We'll say the neglect is due to being super active at site. Ahem. To continue:
It's been forever. I'm back at home now, but...I'm leaving again in a few days. This time for Turkey. Yes, my friends, Turkey. A friend, Zhenya, and I have planned a very last-minute mini vacation in Istanbul and Antalya. Ferries and the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar for a few days and then two days of lying on the beach on the Mediterranean in Antalya. I'm very excited. I have to do all the research for this trip last-minute in the Peace Corps office hours before we take off, as my internet is running perilously low due to an infuriating McAfee update download goof...but all will be well. I am confident. I managed Budapest and back all on my own. This time there will be two of us. Surely that can only mean twice the competence...
Anyway, this means that I will not really be at site for more than 6 days between now and August 8. Lots will be happening, but...I'm not confident about how diligent I will be at reporting it. I think I said it last year -- summer is busy and beautiful. Less time sitting in front of my computer. Sorry.
2) Quick story from Charlie's recent adventures in Ukraine
Our last day in Kyiv before his flight out, we stored our luggage in the Peace Corps office. It was a weekend and I hadn't gotten permission for him to come in, so I shouldered it all and shuffled inside on my own. All went well with the drop-off. On the pick-up, however, I hit a snag. The luggage room was newly stuffed with bags. The door was heavy. The Peace Corps had recently installed a lock on the door that required me to push a button from the outside to release the catch and open the door. There is no such mechanism on the inside. Yes, my friends. I swung around in the room and knocked the door closed...locking myself in the luggage room. That wouldn't have been so embarrassing, except that I had done the exact same thing a week and a half earlier. On that day, a weekday, I just knocked on the door and a staff member kindly opened it for me. An understanding glance from her, a sheepish grin from me, and problem solved. No such luck on a Saturday. I managed to crack open a window a few inches before it hit the security grate and spent a few ridiculous minutes pathetically calling, "Charlie! Charlie! ...Help?" No luck. The luggage room is a actually just a stairwell, so I went up the stairs and knocked on the door a floor up. Nope. As I'm imagining a full day spent trapped amid duffel bags and smelly socks, I remember that I have newly programmed the Peace Corps's number into my phone. Thank goodness my wallet had been stolen earlier in the trip. Otherwise I would never have programmed business numbers into my second SIM card.
The guard at the front desk answered the call. The same one who let me in five minutes earlier. And I rattled off: "Hi. My name is Gretchen, and I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer, Group 33. I'm...um...locked in the luggage room. Can you come get me out?" He came, of course. Held the door open while I wheeled all the luggage out. And saw me off.
This can't be the first time this has happened! Others must have been trapped by the lock-thingy on the door. Right? ...Guys?!
3) Summer garden update
On a recent day at site, I went over to my host-mother's apartment to make soup. She had asked me a number of times to teach her a specific mushroom soup I made for my birthday and, six months after the party, I thought maybe I should make good on my promise. Katya was at her grandmother's. I had just returned from traveling. This meant that Alla had no food. I had no food. I figured that, both of us being hungry, we should make lunch. The soup turned out okay, not great. Alla got it right, saying that it would be better after a night in the refrigerator. After the late lunch, though, we headed out to the countryside surrounding town to see if there were any white cherries on the tree in her garden.
On the way, we stopped at every single mulberry tree along the side of the path to strip the branches of ripe berries. We hadn't brought anything to carry extra berries in, so just filled our bellies. After a few minutes at each, Alla would call out "should we stay longer or go?" When we went, she would stop a few minutes later at another tree, "just to see if these berries are as sweet as the ones on the last tree." Like little kids, we tore into the ripe berries, unmindful of the meal we had just eaten, eager to enjoy the fleeting fruits of the season. After a few minutes, we were both covered -- mouths, hands, and shirts -- in mulberry juice. As I poked my stained head out of a tree, two students I'd had during my recent drama project passed, smiling heartily at the sight. "Hello!" And my muted reply: "Hello." Nothing like being a respected adult in the community.
After crouching in the high grass to wash our hands and faces in the pond down the lane, we continued onto the garden, a bright blue sky above and the slopes and spikes of field and tree in varied shades of green extending into the distance to the left. At the garden, Alla commanded me to eat the few strawberries left on her plants, and then exclaimed, in surprise, "There are raspberries!" So we ate still more. The raspberries were tiny because there was very little rain this spring, but they were the sweetest I'd ever had. We did finally get to work, though. After we'd shorn all the bottom branches and filled 2/3 of the bucket Alla brought, she hoisted herself into the tree, and I went to eat more raspberries, combining a handful of raspberries with a strawberry or two every few minutes. I kept swearing I couldn't eat any more...and then going back. I told Alla about being a child and over-eating summer fruit. And then eating more. And then being very, very sick. I was hoping to, this time, put the hard-earned wisdom of my 24 years to good use but Alla insisted it was probably all the chemicals in the fruits that made me sick, not their volume. And there would be no fruit left in the winter. Best to eat it all now, stomach-ache be damned. She had a point.
We hitched a ride with a neihbor back to town, too stuffed to walk properly, cradling a bucket and a bag of cherries in our respective laps. When we arrived at her apartment, the sun began to set, Alla began to make white-cherry jam, and I waddled home.
Graduation was Friday. Most notably, it poured cats and dogs onto the graduates as they paraded through the city center and went through the city-wide ceremony on the steps of the performance center. One teacher said it was because the class studied poorly. But the principal of our school reminded the audience that rain was looked upon as good luck at the start of a new undertaking -- it heralded abundance.
The girls and boys all looked spiffy in their cupcake dresses and white suits. Actually, the trend was short dresses -- fortuitous, considering the rapidly-formed puddles that dominated much of the students' walk to the ceremony. One of my students had a real 18th c. look -- the curls to each side of her face, the mass of her hair pulled back and into a small bouffant at the crown of her head. Plus she had a full-skirted graduation dress, frilled and generously adorned. There were a few dresses I mostly liked this year; I don't know if this year's students are more fashion-conscious or if my tastes are changing (yeesh). The Dolynska student who went to America on an elite exchange program for the school year had returned and, though she has to repeat the 11th grade and will graduate next year, she paraded with her graduating friends, sporting a blue mortarboard and jeans instead of a gown. I appreciated the tribute.
At the city-wide ceremony, where gold and silver medals are awarded for distinguished academic performance (our school had two gold medalists and three silver -- yay Yura, Anya, Anya, Natasha and Maxim!) -- doves were released and one particularly perturbed bird flew directly into the windows of the performance center to escape the rain. When it was thrown back out again, it promptly flew into a second window. Representing some poor graduate who desperately doesn't want to leave home. ...Or maybe the smart graduate who doesn't want to fly with wet wings and sees a chance to stay dry. The bird made an attempt to shield itself from the elements while we all stood gaping in the rain.
At the school's graduation ceremony minutes later, our graduates performed. There were folk songs sung chorally. A solo. A waltz (for me, evidently, because they wore graduation gowns as a nod to American tradition). It was all very heartfelt and sweet. I got flowers. The other teachers got flowers. The students got flowers. The class teachers got flowers galore. There were so many flower exchanges that re-gifting happened almost instantly upon receipt of a bouquet. It was like a game: the one who gets rid of his/her flowers fastest wins; the one with the most flowers at the end of the night loses. The obvious target? The young, inexperienced American. In the middle of the ceremony, my counterpart turned and handed me a bouquet of roses she had just been given with the words, "Because you are a rose like a Shakespearean sonnet." Afterwards, a teacher -- sharp nose, sharp jawline, hair pulled back in a tight twist...a strict one -- I barely knew ran giddily (giddily!) over to me, gave me a quick hug and a giant kiss, and thrust her red roses into my hand with some Ukrainian words incomprehensible to me. Two seconds later, the art teacher, the tall, puppy dog one who taught me about pysanky last year, came and gave me a giant kiss, presenting his recently acquired roses to me with the words "From Ukraine!" I don't know what exactly I did to warrant all of the roses, but I was happy to have them. Add the nine red roses and five pink ones to the lilies my Ukrainian tutor (another class teacher) gave me out of her stack, and I came home with quite a scented haul. And in quite a good mood; flowers always make me feel better. Surefire cure for the blues: brightly-colored gerber daisies, carnations, or tulips.
5) Also, for those of you who were legitimately confused by my last entry a month ago, I have fixed it...if you feel like re-reading. Sorry for my general technological ineptitude. I was so happy to have a working computer that I forgot to use it correctly. Sounds like me, right?
So that's the news. Not much after a month, but it's something. Continue on with your lives. Go!