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

Tuesday, March 29

желмасив - My Living Place

My apartment is in the neighborhood of желмасив.  To pronounce it, say zhelmasiv.  Roughly translated, it means a place for living.  When I tell Ukrainian friends where I’m living, they smile and joke, “You’re in Siberia.  It’s so far away.”  Well maybe, but I call it home even if it’s next to nowhere.

Let’s travel to my Ukrainian home in желмасив.  See the sights that have been part of my life for nearly two years.

We’ll start in the Center of Konotop near the cinema and the town’s main fountain.  Neither works. 

The movie theater has been closed for years.  People say that DVDs did away with the need.  In my opinion, it’s a pity.  Teenagers still gather in front when day-light turns to twilight.  They promenade in an ageless ritual of looking and being seen. 

The fountain only works on special holidays and sometimes not even then.  But the children love the fountain or more correctly, they love the child-high wall that encircles the fountain.  

They place tiny hands on the concrete surface as if by touching they will have power.  And they do.  Little boys clutch toy cars and trucks as they speed around.  Little girls giggle and race around too sometimes beating the boys. 

Occasionally, a few older children dare to mount the wall and slowly walk the concrete strip like a circus performer.  So proud they become.  To walk around the wall is an accomplishment for a 4 ½ year old and making it all the way is a relief for nervous parents who hover nearby.
I love this fountain without water.  I will sit and watch the drama unfold for hours.  Who needs TV when real Ukrainian life is right here?  But today we are going to the edge of the желмасив.

We’ll catch either a van or a mini-bus.  Both cost 1 ½ UAH (12 cents), but vans are smaller.   In a van, you have to crouch down low as you enter so as not to hit your head.  Then you must navigate up two steps while trying to swing the door shut.  

The steps are narrow and if you are not careful and if your feet are big, like mine, you will trap your shoe between the door and the riser of the step.  Believe me, I have learned the hard way.  That’s why I prefer the big yellow mini-buses. 

Of course we could hop on the trolley.  It goes to желмасив too.  Since Stalin’s time, Konotop has had a trolley or tram way system.  It opened on Christmas day in 1949 and runs for about 15 miles (24 kilometers).  Seniors get to ride free.  You are supposed to get an official stamped card, but I never have.  I guess I just look the part. 

Down the main street of Konotop, we go.  It is one of the main arteries that are paved.  Like many towns in Ukraine, this main street is named Перспектива мира.  To pronounce it, say Perspektiva Mira.  Prospect Peace.

Out our left window is the park.  A statue of Lenin waves in front of the City Building and a Shevchenko statue reclines while reading poetry across from the Post Office.  

Benches line the walkways.  A few kiddy rides are further back and mostly in disrepair.  The Soviet State use to provide family fun in the park, but of course, it is no more.  Private enterprise has yet to fill the gap. 

On our right is a row of магазины.  To pronounce it, say Magazeneh.  Stores.    A few Babushkas huddle in front selling pussy willows and sunflower seeds. 

Pussy willows are signs of spring and the approach of Palm Sunday.  Since there are no palm trees in Ukraine and other trees do not leaf early due to the harshness of the climate, only pussy willows reveal their tender catkins. 

Leaves are present too, but not quite visible – a symbol of Easter joy that remains hidden, but soon will be revealed to the faithful.  Everyone wants to have a bundle of pussy willows in their home at this time of year. They have a story to tell.

See the three guys standing on the corner.  Notice that one shares a handful of sunflower seeds with the others.  It’s a popular snack and maybe a national pass-time. 

In a smooth motion from hand to mouth, they crack the seeds between their front teeth extracting the kernel and spitting out the husk while not missing a word of the conversation.  It’s multi-snacking at its best.    

We make the turn at фора (Phora).  It’s one of Konotop’s supermarkets. Between the Bazaar and here, I purchase most of my food.  It’s not huge like an American Shop-n-Save.  It’s more like a convenience store on steroids.

Inside you can find most of what you need.  It helps to be able to read Russian, but then sometimes it gets confusing.  Well, a lot of the time, it gets confusing especially when the labels switch to Ukrainian.  

I guess that’s why it’s a relief to come down the vodka, cognac, beer aisle.  Everything is color coded - white for vodka, brown for cognac, and skinny neck bottles for beer.       

On our mini-bus, we pass by “Little Palestine.”  During our last walk, Gregory pointed it out to me.  “It’s where Konotop’s Jewish families lived before famine, wars and Nazis.”  

He showed me his boyhood home which is now an office.  He lived in a room about 12 x 15 with no kitchen or bath.  Both were down the hallway and shared with other families.  This was known as family dormitory living.  I do not recommend it.  I almost never pass by without saying a blessing for Gregory.  If it matters in heaven, Gregory is remembered. 

Our 15 minute ride is not so far by American standards.  I know people in Boston who commute more than an hour.  But still I am on the edge of city development.  It’s the end of the line for the mini-bus, van and trolley.  All three will turn-a-round here. 

We get off and see an open field across the way.  The soil is dark black and is said to be among the most fertile in the world.  Individual plots have been laid out.  In a few weeks, families will be out there turning the good earth by hand and planting food for the next year. 

It’s a necessity.  I have learned that Ukraine’s minimum monthly pension is 596 UAH ($73) and its average is no more than about 1,060 UAH ($130).  It’s a pittance for a life time of work, but even at these levels, officials say the entire pension system is in dire crisis.

I’ve seen the alternative.  An elderly woman scavengers through the trash containers not far from my home.   She searches for any item that can be sold.  And as difficult as it is to realize, she will also grab anything that can be eaten. 

Stray dogs stand patiently in the shadows of the dumpsters, like sentinels, watching for any scrap that may be tossed their way.  Other people scurry here and there and seem not to notice much.  Очень жаль.  To pronounce, say ochen zhal   It’s a pity.

We walk another 15 minutes to my home.  We pass a gaggle of Soviet apartments. They are five stories high and either of concrete or brick construction.  To be higher would have required elevators according to Soviet code. 

Balconies protrude in vertical rows.  Each hangs in various states of repair.  The overall appearance is disjointed and drab.  In Soviet times, these buildings served a utilitarian purpose – to get families out of dormitories and into a home of their own.  That part worked.

We notice in the distance some new construction.  Locals call it “poor street” with obvious sarcasm and maybe some envy.  Apparently free enterprise has given some people more – a lot more.  And they have constructed their own castles on the edge of желмасив,  on the edge of town.

My place is modest – ever so modest.  I have one main room that’s about 12 x 10 feet.  Here is where I sleep and read and write this blog.  My desk occupies one corner and my armoire sits in  the other.  A fold-down futon takes up most of the other space. 

A short hallway connects this room with my bathroom.  Last September, I got hot water.  I’m in favor of hot water.  But even when I was without it for 15 months, I adapted and I think most people would. 

Next to my bathroom is a kitchen.  I have about a foot of counter space.  Whenever I am with other volunteers, I always make a complaint.  With tongue- in-cheek, I gleefully rant on.  It’s become my signature joke – a gourmet cook with so many ideas and so little space.  Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle…
And whenever I’m invited to another volunteer’s apartment, I stand and envy their two feet of counter space.  It’s all in fun because I know many Ukrainians prepare elaborate meals for people they love with no more than I have.  They prove that you can do a lot more with less. 
 I’m thinking people adapt.  We adapt to more maybe too easily and we adapt to less maybe without realizing it.   We may not like it.  We can complain.  We can have fear or envy.  But in the end we adapt and it’s a good thing.

So Welcome, my friend.  I live on the edge of town in желмасив.  Even though it is not a "poor street," I like it.  It's become my living place.  

Sunday, March 6

Peace Corps Birthday Gift

Fifty years ago this month, newly inaugurated President Kennedy established the Peace Corps.  Over the years, more than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries.  Back then as today, Peace Corps Volunteers shared skills and knowledge, represented America to host country friends and brought cross-cultural understanding back home. 

Happy Birthday, Peace Corps.

What would a birthday be without presents?  In Konotop, we took this occasion to open the world of English literature to an entire community and in so doing created a legacy of knowledge and cross-cultural understanding.   

Where none existed before, more than 300 English literature books are given and made available to everyone.  This English literature library was made possible with gifts from Americans to the Peace Corps Partnership Program and with additional gifts from the personal reading shelves of Peace Corps Volunteers serving here in Ukraine. 

What a great way to honor the Peace Corps. After all, for 50 years the Peace Corps has been about giving in country after country around the world.

My team - Tatyanna, Irena, Anna
“We are making history,” whispers Tatyana with eyes glistening.  She and Irena and Anna are English teachers at the Poly-Technical School and Institute in Konotop.  For more than 6 months, they have planned and worked for this moment.

“Remember you came to us on September 10th with this idea of English literature,” recalls Anna.  “We wanted more text books at the time, but you introduced the idea of literature.  We did not know it, but our Head-Mistress also had a dream of offering English Literature to our students. “   

The Head Mistress had participated in a cross-cultural exchange program and spent a month in Ames, Iowa.  She brought back many new ideas.  Wonderfully, the synergy of the Peace Corps, an idea brought from the heartland of America and gifts of books will now make dreams come true.
PC Director, Douglas Teschner,  with PC Volunteers, Rose Cheyette, John VanGavree, Dan Cahoon, Danny Zawacki, Kim Rosado, Jud Dolphin with Gifts of Books

I am with Douglas Teschner, our Peace Corps Ukraine Director and an entourage of local Peace Corps Volunteers.  We are walking down the hallway towards the library.  Along the way students direct us.  They are dressed –up for the occasion.  Suits, formal dresses and an occasional thumbs-up greet us.  It’s obvious that today is considered a very special one. 
As we enter the Library, the Head Librarian and her staff are all smiles.  When we first met, I remember her showing me a handful of Soviet English publications from the 1960s.  That plus a few other books at the city library were the extent of English literature in Konotop.  None of the classics were available.

“We may get as many as 300 books and each one will need to be catalogued. It’s a lot of extra work,”  I caution.  Earlier in the month, I had been turned down by the City Library so I wanted to check out interest.  But this librarian is more excited than worried.  She assures me, “Not a problem.”   Weeks later, Tatyanna glows when telling me that the library staff is learning English too since each title must be translated and entered into the computer.

It seems to me that giving creates its own rippling effect.  It keeps expanding outward creating waves of possibility where none existed before.   As Douglas remarks, “The books are important, but it’s not just about the books.”

With obvious pleasure, the Head Librarian now displays shelves of English books.  Each has been prepared properly - a translated routing card and a stamp that says US Peace Corps Partnership Program.   The books include many abridged versions of classics so that even beginners can have a positive reading experience.  Other books are full versions for those more advanced. 

Anna and Tatyana 
I remember going to Kiev with Anna and Tatyana to buy the books.  We started before dawn on a cold dreary day.  First I had to go and get cash.  Ukraine is mostly a cash economy.  Few shops take credit cards.  For a time I was a rich man with over 12,000 UAH ($1500).

We invaded English only shops and outdoor stalls.  Previously at their own expense, Tatyanna and Anna had checked-out possibilities in Kiev and knew exactly where to go.  Carefully, we selected titles.  So absorbed we became that we forgot about lunch until 5:00 pm.

Getting the books back to Konotop could have been a problem, but as a sign of the School’s commitment, the Head-Mistress provided a car and driver.  Perfect.  Since then, we felt that problems could be solved. 

It’s an important lesson for everyone to learn and here in Konotop, we replace problems with a good feeling.  I don't know who started it, but whenever we come across a problem, we remind one another of the Bobby McFerrin tune and hum - “Don’t worry…Be happy”

Now anyone in Konotop can check out a book by showing identification.  Young or old, student or not, all are welcome.  It’s a huge change in policy and one that might challenge even American colleges.

Two young Ukrainians in traditional dress hold a red ribbon in front of the bookshelves.  As the Head-Mistress and Douglas cut it, I can’t help thinking that here cultures are meeting and embracing one another.    Soon an English literature course will be part of the curriculum.  Tatyanna boasts, “Some of the students have already checked out books.”  

A piece of the ribbon is handed to me.  Waving it in the air, I am ecstatic
Inside the Reading Hall, a crowd is gathering.  As I walk to the front, I suddenly notice two very special people.  Gregory’s widow and daughter are here. 

You may recall that when my first organizing attempts were rebuffed by the city library, Gregory told me that “something good would happen.”   Sadly he died before he could see his prophesy fulfilled.  I embrace his widow and daughter and my eyes well-up with tears.  They are strange tears, but mostly ones of joy, inspiration and gratitude. 

Two students emcee our program.  We are treated to a wonderful full-length Ukrainian ceremony.  We hear about the dawn of writing and scrolls and papyrus and eventually the printing press and books as we know them.  Two charming poems are recited in English and a few songs are mixed in along with a stand-out performance on the Bandura.  Please learn more about this traditional instrument.

Douglas and I both are invited to share a few words.  The people are impressed with Douglas and more than one remark how wonderful it is that he comes all the way from Kiev.  He talks about the Peace Corps, its history and its enduring goals.  He tells everyone that the Peace Corps is now 50 years old. 

It’s a perfect segue.  Each of my Peace Corps colleagues brings a gift of books from their own collection. Festooned with ribbons and bows, the books pile up as a tribute to the Peace Corps and a symbol of our friendship with Ukrainian people.
I say, “We give you the enjoyment of books.  We give you the knowledge of books.  We give you improvement of English through reading books.  We give you your dreams with books.  We give you understanding of other cultures.”   And then I add, “We give you our friendship and hope for a very good life.”

After all the speeches are completed and people filter out, two young boys stop to speak with me.  Their English is pretty good and they bubble enthusiasm.  Each pledges to read many of the new English books.  I smile and think maybe they will….so many more possibilities exist now. 

Happy Birthday, Peace Corps.