31 July 2011

Remembering my life in Ukraine

Just after we moved in, a former student of mine came and visited with her husband. I had seen her a number of years ago when I'd first moved to the Netherlands, but hadn't connected with her until she'd asked if she could stay with me during a trip to Amsterdam. Delighting in the chance to extend hospitality to another, I gladly said yes.

The best part of the visit was remembering. Both my former student and I have had many different experiences in the ten years since we'd lived together in the dormitory in Nagybereg, Ukraine; yet, those years at the gymnasium have certainly remained a unique experience.

I remember crying at the end of that first week in Ukraine - simply from the shock of realizing how much my time there would shape and change me. I had been told I'd share teaching responsibilities with the wife of someone I'd met and respected. Instead, I was sharing the responsibilities with a Ukrainian woman and an older dutch woman, who I quickly realized was not really interested in listening to me. And after a week of living in a foreign country surrounded by a language I did not know, teaching at a level and in a way that I'd had limited experience doing, it did not take much for me to realize that my time there had the possibility for stretching and challenging me enormously.

My former student and I had to laugh about the food and the crazy schedule there. There were almost no vegetables; so the one time a week we got this great tomato, onion, and pepper concoction, I'd try to catch up on all the vegetables I'd missed. Seeing as we'd have it for breakfast, it meant that I'd spend the rest of the day with a stomach that sometimes needed to adjust to this 'foreign' food. And there were, of course, strange foods like pasta and crushed walnuts and tomato sauce with potatoes. And then one time someone found maggots in the food (a result of canned beans that hadn't been sealed properly); that casserole option was quickly banned for the rest of that year.

And as for the schedule? I'd wake up at 5:50, so I could get a hot shower. Breakfast was at 7. Teaching began at 7:30 (although I usually had the first class free - except if the schedule got spontaneously changed the night before - which happened about once a week!). Lunch was at 1:30, chores thereafter, study hall from 4-7, dinner at 7, and quiet time around 9:30. At the end of the second year, I was teaching all of the English classes (and typing classes - a total of about forty 45-minute class sessions per week, of which slightly more than half were minimal to no extra prep-time) - and the only thing that made that crazy schedule bearable was the knowledge that the students were working just as hard.

Amidst the crazy food and the crazy schedule, what made it all bearable was the fact that you knew that we had each other: others would help you out and cared for you. Outside of the school, I had my church and family back home and the students had their families who supported them and wanted very much for them to have this chance to make a different life for themselves. After all, life for Hungarians in that part of Ukraine was hard: financially, physically and emotionally. I don't remember any house in a village that didn't have an outhouse (and with Ukrainian winters, they were freezing!!). And everyone had a story of someone they knew dying tragically on account of poor health care or corruption. When there was flooding in the region during my second year, the students worried that their house (or that of their relatives) might be affected, which would be the end of everything as there was no insurance to protect them or cover their losses. And because of that, one would worry if others from another village might come and sabotage the defenses of another village - in the hopes of causing the damage to go elsewhere and their own property might be saved.

When you're 22 (the age I was when moved there), you have the idea that you can change the world. But at 22, no matter how well-traveled you are or how perceptive you might be, that world is a lot more complicated than you first expect. Living in a village in rural Ukraine, in the middle of the Hungarian-Ukrainian students, I did my best to become part of that world without losing who I was. I came to Ukraine with the hope of  making a difference and change at least a part of the world - and in the end, it was I who was changed (with the hopes that my time there also changed other's lives).

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