Tag Archives: Ukraine

Bits of Bulgaria

My good friend Hannah has been living in Bulgaria this year, teaching English in a secondary school. Since I never got around to visiting Hannah while she was doing Peace Corps in Georgia, I decided it was high time I visit her in Bulgaria. She’s finishing up her first year and will stay on next year to work with the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and Debate Tournaments) Foundation, which organizes speech and debate tournaments — modeled on the American format that some of you may have taken part in during high school — around Bulgaria. Anyway, I spent a lovely few days with Hannah both in Sofia, the capital, and in Pravets, the town she’s been living in. What follows are a few cultural observations and a number of photos of my trip.

I didn’t know much about Bulgaria before traveling, other than a few tidbits I gleaned from reading the Wikipedia page and that I have a Bulgarian learner at work. My expectations were based mainly on my experiences living in Ukraine; I wondered how Bulgaria would feel in comparison, especially as it has been part of the EU for 10 years (and Ukraine has not).

Firstly, language: Bulgarian, like Ukrainian, is a Slavic language and written in the Cyrillic alphabet. I felt strangely at home wandering the streets of Sofia and being able to read signs both in Cyrillic and Latin script. I picked up a number of Bulgarian phrases in my few days there and could understand some, too, thanks to my background in Ukrainian. Hannah’s Bulgarian sounds really good after only ten months there.

Sofia felt both like a Ukrainian city — corner shops selling a random assortment of snacks and alcohol, a good deal of chunky Soviet-style architecture — and much more western — an Asian noodle restaurant, many signs in English, and most cafe/restaurant staff speaking English. It was a fascinating contrast for me.

In terms of food, there’s a good deal of international cuisine in Sofia. Bulgarian cuisine features banitsa, a tasty cheese-stuffed filo pastry snack; lots of yogurt; ayran (a salty kefir-like drink); and fresh, colorful salads (that are not covered in mayonnaise!).

Pravets, the town Hannah lives in, is about 60km north of Sofia and has a cozy population of 4,500. Hannah teaches at the language high school, which draws students from around the region. There’s also a big hotel and golf course that bring in some tourism. It’s in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. A peaceful spot.


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International Women’s Day 2017: Be Bold For Change

Today is one of my favorite holidays: International Women’s Day (IWD)! On this day, people celebrate the achievements of women past, present, and future, and also raise awareness about gender inequality that still exists today.

IWD holds a special place in my heart because I first learned about it during my time as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. The 8th of March is celebrated in fine style in Ukraine, with women receiving flowers, chocolates, gifts, and many well-wishes from others (mostly men but also pupils/students, if you happen to be a teacher).

Every year IWD has a theme, and this year it is “Be Bold For Change,” focusing on how people — women and men and everyone in between — can help forge “a more inclusive, gender equal world” (IWD website). I can’t complain about that theme! Teaching English to all women, with all women means we talk a lot about empowering women. This term, my ESOL Entry 3 class has had a number of lessons about volunteering, work, and employment and we’ve had a few discussions about gender (in)equality in the workplace. My Functional Skills English Level 1 learners spent part of a lesson reading about the suffragettes and discussing women’s rights historically and now.

Today, we had a lunchtime IWD event at work for our learners to come and celebrate with us. We encouraged staff and learners to wear traditional dress from their or another country. Many of my colleagues wore beautiful saris, and I rocked up in my Ukrainian vyshyvanka (embroidered blouse), recalling fondly the two Women’s Days I spend in Sniatyn:

Wearing my Ukrainian vyshyvanka on IWD

Tutors designed a number of activities for our learners to engage in. These included “find someone who” with positive and empowering elements: Find someone who has run a marathon, who has made someone smile today, who has fixed something at home, who has give someone advice, etc. There was also a gap fill quiz with facts about women’s rights around the world, a map to identify where you are from and write what you like about your country or another one, and places to record a dream job and personal strengths.

Over 60 of our learners attended the event and had a great time chatting, snacking, doing activities, and watching speeches by inspirational women like Malala Yousafzai. I wish I could post pictures of our learners all dressed up and mingling, but many of them are vulnerable and so you must imagine instead!

I like to take International Women’s Day as a day to celebrate all the incredible women in my life, from family to friends to colleagues to students and more. You inspire me to be stronger, fitter, kinder, and more thoughtful. You inspire me to push myself and to encourage others. You inspire me to keep life in perspective and move through it with joy. You inspire me to persevere. Thank you, and keep fighting for equal rights for all humans.


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.

 

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.