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.