A New Normalcy

Epiphanies occur in a host of places. In America, mine often came about in the shower. This is probably due to a habit I purposefully instilled from grade school. I know its cheesy but I’ve sort of always wanted to become a writer. When I was in elementary school, I remember reading an interview of a famous author who said she did her best thinking in the bathtub. I thought this was a great idea and started to sit in an empty bathtub, fully clothed to do my serious, grown-up 8-year-old-thinking. This matured into pensive showers, and I can trace many good ideas, stories or not, to soapy-lathers and pumice boards. I don’t think my pondering pattern would’ve changed had I not moved to Ukraine. I’ve been forced to find new sanctuaries in the past year, as a bucket bath is not nearly as conducive to contemplation as its cousin the shower. Lately my startling realizations have come in two far less sexy places: on the phone and in front of my laptop.

I’ve always enjoyed telling a good story. And my lot in life has cast me plenty of them. My friends and family often remark that an inordinate amount of strange things happen to me. As far back as I can remember, I’ve come home saying, “You won’t believe the day I’ve had.” My ability to find trouble, redemption, and humor all before lunch led my family to categorize my stories as “Claire’s World.” They didn’t come up with it entirely on their own though. I penned that phrase in an elementary miniseries about talking monkeys, tree houses, and babies left in baskets on doorsteps. Basically all the things I thought were missing from my slice of reality. While my penchant for creative writing was short-lived, the phrase stuck. So when I’d call home from Baylor with my famous—and on occasion infamous—refrain about my day, my parents were amused but never surprised. My time in Ukraine has been full of stories. There have been enough goat attacks, (yes, plural), classroom shenanigans, public transportation adventures and language debacles to keep the phone bill exorbitantly high. But lately I’ve encountered something truly bizarre. I don’t feel like I have any stories worth telling. My days are normal and uneventful. In my eyes at least.

It’s 9 p.m. in Ukraine, which means it’s lunchtime in Texas. I’m online chatting with my sister Amber. “What’s new with you?” she asks. “It started snowing this week,” I reply. This was the single-biggest event of my recent history. I was truly appalled when white chunks of ice and powder started cascading from the sky on October 13th.

Autumn, I hardly knew thee.

About thirty minutes passed before Amber grew tired of my descriptions of the barren landscape. “So what else is happening?” she prodded for a subject change. “Oh, not a lot,” then I thought a little harder. “I did get detained by the police this weekend,” I replied. “WHAT?!?” she said. “Spare no detail!” I really wasn’t that pumped about telling the story. For me, it had seemed pretty uneventful, barely worth mentioning. “It’s really not that exciting,” I told her and began to recount the humdrum tale.

My friends and I had decided to take a trip to L’viv to commemorate our first year in Ukraine. We arrived in the city, guidebook in hand, early Saturday morning and hopped on a tram. “This is fun,” my friend Molly said. “We don’t have these in Frankivsk.” After buying three tickets, we took our seats. It had only passed one stop when a woman flashed her badge at us and asked to see our tickets. Smiling, we produced them. Law-abiding citizens that we are, we felt no concern with her request. She told us that we hadn’t followed the rules and needed to pay a fine of 60 UAH. We actually understood her Ukrainian perfectly, but needed a logic translator. How could the tickets be wrong? We bought them on the tram, and besides, we had only gone one stop, even if we bought some low-level ticket, it surely took you this far. Another woman showed up, and they were in no mood for conversation. They began to shout and point to their badges with increasing hostility. Fellow passengers came to our rescue, “Leave the girls alone,” one man said. “This isn’t how we treat people in L’viv.” Sensing they were outnumbered, the badge-welding women demanded that we exit the tram with them.

Out on the street, the confusion escalated. We called our Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer, who is like a magician when it comes to getting Volunteers out of tight spots. They refused to speak with him. Straight-up wouldn’t do it. After about ten minutes of this impasse and us still in the dark as to our alleged crime, we had a stroke of genius—We put him on speakerphone. Suddenly, they couldn’t help but talk. Our victory was premature, however. After a few minutes they stopped and said, “That’s all. I can’t say anymore.” Apparently there is a strict code of secrecy among tram ticket checkers. Although highly tempted to just walk away, at the advice of our SSO, we followed the women to the police station. He assured us it was not a big deal and he would be able to sort it out better with the police.

We walked into the station and the officer looked up kindly at us. Molly flashed a big TV Reporter smile and said “Hello.” Immediately he asked, “Where are you from?” Molly answered, “America.” Now the women were getting even more upset. “They can speak Ukrainian, you know! Don’t believe them if they say they can’t.” To be fair, it did seem prudent at that time to play the I-don’t-speak-the-language-card, even though we had understood nearly every word they had said. Our Ukrainian hadn’t helped, and had somehow landed us in a police station so we decided to fall back on our mother tongue. When I felt a Ukrainian answer was completely necessary, I purposefully spoke with errors. I doubt this had any bearing on the final outcome, but after a few short minutes at the station, we were free to go. And told to make sure we time-stamped our tickets next time we rode the tram. Apparently you can go one stop without it. So the public defenders of L’viv had watched us buy the tickets and waited until we “broke the law” to fine us.

“Like I said, it wasn’t that big of deal,” I typed. But Amber’s digital laughter and exclamations left me doubting the dullness of this story. It did have all my usual components: trouble, redemption, humor and a noon expiration date. Somehow, it had flown below the story-worthy radar. Then I realized this wasn’t the only lead I had buried lately. There was the broken-down bus with a leaking roof that tried to drop off all fifty passengers an hour outside of town, my neighbors who only wash their clothes on delicate cycle because they are afraid of the noise and motion their new washing machine makes, and of course the combination water-gas-electricity outages that accompanied the snowstorm. All of which sound perfectly mundane in my head until I get them down on paper.

One of my friends likened my situation to a disaster zone. “Oh it’s not that bad,” I assured her. Upon further reflection I realized lack of light, heat, and water would probably qualify as a disaster in most parts of the world, but all it meant here was that the students wore gloves in class and we shortened each lesson by fifteen minutes. My family is incredulous that I don’t have pictures of any of these so-called calamites. But it seems weird to take pictures of my ordinary life, even if I am wearing a rain jacket inside a bus while a steady stream of water pours over my head. It’s just another day in Ukraine.

About Claire St. Amant

Claire St. Amant, one of Editor & Publisher's Top 25 Under 35 in the newspaper industry, is a graduate of Baylor University. Claire was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and has also lived in South America. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and D Magazine.