Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

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The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

Walking the Cotswold Way

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My parents visited F and me in the UK a couple weeks ago and took us northwest of London for a glorious five days of walking in the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Way consists of 102 miles of trails, starting at Chipping Campden in the north and finishing at Bath in the south. We spent four and a half days traversing half of the Cotswold Way north-to-south, from Chipping Campden to just above Stroud.

While we could’ve carried our stuff with us, my parents booked through a company that provided us with maps and route descriptions for each day’s walk and transported our luggage to a new B&B or guest house every night. The route descriptions also included lunch and dinner recommendations, so all we needed to take with us each day on the trail were the maps and small day packs. Very civilized.

I’ve written a short recap of each day below, but to save repetition let me just say that the Cotswold Way winds through many fields, pastures, meadows, and wooded trails. There were lots of sheep — some shorn, some wooly — along with the occasional herd of cows or horses. Bucolic England at its best.

Day 1: Chipping Campden to Stanton
  • 8:00am: Breakfast at the Lygon Arms, our hotel in Chipping Campden. Delicious porridge, fruit, and yogurt for me; home-boiled ham and eggs for F; smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for my dad (T); poached eggs and toast for my mom (D).
  • 9:35am: Let the walking commence! Over hill and dale…well, through field and meadow and over stile. It took us just over 3 hours to walk the 5.5-6 miles to the town of Broadway; a leisurely, conversational pace of about 2 miles per hour.
  • 1:00pm: Best lunch of the week at the Market Pantry in Broadway. Goat cheese and caramelized onion tarts and a chicken, bacon, and leek pot pie. Fresh salads all around and a few bites of a lovely lemon curd cake to finish it off and fuel us for the rest of the day.
  • 2:00pm: Walking up across a ridge and down into a vale to the tiny village of Stanton. We racked up a little extra mileage trying to find our B&B but it took us just over 2 hours for the last 4-5 miles.
  • We stayed in The Old Post House — a large, old house with a gorgeous garden owned by a friendly (and very well-off) couple.

Highlights of the day: Lunch at the Market Pantry and our B&B’s flat-faced cats that enjoyed licking F’s hand and sneaking into our rooms.

Day 2: Stanton to Cleeve Hill

The walking distance for this day had been advertised as 15 miles but ended up as “only” 12.2. It was quite a hilly day through lots of lovely meadows, fields, and farm roads, and past a manor house. Lunch was jacket potatoes with various toppings in Winchcombe followed by coffee/tea and lemon polenta cake. We  skipped Sudeley Castle & Gardens in favor of getting back on the Cotswold Way after lunch.

The day’s walking ended with a trek across Cleeve Hill Golf Course: knobby, rugged, windy, and sheep-filled! We unpacked at Cleeve Hill House Hotel near Cheltenham (famous for its horse racing and steeplechasing) for the first of two nights there.

Highlights of the day: F petted a pony and my mom was butted by a sheep… F also impressed us with his flower and plant identification skills (hooray for biologists). I took a lovely hot bath before bed.

Day 3: Cleeve Hill to Seven Springs

Lovely trails on this part of the route: up and along Cleeve Hill Common/Golf Course, quite a few wooded trails, lots of ascending! We finished our walk at Seven Springs were driven back to Cleeve Hill.

8.3 miles on the Cotswold Way (with a tasty Indian lunch) plus a little strolling in Cheltenham brought us to around 5 hours of walking and 9.65 miles in total. F returned to London in the evening, leaving my parents and me to do one and a half more days of walking together.

Highlights of the day: Walking along the ridge of Cleeve Hill Common/Golf Course in the morning for some amazing views.

Day 4: Crickley Hill to Painswick

Our second-biggest walking day: 12 miles in total, mostly through forests on lovely wooded paths. It was nice to be less exposed — expect for the first bit, up on a hill in the wind — and to walk on some soft and peaceful paths. I even ran for 25 minutes/2.6 miles in the morning. We walked across another blustery golf course near Painswick and had some great views throughout the day.

Walking 8 miles before a late lunch at the Royal William Pub certainly worked up our appetites: pie and chips was the only logical choice! We spent our last night in the quirky Cardynham House Hotel in the village of Painswick.

Highlights of the day: Great views from Crickley Hill. Running in the woods and walking on forest paths. I even spotted a young buck at one point, but he bounded away before I could get a picture.

Day 5: Painswick to (Almost) Stroud

After four days of perfect walking weather — partial sun and cool enough not to sweat — the weather gods of course sent us rain on our last morning. D, T, and I had a wet morning: drizzle starting out turned into steady, medium-hard rain. Walking in the rain builds character, right? The trail consisted of some meadows from Painswick and more lovely woodland trails around Haresfield Beacon. I think we walked about 6 miles on this last morning before catching the train back to London.

Highlights of the day: Feeling hardy while walking through meadows in the rain — the grayness certainly brightened up all the colors around us.

In sum, I’d highly recommend walking the Cotswold Way. It is well-signed, towns and villages are well-fortified with food and lodging options, and it is wonderful to have nothing to do but walk every day. F and I particularly enjoyed getting out of London for a few days to disconnect and appreciate the glorious English countryside. Thanks to D&T for taking us on a great trip.

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Living Abroad & Perspectives on the US

This week has brought some interesting perspective on life and living abroad. I’ve been back in the US for my grandmother’s 80th birthday party/family reunion and a brief visit to my parents (and also some quiet time to work on my MA dissertation). It was fantastic to see all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in California for the birthday party — I’m really glad I went. It has also been nice to be in Rochester and not have any official household duties — of course I help out, but visiting the parents is different from living with F like a “real” adult; here, I can be a bit like a kid again, albeit a grown one.

almost the entire family on my mom's side, gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma's 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

almost the entire family on my mom’s side (missing a couple cousins and partners), gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma’s 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

I lived at home for two months last summer, but that felt normal as I had only been in the UK for six months beforehand and was still on the heels of transitioning from Peace Corps/Ukraine life. Peace Corps was so different that returning to the western world was an adjustment in and of itself — it didn’t matter where I was, and there were so many changes that I had to take each one as it came.

But this year, I’ve become settled in my UK life and haven’t been back to the US for almost a year. Being “home” has felt different, in part because I’m here for a vacation-y 10 days rather than a long period of “living” time. Here are some things that have struck me about the US after living in the UK/Europe for a year and a half (of course, the following things seem extreme because I live in London, a city of 8 million, and am comparing it to Rochester, a much smaller city of 300,000. But I think I’d feel some of these differences no matter where in the US I was):

  • Open space. Americans often take for granted how much space this country has. On the flight from London to LA, my British seat-mate and I marveled at the hugeness of the land, particularly in the southwestern US, and at how much of it is uninhabited (and uninhabitable. And beautiful).
so much space!

so much space!

somewhere in the Southwest

somewhere in the Southwest

  • Traffic and driving. Okay, so LA has crazy freeway traffic, but the Rochester streets are so peaceful! My dad and I were driving to Panera the other morning for breakfast (and endless coffee refills, yes!) and I remarked on how quiet the streets were. My dad replied, “Oh, I was just thinking it was pretty busy.” That’s perspective for you! It comes from living in London, where traffic is dense no matter the time of day. In a similar vein, driving has felt really easy here after cycling in London, where I have to be hyper-aware on the bike so as not to be run over by aggressive drivers. Cruising around in a car here feels quite calm in comparison.
  • People and friendliness. Maybe I’m becoming more like a reserved European, but Americans are so friendly and open…sometimes overly so, it seems to me. I’m happy to strike up the odd amiable chat, and do it regularly in London with our fruiterer shopkeepers. But many people here seem a little too in-your-face-potentially-forced friendly. It’s fine, and I do appreciate the openness, but it’s funny to come at it now from another perspective — if anything, it reflects how living abroad has changed me. I will say that it’s refreshing to go into a store here and be able to ask an employee about what I’m looking for, because I know that they will provide good customer service and help me find what I need. In the UK and other parts of Europe it sometimes feels like people are mildly annoyed when you enter their shop…but I sort of like that, too — or at least am used to it by now!
  • Short distances. Again, this is me comparing two cities of vastly different sizes and areas. But still, it is so easy and quick to get around Rochester. In London I have to plan and map out where and when I want to go somewhere, taking into account the time and money and clothing I’ll need. Here, pretty much everything is a 5-20 minute drive away. I could get used to that again…

Oh, the cross-cultural life is always fun and interesting! I wouldn’t have it any other way — it has opened my eyes to how different people live and how different societies function, and has brought me a hefty dose of perspective along the way. I love it.

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Summer “Issues”: Dissertation!

Apologies for the massive delay in MA updates. Last time I checked in, we’d finished courses and were writing essays and an exam. That all went pretty smoothly for me (though  nothing’s been marked yet so who really knows?) — the take-home exam was actually kind of enjoyable, as I’d prepared my texts in advance and just had to write close readings without worrying about bringing in secondary sources (some people did use criticism but it was optional so I chose not to for such short essays).

That was almost three months ago (!), and at that time I still didn’t have any ideas for my dissertation. Actually, writing about Mrs. Dalloway for one of my coursework essays made me really want to work on Woolf and trauma, but that quickly went out the window when I became overwhelmed by how much has already been written on Woolf (and trauma, in texts like Atonement and The Bluest Eye). I also wanted something more “relevant,” at least to me and my current life and experiences. So after some conversations and advice from my family, I turned toward cultural displacement/assimilation and spent a few weeks bumbling around on JSTOR by plugging word combinations into the search bars (“trauma,” “integration,” “culture shock,” “assimilation,” to name a few). Luckily, one mindless JSTOR session turned up an essay on Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel, What Is the What.

research in Senate House Library

research in Senate House Library

BINGO! I’d read What Is the What — and loved it — right before the Peace Corps and had forgotten how it deals with many of the issues of cultural integration, education, and international development that interest me. It was also a good choice because only four scholarly articles have been published on it, which leaves me room to form my own argument about it and not struggle to come up with something that hasn’t already been written on a hundred times.

Fast forward to now: I’ve re-read What Is the What twice; read lots of criticism and some theory on immigration, post-colonial novels, and storytelling traditions (to name a few); met with my supervisor twice (he’s great); and started drafting. It’s a bit overwhelming, as there’s a lot of material to juggle and an argument to work out and it’s all due on 1 September. But overall it’s going well and I am happy with my text and topic choice. I can’t tell you much because it hasn’t been marked (let alone written!), but it’s roughly about storytelling and voice and the immigrant experience, with some Toni Morrison thrown in for good measure.

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Xeraco & Valencia, Spain

A few weeks ago F and I ventured to southeastern Spain for some R&R in the midst of an already-busy summer. We had been invited to S&I’s wedding — hence the location — so decided to make a proper vacation out of it. The vacationness was enhanced by the fact that we stayed in a beautiful flat on Xeraco (say “Sheráko”) Playa that overlooked the beach. Xeraco is a town about 60km south of Valencia; we spent most of our time on the flat’s terrace, reading and enjoying the sea breezes. We dipped in the water when it was hot (watch out for jellyfish — I got stung in the warm Mediterranean) and walked on the beach’s soft sand in the cooler evenings.

The day before the wedding, we took the train an hour into Valencia to explore the old city center. It is beautiful, with lots of Arabic/Gothic/Moorish architecture dating from the 15th century or so. It was really warm — 34C — the day we were there, so we strolled slowly around the city center, through the cute winding streets and into the beautiful cathedral and a couple of galleries. We particularly enjoyed walking through the huge indoor Mercado Central (central market) while gazing at the huge jamón hocks, colorful vegetables, and super fresh seafood.

The market made us hungry, so we found our way back to a cute little square and sat outside in the shade at Bar & Kitchen/Mercat de Tapineria. There we enjoyed a light lunch, with the highlight being a delicious beet and tofu gazpacho: cool, refreshing, and a little bit sweet-sour.

Well-fortified, we made our way across the center to the Valencia Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia), which had free entry. It was nice to spend an hour or so inside during the hottest part of the day, and we discovered a remarkable artist whom neither of us had ever heard of: Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) was from Valencia but traveled a lot around Europe and won many art prizes for his portrait paintings. Upon his death, he bequeathed most of his works to the Fine Arts Museum in Valencia (which may explain why few have heard of him). His portraits, mostly of regular Spanish people, are remarkably realistic and impressionistic — just beautiful.

Sorolla’s “Academic study from life” (1887)

The museum pretty much concluded our Valencia visit. After resting in some gardens, we made our way back through the city center and took the train back to peaceful Xeraco. We spent another day relaxing until the 9pm-4am (!) Spanish wedding, which was beautiful and a lot of fun (congratulations, S&I!).

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“So many things were different, yet the experiences had much in common”: Peace Corps from father to daughter

The following post is inspired by this, from the Peace Corps Passport blog, about a woman whose father, like mine, was a Peace Corps Volunteer before her. Below, with the guidance of some questions asked in the model post, I reflect on how my dad’s stories and experiences as a PCV inspired me to apply and serve. This has been a work in progress for a while, but I thought now was a good time to publish it because in addition to my dad, I now have one more close Peace Corps connection: my good friend Hannah leaves this weekend for her own Peace Corps adventures in Georgia.

my dad and I, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

father & daughter, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

How did your dad’s Peace Corps service inspire you to serve?

I grew up hearing my dad, Terry, tell stories about teaching math and physics at an all-boys high school in rural Mpwapwa, Tanzania, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 1964-1966, in the first five years of Peace Corps’ existence. (Terry writes that Mpwapwa “was a small town, with a small hospital and local population of little more than 1000, which swelled to nearly 5000 when all the 6-7 schools were in session, including the expatriate population of 200 or so, mostly teachers and their families, plus some employees at the Teacher Training College and the Agricultural Station, both a few miles out of town.”)

I might not have joined the Peace Corps if it weren’t for growing up hearing Terry’s stories. He told us about all the cool trips he went on during vacations — I especially liked hearing about his time as an Outward Bound counselor and climbing Kilimanjaro (I can’t remember if those happened together or separately). There was also a story about a Jeep getting stuck in the mud and about his star pupil who would read novels at the back of the classroom and whom Terry always tried to challenge intellectually.

I wanted to have adventures like my dad.

Did your dad encourage you to apply, or was he surprised?

Terry didn’t specifically encourage me to apply. During my senior year of college, I was tossing around gap-year options and he might’ve suggested Peace Corps. Or I came up with it on my own; I can’t remember. I struggled at first with the length of commitment — 27 months — PC service would require. Terry didn’t push me either way. Eventually, I realized that 27 months is hardly anything in the grand scheme of things, so decided to go for it. I don’t think Terry was surprised, though of course he couldn’t have anticipated it when he was a PCV:

Little did I know when I boarded a giant jetliner in the blowing late December snow at Kennedy Airport in 1964, bound for a posting in East Africa with the newly formed Peace Corps’ first group of secondary school teachers, that my daughter would be heading for a posting in Ukraine 46 years later, just shy of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary.

Do you think you went into service with a different perspective because of stories you had heard about your dad’s service? If so, how did those stories shape your expectations and decisions?

Definitely. Because I knew that I’d be serving almost 50 years after my dad, I tried not to let his stories shape my expectations or decisions. I’d be going to a different country at a different time, so I had very few concrete expectations going in. That said, Terry’s stories helped prepare me for big cultural differences and taught me to be open-minded and flexible toward opportunities that might come along. Of course I ended up in semi-rural Ukraine rather than rural Africa, but throughout my service I often reflected on what it must have been like for my dad when he was a PCV.

Did your dad visit you while you were in Ukraine? Did he provide any insight as to how things had changed since he was a volunteer?

My mom and dad visited me during my second spring in Ukraine. They spent valuable time with me at my site, experiencing how I lived and meeting my pupils, colleagues, and friends. Terry has provided a lot of insight as to how things have changed since he was a PCV in Tanzania.

1) The Internet didn’t exist when he was a PCV; no email, no Skype. No cell phones, either — my dad had to go to the larger town/city in order to make the very occasional phone call home. Snail mail was the best option for keeping in touch and sharing experiences with those back home. Terry writes:

We received all our mail, the thin blue folded aerograms from family and friends (that took 10-14 days transit time in both directions), at our school, P.O. Box 3, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.  I believe I had only two telephone conversations with my parents during my two years there, on the only phone available – also at our school in the Headmaster’s office, telephone number: 4, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.

In contrast, many contemporary PCVs — myself included — keep blogs during their service. I Skyped with my family almost every week for the 26 months I was abroad; Skype also allowed me to keep in touch with close friends. I still wrote snail mail, but email certainly played a larger role in regular communication.

2) But despite being fortunate enough to have technology access, I had to learn an entirely new language (with a different alphabet) for my Peace Corps service. Terry didn’t have as much of a language barrier to overcome in Tanzania; Swahili and English are both official languages, and he taught in English. Many fewer people speak English in Ukraine than in Tanzania. Also, my Pre-Service Training consisted of 11.5 weeks living with a Ukrainian host family in a small village. Forty-six years earlier, Terry was trained in the US — here’s what he says about that:

Our 3-month pre-service training had been in the U.S. (common then, as overseas facilities for most of the nascent programs had not yet been established) – ironically, ours was at Columbia Teachers’ College on the upper West Side of Manhattan, a strange setting, it seemed, to prepare us for two years in Tanzania, yet we were taught well.  Except for two things.  First, that my two weeks of practice teaching at Charles Evans Hughes HS on the lower West Side, with daily fights in the hallways drawing occasional blood and mostly indifferent students were a far cry from the disciplined, if rote, eagerness of the African boys at our school, for whom it was a privilege and honor and pass to a future life of their dreams.   Indeed, the greatest class punishment I could administer (as caning was the Headmaster’s prerogative) was to ask a student to leave class for the day – because they feared that some minor topic I would cover in their absence might appear on the comprehensive O-Level Exams (the British system still held) they would take in their senior (Fourth Form = 12th grade) year far in the future.  Second, our linguistic training comprised some 3-5 hrs of Swahili per week (a paltry amount compared to any program now), justified by telling us that we really wouldn’t need Swahili because we would be too busy teaching, and our servants would be able to take care of all our local needs.   Sadly (for me, as I enjoy learning foreign languages), Columbia was right – I taught between 27 and 35 hours per week in class during most of my two years there, and our students never wanted to speak Swahili with us, as they (correctly) claimed “It is much more important for us to learn English, Sir, than for you to learn Swahili!” 

Interesting, no? I’m fortunate to have been trained in-country, teaching “real” Ukrainian pupils and intensively learning the local language. The other striking difference between Terry’s and my service is the fact that Terry and his PCV roommate, Roger, had two servants:

Though we protested about having [servants] initially, we succumbed to social pressure that it would have been snobbery to deny the employment (the Tanzanians also enjoyed working for Americans more than for other “wazungu” = foreigners), but that we had to limit their wages to $1/day so as to not out-price the market.   We also succumbed to dire necessity, due to teaching load and the competing viscissitudes (sp.?) of our life on the school compound – cooking and hot water depended on stoking up the cast iron “kuni” (wood) stove before 6 am (classes began at 8) with the chopped wood (when would we have done this?), and we were expected to wear freshly cleaned and ironed white cotton shirts and shorts for teaching each day (oh, yes, the washing and pressing?).  Our food, whether tinned or fresh from market (shopping too, and the expected bargaining in Swahili?) was cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with tea ready for our short morning and afternoon teaching breaks, and served promptly and graciously by Amoni; his “shamba boy” helper Edward did the wood chopping, market shopping, other errands and such gardening as our tiny plot would yield in the arid Central District (ann. rainfall ca. 12″).

Did you catch the fact that Terry taught 27-35 hours of class per week? As far as I know, no PCV teaches that much nowadays: in Ukraine, we were told to teach 16-20 hours/week and use the rest of the time to develop extracurricular projects like English clubs, interest groups, and grants in our communities.

———

So there you go: a brief “then and now” snapshot of my dad’s PC experience in Tanzania (1964-1966) and my experience in Ukraine (2010-2012). It’s amazing how some things are vastly different, yet others have not changed much.

Are you a PCV/RPCV? Do you know anyone who served in the Peace Corps during its early days? How did his/her experience differ from yours?

3 Days in Portugal: Lisbon & Sintra

Last week, I met my mom and grandma in Lisbon for a great three-generation vacation. We spent about two and a half days in and around Lisbon, which none of us had ever visited. In the few weeks before going to Lisbon, I got only positive reviews of the city from people I’d tell about my upcoming trip. The city lived up to the recommendations and the trip was really fun. Lisbon has a fascinating history — earthquake, monks, eggs, castles — that I won’t go into here; instead, I give you a brief summary of what we saw and did.

Note: if you’re planning to visit Lisbon, invest in a Lisboa Card — it’s totally worth it if only for the fact that it covers all public transport in the city (and also many of the museums). 

Sunday

Starting at Praça do Comércio, we walked away from the river and up hills and steps to Bairro Alto for great views of the city. Another hour and a half of wandering up and down Bairro Alto looking for a restaurant (we never found it) landed us at Ribadouro for a delicious late dinner of 1 kilo of shrimp, frites, and salad.

Monday

We took the train to Sintra, an easy 30 minute ride outside of Lisbon. The main event here was the Pena National Palace, which looks like a Disney castle. King Ferdinand II apparently couldn’t decide which style to build his palace in, so he chose to go Romanticist and mix together a bunch of different styles and colors. It was great fun to explore and photograph from all angles.

Walking downhill from the palace, we strolled through the Queen’s Fern Garden in Pena Park — a peaceful, green sanctuary that was a welcome respite from the sun and the bustling city. We kept walking back to Sintra, semi-accidentally down the path (much) less traveled. It was a bit of an adventure, but we all made it down safely and rewarded ourselves with a tasty fish dinner back in Lisbon at Solar dos Presuntos.

Tuesday

We took a tram to one of Lisbon’s highest points, near the castle. We opted not to go into the castle grounds and instead wended our way down narrow cobblestone streets and steps, through the Alfama neighborhood, eventually stumbling upon the old and beautiful Sé Cathedral. Once we made it back to the center of Lisbon, we enjoyed a lunch of coffee and pastries at Pastelaria Suiça. Try the pastel de nata, traditional Portuguese egg custard tarts that the monks invented because they had easy access to eggs and sugar.

Well-fortified, we visited the Coach Museum in Belém — amazingly ornate carriages and coaches from the 15th-19th centuries — and the Tile Museum, which displays the long and intricate history of traditional Portuguese tile making. We rounded off our three days in Lisbon with a big dinner followed by port tasting (when in Rome/Portugal…).

There was much more we could have done in Lisbon, but three days was a good length of time to get a feel for the city. I loved wandering the cobblestoned streets and mosaic-lain sidewalks, discovering beautiful tiled buildings and other gems of this unique city.

Ukrainian Perspectives on Ukraine

Rather than posting another set of articles about the ongoing situation in Ukraine (get caught up here and here; read some of my fellow Ukraine RPCV’s thoughts here and here), I thought it would be interesting to get some perspective from Ukrainians whom I worked with during my time in the Peace Corps: former pupils, colleagues, English-clubbers, and friends. Many are in Sniatyn and the southwest, far from the main protests, but some are in Kyiv, closer to the action. Here is what they say, in chronological order (I have made some small edits for clarity):

My pupil O.V., who is at university in Poland, wrote on 1 December [right at the beginning of the protests]: “I think that is awful, the situation in Ukraine is not so good. Many people go to the Independent square and try to protect our country. Our president don’t want to go to the EU. In my opinion it’ll be better for Ukraine to sign the agreement with the EU. Polish people support us, they dissagree with Yanukovych. I suppose that the situation will be better.”

Another pupil, I.L., who has finished school, wrote on 4 December: “I think it is good and bad, like 2 in 1. Because we have police Berkut who beates people [a lot]. I heard about it []. I disapointed so much. It is not good for us! One young girl has died. It is so sad 😦
But I think Ukraine will be in EU!”

My friend and pupil, K.K., now an 11th-former, wrote on 4 February: “Actually, the situation in Ukraine is quite tragic. I don’t know if you’ve heard but lots of people faced the violence of the police and are injured, tortured and some of them are even dead because of this. Definitely, it’s all the authority’s fault. People in Sniatyn are worried very much, of course.”

An English-clubber, D.R., from Sniatyn but now working in Kherson (on the NW coast of the Black Sea), wrote on 7 February“Concerning the situation in the country – it is very stressful. The views about federalization of the country became very common in all regions… Three weeks ago it was still a peaceful protest. But then it grew into the violent confrontation (which is currently stalled). In most, people on the east and south think that all protest actions are finance[ed] by the U.S. The media say differently, so people have different views. The truth is that [the] government actions [are] causing this conflict… Maybe it does not sound good, but euromaidan is the confrontation between the educated independent part of society and [the] part, for which there would be a better life in the Soviet Union… The only thing that unites people, is the wish about peaceful quick ending..”

An English-clubber, Y.S., now at university in Kyiv, wrote on 5 March:

I am okay after that extremely dangerous events on Maidan,though I know a couple of guys who were brave and a litle bit mad and they have been wounded(for example,a grenade [burst] near the shoulder).Of course,they have fought on the [front] barricades…
I should say that last 3 months were completely special for me as well as for the Ukrainian people.Firstly I came there on…22 [] December and had been staying till January.At that time it was my everyday life. Then on the second day of Euromaidan nobody would have thought about SUCH consequences…As you know,peaceful demonstations have [evolved] a lot during all this time.Frankly speaking,my friend and I could easily [have been] present at Maidan on the night of 30 December(when the students were beaten by Berkut).Fortunately,we took the taxi at 2 a.m. and went home…they were pursuing the students on that night to beat [them] more and more…
Now Kyiv is [safe].People at Maidan are grieved,but they feel great support from all Kyiv. Grief unites people.It is extremely valuable experience for our nation which didn’t want to stand bandit regime anymore. But we have a problem with Eastern and Southern regions. Well,Putin consolidated the Ukrainians as well as Yanukovich did(all the people are against war),but still there are those who want[] to separate. You know,Russian TV has terrible influence on Crimean people…

A friend (and fellow runner) R.T., who lives and works in Kyiv, wrote on 6 March:

It is important to know people understand what is really going on in Ukraine.

These days in Kiev it is pretty calm. It used to be quite difficult during last 3 months and especially during the days when they killed people.

I was on Maydan during protests bringing food. When they were shooting people I helped with medicines in hospital.

Now Ukraine is bleeding but Russia invaded Ukraine with plans to seize Crimea peninsula[]…my nationality is Russian I was born there and spent my childhood, but I love Ukraine, Ukrainian language and people here. When I talk to my relatives from Russia I can’t believe they tell bad things about Ukrainian revolution and Maydan. For some reason Russian TV channels deliver false information about what is going on in Ukraine. Sad to know that, I am ashamed for my motherland.

The revolution has finally happened. We have won. 94 people were killed during protests and clashes with “police”. Too big price…can you imagine people were killed in the very center on Maydan. Minister of internal affairs (chief guy of police) says there was another power who killed people. Investigation is still in progress but they are going to publish results. We will see.

My friend N.K., who owns a shop but travels regularly to Odessa for business, wrote on 7 March: “…from last week [to] today all of us [talk] about war only.It’s very hard.I am afraid to go to Odessa.[Those] people don’t understand why the western part of Ukraine [want] to Europe.”

My pupil, V.R., now at university in Kyiv, wrote on 9 March: “In our University and campus everything was ok, Some of my groupmate’s went to the maidan a few times during the demonstrations, but they wasn’t there when the main attacks was. Atmosphere was hard in some areas was dangerous to go out. Also shops became empty very fast, because roads to Kyiv were closed. Many of Our students decided to start patroling our Campus to protect those who stayed here. But everything was quiet here. I don’t even worried about my safety because I knew that we will protect each other. Only yesterday I have been on the Maidan and Institutska street. My mother and I tried to find the place where our family friend died. It was terrible to see all this people, all this flowers, I felt myself guilty because I haven’t been there, but from the other hand my parents couldn’t live if something happened with me there. Now we have a new problem it’s the Crimea and I hope that Europe and The US wouldn’t let Russia to get it. As one of my teacher’s said at this moment we can do only one thing studying. It will help us to overcome this threat with over intelligence, so that’s what”

It’s amazing to read these different perspectives, from young people studying at school and university to those in the workforce, in Sniatyn, Kyiv, and elsewhere. I hope, along with them, that things are resolved soon.

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Ukraine: When Violence Visits Your Own Home

Sasha, who was a PCV in Ukraine at the same time I was, shares her powerful thoughts and feelings on the current situation in Ukraine. Please read her entire post. Here’s an excerpt to get you going:

Please pray for Ukraine. Please write your congressmen and women. Please just educate yourself and see what the New York Times, or CNN, or the BBC is saying about what is going on. Read the articles on KyivPost, the English language news source in Ukraine (whose site is sometimes taken down by the government, although it still manages to keep reappearing). Scroll through these pictures of what Kyiv looks like today. Read my own blog posts about the beautiful country that is Ukraine. Please ask me questions. I’m happy to share with you what I love, and what I know, about Ukraine.

WonderLust

P1020356 Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in Kyiv where opposition protesters have been camped out since November 2013.

When you read novels about destruction, revolution, or dystopian realities, if well written they cause you to feel real fear. The terror seems alive because, in your mind’s eye, you can imagine what that destruction and turmoil would look like in your own home, your own country. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, popular literature like The Hunger Games trilogy, and films like V for Vendetta have all created revolutions, post apocalyptic realities, and extreme violence in the imagined worlds I’ve inhabited while immersed in the stories.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve no longer had to imagine this horror. It’s happening, if not immediately around me, then around the places in which I recently lived, and the people I love more than I can express. My country, the place I lovingly…

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Unrest Continues in Ukraine

At the end of November, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of signing an Association Agreement with the EU. Pro-EU protestors took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country. (Read my post about the early days of protest here.) Two months later, protests are still going on and have become increasingly violent, especially in the wake of Yanukovych signing in laws that “severely curtail media rights and regulations on public gatherings,” which Sweden’s foreign minister called “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades.” This article has a clear explanation of the legislation, and this poster has begun circulating on the Internet:

New articles, essays, and editorials are appearing every day as the world keeps a close eye on the rising tensions in Ukraine. Ukrainians are taking to the streets and occupying government buildings in other — mostly western Ukrainian — cities (including Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivs’k, the two cities between which I lived during my time in the Peace Corps). Last week, two people were killed during protests in Kyiv. Here are a few particularly good write-ups on the current situation:

At this stage, however, the United States and Europe need to do more than hand out treats. They must make clear their opposition to violence, as the State Department did on Wednesday when it urged everyone to calm down, faulted the government for not engaging in serious dialogue and for approving anti-democratic laws, and criticized the extreme-right group Pravy Sektor for aggression.

Now that blood has been shed, there is a real risk that the clashes could spread beyond central Kiev, rendering a peaceful solution less viable. But the West must also make abundantly clear to Mr. Yanukovich and his lieutenants that they will pay a price if they try to use the talks simply to gain time, or if they order a bloody crackdown.

If you want to read beyond what’s above, I’ve posted lots of good articles and editorials on my Google+ page. Please keep Ukraine and her people in your thoughts.

Unrest in Ukraine

The protests started when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, announced at the last minute that he wouldn’t sign an association agreement with the EU. There had been build-up to the Vilnius summit for months, and things looked positive for Ukraine’s signing the agreement, which would have granted Ukraine free trade with the EU and done other good political things — until Yanukovych abruptly backpedaled. He claimed that pressure from Russia (i.e., Putin) was too strong and he was afraid that signing the agreement would piss Putin off. Yet as I see it, Ukraine would benefit much more from free trade with the EU, and from the agreement’s implication of moving Ukraine closer toward integration with western Europe.

Apparently many Ukrainians shared my thoughts, because they took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country to protest Yanukovych’s backing down from signing the agreement. At the end of last week, the peaceful protests turned violent when riot police showed up in the middle of the night and started beating protestors. That only made people come out in greater numbers. More than ten days later, the protests are still going on; hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are out in the streets. Protests are still going on in Ukraine and elsewhere — even London.

Media is playing a big role in aiding the protests; tons of stuff is being blasted out via Facebook and online news platforms. The main marker being used for the protest movement is Євромайдан (“Euromaidan”), to represent people gathering in “maidans,” or squares — most largely in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) — to protest in favor of moving closer to Europe.

It’s thrilling to watch the Ukrainian people fight so hard for democracy and freedom that being associated more closely with the EU would represent. Part of me wishes I were there to join in — living and working in western Ukraine for two years during my Peace Corps service definitely turned me into a big supporter of the country and its people. Sniatyn even had their own pro-EU gathering a couple of days ago, which I would’ve loved to attend. I am rooting so hard for the Ukrainians, following the news closely, and hoping that things turn out well.

That’s a very basic summary, but there is a lot of history behind the current movement — most notably the 2004 Orange Revolution, but also going further back to Soviet and pre-Soviet times. If you want to read more about what’s been going on and why, check out some of the articles below; I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting bits, but many of them are worth reading in full.

  • For some backgroundThe New York Times ran a clear, succinct opinion piece near the beginning of the protests, called “Ukraine on the Brink.” I recommend reading that first to understand where all of this comes from in Ukraine’s history. Business Insider‘s “Why 1 Million Ukrainians are Protesting” also gives a relatively non-biased overview, complete with media, of the protests and the history behind them. Forbes published another great overview, “Why Ukraine Matters” (for a lot of reasons!), in neat sections.
  • “Ukraine’s Battle for Europe” focuses on the younger generation of Ukrainians leading the protests and how mass media has aided the movement. The writer of the piece, Oleh Kotsyuba, puts it well:

The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.

What the European Union and other Western nations can do is to start looking into ways to make an “association agreement” with Ukraine less threatening to Russia. It’s worth exploring, for instance, whether Russia itself could be brought more closely into the European fold. Another possibility is to see how freer trade with Europe could be made compatible with Ukraine’s eastern trade ties. Once Ukraine is ready to start looking around, it should not again have to face a brutal either-or choice that Mr. Putin seems determined to impose.

Six months ago, a dozen Ukrainians would have been unlikely to rally for the pro-EU agreement. What changed? Certainly, Friday’s crackdown provided a spark.

For that, Yanukovich may have no one to blame but himself. The president’s own propaganda machine spent months touting the benefits of the EU agreement, raising the hopes of millions of Ukrainians who want to see their country as part of a European, not Russian, frontier. Whether Yanukovich intended to sign the accords or was negotiating with Putin all along is irrelevant now. Dashing the hopes of millions of people is a dangerous game.

[…] When fear of a strongman begins to melt, so does his power. Seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kiev may have emboldened members of the country’s elite to begin to move against the president. Ukraine’s rapacious [oligarchs] may—for the first time—have found common ground with their increasingly impoverished compatriots in getting rid of a tyrant.

  • Here’s an interesting angle: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, traditionally tied quite closely to the government, is actually supporting the pro-EU protestors. Read about it in “Kiev Protestors See Potent Ally Under a Spire.”
  • Masha Gessen, one of my favorite opinion writers for The New York Times who also happens to be Russian, wrote “A Whiter Shade of Envy” about how the Russian intelligentsia are amazed at — and admire — what the Ukrainians are doing and (hopefully) accomplishing. Gessen’s essays are always worth reading.
  • In “Amid Unrest, Ukrainian President Defends Choice on Accords,” you can read about the lame excuses (lies?) that Yanukovych made up about why he didn’t sign the EU association agreement.
  • “Crackdown in Kiev: Battle for Ukraine” in The Economist focuses on the violence that broke out last weekend, initiated by special riot police at the cowardly hours of early morning.
  • For fear of seeming totally biased in favor of Ukraine (which I am, but still), there was an op-ed published this week in the New York Times taking a more pro-Russia — or at least anti-EU — stance in terms of Ukraine’s position. The author or “How the E.U. Pushed Ukraine East” does make some interesting points about how Russia isn’t totally to blame in Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU association agreement. Worth a read, if you’re interested in another perspective. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I do see the value of the claim that “Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test.” 

Things are happening fast and there are tons of news updates every day — way too many for me to follow them all, but I’m trying to stay as up-to-date as I can. Hopefully my overview will give you a better sense of what’s happening and spark your interest to pay more attention to Ukraine, now and in the future.