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Sweet Solitude

This is my moment of zen. I hesitated to share it with you. In a culture as public and communal as Ukraine, I get territorial about my precious private moments. I took this photo on the coast of the Black Sea, after the rest of my party departed for a nap. It was pretty bold of me to stay behind. I caught more than one disapproving look from my friends as I insisted I would be fine by myself for a few hours. Despite truly enjoying their company, I couldn’t believe the exhalation I had once they disappeared over the hill and I was totally alone. Granted, the beach was packed. A man in a speedo next to me was sunbathing face-up while his naked children built hills of rocks near my head. But they didn’t know me. They didn’t know I was an American. They didn’t know a single thing about me. Freedom. From a town of 8,000 people who routinely tell me what kind of yogurt I like best, where my favorite store is, and what time I usually go to the post office, It was unbelievably refreshing to be anonymous. I kicked up my feet, read Harper’s Magazine, and drank an imported beer. Sweet, sweet solitude never tasted so good.

Parts of the intensely shared life that is my reality are endearing.  Sitting at a table that would be uncomfortable for six in America, there are at least 10 people, elbows touching, plates wedged in at all angles. There’s never a question of enough space. Entire families live in single rooms, people sleep in armchairs, you eat standing up, but you never consider inviting less people over.  In a teacher’s meeting at school, I searched for where the English faculty had congregated. I shuffled over to the back corner, stepping over the physics department, and giving a cordial nod to the geography teachers. I slipped in next to my three friends.  It was halfway through the meeting before I realized we were only using two chairs. Personal space is as scarce as a tortilla chip in Ukraine. But it’s  not only the physical that’s compacted, it’s mental and spiritual spaces as well.

Coming home from my favorite corner store, my neighbor called out to me from her balcony. “I have mail for you,” she said. “From Aaaa-merica.”  She always sings America, giving it a mystical, cheerful quality that I’ve come to revere.  I scamper up the steps, drop off my eggs and bread, and walk into her apartment. “It’s a lot this time,” she says excitedly. “Dance! Dance!” I do a little jig and hand her a souvenir magnet from Crimea. She holds it in her hands like treasure and passes over my stack of mail.

“That one is pictures,” she says pointing to the biggest package which was bulky and heavy. Her grandson Vadik speaks English and read the customs declaration, which was partially honest but purposefully vague. “This one’s from your Riley,” she says winking at me, “and the last one’s not interesting, it’s just work stuff from Washington.” While I’m truly grateful that she picks up my mail when I’m out of town, the unbelievable part is that she not only scrutinizes every envelope, she expects me to open my mail in front of her. If I start to leave or hesitate to rip into them under her watchful eye, she makes small talk about the stamps or the address labels and guesses what she thinks is inside. Despite the fact that opening someone else’s mailbox is a felony back home, I can’t deny her.  Although practically blind and completely illiterate in English, she’s just too earnestly interested in my personal correspondence. I give in. She claps her hands together and hums as I tear across the seal. I translate partial phrases, summarize main ideas, and describe the pictures. She holds the letters in her hands and squints with a magnifying glass for any familiar word. “Ukraine!” she cries at a letter from my friend Janice in the package reportedly containing photographs.

I reveal two large bags of contraband Swedish Fish. My absolute favorite candy. I immediately open one and give her a handful. She squeezes one between her thumb and pointer finger. She smells it. She plops it in her mouth. Chew, chew, chew, chew. Swallow. Gasp! “Was that gum?” she asked with concern pointing to her intestines and making an X with her arms. I assure her it is safe to consume, but she goes back to the kitchen and shows me a pack of gum. She shakes her head and points to her stomach. Even though I have a pretty decent Ukrainian vocab, there are still words like digestion and water soluble that I  don’t know. I pop four fish into my mouth and chew them up. “Mmmm,” I say. “It’s okay, really. You’re supposed to eat them.” Suspicious yet intrigued, a common emotional combo for her, she extends a small coffee cup for me to fill. “For Vadik,” she says.

My two weeks in the Black Sea came complete with an advanced course in group mentality. Traveling in a group of four, I assumed we would have two rooms of two. Instead we pulled two extra beds into one room. It didn’t save any money. The rate was per person. They just wanted to all be together. All the time. We woke up at the same time and ate the same meals at the same time. If someone bought a bottle of water, the first thing she did was offer it sacrificially to the group.  Regardless of the inevitable culture clash of traveling as the solo-American, it was a unforgettable trip. Over wine one night, my 33-year-old friend, a mother and wife, who traveled for the first time without her husband or son told me something I can’t stop smiling about. “I feel that I’m different since you came here” she said. “I feel that I became stronger.” That one comment was worth every shared seat, letter, and drink in Ukraine.

13 thoughts on “Sweet Solitude”

  1. Nice blog. I just finished reading your WSJ article and decided to check out your blog. You write well, but I suppose you already knew that! The WSJ article was well-timed. There is a recuitment effort going on downtown (Portland, ME) tonight that I’m going to, and I’ve been working on my application for about a year. I never quite work up the courage (or is it commitment?) to click “send”, however. Maybe after tonight things will be different.

    Let me ask you a question, and I admit I’m hesitant to even let this be said out loud, but is it possible to get a posting where there is good Internet access? Silly, isn’t it? I mean I’m willing to sell my house, give up two years of stateside comfort, ignore the NFL, turn in my iPhone, etc, but the thought of not having regular Internet access and my laptop is a bit intimidating.

    By the way, I’m one of those ancient 56-year-old geezers that could pass as your great great grandfather.

    Again, nice blog.

  2. Hello Claire,
    My son Jonathon Campbell was your site mate and he sent me the link to your article in the Wall Street Journal and I came to see your blog as well. I thought it was incredibly well written, expressive and touching. Living in another country isn’t something that I could ever do (health reasons) but I am thankful and appreciative of your efforts. Thank you for sharing with us.
    Have a good day

  3. I, too, just read your WSJ article and it was so well written, I immediately logged on to your site. I have made it a favorite so I can enjoy "virtually" your experience. Joining the Peace Corps is on my bucket list when I retire (55 this year!). Your article may just get that 15% of my demographic the Corps is seeking…kudos to you! In the meantime, I'm looking forward to your adventure and journey. Best wishes…

  4. Hi Claire,

    I just read your WSJ article and was so glad to see that Peace Corps is still eveloving! I was a volunteer with the Russia 1 group, arriving to Russia way back in 1992 – and I thought that we were the first to be invited in the fomer soviet union. In any case, its great to see that Ukraine is still hosting PC volunteers.

    Our group was an unusual experiment run by the Program Director at the time in DC, Elena Chow who wanted to move into business education for entrepreneurs, and we were mostly all experienced business executives making career changes or second careers. I was in fact one of the youngest in the group at 29, and the average of the 100 volunteers was just over 40. In any case, we ended up having the highest drop out rate for PC…as well as the highest retention rate of people staying here and getting married, as I did.

    so if you are ever in Russia, or need any contcts here, please feel free to contact me. I now have a successful media and investment consulting business here, and now have over 17 years of private equity and VC experience in this market. The stories I could tell you about the transformation which has happend here and the impact of the PC in Russia – well, I should start my own blog onthat…

    I wish you well Claire. Check out our website for anything you would like to know about investment trends in Russia’s regions.

    Best regards, Kendrick White

  5. Hi Claire,
    I enjoyed your WSJ article and have read various posts on your amazing blog. Your comments about life in the Ukraine are reminiscent of the journals I kept while PCV in Peru and Chile in the 70's. Hand washing clothes in cold water; no heat; no AC; no phones or TV; public transportation; airmail letters from home; etc became part of daily life. The internet has certainly connected the world and volunteers are less isolated than in the past. Your PC is an invaluable experience that you will carry with you throughout your life. You will also impact the lives of people you meet in ways you'll never imagine. All the best to you!

  6. Claire, I read your WSJ this morning and had to check out your blog. Very nice! Wish we had the ability to do this when I was in Peace Corps (EC-10) back in 1971-75. I served in Barbados, West Indies, teaching general science, physics, chemistry and biology – as well as acting as head of the science dept. for a remote secondary school.

    Incredible how the emphasis for volunteers has changed in 30 years! Your description of the dense and intimate surroundings in many ways reminds me of how it was in the West Indies. (Barbados is the most densely packed nation in the western hemisphere at 1567 per square mile).

    I truly enjoyed my time in the Peace Corps, and met my wife the last year serving. I loved the experience so much that, after leaving, I remained for 16 more years to teach at secondary schools there as well as advanced A-level colleges.

    Alas, I have lost touch with nearly all the volunteers who served in my group.

    Take care and thanks again for sharing your thoughts, experiences.

  7. Hi Claire, It was fantastic stumbling upon your blog this afternoon as I enjoyed one of my treasured alone time activities – baking and trying out new recipes. This September, I leave with the Peace Corps for none other than Ukraine.

    At this point, time both flies and sneaks away. Yesterday I met some fellow group 37ers in Chicago for the Ukrainian Independence Celebration. Though we only spent a couple hours enjoying the sun and open air, just a few of the many culture differences with which we're soon going to come to terms became apparent to the entire group. After an ample amount of talking and pointing in our direction, I pulled our group of girls away from the extremely masculine soccer game audience. Two and a half hours of waiting after the announced welcome time was not enough to allow us even a glimpse of the day's scheduled performances. I know you must understand the unique mixture of jittery excitement and straight terror I'm feeling these days. It's encouraging to read that though differences abound, you're able to cherish them.

    In weeks packed with goodbye parties, "last dinners," and frantic visits, reading this post was a welcome part of my one day of "sweet solitude." Thank you!!!

  8. Claire —

    Dick Wall told me about your article in the WSJ, and I just wanted to congratulate you on its publication. God bless you in your travels and work in the Ukraine, and give my best to your family.

    Warmest regards,

    Bret Hern

  9. Hi Claire,

    My uncle sent me your article. It brought back so many memories! It seems that some things have not changed much, but I feel very fortunate to have had a real rural experience in Ukraine. I believe I was the only Volunteer with no running water either year. My first year I nearly froze in a summer kitchen with a broken window, but I got a great little Ukrainian cottage my second year, and used a neighbors well, and had a little plastic bucket for a toilet. I also had no internet access and had to go into Lviv to use the phone at the local post office. The Business Volunteers all had little laptops and apartments, but those of us that ended up in villages were able to stretch our stipend much further. We were also still being paid in dollars as they were in the midst of changing currencies.

    Please check out (and feel free to post to) the Peace Corps Ukraine flickr group.

    There is going to be a reunion of all Volunteers that served in PC Ukraine in Yalta in June, 2010. Info can be found on Peace Corps Connect:

    and a contact there for info is Chandler Harrison Stevens


    RPCV Ukraine 95-97

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