As things have happened, it may surprise you to know that I’m writing this new entry from my old host family’s computer. It also looks increasingly likely that they will turn out to be my only host family. Things are peaceful and uneventful once again. It’s hard for me to imagine that only sixty hours ago I was saturated with stress and anxiety, all (as it turned out) over an unforeseeable misunderstanding. Let me tackle the chronology in some detail:
On Friday afternoon, I uploaded my last post and proceeded to get some work done. Despite my sickness and fatigue, I managed to have a productive few hours. I was predestined to leave early, as Eduard advised me to walk “home” at four to pack up my belongings, as he would be sending a cab for me and my things at seven o’clock. I shared a heartfelt goodbye with my boss Olexi, who advised me to act as if nothing had happened. Thus determined, I began my long walk home in the snowy grey-blue twilight.
As I walked, my steps became heavy and my countenance lowly and defeated. I tried again and again to force myself to walk as if I had a spring in my step, a feather in my fedora, and seeking a happy appointment, but it was not to be until I met some friends on the street. I didn’t tell them what was troubling me, but they did say I looked sad. As it turns out of course, it’s a good thing that I didn’t tell very many people, for of course I must now untell all of them tomorrow morning at the academy.
I made my way into Novyy Misto, saying goodbye to the children I happened to meet, which cheered me up in a melancholy sort of way. Being children, they were much more preoccupied with their own playing than with my imminent geographical relocation, and I envied them for this as I considered that I’d probably never see them again. A dog chased me away from the first group I spoke with, which broke my veneer of sentimentality and brought me back into bitter reality with its infuriating, impertinent snarls and my hasty, hostile judgments of Novyy Misto, which for the moment I wasn’t the least bit sad to be leaving.
At length I walked up to my gate and crossed the yard to the door, hoping desperately that I mightn’t be seen until absolutely necessary. If I could have somehow spirited my things away, I would have. I reflected a few times, though, that this would be a comparable experience to visiting an ex-girlfriend’s domicile to collect my paraphernalia, and since I’ll probably have to do that someday, why not get used to the experience now?
As I was brushing off my snow-covered shoes, the porch light flicked off. I thought it was an omen, and instead of being merely scared to enter, I was now petrified to even knock. But knock I did, instantly wishing I could be anywhere else on the planet*. My host father answered the door and told me to come in before going back to his business.
* - Canada, for instance.
I stood in the porch for some minutes, not daring to enter the hall or make any sort of enunciation. I quietly put my footwear in a stack, and then Olya stepped into the porch and asked me if I wanted something to eat. “Ni, ni hochu,” I answered. My stomach had been too tight for food for almost a day. I stepped into the hall, preparing to apologize to Olya for ringing Roma’s phone too late (which I still thought was the crux of the whole matter).
My host mother didn’t let me get far, though, before questioning me incredulously: “Will, why you no speak me this bad home! People speak-”
… and then it all came crashing down upon me and I cursed myself for not figuring things out sooner. The cause of the morning’s phone call to Eduard didn’t have anything to do with me phoning Roma’s cell so late, nor did it really have anything to do with me not coming home. Rather, there was a more profound misunderstanding in another quarter, causing my host mother to phone Eduard in her shock and dismay, which in turn accentuated my shock and dismay, because the bit about me telling the town my host family was terrible (I didn’t and it wasn’t) didn’t make any sense to me at all. Likewise, the idea of me doing that was just as surprising to them. The problem was that while our mutual reactions were justifiable, the information behind them was suspect.
It took a long time for me and my host family to hash everything out, but once done, I was overcome with relief. We had some of the most heartfelt communication we’ve had since my arrival. Later we relaxed, and my host mother was even making jokes.
Olya of course told me that her reply was typical of being woken up at midnight. I explained that I didn’t think I’d wake her up, because I thought that Roman would be up using his computer, and I was ringing his phone. This would have been perfectly sound logic, except that Olya’s phone was with Roman and the computer, and Roman’s phone was with Olya! Whoops! We all had a hearty laugh about this. Moreover, a key had been left for me, but they also understood that I would have been hesitant to trek twenty-five minutes in the snow when there was the possibility of a locked door lying in wait for me. We decided that there’d be a 9pm “cut-off” time concerning the key – if I’m not home by then, a key will be left out for me. Sounds good!
As far as moving host families went, I was much too wound-up to make a decision then, what with all the new information I had to digest. I got on the phone with Eduard and told him that I’d wait a few days before making a decision, and I told my host family that if I did decide to leave, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t like it here; it would be for other reasons, such as not wanting to break a leg on the ice or contract rabies from the truculent, mangy, imbecilic curs that people sometimes call “dogs.” (Remember when Garfield kicked Odie into “next week?” I want to do that every day.)
As things stand now, I will most likely stay here for the remainder of the program. Sure, we have some minor problems, but what host family doesn’t? At this point I am completely unwilling to trade one set of problems for another, and what’s more, I don’t want to go through the pain and struggle of having to get to know new people on such an intimate basis. (I realize that this can be a rewarding process, but I don’t know if I have the wherewithal to face said process at the moment.)
I remember now how forlornly I looked upon the glistening white boughs of the street-lining trees and how softly my feet crunched through the new-fallen snow; all the while thinking that I’d never see any of it again. How happy I am to be wrong! What a difference a few minutes and a little communication makes!
I went to bed at seven o’clock that night and slept off and on until nearly one o’clock the following afternoon. At three I went to meet Amy at her house.
On the way, Ostroh was particularly picturesque, and so I took many photographs; when I reached the central square, I noticed many people standing about in a sombre manner. Anxious to know what was going on, I looked for an English-speaking friend and only a few seconds elapsed before I found one.
Saturday November 26th, 2005 marked the observance of the Holodomor of 1932-33, a mass-starvation engineered by Stalin to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. Millions perished. In a nutshell, all farms were collectivized, and the farmer-peasants were required to submit unreasonable quotas to the central authorities before being allowed to collect anything for themselves (and this was enforced at gunpoint). There was a bumper crop, yet everyone went hungry. Entire villages were wiped out. People barely had the energy to bury the dead. Mass graves were strewn about the countryside.
I spent a few minutes standing at the bottom of the steps of city hall with my friends while a woman with a microphone passionately enunciated… something… all this set to music and sound effects. Some people chatted lightly as if they were only there out of curiosity. My friends bowed their heads in silence. I stood for a few minutes with them, but being late to meet Amy and not understanding the language anyway, I respectfully took my leave of the ceremony.
I came to Amy’s, where I was pleasantly surprised with a dinner invitation from her host family. We had a splendid feast (the irony was not lost on me), and I came to find that Amy and Shelley’s host family was really, really nice (Shelley had gone to Kyiv for the weekend to see her relatives). We had a lot of fun talking about different things in a sort of English-Rukrainian creole. We tried some homemade vodka (50%, not 40% alcohol!) which was welcome after the transmission fluid we imbibed at Trek less than forty-eight hours before. The apple wine was also quite pleasant. Frankly, I wonder how we got out of there. I remember Amy suddenly telling me to stop eating and stand up while her host family was out of the room. After that, we finally went out for hot chocolate, which was our original plan.
We had a fine evening together and talked about many things. Amy told me that one thing I ought to work on about myself is not taking things so personally, like those children at the cybercafé who have my number. She recalled the times in the summer when she and Sheryle would be out walking, and kids would ride around on bicycles shouting “English! English!” and “f*** you!” and laughing. Amy reminded me that F-U is the only English some of the children know, having been exposed to it countless times in film and on television. She also reminded me that these children don’t know anything about me, except that I’m a foreigner. (This separates this a bit from the ridicule that I received in grade school, as it usually came from people who did know some fact or rumour about me.) At one point I asked to her, “Yeah, but do I walk up to people upon hearing them speak Arabic and shout ‘Arabic! Arabic!?’” but I soon conceded that Canada and Ukraine just can’t be compared that way.
This all came in response to a drunk guy who came up to us and introduced himself by saying, “I don’t speak in English.” Fine. “Yeah,” I said, meaning, “So what?!” By this time I had had more than my fill of people remarking upon my not speaking Ukrainian, and I was going to be Tolerant No Longer. I said that it didn’t matter that he didn’t speak English, because I was speaking to my friend, and so it shouldn’t concern him anyway what language we speak. Amy was like, “Oh, Will, you don’t have to be rude!” And I was rude, because I was sick and tired of this stuff. Do I come up to people at my university speaking Japanese and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese,” by way of ‘introduction?’ No!! (The funny thing is that I can’t - it’s more than I can yet do to say that in Japanese!) But I guess I just can’t expect the same kind of passivity here. That’s what always kills me – expectations.
As far as this incident went, an English-speaking woman from a nearby table got up and defused the situation. I also later apologized to the fellow for my rudeness and told him I thought he was a good boy. He was so drunk, though, that it probably barely registered. The woman advised me to simply ignore him.
We hit Apricot, Plutonia (the name of that café next to Oasis I keep mentioning), and Karo, and we had a really good night, all told. At Plutonia we all played “Mafia,” and I think I finally got the hang of it. At Karo I got some funny pictures and learned just how inscrutable and arcane some women can be.
Today we were hoping to meet the NetCorps people, but we will see them tomorrow, we think. We’re not really sure when they’re coming, because we haven’t had the fortitude to force a straight answer out of any of their coordinators. I guess in a sense it’s not entirely our business, but since many of us have friends on that team, we’d sure like to know when to have an unofficial party, if you gather me. Update: The NetCorps team will be here on Friday, for reasons I’ll discuss later – basically, their flights got screwed up.
As a final note, I already had great respect for Eduard before any of this ever happened. Now I have enormous respect. He’s great for keeping his cool in stressful situations and he often knows just the right way to deal with certain incidents. I wouldn’t have any other coordinator.