5. 16 Kilos of Salt

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Original date: SEPT 29

16 Kilos of Salt

Mene zvaty Sasha. My name is Sasha. This is one of the new things for me about living in Ukraine. Everything is different for me here, even my name.

Today was my first full day with my host family. Before I go to far into details though, let me first give you some mini cultural lessons about Ukraine:

  1. Ukraine has a long, long, long history of hardship, violence, and oppression. As a result, people tend to be guarded and wary of strangers. People don’t generally acknowledge, look at, or say hi to strangers or people they pass on the street or see in the market.
  2. However, with their close family and friends (people they already know they can trust) they are incredibly open. People care about you, call you only by pet names and nicknames, want you to be happy, and give you all the love, hugs, food, tea, and care you could want. I’m particularly excited about the tea part. J

As a member of the Peace Corps, among my host family and friends, I am welcomed with open arms (literally), lots of smiles, and incredible hospitality. My “mama’s” name is Natasha. She is so sweet. She has two grown children (Sasha—Alexander, and Jania) who no longer live at home, plus one dog and two of the cutest cats I’ve ever seen (they’re tiny!) My house is relatively big, and very nice. We live on the outskirts of Kaharlik, a pretty big town in the Kyiv oblast (region). There is running water in two sinks. But the toilet is outside and we take bucket showers. I love this house and I love my room. There are carpets everywhere (even on walls and on beds). And Natasha is amazing too. She’s always worrying about me…am I cold? hungry? do I need anything? do I want tea? do you need me to walk you to class?  do I need special water (the answer is yes, btw…we weak “Amerekanets” have to drink bottled water)

It’s kind of like being 4 years old again. And I really do feel like it…I have to be taught how to do everything, as a lot is different here. I’ve had to be shown how to take a bath, how to use the sink, how to turn on the stove, how to flush a toilet, how to lock doors, how to open doors, and how to turn on and off lights. It sounds silly, but it’s true. And I haven’t even started talking about how much like a child I feel when trying to speak! When I walk down the street with my “mama” I point excitedly and say “shkoola, poshta, dorojna, and mehazin” (school, post office, road and store), so proud to know these few words. I love Ukrainian. I think it sounds beautiful, and I love learning it, but it sure isn’t easy.

Today I had my first “real” conversation with Natasha. All that was really said was that she is an elementary school teacher, my mom is a teacher, she has one brother (one year younger than she is), her children are students studying biology, chemistry and agro-science. It might not sound like a lot. And it was said in the simplest of language with use of a Ukrainian/English dictionary and charades. However, I felt so accomplished. And I feel kind of justified knowing that I can have that short conversation when just this morning in class, the first thing we did was to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

Language class was great, but long. It was four and a half hours (not counting the two hours when we were sent to map out the town and find lunch). I love our LCF, Katia. She is really wonderful—patient and helpful and kind. I’m glad to be spending the next few months studying under her.

After class Angie’s host mom came to pick her up and to take the two of us to meet another host family that is getting their PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) on Friday. All of our host families know each other. This new family lived really close to school and this was where I got to see real Ukrainian hospitality in action. We walked into the house and were immediately presented with borrowed slippers to wear (no one ever wears shoes in the house). We were asked simple questions in Ukrainian and everyone was so pleased with us. The mother actually told us that she had seen us in the market earlier that day, and known we were Amerekanka, but didn’t realize we were the PCVs. (There is no hiding for us Amerekanka here in town…everyone knows we’re different! J) Then we were given a tour of the house. We were fed (another mini cultural lesson: no Ukrainian will ever let you enter their house without providing you with food!), given tea, and then convinced to stay at the house for awhile and do our homework in the spare room. While we were working, she brought us more tea, fruit, candy, and cake (drank the tea, ate some fruit, but politely refused the rest). Then when we finally were leaving, they insisted on walking us home.

I know that very soon things will be frustrating, difficult, and hard, but right now, I love Ukraine. There is a Ukrainian proverb that says: two people are only friends when they have eaten 16 kilos of salt together. It shows how long you have to know a person before you feel you can trust them. You have to have eaten together, but also cried together, laughed together, struggled together, and celebrated together for years. However, the Ukrainians I’ve met, seem to have associated me with the Peace Corps, and you can tell that Peace Corps has done a good job here, and made a good impression. Peace Corps has been here, and helped people, and made a few good changes. Peace Corps has shared 16 kilos of salt with some of the Ukrainian people, and they’re now awarding their trust and friendship and love to me as a PCV. I hope I can live up to my side of the relationship, and offer love, help, and friendship in exchange too.

Ya lyoobylyoo Ukriaina. I like (I would say love, but I don’t know that word yet) Ukraine.

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