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.

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