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.

———

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.

 

International Women’s Day 2015

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” -Gloria Steinem

Happy International Women’s Day (IWD)! Today is the day to celebrate the achievements of women around the world but also to recognize barriers that many women continue to face and emphasize the need to keep pushing for greater gender equality.

I wasn’t really aware of IWD until my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Ukraine, where IWD is a national holiday. (I’ve written a bit about how IWD is celebrated in Ukraine here and here.) The holiday isn’t really celebrated in the US — I was talking about this strangeness recently with Hannah, who is currently a PCV in Georgia. Perhaps because it started in Europe, it has never really been adopted by the US (correct me if I’m wrong — I haven’t lived in the US for a while!). It’s only an official holiday in a handful of countries, but today the United Nations recognizes and issues remarks about it.

Anyway, Women’s Day is one of my favorite holidays because it does have a two-pronged effect of celebrating women’s achievements and also drawing attention to the still-rampant inequality across the world and what work still needs to be done to ensure that women have the same rights and opportunities as men.

Along those lines, there are two great initiatives worth learning about and supporting: Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign, “a solidarity movement for gender equality,” echoing Steinem’s quote above that gender equality is a human rights issue, “not only a women’s issue.”*

The second initiative is Let Girls Learn, a US government initiative “to ensure adolescent girls get the education they deserve.”** The even cooler part of this is that Michelle Obama just announced that The Peace Corps is partnering with Let Girls Learn to continue expanding the areas and ways that girls are encouraged and educated around the world. There will be more targeted trainings for PCVs,  grants for gender-related projects, and more PCVs trained to focus specifically on “advancing girls’ education and empowerment.”*** So good.

Women’s Day also holds a special place in my heart because the work I currently do is exclusively with women. I work at a charity in one of the most deprived boroughs in London; we provide settled migrant women with the opportunity to learn English (my role), learn new skills, gain confidence, and train for future study and work. My students inspire me every day and I am proud to be making even a small difference in the lives of other women.

How do you feel about IWD? What are you doing to make a difference in the lives of women and girls?

*http://www.heforshe.org
*http://www.usaid.gov/letgirlslearn
***https://letgirlslearn.peacecorps.gov

———

Year in Review: 2014

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I can hardly believe it’s already 2015, can you? 2014 was quite a year, I hardly know how to sum it up. For brevity’s sake, let’s go with some good ol’ bullet points.

2014 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 92 or so
  • books read: too many to count — some for fun and lots for my MA course
  • miles run: 549 (quite a lot less than last year, due to hip/knee issues)
  • miles cycled: 2,028.65 (mostly commuting in London, but a decent amount of road cycling in the first half of the year)
  • courses completed: 2 (1 MA in English & 1 DELTA course)
  • countries been in: England, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Germany, USA
  • weddings attended: 2

Looking back on my intentions for 2014, I more or less achieved most of them, although things like improving my German and staying in better touch with friends and family could always be worked on. My main intention for 2015 is to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and my other hobbies like cooking. That comes with some sub-intentions, like building up my running mileage and speed without getting injured.

In some blog-related reflecting, here are two listicles of my top posts — via views and via my opinion — from 2014:

The 10 most popular posts in 2014 (your favorites?):

My 10 favorite posts/moments in 2014 (in no particular order):

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2015

Sunshine Award

Sunshine Award

By now it’s late spring and this post has been waiting in the wings for too long. A while back, I was nominated for the Sunshine Award by tea and sesame — thank you, Sam! I don’t usually post award nominations, but this one had some fun questions attached which I thought might interest some of you.

When receiving this award, here are the rules on what happens next:

1. Include the Sunshine Award icon in your post and/or on your blog
2. Link to the blogger who nominated you
3. Answer 10 questions about yourself
4. Nominate 10 other bloggers to receive the award
5. Link to your nominees and let them know you nominated them
6. Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer

  1. What do you look forward to most when you first wake up? Seeing the wonderful person in bed next to me, and my first sip of coffee.
  2. Are you a ‘night’ or a ‘day’ person? Definitely a ‘day’ person — my brain turns off after 11pm.
  3. What is your dream job, and why? Teaching English literature or English as a Foreign Language to undergraduates or adults.
  4. What would you like to see on my blog in future? More great recipes.
  5. What was the last dream remember having? I had a weird dream last week about my teeth crumbling and falling out — it was quite distressing.
  6. Flowers or chocolates? Flowers, because they’re more personal. Chocolate is too dangerous…
  7. What other hobbies do you have aside from blogging? A non-exhaustive list, in no particular order: reading, running, cycling, yoga, cooking, singing and other musical things…
  8. When was the last time you did a handwritten letter, who was it to? I wrote a letter to a friend last week.
  9. What cheers you up on a dreary day? Listening to some nice tunes and/or eating comfort food like mac & cheese or chicken & dumplings. And cuddles, of course.
  10. “A picture paints a thousand words”- post a picture that you like and explain why. I took this photo of the dirt road along the Prut River, where I ran multiple times a week for two years while living in Sniatyn, Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This picture sums up the beauty and positivity of my experience there.

IMG_2579

Now here are 10 blogs that I enjoy reading and get inspiration from (in no particular order):

My good friend Hannah is blogging about her Peace Corps/Georgia adventures at Letters to Root Beer

Sasha at WonderLust always writes insightful posts about life as an expat

Sarah at Read.Teach.Travel documents many adventures from a year in London

Sara at happy lists change lives writes intelligent posts on things she cares about

Kristen at borscht and babushkas writes smart and hilarious posts about her Peace Corps/Ukraine experiences and beyond

Frugal Feeding has consistently good — and frugal! — recipes

Rachel Phipps has a sunny take on life

London Cyclist offers great tips and tricks for cycling in the city and in general

Abby at Straight Up Yoga continually inspires me

Chocolate Covered Katie has healthily indulgent recipes and a positive take on life

And 10 9 questions for my nominees to answer:

  1. What inspires you to blog?
  2. When you were a kid, what did you want to be “when you grew up”?
  3. Regular potatoes or sweet potatoes?
  4. What would you like to see on my blog in the future?
  5. What do you usually eat for breakfast?
  6. Sweet or savory?
  7. What is your favorite time of day, and why?
  8. Do you prefer hot or cold weather?
  9. Where would you like to be / what would you like to be doing in 10 years?

“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?

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…

View original post 766 more words

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.

News Roundup: Mid-November 2013

It’s November. That means many cold, gray, rainy days. But lots of interesting reading has helped keep me warm when it’s miserable outside. This month’s News Roundup includes some juicy stuff related to Ukraine (my country of Peace Corps service), classical music and success, the importance of libraries, sex and healthcare, and cycling. Read on, follow the links for the full articles, and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Ukraine & Eastern Europe

  • A few weeks ago, the New York Times Travel section featured a lovely piece, “Lviv’s, and a Family’s, Stories in Architecture.”  L’viv, the unofficial capital of western Ukraine, has a fascinating history, having been variously controlled and inhabited by different ethnic and religious groups. The article does a wonderful job of reading L’viv’s history through its architecture, as evidenced by this excerpt (it really is a beautiful city and worth visiting):

A short walk through the city’s historic center would take me past buildings that reflect contributions of its Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian and German communities, all of which had roots going back to the late Middle Ages. I saw churches from the many different denominations that shaped this city’s skyline: a squat Armenian cathedral from the 14th century with a jumble of intersecting roofs; a huge 17th-century Baroque church built by the Jesuits and modeled on the Church of the Gesù in Rome; Ukrainian Orthodox three-dome churches.

  • Here’s another interesting article on L’viv, from Germany’s Die Zeit, “Flucht vor dem Kopfsteinpflaster” (“Escape from the cobblestones”). Apparently L’viv has proclaimed itself the cycling capital of Ukraine. The author discovers that’s not saying much, but there is one man who has a dream to create over 250km of bike lanes in Ukraine by 2020. Having been to L’viv a few times, I can say they have a long way to go, but it’s not impossible to try and make cycling in the city more popular. Good for them.
  • Speaking of Ukraine, the first Sunday in October was Teachers’ Day, for which Ukrainian schools go all-out. I’ve written before about my experiences of Teachers’ Day in Ukraine. The Oxford University Press blog also has a nice article about it, “Celebrating World Teachers’ Day,” that talks about the importance of teachers and teaching literacy.
  • “Comparing The United States to Ukraine” is a fascinating look at the two countries; the former of which I am a native, the latter where I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Ukrainians used to ask me, “what you do like better, Ukraine or the US?” — this comparison really shows the plusses and minuses for both countries; in many ways they’re hard to compare. (Thanks to fellow Sniatyns’kyy Rayon PCV Sarah for bringing this to my attention.)
  • “The Russia Left Behind” is a moving look at the slow decline of small Russian villages along the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It’s also a great piece of multimedia journalism, with videos, slide shows, and maps as you travel the route along with the authors.
  • This BuzzFeed list, “17 Bizarre Foods Every Russian Grew Up With,” is great because I know many of the foods from Ukraine. The only food I’m not familiar with is #13 (kishka). My favorites are #15 (vinaigrette) and #2 (“fur coat” salad, which actually grows on you despite how weird it sounds). Salo (#7) and kholodets (#6): not so much!

Music

  • “21 of the best insults in classical music” is just a good piece of fun — I found most of these completely hilarious.
  • In more serious music news, “Is Music the Key to Success?” is a great piece from the NY Times. The author cites a bunch of famous and successful people who studied music at some point in their lives. Having studied a bit of music myself, I can agree about “[T]he qualities…high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideasMusic may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.”

Humanities

  • And the humanities debate continues…This month, the NY Times featured a set of letters from education professionals around the country on the “Role of Humanities, in School and Life.” I was pleased to see that the President of my alma mater (Oberlin College), Marvin Krislov, contributed a letter in which he said:

I have seen how studying English, history, art and languages gives our students entree into cultures and callings. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across academic disciplines, humanities students learn to better reason and analyze, and to communicate their knowledge, creativity and ideas.

[W]e have an obligation to read for pleasure…If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. […]

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. […]

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language…we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

Sex & Healthcare

  • Here’s a fascinating Guardian article on “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” The author cites some alarming statistics and notes that, “Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by…disapproval.” The entire article is worth reading.
  • Along similar lines, also from The Guardian: “Why young women are going off the pill and onto contraception voodoo.” This is so scary! Please, ladies (and gents), use real, scientifically-proven birth control. No, the pull-out method is not a reliable form of contraception. I leave you with a somewhat stocking excerpt:

[M]ore than half of the unintended pregnancies in the US occur among the 10.7% of women who use no contraceptive method at all…This finding comes only a few months after a study carried out by…Dr Annie Dude at Duke University. Dr Dude’s findings revealed that 31% of young women in America aged between 15 and 24 had relied on the pull-out method at least once. Unsurprisingly, these women were 7.5% more likely to rely on emergency contraception than others and…of those who relied on the pull-out method, 21% had become pregnant. Apparently, these women had never heard the old joke: you know what you call a couple who use the rhythm and pull-out methods? Parents.

  • In the US, the “Obamacare” debate and issues continue. I don’t know why so many people need convincing that it is important for everyone to have healthcare access. Nicholas Kristof, in “This is Why We Need Obamacare,” says it better than I can: “While some Americans get superb care, tens of millions without insurance get marginal care. That’s one reason life expectancy is relatively low in America, and child mortality is twice as high as in some European countries. Now that’s a scandal.”

Cycling

[T]here is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon

I recently stumbled across Weekly Photo Challenge posts on a couple of blogs I read. The idea is simple: post a photo or few of the week’s theme. I don’t usually go in for these kinds of things, as I prefer to keep my blog relatively personal, but this week’s horizon theme got me, as I’m a sucker for a good horizon (who isn’t?) and happen to have taken some decent horizon pictures in the past. So without further ado, here are my contributions to the Weekly Photo Challenge, and the stories behind the photos (below each picture).

Venice sunrise -- late March

1) Sunrise in Venice, late March 2011. Three Peace Corps friends and I spent a few days exploring Venice during our spring break. On the last morning, Andy convinced us to get up super early in order to catch the sunrise — we had to wend our way through the narrow streets, chasing the lightening sky and trying to make it to the island’s edge. (All of this pre-coffee.) Luckily, we made it just as the sun began to peek over the horizon, and here is my proof of that.

Rolling hills of western Ukraine -- springtime

2) Western Ukraine, spring 2011. Iryna and her son took me on a day tour of our area of western Ukraine. We passed through towns and the village where Iryna was born, ending in Sheshory at the base of the Carpathian Mountains. I took this photo mid-morning — I was struck by the rolling green hills, their beauty and simplicity, and paused to take it all in and give thanks for living in such a beautiful place.

Sniatyn, Ukraine: my Peace Corps home for 2 years -- mid-autumn

3) Sniatyn, Ukraine, late October-early November 2012. This is the town I lived in for the 2 years of my Peace Corps service. The day I left to return home, I went on one last morning run and took my camera along so I could capture some images of my favorite spots and views. This is one, from my favorite running road — that I called “the high road” in my head, though it technically had a name — of the best view of Sniatyn’s town center. I lived right near the clock tower, which they say is the second-highest in Europe.

Belgian North Sea coast -- August

4) North Sea coast, Belgium, August 2012. C and A invited F and me to spend a few days with them on the Belgian North Sea coast, where they go every August to relax and enjoy the fresh sea breezes. On our first evening there, we took a walk down the esplanade and caught this amazing pre-sunset, the sunbeams piercing through the clouds, looking like they were touching the water somewhere across the flat beach and water, on the horizon.

If I Hadn’t Joined the Peace Corps

Recently on his blog, a fellow Ukraine RPCV, Danny, asked himself the following question: “What might my life be like, if I hadn’t gone off to Ukraine with the Peace Corps?”

Like Danny, I’ve often thought about this question. I can certainly say what my life wouldn’t have been like if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps:

  • F and I wouldn’t have gotten together; circumstances and location put us in a fortunate position. Had I remained in the States, probably nothing would have transpired.
  • Following that previous point, I wouldn’t be in London. F and I decided together that London would be a good place to live/study, as it offers opportunities for both of us to pursue our interests/specialties. If we hadn’t gotten together, I might have extended my service in Ukraine to the end of the school year (spring 2013) and then returned home to the States to start grad school there. Instead, here I am embarking upon an MA degree in London!
  • I may not have done a CELTA; part of the reason I decided to do one was to be productive in London while waiting for grad school to start. I had generally thought about doing some kind of TEFL certification after Peace Corps, but who knows if it would’ve happened if I hadn’t moved to London.

So what would I have done, if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps? Here’s my best guess:

  • I would probably have taken a year off to work, likely in Rochester while living with my parents. During that time, I would probably have studied for and taken the GREs, then started a PhD program in the U.S., on the straight and narrow path to academia.

But now, starting my MA after three years out of school, I’m not sure if I’ll end up in academia or not. And I’m okay with not knowing — if nothing else, the Peace Corps certainly taught me flexibility and openness to change!

It’s amazing how the decisions we make affect the rest of our lives. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Dickens’ Great Expectations:

Imagine one selected day struck out of [your life], and think how different its course would have been. …think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Perhaps my “first link” was the decision to join the Peace Corps in Ukraine…I’m certainly glad of my chain formed thus far and look forward to how it will continue to be shaped.

News Roundup: Sushi, Food Stamps, Shakespeare & Three Sisters

As we move into October (October already?!), here’s a roundup of what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past month. Click the links to access the full articles. Thanks for reading, and please post your comments/questions/requests below!

Upcoming posts: more recipes (squash, anyone?), an overview of my MA program, and two reflective/retrospective Peace Corps-related musings.

Just for Fun

  • I’m making my way through George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, after having seen the first three seasons of the HBO series. It’s kind of fun to read the books after having seen the series; it’s filled in a lot of gaps that I remember being confused about. Anyway, if you have read and/or seen Game of Thrones, you’ll get a kick out of this hip hop remix.
  • Runner’s World periodically posts (humorous) “motivational posters.” This one is a recent favorite.
  • Oh, programmatic music! “The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration” from the Oxford University Press blog, took me right back to Music of the Romantic Era. Give it a read/listen — it’s good fun.

Education

  • “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s)”  is an astute NY Times op-ed by Joe Nocera on the US’s system for educating teachers, which seems to have a lot to be desired. Granted, I have not been an education student in the US, but from what I’ve read, and what Nocera says, there is too little classroom practice and too much theory. How about schools actually teach how to teach? Nocera notes,

Melinda recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job — classroom management, organization, lesson planning — were things she had to figure out on her own, after she had begun teaching. When I asked them what they had learned in college, they shouted in unison: theory! (Denise went on to get a master’s degree in education, which she laughingly described as “not exactly hands-on.”)

America & The World

  • As you probably know, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine from 2010-2012. We were technically employed (but not, since we were volunteers) by — or “serving” — the US Government. Yet it felt strange to say that. “What it Means to Serve your Country” addresses just this: that we think of “serving your country” as something military-related. I’ll let this excerpt speak for itself:

…for thousands of diplomats, intelligence professionals, Peace Corps Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, firefighters, policemen, and others working to improve communities around the nation, it would be awkward to say “I served my country.” It shouldn’t be. Service to country isn’t linked to combat.

[…]

Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life–high school, college, work–to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.

  • “Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi” is an excellent piece of journalism on the former sushi chef for North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Even if you care nothing for the politics, read it for the fascinating story and quality of writing/reporting.
  • “Panera CEO learns about hunger on his food stamp diet”– the article title is pretty self-explanatory. Food stamps are part of a really important program in the States for people who live below the poverty line. This article made me like Panera even more than I already do. A sampling:

We, in corporate America, must be part of the solution. At Panera, we have tried to stretch ourselves to think of how to address hunger in new ways and challenge others to do the same. We have developed five nonprofit “Panera Cares” community cafes with no set prices and have donated hundreds of millions of dollars in products to food banks. Our view is that unless we at Panera take care of the world that we live in, there won’t be any society left to support us. If the past week has taught me anything, it’s that hunger is not a problem of “them,” it’s a problem of “us.” Hunger exists in every community, in every county, in every state.

Literature & Life

  • Charles Isherwood over at the NY Times has a thought-provoking article called “To Renovate or Not To Renovate?” Isherwood discusses theatre productions of Shakespeare plays and muses about the benefits and detriments to setting Shakespeare plays in modern times. An interesting read.
  • “Embracing Revision” is a piece from The Equals Record with wise words for writing and life that I connected with:

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

Russia

  • “Russia Leans on its Neighbors” talks about how much Russia is bullying the former Soviet republics not to sign trade alliances with the EU. Having lived in western (EU-leaning) Ukraine, this bullying infuriates me. Not to mention, the US is hardly taking any stand against Russia’s behavior. Here’s a taste:

The Kremlin openly dismisses its neighbors’ independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Glazyev…called the idea of Ukraine’s desire to take a European course an act of “sick self-delusion.” Only the European Union reprimanded Russia for the move against Ukraine. The United States remained silent. The failure of Washington and the European Union to articulate a coherent policy for Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia has been interpreted by Moscow as a tacit recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union — and license for Moscow to seek renewed hegemony there.

The stakes are high. Even if Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and the rest are not paragons of liberal democracy, their independence and security should be in the interest of the United States and its allies in Europe.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Here’s my newest piece for Two Hundred Word Travel on my favorite day in Kyiv.

Two Hundred Word Travel

Climb out of the Universytet Metro stop, gazing at the architecture while you ride endless escalators. When you get out of the building, turn right and enter the small Botanical Garden; stroll down the hill and back up again among the greenery. Back at the top of the hill, you should be on Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, almost directly opposite St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, which you’ll recognize by its yellow color and starry domes. Go inside for a moment of quiet.

From the cathedral, turn left and walk downhill; you’ll eventually run into Bessarabs’ka Ploshcha with the redbrick building towering over the big intersection of Kyiv’s main streets. Cross the street via the underground mall and pop out next to the building; walk around the left side of it to find the entrance to the Bessarabs’kyy Rynok, one of Kyiv’s hidden treasures. Inside, gather picnic fare from…

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