The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Sunday, May 31


On my first day in the Peace Corps, our Country Director warned us about private space. She wanted us to be aware that all that we say and do will be observed. “You will be noticed and your personal space will shrink."
It sounded like one of those things that Directors are suppose to say to new recruits to prepare them for the uncertainties of a new environment. I gave it little attention. But as my training and living in Ukraine has progressed, I see the idea of “private space” as a kind of metaphor for what I am learning.
Take a trip with me on a Marshrutka. Just hop on and you will soon be closer to Ukrainian people than you ever thought possible. Personal space is shrinking. You must understand that a Marshrutka is a mini- bus that only seats about 15 people. It becomes a most efficient mode of transportation when jammed with 25 or more people. Of course, the price is right – about 18 cents for a one way ride. Most often it's standing room only. Believe me, I personally counted 27 people on a recent morning trip, but that's not all. The Marshrutka stops along the way. Three get off and another 5 get on. You feel the pressure? Always there seems to be room for more – ЕШЕ! ЕШЕ! That's Russian for more. Just one more!

Yet if you take a moment to observe, there is a marvelous etiquette practiced on Marshrutkas. Here is how it works.

As people get on, they are often pushed back before they have a chance to pay the driver. With people jammed in the isles and no room to move, Ukrainians have devised a practical solution. Money is simply passed forward one hand to another to another to another until it is deposited in the hand of the driver. Need change? No problem. The system works in reverse too. Hand by hand the change is delivered back to the proper passenger with rarely a word spoken. I marvel at the trust among random strangers. Everyone knows what is expected and they do their part. It's a little thing, but maybe revealing a metaphor for the trust and helpfulness needed among people.

Last week, three women who are hosting Peace Corps volunteers came to a meeting to discuss Ukrainian history. As they share, I get to thinking that I have scanned history much too easily. It is one thing to click through history on the Internet. Read about about millions dying of starvation -CLICK. Scan blurbs about the devastation during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) – CLICK. But it's another more striking experience to hear history face to face. Each of the older women tell their family stories. I will not include vivid details. Even now as I recall them, I am pained.

These women share how a father was killed and babies murdered and how people ate any living thing – cats and dogs – just to stay alive and many did not. They tell us about homes destroyed, neighborhoods that no longer existed, of children huddled through the winter in rubble filled foundations of bombed out buildings. So much of Chernihiv was destroyed.

To hear these words (and many more) choke in the throat and to see tears flow even after all these years, I know I am entering an intimate personal space. I am privileged to listen. In that room as the women speak, Ukrainians and Americans are joined together in common history, grief and aspirations.

Later that day, I take a Marshrutka to the center of town. It is crowded as usual, but it feels different. I am sorting through feelings from the morning's history conversation. As coins are passed forward, I notice the stoic exterior of many faces. Ukrainians do not show much emotion in public. It is rare to hear a conversation on a Marshrutka and rarer still to catch a smile. Why? It's so unlike Americans, but then their history is so unlike what we can imagine.

I wonder more about personal space as the Marshrutka rumbles on. What's behind Marshrutka stoicism? What more will Ukrainian people teach me? Maybe for me, personal space will shrink. And maybe it's okay. American and Ukrainian jamed together and learning more and more from one another. I think the ride has just begun.

Thursday, May 14

The BEET Goes On...

Gardens are not hobbies in Ukraine though many people enjoy time spent in the garden. People turn backyards, side yards and every space into gardens. City folks work fields on the outskirts of town that have been sub-divided into family plots. Take a Marshtuka out of town and see families dotting the landscape for as far as the eye sees. All are digging . and planting without the aid of machinery. Why all this activity? Gardens produce food.

Ukrainian history has known hunger even starvation. During the 1930s, Stalin sought to collectivize farms. He systamatically disrupted farming practices and the distribution system. The result was what Ukrainians now call the Holodomor. That's Russian for "death by starvation."

The number is controversial but about 7 million died and maybe as many as 10 million. So strange that I never heard of the Holodomor until I came here to Ukraine. Please take a moment to learn more ....

When I talk with my new Ukrainian friends, they carry stories in their family histories about the hard times. Many lost family members to starvation and many more were killed in World War II - especially here in Chernihiv where much of the town was destroyed.

I visited Valeri's home again. He invited me to see his garden. It was already planted with carrots, potatoes, peas, garden greens, cabbage. Tomato seedlings grew in protected frames. About ten chickens were in a coop and picking away at scraps. I am told that they produce a few eggs each day. Nearby quite a sizable strawberry patch was beginning to blossom. I am told that nothing compares to fresh Ukrainian strawberries. Maybe Judy, my sister-in-law, will visit and make one of her world class Strawberry Pies...if not this year, next!!

So many people from America ask me about Ukrainian food. Above all it is fresh. Frozen food aisles hardly exist. Processed food is rare.
Look at the salad. Doesn't it look fantastic? It's based upon tomatoes and cabbage and cucumbers. Add a bunch of fresh parsley and dill and you have a wonderful tasting salad. It is never loaded down with high calorie processed dressings. Maybe a little olive or sunflower oil. That's all. I have salad just about everyday....YUM!!

I have gained a cooking reputation even here in Ukraine. So far I have shared with my host family Russian Vegetarian Pie (shown above), Lemon Chicken and Italian pasta with fresh tomato sauce. Last weekend Andre, Natasha and Babushka came for dinner. I baked another Russian Vegetarian Pie. Even Babushka was impressed!! Afterwards we played Russian Uno. What is Russian Uno, you ask? Every time you lay down a card, you must say the number and color in Russian. I learn and Luda wins....AGAIN!!!

Now I have to admit that I was never a fan of the Beet. My mother tried to introduce all of her children to Beets and I was no exception. But for me, Beets just tasted like a mouthful of dirt.

So saying I was not a fan is an understatement. In fact I hated Beets. When friends heard that I was going to Ukraine, they often said..."Ahh, don't they eat a lot of Beets?" I would cringe and change the subject.

Of course my friends were right. There is no way to avoid the BEET in Ukraine. Luda made Borscht during my first week here. I have to admit that I sat down with some hesitation. "Here we go with my first cultural clash," I thought.
But to my surprise, I found Borscht to be pretty good. In fact I now request it and we usually have it for supper at least once a week. There is the traditional red Borscht and Green Borscht. Both are shown. I cannot say that I am in love with the BEET, but at least we are now friends.

Last week I entered a new phase in my affair with Beets. Luda made a beet, bean and potato vinaigrette salad. She served it with thick wedges of dark bread. I was skeptical, but again it tasted good, even YUM! Mom would be proud of me after all of these years. If you want a recipe, send me an email and I will be glad to share.

Saturday, May 2

Our American

May 1st 2009 is a day that I will remember. It is the international day to celebrate workers and still a major holiday in Ukraine. But I will remember May 1st for another reason. It is the day that I was no longer just an American. I was given the title of “Our American.”

On May 1st, I am up early for language class. Every day we study from about 8:30 am to 12:30 pm. Then there is some homework and always the challenge of adding vocabulary. I have not studied so consistently for years. Mostly, it feels good to stretch this old brain.

Today, Andre and Natasha celebrate their wedding with a special dinner and family gathering. Andre is my host's oldest son. They were married yesterday at the state office. Afterwards, they visited a park and took many photos. Interestingly, they also visit the Memorial of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame in Chernihiv. I am told that because so many died in the past and because every family has deceased relatives whose bodies have never been found, a visit on a wedding day connects and honors family – known and unknown.

I hurry back from language class. Luda and I will take a taxi to the wedding party to be held at the bride's family home. Along the way, we pick up Andre and Babushka. The weather is still overcast, but Andre explains that the party has been moved inside.

As we arrive, Vitaliy, the bride's grandfather, snaps photos. He is 74 and spent many years in the Soviet military. I use my best Russian to introduce myself and to say “it is nice to meet you.” I ask Vitaliy if I may take his picture too. He nods...Da. It's a beginning.

We are ushered into a room where tables have been set in a “U” shape for dinner. It looks like an American Thanksgiving without the turkey. I am struck by the variety and presentation of so many dishes. All has been prepared by Natasha's mother. I ask Andre and Natasha, “How long has Mama been cooking?” They say, “Only two days.” (WOW!!).

The meal is wonderful. Ukrainians nibble on the dishes rather than load down huge servings. In fact the table is set with plates about the size of a coffee saucer. Just when I think the eating is over more hot dishes are brought in from the kitchen. It's a relaxing time as the two families eat a little and become acquainted. I am mindful that I stand out – not in a bad way, just unusual.

I use a trick to engage Vataliy (grandfather). With vocabulary cards in hand, I ask for help. It's a great ice breaker. He tells me the Russian words and corrects me when I stumble. We are able to connect and smile and laugh a lot.

Then Valarie, Natasha's papa, invites everyone outside for bar-b-que. Skewers of pork have been roasting on cherry wood coals. The smell and taste is fantastic. I find myself at a table with all the men and young boys of the gathering. Voldka is shared. All want to try on my big black felt hat. It is quite an unusual sight. I take lots of pictures. Some of the younger boys are able to translate a little and I just jump in with my elementary Russian. I am having a great time.

In the midst of all the fun, Vataliy grabs me in a big bear hug cheek to cheek and says something about Peace and the need for more Peace in the world. I agree wholeheartedly and he tells me we will be friends and then adds a word. A young boy tells me, “He says forever.” Before I can react, he turns to the others and says, “He is OUR American.”

Later, Valarie (the papa) gives a little speech. “I was worried about having an American in my home. I did not know how it would be. But now I see the good feeling. You are always desirable guest in my house,” he says. My eyes swell a little and with hand on heart, I say “Thank you....Thank you very much. My honor to be here.”

Gardens Everywhere...HOORAY!

As a child, I remember singing...”April showers will bring May flowers.” Here in Ukraine the flowering season has arrived surrounding even the most stark Soviet style building with a breath of freshness.

I arrived in Ukraine just one month ago on April 1st. Winter was winding down and temperatures soared into the 70s for a few days. It was enough to give a hint of spring green. While temperatures would dip near freezing in the weeks ahead, the seasons were changing. My friend Bob wrote me in mid-April saying that the ice was “mostly off the lakes” in Maine. I think Ukraine is ahead of Maine.

My first weekend in Chernihiv saw the annual Spring clean-up. Organizations from across this city of 300,000 mobilized some 20,000 people to rake up the winter debris. Chernihiv can really turn out people of all ages. Pride, I think. Paint was provided for benches and fences to be given a quick coat of color. Purple was the flavor this year.

My first weekend in Chernihiv saw the annual Spring clean-up. Organizations from across this city of 300,000 mobilized some 20,000 people to rake up the winter debris. Chernihiv can really turn out people of all ages. Pride, I think. Paint was provided for benches and fences to be given a quick coat of color. Purple was the flavor this year.

Interestingly, trees are given a coat of white wash. I have not discovered whether this is a cosmetic preference or has some utilitarian purpose. Either way it seems to be a wide spread practice.

The city housing is mostly comprised of with box-like apartment complexes that create an open space in the middle away from the highways and streets. Trees frame the space and benches and maybe a child's swing or two complete the park like area. Often in the late afternoon, I see babushkas (grandmothers or anyone who looks over 60), sitting and chatting with one another. I am told that they often spend hours recalling the old day. “Do you remember this?” “Da (yes), do you remember when...”

As the weeks progressed, I noticed small gardens popping up every where. On the side of an apartment, a woman turns the soil. She carefully works around the early spring tulips and daffodils. On the buses, I see men caring small shrubs and trees. I spied a few lilac and maybe cherry trees. Near my apartment, old tires are painted purple being turned into planters for lilly of the valley and hostas. I am charmed.

Ukrainian people love gardening. I love gardening too. I am feeling my first pangs of home-sickness - not because I am unhappy, but because I miss my garden. Sounds silly, but I am sure many understand especially my padrugas (friends), Ilene and Patti and Domenica. We would always get together to swap our various ideas for this year's “better than ever” garden. I will miss those times.

Now my house is sold and I am in Ukraine.

Today my cluster went to a Dasha. A Dasha is a country kitchen and garden. Many Ukrainians
go out to their Dasha to plant vegetable and maybe a few flowers. They have weekly outings to tend the “sod” (garden) and then harvest the produce

Ukrainians tend to be seasonal in their vegetable eating. When I go into a grocery store, I am reminded of Patman's in my boyhood. Warren and Pete, do you recall? Can goods lined the shelves behind the counter and a small area in the corner held the available produce for the season. Right now in Ukraine sorrel is available and I am enjoying “green” borscht.
The Dasha that we visited belonged to a famous Ukrainian writer of the late 19th century. Michael Katsoobinski wrote about the sorrow and pain of this life urging his people to not be passive in their living but to grasp each day for freedom. While he was writing, his wife tended a wonderful garden. Imagine the inspiration. Now it is a historical site managed by his great great grandson.

I may not be able to have a garden this year, but you can be sure that by the time next year rolls around and “April showers bring May flower”, I will have a small Ukrainian sod!! Somewhere! Somehow!