Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I write this from my new living room. There is a vase in the middle of the table, holding five roses, reddish sunset and strawberry cream, all from my new counterpart's garden.

I am in a new living room, living with a new family, working with a new counterpart, in a new school, because I have moved to a new village. There's nothing to worry about, but the short end of the story is that a few of us were relocated into more cooperating situations. Maggie and I lived fairly close to each other last week. But on Thursday, we packed our bags – and all the miscellaneous stuff we managed to accumulate at site. And on Friday, we got on trains. She went south; I went north. I'm pretty sure she misses me already. :P

I probably should have been expecting it, but the news still came as a bit of a shock. Just the Saturday before, I'd celebrate Teachers' Day at my school. Saturday classes were canceled. We came to school late, and the first thing we did was participate in a "12th" class. Grades here typically only go to 11, so all the teachers were the 12th grade students and an 11th grader was our teacher. It would have been fun if I could follow it, but it's always hard when so many people get together. However, one of the teachers broke out vodka candies, which I thought would maybe just taste like vodka. No, they were chocolate shells filled with vodka.

It was 10:30 AM.

After class, we were treated to a concert by the students, which was full of the usual songs, skits, and speeches. The concert ended around 12:30, so we had a bit of free time before we were supposed to meet at the restaurant at 2 PM. The restaurant celebrations follow similar patterns, from what I can tell. Lots of toasts, speeches, activities, and food. Again, it's hard for me to follow when there are so many people and so many conversations. I had the unfortunate luck of 'winning' the last activity, but all they did was give me a sash, make me a 'pedagogical millionaire,' and make me hand out lollipops to everyone. I was proud of myself because I stayed until 7, when the party was breaking up, and I even danced! I don't have any pictures of it though, so you'll just have to believe me!

However, I barely did anything the next day because of an upset stomach. I think I just stuffed myself. Every time a toast was made, one of the Russian teachers would tell me, "Eat! Eat!" I guess it's better to have a stomachache than a hangover?

Anyways, my train ride was 15 hours, which meant I arrived bleary-eyed and not-so-fresh around 7 AM. My new CP was there to meet me, fortunately, with her brother, who helped with my bags. Although I'm fairly certain there are lots of vols who have more luggage than I do, this was their first experience with one and they were surprised. My new CP is very nice. She's wanted a volunteer for a while now, so she's enthusiastic about working together.

I spent the weekend settling in with my host family, which is just a babushka. She's nice, and seems to like me all right, but she feeds me a lot. We do a push and pull at every meal where she tries to get me to eat more even after I'm full, and I try to eat just enough to make her happy. It is preferable to being underfed, yes, but I would also like to not gain twenty pounds. She has a garden in the back. So far, I've helped shuck beans and harvest grapes. And rolled out dough for manti. But I've given up on trying to explain that I know what vereniki are, because my grandma makes the best, and the proper name is 'pierogi.'

Even with school, I have a lot of free time. Right now. The weather has been warm and sunny lately (though it's turned cold and rainy since I jotted this), so I have been trying to take a walk every day. I also read a lot. Right now, I have managed to confine myself to just three books. A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. It dragged a bit in parts, and the changing POVs started to annoy rather than intrigue, but I finally finished that. Naked Empire, the eighth book in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. I like these books because they are fun and usually quick reads, but so far the beginning of this has been dragging as well. I'm a quarter of the way in and not much has happened. I hope it picks up. And To the Last Man, a Jeff Shaara novel about WWI. It's long, but I'm really enjoying this one. So far it's focused on a few players – major and minor from both sides – such as a replacement on the western front, a pilot in the American Escadrille, the Red Baron, General Ludendorff. I like it because it's not as dry as a history book often can be, but it still gets the story across. I'm having fun and learning! Imagine that!

There's a PCV who lives a village over (which sounds close, but it's a pain to travel between our villages). On Wednesday, she took me into Kostanai for a little tour and to meet the other nearby volunteers. The city, which is more a town, since it has only 300,000 people, is pretty nice. I'll try to get some pictures up soon, but I'm very behind on that. As for the other volunteers, besides the other 23s I already know, there are at least three 22s, one 21, and a response PCV. There's an American Corner at the library, and the volunteers have English club there every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I'm not sure what my schedule will be like, but I'll probably try to join them every so often. I also got to go to the city over the weekend to meet up with everyone. It was another volunteer's birthday, so we basically hung out at cafes all day. Although our one productive task was to buy train tickets to Almaty for our training in November. We accomplished that. Go, us.

That's about it, I think. Except maybe a belated apology to Andrea, because I told her I'd keep my blog posts short, but now I understand why Evan writes books.

Song of the Blog Post: "Coffee and Cigarettes," Jimmy Eat World –
When I finally finished school
It was the first thing that I did
What every townie kid dreams of
I packed and started west

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Let Me Tell You About My Russian Babushka

Let Me Tell You About My Russian Babushka


The morning of the 26th bloomed crisp and bright, and, like every day, I had no indication of what it held for me. Though only September, I pulled on my long underwear and multiple layers in order to face the morning chill. Even with the nip in the air, the five-minute walk to school was pleasant. Maybe it was the endorphins from the previous night's Insanity workout still addling me, maybe it was actual insanity, but I felt good about the day. Autumn has long been my favorite time of the year, for its beauty, for the promise it holds in each branch, each leaf, and this day was no different. The sun was shining. The leaves were golden. The chill in the air only served to invigorate my senses.


It was Josh's birthday, a good day for a bday in Kaz. Also William Faulkner's birthday, which got me thinking and remembering and wishing, because I am a nerd and fond of celebrating dead authors' birthdays. I used to bake cupcakes to share. Not such a big fan of Faulkner, though, but maybe I could throw birthday bashes in English class/club for Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. This was my oh-so-useful train of thought as I traipsed to school that morning.


By the time I made the return trip that afternoon, though, all happy thoughts of cupcakes and birthdays had been erased from my mind. The school day had been long, chaotic, frustrating, and I wasn't in a great mood because classes didn't go so well. I have different methods for dealing with bad days. Sometimes I take walks to clear my head. Sometimes I spend an hour or two losing myself in a book. Sometimes I watch a movie in English and pretend I live in a place where people can understand me. This day, I tried a few of those, but was still pretty bummed the whole night.


However, as I went to take the trash out that evening, I found one of the babushkas who lives in my building sitting outside on the porch bench. I thought this was strange, since it was pretty chilly. This babushka likes to talk to me, and I like to talk to her. She's fond of saying something along the lines of, "Look at us – a Russian grandma without teeth and an American girl – we can understand each other!" She oftentimes tells me about how she worked at the kindergarten for 23 years, but I can forgive this because she also always calls me a 'voonderkeend.' There's nothing to raise your spirits quite like an old Russian grandma telling you that you're a wunderkind. We sit on the porch and chat about the few things we can talk about – work, rest ('adehat'), going to the magazine for some Coke. Splitting a bag of sunflower seeds would complete the picture, but alas, she has no teeth (she really does have some; she just can't eat hard things and likes to say, 'I have no teeth!'). She's the kind of woman who takes my sheets down from the laundry line, folds them, and brings them in if I forget about them and leave them outside for too long, the kind of woman who always gives me a smile and tells me to rest after work. Needless to say, she's my favorite neighbor.


On this night, I found her sitting out alone, a sad expression on her face. I asked her how she was, because we usually exchange small talk when I go in and out. She replied that she was 'not good.' Though the night was cold and I had a bag of trash in my hand, I took a seat beside her and asked what the matter was. Now, what followed was a lot of quick Russian that I could only do my best to follow. When there's a lot of Russian being thrown around, my strategy is usually to pick up on words I know, then try to put together the main idea. Trying to understand complete sentences is entirely out of the question. That night, the main theme I understood was one close to my heart: loneliness. She lives alone, her family doesn't visit, the kids she used to teach don't say 'hi' to her in the street. How depressing it must be to live a long, worthwhile life only to end up feeling as though you have been forgotten by everyone you care about.


What does one say to such an outpouring? This sort of emotional deluge is exactly the thing I stay away from, simply because I'm not good at it. I never know what to say, which would be perfectly fine if I were a hugger. Huggers don't have to have the right words, because a hug means, "I'm here. I'm listening. It's OK." However, there I was, not a hugger, straining my language skills just to understand. How on earth does a person like me comfort a sad, lonely babushka?


I would like to chalk it up to my irresistible, charming nature, but in truth, I think it was more likely simple luck. There's one saying you learn very early on here – "Всё будет хорошо," which means, "Everything will be OK." It's gold. Say that, and everyone gives you a metaphorical pat on the back. After Babushka told me her problems, I told her I understood (which I do, because there's nothing quite as lonely as living on your own in a strange place), and I told her everything would be all right, and I told her I was her family now. At that point, I think I was grasping at straws, trying to use what language I had as well as a bit of humor, but in a way, it's sort of true. Here we are now, two people disconnected from family, even from friends no matter how hard we try to stay in touch and get together. I think it's quite natural, and helpful, that we have latched onto each other in a way. Even if we only chat for a short while each day, or greet each other in the hallway, sometimes that acknowledgement is enough to lift your spirits, because a smile or a wave or a 'how are you?' means, "Hey, I get you. This is tough, but you're not alone."


I thought that was the end of it, that she was lonely and I had made her chuckle a little. But afterwards, as I stood in the kitchen getting my dinner ready, she came in to find me again. That was when I finally understood what was really getting her down – it was her son's birthday, but her son had died some years ago. I'm still not sure if I missed this information in the first part of the conversation, or if she just didn't tell me. Either way, I offered my condolences as I best I could, my thoughts flickering back to the other birthdays of the day. And then she gave me a bag of candy, presumably for cheering her up a bit, and promptly disappeared for the night, leaving me with a bag of candy in one hand, a bowl of soup in the other, and lots and lots of things to mull over.


Some days you wake up with a plan – go to school, get your work done, relax, repeat – but some days don't follow plans. When we first showed up, we were told 'flexibility' was the number one key to surviving here. Being flexible is essential to functioning in school, because schedules are constantly changing and assignments get thrust upon you at the last minute. But being flexible can also open you up to the moments you can't plan for, the small, unexpected ones that pop up quite spontaneously. Playing Frisbee with sixth graders, dancing to Russian techno music with fellow teachers, conversing with a neighbor. And more often than not, those unanticipated moments mean a lot more than anything you could have planned for the day.


By the way, Mom and Dad, my Russian babushka told me to tell you 'Hi.' :)


What I'm Reading: The same thing as in my last post, mostly because I read The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay in the space of a week. Thank goodness for engrossing literature. But reading the Queen Victoria/Prince Albert biography has sparked my interest in history again. If anyone can recommend some good history books, I'd appreciate it.


Song of the Blog Post: "Your Love Is My Drug," Ke$ha. Yes, sometimes I just have to end the day by dancing everything out of my system. Embarrassing, but true.