Just about two years ago, I completed my Peace Corps service in Ukraine. It’s amazing to me that it’s been so long! How is it that it was more than 48 months ago that I was living in Sosnivka, teaching English, and living off smetana and pelmeni?
I’m getting too old I guess…time is beginning to run as fast as water from the tap.
In any case, to commemorate this anniversary of sorts, I decided to re-post the reflection I wrote at the end of my two years of service. The Peace Corps, as it does for all Volunteers, had a profound effect on the person that I am. It forever altered me, and the course my life would take. This post that I initially wrote in December of 2012 is still one of my favorite pieces. I hope you like it too!
The toughest job you’ll ever love
On your last day as a Volunteer, Peace Corps Ukraine hands you a very long to-do list:
- run to the bank and close your in-country personal and grant bank accounts;
- visit the doctor for you last check-up;
- get about 20 signatures;
- be sure your 3-10 page Description of Service is signed by the Country Director;
- meet with Peace Corps staff for an exit interview;
- return your standard issue smoke detector, fire extinguisher, and space heater (all three of which you’ve never used, but had to lug with you on your 20 hour journeys to and from Kyiv);
- and turn in your Ukrainian residency card.
It’s quite a mundane finale to the two-year-experience-of-a-lifetime that is the Peace Corps.
However the very last thing you do—after every box is checked and every line has been signed—is ring the Close of Service (COS) bell. Hanging in the third floor hallway is an old-fashioned brass bell with a plaque beneath it that reads, “Ringing this bell is reserved for Volunteers on the last day of service. Please respect this tradition.” When a Volunteer rings the bell, the clangs echo throughout the hallways and offices. The Volunteers sitting in our first floor lounge cheer. It’s an exhilarating moment.
But then, well, that’s it. You’re finished. You’re done. You’re no longer a Volunteer with a capital “V.” You become a normal person again.
It is a most bizarre feeling. You ring the bell and the sound sings a song of excitement, relief, joy, and pride. You. Have. Made. It. You survived Ukraine! You’ve completed the lonesome, protracted, and demanding commitment that is the Peace Corps. And the bell assures that everyone in the office hears your clang of relief and pride at being finished with non-potable water, finished with never-quite-clean clothes, finished with winters filled with nothing but potatoes. An incredible burden is lifted; you feel so proud to have borne it so long.
Yet the tolling feels ominous as well. It is sad and cruel. As the bell rings, it seems to steal away the manner in which you’ve identified yourself for more than two years. It signifies the end of a 27-month-long endeavor of integrating into a new culture, of learning to laugh at and appreciate Ukraine’s quirks, and of understanding how to survive the cold winters and hot summers. In a moment, it seems to audibly obliterate your identity. It is an ending hard and fast, and like none other I’ve experienced.
I suppose I should have seen it coming. Twenty-seven months doesn’t disappear in the blink of an eye. Often, it was the complete opposite: weeks felt like months, and months felt like years. Yet somehow the end still arrived abruptly. Suddenly, I was teaching my last lesson, packing boxes to send home, and saying a million goodbyes.
The goodbyes at school were elongated. From the beginning of my final semester, not a day went by that I didn’t have at least one student asking when my last day in Sosnivka would be. Then, two weeks before leaving, I began teaching last lessons for various groups of students. There were farewell gifts and posters.
Finally came the last day of school and my last Ukrainian party. We gathered in a classroom, the desks all pushed together to form one long table laid heavy with sandwiches, vegetables, fruit, sweets, and vodka. Toasts were made in my honor. Gifts were presented. Hugs were exchanged. The most beautiful gift: a hand embroidered traditional rushnyk (towel). The most meaningful: a small, hand bound book from students with messages of love and appreciation. The most memorable: a 3×4 foot framed painting. Ukrainians rarely move, and if they do it’s by car, bus, or train to a nearby village. I was touched by the sentiment, but couldn’t help laughing at the impracticality of giving such a gift to a girl moving away by airplane.
Goodbyes are always hard. But saying goodbye to the girls I’ve mentored was particularly tearful. They’re such sweet, intelligent girls. I’ll miss their playfulness, their laughs, their compassion, and the beautiful mistakes they make when they speak English. It’s incredibly strange saying goodbye to the people you love, knowing full well you may truly never see them again.
Before I began the Peace Corps, I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like. So it’s only fitting that as my service closes, I also spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on how the past two years actually played out. I’ve thought a lot about the beginning, actually: About initially leaving the States and how I felt as I prepared for life in Ukraine. As I was arranging to leave those two years ago, I wrote a reflection on the amount of luggage we Volunteers were allowed to bring with us: two 80-pound checked bags. At the time it seemed impossible. How do you pack away everything you’ll need, your whole life for 27 months, into two measly suitcases? How do you leave your life behind, start a new one, with so little?
But of course, it’s a silly question. The answer was as obvious then as it is now: you can’t. Yet, now, after two years of living simply, the answer rings even clearer. Echoing and clanging through my heart comes the answer to this ridiculous question: YOU CAN’T. You can’t pack away your life into a bag, or even two. It’s impossible. Because my life isn’t my scarves, jeans, makeup, or even my books. My life is me. My life is my thoughts and feelings. My life is Nastia. My life is Olena. My life is Jill and Jessica and Grace. My life is crying with Sofiya, playing with Khristia, and painting eggs with Marichka. It’s taking my first train ride in Ukraine with Lecia, and learning to make Varenyky with Mama Natasha. It’s being frustrated with Ukrainian unpunctuality; it’s sitting in my kitchen during the freezing winters wrapped in layers of clothing and running all the stove burners to stay warm; it’s never feeling fully clean because bucket baths and hand washing just don’t quite cut it. It’s teaching my lessons and traveling by bus, train, and sketchy shared taxis across Ukraine. It’s Ukrainian hospitality, and the hundreds of cups of tea and sweets I’ve shared with people. My life—anyone’s life—and person I am, is all of these things. And of course that all doesn’t need to be packed into a backpack or suitcase—it’s so much more portable, and fits snugly into one’s heart. The love, pain, trepidation, excitement, and memories good and bad that fill your head and heart: that is your life. That is what is most important. That is who you are.
So you might then conclude that just as life cannot be nicely fitted into a packed bag, so your identity cannot be stolen away by the ringing of a bell. It is true that I can no longer enter the Peace Corps office in Kyiv or receive my measly monthly stipend, and my no-fees Peace Corps Passport will expire in 3 months. But I’ll never forget the wonderful people I’ve met as a Volunteer. I’ll never disregard the crazy experience that is the Peace Corps. I’ll always dream of world peace. I’ll always continue working for equality, and understanding, and education. I’ll always believe that each person’s small good works really do change the world. In my heart, I will always be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
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For some more reflections on Peace Corps life, check out these other posts from December of 2010: