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

Monday, May 10

Just a Bike Ride

My cell phone rings. "Are you planning to join us for the bike ride," asks Anton. He is a student at the Konotop Institute and parliament president. I got to know him through my organizational development seminars.

About a week ago, he suggested that I might enjoy a bike ride. I think he saw my bike at Hearts of Love Center. Since the weather turned warm, I have been trying to ride several times a week.

Mine is an old Soviet bike which was given to me to use for the duration of my stay in Konotop. It has those thick tires and old fashioned coaster brakes. I had to relearn how to peddle backwards in order to stop. Yikes!

There's nothing sleek about this bike. I think it weighs about 100 pounds or at least it feels that heavy when I want to ride and must first haul it down and then back up 4 flights of stairs.

I agree to join Anton for the bike ride. I am thinking, “Great fun joining a few university students for a ride on a pleasant spring morning. So I pump up my tires - Eat a protein rich breakfast - Haul the bike down the stairs - Put on my helmet - And start peddling.

Casually, I make my way to our meeting spot in the center of town. As I turn the corner, I am totally surprised. The unexpected greets me.

About 200 young bikers are massing in front of the Post Office. A few adults are busy organizing the chaos into rows as if the bikers were soldiers getting ready for a parade. My ride with a few friends is actually a healthy life style event for all of Konotop's kids.
Bikers gather for the Healthy Life Style Event

No problem. I will just blend into the back row. Ha! Who am I kidding?

First, I am the only kid with a helmet. Second, I’m no kid. In fact, I am the oldest person within sight. Third, my bike is straight out of the 1950s Soviet Sears and Roebuck Catalogue if they had such a thing. I am as conspicuous as a Soviet flag would be at a 4th of July celebration.

Anton greets me with a video camera. He tells me that he won’t be riding but capturing the day digitally. A TV crew is here too. “Great,” I think, “now there will be a record!”

Before I know what is happening, I am in the front line of all the bikers. The plan is for the American and two others to lead the pack. Me - in the middle, leading 200 kids on bikes. Can you believe it? Yikes...Leading the way
Adrenalin pumps and deep breathes calm my nerves, barely. We are off on a 3 kilometer ride with eager kids nipping at my back tires. Luckily it is rather flat terrain in Konotop and the only hill is towards the end. I chug up the hill with a few kids passing by. I blame it on my chunky tires.

We swerve into the school yard all smiles. The next few hours will be filled with competitions. The kids line up to participate in everything from chess to arm wrestling to hoops to badminton to tug-of-war and more. On a stage there is Ukrainian singing and dancing. There’s even a Kung Fu demonstration. The kids are particularly attentive as leg blows are traded.
Anton tries on my helmet

What a wonderful day, it’s turned out to be. It’s not what I expected, but I’m thinking, “This is Ukraine and it's my first bike run ever. Wow, I made it.”

Visiting Blessings

I have known them as a couple since 1956. They met in high school and have been married for 48 years. I remember rocking their first child to sleep. Now she is all grown up and has children of her own.

The cause of my reminiscence is a Ukrainian visit by my brother, Warren and my sister-in-law, Judy. When I was younger, I don't think I appreciated their effort to keep in contact with family as much as I do now. Now I relish their visit.
Brother Warren

Judy and Jenny

They have multiple reasons for visiting Ukraine. Top of the list are two grandsons, Brendan and Aidan. My niece is married to an military officer and he along with the whole family are now living in Kiev. In one of those odd coincidences, he learned about his assignment two weeks after mine. It has been a wonderful blessing to have family close and now a visit from Warren and Judy.
Brendan and Grammy

Aidan and "Great" Uncle Jud

I meet them in Kiev having decided that placing them alone on a train might be too much of a Russian language adventure. I remember my panic. They are grateful. My brother calls me his lifeline. I chuckle to myself since all of my life, I have looked up to him.

The train ride to Konotop is uneventful. I brought a bottle of wine along. So we sip it from plastic cups and Judy and Warren get a look at the Ukrainian countryside captured like snap shots through the smudgy train window.

"It's very flat, even more than Iowa" remarks Judy. Warren notices a lack of storage silos and processing plants. Both wonder where the live stock is hiding.

Ukrainian land stretches from horizon to horizon without interruption. What does get cultivated is often done by hand. We see miles of thick dark black earth and in the distance, small figures bend over as generations always have done. Spring means days of back-braking work.

In the future, whenever I think of some overwhelming task and feel like giving up, I will remember the figures preparing the soil row by row by row. Progress is painfully slow, but they do not give up. With much toil and constant bent frames, their bodies offer a kind of kinetic prayer, - "Grant us a harvest again this year. "

Konotop is buzzing with excitement. A special Tea Time is planned at Hearts of Love for 1:00 pm. Friends are making arrangements to leave work so that they can greet my brother and his wife. Later in the night we will be hosted at a home for a traditional Borscht dinner.

Meanwhile, we sightsee Konotop and enjoy the perfect Spring weather. A short trip to the Konotop Aviation museum is disappointing. It's closed on Mondays. We still get to see the helicopters through the fence under watchful eyes of a guard.

On our way back we notice a small church. The gate is open beckoning us forward. A few men and what appears to be a special needs teenager are clearing winter debris from the yard. Several women are inside methodically cleaning the floors on their hands and knees.

We hesitate to enter, but their warm smiles and gestures urge us inside. The Church is a year old made from recycled bricks that may be a 100 years old. The altar is constructed of plywood and has yet to be covered in the ornate Russian Orthodox style.

For now, beautiful cross-stitch hangings cover the walls. Judy, who is an avid sewer, admires the handiwork. It is amazing what you can communicate with warmth and body language. She does not really need a lifeline.

The rest of the day is consumed with eating Ukrainian style.

At Hearts of Love, tea time has been transformed into a luscious lunch. We are treated to lupsky (cabbage rolls), a fresh salad, veggies, crepes and many sweets.

My brother presents a wooden cutting board to Yelena as a token of appreciation and friendship. He hand-crafted it and by the look on her face it will become a treasure.

After 3 hours, the meal ends and we say our farewells. We walk down the gravel and dirt paths towards Konotop's only hotel. It is actually quite nice. We have an hour to try to recover an appetite before our next eating engagement.

Natash has set a luscious table. Surprisingly, an Iowa State Flag is part of the center-piece. Immediately Warren and Judy wonder how she came about having such a flag on a table in Konotop.

It seems that she went to America for a leadership conference at Iowa State in Ames Iowa - where Warren and Judy lived most of their lives. Even more fascinating, Natasha brings out a scrap book with pictures of several friends Judy and Warren new well. Instant rapport.
Set before us are big bowls of borscht. Each one is like a serving dish. It's absolutely delicious. Natasia and Babushka have worked most of the day preparing this special meal. Ukrainians, like many people, show love by with hospitality. Appetite or no appetite, Warren and I make room savoring each spoonful. Judy does well too.

Judy is amazed that all the careful chopping and dicing is accomplish in such a small kitchen. There's a small table and about two feet of counter space.

Space is limited. It's one of the differences that Americans normally notice.

Americans need physical space for privacy while Ukrainians create a kind of mental privacy. Close proximity without communicating is normal. We Americans feel a need to fill spaces with words and if we can't, we grow increasingly uncomfortable until we leave for another room. Ukraine families have few places to escape. It is not unusual for a family of six to live in 2 or 3 rooms.

The next day, It's off to Chernigov and a visit with my host family. Ksusha takes leave from work to be our excursion guide. Her English is excellent though she confides that Americans "do speak quickly." .

Chernigov is an ancient city and many of the world class landmarks remain. We walk towards ancient churches amidst a colonnade of Soviet heroes. Take a look and see for yourself.

Honoring the soldiers, patriots and underground partisans of Chernigov land

St. Parasceve Church
dating from the 13th century

Boryso-Hlibsky Cathedral dating from 11th century

Chernigov Collegium 18th century

My Ukrainian family is delighted to meet Warren and Judy. We have a lovely dinner together as we sip wine and become better acquainted.

Andre and Natasia, whose wedding I attended,join us as do Pavil and Ksusha who may get married this Fall. Pavil shows me some of his design work for office furniture. He works with his father in a small fabricating shop. He is the design brains behind the products. His work is really quite good.

My brothe and Pavil have something in common. They both create with wood. I feel like I am introducing family to family. It's wonderful.

The next day we wander through the extensive Bazaar until we happen upon the used tool section. I knew it would happen.

Warren loves collecting tools - not as show pieces but as useful instruments for his excellent wood working. He is like a kid in a toy shop. He must see every aisle at least once, maybe twice, but who is counting.

Too quickly our visit comes to an end. We head back to Kiev in a Marshrutka. Flat fields accompany us with occasional villages and the odd sight od stork nests afixed atop telephone poles. I see a few baby storks peeking from nests and looking for their mothers.

Jenny and Jud

Judy plays peek-a-boo with a child in the seat ahead. Both communicate in the universal language of giggles. I smile too. I get to thinking about family and realizing how blessed I really am. Thanks for visiting.