Grapes have seeds and other revelations

I’m fond of saying that I’ve learned a lot in my short time in Peace Corps Ukraine. And one of the more tangible things is a proverb: краше пізно ніж ніколі. It means “better late than never.” And it’s just as true in the U.S. as anywhere. So, here’s a post on my 6 month and two week anniversary in the PC.

In stream-of-consciouness-order, the Top 10 Things I didn’t know about the world until I moved halfway across it :

10. Grapes have seeds. And they’re not the only ones. Those tiny oranges, aka tangerines have ‘em too. Throw in cherries, blueberries, and just about every fruit save the banana and you’ll get the picture. Granted I probably knew this at one point in my life, like before we started genetically modifying our fruits and veggies. But it’s hard to remember what things were like back in the day, which brings me to my next point…

9. You can adjust to almost anything. I went from living in Texas, a hotbed of conservatism, evangelism, Spanglish, country music, and well, heat and humidity, to living in the frozen tundra of Greek Orthodox Ukraine. Pumping water from a well, using an outhouse, hiking 20 minutes in the snow to work, and frequently working without heat and electricity became my norm in just a matter of months. I actually think I prefer a turkish toilet now. Weird.

8. English is really hard to learn. We have like a million words that mean all basically mean “good.” As a native speaker and lover of language, this is grand–a virtual playground of prose. But for the aspiring English student, it can be quite frustrating. I once tried to comfort a colleague by saying that I keep a dictionary at the ready to look up words while reading. She was not encouraged. Besides sheer volume, there are all the irregular conjugations and a whopping 18 tenses. Plus, we have a bunch of silent letters, foreign words that we steal, and the ever-confusing use of prepositions. Oh yeah, and we employ more figures of speech in colloquial language than you can shake a stick at. So thank your lucky stars you were born with an English spoon in your mouth.

7. There are four distinct seasons. In Texas, we have two: Summer and Christmas. Summers in the lone star state are greedy, enviously eying the months from September onward. Rarely, a day or two will escape the sweaty clutches of August and her smoldering sisters to bring forth a cool breeze and perhaps even warrant a hot chocolate or two in December. Rarely. But in Ukraine, I arrived in October to hues of red, orange and yellow. Then, I watched with bated breath as the first snow drifted out and changed the landscape until, well, this week. Spring is here, and I couldn’t be more energized. Every room in my apartment has a window propped open right now, the sunlight beaming in as the birds chirp from still barren, but hopeful, tree branches. The flowers on my window sill are a touch ahead of the game, and are blooming with abandon. Neighbors are out tilling the soil in their kitchen gardens, and the sun doesn’t set until 8 p.m. A full four hours later than in Winter. If the degree of change from Winter to Summer is any indication, I think I’ll be able to wear shorts one day. Sweet.

6. Change, like nickels and dimes, is a luxury. It’s a common occurrence at the store here to be met with a blank stare when you don’t have exact change. And the amount of change on your bill makes no difference. “You don’t have 87 cents?” They ask incredulously. Because they don’t have the 13 either. So, in lieu of the money properly owed to you, a small handful of candy is given in its place. Sometimes just a piece, if  the amount is 10 cents or below. Today I was given the equivalence of 65 cents (6 pieces of candy). But it was ice-cream flavored and quite delightful so I didn’t really mind.

5. Hot, running water is the greatest thing in the world. Say what you will about the cotton gin, the printing press, or even the internet. But I’m siding with steaming showers and the round-the-clock capability to wash your hands without wincing in pain. I didn’t know cold could hurt until I turned on the tap in January in Ukraine. I feel so confident in my opinion not only because I live at a high latitude, but because my friend and fellow PCV in Nicaragua recently said  the same thing. She lives basically on the equator and her biggest complaint was a lack of hot water. And back sweat. But still.

4. American culture is the most pervasive thing on the planet. Sadly, this doesn’t mean democracy, free enterprise, and individualism reign globally. It just means I hear Britney Spears on the radio, see Nike and Adidas logos everywhere, eat Nestle Chocolate, and hear people use words like “Super” and “OK” even though they don’t speak English. Inexplicably, I also witness at least one person wearing something that says  “Miami Dolphins,” “Arizona State University,” or something else as seemingly random daily. I’ve even seen a “Golden State Warriors” starter jacket. There are really no words.

3. Simplicity goes a long way. Most people have heard the joke about how NASA spent millions of dollars formulating a pen that could write in space without the aid of gravity to allow the ink to flow. And the Russians? They used a pencil. I’ve been using a lot of pencils lately. Like instead of making powerpoint slides or showing video-clips in classes that are less than friendly toward technology, we play charades, hangman, and vocabulary tic-tac-toe. As opposed to dryers or dishwashers, I hang my clothes in the bathroom or on my balcony and I rinse plates and use a drying rack. “Why would you pay for air?” I’ve often heard when I explain that we have machines that blow hot air on our shirts and cups, thus rendering clothes lines and dish racks virtually obsolete.

2. People are people. I gotta give a shout-out to PCV Kristi Goldade on this one, for she was the one who coined this phrase, in my lexicon at least. As “other” as everyone seems at first glance in Ukraine, and many times, on the second and fifty-second glance, there are good and bad people everywhere you go. So maybe the old women here wear bonnets and fur boots, rising temperatures be dammed, and they don’t smile at strangers but feel free to stare. When you sit down with them, have a cup of tea, and talk about life, there are too many intrinsic commonalities to get caught up in the differences of language, dress, culture, and social mores. As Obama is fond of saying about people, “The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind is together…those aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart.” That’s applicable to people from California to Louisiana to Maine and for humanity as a whole. Decent people in America can get along with decent people in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea or anywhere else. There are angry, rude, evil people in every country in the world, but the trick is not to characterize a nation by their worst representatives, even when they are sometimes the loudest, or the most accessible examples.

1. Flexibility. I feel like this list has plateaued. And while a “Top 9 List” isn’t exactly conventional, I think I’m going to go with. Sometimes, I walk into class and expect to teach 10th grade and end up with 6th. Sometimes, I end up with no class at all. But, I find a way to make it work, and I’m learning not to let it ruffle my feathers too much. Maybe I’ll go to the gym or the playground and strike up conversations, or plan lessons for tomorrow that are adaptable to a variety of ages and skill levels. Or I’ll just have an early lunch. It always works out, as cliche as it sounds, and the world doesn’t come to an end just because my schedule isn’t set in stone. I’m on a cliche roll. I better stop while I’m ahead. Looks like I’ve got a Top 10 list after all.