Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Our Golden Hour of Independence

As I write these lines, I have only 2 more days of summer before returning to school. What am I doing? Sitting at home, finishing paperwork, preparing lesson plans, sleeping late, wearing comfy cotton, and deeply breathing in freedom until I must put on panty hose and introduce myself to 400 new students. It's not all bad. I am starting at a new school with new students and co-workers. I am eager to get settled in a routine filled with lessons, projects, and PC events. Summer was busy with moving and traveling and Autumn will be more packed with seminars, events, meetings, and school activities. 

This past weekend, Ukraine celebrated its 21st birthday! My country is getting all grown up. Several PCVs in my region (a few oblasts put together) meet up at Drew's place for the celebration. With our mattresses and sleeping bags we turned his apartment into an indoor camp site. It was a welcomed refreshment to see so many friends in one place together. Most of these people I haven't seen all summer or were meeting for the first time. I realized, during this past year, that I can't go more than a month without physically spending time with my american friends so Independence weekend helped stabilize me and peel the stress away. Lack of chairs and eating utensils forced us to get creative during dinner time. We scrubbed out sauce jars and coffee cans to create extra glasses and ate massive mounds of pasta out of a communion pot. If anyone doubted that PCVs are family, those doubts were erased after this weekend. 

Drew has started a band at his school with three of his older students. 'Radio Silence' performed at the end of the Independence Day ceremony in the center of town. Every town, typically, has a concert and fireworks on this holiday and Kryzgopil was no exception. We were entertained by singing children, teenagers, and older men. Girls competed to see who had prettier, longer hair and three men competed to see who could lift a 16kg ball over their heads more times. Jay Bags, a PCV, lifted his weight 40 times and was rewarded with a 5kg bag of flour to bake with this winter. The town was roaring as 'one of their Americans' showed off his strength versus hardened farmers and military men. 

Radio Silence, finally, took the stage as the fireworks began. Being from Louisville, I have witnessed Thunder over Louisville (part of the Kentucky Derby celebration) most every year so fireworks amuse me but I always think, 'I've seen better'. Well, I've never seen any better in such a small area. Kryzgopil went all out in piazza. Our ears were less ringing after the fireworks show. The ringing continued as Radio Silence rocked. A few city blocks became a disco filled with dancers of all generations. Several of their songs were in Ukrainian but several more were American hits like Bon Jovi and Band of Horses. Streets echoed and teenagers screamed well past midnight. 

The weekend was perfect. A perfect way to end a fabulous summer. Typically the most beautiful part of a sunset is right at the end - the Golden Hour. Independence weekend was our Golden Hour. The Golder Hour of our summer. It was tough to wave good-bye to all my friends as we got on different buses to go home, stop roaming, stop dancing, settle in, and be teachers again. Teachers do mourn summer's finale. At least, this teacher does. 

Get pumped for concert practice. 

Patrick and Jay Bags. Sitemates. Brothers. 

Meredith starting up a salsa. 

Dinner time! 

Radio Silence and their international following.
Patrick refuses to be involved. 

Patrick's 'going out' hair. 

Artom and his family. 

Happy Birthday Ukraine! 

The guitars of Radio Silence. 

Drew on the Drums.



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Amanda and Oleg

This month I had the honor and pleasure of photographing one of my dearest friends, Amanda Dillon, and her fiancee, Oleg Bondar. They are engaged and will be married in Amanda's home state, Alaska, in November. Then they will stay in Alaska for good! 

Amanda and I have tried to meet up since my arrival in Ukraine (almost 11 months ago) but we live in cities several hours apart and winter was long. Finally getting to see her and remise and laugh and wander around Kyiv like real tourists was amazing. Our last visit together was Mother's Day of 2009 at my parent's house. So, we were well overdue a weekend. Oleg is a wonderful man: funny, charming, kind. I was treated to a great apartment outside of the city in which I saw the following: a dishwasher, dryer, fitted sheets, laz-a-boy recliner, AC and a treadmill. Amanda and Oleg were in almost in tears laughing at my reaction upon arrival in a new room full of things I had never seen before in Ukraine. Between the sweet apartment and massive, all-you-ever-imagined grocery store next door, I felt some major city life culture shock. 

Since Amanda and Oleg speak Russian, I was the language minority and struggled to understand them. I discovered it was easier to speak English to Amanda and have her translate to Oleg than speak Ukrainian to him and hope he understood. Amanda has been in Ukraine for 5 years so her language skills are fabulous.  Listening to them speak to each other, laughing, joking, smiling, was wonderful. They are adorable as a couple. Happiness and romance was oozing out of them. I am overjoyed that my friend has found a man to love her like she deserves. 

Amanda and Oleg bought tradition Ukrainian clothing in Kyiv for these photos and their engagement party in Kharkiv (their city). We tried to capture as much Ukr. tradition as possible within these frames. 


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Rachel 3 (Burty)

The last few days of Rachel's visit, I took her back to Burty. My training site and first Ukrainian home. After all the moving I have done during my 7 months of service, Burty is the most stability I have in Ukraine. The people there - host family, neighbors, friends - freak out, literally, whenever their Americans 'come home' especially when we return with other Americans. Another volunteer, Ryan, was in Burty with his girlfriend during our visit. When Mama Olea found out about this she, literally, ran around our house and property screaming at people. Screaming at me. Screaming on the phone. Screaming at the chickens to get out from under her feet. Screaming to get people together to go meet Ryan and his visitor.

But I regress, Rachel and I arrived in Burty to visit for a few days before returning to Kyiv to catch her flight. Mama and Papa in Burty showed up us a regular dinner and showered Rachel with questions. 'Are you a volunteer too? Are you married? When will you return? How much was your plane ticket? Did you like Odessa? Why didn't Cassie tell us she had a sister? You are not sisters? You look exactly the same!' Baba Tonya showed up for dinner too so I spent more time translating rather than eating. During dinner, I told Papa Volodia that Rachel is musican - she plays the sax - to which he was very excited. I asked if he could play some music for us during our visit. His reaction, "Yeah I can. What are you doing right now?" With that, we left the kitchen house and set up to party in the living room. Rachel took a turn on the accoridon before Papa V began to play. We all danced and sang and worked off our borsch and potatoes. 

Our time in Burty was simple, quiet, and smooth. I applaud Rachel for not hesitating to use the outhouse or take a bucket bath when needed. She got to love our farm cats and dogs. We even got to hitch-hike home from the grocery. (The grocery is only 3 blocks away but I have a new, old man friend who always offers to drive me.) I tried to introduce her to as many people as I could so more of the characters in my stories would make sense. We, successfully, took each mode of transport Ukraine offers: train, metro, bus, tram, car, taxi. 

Just like Zvenihorodka, when Rachel left, she was missed and welcomed to return quickly. 

Baba Tonya, Rachel or Me, Papa Volodia, and Mama Olea. 
Papa Volodia found a new friend in Rachel real quick. 

Papa Volodia told me, "So many pretty girls. I am so lucky!" 

Domestic Disco 

Rachel loving on the new farm cat, Regick the Second. 
Evidence of a wonderful summer, day and night. 

Rachel 2 (Towns & Villages)


Rachel and I returned from Odessa pretty late in the evening but my sweet landlady was awake and waiting. She showed up the new hot water heater and clean up bathroom. She gave me instructions about using everything and then asked if I would tell Rachel how to do everything. With that, she closed the bathroom door and left us to it. The bathroom is nice but tiny so Rachel and I were practically hugging each other to stand upright. By the end of my instructions and examples, Rachel was crying with laughter due to the tight space and water spray. (I didn't realize that shower head was facing us when I tested the water pressure. Oops.) 

The next couple of days, we enjoyed the typical Ukrainian Baba treatment. We ate too much, too often. We answered many questions about our families and men. We helped prepare dinner and do chores. Our first day back I had to go to my counterpart's apartment to pick up some laundry. I told Rachel I would be back in a few minutes and she should be fine. I left my cell phone so if she needed me, she could call the phone of the apartment I was in. When I returned, just 10 minutes later, Rachel was sitting in the kitchen, surrounded by people, happily eating and drinking. Best thing I had seen all week. Rachel said the ladies came in my room as soon as I left talking about something. One of them said, "Chai?" - the ukrainian word for tea - and she nodded. So dinner began! 

My counterpart, Tetyana, and her daughter, Ann, took us to find a sunflower field the next day. I spotted massive sunflower fields during my bus ride to Kyiv and I was determined to take some flower photos. We walked just a few minutes away from my apartment and bam! The road opened up to reveal endless rows of yellow. I went a little crazy. Like running head on into flower stalks crazy. Tetyana told me she had never seen me smile or giggle so much. Being surrounded by light and color and endless texture will do that to a photographer. 

When our home visit ended, everyone invited Rachel to return - soon and often - and congraulated her on learning a few Ukrainian words. She mastered how to say, thank you, tea, please, good, and interesting. 

The view crossing a bridge to the flowers 
Ann was also pumped to see sunflowers! 
The rows kept going and going and going..... 

Tetyana revealing seeds under the yellow. 
Tetyana and I 

Zvenihorodka's town entrance. A man ringing a bell holding his sword. 
The word 'Zvenihorodka' means 'Ringing Hill' since in the past our town housed a bell that was rung from a hillside when danger or emergency occurred. 

Uman: Sofievka Park 

Rachel is avid bird watcher so I had to figure out how she could see some east european birds. Uman is a city less than 2 hours away from me and it has a famous park filled with waterfalls, flowers, and all kinds of birds. We spent a Saturday being real tourists. Bird watching, shopping, taking photos. I have been to Sofievka Park before but that was over winter break and, of course, that experience was completely different than our summer visit. 


Rachel and I got to visit my old village for an afternoon. Sadly, my host family were out of town but we had lunch with my next door neighbors. An retired couple that I spent many Saturday mornings drinking coffee with. We also visited one of my smallest students, Nazar, and his family. When I left Syhnayivka, Nazar's family invited me to visit as much as I could. So when I showed up another American and gifts from America, they were thrilled. Nazar showed off his jumping and counting skills while his mom and grandma gathered up a quick meal. They also gave me as much fresh fruit as I could carry home from their garden. Rachel and little Nazar were instant friends. Usually, Nazar doesn't leave my lap but he hugged Rachel and hardly let go for an hour or so. 

Rachel 1 (Odessa)

This month, I had the honor of hosting one of my dear friends, Rachel Shouse, during her visit to Ukraine. She and I worked together in Bowling Green after we graduated. She's a Biology lady so I never met her while I lived in Photo Land but we became fast friends running around the same copy room for 8 months. When I left Bowling Green to join Peace Corps, Rachel kept in touch with me almost everyday. She decided to make a trip over before starting graduate school in Georgia. Like a 'congratulations' gift to herself. She was in Ukraine for 10 days and we toured 6 places. 

I picked her up in Kyiv, after an 8 hour flight delay, and we got on a train to Odessa the next morning. Arrived in Odessa late in the evening. We were welcomed to the city by my close friends, Drew and Caitlin, and Grace as well as two volunteers who live in Odessa. We ended up staying up all night eating and talking at a street cafe. It was exciting and strange to have Rachel meet my PC friends. Like both parts of my world sitting at the same table. Many PCVs were in Odessa due to summer camps so they scattered after our first day there. Drew stayed with us. He had friends from his town in Odessa so we got to meet even more people who knew all the good spots. 

During our time in Odessa, we did lots of wandering - in the center, in the bazaar, on the street, finding the beach. We wanted to spend an afternoon at the Black Sea. Rachel and I started at the bazaar with fruit shopping. I had no idea how to get across Odessa to a nice, quiet beach. So I just started asking questions. I asked women in shops for a bus. I asked the bus driver for a good stop. I asked a sweet granny at the stop which direction the beach was in. This lady smiled and said, 'What language do you speak? Russian or Ukrainian?' When I said Ukrainian, she began to give me simple directions that I understood perfectly. (Russian is the leading language in Odessa so conversations weren't always that easy.) She gestured out at the air, "The sea is everywhere. Here, there, in front of you." Rachel and I followed her directions and ended up finding a cove scattered with people - no tourists - nestled beneath a forest. The kind of scene that makes a person stop and stare as to soak up all that is. 

Beach day was perfect. We quickly got a bus that drove us through sunflower farms and rolling corn stalks back to my town. 

Odessa Opera House 
We waited out a thunderstorm at a cafe with great coffee. In Ukraine, you are given blankets in the cold or rainy weather. Amazing! 
The beach the Babas told me about. 
Drew in his 'happy place' 
Dasha and I enjoying the sunshine. 

Making use of Drew's fancy new, reflective sunglasses
 Rachel guarded the fort of stuff and tried not to get too much sunburn!

Odessa Sights 

The city is rich in history, culture, and people. Just walking down one street took an hour due to looking up each building and through each park. 

This view was in the stairwell to our hostel. It doesn't look like we were actually in Ukraine.