“Gutsy in Ukraine”
My Gutsy Story® by Marian Beaman
The gutsiest part of our visit to Ukraine in 2011 was that we didn’t use the “return” part of our ticket 4 days into the trip.
Why, you ask, would you want to leave a country with affectionate, artistic people? With gold-domed cathedrals? With an astonishing exchange rate of 8.97 greve / $ 1.00 US dollar? With “free” lodging at the home of our host, for heaven’s sake?
Well, some background to start. At the invitation of our friend Margot, who runs a charity fund in Ukraine, my husband Cliff and I have agreed to present 20 performances in the public schools of Kiev as a gesture of good-will, all work pro bono. Cliff does art and music shows with historical, character-building, and environmental themes.
I am asked to give short lessons in English using plastic eggs to teach the names of colors. Like children everywhere, they are eager to learn but struggle to twist their tongues around combinations of sounds unfamiliar to their native Russian: pink became pinnnngk to them. I also assist students in cleaning sticks of chalk after each multi-media performance and then make the evening meal at Margot’s apartment.
We have known Margot, our host and guide, since she was 8-years-old, when we were newlyweds. We have a quasi sister/daughter relationship with her. Over the years, we have shared meals on her furloughs home to Florida. In Ukraine, she has built close relationships with her staff of six who help her design curriculum for use in schools and churches. Children she interacts with adore her warmth and creativity. But from the beginning, Margot alternates between approval and hostility for my husband Cliff, a baffling, unexplainable response from someone who is the beneficiary of free programs along with receiving funds for meals and transportation for her staff as we travel. Although we came at her invitation, we have to wonder, “Does she consider Cliff a threat for some reason? Is she envious? Something else? Fortunately, her staff is most gracious, the school children so very appreciative in Kiev, Zhitomer, and neighboring villages. Standing ovations for Cliff’s performances with requests for autographs. Grateful administrators.
And there is a lot to love here culturally: “Zorba, the Greek” ballet at the Kiev Opera House, a magnificent edifice shaped like a fancy cake, the Moscow Circus performers—even their paper money is decorative. And art everywhere! Walls of World War II-vintage schools feature cute, flowery cutouts to celebrate spring. Students are all decked out in formal outfits for class: boys in suits, girls in black and white outfits, the older ones with stiletto heels. (Odd by American standards but attractive nonetheless.)
Yes, there are hardships, some anticipated, and some not. At the whim of city fathers, the hot water in Kiev is turned off for days on end. Everywhere we go, the toilets are of the low-down variety: Let’s just say I’m glad I practiced my squats in the gym before the trip.
In school rest-rooms, there rarely is soap, and I carry sections of toilet paper in my fanny pack everywhere we go. There is absolutely NO toilet paper in any of the school restrooms we visit. In fact, prior to the trip, Cliff’s easel and accoutrements including lecturer’s chalk, were all cushioned with dozens of rolls of toilet tissue for us and the staff, packed to sail on a freighter through the Black Sea and shipped into Kiev before our arrival. Once we have to pay 56 kopeks in Sevastopol to use the urinal, but there is toilet paper provided and a woman who mops up!
Beyond the hardship and adjustment to cultural differences, I treasure the new friends I meet: Anya and Sergei whose hearts are big enough to adopt several children from the bulging orphanages in the city in addition to their own brood. Good-natured Demetri, who translates Cliff’s remarks into Russian. Roman, who knows how to talk himself out of a traffic ticket. Then there’s Alona and Tanya who should be awarded gold stars for hospitality. A lovely dinner at the home of Pastor Peter and his wife Lilly. Petite, unassuming Dr. Olga, M. D. and PhD, researcher with mice, who escorts us all around Crimea near the end of our stay, touring the Tsar’s palace, visiting Yalta, and learning that the Black Sea is actually bright blue!
Miraculously our trip continued beyond the fourth day to embrace a culture we may never have experienced otherwise and friendships that continue to this day. We get updates from many of these new-found friends. In fact, Roman is one of my friends on Facebook! Lesson learned? Rise above the pettiness and concentrate on the positive—a lesson that apparently I needed to re-learn.
We fly to Paris on the return trip. At the Charles de Gaulle Airport, we go to the transfer desk by tram but find a long queue. When I face the agent, I practice my wobbly French to ask directions to the gate: “Quel dirreccion est la porte trente-deux?” She replies sweetly, “Prenez l’escalier derriere vous.” Okay, it’s behind me and up a flight of stairs.
“Magnifique,” her smile says. And that’s how I remember our trip to Ukraine.
Marian Longenecker Beaman’s life has been characterized by re-invention: Pennsylvania Mennonite girl becomes traveling artist’s wife in Florida, then English professor with credits in the Journal of the Forum on Public Policy published by Oxford University Press. Along with my work as a community activist leading a neighborhood to take on Wal-Mart expansion, I am a writer and blogger in this second phase of my career. Fitness training and Pilates classes at the gym have become a metaphor for my mind-flexing experience as a writer, mining stories from my past along with reflections on current events.
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