Eleven years ago, Courtney was a spirited 20-something adventurer stationed half way across the world in Bashtanka where she worked as an English teacher for the Peace Corps. The following email was written to her beloved grandmother at the beginning of a two year journey that would teach her much about life’s challenges and how to give them the time they deserve. So here’s a PSA to all the hipsters and millennials bouncing from country to country living off of the air of their dreams and Instagram likes: Before there were iPhones, there was Courtney in a little Ukranian town.
. . .
A thank you to my “Grams” who has always been a gifted listener, huge support, and inspirational force during life’s many ups and downs.
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Date: Wed, Feb 22, 2006
i have been thinking about you so much, and keep wanting to sit down and write out a 20 page account of my new life here and tell you all the details, but i never seem to have that kind of time, so one of these days i’ll send you the fattest letter ever, but for now, i have half an hour left at our local (4 computer- really local) internet cafe, so i’m going to get as much in as possible, but don’t expect faulkner.
so here i am, in bashtanka, living with a host family in a very ukrainian house, teaching english at a small school for advanced students, sipping coffee at any one of the five cafes in our town, making friends in a “shaping” (i.e. exercise) class, and receiving your packages and an assortment of letters at my little p.o. box at the post office. this is my life. at first it seemed very simple– too simple. it is a far cry from the new york city life i had last summer and more the ann arbor life i loved so much while in college. these included a full schedule, access to anything and everything, friends, etc. things just happen at a slower pace here… this hit me really hard during the first couple weeks in january:
we (the “we” is referring to ti and i. ti is one of my very best friends, is from georgia, just graduated as well, is one of the most refreshing people ever… very blunt, very social, and hilarious) arrived at the dark and steamy bashtanka train station at 5 a.m. on the 26th of december, where we were greeted with unprecedented hospitality by our coordinators whom we had only just met during our site visit, and were driven to our host families to unpack and begin our lives here. this began a series of festivities: we celebrated the new year, orthodox christmas (jan 6th), and the ‘old new year’ (the soviet new year on the 14th of jan), and began to form what is now a very close friendship with our families and some other people in the community.
our ukrainian hosts celebrated by setting their table (buffets are unheard of), inviting over 20 of their closest friends and family, making sure there was a plentiful supply of homemade vodka (samagon) and giving toast after toast wishing each other good health and good fortune and much happiness. among many of the widely accepted beliefs here is that as long as you eat while you are drinking, you won’t get drunk. after four hours of ukrainian songs, some political conversations, a few minutes devoted to the town rumor mill, and a run-through of the whereabouts of anyone the people at the table had ever met, everyone left, red in the face, swaying, and smiling.
ti and i had many cultural exchanges in this fashion and have mastered the art of moderation. during the holidays her host brother was home from his masters program for about two weeks, and in this time, we have developed a very healthy, and platonic yet playful rapport with him… he is a history student at the best university in kyiv. although he is pale from a lifetime at the library, he is also social with us and took us out, introduced us to his friends, and is this super intellectual who has an english vocabulary which consists of basic conversation lexicon, scientific latin cognates, and sexual terms and swear words from movies… that plus the russian accent make him really fun to hang out with.
anyway, ti and i were having a good time at the start of the year. we started teaching at our respective schools. then it got cold. and grams, this was no michigan about-to-freeze-your-fingers-and-toes-off weather. this was chilling, thisclose-to-losing-major-extremities-such-as-your-legs weather. biting, chilling, frigid to the core. the government closed down all schools, the buses stopped running to mykolaiv (the major city near our town), and our host mothers would only let us go outside for moments at a time. all for good reason, it got to be negative 30 degrees celcius on the coldest day, and didn’t rise above negative 23 celcius all week. so you can imagine what house arrest does to a person… especially for a full week in a new country. i had time to ruminate on everything about this place that made me crazy: the fact that people think eating honey will keep you warm, the fact that men won’t shake hands with women, and especially the fact that everyone seems to be in everyone’s business, and that people JUDGE especially if you are a teacher, and most especially if you are a foreign teacher… i always have to be so CAREFUL about EVERYTHING.
instead of growing as a person during all that down time, i was just trying to keep myself from falling off my rocker.
but ‘such is life’, as they say here, those ups and downs, and there are always those silver linings. it’s just i’ve never had to look so hard. after some good talks with home, with ti, some letters from the people i love back home (THANK YOU!!!), it has been much easier to adjust. the weather got better, we could go outside, the buses began to run back and forth from bashtanka to mykolaiv, and we got something of a life back… it became easier to remember why i’m here… why i chose this.
and when in doubt… join a club. ti and i have a couple official and unofficial clubs we are part of. the first is at our local gym (a big harsh soviet cement building with equipment from 1960’s and a director who tells us which machines will make our breasts perky– because that is allowed here). we joined a shaping class, a group of colorful-wool-homemade-sweater-clad women moving in ways i really doubt are good for you, but if you can’t beat ’em, …. but i love having something to do, and am beginning to put together a schedule, of sorts.
another ‘hobby’ has been to visit our friends in mykolaiv, a city of about 300,000 people about 40 minutes away. because our town is so small, mykolaiv is a place where we can be anonymous and where we have found sactuary in a few favorite cafes. we go in, get a great latte at the ‘pink elephant’ on sovietska street (the walking street, just off the river and lined with shops and restaurants and a cute little park-square thing with a fountain), and talk about all our thoughts and ideas without worrying about people listening.
our ‘mykolaiv family’, other peace corps volunteers who live in mykolaiv, are there and are a really important support system for us here. m— is 28 and is a very laid-back, politically well-versed woman who tells it how it is. j—, also 28, is from hawaii and plays the guitar and writes articles for the pcorps newspaper. b—-, from california, is 40, has been in ukraine for a year and a half, and has not lost a bit of the chill, cares-just-a-little attitude. he is the first to text us a funny message on our phones. w—-, 55, just left mykolaiv to sell her apartment in san francisco, travel the world, and come back to ukraine for a civics youth camp we are all facilitating in the summer. ti and i are the babies, but they love us.
going to mykolaiv has been the biggest stress relief and allows me to avoid feeling trapped by my circumstances. this is a privilege, of course.
it is really gratifying, in a time of my life when i could be an entry-level assistant at some law firm under a florescent light working from a cubicle, to be working with people of a different culture. it is especially rewarding to work with kids during a time when their culture is trying to move away from a soviet mentality. i am focusing on ways to incorporate progressive ideas of democracy and civics into my classes and hope to challenge boundaries and encourage creative thought.
this is my life, now.
i’m thinking about you and miss you so much, grams. i hope you are well, and please keep me updated on your life and what you have been doing lately, you know i love hearing the details!! thank you, too for all the love and support, it means the world to me.
love love love you!
*Feature Image: Market in Bashtanka, Courtney (2006)