I spent my final weekend in Ukraine curled up on a bed in Szabina’s house, fighting off a cold and slogging through Wuthering Hights (but now I can say that I’ve read it and have the right to critique it, which was the point).  Szabina’s mother made lovely food, I drank lots of honey-laden tea, Szabina gave me a tour of the marvelous garden (plus pig), and I worried about how to get my suitcases back to the States.

I tried to concentrate on not being sick rather than on all the things I knew I would miss as soon I walked across the border.  I allowed my feelings of anticipation to build walls between me and my more melancholic musings; these walls were, at that moment, just what I needed.  I had a long, tiring journey ahead of me: a car ride, a walk across the border, a bus ride, a train ride, a taxi ride, another taxi ride, a few plane rides … each of these legs of the journey made with 100 more pounds of luggage than a person could possibly need.  (And to top it off, while in the  1/4 mile no-man’s land between the Ukrainian and Hungarian border checkpoints, the monster-est suitcase’s wheel broke.) I brought this literal burden on myself, of course, even though I did leave behind a winter coat, boots, several sweaters and other sundry clothing items, various large bottles of things, and a few books.  But there were jars of jam, honey, and peppers to bring back, swaths of homemade embroidery, books in Hungarian, my own faithful books, pieces of pottery.

It was necessary, of course, to part with things like Her Royal Worshipfulness Princess Leia the petunia, my trusty very blue comforter, my nifty tea towels (most often used to keep my snack bread fresh), the sturdy wardrobes at each end of the room, a piece of cloth in Edit’s sewing room that I had been planning to work with but just couldn’t squeeze in to the bulging bags.  These were familiar and comforting things, everyday objects as a part of my everyday landscape.  A landscape of plaster walls, gullied sidewalks, disappearing-act mountains, sparkle-bedecked clothing, bicycle wheels, school rooms, and laden dinner tables.  These were all the things I was not thinking about during my final visit to Szabina’s house and that I do not stop thinking about now.

And also these:

There is very little left for me to say.  As I unloaded my suitcases from Szabina’s family car at the border, Timi (the mother of 8 children) drove by and honked and waved at me.  Just as if it were any ordinary day in which our paths crossed and not the day I left.  And I’m glad it was that way because I am too inclined to make things so formal and final and irretrievable.  But a wave and a honk of greeting slowed down that finality and reminded me that this border crossing was not the end of a chapter because life is not a book.  While it’s very handy sometimes to look at life like a story, and even more helpful to seek out the narrative arcs in our experiences, our lives are too big – and too small – to make up one, neat, self-contained narrative.  So who am I to put a period at the end of a sentence that I don’t even fully understand yet?

This is not just about not knowing when I will return to Ukraine but also about not knowing all the ripples and effects of the year, not knowing what will boomerang back into my life and what will be forgotten, what threads will continue and which will end.  I know nothing, and it is all beyond my control – which is exactly like every other border crossing I’ve experienced.

Now that I have crossed the border, I am no longer the transcarpathian sojourner.  But I am still a sojourner, and I invite you to follow my musings and my adventures at the sojourner at home, my next blogging endeavor.  I’m afraid that in this new blog I will not be able to tempt you with promises of cute children pictures and amusing cultural misunderstandings, but when a person approaches every dwelling place as a sojourner, it makes everything infinitely more interesting.

Posted in border crossings, change, photography, Travel | Leave a comment

English Camp

After graduation – and by after graduation I mean only about 2 hours later – my dear friend Kathleen crossed the border into Ukraine to come visit me.  A few days later, we were off to visit more southern places.  A couple hostels, couch-surfing stays, dips in the Adriatic, all-day bus rides, and a quick and unintentional jaunt into Bosnia later, I was back in Ukraine for a final two weeks of English camp at the Péterfalva school. While I was once again in charge of skits and theatre, I decided to shake things up this year.  For the first few days, students read and re-wrote folk tales, preparing them for performance; next came the polishing and the rehearsals.  It was an untried and imperfect method, but it helped the students to own the material and really understand the stories they were telling.

A few of my favorites:

The Empress’s New Clothes

The Princess and the Frog:

And The Golden Goose:

Besides our theatrical pursuits, there were the normal, more traditional classes, sports, river trips, and mountain hikes.

I also taught Self-Defense classes for the girls.  From my journal:

After the rape of [a woman in our community], I was talking with Szabina about the incident, and I mentioned that in college I had taken a women’s self defense course.  A little later, at dinner, she asked me if I would be willing to share these skills with the girls at the school.  I said of course, and immediately got very excited and very nervous.  I emailed my old self defense teacher after finding her address online.  I explained to her the situation and asked if she had material I could use.  All my class material was in a box somewhere in Michigan or Indiana […] She gladly sent me a host of material and suggestions for what format to use to present it.  Because of scheduling difficulties, I wasn’t able to lead the session until now.  I say lead because I was never trained to teach self defense, and I don’t feel qualified.  [I was] just one woman sharing what I had learned with other women.  I asked the students to think the same.  

It was an hour and fifteen minute session.  We talked about how to prevent situations of sexual assault, some of the psychology of an assault, clarified some misconceptions.  Then we practiced physical techniques – releases and strikes.  The girls were surprisingly candid during the discussion/lecture part.  It was the physical part that was more difficult to get them fully involved in.  We did “huya!” noises with our strikes, or rather, I did, and they were startled by the sounds they could make.  It think trying to be strong was embarrassing for them.

Overall, though, I think the class went well.

After the final performances on the last Friday morning, there was a flurry of goodbyes.  My stomach gets flippity just thinking about it.  There wasn’t enough time to tell each student how much I appreciated them and hoped for them.  We were so accustomed to being a part of each other’s lives that, as I piled my things into Szabina’s family car and waited for her and her father to finish buying cucumbers, I couldn’t imagine that I had really watched everyone drive away and leave me sitting on the steps with my suitcase.  And that my time remaining in Ukraine could be counted in hours.  I could not imagine dropping this life I had so carefully and painfully built up and trying to rebuild the leftovers from my former life.  Airplanes usually cover spaces much faster than we ourselves can.

Posted in boarding schools, Péterfalva, teaching, theatre, writing | Leave a comment

Hello, goodbye

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.

Posted in Beregszasz, boarding schools, border crossings, change, dancing, friends, Péterfalva | Leave a comment

Pomp and Circumstance

My friends, I apologize for my long silence.  Returning to the states has been an overwhelming venture, and I find myself lost every time I remember Ukraine and how far away I am from everything that was a part of my life’s most recent year.  I hope to finish out a few stories if you are patient enough to join me. 

Graduation ceremonies are not something I typically wait for with eager excitement.  The elation I felt when I could finally throw my college cap in the air say, “I’m DONE!” was, of course, unparalleled.  But what shenanigans we had to get through to get there.

I suppose Hungarians might feel the same way about their graduations, but the nervous energy that pulsed through the dormitory and the schoolyard on the day of the ceremony felt more akin to a theatrical performance than anything else.   I had watched the cleaning ladies scour the school and listened to the third years practice their songs.  Second-year Ági had practiced on my hair in order to give me a very Transcarpathian hair-do on the day of the ceremony, but I had a pounding head ache that day that I was barely keeping at bay, and the hair style required tight braids covering my head, so I had to forgo that option and twist my own hair off of my overheated neck.  I did not mourn the loss Ági’s expert braiding too much because, as much as everyone oooo-ed and ahhhh-ed after the practice hair style was finished, I had always thought that this particular hair style made people look like cocker spaniels, and I was no exception.

Even without the special hair-do, I felt so excited about everything that I put on make-up for the first time in over a year, turned my observation skills up several notches, and sat very impatiently in the teachers’ room where we all fanned ourselves impatiently.  The courtyard had been set up with all the benches and chairs the school had to offer.  Everything had been decorated with garden flowers—petals spread in designs on the patches of grass in the courtyard, flowers and vines wound around the banisters and taped to the chalk boards, more petals lining the hallways.  Each of us had dressed in our best clothes, the students in the uniforms they wore for church on Sunday.

The pastor, János, led the teachers in prayer, and half-way through, we could hear the third-years begin their singing as they processes through the building.  They started in their own classroom, standing in a long line with their left hand on the shoulder in front of them.  Szabina lead them at the front of the line in a position usually held by the class teacher, but the class teacher, with a broken arm and an injured foot, waited to lead until the line had moved away from stairs and out of doors.

In Transcarpathia, traffic stops for weddings, funerals, cows, and graduation processions.  The line of students snaked across the road.  Buses, soviet cars, and semis waited for everyone to cross to the church.  The service was about an hour and incomprehensible (for me) as usual.  Afterwards we all processed back to the school courtyard for the actual ceremony.

Once again, my comprehension level was not high, not of the words anyway.  But the spirit of it all came through.  There was in this courtyard ceremony a sense of solemnity and ritual usually lacking in similar US happenings.  But it was not forced.  The second-years gifted the graduating third-years with staffs and bags for their next “journey.”  The third-years passed the mantle onto the younger students.  The speakers were varied and the talk was long, but the students did not shift uncomfortably where they stood but listened attentively.  The singing was cheesy but moving.  All in all, the graduation exercises lasted over three hours, but no-one was complaining.  Only the dearest loved ones had attended, and of course they couldn’t get enough of the their graduate standing smiling before us all.  When the students presented flowers to all the teachers, I beamed at the English student who brought me my rose and spoke a careful “thank-you.”  I felt like cheering when everything was finished, though not because the long ceremony was finally over.  I reveled in the accomplishments of all the Péterfalva students smiling so happily with their diplomas in hand.

This, my friends, is pomp and circumstance in the most delightful sense of the words.

Posted in boarding schools, Hungarian traditions, Péterfalva | 1 Comment

how to live alone well – installment 5

7) get crafty 

Save every piece of paper – tickets, receipts, brochures – browse through buttons, collect yarn, sit in the sewing room with Edit …

… though, of course, sewing with Edit is not being alone.  When Edit goes home, I bring my work to my own room.  Below is the result of a sampler-esque embroidery project for my friend Kathleen:

I also gave a makeover to a sweater I received.  The “before” picture, reflecting the color of the walls, looks more interesting than it looked in real life.  The appliqués were plastic and flimsy and shiny and not at all my cup of tea.  So I cut them all off and scoured Edit’s sewing room for buttons.

Before                                                                    After


Saving interesting things that come across your path can also provide endless entertainment.  Find yourself with an old piece of stationary, a cork, a small wooden shingle and some matches?  Behold the result.

Posted in just for fun, living alone | 3 Comments

Still here

Last night in Europe, friends. But don’t imagine that the blog posts have come so quickly to an end – I have so many things I want to share with you about my final month. So, once I’m no longer hopping from place to place, I will sit down and tell you tales and paint you pictures and bring this year’s story to a close.

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Summer means we can go places

Sure, it was only May, but it was practically summer.  There was no cold wind blowing from the mountains anymore and no lakes of mud to suck us in to our knees.  This means that outings to the river were socially acceptable possibilities and not something that only the crazy American does on her free afternoons….

Posted in change, weather | Leave a comment