Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kharkiv or (rather) Kharkov

Before and after the celebration, Amanda, Oleg, and I wandered around the city. They claimed there wasn't much to see. Most soviet buildings tend to look alike. Kharkiv has an incredible history, colored with war and loss, industry, urban sprawl, and resilient people. 

The statue below is of the poet, Taras Shevchenko. He is placed at the top and surrounding his in ascending order are different characters from his writings. The characters at the lowest step, on Shevchenko's left, represent where people began in his poems. Poor, needy, lacking. As the people wrap around the back, they become Kosac fighters, warriors, gaining height and strength. At the top, nearest his right arm, stand true soviet people. They hold books, wheat, and stare triumphantly out at their countryside. The structure, each facial expression and body stance made this statue unlike anything I have seen before.   

The lowest man 
The strongest people 

Next, we visited an WWII memorial and Mother statue. Ukraine is referred to as the 'Motherland' and this lady is the Mother. You can hear her heart beating as an eternal flame keeps her warm. She stands in front of a massive grave holding around 10,000 people. Kharkiv's population sank from 1.5 million to 400,000 during war years due to losing men in battle, starvation and illness, and concentration camps. The plague below reads (something like), 'I gave all my life to the last drops of blood' sits front of a wall listing the numbers of loss during certain battles. 

A very cute couple enjoying the day! 

Kharkiv's city center and a bridge covered in love locks. 

Love locks are commonplace for married couples directly after the wedding ceremony. We were surrounded by three wedding parties during our few minutes on this bridge. 
This cemetery sits right off Kharkiv's newest highway. It is filled with ancient to modern gravestones of all religions and types. Each crucifix was unique because families are responsible for setting up and maintaining their family gravesides. We think this particular hillside contained some German soldiers. 

Very happy people eating their first burrito in a year (me) or the first taco in their life (Oleg). 

Amanda and Oleg 's Celebration

"When the flower want to oxygen and nutrition, I will help you too much" 

The last weekend of September, I took a long weekend and hopped a train to Kharkiv to attend the Ukrainian marriage ceremony of my dear friends Amanda and Oleg. I say 'marriage ceremony' because it wasn't a full wedding in the traditional sense but a celebration with Oleg's family and local friends before they leave for America. The real, official, big day is Alaska around Thanksgiving. Yah! 

The above, bad translated line came from a nifty craft Amanda and I found while grocery shopping at a mega supermarket for the party. My mind exploded over and over as I wandered through imported goods that I have longed for (ranch dressing, tortillas, lettuce) and local baked breads filled with glazed onions or covered in chocolate whip. The pint sized toy created the needed comic relief to my very achy brain. From the moment I stepped off the train and Amanda put me in her car (her car!) to the drive through at McDonalds (the drive through!), to her apartment with AC, washing machine, and movie selection, playing with Bella her dog (her dog!), to sight seeing, mega mall shopping (nothing I can afford), I was in shock. I ate burritos for 4 meals in a 3 days. (burritos! amazing!) She spoiled me to the nth percentage. We watched our odd purchase hold water for her plant life and continued to laugh at the phrasing on the package. 

But the more I thought I about these words, I more I realized they mean more than just humor. They mean, when you need help (oxygen, laughter, a bed) I will help you. I will help you so much, it's too much. The weekend at Amanda's helped me too much. I just love her. We spend a few days together in Kyiv this summer but before July, we had been apart for 2.5 years. I think it helped her a lot too. Someone to shop with, craft with, show her wedding dress to, watch chic flics with. 
We did all that we could.  

We enjoyed each other's company, told old stories to new friends, and prepared for the party. The maid of honor and best man, Yana and Kostiya, arrived in their traditional outfits with Oleg. Amanda and I transformed from American ladies to true Ukrainian beauties. A short drive across town in her car (her car!) to the private house we booked on the property of a fabulous restaurant. Their photo session took place all over the restaurant's property: at the pond, the outdoor tables, our dinner house while Oleg's family and other guests arrived. Ukrainian's thoughts on photography, what makes an interesting photo, and posing for photos is quite different than my own opinion so that was interesting. Hilarious to watch Oleg think of how he would lean across bushes down wind from me so he could look more mysterious. Annoying that Kostiya demanded a photo of him for every photo of the bride. (I put a stop to that behavior) Thrilling to watch Amanda's turn her American and Ukrainian smiles on and off according to who she was standing with. Yana's perfected 'sitting in the grass with food and flowers about me' was exactly that. It wasn't a massive gathering but every single person that attended love and care about Amanda and Oleg. It was wonderful to meet so many new people - especially those who had already heard of me but couldn't figure out what nationality I was and listen to three language combining in the air. I have photographed many weddings before and it's always a joy to observe people in their most joyous hour. This celebration was no different. Amanda sparkled. Her contentment in her dress, her man,  and her life was obvious. I have never seen my friend SO HAPPY. Oleg looked strong, handsome, and confident. Their guests beamed like the sunset that was our background. A few of the women, myself included, opened cried in sight of their love.  

Our evening continued as dinner time arrived. We were served a three course dinner of at least 20 different dishes and watched a chef light fire to our main dish (with black lights). Several people shared well wishes and gave gifts. Three different preachers (all named Vitaly) shared scriptures and stories of Amanda and Oleg. Music played. Everyone joked about Oleg's chubby baby photos and Amanda's energetic fishing skills in the slideshow. Personally, I jumped for joy at the sight of the leftovers, knowing I would right know with such delicious food surrounding me. 

Another day of meeting people, sight seeing, and eating too much goodness took up our time. I got to raid Amanda's closet since she is packing to move back to Alaska soon so I came home with three large bags of new clothes for myself and two friends. I also raided Amanda's closet when she left Kentucky to move to Ukraine. Everything does come full circle. Getting back to my room and bed was a great relief for my feet but was a difficult transition from such company and grandeur. Luckily, Kharkiv isn't that far away. I can easily visit my new friends there again.  

Enjoy party photos below! 

The lovely couple 

Wedding Party 

A small amount of payback for his 'assistance'. 

Ukrainian Smiles 
                                            This a photo the Oleg designed. 

This is a photo I designed.

Neither one is bad. Just different. 

Oleg's Family 

Add caption

Oleg, Amanda, and his son, Dima 

Holding fancy bread ain't no thing! 

This is Natsha and her husband.
She is about five foot nothing and he is six foot something.
Their traditional outfits were the best of the crew.
They placed applications in a lottery to get green cards. Their application got picked!
If everything goes well, they will live in Alaska (actually move in with Amanda and Oleg)
by next summer! 

The traditional 'Karavai' bread to be blessed, kissed, and eaten.  

These two images may need to be explained. 

Image 1: Amanda and I have a series of photos with willow trees that we began in 2009 in Kentucky. Then Ukraine. Next, Alaska. Pure American Silly. 

Image 2: Our best brick face. Ever. Pure Ukrainian Serious. We do eat borsch and we like it. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Whole Year

During this past week, a few important anniversaries have pasted. 

September 19, 2011 - After an hysterical week of packing and final good-byes, I left my parents at security check. We were the only ones weeping at 4 am. 
September 20, 2011 - Boarded a DC flight to Ukraine via Germany. 
September 21, 2011 - I sat on a bus wondering where is the heck I was going as a tiny church and school appeared at the end of the tree line. Five strangers sat around me asking each other questions and figuring out how we would adjust to living, speaking, thriving literally 'in the middle of nowhere'. 

I have lived in Ukraine for one year. Three months of training in Burty. Nine months of service split between Syhnayivka and Zvenyhorodka. My parents and I no longer weep during our conversations. Those strangers have become my dearest friends. We created a family of ourselves through common necessities, inside jokes, constant torment, and ceaseless empathy. People who love me, understand me, and endure all aspects of my personality.

Ukraine has raised me, changed me, and taught me, and given to me far and above what I contributed to it. The Ukrainian people that have been placed on purpose or crashed into my life have shown me great hospitality, home health remedies, clothing styles, how to squat properly, antidotes and slang, dancing, bucket bathing, baking, music, wall rugs, packed buses, meat jelly, pig fat, fresh-still-warm-milk, the tradition of toasting, and lots of tough love. Each holiday celebrated (and there are a lot) brings new traditions to memorize. Each people gives more wisdom or teaching new jokes. Every PCV has different stories to share or complain about. Excitement is unceasing. Perfection is unobtainable but I think I have gotten pretty darn close. In Ukraine, people have an 'inner circle' of friends. You must meet with someone at least 4 times to be in this inner circle. It is a scared place. I am blessed enough to say my inner circle stretches across cities and regions. PC gives us an instant network of friendship but we must grown our own just like we go our potatoes. I have planted on five farms in three towns. I may want for things of America - gummy worms, chinese food, peach cobbler - but I will never have a need that my Ukraine won't be able to fulfill. For that, I am grateful. 

I was talking to a college friend who has traveled for many year as an ESL teacher and document photographer overseas. She is talented, kind, and someone I greatly admire. I would like to think we have lots of things in common but that may be speaking too highly of myself. She is currently spending time at home which, obviously, is precious to her. We talked about how some people may not appreciate  or even understand how to appreciate such moments are, even if they are rare and quick, until 'they live on the road or how someone out there'. After we said good-bye, I kept thinking about my wide flung family (extended relatives included!) I came to this conclusion: Time is Distance. Distance is Time. They are always intertwined. They are the same. Time is not just how many hours a trip lasts but how many days or years we allow between each trip. Growing up my family did not have beach vacations because we had grandparents to visit. The car trips were 8 to 12 hours, several hundred miles away but the real Time, the real Distance was spring and fall separating summer and holiday visits. Distance is not just miles or kilometers but the amount of weeks between each destination. I am not just 6,500 miles separated from my parents, I am 12 months separated. My journey home is not just 20 hours on planes but 15 more months of waiting. My brother is not 4,000 miles away. He is 16 months away. The next time we are together we will have almost 2 years between us. My PCVs friend live 30 mins down the road but it will take me 3 more weeks to get there. I can not get up and go to my loved ones whenever I want. I do not have that luxury in this stage of my life. Those of you who do have this luxury, soak it up. Savor each daily greeting and 'oh I'll see you tomorrow'. I go to work. I can visit my neighbors and sweet students. I make new friends and eat dinner with different families constantly. Excitement is unceasing. I can call, write, skype, and email every day but I am still separated by long seasons.Time and Distance have an equal influence on my existence as the DNA inside of my body. Each day we all must plan our schedules in hours and miles (or kilometers over here) but our souls don't measure kilometers. My soul measures moments, experiences, and memories. My soul waiting through months and miles to squeeze my momma until my arms grow tired, to appear at my best friend's front door with surprises for her babies, to - once again - get on the road and make a summer out of visiting my flung family. I cringe at how long I must wait to see the Bluegrass once again but rejoice at how spectacular the wait will be. What stories and laughter and bus rides will take place during that Time and Distance.

Within my PC life, I have endured Time and Distance between my loved ones. My numerous moves separates me from many people but have brought new, grand characters into my path. Just last night, my new counterpart and friend, Natalia, hosted me at her house for dinner. She, like my old CP Kati, lives in a three generation household. She, like Kati,  prepared a grand feast of everything we could think to cook. Last night was cold and rainy just like my first dinner with Kati. Arriving with wet hair and cold feet, it was instantly determined that I would spend the night. I could not go back out into the weather especially after battling a cough this week. Kati kept me at her house for almost three days after our first dinner. Natalia and her mom soaked my feet in hot water with a mustard mixture, stripped my clothes off, covered my chest and back in herbal oils, dressed me in winter socks and pajamas, and then tired me inside a massive, wool cover. When my face turned beet red, the procedure was declared successful. The granny was slightly disappointed I didn't sweat enough. She wanted me to come back today to repeat the process to see if I would sweat more and stop coughing. Kati gave me her finest nightgown and master bedroom to sleep in after knowing me for 48 hours. Natalia did exactly the same yesterday. Both of these women and families have blessed me so much. They both notice my life, remember what I say, and understand when or why things are important to me. These two families have added me to their ranks. 

I love my life. I love it currently. I love it formerly. I love waiting for the rest of it to occur. 
The next 15 months are going to wild and wonderful. 

Sonya's Christening

Several months ago, I was invited to attend the Christening of Sonya, the daughter of my close friends, Vika and Vova. Her ceremony was scheduled to be after right her 1st birthday (she was born September 11, 2011) and right before my 1st year PC anniversary. Four generations of family plus close friends and far away friends showed up to celebrate and dedicate such a sweet baby girl. 

The ceremony itself was in the afternoon while dinner and dancing lasted way into the night. Only the parents, godparents, and a few friends were invited to the church. I was so excited to be there because 1)I've never been a christening before 2)I love Sonya and her entire family 3)I leap at the chance to photograph such an event. Nope. When the priest caught wind that an american was present he promptly asked if I was protestant. With the reply of 'Yes' (not realizing what was happening) he led me to the door with the phrase, "You can't be in this church. It's my rules, it's God's rules." Wow. I was confused, shocked, and had no idea how to react. I have been in many Ukrainian Catholic churches before during large holiday celebrations or regular Sunday services. Previously, I was in a church in the community I lived in where the priest knew me and the people who were around me. This church was in a strange village with a priest who had never seen me before. All in all, I shook it off. Not every experience in Ukraine is a sweet one. Tough love never ceases in these parts. 

After the ceremony, the grand feast began. Three tables were set up in a tent to feed 50 people aka 100 people worth of food and drink. Outrageous. I have been messing village dining since moving into my apartment town. This meal made up for the time lost. At least six grandmothers and mommas were cooking from dawn until dinner time fixing everything. It all tasted fresh and wonderful and covered in mayonnaise! Celebrating continued through many courses, hours of dancing, putting money under the pillow Vika sat on, and letting Sonya grab items which represented her future prosperity. No one called each other by name but by title - Godfather, Godmother, Mother, Father, Grandmother. I was given the title 'Aunt from Across the Ocean'. I like the ring of 'Aunt Cassie'. 

I was able to meet the granddad of Vova and Kati (my closest friend). Andriy sized me up, asked me a few questions, and invited me to visit his house next time I visit his grandkids. He made sure I had a plate full of food and put his arm around me during our bumpy car ride home to 'hold on tight'. I got a big kiss good-bye too! I adore meeting people like Andriy. He had such stories to tell and wanted to know everything single thing about me. We could have spent the entire evening chatting but there were far too many people drawing our attention elsewhere. Sonya's celebration hosted many new characters for me to meet. One guy was absolutely amazed that the woman sitting near him, speaking Ukrainian, wearing Ukrainian hair and clothing was from America. I guess he didn't notice my accent from across the table? He told me a grand story about his only friends in San Francisco. My name then changed to San Francisco. 'San Francisco, eat! San Francisco, dance with me! San Francisco, where are you from? Oh, not San Francisco. Where is Kentucky?' I am never not surprised here. My crew finally called it at 2 am and slugged home to our beds. 

Enjoy photos from the day! 

After I was sent out of the church, I found a large key hole through which I captured a few moments. 
My photo professors were singing inside my head. 
Even the lobby was ancient and beautiful. 
Sonya is Christened! Nap time! 
Vika stands center with Sonya. My Kati and Sasha, godparents stand to the right. Vova, father, stands further right. Everyone else is friends or Vika's relatives. 
Halya, Kati and Vova's mom, with her dad, Andriy
This photo is so Ukrainian, I can't stand it! 
Vova and Kati holding Sonya and the Christening certificate. 
Their various expressions shows more of their culture than their personalities. 
Four Generations 
Sweet Dana enjoying the last bits of daylight 
A portion of one of the three tables 
I love both these women so much. 
Granny Halya spending a few quiet moments with her baby girl. 
Sonya selected nail polish for beauty, money for wealth, a pen for knowledge. I think that's how it goes! 
Kati the Godmother cuts off some of Sonya's hair but I do not remember the purpose of this. I'll have to ask her and let you know later. 
In these parts, the party never stops. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Seminars and Saturday School

Another school year has begun for myself and my 400 giddy students bouncing around the hallways. Today, I spent far too much time asking students to directions my next classroom. Lucky for me, they didn't seem to mind. Being the brand new american I still have 'celebrity' status and can clear a path through the hallways just by grinning. With such status coming a lot of work. My counterpart, director, and I have already got several special events, seminars, and clubs planned for this semester. I am thrilled and inspired by the energy of these women. 

This past week, my counterpart, myself and one student went to a PEPFAR training in Kyiv. We spent a week learning about HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, what we can do to inform about communities about prevention and treatment alongside other volunteers and Ukrainians. It was great. I learned so much about this subject and how Ukrainians view this problem within their own culture. The CPs and students present were open, compassionate, and motivated to create change in their communities. We were made to meet several people living with HIV and hear their stories in addition to receiving information about the issue. 

The training ended Friday afternoon and my group zipped right home to rest up for our Saturday. On Saturday, four PCVs showed up to help myself and a neighboring PCV, Sara, host a Living Library at our schools. Since we are about 10 km apart it was easy to pull off. Sara's session was first. She had a great turn out of 11th formers at 9am. We each shared photos, stories, videos, etc of our home states or cities. We traveled back to my town to eat a fabulous lunch with tea and sweets at my school. (I am very spoiled by everyone I work with.) I was extremely worried about the outcome of the Living Library at my school since I'm the new teacher. I didn't want my first event to be a bust. So I convinced myself if only 10 students showed up I would declare the day victorious. Well, I had 45 students show up! After a few hours of listening and reading and asking questions, they didn't want to leave. I was giddy with glee. I am so grateful to have supportive friends who show up to help me when ever I ask, to be surrounded by kids who DESIRE to LEARN, and fellow teachers who get just as excited as me about planning events then just as excited as the students when the event happening. 

I read this quote recently written by another PCV, "Those days when you want to be exactly where  you are and are wanted in return." His words sum up my existence this week. 

Enjoy some photos! 


PC Director, my student, my counterpart, and me 

Amy showing everyone exactly how tall the Rocky Mountains are. 

Pete had a fancy powerpoint about Cincy. 

Sara and her students learning all about Seattle. 

Pointing out the largest cave system on earth. It surrounded a tiny town home to my favorite university. 

Florida according to Sara. 

Cat Rescue! 

Caitlin giving her presentation for the 7th time on a Saturday.
What a trooper! 

I did not know this many would come. 

"Be a native in this painted yard"