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

Sunday, September 27

Friendships: Then and Now

More than 40 years ago, I was in the Peace Corps, but only for a summer. I was training in the States to go to the Northeast region of Brazil. Instead of Russian, Portuguese was the language to learn. I wrestled with it. By the end of training, I was in the next to flunking-out group. It was a humbling experience and scary prospect.

Back then, there was no Internet or cell phones. I was told that uon arrival in Brazil, I could expect at least 6 months of isolation. Keeping in touch with family and friends meant letters written on tissue thin air mail stationary. Weeks could pass by before hearing from anyone.

Reel to reel tape recorders were as high tech as it got. In 1967 cassettes were just begin to appear on store shelves and few people had one. CDs and audio files were science fiction. I was equipped with a small reel to reel Sony recorder and was thankful that brother Warren and his wife Judy sent me music during training. My parents awkwardly tried to talk into a microphone sending a voice letter from home. I wished I had saved them.

The idea that this would be my only links to friends in a sea of Portuguese turned this 21 year old towards becoming a Vista Volunteer in El Paso Texas. I switched from Portuguese to Spanish. To the amusement of my Chicano colleagues, my mind mixed the two languages together. "Speak Spanish," they would say. Everybody would have a good laugh, but that's another story.

Peace Corp is different now. While volunteers can still feel lonely, we are not isolated. We are able to stay connected to friends and family on a regular basis. Thank you , Skype.

My brothers say that they hear from me more now than when I lived in a neighboring State. Surprisingly, my adventure in Ukraine has reopened friendships and reconnected me with friends from throughout my life. It's wonderful.

As I grow older, I cherish friendships.

Here is a picture of fresh new Peace Corps recruits. We are waiting at the JFK airport for our flight to Ukraine. In the months ahead, many will become good friends.

I have been adopted by some of the younger Peace Corps Volunteers. They have given me the nickname "God Father." I would be proud to have anyone of them as a "God Child." These future leaders have heart, soul and intelligence.

Fran and Barb are my two best friends. Both are amazing and accomplished women. Like me, they yearned for another chapter in the adventure of life and here we are sharing it together. We keep in phone contact and catologue the good, bad and ugly of being an "older" Peace Corps volunteer. Fran finds herself in far eastern Ukraine near the Russian border and Barb is in Crimea.

Every morning the pensioners gather at the picnic table in front of my apartment building. It took me weeks before I had the courage to go and introduce myself. I was intimidated by their number and caught in the silly trap of not wanting to appear foolish.

One day, I said to myself, "Get over it, Jud. Just do it!" So off I went with a package of cookies in hand to introduce myself. Each person was warm and welcoming. And even though I did not know all of what was said, I got the gist of it. I took a few pictures and had them developed so that each could have one. Now I feel connected. "Dobray Dehn," (Good Day!)

This is my apartment building. Count 4 floors up to my apartment! I have a balcony, but not enclosed like my neighbors. It is one of the many so called Khrushchev apartments.

During the terror of Stalin and the devastation of the Great War, many families did not have individual housing. They lived in dormitory clusters. In these overcrowded conditions, families were forced together. They shared the same bathroom (if there was one) and a kitchen. Some of the Communist Party faithful viewed it as an experiment in communalism. But for most of the ordinary population, it was not a popular living situation.

When Khrushchev came to power, he pledged to build an apartment for every family. The result is concrete blocks stacked 5 stories high and held together with more concrete like glue. Later bricks were used. Typically, the apartments consist of two rooms with a small kitchen (very small) and bath between.

Here is a link to learn even more about Khrushchev apartments.

The Fall sees my first new project being realized. All summer long I have been meeting leaders in Konotop. Many expressed an interest in learning English. Slowly I got this idea to combine some leadership material from workshops that I have attended with teaching English. The result is a 10 week seminar called Leadership English. I have 8 students with the potential of others as the word spreads. Twice a week we gather to learn some English and discuss leadership. As you can see, it's a lot of fun too.

Yelana, Valaya and Vika take a break from planning Fall activities at the Children's Center. Here families with disabled children are welcomed and receive support. In a culture where disabilities are to be hidden at home, the Center is an important step towards visibility and normalcy.

Artur is working on a video project to highlight the abilities of handicapped people. He takes me to meet a young woman in a small village outside of Konotop. We travel by car weaving from side to side on the dirt path trying to avoid deep ruts. Clunk - sometimes we hit bottom.

We arrive at a modest Ukrainian cottage at the end of the road. Inside we meet the young woman in a wheel chair. She looks to be in her late 20s. After introductions, she opens a portfolio. Page after page shows dresses that she has designed and made.

I am astounded at the flair, diversity and quality. She could easily be designing for the Hollywood stars. I ask where she does her work. She points to a small bedroom with a small desk and a equally small sewing machine.

Imagine a woman - in a small Ukrainian village at the end of the road, sitting in a wheel chair designing and sewing magnificent dresses on her bedroom sewing machine. What a an amazing story.

Yesterday, I helped Artur write a grant for a social enterprise conference and he helped me buy a train ticket to Crimea. At the Center, I did some art work with the children. Upon arriving at home The pensioners greeted me with a hearty "Good Evening." Later at home Barb called to check-in followed by another call from Fran.

It's good to have friends - the ones who have known me for years and new ones here in Ukraine.

Monday, September 7

Chutes and Ladders

As a kid, I enjoyed the game Chutes and Ladders. I would play it for hours with childhood friends - Eddie Lutz, Bobby Healy or Connie Sue McLaughlin. With a simple throw of the dice, you could climb a ladder to higher levels or just as easily fall down a chute. In the middle of this board game was a giant ladder as well as a giant chute. Elation or dread awaited the throw of the dice.

Last week was a Chutes and Ladder week for me. It begins with a call to Luda, the woman who was my host during training. "I was thinking of visiting Chernigov if it is convenient," I say. Immediately she says, "Da, Da!," and I can hear the warmth and welcome in her voice.

All I have to do is buy a bus ticket.

My bus to Chernigov.

Throw the dice. I take time to write out a bus ticket script in my best Russian. I ask a Ukrainian friend to check out the wording and a few adjustments are made. She offers to go with me. "No, that won't be necessary," I boldly say. "I have to learn how to do this on my own." She smiles sweetly and says tentatively, "Okay."

Throw the dice. I am off to the Autobus Vokzal (bus station). With script in hand, I approach the woman behind the counter. It's enclosed in thick glass. Only a small slot with a revolving turn table is open between us. It's used for exchanging money for tickets. It feels a little intimidating. I bend down to speak through the hole.

"I am sorry. My Russian is only so so. But I would like to buy a ticket to Chernigov on Friday. What is the schedule on Friday? And I want a return ticket on Sunday. What is the schedule on Sunday?"

I know I did a very good job with my script. Now the ticket lady is suppose to tell me the schedule. I am even prepared with Russian words requesting that she writes down the schedule.

But then totally unplanned, the ticket lady goes off script.

Throw the dice. In rapid Russian she blurts out an unscripted response. I have no idea what she is saying. I ask in my best Russian for her to please repeat. The response gets louder. I still have no idea. A line is forming behind me - one, two customers and then three and four. I decide to step aside and collect my thoughts. Down the chute I go.

Maybe it's my quiet persistence, but the ticket lady smiles and jesters that she will make a call. I have no idea who she is calling, but I am grateful for the extra effort. Up a little ladder I go.

After some giggling and making a few notations on paper and selling a few more tickets to Ukrainian travelers, she says in her best English, "No ticket. Buy ticket Friday." She is trying to help, but I am confused. Why can't I get a ticket now? What is the schedule and what about my return? I never have such problems in America. UGH!

I leave the Auto Vakzal discouraged. Wild fantasies of being trapped in Konotop swirled through my mind. I have hit the giant chute and feel like I am starting all over. I buy a big chocolate bar with nuts and go home.

The next day with my Ukrainian friend, I go back to the Auto Vakzal. I smile at the ticket lady. She rememberrs me. of course, and smiles back. I feel disappointed that I could not get a ticket by myself. My ego feels wounded. But then in the midst of my self pity I get a big surprise. My Ukrainian friend tells me that because this bus does not originate in Konotop, tickets can only be bought day of travel.

Why? I am not sure. It's just the way they do it. Ukrainian schedules do not necessarily follow American practices. I think to myself, "How easy it is to forget that I am in a different culture and place. I have gotten use to Konotop and just assume it will be like America in the 100s of ways that I take for granted."

But then I am reminded, Ukrainians just do things differently. Of course!

Roll the dice. I leave the Auto Vakzal with no ticket, but I am feeling better. Eventhough the ticket lady had gone off script, I still was able to find out some information.

I love my Ukrainian family - Luda and her son, Andre.

On Friday, I go to Chernigov. I buy the ticket easily and get a return one with no problems. My Ukrainian friend text messages me to make sure I am okay. I am!

I have a wonderful time in Chernigov. My host family says that my Russian is improving. I beam. We even have a few conversations. They are not exactly college level, but then agian I think it's not baby talk either. It's up that big ladder I go to a new level. Throw the dice! Let's play.