For the past 6 years of my life, May has been a time of endings and farewells. That’s the norm of academic life. If an academic’s new year is in September, May becomes a sort of drawn out New Year’s Eve complete with all the wistful reflection and the exhaustion born of a late hour. I don’t think I have ever said goodbye to so many people I might never see again as I did this past May. I tried not to think about it that way at the time; I made promises of keeping in touch and expressed my hope of soon returning. But one never knows what direction life will take, and sometimes the Transcarpathian plains seem farther away than ever.
In Hungarian culture, Szia (pronounced see-ya) is used as a greeting and “hello” is often used to say goodbye. This was not actually as confusing as it sounds, at least not while I was in Ukraine; however, now that I’m back, when I hear someone say “See ya,” I do get a little confused. But who can say what hellos and goodbyes will get turned on their heads someday?
Here’s an entry from my journal about some of my last days in Ukraine. This will tell the story more accurately, if not as articulately, than I can retrospectively:
The mealtimes were strange. I couldn’t help being aware at each one how my meals at the school were dwindling in number. With Eric and Stacy [fellow American teachers] around, the teachers’ table was often very full, and it felt festive.
Because I didn’t have to go to Beregszász on Wednesday, I was able to go with the students to the hospital to visit the abandoned children. Thought I didn’t tell anyone, I was really hoping that Annamaria would still be there. She wasn’t. Which really is good news – it means she can go to a children’s home or be adopted, but I will never know what happened to her. I can never make her happy again.
Thursdsay [May 26] – I tried to get into Beregszász early only to discover that there is not an 8 o’ clock bus. I had been trying to get there in time to teach the preschoolers. Fortunately it worked out to teach them Friday instead. I don’t think I’ve written much about the preschoolers. Each week we sang songs and practiced numbers and colors and learned a few other words. When I would ask them “How are you?” they never remembered to respond in English. But they remembered their colors and numbers pretty well, and they like to sing. There were two classes, and one was very well-behaved and the other remarkably badly behaved.
One of the preschool (óvoda) classes
That preschool class was the only class I had to teach in Beregszász that week, but I had other things to take care of. I met with Magdi and Éva [the English teachers at the school in Beregszász] for the last time at our usual tea and coffee house. We talked and exchanged gifts, and it was all very fast because it was graduation season and there was so much to be done. Last times are so strange. You see people every week and then abruptly nothing. […]
A little after Marielle returned [home to Kriszpont], I got a call from 3rd form Fruzsi of the theatre group asking when we were meeting because they had a school party at 6. I told her that I thought last week (when they accosted me with hugs and barred the door) had been the last week, but she sounded so disappointed that I decided to go for a little while. I used Marielle’s bike, which sped things up bit, and promised all the bustling Kriszpont girls that I would be back in time for their party at 6 o’ clock.
We [the students and I] just met and talked for a little while. They showed me all the decorations that had been done in preparation for the graduation the next day. We also played “freeze” [a theatre game] for a little bit; I had introduced the game several weeks ago and the girls loved it. […]
Six o’ clock approached, and after a repeat of door-barring, hugs, and photos, I hopped on my bike and rode away. Bittersweet.
Things were just starting up at Kriszpont. Anamaria helped me and Marielle figure out what to wear to fit in with the “Retro” theme (we were very curious to find out what retro meant in Transcarpathia). That seemed to mean some sort of 60’s and 80’s combo. And Marielle and I got dressed up quite snazzily. (I have declared that a word.) The dancing was getting off to a slow start downstairs, so I enlisted Mariell’s help to get things a little more lively. I think that was one of the only times in my life I have been one of most willing and more knowledgeable dancers. Really, I can’t dance. But it seems that [modern style] dancing is a more common pastime in the US than in Ukraine […] School dancing is a good deal more formal in Transcarpathia from what I’ve seen; I’ve seen some videos of the Kriszpont girls at what are essentially balls, complete with ballroom group dances and watching parents.
Marielle and I are ready for the party.
But I digress. Suffice it to say I’ve never been in the position to teach a room of people the electric slide. Or been the most enthusiastic person on the floor. Well, I guess Marielle and I shared that title. A lot of the songs were the old swing-ish type, and Marielle and I hopped and bopped and whirled and swung and made up fake choreographies and just delighted in each other’s goofiness. […]
[Eventually] I was tired enough to call it quits. Marielle and I had grand plans of getting up around 5am to walk to Kereszthegy [Cross Mountain], and I wanted to get a reasonable amount of sleep. Knowing that the next morning would be quick, I decided to say goodbye to the Kriszpont girls that night; I wasn’t sure if they would be around the next Monday when I came with Kathleen. It turned out most of them wouldn’t [be around], so I explained to them that this would be the last time I saw many of the girls. I wonder if I looked as sad as they did. I wonder why I didn’t work to know them better.
All the Kriszpont girls (besides me and Marielle) are in white.
I think it was Edina or Anamaria who gathered all the Kriszpont girls together to one part of the dance floor. At first we formed a small circle, stepping and jumping in time. Then they called me to the center of the circle, and I danced inside. All the Kriszpont girls continued in a circle, moving in and out and around, and I twirled for all I was worth. That might be one of the best ways to be celebrated.
Marille and I did not manage to make it to the hill; we both slept through our alarms. After bidding her farewell [but not for the final time], I pulled myself out of bed and taught my final preschool lesson. The children were predictably adorable, and I received a lot of gifts. Teacher gifts are so tricky. Do I really want the sparkly dove statue that the Beregszász 1st form gave me? No. But how can I get rid of it? […] One gift I have no problem parting with – the vinyl flowered tablecloth in the gift bag from the 2nd preschool class. (?)
And I have more chocolate than I know how to consume.
The final goodbyes for the Péterfalva staff and students would not have to take place until the end of English camp, so I was glad of a goodbye break – Beregszász was enough to handle for the time being. And with the next Monday’s quick return to Beregszász came the goodbye to Marielle. Dear, dear Marielle, whose move into Kriszpont enabled us to become occasional roommates and closer friends. Marielle, whose guitar picking reminded me of home, whose words of wisdom comforted me, whose confidences gave me problems to work through which were not my own, whose quiet, joyful spirit buoyed me on difficult days. We would practice our Hungarian together, sing Taize songs, take walks, cook dinner, and watch episodes of Gilmore Girls. We were not from the same culture and so had much to teach each other, but our cultures were close enough that we could discuss mutual confusions and frustrations and longings. I didn’t know it that Monday, but Marielle and I would see each other one more time, one evening during English camp when we would walk out to the dyke and east toward the mountains, picking wild plums and wondering where our lives would wander off to next. Goodbyes are, indeed, never quite what you think they are.