That’s a wrap on summer

Today was my first day of school in my sweet little village.

“But Whitney” you say, “it’s Friday, who starts school on a Friday??”

In Ukraine, school starts on September 1st no matter what day of the year it is, and starts is relative. There weren’t any classes today, but there was an adorable ceremony where the 11th form students (starting their last year of school) walked with the 1st form students (kindergartners basically) to ring the “first bell” of the school year. As such, the first day of school is called “First bell.”

My kiddos gave me flowers and gifts which mean so much. My dad gives my sisters and I flowers on the first day of school every year (since kindergarten) even when we were in college! I woke up to a text from him, saying they tried, but they couldn’t figure out how it would be possible considering I live in the middle of nowhere Ukraine. He sent me some money to buy my own flowers instead 🙂

BUT my students showered me with flowers, candy, hugs, high fives and “HELLO WHITNEY!’s” I’m sitting on a bench at school using the wifi because it hasn’t been installed in my new house yet and my heart is full.

Class starts for real on Monday, nobody really knows the schedule yet, so that will be fun. I also start my new clubs next week as well. They’ll be split by grade level into four groups, so I’m hoping they’ll be a little more focused this year and we’ll have the chance to do more fun stuff!

Since my last post, I finished my last camps, went to Odessa, got a sunburn, lost my hard drive, rode a bus for 14 hours and made my own pasta sauce from scratch. I’m especially proud of that last one.

I’m really excited to see what this school year has in store for me and my students!

 

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What on earth has Whitney been up to?

What a wild summer I’ve had. My last post was written in Kyiv, where I had planned on staying a couple of days to celebrate a graduation and a birthday before moving on to help another volunteer in another city. Plans changed, and I ended up having to stay for about a week and a half. When the volunteer I was with and I were finally given the green light to head home, we couldn’t find any open trains to get there. We ended up hitching a ride in a Peace Corps car that was headed to a camp out West near us.

We spent a few days at my house, watched a bunch of Game of Thrones, ate no-bake cookies, then packed up for me to have another round of travelling. We caught the train to Chernivtsi, got pedicures, then I met two other volunteers at the train station to head to Ternopil (which is probably my favorite city in Ukraine). If you read my blog, I was there to help with a camp a few weeks ago. We were going to Ternopil to go to a music festival called “Faine Micto.”It was RIDICULOUSLY hot outside, but our bus was filled with other young people (arms full of camping gear) headed to the music festival as well.

(A quick aside, busses in Ukraine in summer are TORTUROUS. They are CROWDED and HOT and people REFUSE to open windows, or THEY WILL CLOSE THEM WHEN THEY ARE OPEN. There’s a fascinating history behind this having to do with drafts causing illness and plagues and whatnot, but it is still ridiculously frustrating. This is why I try and take the train to and from the city when I can, even though I have to leave really early and I don’t get back until really late. It’s also much cheaper. )

ANYWAY, despite the fact that it was SO CROWDED on the bus that their were people in the aisles that had to stand the whole time, usually people only have to stand for part of the trip because there’s a pretty steady exchange of people throughout the journey, but this time everyone got on in Chernivtsi and wasn’t getting off until Ternopil. This also lead to the two volunteers I was with nearly getting stranded in the bathroom at a bus station in the middle of nowhere Ukraine because we didn’t stop anywhere for very long because we didn’t have room for any new people. WE KEPT THE WINDOWS OPEN THE WHOLE TIME. (God bless the Dima that opened the windows for everyone). It was still hot, but the tiny bit of a breeze helped on the four hour drive.

We made it to Ternopil and lugged our bags from the bus station. The music festival was incredible. I’d never been to a music festival before and I didn’t know any of the bands that were playing, but it was fun to people watch, listen to music and dance. I would study during the day some days and then we’d head out to the music festival each night. I also got to spend some time with new Ukrainian friends, which was super fun.

A couple days later I got to head out to the mountains, checking another huge thing off of my “Summer in Ukraine” bucket list. We started taking a train to трускавец (Truskavets), which is a small mountain town with a famous spring. We tried the water, which is supposed to be good for your skin, but also smelled a bit like eggs. We took a bus to an even smaller town, more like a village, called східниця (Skhidnytsia). It’s nestled in these beautiful, pine-covered hills. While we were there, we hiked, we fished, we made smores and shashlik (Ukrainian bbq), we made the fish we caught, I studied a teeny tiny bit, I (finally) kinda learned how to throw a frisbee, we saw castle ruins, I pet some sheep. I had an incredible time. It felt so good to be out in the mountains again.

We started the journey home after a relaxing and exhausting couple of days. First to трускавец, then to Ternopil, next Chernivtsi and finally to my sweet little village. I spent a couple days packing and the moved to my new house in Mamalyga. It’s a cute little house (with way too many spiders at the moment). The shower is in the kitchen, sometimes my water randomly turns off, but it’s mine.

I’m writing this from a cafe in Chernivtsi after a really early morning to come in to the city. I’m headed to Kyiv tonight to head to a camp (my final one of the summer). I’ll be headed home for a couple weeks after that and then going to Odessa (the beach!!!) as my last trip before school starts.

 

 

AN UPDATE (Finally)

It’s been a minute hasn’t it? Sorry for not keeping this as updated as usual this summer. It has been a wild summer and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring this incredible country I call home. Since school got out, I’ve travelled to six cities, helped out at 2 camps and hosted my own, picnicked with my students, gone to the beach and a million other things. I’ll give you a short recap here.

CAMP

About a week after school got out, I conducted the first (hopefully annual) Mamalyga American Sports camp. I invited a bunch of other volunteers to come help and they delivered. They all were incredibly helpful. WE HAD SO MUCH FUN. I had meticulously planned a schedule, that we immediately threw out, but it was INCREDIBLE. We played American football, baseball, kickball, crab soccer, dodgeball, toilet tag, red rover, foursquare and it was so fun to see my students interact with other Americans and to see them learn the games so quickly. I don’t know if I’ve bragged about how smart my kids are enough, but MY KIDS ARE SO SMART. More love for the other volunteers, I had housing issues that came up in the middle of camp and they were incredible in taking up the reigns when I had to take care of things. Long story short, summer started great with that. It was both the best and worst week of my Peace Corps service, but the camp was incredible.

TRAVELLING (AKA MORE CAMPS)

Before my camp, I was really worried about how I was going to fill my summer. I didn’t really have much of anything planned besides my camp and a music festival later this summer and BOY DID THAT CHANGE. Over the course of my camp, volunteers started to talk about their own camps and mention that they could use some help and I volunteered. Next thing I knew, my June went from my camp and weeks of sitting at home to over two weeks travelling away from site to help at two camps, celebrate a birthday and explore a little bit more of this country.

I started my journey by heading to Chernivtsi to head to Chereshenka to help my friend Derek with a camp at his site. Let me tell ya, helping at someone else’s camp IS SO FUN. The kids love you, they write you notes, bring you pictures, they follow you on Instagram and you just get to play games with them.

From Chereshenka, I headed back to Chernivtsi, narrowly caught another bus to head out to Novodnistrosk, which is my friend Chuck’s site. Derek and a bunch of our other friends came out so we could celebrate Derek’s birthday. We went to the beach, had shashlik, made chicken nuggets, basically had a grand old time celebrating. I left Novodnistrovsk very early in the morning, slept on the bus, and caught a bus in Chernivtsi to Ternopil.

If you’re keeping track, I got to Ternopil on Monday afternoon. Camp didn’t start until Tuesday, so we were able to spend some time exploring with Shaun, who was a pretty decent tour guide. Ternopil is probably my favorite city in Ternopil. It’s got a lake, it’s really easy to get around and some pretty cool people live there. For the record, the ‘we’ in Ternopil was another PCV named Kaitlyn. I didn’t really know Kaitlyn until she came out to help at my camp, but we hit it off. Now we’ve helped at a couple camps and have spent a ton of time travelling together. She’s great.

We wandered around Ternopil, checked out the lake, ate dinner, some of us got ice cream while some of us did not, but that’s fine. We went on a beautiful sunset boat ride around the lake. We even went bowling! I’m terrible at bowling, but I loved the people I was hanging out with. Camp started and it was super fun. It was all just English games and El Presidente. So far, that game has been played in about 6 oblasts, my goal is to spread it to every oblast. (An oblast is kind of like a state). We also went to the theater and saw a super funny play (that I couldn’t really understand). We had THE BEST seats in the house because the grandfather of one of Shaun’s coworkers (her name is Nadia and she is awesome) is an actor and professor at the theatre. It was incredible. We got shashlik (Ukrainian BBQ) with more of Shaun’s friends (he’s a pretty popular guy in Ternopil). It was also super fun and super delicious, I loved getting to meet new people in a new city.

Camp ended and Kaitlyn and I hopped on a bus and headed to Lviv. I also love Lviv. We met another volunteer, went to our Airbnb which was the PRIME location. It was right in the center, super close to everything. This was my like third or fourth trip to Lviv and Madison and Kaitlyn’s first, so I got to play tour guide for them, which is a bit comical if you know how terrible I am with directions. Nonetheless, we had a great time exploring and we also ran into a bunch of other volunteers which is also super fun. I finally headed home on the train to Chernivtsi, hung out there for a day, caught the night train to Mamalyga and crashed so hard in my bed.

The next day, I finally registered for the LSAT!! I’m taking that in September (on my birthday no less). Studying has been a blast. I did laundry, cleaned my room and started to pack for my next trip, just a weekend in the city. Spent some time with my counterpart, she gave me homemade cheese, then spent a weekend in the city.

I celebrated the 4th of July with other PCVs in Chernivtsi. We had burgers and hot wings and talked about politics. Like you do.

I’m writing this from a hostel in Kyiv. I got here yesterday morning. I got a tattoo yesterday afternoon (sorry mom), and have been spending time exploring and hanging out with other volunteers. I went to two museums and had a burger!

I’ll try and update this a little bit more often, but if you’re on Instagram, don’t forget to follow me there. I tend to update that a bit more often.

 

Update

I haven’t been the best at updating this recently. I’m in this weird place where days seem to go super slow, but weeks have flown by.

I’m writing this with one day of classes left before summer. I had my last adult and student English clubs of the school year.

I ran a half marathon last week. It was incredibly challenging, but I loved it.

I’m preparing for my American Sports camp that will be taking place in my village two weeks from now. There are an incredible number of details that go into coordinating 7 visiting Americans and activities for an, as of right now, unknown number of students, but as things are starting to come together I’m really excited to see the final project.

Looking ahead, I’m moving out of my host family this week and into my own place, this summer I’ll be helping at a few other camps, exploring this country as much as I can and preparing for my clubs and lessons next year.

It’s wild that I’m nearly a third of the way done with my Peace Corps service, but time does fly when you’re having fun!

This last week of school has been a lot of tests, grading tests and then just hanging out with kids. I showed my 4/5th graders snapchat filters today and they thought that was hilarious. Moments like those are my favorite.

Peace Corps Fit (Part two)

In the summer before I came to Ukraine, I started attending yoga classes at the YMCA where I also worked. I worked at that gym for over four years and worked out there only a handful of times during that period. That summer, I was only working a few shifts because I had a different full time job, but it allowed me to be able to actually attend classes.

I fell in love with yoga. Something about being able to take an hour and focus on nothing but my breath and my body was intoxicating. It helped that it was hard work, but it wasn’t too strenuous on my hip while I worked on that with my physical therapist. I could mix cardio (running) with yoga, in a way that gave my hip time to heal, but also allowed me to train for the half marathon a week before my departure that I had somewhat foolishly signed up for months before.

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When it came to packing, attempting (and failing) to fit my life into 100 pounds a carry-on, my yoga mat was a must. My mom considered it a bubble-item, but it was something that I refused to compromise on. If I could go back and repack, know what I know now, I would pack completely differently, but toting my yoga mat along wouldn’t change. It was a lifesaver over the winter when it was too cold to do much outside besides shuffle to and from school.

I’ve recently started using Asana Rebel, after being bombarded with adds for it on Facebook and Instagram, and I do have to say I’m impressed. I’m excited to have more time this summer and that is one hobby that I will be spending time on during the warmer months.

Peace Corps Fit (Part 1)

Staying in shape during Peace Corps service can be a challenge. Every site is different and each holds its own unique challenges when it comes to this aspect of life.

When I first arrived to Ukraine in September for PST (holy crap, has it really been that long?), my biggest challenge was finding time. Fall in Ukraine is a lot like fall in the PNW, super short days. PST is a lot like having every minute of every day scheduled for you for three months. We had 3-4 hours of language a day, followed by technical training, practice lessons, English clubs and field trips. Needless to say, we were busy. During the first two months, we were lucky to be done by 4…and it was usually dark by then. This eliminated my usual exercise of choice: running. I ran a few times in the village, on weekends or on the off chance we got an early day.

Once PST got less intense, after we returned from site, it was winter and also being a PNW girl, I didn’t quite know how to function in that. Throughout PST I would do yoga in my room after dinner. The couple and babusya I lived usually ate dinner right after I got home around 4:30-5, leaving me with my evenings free.

Once I got to site, it was still winter. Shocker, I know. I started using fitness blender (thanks mom) to work out in my room. Any PCVs reading this, if you’ve got internet access I 10/10 would recommend fitness blender. They’ve got hundreds of videos that target cardio, strength, abs, arms, etc. I started with a yoga/Pilates strength series and I loved it. At the same time, I definitely got tired of being cooped up 90% of the time.

I started running outside in the snow, much to the chagrin of the babusyas in my village. I had to do some googling to figure out how to run in the snow without falling on my face all the time. I ran in my yaktrax and I still bundled up as best I could. I still didn’t wear a hat.

It started to warm up and my village became one giant mud puddle. In some ways, I preferred the snow to the mud, my Nikes and my clothes stayed cleaner and I was less likely to slip on the ice when I had my yaktrax on.

When I went to Lviv in the middle of February for a Peace Corps conference, it had already started to warm up and I was invited to do a half marathon in May. At the time, May seemed like it was ages and ages away, yet here we are. Once I got back from that conference, I had to become more serious about running if I was going to be able to run this half.

I’ve run two half marathons before, one just a week before I left for Ukraine. I’ve also dealt with some dumpy injuries relating to my running as well. I’m happy to say that my times have been faster than the last half I trained for and that my hip has been feeling pretty good so far.

My biggest concern was the heat. Ironically, I moved to Ukraine and have found it to be warmer most of the time than my sweet PNW home. I also wasn’t super sure of the conditions, whether the course would be flat or hilly and how often water would be provided.

*It ended up be stupid hot during the race and it was incredibly hilly. I’m still pleased with my performance given the conditions, but I’ve got my eye on another race in Kiev this fall to improve my time.

Victory Day

Ukraine has about a million holidays. This country that I now call home loves a celebration. They have had a difficult history, so in the context of that, it makes sense that they appreciate any chance to celebrate when they can. (If you’re still referring to Ukraine as ‘The Ukraine’ and you don’t know much about what I’m talking about, I highly recommend Borderland, it’s a fascinating book that details the complex history of this incredible country.

We celebrated Easter with what felt like a million loaves of паска, which is special Easter bread, a special dinner with way too much food crafts and time off of school. I loved getting the chance to be involved in this holiday and to observe these fascinating traditions.

Before Easter, we had Women’s Day. Celebrated on the 8th of March, this day celebrates mothers, women and girls. We had school performances, a day off of school and presents! I was given flowers, lotion and candy by my students. This teacher thing ain’t so bad.

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Most recently, we celebrated Victory Day. Victory Day celebrates the end of World War Two, or, more specifically “a holiday that commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War” (Wikipedia). This is most similar to Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day in America.

A few fun facts:

  • Ukraine has recognized this holiday since its independence in 1991
  • It wasn’t until 2013 that people got the day off, if it falls on the weekend, then they get Monday off. We got two days off because it fell on a Tuesday, but not everyone is as lucky
  • Since 2015, it’s been officially recognized as “Victory Day over Nazism in World War II,” separating it from Victory Day which was how it was celebrated when Ukraine was a member of the former Soviet Union
  • They used to refer to World War Two as the “Great Patriotic War”
  • The symbol of Victory Day is the red poppy
  • The motto of the day is “1939-1945. пам’ятаємо. Перемагаємо” or “1939-1945. We remember. We prevail.”

In Mamalyga, Victory Day started with a parade. The students armed with balloons and flowers, walked from the school to the monument across the street. Every city, town and village has at least one WWII memorial. At the monument, we listened to a speaker talk about the history and importance of the day, had a moment of silence and the kids put the flowers in front of the monument. Someone read the names of the men who died fighting in the war and a priest came and blessed the veterans standing in the front.

Afterwards their was a concert by my students in the house of culture, which is another fascinating remnant from the Soviet era. It’s basically a large meeting and recreation area. Like WWII monuments, every city, town and village has one. They generally have concert halls, dance studios and other rooms. The idea being these “Culture Houses” would provide meaningful leisure activities to the inhabitants of the villages or towns. In Mamalyga, I’ve seen it used for concerts and for ‘discos,’ which was basically school dances.

Update on me, I’ve got two more weeks of school left. I’m running a half marathon next weekend. I’ve got a camp for my students the week after school gets out. My summer is starting to fill up with camps I’m helping out with and with trips I’m planning to explore this beautiful country I call home. It’s been ridiculously hot already, so this PNW girl is in for a treat/rough summer. All in all, I’m excited to spend the summer exploring and preparing to jump back in to clubs and classes when we come back for school in September.

 

Reflection

The Peace Corps was created to promote world peace and friendship. It has three goals-

Every six months, Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world are required to document every aspect of their volunteer efforts on a daunting document known as the VRF or “Volunteer Reporting Form.”

It is onerous and detailed and while I completely understand why it is necessary, it’s also frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting the chance to brag about myself, my students and the activities I’ve been up to at site, my adorable millennial self is also all about the fact that I can use my Instagram and blog as a “Third-goal” activity, but it’s tedious and time consuming and also I hate it.

So, I’m taking a break to work on my “third goal” and to reflect, as I’ve been asked to do.

Peace Corps has three goals.

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

I accomplish that goal by teaching with my counterparts, running my English clubs and helping run camps and workshops that train teachers in new teaching methods and teaching students about English and other topics.

 

 

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.

I accomplish that goal any time I talk about American holidays, American foods or American traditions with my students, my host family or anyone here that I interact with. That’s right folks, when I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watched Guy Fieri taco truck videos with my students, I was also working towards one of the goals of the peace corps. When made March Madness brackets and I taught them what a “bracket buster” was, also accomplishing a goal. These may seem like silly examples, but they ar3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.e different aspects of American culture that I have loved having the opportunity to share.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

If you know me, or you follow me on any form of social media, you know I’m all about social media. I majored in communications in college and took classes like “Interactive journalism” which could have also been called “how to twitter 101.” I have the same handle for my Instagram, twitter, and blog for ‘branding purposes.’ In reality, it’s more for consistency and to make it easier for people to find me.

I appreciate all three goals, but this one has a special place in my heart. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had countless moments where something happens, I’m at an event or I see something take place and I just wish someone else was there to experience it, to recognize what is happening. My blog, Instagram etc., give me the chance to do just that. I get to document my experiences and show them to people that likely had no little to no knowledge of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture. I love it! From playing dress up in traditional Ukrainian clothes, to beautiful architecture, to performances, I love getting to share my experiences with family and friends at home.

I consider myself lucky to be able to have these experiences, so having the chance to share them is a no brainer. I hope if you’re reading this, you’ve enjoyed what I’ve shared so far and you’re looking forward to me oversharing for the next 20 months of my life.

English Club Corner

This week at my English Club, we talked about summer vacations. I described 4th of July and BBQ’s, we watched videos about summer camp and Disney land.

At the end of the club, I had students write what they would like to do during summer if they could do anything and these were a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

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The one where Whitney has a ball at her feet again-Part 2

Three and a half years later, I graduated from university, packed my bags and headed to Ukraine! (That makes it sound so much easier than the year-long process that it all entailed). I had gone back and forth on whether to bring my cleats with me when I packed and they were ultimately left at home, more room for peanut butter. (No regrets there).

When I got to my training site, I was a little too timid to go kick around in our little village. It took me a few weeks to be comfortable enough to even run in my village. It’s a tough thing to move to a country where no one looks like you, you don’t know the language or the culture and everyone stares at you when you just walk down the street. Now try running in those conditions. God forbid you try to run in shorts.

All that to say, it took me a while to work up the courage. Then winter started and no one was doing anything outside because it was like negative 1,000 degrees all the time. I spent a lot of time working on my downward dog during those months.

When I first got to my permanent site, it was a little warmer, but only a little. Definitely still too cold for soccer. Then it warmed up and my sweet little village was covered in mud. Now it’s legit hot and I love it and I finally got a ball at my feet again.

It started with having class outside. I remember asking all of my teachers (and professors if we’re being honest) once the weather warmed up if we could have class outside. I LOVE having class outside. I’m well aware that little to nothing gets done if you have class outside, but that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it. Therefore, whenever my students ask me in broken English and Ukrainian if we can have class outside, my gut response is always yes.

We don’t get a whole lot accomplished, but it sure is fun. On one of these lovely days, one of my fourth graders had a soccer ball and asked if I wanted to play. I said yes, mostly because I knew I probably wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly in front of these kids.

I quickly came to the realization that A. I was out of shape. I run here, but my body was not (and is still not) primed for the quick sprints that soccer requires. My second realization was that I still got it. My feet weren’t quite comfortable, but I felt the mechanics coming back. It was like riding a bike, as the idiom goes.

Since that fateful day…which makes it sound so much more intense than me kicking around a soccer ball with a bunch of fourth graders…since then, I bought my own ball. I use it to kick around as a warm up to my runs at the soccer field here in Mamalyga. My first day walking back to my house with it after school, I ran into some of my students who asked if I would play. I’d just run about 5 miles, but how can you say no to Dima?

I’m very proud to say that we had an uneven number and I was worth two fifth graders. (Ya hatin’ didn’t work).

Sometimes I get asked to join a pick-up game if there’s one going on at the field before or after my run. I also don’t have a day go by without a kid running up breathlessly to ask me “Whitney, you will play football with us today?” Now, it depends on whether or not I have English club after school and what I’m wearing. Soccer in a dress is a challenge, but I’ve played in ballet flats a few times.

This is another way that this sweet little village has accepted me and a way that I’ve made it my home. I’m also gaining more confidence here and I love it. Soon I’ll hopefully be teaching these kiddos about some of my favorite American sports.