While away this week in Chirnigov for a Peace Corps Russian language refresher event my first column for the Artemovsk’s газета Вперед hit the streets. The column, which the editors cleverly titled ”Я не шпион!” – meaning “I’m not a spy!” – can be read in Russian here. I’ve posted the English version below.
I’m not a spy!
Arriving in Ukraine on April 1 of last year, there was no fooling me about the drastic lifestyle change that lay ahead. Once past security and passport control at Boryspil Airport, it took only a moment for the reality of the situation to sink in. Signposts in Cyrillic, taxi drivers heckling arriving travelers, haggling with each other over prices, a flatter landscape than I’m used to, all lending to thoughts of being far away from home. Not knowing how to speak anything other than “yes,” “no,” “please” and “thank you,” and without any ability to read neither Ukrainian nor Russian, I was greatly overwhelmed.
Luckily, Peace Corps sent people to pick us up. Not long after being swept away from the airport, I found myself at a sanatorium near Chirnigov. There, I was introduced to the Cyrillic alphabet and assigned the task of learning the Russian language. I spent only three days studying before I was again whisked away, this time to the city of Obukhov, 30 minutes by marshrutka from Kiev.
I lived with a Ukrainian family for two months. I studied the Russian language, taught English, health, leadership, journalism and about civic rights and responsibilities to students of School No. 5. I learned first hand about Ukrainian culture and traditions, partaking in holiday celebrations with my host family and their friends. On Easter, I lit candles and stood outside in the dark and cold at 4:00 in the early morning, waiting – unknowingly – to be doused with cold holy water as a precession led by a priest came strolling past. At a birthday party I toasted not once, not twice, but nearly a dozen times to a young woman turning 19 years old. “For Anya!” “For love!” “For family!” “For couples!” For friendship!” “For new acquaintances!” “For bud’mo!” “For Ukraine!” And so on.
Like the wind, my time in Obukhov passed quickly. In June I arrived in Artemovsk. No longer was I living near my American volunteer friends, nor was I living with a Ukrainian family. I would no longer have their help to guide me. I would be alone in a new place, with only a shred of knowledge of the Russian language to get me by.
I was assigned the task of working at a small village school. But because I arrived in June, my students were already out for the summer. I spent the next two months discovering my new city. I bought a bicycle, thinking that would be the best way of covering a lot of ground. In Portland, Oregon, where I lived in America, everyone I knew owned a bicycle. And most of those people used it as their main form of transportation. Thinking I could get away with that here, I hit the road on my new blue Ukrainian-made Doroshnyk. Moments later I nearly died when a bus passed within a meter of me, startling me and sending me off the road into a patch of tall grass.
So, on foot I set out to learn about my new home, the small eastern Ukrainian city where I’d be living for the next two years. I found a park, many cafes and an excellent bazaar. I met some English-speaking friends who helped make me feel welcome. I practiced my Russian with a bicycle shop owner and some of my babushka neighbors.
Before when Ukrainians asked, “Where are you from? America! Why would you come to Ukraine? Are you a spy?” it was difficult for me to explain to them my answer in Russian. It is difficult even to convey my reasons for coming here in my native tongue, as I still sometimes wonder about that myself.
What it boils down to is this: I am in Ukraine to help and to learn. I want to better understand your culture and, if you are interested, I would like to share with you mine.