A Cross-Cultural Open Gym Experience

Before I found out I was moving to Ukraine, I probably couldn’t have found it on a map. Ukraine, Romania, Georgia, Poland, and Belarus all blended together in my mind when I pictured Eastern Europe and Russia. My prior knowledge primarily consisted of what I had seen in movies and briefly covered in history classes. Basically, I pictured a lot of fur hats, shots of vodka, potato-centered meals, and a love of futbol and hockey.

After learning I would be serving for two years in this part of the world, I tried to learn as much as I could about Ukraine. I read anything I could get my hands on about this part of the world, including children’s books from the library, and I talked to anyone who had ever been to the former Soviet Union.  I heard many interesting tidbits, some about the strength of Ukrainian Cossacks, the national heroes and founders, and many more about food, laughter, and songs.

While I have discovered Ukrainians do indeed love fur hats, vodka, potatoes, futbol and hockey, there was one characteristic missing in all the descriptions I heard: intense volleyball players. 

It makes sense actually, considering snow and ice cover the ground for nearly half the year, that indoor sports would be a popular pastime. But to me, volleyball had distinct correlations to spandex shorts, schoolgirls, and the beach. Not exactly the picture of Ukrainian life.

So after hearing the gym was open on Thursday afternoon for “volleyball,” I was intrigued. I figured there would be mostly girls, and, as my understanding of “open gym” implied, that it would be fairly low-key. I entered the gym with the aforementioned expectations intact.

As I looked out on the brightly-colored court, I saw a hodge-podge of ages and genders. There were 10-year-old boys, young teenage girls, and guys who looked about 19 all out there together. The age range reinforced my feelings of informality, and I hopped right into a passing game with a couple of the young ones.

I like a lot of sports, but volleyball has never really been my thing. You can’t run around enough for my tastes, or steal the ball from anyone, and I usually end up standing around a lot. I’m also not very good at volleyball. I don’t understand how people can hit the ball without injuring themselves.

However, as a lover of competition and exercise in almost all forms, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work up a sweat. With snow covering the ground and daylight hours in short supply, volleyball sounded like my best option for physical activity. And I thought once I got in the gym, there was always the chance I could just play basketball instead.    

After a couple of particularly painful hits bounced off my forearm, I decided to use the volleyball like a basketball. I dribbled, drove down the lane, and shot a lay-up. I was generally enjoying myself when the coach came over to greet me.

Now I must digress for a moment to say our meeting was a pretty big deal to me because he shook my hand. Men do not shake women’s hands in Ukraine. Actually, women do not even shake each other’s hands. Somehow, my presence in the gym bridged the cultural divide. After enthusiastically returning the gesture, I was feeling pretty comfortable with my choice of activity for the evening. It almost seemed like I was back home, in a gym, working out and shaking hands.

 I was brought back to reality when the coach told me I couldn’t play basketball anymore. It was time for volleyball. Although I was confused by what seemed to be a free-for-all gym extravaganza and what I understood in Ukrainian as a structured directive, I said, “Ok, let’s play.”  

He flashed a big grin and blew his whistle. Suddenly, the chaos dissipated and everyone huddled up. He split us into two teams, and the next thing I know, I was lined up at the net opposite a very skilled Ukrainian player.

I’m not even clear on the rules of Volleyball in English, so having them shouted at me in Ukrainian while dodging Vladik’s jump serve was no walk in the park. I had no idea Ukrainians took their volleyball so seriously. I had stumbled right into the middle of a full-fledged match.

The coach whistled players on and off the court, and paused the game to offer technical tips—most often to me and the other shell-shocked American with minimal volleyball experience, Kristi. It was an intense game far unlike the pick-up scenario I’m used to in America. Players who missed a shot were scolded and made to do push-ups or run laps. Kristi and I looked on with a healthy combination of amusement and fear.

We were by far the worst players on our respective teams. And they were all so into it. We tried on several occasions to take ourselves out of the game, but we were waved back on. Some of the players tried to coach us, and we pretended to understand, only to duck and cover the next time a ball came flying in our direction at break-neck speed. In a moment of panic, I actually forgot to run for cover and took a ball directly to the chest, soccer-style. I signaled a thumbs-up to reassure my concerned teammates. Finally, the game was over, and Kristi and I quickly—and sheepishly—headed for the door.

Living in a foreign country is kind of like playing a new sport. Everyone else knows how to act and what to wear, and you spend most of the time with your mouth open trying to understand what’s going on and how to dodge uncomfortable situations. It’s also pretty invigorating. You might get smacked around every once in a while, but if you look hard enough, you can find a friendly face and advice on what to do differently next time.