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

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.

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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.

First Impressions

We have been in Ukraine now for a couple weeks. Upon arrival in country we spent the first week in Irpin, learning the basics of Peace Corps service in Ukraine, then moved in to our homes for the next 2 months with our host families in Zhytomyr. While we are still in the adjustment period, there are a few things that have struck us in our limited time here.

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A walk in the park

  1. The Ukrainian people we have met are tremendously positive and proud of their country and their home cities. The people are working to move forward to make their country and cities even better. This is where Peace Corps comes in, to provide support in that process.
  2. There is a very high sense of hospitality in Ukraine. We are both spending time living with separate host families. When we come home from a long day of training, we are each offered an array of sweets, coffee, tea, or an entire meal.
  3. For TEFL project in Ukraine, it is stressed to us by Peace Corps staff that we are not present here solely to be native-speaking English teachers. Ukraine does not lack good, well-educated teachers, they are well trained in universities across the country. We are here to model student-centered approaches, differentiation, and the integration of confidence and critical thinking skills, as well as to help with the implementation of a massive reform, the New Ukrainian Schools, which began September 1.
  4. Meanwhile, the Community Development project methods in Ukraine have just been revamped and our group is the first to use this new format. There is a lot of emphasis on relationship building and communicating organizational/technical skills in a more simple manner (i.e. strip away the business jargon). Furthermore, in order to provide sustainable change, volunteers will work with their assigned organization to co-facilitate, co-train, co-create, etc. The idea is that Peace Corps is not here to dictate what should be done differently, rather working with Ukrainians to improve what they already have.
  5. Ukraine is going through a lot of changes right now. As a result of the revolution in 2014, there is an ongoing overhaul of federal, oblast, and municipal governments. The big idea is that the government is in the process of decentralizing many services and operations (something us Americans take for granted; can you imagine having to go to the federal government to get a drivers license?) The goal of this process to give more power to local governments.

For now, our days are spent learning Ukrainian for 4 hours, then another few hours of technical training and practicums. These are some long days, but we’re tough. More on that later…