Heidi R., Peace Corps Volunteer, Radomyshl

It’s just shy of 10am and I’m having breakfast in bed, like I do most mornings. This probably sounds decadent, but I only have one room of my own, so the bed is like mission control—epicenter of my life in Ukraine. Usually I’d eat oatmeal or boiled buckwheat kernels, but today I’ve fried up some eggs for a treat. I hear the door across the hall crack open, which must mean the old woman whose apartment I’ve been sharing for the extent of my Peace Corps service is awake now, too. She’s the only granny I’ve met in this country who is a night owl. While I go to bed at a modest 10pm, she watches television well past midnight.

The floorboard in front of my door creaks, which signals she’s either come to see what I’m up to, or she’s going into the bathroom. It turns out to be the latter. I hear the taps squeak and the pipes groan. She’s washing something.

I take another sip of my milk and coffee—Starbucks from Mom and Dad in the States—and let it sit on my tongue for a while. I’m savoring its smoky smoothness and the last few moments I’ll have to myself before I go to school.

A half-hour or so later I’m dressed, pressed, and ready to go. As I’m pulling on my boots, Granny’s plum-tinted head pops out of the kitchen. I’m almost always gone before she’s awake, and she comments on how worried she was that I hadn’t gone to work yet. “I thought you might have gotten sick again. I was just about to come check on you!”

About three weeks ago, I came down with a cold. I was only laid up for a day, but my red eyes and runny nose must have made an impression. I remind her that on Tuesdays I don’t teach until one in the afternoon and insist that everything is okay. She emerges fully, still in yellow cotton pyjamas that might be older than me, and her shrewd, dark eyes give me the once-over. She’s frowning at my pantyhose. “You won’t be cold?”

I am adamant that I won’t change clothes. She pats a down a cowlick and shakes her head a little. “Did you eat breakfast?”
I assure her that I have. I expect a few more quiz questions, but she shuffles back into the kitchen. If I’m healthy, warm, and fed, what else is there? I zip up my coat and go to school.

At school, I meet with the teachers I’m working with to plan an English language day camp during the winter break. Then I hide in the journalism room, which comes complete with old-fashioned mechanical typewriters bigger than personal computers. It’s quite cold, but at least it’s quiet. Sometimes I feel like my desk in the teacher’s room (right in front of the cabinet with the class journals) is on the floor of some big city stock exchange in the eighties—papers flying, people shouting across the room at each other to negotiate classroom swaps and time with the precious class journals.

I have a double lesson with 11B form, so I’m forcing them to write about their day as well. There are a few moans of persecution and Dasha rolls her eyes. “Miss Heidi, no one wants to know about our day. Our lives are boring.”
Their mewling will not move me. My determination, plus a candy bribe, should they submit their work, convinces them that the task is worth doing. The room becomes almost silent as eight pens try to scratch out a series of sentences with no grammar mistakes. I watch them for a minute or two before I realize I could be working on my piece as well.
Before I go home for the day, Vanya from 11A stops me in the hall and blows my mind by apologizing for talking so much during class and generally behaving like “a little beach.” He may act like a tough guy with his slouch and cigarettes, but I know better. He once told me his favorite song is “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx. I’ve changed his name to protect the innocence he thinks he lacks.
Then he asks me why black people (not his term) sometimes call each other “homes.” I don’t understand him the first time, but then he puts his two arms over his head like a roof and it’s clear. I’m pleased to see rap music is expanding his active vocabulary.
It’s a dark, grey day, but there’s an hour or two left of daylight, so I decide to walk to the center and check my post office box. The trip takes about fifteen minutes on foot and I understand now why granny questioned the wisdom of my wearing pantyhose this morning. At least there’s no wind or snow like last year.

I don’t have any mail and I decide not to indulge in a treat from the supermarket. I am also able to resist popping into one of the four smaller stores I pass on the way back home. A bright yellow bread truck that looks like it might have been a military vehicle at one point seems to be following my progress as it makes its deliveries.

Up five flights of stairs, I can see the four bolts are in place at my apartment, which must mean Granny isn’t home. I silently rejoice. She’s a warm, sweet woman who happens to speak a brand of Ukr-Russo amalgamation that continues to flummox me, even after two years. I live in fear she will try to engage me in a conversation that goes beyond the weather outside. Also, she has an opinion about everything I do, which is something I don’t tolerate from my own flesh and blood.

I boil up some rice and measure out spices for plov. When it’s done, I’m back in my room watching the last few minutes of light fade away. I look around at the detritus of everyday life that has accumulated around my bed—balls of yarn, rolled up socks, scattered papers—and vow that I’ll clean this mess up tomorrow. Voices in the hall tell me granny is back and she’s brought Baba Nadiya from downstairs. I listen to the dry crackle of their laughter and the thud of their shoes as they kick them off in exchange for slippers and head straight through to the TV. They’ll be hunkered there for the rest of the evening, as I’ll be curled up in my nest with a book from the ever-present pile, studying the events of some fictional person’s day.

 

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