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.

Pre-Service Training

On October 25th we will be sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and will move to our site in Ukraine (location TBA). The period from now until then is known as Pre-Service Training (PST) and we are known as trainees, not volunteers. Trainees are divided into “clusters,” groups of 4-6. Chris’ group has 6, Jessica’s has 5, and trainees are divided by their sector. So Chris is only with Community Development trainees, and Jessica is only with TEFL trainees. We are spending most of our waking hours with these people; everything in PST is done with our clusters.

During PST we have 4-6 hours of language training a day. It is lengthy. It is learning how to learn, because there is just so much material. It is rigorous. In school, the amount of material we are covering would take about 6 month. We are doing it in 9-10 weeks. Leading these intensive language sessions are LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators), Ukrainians. Our LCF are both language instructors, and are responsible for helping us navigate this new country and the cultural norms here.

During language lessons, first, we receive a list of vocabulary, then work on practicing it through pronunciation repetition, games, and flashcards, then apply it through dialogues and role-plays, using a growing repertoire of grammatical principles. Because we are living with host families who speak Ukrainian, we have ample opportunity to hear and practice this language after class as well.

In addition to language learning, there is a technical portion of PST which is different for each of us because Chris is serving in the Community Development (CD) sector, and Jessica is serving in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

Chris: My technical training is a combination of workshop sessions with a Technical Facilitator (TCF), and practical application in working with two partner organizations in Zhytomyr. Workshop topics range from how to work with language interpreters to designing lesson plans for a English Club or a Workshop. We take a lot of what we learn in these workshops and apply it in the organizations that we are partnered with. Our cluster is assigned the Zhytomyr Oblast Department of Economic, Agricultural, and Industrial Development and a local NGO that does animal protection.

There are three steps that we perform with both organizations. The first is performing what is called an Organizational Capacity Assessment (OCA). This is basically to find out what they have, what they do well, and what is an opportunity for improvement. With that OCA, we also put together an 6 month action plan for them to work from after we leave Zhytomyr at the end of October. The second step is English Club. We have offered this to every organization because it is both a great skill to share and a great to get acquainted with the community. The third step is to perform a workshop for both organizations. Typically, the topic of this workshop is something that is revealed through the OCA and is a good opportunity for the organization to grow.


Chris’ Cluster at the bazaar (in front of fresh milk)

Jessica: My technical training is comprised of weekly workshops with my TCF and partnering with a local school to co-teach English classes. We have workshops on “Teaching Young Learners,” “Lesson Formatting,” etc. Then in the schools, with Ukrainian teacher counterparts, I am also observing 6 lessons, team-teaching 3 lessons, and independently teaching 3 lessons. My students during this period will range from 2nd-5th form (grade). Additionally, my cluster will facilitate 6 English Club sessions.

For both of us, there is also tutoring (technical and language) and Inter-Cultural Competency workshops led by our LCFs and TCFs. It is a whirlwind, and we’ve heard that the pace slows down some when we get to site and have more of a rhythm and consistent schedule.

Packing for Peace Corps Ukraine

According to Peace Crops guidelines, we get “two checked pieces of luggage with combined dimensions of both pieces not to exceed 107 inches (length + width + height)… with a maximum weight of 50 pounds per bag“. So, basically:

All packed

the first leg of what will be lots of travel

We’d been saying for weeks that we’d be fine, it was so much space! Those suitcases are massive! How can people struggle to fit everything they need! Other people must over-pack so much!

Then we actually started packing, and realized that, in fact, sweaters and shoes take up a massive amount of space. So do winter boots and coats. And actually we both needed at least 100 of those 107 allotted inches. Oops. It was supposed to be an hour or two of putting stuff in suitcases and turned into a 7 hour marathon of spreading all of our things across our room, doing laundry, folding clothes, manipulating packing cubes, and making decisions about what really mattered.

Jess' mess of a suitcase #1

stuff strewn across the room because this was harder than we thought it’d be

Personally, I kept getting frustrated with the packing cubes, because I felt like there were nooks and crannies that I could sneak another pair of socks or something into, which the packing cubes made me miss out on. But Chris was the brilliant voice of reason that the great utility of packing cubes isn’t the actual packing/space, but the keeping one organized upon reopening the suitcase. Now that we are living out of these suitcases, he was 100% correct. Get some packing cubes. Worth it.

Packing for Ukraine

killin’ it with the packing cubes


Peace Corps Ukraine Packing List

Jessica: So I am known for over-packing. It’s usually an issue. But I’m also a super Type-A compulsive researcher and Excel-lover, so 4 months before we were set to leave I spent a Saturday morning combing through the internet and every PC Ukraine blog that I could find and assembled a cross-referenced, fully detailed, color-coded, Excel packing list with the exact items I owned and which I needed to buy then updated it as time progressed. Necessary? No. Did it keep me from adding an extra dress or two? Also no. But it made me feel prepared, so worth it! (This was also the reason Chris did not write a packing list; I was going to obsess enough for both of us.)

I’ll update this list when we arrive, because most likely I over-packed and missed some things that I’ll be wishing I spent the precious space on, but this is what I’m taking: Jess’ Peace Corps Ukraine Packing List (PDF)

In addition to the items like those on that list, Chris also has a good kitchen knife, a honing rod, and a measuring cup with metric and standard markings.

TEFL Peace Corps Packing List

Barring the 2 coats, 2 pairs of boots, and blanket, all of that went into one 28-inch rolling suitcase. But, I’m a TEFL volunteer and a teacher by trade, so I really wanted to bring teaching supplies and have been on the lookout for months for good tools. This is what I brought, and it, plus the 2 coats, 2 pairs of boots, and a fleece blanket, fit in a 23-inch rolling suitcase:

TEFL Teaching Tools for PC Ukraine

teaching supplies for TEFL

1 binder with dividers (for pre-service training)
Realia (menus for teaching food and ordering etiquette and 1 gallon Zip-Loc bag full of laminated scenes from American magazines)
1 flat clipboard
Expo Markers (and 15 laminated white sheets of paper)
15 EIU pens to give as prizes
50 States early reader book
Motivational Stickers
150 “Hello My Name is …” stickers (for English clubs)
4 inflatable dice
10 regular dice
1 deck of alphabet flashcards with animals
1 deck of English shapes and colors cards
1 USA Map
1 inflatable globe
Binder & paper clips
1 stapler & staples & staple remover
1 small calendar from Obvious State
1 Hate Has No Home Here sticker
Hole Punch
White Out
3 packs of index cards and a case for them (for pre-service training, not teaching)

The Dollar Store and the “dollar” section at Target were incredible for acquiring stuff on the cheap. But, most of this teaching stuff I expect to mostly stay packed away until we get to the placement site and I’m at the school in which I’ll be working.

And some of the things on this list definitely seem frivolous (small calendar, blanket, two paperbacks) but one of the things I kept reading on other PCV blogs was that almost no one regretted bringing some things that made them smile or made a host-family’s room seem more like a home.