not an official u.s. gov't or peace corps website. obviously.
not an official u.s. gov't or peace corps website. obviously.

Thursday, September 14th 2006

Itís Time to Go

A piece of plastic broke free in the inside of my shoe and poked my ankle this morning, so I put a piece of tape over it. I have 9 black socks left, misshapen, raw, covered in clumsy stitches, as if theyíd been beaten to an inch of their miserable, unsatisfying lives and then patched up by an HMO doctor. The denim of my sole pair of hipster jeans (the only pair that I came with) is as thin and fragile as old lady skin. I take it into the sewing shop whenever it splits just above my knees or (more embarrassingly) just below my butt. I have to take them in approximately every 5 weeks. Iíve invested more money in my jeans than most people invest in their childrenís education.
When I was urinating outside of Club Kino, my townís night club, a car suddenly pulled up behind me. I knewóbefore I felt the night stick poking my side, before I heard the incomprehensible, gruff, commands in Russianóthat it was the cops: It was a pee raid, and I was busted. A cop tried to pull me away from my bush, toward his car, but I was mid-stream and had to ask for a minute to finish up. I sat in the back seat while 4 or 5 cops fanned out, searching for other furtive urinators who skittered from behind bushes like antelopes. I had made the mistake of relieving myself right on the edge of the unofficially designated pee-zone. The cops ended up letting me go. Either they didnít bag enough errant pissers to make it worth their while or my sad, puppy dog eyes saved the day again.
I have fewer than 100 days left to my service, and itís getting tough. Classes are wearing on me, and itís only the second week. At school, I find that my face is locked into a grimace that is usually associated with spinsters and civil servants.
Iím experimenting with different work attitudes in order to survive the last 3 months of school. Severe and Demanding is not working very well. It just makes me angry and scares the kids a little (which I perversely enjoy). Today, I tried Relaxed and Casual with a hint of Caring, and it seems to work better. The problem is that if Iím too nice, I get behavior problems. Since last semester, I seem to have forgotten the correct, magical proportions. In any case, all the signsóthe state of my clothes, the end of my career in public urination, and my weariness with schoolóare saying that itís time to go.

Wednesday, August 16th 2006

Having had arrived the last time
unaware of distance, landmarks,
Anxiety coupled with drunkenness
and stumbled down a road,
one closer, convenient.
Bothered by the lack of fidelity,
you stayed in,
watched the news,
went to bed at a reasonable hour.

53 years, 7 months, 11 days and nights later,
I made a list of the things I love.
I couldnít get past watermelonó
the fruit that I eat to remember you.

Wednesday, August 16th 2006

*I briefly considered calling this entry ďSleepless in Lebedyn,Ē but then I realized that Iím better than that.

I canít sleep tonight. Maybe the after-dinner (or postprandialóIím studying for the GREs) tea, which Iíve assumed (for no reason at all except wishful convenience) to be decaffeinated, isnít. Maybe I canít sleep, demoralized by the moths and other assorted winged-insects that fatally singe themselves on the bare bulb that lights my living room. Some immediately drop to their deaths. Others flop around for a bit. The sturdier ones quickly bounce back up like superballs upon hitting the floor for another short, ill-fated meeting with the bulb. This spectacle makes me ask: Are moths just like us?

I went out to my balcony for a smoke, thinking fresh, night air (mixed with smoke, tar, and nicotine) would help me sleep. The dogs were sleeping, one curled up into a white donut, another standing watch. A few more dogs have moved into the neighborhood while Iíve been away. Thereís a new white pup and an eager-looking, hay-colored guy. Inscrutably, the neighborhood dogs chase some dogs away while charitably welcoming others for a brief stay. I would like to know more about dog etiquette.

Feeling eyes on me, I turned to my neighborís balcony and thought I saw the top of her misshapen hair hanging out the window, like a hopeless Rapunzel. Before I could say hello, my eyes adjusted: it wasnít my neighborís unappealing haircut I was staring at, but rather, an overfed cat or a small raccoon/unusually cute opossum. I stared at it hard for a few minutes without figuring out which. It was probably the former, but, just in case, I locked my balcony door. If I woke up with a raccoon/opossum in my apartment, I donít know how I would reason with it.

So, to continue the Moldova storyÖ I had a surprisingly good time in Moldova. The food was outstanding. We had piles of fresh fruit; mamaliga (the official Moldovan dish a.k.a. polenta) was pure goodness; and the other meals had spice! Flavor! Oh Lord, why have you hidden your face from me for so long! The $4 cognac I brought home was pretty solid as well.

The students that I worked with for the FLEX program were really great too (but note the order in which I discuss aspects of my Moldova trip). Their English was outstanding for the most part, which is something that is expected of FLEX participants. Some of the students had weird accents that only made sense when they told me that they went to special schools run by Turks. They were also enthusiastic and generally cheerful, very much like well-adjusted, American high school students. I had half-expected the country to be populated with some of the saddest children in the world (because something like 20% of the population work and live abroad, and therefore, many children are brought up by grandmothers, rarely seeing parents). However, when I was sitting on the bus, waiting for my trip home to begin, I saw what must be a typical scene. A family came to the bus station to see their mother off. The daughter, probably around 12 years old, stoically stood by as her mother got on my bus to Ukraine while her brother, maybe seven years old, unabashedly bawled his eyes out. The grandmother failed to quiet him. The mother came back out to console him before leaving. The children and their grandmother stood there quietly, not waving, as the bus pulled out.

I think the reason Iím having trouble sleeping is because Iím busy thinking about life after Peace Corps. I only have a little more than 100 days left, and the future is almost here. It looks like grad school for me. Iím not looking forward to all the pre-grad school hurdles, namely tests and applications. Iím taking the GRE next Tuesday, so Iíve been chipping away at test materials for the past month. Iím also dreading having to ask professors who wonít remember me (because they never knew me in the first place) to write up some stunning letters of recommendation. Thereís also the pre-grad school living and working situation to work out. For the sake of my morale and overall mental health, I will not be staying in my old room at my parentís house for long if I can help it. So thereís a lot to think about.

Wednesday, August 9th 2006

i'm overcome with laziness. i've been spending my days studying for the gre, eating watermelon, and reading at the beach. (I read the joke by milan kundera and the shipping news by the lady who wrote broke back mountain, both outstanding books, and i have one hell of a tan.) i travelled around far too much last month: i was gone for about 3.5 weeks. i don't like being away from home for so long. i haven't really touched the blog much. i don't have motivation to write unless i'm sitting around at home, bored, collecting dust. i have, however, updated the photo section with pics from the end of school and ireland.

Saturday, July 15th 2006

Dear Volunteers:

On July 6, at least 8 people died as a result of a bomb explosion in a "marshrutka" passenger shuttle in the city of Tiraspol, Transnistrian region of Moldova.

In the light of the recent events, all travel through Transnistria has been restricted. All volunteers, especially those living in the regions of Odeska Oblast that border on Transnistria, as well as those living in Vinnytska and Chernivetska oblasts that border on Moldova, should excersise caution.

Below is the U.S. Department of State information regarding Transnistria .

"A separatist regime controls a narrow strip of land in the Transnistria region of eastern Moldova. The United States and other countries do not recognize this regime. Since no formal diplomatic relations exist between the United States and local authorities there, the provision of consular assistance to American citizens cannot be ensured. Travelers should exercise caution in visiting or transiting the area. Travelers should be aware that there are numerous road checkpoints along the roads into and out of the Transnistria region."



i heard about the bombing the morning that i was scheduled to leave moldova and return to ukraine. a moldova pcv (there are over 100, which is bizzare because it's a tiny country) told me about it. the peace corps office in moldova wasn't aware of the bombing until headquarters in washington called them to find out what precautions they were taking. washington found out about the bombing from cnn. peace corps ukraine took action, restricting travel 4 days after the bombing.

even before the bombing, the moldova pcvs were forbidden to enter transnistria because it's so shady, and if something happens to you, there's no u.s. embassy to bail you out.
i probably should have called the peace corps office to find out if it was safe to travel, but since i already had my bus ticket and because i was feeling a little lazy/optimistic i decided to just go.

i traveled to moldova with carrie, a former pcv who now works for american councils. we both taught seminars there. the bus trip takes about 10 hours, which isn't bad. we were hoping for a new, air-conditioned, touring bus, which wasn't too much to expect since this was technically an international trip. Instead, we got a rickety, old school bus, the kind that you see all the time in ukraine, packed full of babas carrying sacks of vegetables, crawling from town to town like an itinerant gypsy.

The trip takes 10 hours, but 3 of those delightful hours are spent at the border--actually borders. although transniester is not recognized as a country, they have border control and customs (their currency is the russian ruble). so on the way in and out of moldova, you have to go through 2 sets of customs. we've heard a lot about bribery and other hassels at the borders, so carrie and i decided to play the part of dumb, "i-only-speak-english" americans, hoping that the border guards wouldn't make the effort to make us understand that they wanted a bribe...to be continued...

Thursday, June 29th 2006

Last night, at the graduation party, my principal and I made up over some vodka.

Wednesday, June 28th 2006

Piss and Vinegar

Tomorrow night, I leave for Kyiv. Iíll teach a FLEX pre-departure orientation (PDO) session for four days, and then I leave for Moldova, to teach another session. FLEX is an international student exchange program funded by the U.S. State Department and run by American Councils. A few hundred Ukrainian high school students will spend the following year in American schools, living with American families, and the idea is to prepare them for all this and more during the PDO sessions. Moldova is a small country directly to the west of Ukraine. Moldova is known for produce and wine, but not much else. Moldovans are often made fun of in Ukraine for being nice, but stupid. Moldovan jokes abound in Ukraine as Polish jokes do (or at least used to) in the U.S.

Iím relieved to be leaving my town. I spent the last 4 weeks working at my schoolís summer camp, which unlike last year, was a waste of my time. Last year, I worked with these cute little first grade kids. They had a penchant for violence, which sickened me, but their little, happy smiles were contagious. And there was work for me to do; little kids need a lot of watching. This year, I worked with middle-school aged kids, the age group that I despise the most. I know for a fact, that when I was their age, I was an absolute dick. I antagonized girls, not knowing quite exactly what it was that I wanted from them. I was loud, and I said a lot of stupid shit. I know that I was this way, yet still, I canít forgive these little animals for their subhuman behavior. And to top it off, there was nothing for me to do at camp, except roll my eyes and glare occasionally.

I show up at 9. Sit around with the kids for an hour or so. Eat breakfast. Sit around for another hour or more. Go on an ďexcursionĒ to the stadium or monument. Come back. Sit around for an hour. Eat lunch. And then I would flee. I would get as far from the school and the bratty kids as I could at the soonest possible time. I spent a lot of time at the beach soaking up sun and bleeding out bile. I also ran a lot. Both of these activities made me feel better, but the next day, Iíd have to head back out to camp.

I started arriving later and later because, why not? After the second week, about half of the kids stopped showing up. They too realized that camp was dull and not worth attending.

I know that it was in my power to make camp betterófun, even. I could have taken charge of the day camp, taught them ultimate Frisbee and Chicago-style softball. The indifferent and moody teacher who was responsible for the kids would not have cared if I had usurped her role. I could have made camp into something that is fun not only for the kids, but also for me. But I didnít want to. The kids didnít deserve my efforts. The school didnít deserve my efforts.

In the first week of camp, the principal offended me. I went away for a few days to Kyiv for a SPA committee meeting. The principal called me on Monday morning, demanding to know why I was not at camp. I explained what I was doing in Kyiv, but he continued yelling at me and then hung up. I called him back, explained again, and he hung up on me yet again. Principals in Ukraine tend to be megalomaniacs, but we hadnít had any problems in the past, so this caught me by surprise. When I got back to school, he found me in the morning and chastised me again. This time, instead of explaining again, I just smirked at him, thinking, ďFuck off, you donít own me.Ē Iím a volunteer. Iím here because I want to be here and not because I have to be here, not because youíre telling me to be here, and if you think you can force me to come, I will, but thatómy physical presenceóis all you get. I know, I know, this is not a good attitude to have, in fact, itís poisonous.

So that was the last four weeks. Pretty shitty. This unpleasant situation could have been avoided if I had explained to the principal before leaving how important my committee meeting was, but I have never had to explain my absence to him before. Also, since classes are over, I am free to do what I please. Perhaps the principal doesnít understand that point. Things have cooled off between the principal and me. By the time school starts in September, things should be fine, but I will never forgive him for being rudeónot unless he apologizes, but, in this country, I donít think principals apologize much.

Wednesday, June 14th 2006

Drunkie

Occasionally, in Ukraine, you run into phenomenally drunk men in the middle of the afternoon. Last week, the new volunteer in my town, Rebekah, got hit by a drunk guy on a bike. I think it night have been the same drunk guy on a bike that I saw passed out on the sidewalk a month ago. Not knowing what to do, but feeling somewhat responsible, I yelled into his ear and then poked him when I didnít get a response. He made a noise, and it was a sunny day, so I left him there.

A drunk guy got on the bus todayójust barely. His incrementally less drunk friend dragged him on the bus and deposited him onto a seat, where he oscillated erratically like one of those inflated clown punching bags. I thought he would yuke (college slang seems the most appropriate when describing vomiting), so I mapped out quick escape routes in case he vomited in my direction.

The other bus passengers collectively rolled their eyes when he got on, as if he was the dirty uncle that all Ukrainians have to tolerate at family functions. A young couple laughed at his condition. Drunkie yelled something unintelligible back at them. It sounded like a feeble, drunken threat. I felt nothing but disgust for this guy.

The bus picked up a lot of people on the way to Sumy, and very soon all the seats were taken except for the one next to drunk guy. We made another stop, and a frail, gray-haired grandmother got on. As in most cultures, old age is respected in Ukraine. I think the respect for age has a twist in Ukraine because on top of the whole age thing thereís the Holodomor, the Stalin-era, manufactured famine.

During Russiaís campaign to collectivize Ukrainian farms and quell rising nationalism, Soviet soldiers stole grain and livestock from farmers, causing a major famine in which 5-10 million Ukrainians slowly died. Whenever I see an old person, I estimate their age and guess how old they were during the famine, and my thoughts automatically touch on the suffering they might have endured. Most Ukrainians hold a reverential attitude in regard to the very old and do their best to see that they do not suffer even inconveniences.

Even though drunk guy was operating on only the reptilian part of his brain, he saw the old woman get on the bus and immediately made space for her on the seat. He also brought his weaving and bobbing under control as to not collide with her. After this, I couldnít help feeling a little less disgust for drunkie.

Tuesday, June 13th 2006

Having a Party

2 PCV friends living in Sumy were going to have a blow-out, schoolís out for the summer party in their apartment. Unlike nearly every other PCV in Ukraine, they share an apartment: a gigantic, 5-bedroom, newly furbished, dream apartment. Considering the size of the apartment, we invited everyone we knew and expected 20 or more guests. The week before the party, they told their landlord (who lives directly below them) about the party. Even though they lied about the size of the party (they said only 10 people would come) and the occasion (my fake birthday), the landlord said no. It was too late to cancel the party since our friends had already bought their train tickets to Sumy, so we moved the party to my place in Lebedyn.

Although I have a comfortable, 3-room apartment, it cannot sleep 20 people. Also, water comes (if Iím lucky) and goes during the day and completely cuts out after 10 PM. I always keep water in plastic containers to wash up and cook, but I was worried about what 20 people and no water would do to my toilet. I tried not to worry about what 20 crazy Americans would do to Lebedyn.

My PCV friend, Anton, arrived in the morning and helped me clean up the apartment. We even took the big rug from the living room outside and beat it. I donít have a vacuum, and this was the first time in over a year and a half that the rug was cleaned. It was pretty disgusting. I think that the old ladies who were sitting outside were impressed by the clouds of crap that flew out of the rug as we pummeled it with our hands. I donít have one of those rug beating wands because the only function it would serve would be to make me feel guilty and deliberately slovenly. I was hoping the grandmothers would come out with their beating stick and show us how itís done, but I think they really enjoyed watching stupid Americans hitting a rug with their puny fists. I remembered the bat I had bought for my English/sports club, and we took turns swinging into the rug. We thought that we were particularly clever, but this display of creative idiocy probably confirmed the grandmothersí views on the infeasibility of a bachelor existence.

It turned out that only 8 other people showed up. Volunteers, probably more than normal people, are terrible at showing up. Iíve bailed on my share of parties. Travel is a hassle, and weíre allowed a limited number of days away from site, so I understood. And I was relieved.

I cooked dinner for everyone. I made a mountain of chicken stir fry (with chicken on the side because Peace Corps is infested with vegetarians), and I also prepared about 3 liters of sangria, which is now my official drink for the summer of í06. After dinner, I washed the dishes because we happened to have water while my guests drank and talked. We didnít end up leaving my place because by the time people were ready to leave, the dance club was closed. Again, this was probably for the best. 10 Americans attract a lot of attention.

In the morning, I made a zucchini egg scramble for everyone. Later that day, the party moved back to Sumy because half of the people had to leave. We arrived around dinner time. I waited for the girls whose apartment it was to make some arrangement for dinner. They didnít. I went to bed a little hungry.

In the morning, I waited for the girls to whip up some breakfast. They didnít. I toasted up some bread that I had brought from my apartment and chewed on some cucumbers that I had also brought with me.

Dinner time came again. Anton and I took the matter into our own hands and cooked up some curry for everyone. One of the girls complained about the number of dishes we left for her to wash. I left for Kyiv that night for some committee meetings with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Hospitality is dead in the Peace Corps. Many volunteersí definition of hospitality doesnít go beyond providing a space on the floor to sleep. Iíve known this for a long time. I just didnít care until now because the hospitality extended and then received has never been so one-sided. Some volunteers are great. You show up at their place to find something delicious cooking on the stove and a cold beer in the fridge. But too many people think that their jobs as Peace Corps Volunteers obviate the responsibilities hosts have for their guests. A lot of volunteers are youngófresh out of collegeóbut this is no excuse. Hospitality, unlike wisdom, STDs, and Johnny Cashís gravelly voice, is something that you grow up withónot something that you accrue with age. Incidentally, Iím joking about the STDs.

Saturday, May 27th 2006

Thereís only 1 day of classes left, and the studentís are restless. They talk and joke during lessons, arrive late, and generally resist participating, even passively, by which I mean quietly sitting with their books open to the correct page and pretending to listen.

While I donít blame them for being fidgety, I wonít take shit from them. Iíve come a long way from being Mr. Nice Guy Pushover Floor Mat Please Please Whatever You Do Like Me. After one really bad week of going home fuming and wanting to break/kill/pulverize, it suddenly struck me that I can make them just as miserable as they make me, that misery is a two-way street, and that in my position as teacher, I am in a unique position to visit misery upon them.

I donít know why it had taken me so long to realize this. Maybe Iíve seen Dead Poetsí Society too many times. Maybe Iíve had too many shit-tastic, asshole teachers, and like an alcoholicís son, didnít want to become what I hated and feared. But in any case, Iíve put aside being the nurturing, long-suffering teacher and have learned to harness the power of the asshole. I am still obscenely patient and good-humored, but act up in class and I will not hesitate to shame and ridicule you. Some notable incidents:

My 7th grade class is talking, talking, talking. I tell them to be quiet. I make individual students stand. I make one particularly loud kid go to the corner with his nose no farther than an inch from the wall and then to the hall when he continues to talk. The class as a whole is still noisy. I tell them theyíre all staying after class for 5 minutes. I gradually increase that to 15 minutes, the entire length of passing period. They still do not shut up. I make everyone stand for the rest of the class period. I also give them a long writing assignment, which they have to stoop over their desks to do. Everyone is uncomfortable, but everyone does their work quietly.

Two 11th grade boys are giggling during class. I tell them to be quiet and pay attention. They continue giggling, so I ask whatís so funny? They shrug and giggle some more. I ask them if theyíre touching each other under the table and thatís whatís making them giggle. I tell them itís ok and, in fact, quite normal, but that they should take care of that stuff outside of class. They shut up and do their work.

My 10th grade class is not listening. Weíre doing an exercise on the Ukrainian constitution, and itís boring as hell. Also, itís the last class of the day so theyíre especially unmotivated. I ask some easy questions about the constitution, but the students donít care enough to reread the text for the answers. I call on 6 or 7 students, but no one knows anything. I make the class write out the entire abbreviated constitution from their book. I tell them they canít go home until they finish it. Half the class finishes in time and leaves. The other half thought I was bluffing. I pull out a newspaper and smile because Iím not bluffing. I stay until the last student finishes some 10 minutes later.

One of the best-loved and respected teachers at my school is the one with the shortest fuse. She yells at students with animal ferocity, banging her hands on the table, and she has an angry expression that rivals the look the Maori wear into battle. Her verbal barrages made me cringe when I first came to school. However, whenever I meet her former students, they canít stop raving about her, and she is the only teacher that students seem to remember with fondness. This makes me think that Ukrainian students want their teachers to rule their classes with an iron fist and do not respect those that do not. While American students prefer the cool teacher, the teacher-friend, the funny teacher, Ukrainians see all these traits as a form of weakness. Oddly enough, they see her explosive anger and tirades as a form of caring. The rationale for this is that the teacher considers what she has to teach so important and wants so much to impart this knowledge to her students that she will make them learn despite themselves, in the process expending an ungodly amount of energy yelling at them.

Some of my classes are very well-behaved, and I rarely raise my voice. But I do not hesitate to come down on a student or the whole class, and generally, during subsequent classes, my students behave better and heed verbal warnings. I donít go home angry anymore. Sometimes, though, I find that I like the taste of the power and authority that comes from punishing my students, often humiliating them in the process, and this bothers me a little.

Thursday, May 18th 2006

I managed to go running today. I even wanted to do it: I had some regret and stupidity to run off. I had some left when I finished running, so I even did some pull-ups at the park and then some push-ups and sit-ups at home. A few more weeks of regrettable decisions and Iíll be back into beach shape.

Whenever I wear my velvet sport jacket, the one I bought at a badass vintage shop in Dublin, strangers come up to me and invite me to their homes. Itís happened twice now. I used to think that I looked like a bitch in that jacket, but I guess maybe I look more like a dandy, which is slightly better, although only by millimeters.

Two weeks ago, as I was walking home from the bazaar with a bag full of produce and a kilogram of some damn sexy pork, a Ukrainian guy on a bike pedaled by and asked me a bunch of questions. He was really friendly and needlessly self-deprecating. Iím sure he would have addressed me as govínor if we had lived in the correct time and place. He wanted me to come to his house for dinner right then and meet his daughter, Zhenya. (Zhenya can also be a name for guys, but considering that homophobia runs amok in Ukraine, Iím pretty sure he was talking about his daughter.) I turned him down. I told him that I was busy and that itís a little weird that he would invite a stranger to his house. I said the last bit in a more polite way than Iím saying it now.

Today, as I was leaving the post office, the guy I had held the door open for called out to me. It was (of all things!) a fifty-something Asian guy. It was the other Korean guy of whom I had heard, but like Sasquatch and the Yeti never really thought existed. He was surprised that I had escaped his notice for over a year and a half and even more so when I told him I was Korean too. (He had guessed I was Japanese, which makes him the second person in one week to think so. I never thought I looked very Japanese. Maybe itís the haircut or the viciousness I now carry in my eyes. Joking, of course. Is that racist or does being Asian allow you to say shit about all other Asians? Itís probably mildly racist.) He asked me if I wanted to get something to eat, and I was a little namby-pamby about it. I had some errands to run; I didnít know this guy; and apparently, he lived in a village 10 kilometers away. But I got into his car anyway because Iíve learned to just generally go with things in Ukraine because even though I only vaguely know whatís going on, things usually turn out all right, and he was Korean after all.

He parked in front of a bank and told me heíd be a few minutes. 10 minutes passed. He came out and said heíd be just 10 more minutes. When he came out I told him that Iíd rather get something to eat in town because it might be a pain to return. He asked me if I was afraid, and I protested.

My door swung open just then, and a heavy-set Ukrainian woman was staring at me, just as puzzled by my presence as I was by hers. I stared back for a few seconds before I realized that this was the guyís wife, and she wanted to sit. I got out for her, and the Korean guy, who I later learned was named Stanislav, took me to the store to buy some drano. That was one of the errands I needed to run. I figured he was trying to clear my schedule so I had no reason to say no to his invitation. We couldnít find any, so we returned to the car, where his daughter was waiting for us.

Iíve always felt that half Asian people are the best looking people in the world. It doesnít matter what the other half is; just add a little Asian and you got one fine-looking kid. And she wasnít an exception. Sheís the first half-Korean, half-Ukrainian person Iíve met. I doubt there are many of them out there, which is a goddamn shame.

Her father assigned her the task of finding drano for me, with me, actually. After checking two stores we found it. During that time, I found out that her name is Nadia; she grew up in a nearby village; she is studying in Sumy to be a vet; and she has a dog and some chickens. We got back to the bank, and Nadiaís father gestured for me to sit in her car. I figured we were now headed to the village for some dinner, but instead, Nadia took me home. I was shocked and disappointed. Stanislav, in a very un-Ukrainian turn, had respected my wishes to not leave Lebedyn. I had complained my way out of spending time with this beautiful and interesting girl who likes animals for Christís sake. I was so appalled by what I had done that I staggered out of the car without getting her number or making plans to see her.

After my mind-clearing and self-punishing run, I saw todayís events for the half-sketchy situation it was. Iím fairly sure that Stanislav called his daughter from the bank and then stalled until she got there. And that alone is weird. He knows nothing about me except that Iím a Korean-born American and a prissy dresser. Yet, that was enough for him to call his daughter to drive out 10 kilometers to meet me. Relationships are tricky in Ukraine because most of the people you meet have far less money than you (although, technically, I have negative money due to college loans), and you have to consider what role you, as a ticket out, play in the relationship. Iíd hate to get into something, with that being the reason for meeting. Regardless of where it goes from there, I would never really feel comfortable if it started like that.

Wednesday, May 17th 2006

The school year is almost over, and itís getting harder and harder to drag myself out of bed in the morning and then to drag my ass a little further to school. I live only about 11 minutes from school, which is fortunate because otherwise I would be late all the time (either that or become a more responsible adult who wakes up in time to eat, shave, and dress well). I donít have trouble getting to school during the rest of the year; itís just the end thatís tough. The problem is that the teachers are having me work on some filler material because the students are about to start up their finals. A few days last week, they had me work with the students on the English translation of the Ukrainian Constitution, which is the crowd-pleaser you imagine it to be. You know school really sucks when you find yourself sympathizing with the students, when you canít blame them for their disinterest.

Yesterday, I played Monopoly with my 11th grade students for two periods. I like my 11th graders. Their English is pretty good, and itís a small class. Most of the time, the 2 boys in the class donít show up, which makes it easier for me because girls in Ukraine tend to be the better students or at least quieter, which is just as good sometimes. Anyway, it was the best game of Monopoly Iíve played in Ukraine. I had played a few times with my host family when I used to live with them, but they didnít really pick up on the strategy. It was kind of telling about their financial lives. They didnít really buy much property. They kind of just enjoyed going around the board and saving up money, which I steadily and systematically took away. The 11th graders bought everything they landed on and made shrewd deals to prevent me from obtaining key pieces of property. I might have even lost had class not ended. I left for Sumy to run an English club at the library, and they ended up staying after school to finish the game. Capitalism has a future in Ukraine.

The funny thing about playing Monopoly with Ukrainians is that theyíll always give you exact change. In Ukraine, the onus is on the customer to have change, and even in large supermarkets youíll earn an evil glare if you pay with a slightly large bill. Once I was almost denied the envelopes I wanted to buy because neither I nor the clerk had change. A lot of times you get a piece of candy in lieu of change. Once I got a box of matches, and I heard of someone getting a little bar of soap. Itís kind of fun actually, in the way that prizes in cereal boxes are fun. Iíve accepted this mentality of customer responsibility. I apologize immediately whenever I donít have change, and when I was shopping in Ireland, I caught myself trying to give exact change all the time and feeling a little nervous when I couldnít.

The weather is getting nice, and the price of cucumbers is going downósure signs that summer is approaching. Soon I wonít be able to convince myself not to go jogging, which is something Iíve been able to do pretty well, using just about any reason. Today, I didnít go jogging to see what it would feel like not to go jogging.

Sunday, April 30th 2006

Potatoes: The Prequel

Usually, Peace Corps deposits money into our local bank accounts a few days before the end of the month. This month, itís late. It was a little embarrassing going to the bank on Friday to hear that I only had $5 in my account. If I hadnít been surprised and somewhat ashamed, I would have taken out $4. Iím not penniless right now; I have 57 hriven ($10) and a handful of change, and besides that, my fridge and cupboards are well-stocked. I need money to see some PCV friends over the weekend. It can get expensive to go to a club, restaurant, or even to sit at the ubiquitous beer tents, and considering that weíre probably going to do all three, 57 hriven isnít going to cut it.

I had 60 hriven, but I spent 3 last night at the store. I was out of toilet paper. Tp is very, very inexpensive. A roll costs something like 60 kopyky (<$.10), yet I debated buying it. I looked around my apartment for toilet paper substitutes, which I have discovered to be a pretty fun game. Iíd wasted all my napkins on my runny nose, so there were no easy solutions. I broke down and went to the store because I didnít think I could live with it if I had subjected myself to humiliation (and possibly paper cuts) over a matter of <$.10.

For reasons I donít understand, I have trouble buying toilet paper. I feel like Iím doing something dirty, and I worry that the checkout girl is thinking something like, ďYeah, I know what youíll be doing tonight, you sick fuck.Ē So I canít just buy toilet paper. Itís like in sitcoms (and thus real life) where teenagers go to the pharmacy to buy condoms and end up buying 20 things they donít need to camouflage the purchase. I always need to buy something else, be it ice cream, pantyhose, hemorrhoid creamÖ. So I bought some toothpaste. I had officially run out 2 days ago, but managed to scrape out several drops. (Toothpaste is exciting in Ukraine. You get all these crazy varieties. I used this really delicious, green apple flavor, until I realized that it was probably giving me cavities. This time I got the strong sea flavor. There are pictures of clams and starfish on the box. I was afraid/hopeful that it would taste like seafood, but it just tastes like clean.)

To keep costs down, Iíll probably bring some of my own beer to my friendís place. I had liberated 3, one-liter bottles of beer from an American Councils training session I had attended two weeks ago. Weíre worse than hobosÖ

Helped my host family plant potatoes yesterday. We were out at their field for about 8 hours. We left around 9 and planted onions and potatoes until around 2. Sasha (the host dad) plowed the field with the tractor, babusya went down the lines scattering this pink fertilizer stuff, and the rest of us dropped and covered potatoes. I was a dropper, but then I noticed that neither Sasha nor his brother Vova were dropping potatoes. Dudes seem to do the hoeing, so I started doing that because I didnít want them to think I was a bitch. I am a hoeing fiend, I discovered. I must have peasants in my ancestry. I did a portion of the hoeing without gloves to toughen up my hands. Someone had recently commented that my hands were soft (ďLike a girlís?Ē I had demanded to know defensively, like Joe Pesci in Good Fellas).

We broke for lunch and had a picnic on the field. We ate homemade ham and smoked rabbit. I asked babusya to let me kill a rabbit next time, and she said she would call me. We drank several shots of camohon, and I wasnít much good in the field after that. I understood why we finished with the potatoes before starting lunch. We spent the next few hours planting squash. Babusya and I planted a total of 110 meters of squash.

Later that evening, I took a bath at their house before heading for home. The water was a little sickening to look at, much less sit in. The surface resembled the protein scum that bubbles up when you boil meat for soup.

Friday, April 28th 2006

In hell, everyone is congested,
and their ears are filled with snot,
but they donít recognize the blessings of inability
to smell the stench of roasting flesh through unobstructed nostrils,
to discern through clean ears, the nuance and variation of agony, or
to realize the screams that surround them come from equidistant points.

In hell, no one waits in queues,
and the cashier never turns away
and goes on break, as you, trembling with relief and veneration,
approach the glass that divides the divine from supplicants,
to order tickets home on the train that moves reluctantly
and where drunks passing in the night touch your feet like perverts.

Wednesday, April 26th 2006

Iíve been thinking that an Asian guy in Ukraine is like a Volks Wagon Beetle. Although nearly everyone has seen one before, everyone still has to stare and then comment on it. I wonít miss that. When we were younger, my sister and I used to hit each other whenever we saw a VW Beetle. The first one to spot a Beetle and say, ďPunch bug (insert color of vehicle),Ē was entitled to a free hit. Iíd like to bring that tradition to Ukraine, but with Asian people instead of cars. I havenít asked, but Iím pretty sure Iím not allowed to hit people, so I like the idea of someone slugging his friend on my behalf. Itís like having a surrogate puncher.

Ireland was fun, but the thing that I will always remember about Ireland, besides the unnatural, orange glow emanating from fake-baked lasses or having a pile of sausages for breakfast, is the role Asians seem to play in Irish lifeóor the lack of itÖ*abruptly cut to close up, cue dramatic music.

I saw Asians nearly everywhere I went. When I made the pilgrimage to Subway for a spicy Italian sub on the parmesan wheat bread, the first Asian guy sliced up the bread and lovingly laid down the cheese; an Asian girl loaded it up with all the fixings, including extra jalapenos, splashed it with vinegar and oil, patiently explained to me that the salt and pepper came mixed (I had forgotten!), and wrapped it up like a baby Jesus; and the second Asian guy rang me up. I had never been to an all-Asian Subway before. Perhaps only an all-German Subway could have been more efficient. When Sallyís friendís mom took us out for a fancy lunch, 2 hard-working Asians behind the buffet dished out mutton and a side of garlic roasted potatoes. When Sally and I went to her canoe club friendís table quiz night, the proceeds going to fund her trip to India for some misguided humanitarian thing (Iíve become a snob regarding volunteering), a pair of bar Asians provided me with a steady stream of Guinness.

I have no problem with Asiansóor anyone, reallyóworking in food service. I waited tables throughout college and even had a demoralizing stint at California Pizza Kitchen right before Peace Corps. Although Iíve wanted to bitch slap customers and coworkers, I found nothing intrinsically demeaning about food service (although Iíve vowed never to wait tables again. Iíll sooner work at a strip clubóas a dancer, or course, and not the creepy bathroom attendant/monitor. Iíd probably get better tips than I did at CPK. Those cheap bastardsÖ).

Iím really dragging my feet getting to the point. Iím a little sick. Iíve been sneezing all day, and my ears are filled with snot. Itís a little hard to stay focused. I think I need to lie down. But, to continueÖ

The problem wasnít that so many Asians were working food service. The problem was that thatís all they were doing. When I went out to pubs at night, I didnít see any Asians out and about, drinking pints with their mates. Not a single Asian shook his or her respective ass at a Peach Pit-esque, (and thus) somewhat-lame night club. I was always the only Asian guy actually eating at restaurants. I kept careful track, and not counting bar staff, I was the only Asian person at every single place I went to at night. In Ukraine, I expect to be the only Asian guy in a 90 kilometer radius. Itís weird and even slightly uncomfortable when I see another Asian guy at a Ukrainian bar. I probably glare a little and bare my unusually sharp canines. But to be in a country that is just littered with Asians! And to not see any at night!

Iím not saying that the Irish are Asian-hating bastards. Without exception, people were very friendly to me wherever I went (that is except for the woman who didnít thank me for holding the door open for her and her stupid baby at the Oxfam thrift store. I passive-aggressively muttered ďWhy, youíre welcome,Ē in her general direction, once she was out of earshot, but loudly enough so that others could hear). Asians are terrible at integration. We tend to cling to what is familiar, by which I mean other Asians. So what I will remember about Ireland is that Asians just donít blend in. To bed! What a piss poor ending. Iím pretty sure I intended to say more, but fluid is starting to periodically drip out of my nostrils without warning.

Tuesday, April 4th 2006

Jesus Christ, Iím old. I know, in truth, that Iím far from old, but I canít shake this feeling. By the time my father was my age, he was married to my mother and had 2 kids: and in my 27 years, I have yet to hold a serious job. Iíve covered all the preliminary steps (college degree, life experience, blah blah blah), but I havenít quite made the plunge. Iíd been thinking about going to grad school for an MPA (Master of Public Administration), but now that Iíve reached the ripe old age of 27, I donít think I can bear to spend another 2 years in captivity. I would hate to be a 30-year old college student. Dating 19-year olds might make it bearable, but as with Velcro shoes and Saturday-morning cartoons, you gotta let the 19-year olds go.

Maybe Iím feeling my age because I just came back from Ireland, where I stayed with my friend, Sally, on the UCD (University College of Dublin) campus. Her apartment, which she shared with 3 other girls, was plastered with posters about the rules of drinking (apparently the rules in Ireland are the same in America and Ukraine), empties lined the shelves (because why would you need space for books?), and a stolen road sign leaned against the wall. I realize that graduate programs are different. Students probably spend less time obsessing about mingers, munters, or shifting. (The first 2 refer to ugly people, the third to open-mouth kisses, as in ďDidíya shift her?Ē The Irish have delightful slang.) But being around all of this unbridled, untrampled, untempered, and ultimately, uninspired youth made me feel like old man river. I think I would dissolve and disperse in college like a torn diaper at sea, if you will. (I think Iím losing control of similes.) Iíll get a job when Iím done here. But doing what?

Ireland was real. It wasnít a vacation vacation, where you go to escape real life for a while. Rather, it was the kind of break where you go and live someone elseís life for a while. I spent the week hanging out with Sally, my Ameri-Corps friend, and for the most part, with exceptions like the trip to the Guinness Store House or always riding on the top level of double-decker busses (and yelling out ďIím the king of the world!Ē), did the things that she does in a typical week. We went shopping at Tesco, got haircuts at a beauty salon feeder school, played in an ultimate Frisbee tournament in Belfast, hiked along the shore between two small towns, ate fish and chips, and drank Guinness in a dank pub while a salty, half-drunk Irishman warbled a tune. It was a good week spent in good company. Iíll write more about specific things that stand out as I process them.

Tuesday, March 14th 2006

At the end of the month, during my schoolís spring break, Iím going to Ireland to visit my friend Sally. Sheís studying at the University of Dublin for a year. We were on the same AmeriCorps team about 3 years back. I hear theyíre getting ready to axe the program Sal and I did. AmeriCorps is sticking around, but the NCCC (National Community Conservation Corps) program is on its way out. All the reports say that itís inefficient and that it costs too much. I donít know if I can argue with that.

I loved the program; I ended up doing two years of it after college, the second year as a team leader. Itís an amazing programóa life changing experience, really. Most people donít know what it is, so a quick explanation. There are 5 or 6 regional AmeriCorps NCCC campuses in America. Theyíre in D.C., Sacramento, Charleston, Denver, and some other cities that I canít recall. I was in Charleston for both years. About 300 corpsmembers, ages 18-24 were at our campus, which was located on an old navy base. We shared the base with the border patrol. They had this great bar where both pitchers of beer and carafes of long island ice teas (danger!) cost $5. Our living allowances went a long way there.

The 300 corpsmembers are split into teams of 10-11 led by a team leader. The teams are sent out on 3-8 week projects all over the southeast. Our team received forest fire fighting training in Florida, tutored high school students in Charleston, built houses in Hazard, KY, conducted a controlled burn in Francis Marion Park, joined Salvation Army disaster relief teams in Kansas City after the ice storm, built trails in Cleveland, SC, worked with The Nature Conservancy in Slidell, LA, and helped the park service in St. John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. We did all of this in a ten-month period.

It wasnít always fun or exciting. Some days, there was a lot of sitting around, waiting for building supplies to arrive, waiting for something productive to do, shit like that. But all in all, an amazing experience. I went to cities in America that I would never have any reason to go to on my own. We made friends through our volunteer work that we would never have had an opportunity to meet in any other way, and I was blown away by their southern hospitality. The day we arrived in Slidell, they had a huge catfish fry and coolers full of icy beer waiting for us. And at the end of the project, we were sent off with a huge crawfish boil. Another volunteer supervisor we had helped by removing wisteria from an old plantation organized a blow-out oyster roast and gave us free run of his amazing house on the savanna for the night. The guy actually handed us the keys and left for the night.

I love the South and the people who live there. I felt very safe and comfortable there. The two years I spent down there changed my baseless northern misconceptions of southerners as being dumb, uncultured, violent rednecks.

The best part of AmeriCorps, however, is the team aspect. You spend 10 nearly-uninterrupted months working and living with the team, creating shared memories of all the good and shitty experiences. I have to admit, that it wears on you, being around the same people all the time, but the good outweighs the shit by far. AmeriCorps friendships are different than any others Iíve had. We have as many shared experiences and have logged as many hours of conversation in the ten months as I have with friends I have known for years. Some of my favorite people are from the team. Time will tell if these are lasting friendships.

So as I said, AmeriCorps is expensive. The govít spends a lot of money on each volunteer. Thereís all the living and travel expenses, and then thereís the $5000 each volunteer gets at the end of their service to pay back school loans or to go to school. But should it get the boot just because itís pricey? We do a lot of good. Plus, it does us a lot of good. Iím going to go into some aspect of public service when Iím done here in Ukraine, and thatís because AmeriCorps set me on this path. AmeriCorps creates compassionate, active citizens. Maybe find a way to make it less expensive, but donít do away with it. Itís a good investment.

Wednesday, March 8th 2006

The 8th of March

Today is the 8th of Marchójust another humpday in Americaóbut here in Ukraine, itís International Womenís Day, a national holiday. And this means: no school. Ooh raah!óas Ukrainians like to say.

I went to my host familyís house for a Womenís Day lunchtime party. I ate so much that it hurt, and five hours later, I still continue to hurt. I find that I can keep up with most Ukrainians at a party. Iíll eat and drink as much as the burliest, but where they get me is that theyíll do it again the next day and, sometimes, the day after that. My first holiday season in Ukraine was like the movie Seven, but without the kicks to the gut and the other six sins.

Iíve been thinking more and more that itís better to live in a small Ukrainian city than a large one. First off, you just donít get the love in big cities. People know me in Lebedyn. I run into friends and students every day. Grandmothers and sunflower ladies say hello to me (although they havenít gotten my name down yet. My grandma neighbor still calls me Dima). Little kids give me shy hellos before skittering off. The ice cream lady knows my flavor. And thereís usually some sort of festival every other month. You really feel a part of things in a small town. Of course, itís crushingly boring half the time, but if you can deal with that, youíre better off in a place like this.

Second, small towns are safe. Last month, I was in Kyiv for a week and a half for meetings and the annual medical checkup. During that time, I was almost robbed in two separate incidents. A dude undid my zipper and almost made off with my passport on the metro. I kind of deserved to get robbed because, stupidly, I put my stuff in a big, front-jacket pocket. So I tucked everything into the inside pocket, and two days later, at a buffet-type restaurant, another dude tried to jimmy it out when my coat was on the rack. It was a little depressing to nearly get robbed twice. I mean, is the word ďSUCKERĒ clearly visible on my forehead? Do people see me and think that Iím ripe for victimization?

I havenít had any run-ins in the past, and that might partially be because I was more cautious. After a year and a half, Iíve probably grown too comfortable. Also, I donít try too hard to blend in anymore. Being an Asian guy, Iíve never really blended in well, but lately, Iíve taken to wearing my hair long (havenít cut it in 7 months) and wearing a green headband like the Hamas guys. I have two headband styles. I wear it high so it pushes all my hair back, and I wear it low and over my bangs (do guys have bangs too?) so that I look like a sushi chef. My ďfriendsĒóboth Ukrainians and Americansófreely tell me that my hair looks like crap (although the woman at the currency exchange tells me that it looks beautiful, which makes me giggle girlishly), but this is the first time Iíve ever really grown my hair outóand who knows if Iíll have another opportunityóso I want to give it a chance.

The Peace Corps mid-service medical check-up was interesting. Iíve never been examined so rigorously in my life. The only good thing about it was talking afterwards about the humiliation and discomfort with friends who had been similarly manhandled.

Tuesday, February 28th 2006

i know i said i wouldn't write any more shitty poems, but just one more. i haven't really had time to sit down and write a real entry since i've been travelling around so much for language training, spa committee, mid-year medical, and mag.

I think of the way we are
as a large, still-born baby in a womb,
slowly revolving, like a cake in a display,
driven by inertia, which doesnít know the living from the dead.

Have I told you about my sisís jewelry box,
about the ballerina that spins on her toes
while tiny metal teeth play Swan Lake?

Have I told you about the stupid love poems
I used to write,
awash with a 15-year oldís sense of destiny?

The sharp music is over;
the ballerina, still:
Iím waiting in silence for the last note.

Sunday, February 5th 2006

When I came back from shopping, I dropped my bag near my boots, relieved to be in from the biting cold that had returned after a few daysí respite and went out to my balcony for a cigarette that I had retrieved from the bazaar. Outside a big, black dog had mounted a smaller, white one and was going on with its doggy life, as W. H. Auden probably wouldnít say. I thought, Isnít it a little cold for that? But then figured that if anything was going to keep you warm on a day like thisÖ The pair of dogs that live in and around my building raced out and chased them off like vice cops. I felt a little bad for the dogs that were caught red-handed, locked in their namesake sexual position.

I went back in to put away the food. I had a kilogram each of carrots, mandarins, and pork, 2 tomatoes, 2 bunches of green onion, 2 kilograms of rice, a big package of egg noodles, and 8 eggs. I had 10 (eggs come in tens in Ukraine not dozens), but had broken 2 when I dropped my bag upon entering. At big supermarkets, you can get eggs packaged in Styrofoam, but anywhere else you get eggs carefully stacked in a plastic bag.

Produce is expensive in winter. Fruit stays more or less the same price (6.50 hriven for a kg of mandarins), but vegetables become prohibitively expensive. In the fall, tomatoes are about 2-4 hriven/kg, but now theyíre 18 hriven. Most families pickle tomatoes and cucumbers in the fall, when theyíre cheap. (I hated the vinegary taste of pickled tomatoes when I first got here, but now I just love it. Iím going to try to weasel a container from my host family.) However, some people just donít eat vegetables in winter, besides potatoes and onions. Last year, while working on seasons with some of my younger students, I asked a kid what his favorite season is and why. He said autumn because thatís when he can eat vegetables. And that made me pause. I was expecting answers like summeróbecause I donít have to come to school or winteróbecause snowís pretty. I didnít expect a real answer.

I saw Breakfast at Tiffanyís for the first time last night. That Audrey Hepburn is something. In the movie, she confirms what Iíve always thought: bi-polar, emotionally unavailable girls are hot! I realized that I had seen a clip of the movie in Dragon, the Bruce Lee Story. In Dragon, Bruce and the future Mrs. Bruce Lee go to see Breakfast at Tiffanyís. The audience and initially Bruceís date erupt in laughter at the scenes with Mickey Rooneyówho is definitely not Asianóplaying the frustrated Chinese/Japanese/does-it-really-matter-which (because an Asian is an Asian) neighbor. His date sees that Bruce is upset, and they leave. Those scenes didnít ruin the movie for me, but I wished that they had 1. used a real Asian guy and 2. made him a figure of ridicule for something other than simply being Asian. The movie might have permanently ruined Mickey Rooney for me, but who gives a fuck about Rooney anyway?

Sunday, January 22nd 2006

Swimming

A day before the big day, I received a text message plea from Boghdan: Deal was that I will do if u do. Nobody loses if u quit. I hope u have been outside. Freaking COLD. Not hard to jump in, but get out and not freeze and not be in hospital the next day. Think about it rationally.

Boghdanís a guy from the English club that I help run at the Sumy library. About a month and a half ago, with the rest of the club as witnesses, we made a deal to go swimming in the Psel River on the 19th of January. When the day arrived, he had second thoughts and dropped out. On the cold, bumpy bus ride to Sumy, I received his text: Iím not going swimming. I am a flake, I know. Sorry for not telling beforehand but ive just decided after freezing fingers outside. Be careful.

So it was just going to be me. Well, me, Melissa (a brand spanking new volunteer with long, curly hair that radiates 2 feet from the center of her head in all directions, if you can imagine that), and a middle-aged teacher who works at her school.

It was the coldest day of the year, much colder than any day last winter. It was so cold that the liquid crystal display of my cell phone froze and lingered on the screen. It was so cold that they cancelled school the next day and then 3 days after. It was so cold that the sunflower seed and cigarette selling babusyas, perhaps the toughest of all babusyas, packed it up and went home.

I arrived at the river first. A large cross was cut into the ice near the shore, and a wooden cross on a pole was planted next to it. Next to that was a rectangular pool, the size of two coffee tables, with a ladder leading into it. There was a religious ceremony earlier. Now there was only a thin crowd of people stripping down to their underwear and dunking themselves in the water, which was beginning to refreeze at the edges.

The Ukrainians were celebrating Epiphany. No one could really give me a straight answer on what Epiphany was all about except to say that itís the day priests bless water. I couldnít comprehend why Ukrainiansópeople who take extraordinary safeguards against sickness (they refuse to sit on any cold surfaces, ride in hermetically sealed busses during sweltering summers for fear of the draft, berate me for forgetting my hat on nice autumn days, etc, etc, etcÖ)ówillingly, fearlessly, and even somewhat joyfully enter frozen rivers? Well, according to Encarta, on Epiphany, the Eastern Church commemorates the baptism of Christ as well as the first miracle where Jesus turned water into wine. I saw a long line of water-toting babusyas at the church earlier that day, waiting to receive a blessing. I suppose people take a dip in homage to Christ, but really, wouldnít it be easier to commemorate this day by just drinking a lot of wine? Anyway, this explains the holiday, but it doesnít really explain their motivation. Because, damn, it was cold.

When she arrived, Melissa and I briefly reaffirmed our decision to jump into the river and proceeded to psych each other up unconvincingly, our faces wind-blistered and our gloved-fingers already numb. ďWeíre going toÖum, do it.Ē ďYup. *sigh.Ē

Taking off my clothes was the fun part. Itís kind of fun walking around in slippers, mostly naked, in wintertime. I remember thinking, ďHey, this isnít half-bad.Ē Then I climbed down the icy ladder and entered the water. My body hasnít been this confused since puberty. My body was not happy, and it didnít know what to do, not having any stock reactions for these new and horrible sensations simultaneously assailing my entire surface area. My brain, still warm in my thick skull, wanting to disassociate itself from an idiot, abdicated my body. I somehow remembered to dunk myself three times. Then I crawled out.

I swear my eyelids froze together when I first came out. I spent the next desperate moments drying myself with a towel that became useless when it froze stiff, pulling off my icy trunks and wiggling into my clothes, my wooden fingers being little help. By the time I was half-dressed, Melissa had gotten out of the water and was locked in her own frantic struggle with her jeans and sweater. More impressed by than concerned about my pale fingers, which wouldnít bend, I joked about frostbite, gangrene, amputation, and the despair that would follow. Melissa mostly swore.

With our clothes more or less on, we ran to the public library, which was less than a block away, Melissa still in her slippers and my hat lop-sided on my head because my hair had frozen into a spiky, onion-shaped mass.

We warmed ourselves on 5 cups of tea and coffee in the library cafe. After forty-five anxious minutes, feeling returned to my fingers (although the tips are still dead), and, fairly confident that neither of us would have to go to the emergency room, we were able to laugh. We even high-fived, which is something I hate doing and suffer only on special occasions

Thursday, January 12th 2006

Bought some toliet paper and icecream today. I asked for some chocolate ice cream in a cone. No problems there. I get ice cream about 3 times a week, and the woman who sells it to me thinks itís cute that I ask for it in Ukrainian. I asked for the tp, and the woman just looked at me blankly. I thought about pantomiming what I wanted, which is what I normally do when I get that blank look, but then thought better of it. She had an assistant who understood and repeated what I said to the woman exactly as I said it. I was like, ďYeah! Toilet paper. I said that!Ē gesticulating wildly, just like that guy from Thirtysomethings who went on to sell the now-defunct Boku fruit juice. Maybe it was the unexpected combination of tp and ice cream that threw the woman off.

Having weird, vivid dreams lately. Last night I dreamt (reminds me of a Morrissey song: I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twiceÖpin and mount me like a butterfly. Is that song homoerotic or what? AnywayÖ) that a girl was teaching me how to paint an egg. I asked her if we were making písanky, Ukrainian Easter eggs. She said no and continued to paint alternating layers of light blue and grey. It looked like a blue sky interlaced with layers of thin clouds. Am I dreaming about having babies? Do I feel like Iím losing time, getting old, accomplishing nothing permanent here? Or do I merely have a craving for hard boiled eggs?

The night before that I dreamt that I was back in America. It was actually a really good dream. I donít remember any details, but I remember being very happy and saying to somebody, very casually, in the offhanded way that people say things that are preposterous, that this had better not be a dream. And then I promptly woke up. I think I chuckled a little before falling back into a dreamless sleep.

The night before that I watched the English Patient. I had dreamt about the movie the night before. Either that or I saw the commercial on the film channel when I was sleepy. Or maybe both. I saw it when it first came out, but didnít enjoy it much. I went to the movie with Flo, a pious Catholic girl, with whom I stood a very good chance of establishing an unsatisfying, non-touching above or below the clothes make-out arrangement. She was the kind of girl that horny, adolescent quadriplegics dream of. (Was that mean-spirited?) I was preoccupied and probably too young to understand the movie, which I now recognize as being pretty damn good. I remember being annoyed by Ralph Fiennesí voice. Not realizing he was playing a Hungarian count, I thought he made a terrible Englishman. I remember being floored by Kristen Scott Thomas, my refined British temptress. I was more so the second time around and shocked that she wasnít exactly young, but possessed a mature beauty. And I was stirred by Fiennesí anguish when he was thwarted from returning to her by small men. What I like best about the movie is how it suggests that beauty can exist even in immorality. No, maybe more accurate to say that the dictates of love surpass and override those of conventional morality. Itís ok to sleep with a married woman, drive a cuckolded Colin Firth to a murder-suicide, strangle a pimply British soldier, and sell maps to Nazis, if itís for love.

Because of some grave crime I must have committed in a previous life, I have been scheduled for 0 period classes on Thursdays. About 10 minutes into class this morning, the sun rose. I think my fucked up, irregular sleep schedule is the cause of these dreams.

Sunday, December 18th 2005

The semester is nearly over. The students are busy with five English finals: for listening, reading, writing, speaking, and something else that I canít recall now. Iíve had little to do in school for the past week, which has been nice. Sometimes I proctor and grade tests, sometimes teachers tell me to take the day off, and in other classes, I just keep the kids busy with fun activities of my choosing. Iíve been teaching my students how to play poker. I know this wouldnít be appropriate in American schools, but no one seems to mind that Iím teaching the kids about the joys of gambling.

In my defense, I make the kids speak English. Students are now comfortable using words like ďraise,Ē ďbet,Ē ďante,Ē and ďfoldĒ and phrases like ďtoo rich for my blood.Ē Actually, I havenít taught them that last one yet, but I mean to. Plus, they get practice with numbers and now know for certain that 3 of a kind beats 2 pair. At first, we all kept a tally sheet with our balance and another for the pot, but Iíve been bringing Monopoly money lately, which is a lot more fun. I taught them how to play 5 card draw and Texas Holdíem, but the heathens donít appreciate the deeper intricacies of Holdíem.

So I have a little under a year left. The past year flew by, especially once summer started. I suppose itís all downhill from here, meaning that itís going to be easier, now that I know how to get around (and not that things are going to suck hence forth). But the idea that I have another year just as long as the last is a little daunting. To make the coming year easier, I plan to start an English club at the local pedagogical college. I like working with older people who theoretically have a better command of English, but my hidden motive is to make more friends in my town. I just donít meet many people approximately my age working at school, and sometimes Iím haunted by boredom and loneliness.

I went to return a mouse today. Now that itís too cold to do anything outside, Iím grudgingly relying on computer games to help pass the time. The store was closed so I couldnít exchange the mouse, which wasnít compatible with my computer. So I walked to the bazaar to buy a cigarette. You can get cigarettes individually from grandmothers who also usually sell sunflower seeds. I donít like buying a whole pack because then I end up smoking regularly. The ten minute walk to the bazaar is a good deterrent.

I ran into this guy who hangs out at the bazaar. Heís friendly and speaks English pretty well. I see him there frequently, playing chess or just sitting around. He doesnít sell anything at the bazaar, and I see him there frequently so I guessed that he played chess for money. I can tell he has money by the fancy Columbia jacket he wears. I donít think you can make a decent living playing chess, so he was something of a mystery. Today, he asked me if I had some dollars I wanted to change, and I realized what he did for a living. PCVs are told to be wary of street money changers, who work illegally. I told him that I didnít have any dollars, and he gave me an avuncular lecture about how itís a great thing to be a volunteer, but that at some point one needs to find a real job and start a family. I thought that was funny and told him that Iíd do that later on. Itís funny getting lectured about responsibility and gainful employment by an illegal money changer.

I left the bazaar and walked towards the train station to buy a ticket for Kyiv, which is where I will spend Christmas. I walked by a little kid with his mom. He whispered something to her about the Korean guy, which made me happy. Iíve been on a one-man campaign to educate the denizens of Lebedyn that not all Asians are Chinese. Months ago, my Regional Manager told me that Peace Corps was considering putting another Asian volunteer in my town. The college that is in line to get a volunteer requested an Asian male, one that is just like me, they said. I was flattered that they thought well of me, but annoyed at the prospect of sharing my town with another Asian guy. People would confuse us all the time, and what if the dude was Chinese! All my work, for nothing! And what if he did something terrible, like get a girl pregnant? They might end up lynching the wrong Asian guy. (Iím joking about the lynching, of course. Iíve never been threatened or felt unsafe in my town.) The college ended up getting a white guy (who arrives in two weeks), so that worked out.

Iím going to spend 2 nights in Kyiv with 5 of my friends. Weíll rent an apartment, which is commonly done by PCVs because itís inexpensive, about $40/night. Then Iíll be back in Lebedyn for New Yearís. Last New Yearís, I went to a party with some of my host familyís friends. It wasnít bad. We played zany Ukrainian party games, one of which involved passing a ring using a match stick held between your teeth. But the crowd was a little old for me. Everyone was friendly and interested in me, but itís not fun hanging out with moms and dads. This year, Iím going to invite some volunteer friends and have a little party. Weíll probably go to the center where theyíll have a concert and then to Club Kino, which is actually one of the better clubs Iíve been to in Ukraine. The music is mostly cheesy pop songs played from a computer, but itís a fun and roomy place. As the name suggests, it was once a movie theatre. And then, in the second week of January, Iíll go back to school for round two.

Monday, December 12th 2005

Mondays with Dima

I tutor Dima, my ten year old host brother, on Mondays. I help the little guy with his homework, and the babusya gives me a nice three course Ukrainian dinner and some produce to take home, usually onions, potatoes, and carrots. Today dinner started with a hot bowl of borshch with some tender, mysterious meat, sides of pickles and sausages, buckwheat served with a piece of rabbit (the grandmother explained to me that the rabbit just wasnít eating as earnestly as it should, so she knifed the little guy earlier that morning), and a berry tart-like pastry with tea for dessert. I also made off with a few kilos of onions and a bag of pickles. I would prefer to take nothing from them, but they would feel badly about receiving free tutoring, which has a pretty high retail value in Ukraine. Teachers often supplement their income by tutoring, getting around 15 hriven an hour, and I think itís reasonable to suppose that a real life American fetches around 20 ($4). I like tutoring Dima. Heís a good kid, and besides dinner and produce, tutoring keeps me in touch with my host family.

He was lying on the divan in the dark when I arrived after classes ended. His grandmother explained to me that on the way home he had slipped on the ice and fallen on his knee and that he had cried and cried. She went on to say that Dima loves crying. This elicited an irritated and pleading ďBabushka!Ē from the prone Dima, which made me chuckle.

The week before, Dima was also taking a recuperative nap when I showed up for tutoring. The grandmother told me that he had come home in tears that day. I asked what happened, and she told me that a girl had hit him. We laughed together really loudly, while between stomach spasms (because maybe I heard wrong) I tried to ascertain that it was a girl that had hit him. I heard his irritated, little voice from the other room, ďBabushka!Ē

I felt bad about Dima hearing me laugh. Heís going to have a hard time becoming a man, and it didnít help that I was laughing at his expense. His mother and grandmother tag-team smother him. His father is docile. He pretty much plays computer games, while Dimaís mother and grandmother do the parenting tasks, such as making sure he does homework, eats properly, dresses warmly, etcÖ. Their style of parenting is pretty much based on nagging, which is castrating. I remember breakfasts with my host family were odd and a bit stressful. The minute I sat down to eat, the mother, sitting at the table to monitor breakfast, would repeat ďKushe, KusheĒ (ďeat, eatĒ) over and over to both Dima and me. Weíd be eating at top speed, but she relentless urged us on like a dogsled driver, an overzealous coxswain, like a like a frat boy chanting ďchug, chug, chugÖĒ

I think a boy needs space to grow up. He doesnít need someone telling him how to do everything, especially something as basic as eating. He needs a chance to figure things out for himself, to make his own decisions and to suffer the consequences. Of course, Dimaís only nine or ten now. I suppose itís a little early for throwing off the childhood yoke. But at some point heís got to tell his grandmother and mother to back off.

Thursday, December 8th 2005

I went for an hour long bike ride yesterday. (I started this entry about a month ago when it was still warm enough to bike.) I didnít mean to be gone for that long, but I got lost. I didnít mind much though. I had one of those ďlook at me, Iím in UkraineĒ moments. When Iím sitting in my apartment, eating the spicy Korean ramen my sister sent me and doing my little dance to Ice Cube while reading a Peace Corps issued Newsweek, I feel like I could be sitting in my living room in Franklin Park, Illinois, on a Sunday afternoon. When I was riding on dusty, dirt roads, across deep tire ruts, over utilitarian concrete bridges, around half-finished buildings long abandoned, past cemeteries with big red Soviet stars rising from tombstones, past girls carrying buckets of water back from wells, past tin-roof shacks and nervous flocks of chickens, I felt that I was in Ukraine. And even though, Iím the Asian guy on a bike, I felt like I was a part of things. I suppose itís similar to the feelings of ownership or stewardship that moves through children when theyíre riding their bikes through their neighborhoods.

Lebedyn is much larger than I had previously thought. It was embarrassing to realize that even after a year, I had seen so little of my town. My orbit includes the bazaar, bank, my school, bus station, train station, two parks, the lake, and a couple of bars. And thatís it. Thatís my Lebedyn. On my ride today, I saw what looked like an orphanage, an old wooden church that I hadnít known existed (and in which, according to my Ukrainian counterpart at the school, Peter the Great had worshipped or at least entered for one reason or another), and kilometers and kilometers of houses filled with people that I donít know.

It started getting dark, and I asked a woman which way to the center. She pointed opposite the way I thought it was and told me it was far, very far.

The weather is noticeably colder and rainier, the days are shortening, and everything is dead. Another year is almost over, and Iíve officially been in Ukraine over a year. Iím beginning to evaluate my time spent here, and itís not pretty. Even though some of the classes still piss me off, I feel good about the work that I do here. Itís the whole community integration aspect that bothers me. As much as my knowledge of Lebedyn is superficial, so are my relationships with those who live here. I know my colleagues and my neighbors. In the mornings, I say a hearty ďDobry DenĒ to teachers when I arrive and an equally hearty ďDo PobachenyaĒ on my way out, but thatís about it. I give the grandmothers living in my building a respectful ďZdrastuyteĒ and sometimes I say something about how cold itís getting when I run into them in the stairwell, but again, thatís about all. This could be the natural consequence of a limited vocabulary. But Iím afraid that Iíve maintained an unbridgeable aloofness typical of tourists or maybe suburban America a la American Beauty.

I suppose that I donít want the responsibility that comes with relationships. Some grandmothers are lonely. They have each other, I suppose, but their husbands are long dead, their family rarely visits, and chronically lonely people scare me. As for my colleagues, I donít know why Iíve been aloof. Maybe because theyíre all much older women and we really donít have much in common. Itís like me hanging out with a bunch of my aunts, which is something that Iíve actively avoided my whole life.

My aloofness even extends to the animals that live around my apartment. We have a regular menagerie on the lot just behind the apartment. Three gorgeous, white dogs used to nap under the trees. One of the dogs had twisted hind legs which it dragged like a broom. The kids who live here, god bless them, played with the dogs all the time, paying special attention to the gimpy one. I ignore the dogs. I donít give them scraps of food and I donít play with them. I try not to look at them. We also have a bunch of cats. A tiny black kitten jumped on my lap once when I was sitting outside smoking and scared the bejesus out of me. It sat on my knee, shivering like an electric razor, and I pretended it wasnít there. On the way to the internet club today, an anemic kitten tripped me in the dark and followed me for about 20 feet, mewing pathetically.

The gimpy dog finally died a few months ago, and I doubt that the kittens will make off much better. I ignore the animals because the odds are stacked against them. I donít want to get attached to animals that are essentially marked for death, but even worse I donít want them to depend on me because I will inevitably let them down, as there are limits to what I will do for them. Perhaps I personify animals. Maybe dogs and cats, unlike soap opera stars, donít feel betrayed. Thus, I should feel free to do what I can and not feel guilty when they die. But thereís no avoiding the guilt, despite what animals may or may not be capable of feeling.

I think that part of the reason I have, what can be called, a ďprofessionalĒ relationship with my neighbors is that the grandmothers are old, and you know what old people tend to do.

In my heart of hearts though, I think that laziness, more than anything, keeps me from truly befriending grandmothers and the aunt-like teachers.

I saw the final episode of the Russian Temptation Island a few days ago. I think that all of the couples fell apart. Maybe one couple made it, but it was hard to tell. It was disappointing how little both sides resisted temptation. The couples split off into their respective sides of the island, the hunks and babes were introduced, and Bam! Infidelity sprang forth like from a chemical reaction. I donít think it was even Medoff vodka, which was ceaselessly promoted throughout the show (icy bottles of Medoff always sat prominently on tables, the pool bottom was inscribed with the logo, and the camera regularly gave loving close-ups to frosty glasses of vodka), that was responsible for the ease and speed with which the couples disintegrated. I think the show would have been much better if everyone had made at least an appearance of fighting temptation or at least of having a fleeting second thought before hopping into bed with their respective new lover.

Wednesday, November 23rd 2005

haven't updated this in a while. i was busy doing my mentoring thing for a week, and then i got wrapped up in (i really hate to admit this) sex in the city. my friend lent me seasons 1-6 on dvd, and that's what i've been doing in my free time. god, that's pathetic. someone, please take my penis. i clearly do not deserve mine any longer. but i finally finished watching it last night, so i think i can reclaim my life and perhaps what is left of my manhood. i really shouldn't keep talking about sex in the city, but my favourite episodes were when she was cheating on aidan (god, what am i doing?). everytime she and big got into a hotel room, i would yell "whore! whore!" at the screen (it's like i'm trapped in my head. i see exactly what i'm doing but i can't seem to stop myself.) i also like how charlotte ended up with baldy. that was perfect. he was the best character on the show until they got married, then they watered him down until he was charlotte's bitch, emasculated, just like me.

it snowed and i'm not happy about it. here's a poem. i promise no more poems.

I look out my kitchen window and obscenities senselessly spew
From my mouth as if I suffered from seasonal Touretteís. Branches are frosted with snow, the yard is pockmarked
With little steps
Filled with pools
Of filth. Pocket-sized
Birds tilt their heads and like freshly-jaded lovers ask: How could this have happened,
again? Pomegranates,
The fruit of the dead, are in season.

Sunday, October 9th 2005

I was in Sumy with my PCV friend, Amanda. Sheís blonde with blue eyes, by the way. We were on the main pedestrian plaza, heading towards the internet cafť, which was closed. And so we walked back down the plaza to Nyum Nyum, a Ukrainian buffet with a ridiculous name and a limited selection.

Iím used to being stared at by people. It doesnít bother me much anymore, but the people in the plaza were giving me a different kind of look. And I noticed this because they were all giving me the same exact look. The look in question being, the knowing, ďoh you filthy sex-patĒ smirk. They mistook Amanda as a Ukrainian and me as, well, a filthy sex-pat. It didnít help that I was carrying a large package, which was probably misconstrued as a part of my insidious gift-giving campaign to defile a nice Ukrainian girl.

After the third or fourth passerby laid this look on me, I wanted to shout after them, ďSheís American! Sheís an American, goddamnit! And Iím not even having sex with her!Ē I get irritated when sober people speak English loudly in public, but I was pleased that Amanda obliviously did so. ďSee! Sheís an American!Ē I would have yelled, had I been the type to yell out to strangers. ďLook how she uncouthly draws attention to herself with her inability to speak within acceptable volumes!Ē

I donít know how Ukrainians feel about sex-pats, losers who come to Ukraine seeking wives or just an Eastern European lay. Women may have mixed feelings because sleazy sex-pats can be a ticket out. Guys probably feel threatened by their purchasing power. I have no sympathy for sex-pats. To me, itís like the rape of the Sabines conducted incrementally by horny losers from countries that have no shortage of womenóthat is, women who have universally rejected them.

Monday, October 3rd 2005

Too many of these entries run like episodes of Doogie Howser. Remember how at the end of each show, Doogie sits in front of his computer, typing out a diary entry, with a stupid, contemplative/constipated look on his face? He recounts the dayís events, the loutish things that Vinnie did orÖI donít knowÖabout his hopes of balling Wanda one day. And then he ties those disparate events together and draws a lesson from it. It was annoying and preachy when Doogie did it, and I feel like Iím doing it too. Iím going to try writing more entries where no lessons are learned and one event doesnít tie into an unrelated one to complete it. Iíll be fucked if I fall into Doogieís web of lameness. Still, I fear that if you wait long enough and have a decent memory and maybe even think occasionally, everything reveals itself as being somehow related, but weíll see.

The Russian version of Temptation Island started the other day. It has the same format as the American version, but with at least 30% more chutzpah, by which I mean cleavage.

Sunday, October 2nd 2005

A Little Ditty About Olga and CerhiyÖ(that was lame. sorry.)

I spent all of Saturday in Kyiv with a young Ukrainian couple, Olga and Cerghiy, and one of their friends, Valeria, I think. We had a late lunch, which was somehow the only meal I had that day, watched The Bourne Identity, and chewed the fat.

They had just moved into their apartment two months ago, and they are only halfway done with repairs. Rolls of linoleum lay in the hallway, cabinets sat on the ground, and generations of flies lived together under one roof.

This was the first time I had visited anyoneís apartment in Kyiv. I donít know many city-dwelling Ukrainians. Before this, the lifestyle of young, ambitious, post-college Ukrainians was a mystery to me, and I was even starting to doubt their existence. Maybe after college, they disappear in a puff of disillusionment.

Olga and I met during Camp Excite. We taught a leadership seminar together. She and her boyfriend lived in Sumy (the oblast center, population > 300,000) for most of their lives before heading out to Kyiv earlier this year. After working and traveling in America, England, and Holland, Sumy was too small, too provincial. They saved money from working abroad, in YMCA style camps, restaurants, and as an au pair, to buy their new apartment for about $35,000. Cerghiy told me that he started saving when he was 18.

Cerghiy is an office manager for an American company near the center of Kyiv, and Olga just started working in human resources for a pr firm. They donít make much money. As a PCV, I actually pull in about the same amount as the two combined, which is a little fucked up. Maybe the Peace Corps gives me more money than I need, but the real issue is that they do not get paid nearly enough to live in Kyiv. Cergihy explained that if all goes well, in two or three years heíll be able to earn close to $1000 a month, which will be enough to live comfortably in Kyiv.

We made chicken soup, a salad, and a tasty chicken and tomato dish served with rice. We washed it all down with mimosas, which was my cultural contribution. Most Ukrainians arenít keen on mixed drinks. Itís a disgrace to dilute vodka. The mimosas, however, were a hit.

When I went to school today, I told my 10th form students about Olga and Cerghiy. I had been struggling to demonstrate to my students that learning English was a good investment, that it could be your ticket out. I would ramble on about how English speakers can find well-paying jobs, but I had no evidence or even details to back this up. Itís practically dogma that English leads to economic opportunity, but this concept remains fairly abstract because the intermediary steps are generally unknown. Using the example of Olga and Cerghiy, I was finally able to show my students how one actually goes from studying English in grade school to being on the road to the good life.

Another thing about English that I wanted to impart on my students is how it drives your ambitions. English gives you the capability to travel and work in other countries, to see what life is like outside of towns like Lebedyn, but more importantly, to see what possibilities exist for you. There is nothing wrong with my town; itís just that thereís so much more out there.

Sunday, September 18th 2005

Classroom Management and Teeth

I was in Sumy, the oblast center, about 45 kilometers from Lebedyn, buying some pomade when I ran into a teacher from my school. Her son is in my 7th form class, which I loveÖand hate, more and more. They have a great deal of enthusiasm, but thereís too many of them. And they just wonít shut up. I tell a kid to be quiet and listen. He nods and apologizes and to my amazement, starts talking to his buddy literally the second I finish warning him. This is the only class where I have to actually have rules and consequences. Iíve had several students stay after class for being late, and the class as a whole got to the second ďstrikeĒóone away from everyone staying after class. Iíll probably have to assign seats soon to curtail the talking, and if things donít get better Iíll write semi-literate notes to parents in their daily grade books. I hate rulesóI hate appealing to threats, but I donít know why I thought that I could do without them for a big class of 12 year old kids.

Part of the reason Iím having a lot of trouble with this class is because their regular teacher, a frightening woman who apparently doesnít need to be loved by anyone, no longer sits in on my classes. I used to sit back (and cringe) while she took care of the discipline problems, and now that sheís gone, the punk-ass kids I once pitied are taking advantage.

Iím still figuring out the right tone to use with them. I donít have a convincing angry voice. I would sputter out pathetically if I tried to deliver an entire angry diatribe (which they wouldnít understand anyway), so I only use my angry voice for brief angry warnings. I do exasperation very well, but since it would be rightfully interpreted as a sign of weakness and fatigue and thus fuel misbehavior, I only use it to express incredulity to myself and anyone within earshot with rhetorical questions like, ďJesus Christ, whatís wrong with that kid?Ē When speaking directly to trouble students, I usually use a calm tone of detached disappointment and mild betrayal. I think I sound a little like HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey, but it seems to work. Last Thursday, I almost made a kid cry during class using that voice. I was like, ďPasha, why? [dramatic pause] Why didnít you do your homework? Didnít you know I assigned it? Then, I donít understand why you didnít do it.Ē I stopped when tears started welling up. I didnít want to crush his spirit, nor did I want my bike pissed on later that afternoon. I manage to keep profanity and threats internalized.

The teacher I ran into explained that at her sonís request, she came into the oblast center to get some whitening toothpaste. Earlier that week, working on the present perfect tense, I asked the class how many times they had brushed their teeth that week. I got replies like, ďI has brushed tooth two times this weekĒ and ďIís five times this week.Ē The substance of their answers appalled me more than their grammar. The average student brushed once a day while some kids brushed only twice a week. I stopped the class to give them a quick talkóactually more like a pleaóon dental hygiene. I asked how many gold teeth their parents and grandparents have (When I first met my host family in Pereyaslav, I was shocked at the amount of gold teeth in my host motherís mouth. She greeted me with a huge smile, and I froze for a second with disbelief and fear.) and explained that theyíre headed that way. I beseeched them to brush twice a day. I even made the class repeat in unison ďI will brush my teeth twice a day,Ē but all the time, I doubted any of them would change their habits.

Maybe regular brushing will end up being just a fad for that kid, but maybe I just changed his dental destiny. This gives me a little hope for this whole teaching English thing. Despite appearances, some of the little bastards are listening. Some of the time at least.

Thursday, September 15th 2005

I've decided to be a mentor for the next group of peace corps trainees who are coming to the country at the end of the month. All mentors have to write little letters to their future mentorees. Here's mine.

Hi Group 29ers,

My name is Dae Woo Son, and Iím a group 27, TEFL volunteer out in Lebedyn, Sumska Oblast. The oblast borders Russia. Lebedyn, which essentially means ďswan town,Ē has a population of 30,000, and itís about 8-9 hours north-east of Kyiv. In America, I lived in Franklin Park, which is a part of the Chicagoland area. Franklin Park essentially means ďcrappy suburb of Chicago.Ē

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I volunteered for two years in AmeriCorps. I did the AmeriCorps NCCC program based in Charleston, SC. If you care to know more about the program, I can bore you with the details when I meet you. Before that I was in college, where I graduated with a degree in Government. I decided to join the Peace Corps because I like volunteering more than anything else I have done and because I think my future is in public service.

Presently, I teach 7th-11th form students at a secondary school. I love some of my classes. The students are happy and love learning English or at least think that itís not a terrible way to pass time. We laugh a lot and have a good time. Some of my classes are just painful. The students stopped caring or fell behind years ago. I have to be an enforcer, prodding them along every step. By the end of the day, Iím pissed off and really tired from carrying them.

I remember that working in school during training was pretty tough. You see most classes something like once a week, so itís hard to build any sort of relationship with the students or to have any real authority, which in actuality is only an extension of compassion or commiseration on their part. Youíre kind of like a traveling sideshow. Also, you have those 4 or 5 long hours of language classes every day, and your clustermates, regardless of how cool or attractive they are, will probably wear on your nerves. Training is not always fun. However, all of my best PCV friends are former clustermates, and I feel that the language classes and school practicum aspect of training gave me a solid base on which to build.

So, I look forward to meeting you guys. I enjoyed having a mentor when I was in training. It was nice to hear about what life is like away from the training site bubble and to get some insight into the administrative aspects of Peace Corps such as site placement and how the Draconian rules work in practice. If you guys have any questions ahead of time or want me to bring or prepare something, you can reach me at --- or daewooson@hotmail.com. Ok, see you soon.

Thursday, September 15th 2005

I, Hall Monitor

I began my career as a hall monitor today. There are many things I like about the job, besides the awesome responsibility, of course. I enjoy strolling through the halls as if I own the school, my hands behind my back and a wry expression on my face like a hard-to-impress French inspector. Itís nice to leave my classroom during passing periods and get some fresh air, get some blood flowing in my legs again. Itís better than the non-existent cup of coffee. However, I think the best thing about being a hall monitor is the red armband. I have to admit that it makes me feel a little bit like a fascist, but the thing cracks my shit up. A red towel worn around my upper arm shouldnít endow me with added authority. It shouldnít make students more willing to obey me, but, oddly enough, it does. I had to borrow a girlís armband today, but I hope to have my own one day.

Every day, a different homeroom teacher and his/her class are on duty as hall monitors. Iím not a homeroom teacher and there seems to be more than enough manpower, but for some reason the school wants me to do this. Either they want me to feel more integrated into the school or some homeroom teacher is passing work off on me. In any case, I enjoy this work. None of the schools Iíve attended trusted students enough to have hall monitors, so Iím making up for lost time.

The students and the teacher spread throughout the school, and they have their own areas to monitor. Kids man different floors, the cafeteria, the lobby. A pair of kids stands near the school entrance and make sure that the door doesnít slam shut, which is kind of ridiculous because a fifty cent rubber doorstop does the same thing. Maybe the kind of mindset responsible for this silliness is a holdover from the communist era, which sought full employment regardless of the redundancy of the task, or maybe the doorís trickier than I suspect.

I was assigned to the front of the school. Although the school has a serviceable, indoor bathroom, most of the students seem to prefer the outdoor one behind the school. I havenít ventured out there because, considering the amount of traffic the bathroom sees, itís got to be pretty unpleasant. Anyway, my job was to watch out for the students going back and forth from the bathroom.

Not much happened on my first day as a hall monitor. I chatted with some of the kiddies from the summer camp. By request, I explained to a nine year old punk blaring ďIn the ClubĒ by 50 Cents from his cell phone (which was approximately 600 times more expensive than mine. My phone plays the monotone version of the Mexican hat dance when people call.) what the song is about minus the whole drug dealing aspect. I also saw my principal pat down one of my older students and rifle through his girlfriendís purse looking for cigarettes, I think...I hope. Iím sure my next tour as a hall monitor will be more exciting. Maybe Iíll get to tell a speeding kid to slow down before he kills somebody or at least shake my fist at him like an old man.

Wednesday, August 31st 2005

The Way to Yalta

My 3 weeks in Líviv ended with a free Okean Elzy concert in the park put on by UMC, one of the major Ukrainian mobile phone companies, to celebrate their 10 millionth customer. It was a good concert. The crowd was really into it, and I recognized the songs enough to fake singing along. I wanted to get an Okean Elzy concert t-shirt (because what could be more badass?), but I donít think such things exist in this country yet. No, actually, thatís not true. A guy I know saw Ruslana (last yearís winner of EuroVision and Ukraineís biggest pop star) at the airport, and she and her entire entourage, in an inexplicable display of lameness, were wearing her own concert t-shirts. The only unpleasant part of the concert was when a drunk dude, dripping sweat from dancing, hugged me, pressing his slimy cheek against mine, leaving an oily slick that wouldnít rub off. Random, drunk Ukrainian dudes like hugging me for some reason. Itís happened about 3 or 4 times. Itís bizarre really, but I suppose hugs are better than beat downs.

The day after the concert, I was on an early bus to Yalta. My PCV friend, Heron, had rented a dacha on the cheap from one of her studentís motherís friends or something. (Only 20 hriven ($4) a night per person.) It was a fancy, air-conditioned touring bus with reclining seats, and to my delight, the seat next to me was empty. It was unoccupied for half an hour, until we arrived at another pick-up point. One of the largest women that I have seen during my whole time in Ukraine got on and, naturally, sat down next to me.

It was a long 24 hours.

It was maddening, really. I was trapped between the window and her fleshy form. There wasnít a way to sit so that her warm body wasnít pressing against mine, and there was no way to get past her if I needed to get to the bathroom or to hypothetically escape the burning wreckage of the bus. She triedóI could tellóto give me as much room as she could, but she wasnít apologetic about spilling into nearly a quarter of my seat.

It got worse at night when she fell asleep. I retreated closer to the window, but her body, hating a vacuum, followed. I turned on my side, but the seat didnít recline far enough to make that position comfortable. I brought my seat to the full upright position, hoping the difference in elevation would contain her to her own seat like the walls of a dam. It sort of worked, but I was practically falling forward and couldnít sleep. I tried to accept that her body would be pressed against mine all night and that since I couldnít do anything about it, I should try to, perhaps, learn to enjoy it. That lasted all of two seconds. I ended up using my elbows all night to defend my space whenever she drifted too close.

In this entry, I seem to be saying that human contact disgusts me, but really, doesnít unwanted human contact disgust everybody? Isnít that one of the common ties that unites humanity, like poetry, religion, and smiling?

School starts tomorrow. Damn.

Monday, August 29th 2005

I thought that after spending three weeks in Líviv, living in relative luxury, I would have a hard time getting readjusted to life in Lebedyn. But thatís not the case. Itís actually something of a relief to be back home after being away for nearly a month.

In Líviv, the kitchen at the dorm of the Ukrainian Catholic University had all the frills: a microwave, a coffee machine, a gleaming white fridge with a separate freezer area, food processors galore, two stoves, and even a fucking toaster. However, this didnít really matter because we had a nice Ukrainian lady, Pane Nadia, cook our dinners, and that woman could cookónot just the usual Ukrainian fare, by which I mean borsch and borsch. She made these crazy veggie wraps, fried chicken tenders, ribs (ribs?!), this absurdly good, creamy mushroom soup, oh lordÖI would marry that soup, if it would have me, and if she didnít feel like cooking, she would order out for pizzaóthe kind without pickles, ketchup, or mayo. And this woman was a peach. I came home late because I had been jogging or something to find that she had saved a piece of chicken for me. She plated it and kept everyone away, which was no easy task because these motherfuckers could eat.

The language school in Líviv was an in-country vacation from Ukraine. We had a washing machine (Pane Nadia did our wash, although not necessarily out of kindness. She feared someone would break her machine, which ended up happening anyway.), showers with hot water, exfoliating body wash and some crazy 3 in 1 shampoo (that another student brought from America and mistakenly stored in the shower, unaware that PCVs are worse than hobos), a well-stocked fridge that was ceaselessly restocked, western style toilet paper (although I almost prefer the stuff you get here. Itís tough, like Ukrainians. I have the theory that the way one feels about Ukrainian tp reveals a lot about how one feels about Ukrainians themselves. Some PCVs disdainfully describe the tp as abrasive and coarse. Others say that it makes their ass bleed. Iím kidding, of course.), and all the juice and bottled water we could drink. The best thing, however, is that we had other English speakers to talk to, to somewhat impress (ďYeah, babycakes, Iím a Peace Corps Volunteer. You want some of this?Ē), to go out with, and we had places to go because we were in Líviv baby, Líviv.

Most of the students were cool. There were about 25, I think, and almost everyone was Ukrainian diaspora. Growing up, most of the students had a lot of exposure to Ukrainian culture. They spoke Ukrainian fluently and visited Ukraine frequently, but there was one girl, Anna, who was here for the first time to discover her heritage. She learned the language from scratch and even stayed for a long weekend with some relatives in a nearby village, and at the talent show, she sang this Ukrainian song that just killed me. I overheard her on the phone speaking to her father in Ukrainian near the end of language school, and it was a beautiful thing.

I probably should have spent more time studying while I was in Líviv. My normally mild-mannered teacher, Pane Oxana, started writing sarcastic comments on my tests towards the end of the three weeks, and I would bet dollars to donuts that she didnít even look at my finals. I hit the books pretty hard the first week, and then I realized I was being stupid neglecting Líviv. The nerd in me needs to be beaten down occasionally.

So now that Iíve been out west, I can say with certainty that Líviv is indeed the city of my dreams. Itís exactly what I thought Peace Corps Ukraine would be. Old, beautiful buildings, winding, cobblestone streets to get lost on, coffee shops on every other street, operas to gently lull me to sleep, mobs of old people singing hymns in plazas at dusk, old men playing chess in the park, somewhat hidden hipster hangouts, and enough restaurants to bankrupt me. Líviv is my Eastern European fantasy, but I donít want it. It would be a bad place to spend my Peace Corps years. There are too many conveniencesótoo many distractions. After two years, I would know nothing about life in Ukraine. Thatís an exaggeration, but I would know nothing about how most Ukrainians live, nor would I live in the manner that they do. I would never have met my babusya. I wouldnít have spent nine delightful (really) hours on Wednesday harvesting potatoes with my host family. I wouldnít have had the experiences that mean the most to me. I also wouldnít be home alone on a Saturday night working on this blog entry, but thatís the tradeoff.

Thursday, July 28th 2005

I drank a little bit too much last night, and my head is hazy. Voices and the lips from which they emerge are out of synch, and the only thing that brings me pleasure is closing my eyes.

I'm out in L'viv, the "capital" of western Ukraine, studying Ukrainian at the Ukrainian Catholic University. L'viv is beautiful. It's the Eastern European fantasy I had in my head when I signed up for the Peace Corps. Fuck this, i'll write more when I feel better.

Saturday, July 9th 2005

Day Camp in Brief

After classes ended, I worked at the schoolís 4-week day camp. I worked with the younger children, ages 9-12. I thought it would be a nice change from the older kids. Here are some highlights.

Week 1

The food is good, better than the stuff we get during the school year. The soup is darker than water, and it is endowed with flavor, something it had previously lacked. There is plenty of meat and fish patties, bread and cheese, baloney-esque sausages, and once we even have this tasty fried fish. The great thing about camp is that they feed me breakfast and lunch, which means that I have to fend for myself only at dinnertime. Also, the teachers press me to eat 2 or more servings at every meal because thereís always extra as children are always absent. I used to me annoyed by the amount of food Ukrainians expect/demand that I eat, but now that Iím on my own, I welcome it. I need to take in all the calories I can to resist looking as emaciated as Iggy Pop. Every other day, they also buy us ice cream. I havenít found any fancy Ben and Jerry, Hagen Daaz type ice cream, but what they have is good.

The kids take to me right away. Theyíve seen me roaming around school during the past semester so theyíre not shy. They sit around me when I sit and stand around me when I stand. They surround me like an electron cloud and follow me like satellites. I answer questions about my hobbies, family, marital status, and pets. Some kids impress me with their command of English. Other kids know just enough English to annoy me. ďMr. Dae, what is your name?Ē

The kids insist on escorting me home. Iím a little embarrassed walking home with an honor guard of fidgety kids. One wide-eyed girl asks me if I like Ukrainian girls. I think I know where this is going, so I clear my throat uneasily and answer evasively that I like all sorts of girls. Then, she asks me, ďMr. Dae, do you like girls with bigÖĒ and she pauses, trying to remember the correct word. I panic. I say aloud in English, ďDonít say it. Dear God, donít say it.Ē And I prepare to run, because I donít think I can take that question from a little girl. But she finishes, ďÖwith big eyes.Ē Iím so relieved that I tell her that I donít care if she has big eyes, small eyes, or one and a half eyes as long as she has big tits. Iím joking, of course, and what a terrible jokeÖ

Itís childrenís day, and we take the kids to a festival at the park. Singers perform on stage. Dance troupes do their thing in front of the stage. They hold a beauty contest for pets. There are a couple of dogs, a kitty, mice, and a fat guinea pig. I think one of the dogs won. A filthy puppy, maybe a few days old, limps by and collapses in the gutter close to the stage. I think that the dog is dead. Some kids pet the limp dog tenderly. A boy pours water on the pup, hoping to revive it like a wilting flower. Not quite dead, the pup comes to and limps off to die somewhere else, away from well-meaning kids.

Week 2

We go on little excursions to the town center, forest, local villages, and the mountain. The last is actually a medium-sized hill, but the kids insist itís a mountain. About one hundred and thirty kids and teachers pile into a bus. Kids sit four to six to a row. Kids sit on kids who are sitting on other kids. A teacher throws a runty kid on my lap, and it warms my cold, sarcastic heart, when she looks up and lays a toothy smile on me.

The kids pair up and hold hands when we go on trips. When thereís an odd number, the kid without a partner visibly suffers until the teacher gets hold of him or he finds a place. The kids like holding my hands on trips. I usually have a kid in each hand and another lurking nearby, waiting for a vacancy. Sometimes, however, Iím not holding anyoneís hand, and it makes me look around uneasily.

One afternoon some of the older kids put on a concert for us. Thereís singing and dancing. At the end, a teacher asks me to recite a poem in English. I tell her that unlike Ukrainians, who can spout off entire Taras Shevschenko poems on demand, Americans generally donít memorize poems at school. So instead, I tell the kids that weíre going to continue having fun at camp, and I wish them all a safe and happy summer. Then the teachers lead the kids in saying, actually screaming, ďWe love you, Mr. Dae!Ē in English. Itís very embarrassing. To top it off, the teachers present me with a florescent yellow neckerchief, which they tie around my neck as I cringe. I look like Fred from Scooby Doo, and I feel like a bitch.

After camp one day, the eight girls from the local pedagogical college who work at the camp as part of their coursework, one of the younger, male teachers (married), and I go to the lake for lunch and drinks. After a little vodka, the teacher admits that he had thought that I was an American spy, and I think thatís cool. Despite the numbers clearly being in my favor, nothing interesting happens.

Week 3

My tutor teaches me a popular Ukrainian song called ďChervonu Rutu,Ē which is some sort of red flower. The kids and I sing it when weíre walking home from excursions. This especially runty girl, who looks like an old man when she scrunches up her face to smile, takes it as her duty to teach me the song and drills me over the course of several days. Iím grateful that my tutor taught me the song because Iím running out of things to say to the kids.

While weíre waiting outside the music school for our mini-concert, a dog crossing the street gets hit by a car. Thereís a sickening thump as tire makes contact with dog. The kidsí faces crumble, and anxiety sits on their foreheads and brows. Iíve never seen so many sad kids in one place. The dog survives the hit and crawls off on three legs, dragging a twisted limb. The dog goes someplace quiet to finish dieing, and the teachers and I proclaim weakly that clearly the dog is okay and that itís racing off to play with friends. Dogs in this town seem to exist solely to die in the presence of little kids.

Weíre at the lake. Kids are playing in shallow water, and an oldish guy in a Speedo comes by. He asks me what Iím doing in Ukraine. I give him my spiel. He asks annoying questions, as if he doesnít believe my answers or doubts my intentions. He starts hitting on Marina, one of the college girls. He tells her that she has a pretty name and lamely informs her that it means sailor. He jokes that she should marry me and go to America. I help a kid with a sandcastle, and I hear a slap, the unmistakable slap of an old manís hand against a college girlís ass. The old guy says something about a mosquito. Marina is annoyed, but still very polite. I stand there, wondering if I should pummel the guy. My back had been turned, and Iím not completely sure if it was her ass that he hit. I stand there with my eyes narrowed, looking through the old guy, but I donít say anything. The rest of the day, I feel very small.

Week 4

I am tired of excursions. In addition to the places I have already mentioned, we have been to a factory, lumber mill, museums, soccer stadium, an arts and crafts center, and a sanitarium. The teachers and kids seem to be weary of trips also. We spend several days just hanging out at the school playground.

The kids are exceptionally violent. I suppose that I knew that from the first day of camp, but the extent to which they relish punching and kicking each other hadnít really sunken into me until this week. Itís not just the bullies, itís everyone. The cutie who looks like an old man when she grins betrays me with a string of violent acts. A boy annoys her, so she kicks him squarely in the ass with all the force she can muster. He lingers so she does it again and again. Later, another boy pisses her off so she chases him down, squats on his chest, removes her shoe and repeatedly whacks him in the face. The whole time, her face is twisted with rapture. Afterwards, I donít feel like holding her hand anymore.

Mercifully, camp ends. Iím tired of watching the kids beat each other. The teachers want to have a little party in the cafeteria to celebrate. Iím tired and try to slip away, but on the way out, one of the older teachers corners me and tells me that I will stay and have a few drinks with them or she will break my legs, she seems to imply. Three shots later, Iím on my way out the door, to enjoy the rest of my summer, kid-free.

Tuesday, July 5th 2005

The Cat Knew

A neighborhood cat stared me down yesterday. The cat locked eyes with me when I was on the balcony smoking my morning cigarette and, as if it had something to prove, would not look away. I turned away first, and the cat slinked off. I would probably still be there if I hadnít conceded victory to the cat.

My landladyís husband came by yesterday afternoon. I smelled alcohol on his breathóactually, I didnít need to get so close since he usually travels in a cloud of alcohol fumes. From what I could understand, he wanted to take a nap. Obeying the logic of Wes Anderson movies, I should have shrugged and let him in and continued what I was doing sure that some casual yet life-altering adventure would soon follow, but I donít have the kind of forbearance characters in his movies have. I like my privacy. And my apartment isnít a hideaway for drunkards, despite what my neighbors think.

Actually, they donít think that. The grandma downstairs recently commented to my landlady that I was a better neighbor than the Ukrainians. My apartment flooded while I was in Cherkasy (a city in central Ukraine) for Peace Corps language and in-service training. Water started dripping down into the apartment owned by the grandmother below me, and she thought that I had left water running and called my landlady. It turned out that the family living above me had forgotten to turn off a faucet before heading out to a nearby village. My landlady told me there was water up to her ankles in my foyer/shoe and pickle storage area. My shoes were filled with water, but fortunately, I had left shoes trees in my leather shoes so they kept their general shape. Yeah, I know. What kind of self-respecting volunteer brings shoe trees to his Peace Corps service?

In the evening, my next door neighbor knocked on my door. He, too, was drunk, and he wanted five hriven ($1) with which to probably buy more alcohol. I usually donít have so many visitors, especially drunken ones in one day. Heís a decent guy and had lent me half a dozen chairs for my birthday party months ago, so I scrounged around for some money for him. I only had big bills and a 1 hriven bill, so I gave him that. He was visibly disappointed or perhaps disgusted that he had traded a bit of pride for just a measly single. He accepted the bill as he would a dead pigeon and mumbled that he would get me back tomorrow.

As I was writing this, a dirty, little gypsy girl seeking succor came by to break my heart.

I donít like being hit up for money. I donít care that much about handing over money: itís wondering afterwards if Iím a chump that bothers me. I donít want people to think Iím a mark, a doormat, especially in this country. When three people show up at my door in a 24-hour period asking for favors they havenít earned, I feel that I need to be more careful. I havenít been living extravagantly. Iím not sporting gold chains or even watches without Velcro, but maybe Iím still projecting the image of a frivolous American with money to throw away.

Maybe they mistake my mild temperament for weakness.

Or maybe, as I suspect, the cat had talked.

Wednesday, June 1st 2005

I told my first joke at kickboxing today. One of the guys asked me how I got my arms to be so big. I paused a second and looked him in the eye to make sure he wasn't being sarcastic. Then I said in my best Ukrainian, "First, I find a girl. Then I..." while making lewd humping gestures and flexing my biceps. The class really seemed to enjoy it. They didn't expect this from the straight-laced Korean guy.

I've been going to the boxing gym about twice a week for three months now. I began going near the end of winter because I was starting to resemble a potato, which I'd been eating in great quantities. Also, the lack of physical activity and the desperate need for friends was making me crazy. I needed to find a place besides school where people expected me.

The other guys didn't really know what to make of me at first. No one was hostile--they just didn't know how to treat me, and I understand the difficulty. I'm a teacher, but I look young. So, do you treat me with the reserve that you would a teacher or do you consider me a peer? Also, I'm the first American and Asian dude that most of them have ever met, so what do you do with that?

Since then, I've picked up the gym etiquette, which includes giving every single person a firm handshake on your way in and out, and we're starting to get along pretty well. I really like the guys at the gym. For the most part, they treat me like a normal person. They're curious about me (they ask about America, Thai-boxing, Chuck Norris, what the hell I'm doing here), but they're not nosey. Other people--fellow teachers, my host family's friends, stangers I meet at bars, and even the sunflower lady--ask me ridiculously embarassing questions or about money or about the girl they saw me walking with the other day. The only time I felt ill-at-ease with they guys was when we took staged photos in fighting poses one day in class. The first few photos were fun, but each and every guy wanted to get a photo with me. I started to feel like Sitting Bull in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

After my crude joke, the class warmed up to me a bit. Max said that he spotted me reading at the lake that weekend, and he asked if I had noticed the beautiful rainbow over the lake after it rained yesterday. This got the class discussing rainbows and then arguing about the correct Ukrainian word for "rainbow." The class gets into many impromtu debates about topics that I had thought were not generally discussed in a boxing gym, especially a filthy-good Ukrainian one located in a dusty, Soviet-era plant that has out front a statue of a burly worker raising his fist in proletariat glory. Last week, there was a five minute intermission between exercises while they hashed out the rising price of butter like a group of squabbling grandmothers. I stood to the side thinking, "C'mon guys, none of that. We hit each other here."

Saturday, May 21st 2005

School's out for the summer...at last

This will be the last full week of school, and I suspect that my pleasure outweighs that of all my combined students. I need to regroup and recharge. I need to rethink my role at the school. Some classes were excellent. Beneficial for the students and fun as hell for me, but I fear that some were a waste of time. They got very little out of me other than the novelty of having an Asian dude teach them English, and all I got from them was seething anger and a semester-long feeling of impotence. I think that part of my failure to reach some students is my limited control over them. I don't know if it's possible, but I will try to obtain my very own class. For unmotivated classes, it's difficult to impose any discipline or reward the students for good work when I'm essentially the visiting teacher. I also hate the way teachers grade in Ukraine. Students get daily grades based on participation during class and the whim of the teacher. Every mistake counts against them, and as a result, students don't want to open their mouths. Ukrainians don't seem to believe that making mistakes is an essential part of learning. If I had my own class, I would run it in the style that I am used to, where students aren't punished for making mistakes and grades depend more on tests, homework, and participation/effort.

I despaired a bit when I first visited Lebedyn in December because it was bare, muddy, and ugly. Late spring, by comparison is absurdly beautiful. The main streets are shaded by tall trees with droopy leaves like giant, deflated butterfly wings. Public areas have been spruced up with tulips, shrubby plants, and these, little, yellow flowery guys (clearly, I am no botanist). Irises also seem to grow wild along the sidewalks. Despite my vigilance, I always miss the short interval of time when an iris is the most beautiful: the time between when it's tightly wrapped and when it explodes, as if the flower vomited itself. Lilac bushes and trees are as omnipresent as crowded marshrutkas, and needless to say, smell much better.

Lebedyn is bursting with life, and nowhere is it more evident than at my host family's home. They have a new pig, which to my amazement, used to parade out of its little pig hut when called. Since then, it's become a sullen teenager and doesn't respond to calls. Perhaps the precocious little guy has figured out how things will end.

Their goat gave birth to two wobbly kids, one black and the other white. The black one gave me a nip when I was trying to pose with it. I had never been bitten by a goat before. As I worried a little about infection, I thought briefly about vampires and wolfmen. Why aren't there any horror stories about goatmen? Well, actually, there's Pan, but he spent most of his time chasing the ladies. The family gave me some curds made from goat milk, which tasted all right, but then they explained that it was made from the very first of the goat's milk, and that kind of grossed me out. I don't know why exactly. Maybe it make me think about the thick, brown water that first comes on when I turn on the faucet at my apartment. Or maybe it's the guilt. Store-bought milk is guilt free, but I personally know for whom this milk was intended.

My host family also has a horde of chicks that the grandmother bought at the bazaar and took home in a cheesecloth-covered casserole dish. They hang out with a big turkey, which oddly enough has accepted the role of surrogate mother. The turkey sits patiently while chicks swarm all over its body like lice, like really fucking adorable lice.

Their cat also gave birth to seven kittens. Only two made it, but that's not so bad considering that the cat must be an octogenarian. My host brother, Dima, likes to load up the blind, pocket-sized kittens into his toy truck and send it sailing across the living room carpet. I was so delighted that I neglected to tell him about how sad dead kittens are.

The family's rabbit hutch is bursting with bunnies, and their eleven beehives overflow with a biblical number of bees.

I think the grandmother, Tamara Ivanivna, is the source of this abundant life. She walks with a slight hobble, but she's sturdy. She gets up early and works all day. When I lived at the house, I would see her for breakfast and then she would disappear into her work and reemerge for lunch and then disappear once again until dinner. She is proud of her work, but not with a vulgar sense of ownership, of dominance. I think she recognizes her role as caretaker and not creator. When she passes on--may it not be soon--the house will not fall into ruins, but vitality will fade from the house.

Sunday, May 15th 2005

My friend, Anton, came to visit me last weekend. We were in the same training group in Pereyaslav-Xmelnitsky from last September to December. Although he trained in Pereyaslv, to his disappointment and befuddlement, his permanent site ended up being the same town. This doesn't happen frequently. It only happened to one other guy in our whole group of 109 volunteers. Anton was a little sad because while everyone else was off to a new part of the country, he was taking an hour and a half marshrutka (a public transport van) ride back from where he came.

Peace Corps Trainees find out about their permanent sites about 2/3rds through training at the coordinators' conference--where they also meet their coordinators, Ukrainian counterparts at their schools, colleges, or other organizations. In the past, volunteers were given information about various sites, and they would submit their top choices. The Peace Corps says they stopped doing this because volunteers complained about the amount of work they had to do to find a site on top of their language and technical training. I suspect this is bull-shit. I think the Peace Corps probably stopped doing this because (even allowing for personal differences) some sites are better than others. I imagine it was difficult for them to find volunteers for some places.

Nowadays, a person from the office interviews you and then selects a site based partially on your preferences. This is problematic for volunteers because it's hard to say what you want when you don't know what's available. If I had a choice, I would not have come to Lebedyn. I like the town, the people, and my school, but when I first arrived to this country, I had dreams of western Ukraine in my head. I imagined it to be a little like the beginning of The Sound of Music, where Julie Andrews is prancing about, singing the title song. I need to travel west to prove to myself that it's no wonderland--or to be a little sadder that I don't live there.

Besides being located on ther wrong side of the country, Lebedyn pisses me off because no one speaks Ukrainian here. At first I thought I couldn't understand anyone becaue my Ukrainian just really sucks, but it turned out that my Ukrainian sucks AND people are speaking Russian. The residents will tell you that they don't speak Russian, but rather Surgic--a combination of the two languages common in eastern and central Ukraine. But if you ask what their Surgic consists of, they will then admit it is mostly Russian. Also, the people who live here frequently ask me why the hell I speak Ukrainian, and even my tutor thinks that I should just drop it, cut my losses, and take up Russian. I feel like I'm on the verge of ranting, so I'll stop, but let me warn future PCVs: learn Russian or demand a site in the west.

Anton (and me too, despite occasional pangs of bitterness) is now happy at his site, except when he thinks about Lutz, Ivano-Frankivsk, or L'viv... But anyway, I had visited him the week before for Easter. (May is a great month for teachers because there are a lot of holidays, and this being the last month of school, I'm fighting burn out.) It was great to be back in Pereyaslav, my training town. Although I had only spend three months in that town, I got that Maxwell-House, coming back home feeling. I knew where everything was and how to get around. I even ran into some students I had taught when I was training at the local school, and those little shits remembered my name, which was nice.

It was good to see my old host family again, too. We had been pretty close before I had left for Lebedyn. I was touched that they keep on their dinner table the framed group photo from Micola's birthday that I had given along with a birthday card I had sent Valya two months ago.

I wish I had gone to see them sooner becaue I struggled to reconnect with them. I told them about the plans Anton and I have to bike to Crimea, and they thought that was the funniest shit ever. I told them a little about life in Lebedyn: how I saw a pig get killed; how on Maslina, a spring holiday, people gather in the forest and some brave souls strip to their underwear and shimmy up a debarked pine tree for prizes; how massive my new apartment is. And then I was out. I had nothing to say to them, so I dumbly turned my eyes to the TV set.

I guess our past relationship during training wasn't based on conversation, but rather on pleasant day-to-day interaction. Valya would buy me the fruity yogurt drink I like so much. Micola would polish me shoes when I wasn't looking. I would try to help Valya peel potatoes even though dinner would take longer to prepare. Micola would come home from the bar drunk and tell me that I'm his son and that he loves me, and Valya, embarrassed, would shoo him away to sleep it off. And they both waited up till three the first night I stayed out late and had assumed they would just go to bed. I guess I just need to visit them more often.

Ok. I'll get to Anton's visit next time.

Wednesday, May 4th 2005

Some days are terrible. Some of my students are painfully indifferent--actually, it goes beyond indifference. They are stone, and I don't have a millennium's worth of patience to wear them down. I am aftraid they are the stone I will dull myself on. (And correspondingly, the stone on which I will whet my sense of melodrama and self-pity.)

I cooked dinner for a woman last night. She told me the pork was underdone and tough. She took one bite of my Thai cucumber salad before putting it down because the vinegar was too strong. I asked her to try a piece of the beet I had marinated with the cucumbers. She took a bite and asked me if I had forgotten to cook the beet and put it down next to the cucumber. However, she liked the wine and cheese. Apparently, I can't get everything wrong.

I don't get mad when my students stare back at me with empty--or worse--amused faces or hide behind the students sitting in front of them. I try harder. I try to make English worth knowing or break it down into simple components. I didn't get mad when the woman thoughtlessly criticized the dinner I had made for her. Instead, I apologized. Later that night, to practice, I simmered the leftover pork in gravy until it was as soft as a baby's ass.

The past 24 hours have sucked. But tonight at my kickboxing class, I sparred with an Ukrainian guy who was a bit bigger than me and kicked him around. I got knocked around a bit too, but it felt good. I don't mind getting hit when I'm hitting back, and I guess that's the problem.

As the foreign, English teacher, I don't have many sticks. Somehow, I intimidate the good students, but the others are immune to whatever it is--perhaps the copious amound of pomade in my hair or the "do you smell what the Rock's cooking" eyebrow that I raise when they use the wrong tense--that intimidates them. I can give the irresponsible, unresponsive students shitty grades, but their grades really can't get any shittier. I can drag misbehaving students down to see the director, but I did it once and it made me feel like a gigantic pussy. I would like to drop some classes or weed out some students, but again, the pussy issue. All I have are carrots--unfortunately, flaccid, rubbery carrots. I don't know what to do with the students who don't care. When I'm not to the brink with frustration, when I have space for other emotions, I feel a bit of compassion for them. It takes years to build up this kind of indifference.

As for the woman, I'm going to lose her number.

Thursday, April 7th 2005

birthdays and apartments

2 weeks ago, i moved into my apt. after living with my host family for 3 months. the three months went by fairly quickly because i'm busy as a bastard at school and also because my family is pleasant to live with. however, i had been getting sick of feeling like a guest. the family, especially the babushya, who i now address as my babushya, would ply me with extraordinary quantities of food, iron my boxers, darn my socks, polish my boots, make my bed (but only once, and it was embarrassing as hell for me) and immediately ask me why i'm so sad if i stop smiling for even a moment. there's only so much hospitality and goodness i can stand. it was almost a sweet relief when i went to the haircut place and the lady made me wait for almost 2 hours while she served people who came in after me. i was like, ah, that's right, this is what it's like to be a normal person and not a moderately honored guest.
and being a guest made me lazy too.

so i'm at my own place now. it's beautiful, simply byootiful. it's a 3 room place, which means it has 2 bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bath, toliet. i live on the second floor, and i have a nice balcony where i can hang my wash, smoke cheap ukrainians cigarettes, and watch the kids play with the gimpy dog in the backyard area. the kids love this dog that was born with twisted hindlegs and kind of drags itself around. it's nice to see. the only problem is that i don't get water frequently. it comes at 6 ish when i'm sleeping and then again maybe at 5 or 6 or 10 or not at all. sometimes, when i'm low on water i jump up and check the faucet a few times an hour because i hear some rustling near the pipes. but i do have a street side faucet a half block from my place, and if that's not working, there's a well a half block in the other direction. i had to use the well on my first morning at the apt. and it was kind of quaint. i kind of felt like i was in the peace corps, afterall.

the english teachers at my school and my host mother had worked on the apt a lot. they put up wall paper, installed the toliet, sink, stove, and painted the floor. oh, and also hung up several lovely rugs on the wall. ukrainians love doing that. i only had to do a little bit of maintenence. the sink was clogged and spilled water all over my kitchen and bathroom, so i thought i'd be Macguyver or actually maybe closer to Martha Stewart, who am i fooling, (i kick myself for not buying stock in her company when it was dirt cheap) and make homemade drano with baking soda and vinegar. it didn't work because vinegar doesn't hold up well against years of accumulated vegetable matter, mud, cement chips, and possibly a dead mouse.

my birthday was the week after i moved into the apt. in ukraine, you have to throw yourself a birthday party. my party was also a nice way to thank the teachers for helping with my place and my host family for being so nice to me. also i wanted to show my babushya that i could cook. she thought that i would perish once i got out on my own, or more precisely, that i would perish without her.

i invited 6 english teachers, the principal, my landlady and her husband, the pcv living in my town and her host family (3 people), my host family (3.5 people, dima is 10), and the other pcv's coordinator and husband. so that's 18.5 people. it unnerved me a little, but i had the arrogance that comes with having never cooked for 18.5 hungry ukrainians. at the end, the guest list dropped down to 13 because of injury, work obligations, a town football tournament, and becaue 1 teacher resents me too much to eat my food. and 13 was much more doable. i had to stay up all night cooking and cutting veggies, but i got it done, and everyone was happy. even me, athough i will despise cooking for the next few weeks.

here's the menu:

starters-gazpacho, roasted garlic, bread, pate (came in a tin), pickles, cheese, sausage

1st course-meat cutlets and pasta salad

2nd course-thai chicken curry, rice, mashed potatoes, thai cucumber and carrot salad, seaweed salad (which you can buy in most major cities, oddly enough)

dessert-chocolate cake, coffee, tea (they loved my celestial seasonings from home)

i had planned a calzone course, but the dough wouldn't form. probably too much water. and i couldn't find sesame oil for korean chicken, but in any case, more than enough food. gazpacho and thai curry went over the best. the seaweed and cucumber salad the worst. i had just finished eating the mountain of leftovers yesterday.

preparing for the party was the hardest thing i have done since coming to ukraine. buying the ingredients was tricky and expensive, but it should be easier now that i know where to get shit.

Saturday, March 5th 2005

when i signed up for the peace corps, i didn't know that i would attend so many beauty contests as part of my service. i've been to 2 beauty contests this week, and that's 2 more than i had previously attended. the first one was for miss medical college and the second for miss lebedyn. i think that now is the beauty contest season. i read in the kyiv post about the semifinals for the miss ukraine contest happening somewhere in turkey. i guess it makes sense that now is the time for beauty contests. the winters are pretty bleak so we need whatever extra activities people can think of.

so anyway, beauty contests are pretty interesting in ukraine. when i went to the medical school, the mcs actually introduced me in the beginning, which was a little embarrassing. people stare at me enough as it is, so i don't need mcs to direct the audience to look at me. there were something like 4 events. in the beginning, they had to introduce themselves, i think. my ukrainian is pretty shit-tastic, but it seemed like they were telling the audience about their interests in rhyming couplets. a couple of the girls forget their lines and just stood on the stage, frozen and mortified, but the crowd was pretty nice and encouraged them with kind applause. then, they had an evening gown round. i don't know much about dresses, but i don't think they were wearing modern styles. girls don't wear dresses with metal hoops down the length of the dress anymore, do they? then they had a talent round. a lot of girls sang because ukrainians love singing. i heard a few folk songs, a ruslana song (she's ukraine's biggest pop star), and another song by cerogka, this cross-dressing dude. he's very popular in ukraine, which is surprising because, as i understand it, ukrainians are kind of close-minded when it comes to that kind of thing. they had a cooking round, which is something you don't see in a miss america contest. they prepared mostly deserts. the most fascinating deserts were these pastries in the shape of swans. some girls prepared a serving plate full of jello and then placed these cream-filled, swan-shaped pastries on the jello, as if it was a lake. they also added some carrots cut up like water flowers and some green onions to represent cattails, maybe. after the contest, the director of the school invited me to have some champagne and eat the dishes the girls made. they were all pretty good, except fot the pineapple dish. it consisted of pineapples, eggs, mayo, and a lot of fucking garlic.

the director also asked me to start an english club for the students at the medical college. i casually mentioned this to one of the teachers at my school and she freaked out. she talked to the principal, and they both agreed that i shouldn't work for anyone except my school. i heard that school are very protective over their volunteers, but i was still surprised by their reaction. i can understand their reaction because they went through a lot of trouble to get me, and they are going to pay for my apartment, which i hear is pretty phat by any standards. so i don't really mind their demands. out of time.

Saturday, February 12th 2005

so about the other pig...

i woke up on sunday morning to the sound of my host grandmother crying. actually, it sounded like she was bawling her eyes out. i made out little snipets of her lament. it seemed that something terrible had happened at the bazaar. she said something about 300 hriven ($50), how no one helped her, how even the militsia were unable or unwilling to help. it sounded like something deeply humiliating and shocking happened to her. i also thought i heard something about me. my name actually means "where" in ukrainian and this causes confusion sometimes. (ukrainian grandmothers i know well like to say "where's my dae?" it's endearing and not at all annoying, unlike people who insist on singing harry belafonte songs to me.) so i laid in bed thinking, "have i done anything in the past 24 hours to make the poor woman cry?" i had gone out to some of the bars the previous night, and after racking my brain, i concluded that i hadn't done anything to bring this woman so much grief and that it was safe to leave my room.

i tried asking her what was wrong, but she only said that she was sad, that things were very bad, and would only shake her red, tear-stained face when i asked her what had happened.

i found out at lunch. she had gone to the bazaar early in the morning to buy a piglet to replace the guy we had been eating for the past few weeks. she bundled the little guy onto a sled to drag home, but as she was walking, the piglet squirmed or chewed its way out of the sled and ran off. she tried to catch it, but i guess piglets are fast and impossible to grasp. plus she's a babushya and not nearly nimble as a desperate piglet.

she was still upset when she told me the about the pig, and i tried to sypmathize with her, but i couldn't keep a straight face. a little laughter even bubbled out of me despite my best effort. i tried to stifle my laughter because i'm not a bastard, but i kept getting a visual of a pink, baby pig, pumping its stubby legs, shaking its gelatinous ass, tearing down the road to freedom (or actually a slow death by exposure) and a distraught babushya chasing after it, yelling and cursing. despite the tragedy of losing a pig which costs a month's salary, the entire family couldn't help laughing a little too. besides, i pay the family 693 hriven a month for my upkeep, so they'll have another pig soon.

Wednesday, February 9th 2005

so much has happened in the past few weeks. oddly, most of it has to do with pigs. i hate to admit it, but my social life is such that my life revolves around pig-related activities.

two weeks ago now, my host family carved up their fat fat hog. it's an annual event for them, but it was the first time for me. the family keeps hogs, chickens, geese, rabbits, and even a couple of sheep or goats. (i'm not sure because it was dark, and when you're drunk does it really matter? i'm joking of course, things aren't that bad yet.)

so we got up early on saturday, and i got bundled up in some of the family's old clothes: some of the deceased grandfather's pants, a jacket adorned with hammer and sickle buttons, and a furry hat. the grandmother thought that my own clothes were far too prissy to wear to a butchering.

so a couple of my host father's friends came over to help with the pig. one of the guys tied up the hog by the leg and dragged it out of its shed. i thought it would be cool to have a "before" picture so i took a snapshot of the pig without really thinking about it, and the flash just freaked the pig out. it started going on a minor rampage, dragging the dude around. the other friend had to lunge in and stab the pig through the heart. of course, this was the way it was going to end for the pig anyway, but i kind of felt bad for the little guy. it would have been so much better if the pig had a more relaxed and mercifully sudden death like at the end of all quiet on the western front. it would have been nice if the pig was just kind of hanging out, feeling the breeze between its stubby legs, looking toward the treeline, and then whammo! but instead it freaked out and slowly and resentfully bled to death.

it was kind of sad to see the pig die, and it was odd how quickly i stopped seeing the pig as a moderately happy animal that had only moments ago been struggling to stay alive. within minutes, i remorselessly saw it as ridiculously moist and tender food.

i took about 70 disgusting pictures of this event, and i'll post them the next time i can get somewhere with quick internet.

there's no time to wirte about my other pig-related event. the boys at the computer club know that my time is almost up, and they're already circling.

Friday, January 28th 2005

my host family is going to kill their pig tomorrow, and i can't wait. i have nothing against the pig. he/she/it quietly lives in a little shed behind the house. it doesn't smell bad, and it doesn't make much noise. i didn't even know an enormous pig lived in the shed until tamara ivanivna, the grandmother, showed it to me one day. i was surprised like a game show contestant. she opened the door revealing the prize, and i put my hands to my head in disbelief. what the fuck? a gigantic pig?! maybe i wasn't that surprised because it went a long way in explaining the piles of pig shit in the back yard.

so the pig dies tomorrow. i've never seen a pig butchered. i've never seen anything larger than a fat squirrel die. maybe it's a little macabre that i'm excited about watching the pig get slaughtered, but it's not the actual death that i'm looking forward to, because that is kind of sick, after all. i'm excited about seeing how a ukrainian family gets their pork and the thousand things they're going to do with the meat, bones and skin. it's the rituals of everyday life that interest me. plus, i'll be eating some really tasty pork for the next few weeks or months. hopefully though, not every day.

Thursday, January 20th 2005

toothache

i have had an incredible toothache for the past month. i went to the dentist about 3 weeks ago when i was in kyiv at the end of training, but the dentist couldn't really figure it out. however, that might have been because i was pointing to the wrong tooth. it was only recently that i located the exact tooth that was bringing the hurt. it's actually pretty difficult to pinpoint a sore tooth. well, that's what i tell myself at least. but it's really probably no harder than finding waldo. but in any case the tooth was killing me. i was having terrible headaches, i couldn't sleep, and eating was no fun. i almost actually cried one morning while trying to eat borsch with chicken or rabbit or some kind of animal. i haven't cried in years and a freakin bowl of soup almost brought me to tears. that's how bad the pain was.

so i made the appointment and now i'm heading off to kyiv on the overnight train. the thing is that, since making the appt., the pain has receded to almost nothing. it only hurts when i eat or clench my teeth, and not enough to warrant a trip to kyiv. this always happens to me. something hurts, but i wait it out. and it always gets worse, and then when i can't take it anymore and make an appt to see a doctor, the pain goes away. i'm going to look like an asshole tomorrow when i get to the dentist.

on an unrelated note, i went to a birthday party last night. kathleen, a pcv who is also in lebedyn, was turning 41, i think. there was a lot of food: mashed potatoes, smoked fish (eghh), vareniky (meat, cherry, potato, or cabbage filled dumplings), cheese and poppy seed blintzes, layered egg salad with some fish product (i think), and deviled eggs with lots of mayo. and plenty of camohon, ukrainian moonshine. when i first started drinking the stuff, it was a challenge not immediately throwing up after every shot, but now it's a delight.

but anyway, that night when i was walking home with kathleen's coordinator from school, she told me a little about life under the soviet union. she talked about how they were paid much less, but how everyone who wanted one had a job. and how even though they were paid less, everything cost less so they were actually better off financially then. they would have money for vacations in crimea, no one struggled to pay the utility bills, etc... she was explaining to me that of course life is better now in terms of freedom of press and protest, but with the crazy inflation, life isn't as sweet. and as she was saying this she was passing under one of the only street lights that are on in our town, and i noticed that she was crying quietly. when i first got to ukraine, the country director paraphrased something that putin said about the soviet union, something about how if you don't miss the soviet union, you must lack a heart, but if you want a return of the soviet union, you must lack a brain. it was sad to actually see this idea played out in a person.

Thursday, January 13th 2005

yesterday was my first day of school at my permanent site. after being in ukraine for 3 months, i'm finally doing what i came here for.

it's an odd feeling because training was so long and once you're done with training and move to your permanent site, it's like you've gone to an entirely new country. or actually, myabe it's like you've regressed to when you first arrived in ukraine. people gawk at you a bit; no one understands you; you have to figure out where they hide the bathroom at the school and why the door is always locked; and you have no friends.

it's not so bad because people quickly get tired of staring at you. for the first few days, when i'm walking down the street, i let people stare at me for a good 10 seconds before looking back. i think they just need to get it out of their system. soon i'll just be that asian guy who roams around town, and people won't mind me.

before i left my training town, pereyaslav khmelnitsky, i was somewhat able to have conversations with my host family, who understood my particular interpretation of the ukrainian language. and it's hard to communicate with people in my new town, but the burning shame i feel and the ridicule i suffer when i try to conjugate verbs for shopkeepers and post office employees, only motivates me to study more.

things are a little different at ukrainian schools. it takes time to figure things out (like locating and using the bathroom) or to rationalize doing things their way. at school, they want me to give grades out everyday based on participation. at the end of the class, the teacher dishes out grades for maybe half the students, and reads them aloud (which is a little cruel). i think that this is the main way that students are graded. it's a bit tough to do because i don't want to punish students for answering questions. i'm relieved and grateful when they respond to me, and i don't want to discourage it. i don't want to be the guy that harps on their every mistake because it's more important that they can communicate rather than speak perfect english. and the whole grading on participation is arbitrary. i like being able to justify my grades with tangible things like tests and homework.

as for having no friends. it's not too bad. there's other pcvs around in nearby towns. and i'm sure i'll eventually befriend ukrainians approximately my age, if i can find them. it's just a big change from my training town, where there were 9 other volunteers, and i saw them everyday. it was a little wearing at times to be around the same people for the 4/5 hours a day we would have language training, but we had a lot of fun. there was a decent..gotta go

Saturday, September 25th 2004

1 day to staging

i managed to finish packing this afternoon. i think it went pretty well. i had to unpack my bags twice into larger bags, but i think i got most of my stuff in. i would have been in fantastic shape if i wasn't taking that damn fleece blanket with me or if i didn't have so many pairs of shoes, which is a actually a point of embarrassment. until i packed them all into one suitcase earlier this afternoon, i didn't realize i owned 6 pairs of shoes. i'm going to have more shoes than the entire family that i'll be living with, and they're going to think i'm some kind of dandy.

i'm going out with some friends in a few minutes for a last hurrah. i need to get up at around 6:30 tomorrow, so i imagine the flight to d.c. will be unpleasant.

Saturday, September 25th 2004

1 day till ukraine

it's a little past midnight on the day before i go to d.c. for staging (which will consist of filling out forms and sitting through seminars before i leave for the ukraine). so maybe the whole "1 day till ukraine" that i have up there is misleading. i'm actually leaving for ukraine on tuesday afternoon. but i'm leaving home in one more day, so close enough.

i just got back from hanging out with some of my friends at sneakers. it's the only local bar that's not filled with depressing old people whom i imagine are always just one drink away from physical violence. i managed to pack a bag. i think i'm doing pretty good. i should have packed a few days ago to make sure i can fit all of my shit into 2 bags and a carry on, but considering all the clothes i stuffed into the one bag, i think i'm in good shape. i'm not completely sure if the bag is going to be light enough though. i checked the weight by getting on my bathroom scale holding the bag and subtracting my weight. i know that it's probably not the best way to weigh something, but i don't see why that method would be terribly inaccurate. but to be sure, i also tried to curl my bag, which i was able to do. the weight limit is 50 lbs. and i know that i sure as hell can't curl 50 lbs. without hurting myself. so i should be in good shape. if the baggage people at the airport give me a hard time, i'll bring up these two incontovertible facts. i might even curl the bag for them.

i need to pack my ass off tomorrow.