Chris’ Work

Work in rural Ukraine for an American volunteer is not particularly straight forward. It’s sort of like shooting from the hip. Sometimes you hit something, sometimes you don’t, and you can never really know why (Did I not play the wind? Was there even a target?). These things are particularly true for the community development program, of which I (Chris) am apart of. So what is it that I do? Well I develop communities.

If that didn’t clear it up, here’s what my actual work looks like.

While I don’t really have a work schedule, I do adhere to one so that there is some consistency. The only things set in stone during the week are english clubs. I do one for the city council, and then a community one that Jessica and I do together where anyone is welcome. Everything else is pretty fluid.

One of my ongoing projects has been working with the director of tourism for our town. One of the things that many Ukrainian organizations need more assistance with and exposure to is data collection and analysis. So for tourism, we just rolled out a digital tourist survey that travelers can take on their phones using a QR code that we are putting in hotels and restaurants, we then also have a tourist booklet map on the horizon (funded by local business sponsorships). While I think it’s really cool that we’re starting to collect this data and offer something new to tourists, what’s even cooler is that my counterpart, the director of tourism, was able to get local businesses to agree to work with us.

Many Ukrainian business owners are very skeptical. Historically, largely due to the fact that Ukraine is an ex-Soviet nation, the people don’t have a very good relationship with government entities. My counterpart would call these businesses and they would be hesitant to accept a meeting, nevertheless she made it happen. Everytime she made it happen. The business owners would ask what we want from them, but we were there to offer them something.

In the coming months, we also hope to be working on a project called “Z-Forum: Democratic & Economic Reforms Training” for female government officials. The background on this is that we have a female mayor who is very passionate about gender equality. So the goal is to equip and empower women in government for the current realities of the Ukrainian state. Right now is a defining moment in Ukraine’s history, and women need a voice in helping to define it.

Speaking of our mayor, ever since the weather got nice, we’ve had picnics with her and her family every Sunday. Sometimes we’re in the forest cooking veal, other times we’re cooking chicken wings and sausages on the riverside. Don’t mind if I do.

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On the way to the picnic

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Riverside chicken wings and sausages

Season of Transition

We have had a lot to enjoy over the last few months, and have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. We just moved into our apartment and had a week-long visit to the city of Lviv for a Peace Corps Training. What’s next is a short vacation to Florence, Italy, spring in Ukraine, and then some large work projects over the summer.

For a couple Americans in Ukraine, living with a host family was strange, but also a huge blessing. We lived with and got to know an amazing and kind family, and we got to experience things we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, especially during the holidays. It was time though to move to our apartment, and it has been a fun adjustment, and nice having our own space and the ability to host guests. The biggest part of being on our own though is that we are now able to buy and cook our own food. Our typical dinners so far have been something like rice, potatoes, or pasta with meat (usually chicken), along with whatever vegetables are available (which in February is mostly just carrots, onions, and bell peppers). It’s nice however to be able to use our own flavor!

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We got to spend Valentines Day in Lviv

The best part about our recent “Project Design Management” training was that it took place in the center of Lviv. It’s an amazing city in western Ukraine (about 6 hours from us), that feels more like a European city than it does a Ukrainian one. Lviv used to be apart of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and therefore was built by mostly by Austrian-Hungarian people, thus making the architecture distinctly less of a post-Soviet style and much more European. Since becoming a Ukrainian city, and mostly within the last 15 years, it has become a big tourism hub, being famous for its chocolate, coffee, craft beer, and it’s “experiential” restaurants. It’s sort of like the Seattle of Ukraine in that sense.

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Before our dinner at a Jewish restaurant in Lviv, this was a hand washing ceremony of sorts. We also had to barter for the price of our meal at the end.

On the horizon for us is a trip to Florence, Italy to both visit a couple friends and to see a long dreamed of destination (for both of us, but especially Chris). We are greatly looking forward to the food of course, but also enjoying a new city with its own history and culture. We then will return to our site with spring right around the corner, and the tourism season along with it. There are also a few projects in the pipeline for both of us. Jessica is working on a  national teacher training event and Chris is working on a national forum for female government officials to inform and equip leaders regarding the ongoing economic and democratic reforms in Ukraine. We will share more on these projects at a later time.

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Jessica peaking out of a rooftop chimney kind of thing. This was at one of those “experiential” restaurants where each floor of the restaurant was a different theme based on Ukrainian legends.

Ukrainian Holidays

The best part about the end of the holiday season in Ukraine is that there’s actually still more holidays. Not only does the Ukrainian holiday season start when the American holiday season ends, but it’s one holiday after another to start every calendar year. Here’s a quick rundown:

January 1st: New Year (aka New New Year)
January 7th: Holy Evening
January 8th: Ukrainian Christmas
January 14th: Orthodox New Year (aka Old New Year)
January 18th: Second Holy Evening
January 19th: Day of Christ’s Baptism
January 22nd: Ukrainian Unity Day

Most holidays are about one thing primarily, which is food. It is for the most part tradiational Ukrainian food with some modern twists like “shashlik” on New Years (basically meat grilled over an open flame) and five different kinds of cake (our favorite is our host mom’s Napoleon cake). Families gather for traditional and hours-long meals. For Ukrainian Christmas, there are 12 traditional dishes, without meat, some of which are only made for Christmas.

Outside of food, there’s a few other traditions. Most notably, for the the Day of Christ’s Baptism, there is the tradition that people will dunk themselves in a river or lake. Keep in mind this is in January, so it’s pretty cold. It’s something along the lines of “Polar Plunge” in the US. We did not partake.

That wraps up the holiday season, but there are still holidays to come. Easter is a big deal here, and we have only heard rumors of hours of upon hours of the Easter celebration. We’ll keep you posted on that.

In the middle of all of this though, we also made time for a holiday party with some fellow volunteers. We enjoyed some American style food made by our own hands. We had a small hotel to ourselves, which was good because we got to speak English uninhibited and Americans are evidently more loud than Ukrainians.

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Some of the appetizers for the volunteer holiday party.

After all of this we had the chance to unwind at a small ski/snow tubing resort. The great thing is that you don’t need to speak the same language in order to have fun sliding down a hill of snow and ice.

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Chris snow tubing with one of our host brothers

Winter and the (American) Holiday Season

We have been at our site for 2 months now, and have entered our last month of living with a host family. During this time, we’ve experienced three American holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years as Volunteers. Ukrainian Christmas and Orthodox New Years will be in a few days.

It has been a lot of fun to share American things with our host family. We made a Thanksgiving meal with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, (and chicken, instead of turkey).

We’ve been introducing them to a variety of other American desserts: brownies, gingerbread cookies, monkey bread, chocolate chip cookies. Brownies and chocolate chip cookies have been subsequently requested when friends of our host-family come over for dinner. Big hit! The gingerbread cookies were a full afternoon affair: the boys in our host family are 12, 8, and 4, and got a huge kick out of cutting the shapes and decorating.

For New Years, we joined our family and the neighbor family for dinner, and rang in the New Year with good food, fun people, and champagne.

On the table are very normal Ukrainian dishes: the purple mound is шуба (shuba), “herring in a fur coat”, layers of herring, potatoes, mayonnaise, and beets. Cheese, pickles, sausage, shredded and marinated carrots, very popular. Behind the sausage is oливье, essentially potato salad, with diced potatoes, onion, peas, sausage, carrots, eggs, pickles, dill, and mayonnaise. In the back corner is a big plate of mandarins, which everyone loves and are also very common at celebratory meals this time of year in this part of Ukraine.

Things also happen here that don’t revolve around food. There was caroling at City Council:

And at the school there was a big concert on the last day of term:

New Years’ Concert on the last day of term: 11th grade students
New Years’ Concert on the last day of term: Dancing around the New Year Tree
New Years’ Concert on the last day of term: 5th graders


For us Americans, the holiday season is over. For Ukrainians, its just getting rolling. Once Ukrainian New Years passes next week, we’ll update with a full description of Ukrainian holidays: St. Nicholas Day, Ukrainian Christmas, Orthodox New Years.

Our New Home

We have arrived. After beginning our Peace Corps journey 11 months ago with the application and arriving in Ukraine 3 months ago for training, we have finally made it to our home for the next 2 years and are now Peace Corp Volunteers.

What this means is that we now begin working with our respective organizations to share our knowledge, skills, and abilities and work to help build up the community we live in. Jessica will work with the teachers and students at one of the local schools, teaching 5th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, while Chris will work with the city council and the Mayor’s office.

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Here is a little bit about our new site. We are in the Ternopil oblast (different from Chernobil, no worries), which is in western Ukraine and is in the Trans-Carpathian area. What that means is that it’s less flat than our Illinois home. In fact, we live in the valley of the Dniester River Canyon with the river surrounding our town on three sides like a peninsula. It makes for a great view both in the town and from above on the canyon ridge.

One of the great benefits to living in the valley of a canyon is something called a micro-climate. Basically, it’s often about 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer here than in the surrounding areas. This will be great for the long Ukrainian winters, but will make for some steamy summers.

The town is very scenic, and it also has an interesting history. Up until WWII, the town was actually Polish, in fact it was a border town between Poland and Austria-Hungary. The Dniester river was the boundary between the two countries (and today is the boundary between the Ternopil and Chernivtsi oblasts) with a bridge that spans the river.

There are some remnants of the Polish in our town, including an interesting stone building which was previously the passport checkpoint, and now is used as a municipal building, including the tourism office. While some of that Polish infrastructure still stands, much of it was destroyed during WWII and by the USSR. It used to be a resort town with thriving tourism on the beaches, hotels, and cafes. While much of that infrastructure is gone, the potential still remains.

 

Zhytomyr, Ukraine – Our Pre-Service Training Site

We have one week left in Zhytomyr before we will move to our permanent site in Western Ukraine. But this has been home for the last 10 week during Pre-Service training and is where we’ve learned how to start navigating life in Ukraine.

The city center:

The main city park in Zhytomyr: Gargarin Park

Shopping in Zhytomyr:

Where we live:

 

We arrived in Zhytomyr on August 20th, and we will leave Zhytomyr and go to Kyiv on October 22nd. After spending 4 days at the Transition to Service conference and meeting our counterparts, we will finally swear-in as Peace Corps Volunteers on October 25th. That evening or the next day we will, accompanied by our counterparts, take a 13 hour train ride to our permanent site, where we will be living for the next 2 years.

Ukrainian Language Learning

Добрий день!

We are about 3/4 of the way through our pre-service training with Peace Corps. The weather is turning to fall, we have our site placement, and the Ukrainian language is really difficult. Ukraine has a mixture of languages, those being Ukrainian, Russian, and Surzhyk (a blending of the two languages). Russian is spoken primarily in the cities, and in the south and east of the country. The community in which we will be working speaks classical Ukrainian.

Language learning is the catalyst for so much of our success in Ukraine. This, however, is probably the most difficult part of our training. We have about 4 hours per day of language classes with our cluster, then we are able to practice with our host families and in public. Nevertheless, learning is slow for both of us.

A few of our milestones with language are ordering food in a cafe/restaurant, shopping at the bazaar, being able to ask for directions (not that we can totally understand directions once they’re given, though), and being able to talk about where we live (both our cities and our homes).

Forming sentences

An activity for the creation of sentences using “to go” and prepositions.

As native English speakers, part of what makes Ukrainian difficult for us, in addition to the new alphabet (our names: кріс і джессіка старберд) and pronunciation patterns, is the concept of cases. The Ukrainian language has 7 cases, which means that words change, depending on how they are being used, into 7 variations of that 1 word.

For example: школа (school), can also be школі, школу, школи, depending on the sentence around it. This applies to pretty much all nouns, and adjectives, and adverbs, (and prepositions?) which also change depending on singular/plural and gender (masculine, feminine, neutral).

This is in addition to the other manners in which words change, for example, tenses of verbs or to move from singular nouns to plural.

Also, like English, even given this grammatical framework, there are even still exceptions with some words.

We are however comforted to know that we both will have some English speaking co-workers. This will go a long way in helping us to have a smooth transition into our respective jobs.

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Just a few questions in Ukrainian to answer in language class