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

Sunday, January 24

Winter Ice

I notice her from afar. Slowly she creeps up the incline leading to the Eco Market. Under each tentative step is 4 inches of ice.

The first snows in December were beautiful. I felt like I was walking through a Currier and Ives painting. I remember walking down a path in the city park and thinking how sparkling Konotop looks. Clumps of snow hung on pine branches. Other trees glistened in the frosty chill. I felt enchanted.

But December snows have compacted and worse yet thawed and frozen again into ice. The traction that compacted snow provides is disappearing. Everyday islands of ice expand as people-traffic takes away the snow.

I am no scientist, but I think it works like this. The friction of foot steps melts the snow and then wicked cold temperatures freeze it. I fear that the ice islands will soon transform into forbidding continents - slick and treacherous. Already the pathway to the Market is mostly ice.

The woman pauses. She is probably in her 70s or maybe older. She is well dressed with a typical long coat and fur collar and fur hat. She is dressed for winter.

In Ukraine, even when the temperatures dip to minus 20 centigrade (that's about 10 below zero F), people are out and about. There is food to buy and bills to pay. The mail is not used and each bill requires a personal appearance. People walk through the cold and snow and ice to do their daily business.

Today the woman is on her way to Eco Market. The Market is like an A&P that I recall from my boyhood. It's small. There are three aisles and a side meat counter. Half of one aisle is dedicated to Vodka and Cognac. A produce cooler and a dairy corner complete the display.

As the woman and I move closer, our eyes make contact. It's then that I see the panic. Her look links into something primal within me - my own fears. "Will I make it? Will the next step be secure? Or will this be the time I fall and break something?"

Like her, I inch my way along. My YakTraxs, that I bought from America, do not work on 4 inches of ice. I have fallen several times. Nothing serious, thank God. Constantly I search for compacted snow so that my YakTraxs can dig in. A 10 minute walk can take twice as long. It is mentally exhausting deciding where to take the next step.

Lenin in the snow.

I think I know some of what the woman is feeling. I am touched. I offer her my arm and hope that we do not slip together. Slowly we inch our way toward the steps which have been swept clear. She looks up at me as we depart. The panic is not gone.

Winter is hard in Ukraine.

As I finish writing this blog, I get a notice that a package has arrived from America. A friend has sent me a pair of walking sticks. What a blessing. These walking sticks will give me added traction and safety. But now I'm wondering - Is there a Ukrainian groundhog to predict how many more weeks of winter remain?

Tuesday, January 12

It's a Wonderful Life

Finally the holidays are over. It's not that I am complaining. I think I had the best of all possibilities. I got to celebrate both American and Ukrainian versions of the holidays. And I got to travel to Istanbul too. It's a wonderful life and a cheery counterpoint to this cold gray weather.

My holidays start with a visit to my niece and her family for Thanksgiving. They are living in Kiev and I have a great opportunity to be with my family and get to know their two sons - Brendan and Aidan. Both are smart inquisitive boys. They call me "Great" Uncle Jud and who am I to argue with their impeccable judgment.

Thanksgiving is great fun with other international guests. One couple is from Poland and another from the UK. Shannon (Jenny's husband) gives us a little quiz on Thanksgiving history and we all tell a few family tales.

I tell about a time when "Great "Uncle Peter ate a pound of butter from the dinning room table. Mom could not understand where it had gone until she discovered Peter with an empty dish under the table. At least that is the way I remember it.

Holidays pick up with the Ukrainian celebration of St Nicholas Day. At the Hearts of Love Center a big party is held for about 50 children. There are clowns who play a series of games. Miss Konotop, beauty pageant winner and her court of runner-ups, make a surprise appearance. They parade across the room with runway poise. The young girls and older men are delighted.

Then St. Nicholas comes along with another game and a special Bible lesson on the 10 Commandments. Sure its a potpourri of activities but when all get a sack of candy and sit down for cake, everyone is thrilled.

Next I leave on December 22nd for Istanbul. After a 3 1/2 hour delay I arrive near midnight to discover that my checked bag is no where to be found. ""Please help me," I whine to the woman behind the desk. She does not speak real good English, but she reads my exhausted body language well enough. I am close to melt down. I fill out a form (luckily I kept the little bag claim slip) and left with a promise.

The next day, the hostel crew follows up and my bag is found. The night manager teases that he will even place flowers on the bag when it arrives. I awake the next day and my bag is awaiting me...yes, with flowers! Hooray! You can read more about Christmas in Istanbul in my earlier posts.

I returned to Ukraine on December 29th. After a brief stop-over with my niece and family, I catch the Electrechka (electric train) to Konotop. While I was away. a new and more secure door is installed on my apartment. I also see a new cabinet doubling the space for food preparation to about two feet. Wonderful!

Tomorrow is New Years Day. For Ukrainians this holiday is more like American Christmas, but without the religion. Homes are decorated with New Year Trees. I am invited into a family's celebration.

By 10:00 pm we are all gathering at Babushka's house for a meal. Last moment preparations are underway. The 12 year old is excited because this meal features an entire roasted chicken. Yum! The dinner is delicious. As is typical, we nibble and drink and toast for several hours. As midnight arrives, a bottle of champaign is uncorked and hugs are shared.

A big bouquet of balloons is brought out. Everyone selects and pricks a balloon. We cringe as each explodes. Inside is a wish for the New Year. I think this is a splendid tradition and I pass it on. Simple, yet so magical and fun.

Later, Anna gives me a hand made card, The special New Years wish touches my soul.

We wish you you may enjoy each day in comfort.
We wish you love of friends and family...and piece (sic) within our heart.

We wish you beauty of nature ...that you may enjoy the work of God.
We wish you wisdom to choose priorities...for those things that really matter in life.

We wish you generosity so you may share....all the good things that come to you.
We wish you happiness and joy...and blessings for the New Year.

We wish you the best of everything that you so well deserve.
Happy New Year!

Ukrainian Christmas follows a week later. I track down an Orthodox Church, but I think I missed the worship. Prayers are being said by a priest behind a wall, but there is no worship that I recognize. I must learn more.

A short Marschuka ride takes me to Oksanna who did not want me to be alone on Christmas Eve. My Ukrainian friends are so thoughtful. I vow to emulate their hospitality. It is such an important gift when you are a stranger in a different land.

Oksanna has prepared a wonderful meal and we all sit down for an evening of eating and laughing. Maxim, Oksanna's son, with Babushka.

Their Babushka joins us and at 79 she tells me she does not think of herself as older than 40. "But sometimes my body does not agree." She is healing from nasty fall on the ice. She needs a pair of YakTraxs. So I order her a pair and my friend Jim will forward them to me.

As I leave this loving home, it begins to lightly snow. Few cars or people are on the streets. I cannot help but feel nostalgic...home, family, and friends. It's a Wonderful Life... celebrating both American and Ukrainian holidays.
Town Square, Konotop, Ukraine

Sunday, January 3

O Holy Night...Part II

Our Holy Night pilgrimage continues inside St Antoine's.

The pews are only partially filled. I lead the way and we take a seat a little less than half from the front. Then remembering my parents, my mind is flooded with memories. Every Sunday at the Presbyterian Church, they sat on the right hand side and a little less than half way from the front. So here I am in Istanbul replicating it 60 years later.

We do not know the worship schedule and wonder if the mass will be sparsely attended. The choir is up front and appears to be practicing songs. I notice that it's a multi-racial choir. Africans, Asians and Turks are all noticeable. They sing several beautiful melodies, yet unknown to our American ears.

Then they begin to sing O Holy Night. In this far off land this familiar sound floods my mind again. I lean over to Fran and say, "My mother use to play that song on the piano in our living room." Fran smiles and says, "I was just thinking the same thing. It was my mother's favorite too."

I sit listening and imaging all the places where this song is being played and heard tonight and every Christmas Eve. My eyes settle on the pulpit and I imagine Pope John XXIII preaching a Christmas message.

Christianity in Turkey has deep roots.

Emperor Constantine Christianized an empire here. Early creeds were formulated in the Hagia Sofia before the Church split in two - Roman and Eastern Orthodox. Crusaders came and went. Islam prevailed through centuries of the Ottoman Empire. Then in the 20th century, the Republic brought tolerance and Christianity found itself in a crowded Bazaar of faiths. Islam, Judaism, Secularism, Christianity and more contending with one another.

Would Pope John's years in Istanbul result in a faith with a siege mentality or would there be a generous openness to new ideas? Having just spent the afternoon at the Grand Bazaar, I know you can either fight the flow or move along expecting the unexpected.

I imagine Pope John teaching about the unexpected birth of a savior. I think of him trusting God to spread love of one another. I think of a grand bazaar of faiths adding understanding to the human experience. I don't know if Pope John XXIII said such things. Maybe I can find where his words are kept alive on the Internet.

Meanwhile the Church is filling up. Pew seats are no longer available. Rings of people are crowding into the aisles. Some are taking pictures and many are chatting on mobile phones. Humanity from the boulevards of Taksim Square is being drawn in. Spilling into this place, the buzz of energy grows louder. It seems some what surreal.

Then unexpectedly (at least to me) a television crew shows up along with a photo journalist. Aggressively, they push down the center aisle. The photo journalist takes pictures of the pulpit...the choir....worshipers...while the TV crew pans the front and captures the growing crowd...digitally.

I have never seen a Christmas Eve service covered as if it was a news event. But then again, maybe, it should be. Isn't it a better way to think about this holy night than the usual one all wrapped up in store-bought excess? I wonder how will they spin the story?

Alarmed ushers lasso the TV crew and photo journalist escorting them to the back of the room. They resist. They are not happy. I get the image of bouncers at a night club. The atmosphere is more charged than any prim and proper worship service that I have ever attended. I surprise myself. I like it.

The choir begins to sing in earnest now. Beautiful melodies. Are they Filipino words? I am not sure. A group of African men gather in the corner by the pulpit. Drums beat. Rhythmic chants are sung and shouted. The crowded sanctuary is captivated. At least six rows of humanity encircle the pews now. People put away mobile phones and listen. A carol is adapted to African drums.

O come all ye faithful...boom....boom...boom. Joyful and triumphant...boom...boom, O come ye...boom. O come ye...boom
to Bethlehem...boom...boom...boom."

The old and familiar is unexpectedly new and exciting.

Next to Fran is a young woman. Her name is Fatama. After some conversation about the Peace Corps and how it emphasizes cross cultural sharing, we learn that she is Muslim.

She is very engaging and explains that she is a practicing Muslim even though she is dressed in western fashion. I am learning that Islam has many forms and is much broader than the caricatures portrayed in western media.

Fran, always the inquisitive historian, asks the question we all are wondering. "How does a young Muslim woman come to a Christian Church on Christmas Eve?"

The young woman smiles and says,"Istanbul is my home. Islam is my faith. And the faiths and cultures of the world are my interests and passions. I wanted to pay my respects."

In a strange way her words are a Christmas blessing. I think if her thoughts can be shared over and over again, maybe, there is hope for this tired world.

I look up at the pulpit and find myself saying, "Pope John XXIII, Your words, your faith are still alive here." A captivated crowd. Fillapino melodies. African drum beats. TV news casters. Muslim passion and respect. All mixed together.

Expect the unexpected. O Holy Night...It's Christmas in Istanbul.

Friday, January 1

O Holy Night....Part I

O Holy's Christmas Eve in Istanbul.

Of course you would not know it. For most people here, it is just an ordinary Thursday evening. This is a modern Muslim nation. Mosques seem to be around every corner including the famous Blue Mosque

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and Hagia Sofia which was an early Christian Church turned Mosque turned Museum.
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Now mosaics that were once covered up by Muslim intolerance of images are being stripped of plaster to reveal their original glory.

While the minarets announce prayer five times a day filling air waves with a strange wailing, men and women, for the most part, dress in ordinary western clothing. Many of the young are actually quite fashionable and carry ubiquitous mobile phones permanently attached to their ears or so it seems. They obviously are hip and have frequented the shops and boutiques which line the pedestrian boulevard running off of Taksim Square.

We have traveled there on our way to a Catholic Church for Christmas Eve worship. We use the modern Metro and Tram Way system that helps to move the population of over 12.5 million people across Istanbul.

What a surprise to emerge from the Metro and see a Square filled with holiday lights. While Christmas is not a holiday, the city seems to embrace all. I am struck by the openness of ordinary people.

Street vendors, couples strolling, shop keepers are all friendly and helpful. Not only do they offer to show you the "very best carpet in all of Istanbul" or "help you spend your money," but they also are patient and generous in giving directions.

We ask for directions to Saint Antoine Roman Catholic Church. We are told "it's about a kilometer stroll down" We walk down a very upbeat boulevard that's so alive with energy and festooned with blue lights. If I did not know better, I would think I was in Time Square...but only cleaner.

O Holy Night in Istanbul - an energized mixture of Islamic and modern hip cultures spanning both Europe and Asia. The earth crust may have split the continents in prehistoric times forming the Bosporus, but now Istanbul is bridging differences and seems to be conscious of its role and possibility of bringing people together.

We are making our pilgrimage to St. Antoine's. It's a longer walk than we thought. We stop several times to ask directions. People look at us with some puzzlement and then remembering they say "yes, yes" pointing further down the boulevard.

Fran is the first to see the Church. She along with Justin are Peace Corp Volunteers or as they say in the land of acronyms - PCVs. We have come from the far corners of Ukraine to meet in Istanbul.

Fran is an historian and has been an executive with the National Council for the Humanities in their DC and Florida offices. Justin is a philosophy and ethics graduate from the University of Northern Michigan. Fran and I work at Community Development and Justin is Youth Development volunteer in his small town of about 1400. We have become great friends.

St Antoine's is tucked behind a high iron fence and if it wasn't for the people streaming in through the gate, you might miss it amidst the glitter of the boulevard. We stop to take a few pictures. It is an attractive structure. Don't you think?

Near the front steps is a bronze statue. It is a likeness of Pope John XXIII. None of us realized that the reforming Pope who initiated the Second Vatican Council, also served here for 10 years before becoming Pope. I imagine him walking up these stairs. Greeting the people and preaching from that pulpit.

I wonder what he taught Istanbul and what Istanbul taught him. He was a Pope of Peace and ecumenical outreach. I think we need his spirit among us now more than ever. My heart is full and my eyes brim over as I mount the steps and enter the sanctuary.

O Holy Night in Istanbul...