For 11 weeks Chernihiv had been like my Ukrainian cocoon. I felt safe and secure there. Slowly and steadily I became wrapped up in Ukrainian culture and language under the watchful and supportive care of Peace Corps staff.
I learned how to speak some Russian which surprised me. About forty years ago, I dropped out of the Peace Corps because of my lack of language comprehension. That time it was Portuguese and now it is Russian. I think Russian is harder, but then I am older...huh?
Imagine my delight when I learned that I scored “Intermediate One”. That's the second level. With further study, a personal and very functional goal is within reach – to be able to communicate in the native language. Hooray!! I owe a real debt of gratitude to Larisa who has been an amazing teacher, mentor and friend.
I also started new friendships with other volunteers. They are amazing people with deep commitments and a spirit of adventure mixed with a lot of fun. For example, I now have the entire collection of “South Park” down-loaded on my computer. They tell me I can keep my American irreverence alive and healthy by watching. Thanks, Jacob!!
It has been an exciting start. Ukraine was only a name on the map some 11 weeks ago. I use to figure it was some where beyond Germany and before Moscow. But now I know it as home. I am emerging from the cocoon of Peace Corps Training and like every volunteer, I will be place alone.
On June 18th, it became official. I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer pledging that:
“I will support and defend the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely and without reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps of the United States of America, serving Ukraine to the best of my abilities and demonstrating the respect and consideration due its people, so help me God.”
It was a spiffy affair with everyone dressed in what we use to call “our Sunday best”. A nice reception followed. Briefly I got to meet the ranking Embassy Liaison ( the new Ambassador has not yet been appointed by President Obamah). He congratulated me and then spoke Russian to my new partner – Yelena. She was all smiles. It was not long till we both were off to Konotop.
Konotop is about a 2 ½ hour train ride from Kiev. My placement is the furthest north of the new volunteers, not far from the Russian border. I guess they figured... ”Maine has lots of snow...why not Jud in Konotop!” Actually Peace Corps gives it a lot of thought and tries to make a good match. I think mine should be just fine. But why didn't I bring those snow shoes?
Konotop is a small city of about 80,000, maybe 100,000 depending on who you ask.
And here is that story I promised. I've been told that Konotop means horse dead. It seems that during the reign of Catherine the Great, she was inspecting her realm and got stuck in Konotop...literally. Back then the area was a maze of swamps. Catherine the Great must have taken a wrong turn. Soon her entourage was engulfed in the swamp. A bad situation got worse. The horses drowned. Some monarchs might have taken their anger out on the people, but instead Catherine the Great gave the town its name – Horse Dead. Maybe that is why they called her “Great.” I don't know for sure.
So here I am in my new town. Swamps are drained. Yelena walks me to the Activity Center which will be my primary site placement. It's not far from the center of town. We squeeze our way through the crowded Bazaar and down a gravel road.
I cannot help but smile when I see the brightly painted fence that surrounds the Center and grounds. It's painted in pastel colors....Wow! As I enter the gateway, I notice several beds of flowers growing. It's delightful. What a refreshing contrast to the crowds and dusty gravel I just stumbled through. It feels like an oasis.
The Activity Center is for disabled children. It's called “Hearts of Life” and is supported in part by a religious organization out of California. I do not know much about it and my role and responsibilities are yet to be defined.
But initially, I will be teaching English as a second language to a group of 6 volunteers and staff. I have never done it before, but it sparks my interest and creativity. I'll have a chance to learn more Russian too as I give instructions in my best Russian during classes. What a good deal! Russian and English. English and Russian. I have my first session in a few days. I plan to play alphabet bingo. Wish me luck.
So you see, the training cocoon is gone blown away with the summer winds of Ukraine. I am on my own in a new place. I think its time to stretch my wings. Transitions can be such an adventure...huh?