Monday, July 19, 2010

My trip back to Ukraine Day 1

Yes, I'm going by day. A lot happens in a day on vacation. Especially the first day.

Day 1 - June 18

I flew from Denver to Minneapolis, then Minneapolis to New York. Uneventful. It felt pretty normal going from gate to gate. My ticket across the ocean said, "Request Seat Assignment." They hadn't given me one so I had to get it at the gate. I walked to the gate and felt like I was already in Ukraine. Everyone spoke Russian. "Is it possible to have a window seat?" I asked. It wasn't. I got an aisle seat. For 10 hours, I'd be sitting in an aisle seat in the middle section of the plane. I was grumpy. We boarded, I stowed my luggage and sat in that seat, still grumpy. There weren't even screens in each individual seat, just one on the wall a few seats in front of me.
Minutes later, the stewardess walked by. "Are you alone?" she asked me. "Yes," I said. "Do you want to sit in 5G?" She pointed at business class. "YES!" I said.  I grabbed my stuff and followed her up to the area of wide cushiony seats and miles of space. I put my stuff down, and went back for my carry-on, afraid that if I went back there again, they'd make me stay. I stowed the bag and settled into the delicious feeling of having a window seat after all. A window seat in luxury! I remembered the last time. I'd been upgraded for the four hour flight from Washington D.C. to Denver when I was coming home from the Peace Corps. It had been like a sign that I was coming home at last.

A Ukrainian woman sat next to me who has lived in America for 19 years, so now she's American. I practiced my Ukrainian with her. They brought us supper on table cloths. We got to choose from a menu. I chose lasagna bites. They brought us wine. I drank three glasses. We got to watch movies on the little screens that popped out of the seats. There was a big selection and we could choose anything, and when to start and stop it. AND the seats reclined into almost a flat bed. I slept for six or seven hours and they supplied the earplugs and eye mask. It was magnificent.

When we arrived, we went through customs and I collected my baggage and went out into the sunlight of Ukraine. I remembered the last time I was with my parents here and they lost Dad's bag coming back from Prague. I had a brief moment of fear when I saw someone else grab a red suitcase and thought it was mine and that they thought it was theirs and that I'd never see my stuff again. Why oh why didn't I put tassles or a big blue scrunchie around the handle like Mom always does? I wondered. But then I saw mine and all was well.

Outside, men converged on me for rides. I ignored the taxi drivers and finally accepted a ride from a man who was collecting three other people to ride in his car for 30 hryvnia a piece. He took us to the central train station, and from there I walked down to the Peace Corps office. It was a little bit different this time. I had to get a staff member to come down and escort me, they gave me a badge that said "visitor" on it, and I had to surrender my phone. "It’s a rule," they said. But WHY? I'll go in and call someone to reveal all their secrets? A wonderful woman named Lena met me. She talked to me in Ukrainian, I responded in English 'cause I was embarrassed. I stashed my bags in the baggage room, then headed upstairs to say hi to other people. I visited with my previous manager, Natasha; then went up to the Peace Corps lounge to use the Internet and see if Peter and Katie were there. They said they'd be there. But I missed them. They'd gone for dentist appointments. I saw another acquaintance there, talked to her for awhile, talked to the other volunteers who don’t know me but were interested to know what it's like to be an 'ex-volunteer.'

At about noon, I headed up to the metro station to go meet my friend Anya at her work. In the station, I tried to use one of the self-service machines to put in 10 hrn and get metro tokens. My bill was a little ripped, though, and the machine wouldn't take it. So I got in the long line to get tokens from the woman at the window. When it was my turn, I presented my money to her. She held it up and said something along the lines of, "This is ripped!" I shrugged. So? That’s what I had in a small denomination. She signed and reached for a bottle of glue. The line was long but she wanted to glue the bill. She tried to open the bottle. It was dried shut. She used scissors to pry off the dry part, then rubbed glue on the rips, wiped her fingers off, set it aside, and gave me my tokens. It had taken about two minutes, while people glared from all sides. I took my tokens and got out of there.

I came out of the metro at the Poshtova Ploshcha stop and Anya was waiting above. We squealed like children and hugged so tightly. We missed each other. "I can't believe it!" Anya said over and over. Then we walked back to her workplace. She works for "Bethany Social Services," a nonprofit that helps single-parent families get on their feet with finances, jobs, etc.

A few months ago, I met a woman in Denver through a Ukrainian group who is trying to help a Ukrainian family. The daughter has cystic fibrosis, just like this woman in Denver. The woman had been calling and writing to organizations all over the U.S. and world to try to get aid for this family. The mother doesn't have a lot of money, and the daughter wasn't getting the treatment she needed. I put the Denver woman in contact with Anya in Kiev to see if Bethany Services could help the Ukrainian family. After much communication, my friends in Ukraine are helping the family to get visas (hopefully) to go to America so the daughter can have surgery and the care she needs for this disease. Since I was coming to Ukraine, the Denver woman had given me documents to take to the Kiev woman; a letter of invitation, letter from the doctor saying they'd help, bank account information, etc.

We met the Ukrainian woman (mom of the daughter with CF), at Anya’s work. I gave her the papers and they pored over them.  It seemed everything was in order, so now they just had to wait for the visa interview that mom and daughter would have at the embassy.  Then Anya and I went to eat at Chilentano's Pizza. We talked and talked. It was wonderful. And then, we said goodbye for now and I went back to the PC office and again called for an escort. This time the other Natasha came down. Natasha B. I was going over to her house to sleep that night. We drank tea, then I went up to meet Peter and Katie in the lounge. I'd called and knew they were there this time. Another great reunion. This would probably be our only time to see each other this trip because they were off to do some traveling with Peter's family.

We went to eat at "The Drum," a popular Peace Corps hangout because they serve burgers and fries. Peter and Katie had never been there. We ate and Katie filled me in on gossip. I found the initials that Caitlin, Annie and I had written there on the wall in one of the posters another time. Katie has started a newspaper club at her school! I was so proud and wished I'd done the same. We had had the idea at my school, but never run with it. Katie also let me know that my mark had been left on the teachings in Ukraine. When I taught my two English camps at school, I passed on the lesson plans to Katie. Katie and Peter had also been present at my second camp and knew how I did things. Apparently, Katie has passed on these lessons to everyone in the oblast (region), which means something I did is sustainable, which I hadn't realized would happen. It felt nice to know that I'm remembered and my stuff is used.

After supper, Peter and Katy went to catch a bus to their host family, and I went to meet Natasha B at the PC office to get my baggage. We took a taxi to her apartment and dropped the stuff off.  On the way, she was telling me her philosophy about boys and dating. I don't quite agree with her and it made for an interesting argument. "Wouldn't it be funny if the driver understood us?" she asked me quietly at one point. "I'm sure he doesn't," I said.

When we got to the apartment building, the driver helped to lift my bags out of the trunk. "I like your strategy," he told Natasha. "Strategy?" she asked, confused.  He smiled. "Your strategy about men." She looked at me, shocked, and translated what he'd said. He drove away and we completely cracked up. "He understood everything?" I asked. "Yes," she said. We laughed and laughed. "But that’s not supposed to happen!" I said.

Her place is really nice, modern and clean. We left my stuff there; then we took the metro to Kreshchatyk Street in the center and walked along the street, admiring the view and clean night air. We stopped for a bite at a pub that Natasha likes. Natasha ordered cheese balls, French fries and sausage links. They were delicious; I was surprised how good it all was. She teased me unmercifully about… stuff. We argued more about her guy strategy and other things. It was fun. She's adorable. Then we went back to her apartment. I was feeling dead on my feet at this point. It had been one long day and there was jet lag to consider. "I have hit a wall," I said. "What?" she asked. I told her what that meant, how it happened to me when I had jet lag. I was okay all day, then would come to a point where I just wanted to fall over and sleep immediately. When we laid down on our prospective pull-out couches to sleep, she said, "I've hit the wall." "Yes, almost," I said, "except it's 'hit A wall."

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