the fact that there are some Ukrainians who do not wear underwear.

For a language project we did a comparison of fruit and vegetable prices at the stores and at the bazaars.   We had expected the prices to be lower at the bazaars, but were surprised to learn that this was not always the case.   Since then we have talked to a couple Ukrainians about this, and their opinion is that prices are generally about the same.   We do think that fruits and vegetables are fresher at the bazaars, and many times the stores do not have the variety that the bazaars do.   So we continue to shop mostly at the bazaars for what we want, besides which we like visiting with the babushkas and other merchants.  We also avoid  the long lines at the checkout stands too that way.   We have one booth we stop at most evenings on the way home to purchase fruit for the next day’s lunch;   the owner likes to practice his English and we like to practice our Russian, so it is not unusual for us to speak broken Russian to him and he then speaks broken English to us.   Probably sounds a little strange for anyone listening, but it seems to work !

At home we would hear about the dollar rising or falling and we never paid any attention, now it is having a direct impact on our lives.   The local currency for Ukraine is the hryven, and the Peace Corps manual for Ukraine says that one dollar usually buys 5.00 to 5.50 hryvens.   However, when we came the exchange rate was 5.05, and a few weeks ago it was down to 4.55.   It is now at about 4.71, which is better, but still a ways from the 5.00 to 5.50 per the Peace Corps manual.  Inflation is also a problem.   When we came the marshrytka (little bus) rides were 1.00 hryven each, now they are 1.50 hryven.    The marshrutka ride to Kiev was 20 hryven one way when we came, it is now 25.   We hear from Galina that a year ago this same marshrytka ride was 12 hryven.    It is reported that inflation is currently at 30%, and we believe it.   We get “paid” in hryvens, so what directly impacts us is this inflation, plus the exchange rate if and when we need to cash in American dollars to purchase something here;   it is more of a problem for those directly employed by the Peace Corps.   Those people (includes everyone from our language instructors and technical trainers to the Country Director) get paid in American dollars, which they then need to convert in order to purchase goods here.  So they are impacted both by the low dollar and the inflation rate.    This will also impact our kids when they come visit next summer, so if any of you have any influence in Washington over such matters we would appreciate your help!

On another subject, Don has lost about 10 pounds since he has been here.   (Karen has unfortunately had no such problem….)    When we came he was a size 34 waist, we purchased a pair of new summer shorts for him a couple weeks ago, they were a size 32 and were still loose.    His belt is tightened as far as it will go – so if anyone is looking for a diet, consider the Peace Corps!

Karen managed to spend a few hours with four women bankers here.   They all four work (in different departments) for a large bank, owned, as are many Ukrainian banks, by a foreign investor.   In their case the owner is a large bank in Vienna.   We compared notes, and while there are similarities, there are also some striking differences.   One is the age at which one can borrow money.   Their minimum age is 18, for reasons similar to ours, but they also have a maximum age.   For women it is 55, and for men it is 60.   These are also their retirement ages, it is assumed that after retirement you will have no income.   The maximum loan term is 5 years, and they also cannot make any loans to people that will mature past the retirement age  (i.e., they cannot make a 5 year loan to a woman who is 53, because she will turn 55 before the loan is paid).   They are also still working out a credit reporting system.   There are a couple of fledgling credit bureaus in Kiev, but they are finding it hard to get established because there are very few banks who will give them any information.   They rely more on their “black list”, which sounds like the CheckMate system we used to have.  They also depend on individuals to bring in information, which means it is your responsibility to go to whatever bank or entity that has given you credit in the past and get the appropriate documentation to take to your new lender.   It appears that whether or not you obtain such documentation is up to you;  unless the “black list” has found out about your previous sins, no one will know.

(A few days later)   

We went to Kiev yesterday to celebrate surviving the language placement interview and the Peace Corps training in general.   A wonderful day !   Went first to the “Lavre” (also known as the Caves Monastery).   Incredible place to visit.    Covers a very large area on one of the higher points in Kiev, so from the top is a marvelous view of the Dnepr River and Kiev in general.   The caves were begun by St. Anthony, who came to Kiev from Greece in 1051.  He lived on the banks of the Dnepr River in a manmade cave, and eventually others came to join him and expanded the cave network into an extensive underground collection of cells and tunnels where many monks spent their entire lifetime meditating, writing and praying.   Today much of it is restored so that you can walk through (except you will want to bring a candle because otherwise it is too dark).   In many of the cells are the bodies of monks, in beautiful shrouds (including face coverings) and placed in glass topped coffins.    Amazing to see.  The buildings on the surface cover a large area, and the largest of the several churches is big enough to have seven “onion” domes on the top.   Plus there is a large bell tower, and there are many beautiful gardens.   It is still a working monastery, and one of the most important sites in the Orthodox Christian world.  Many pilgrims go to the site, and when we were there we were fortunate enough to see a pilgrim’s procession.   There were 10-15 monks in front, singing and chanting, with several of them carrying one of the glass covered coffins above their heads.  Behind them several important type pilgrims, then followed by more monks and more singing and chanting and then probably 300 pilgrims.   There were two women in our group, we had brought scarves to wear on our head (which is required), but when we entered the caves we were scolded for wearing pants.  (Except they did let us in anyway.)   All of the pilgrim women wore skirts.  All pilgrims must also wear a cross and come with a letter from their local Orthodox parish stating they are in good standing and should be received as a pilgrim.  There were several special places in the caves that only pilgrims with a pilgrims pass were allowed to enter.

We managed to get around Kiev on the metro all by ourselves – including transferring from the green line to the blue line and back to the red line.   We were quite proud of ourselves.   The metro in Kiev is quite crowded, and it is not a given that there will be room for you to get on.   But we are getting quite good at pushing and shoving our way in just like regular Ukrainians, and no one got left behind! 

After the Lavre we went to the largest bazaar in Kiev.  Covers many square blocks and sells any and everything.   We spent two and a half hours there and did not get out of the used book section.   Nothing was neat or organized, and there were English and Russian and Ukrainian and French and German etc etc books everywhere.   Some even on shelves!

On Monday we go to the Soviet resort we were at a couple of weeks ago to get sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers, and then on to our site at Vinnytsia.   It has been quite an adventure so far, and there is no reason to think that our life will slow down any at all in the next 24 months.   The United States Ambassador to Ukraine comes to the swearing in, and apparently it will be quite an event.  Then the challenge is getting everything to Vinnytsia….  This includes the three big suitcases each we brought with us, plus the book bags we brought and the winter coats, plus the many many Peace Corps language and other materials we have acquired since we got here, plus the few other things we have managed to pick up at the bazaars.  So today we went to the bazaar and purchased another suitcase!   This might be manageable, but Peace Corps also gives us a few more things before we leave, including a fire extinguisher and a fuel oil space heater (about 3 feet by about 4 feet) for each of us.  Getting to Vinnytsia will be interesting, as there is no baggage car on the train.   Unfortunately it is all our responsibility.

Not much else, wish us luck with the swearing in and our move to Vinnytsia, and please continue to write!  We like hearing from you.               Don and Karen


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