Monday, July 10, 2006

Settling into a Routine

It has been quite a while since I have had a little time to discuss how things are going, as I am staying very busy, which is a good thing. In this installment, I’d like to discuss my daily routine, and some of the things I have seen and done in my free time.

Those of you who know me well, know that I am a creature of habit; once I find a routine I stick to it, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. I seem to have fallen into a routine here, based around my teaching and meal schedule, which would be hard to break, even if I wanted to. But I have no complaints, and if I have to work in a place where my knowledge of the language is pretty limited, Luhansk is a pretty congenial place to do it.

I try to get up at 6 or so every morning and review my teaching plans for the day. When teaching multilevel classes, it is imperative to have activities ready for all levels. I was under the impression when I arrived that most students’ experience in English would be pretty low. I was very quickly disabused of that illusion. Most of my students have had some formalized English instruction and quite a few actually work as translators. So I have to make sure all my ducks are in a row when I walk into my classroom.

I have all of my meals at the University café, which is a student run “mini” restaurant where Hotel/Restaurant Management students have their practicum. Ukrainian food tends to be “stick to your ribs” meals, and I have to say, I have grown quite fond of it. Breakfast tends to be a smaller meal, but not insubstantial. It is served either hot or cold. The staples seem to be chicken, fish, cheese, and eggs. For example, my first breakfast consisted of shredded chicken in a butter/cream sauce topped with cheese and baked. Let me tell you, I thought I died and went to heaven. Sometimes they give me a seafood/egg salad, which is also quite good.

There is also generally a side dish of cucumber and tomato slices, or, as a special treat a smoked sausage. The tomatoes are of a different variety than I am used to in the US, and are a bit sweeter. I don’t normally eat tomatoes, but with a little salt these are not so bad. The smoked sausage tastes exactly like Lebanon Bologna, which of course brings back childhood memories. It is slightly different, however; Lebanon Bologna tends to be larger in diameter and a little less fatty. It tastes just the same though.

No one seems to brew coffee here; it seems to be all instant. I couldn’t even find coffee filters in the supermarket, although the appliance store did sell coffeepots. With breakfast, I get a small cup of instant, which is OK. I have decided to make it my quest here to find a really good cup of coffee.

After my 7:15 breakfast, I have to walk to the University. It is only a couple of hundred yards, and I get there in plenty of time for my 8:00 class. There is a “Nescafe” coffee machine in the lobby, and I can get a decent, but very small instant latte for about 25 cents. There is a concession stand in the lobby as well, where students can buy pastries, juice and water. The lady there knows me and we can negotiate buying a couple bottles of water reasonably easily. Most water here is sparkling mineral water; I am getting used to it. You have to drink quite a bit to stay hydrated in this heat.

Class usually consists of giving a lesson, reviewing vocabulary, and practice, practice, practice. My morning translator, Natasha is a great partner and has been a big help. Her English is immaculate and she is very good about making sure the students without English experience understand my instructions. The AM class has a very high proportion of advanced English speakers; what they seem to want and need most of all is a native speaker who will work on the finer points of conversation with them. These students are also very good about helping the basic students.

I have an hour for lunch, so I walk back to the café and have “dinner.” The afternoon meal is the major meal of the day in Ukraine, and it is very big and filling. I am always served soup first. Mostly this is a chicken/egg soup, although I have had a lamb stew and borsht, which is a vegetable and beat soup served with sour cream. There is also a meat and vegetable dish. If the meat is not stuffed into something (crepe, pepper, cabbage) it is smothered in a sauce. These seem to be butter or cheese based. The stuffed cabbage tasted just like gulunkies, which my Mom made sometimes; instead of a tomato sauce, something akin to French dressing is used in Ukraine. I can hardly finish this meal.

In the afternoon class, we do things the same way, except I have Irina for a helper and translator. Like Natasha, her English is immaculate and I just couldn’t survive without her.

The theme of this week’s class was talking about ourselves to people. We used mock job interviews to do this and the students also developed English language resumes. This was also a sneaky way to get their backgrounds, which helped me tremendously to know what their needs and interests are. I have doctors, lawyers, policemen, university professors, and people who just graduated from high school. I also have a large number of the music faculty. One fellow is an organ player, who was telling me about playing Hayden’s organs, including his personal one in his home. I will have to hook him up with my friend David who is also an organ player.

After the students leave for the day, they let me stay in the lab to check my FPC e-mail; I can’t read it at the internet café I have been using. The lab closes at five, but the attendants graciously let me use it for a little while.

Depending on when I get out of the lab, I will go to my room to relax or go straight to the café for dinner. Dinner is a smaller meal, generally consisting of a meat or fish dish and a simple dessert. In desserts they use a sweetened cream cheese that tastes just like cheese cake.

After dinner, I will walk to the Internet Café, which is in a concourse under the intersection of Defense and Soviet Sts. Most of the stations are taken up by young men playing video games. They seem to take it very seriously. After checking my personal e-mail, I have to check on the classes I am teaching online, the History of Art and US History Since 1945. As is generally the case, these classes are pretty laid back, and I read over the student responses to my questions and monitor discussions.

After checking my classes, I walk to the beer garden and have a beer and read my book. They have gotten to know me at the Garden, so it makes life much easier to get things accomplished there. I have been drinking Tuborg Gold, from Denmark, which was the only brand I could pronounce. The women who work there are very nice and I think they put on a CD of classic rock songs for my benefit last night. They normally play Russian pop.

On Saturday, the students came to class and each of the English Department faculty I have been working with (Oksana, Natasha, and Irina) took a group of students while the 4th group listened to my lecture on the history of the US. After about 45 minutes, we switched groups. Most of the students took some US history in high school, but their knowledge was pretty basic. They seemed to like the lecture and we were able to have some discussion on it. We also made some decisions on our final production. One inventive young lady suggested that we do an act from Shaw’s Pygmalion, and then went on about how appropriate it would be for this group!

After class Saturday, I had the rest of the weekend free. After a nap, I walked to the central market, but it was closing up. So I wandered the back streets around the market until I found my way back to the University.

After my usual evening routine, I stopped by what seemed to be a bar/restaurant and thought I might get a decent cup of coffee. Instead, I got the absolute worst cup I have ever had in my life. When the waitress brought it out, it was in a larger cup (a good sign), but it was dark and I really couldn’t see what it looked like. Then I took a sip. It was crunchy. It had the viscosity of 5W-30 that was run 10,00 miles, then sat in the oil pan for a year. It sort of tasted like coffee-- that much was certain-- but that was all that could be said for it. I choked it down as best as I could and there was a gritty sludge about a quarter inch deep in the bottom of the cup. Yuck. I asked for the check and it came back at almost 11hr. which is the equivalent of about $2, which was wildly overpriced for a cup that size, even if it was actually really good coffee. No wanting to make waves, I handed the lady 15hr, to which she only gave me 2hr change. I guess she wanted to make sure she got a tip. When I got back to my room, I had to floss to get the sludge out of my teeth.

I woke up very early on Sunday, and couldn’t fall back to sleep, so I decided to walk to the Orthodox Cathedral and catch the service. Big mistake. By car it seems pretty close; you can even see it from the University. But I think that’s because it is so big. It took me a half hour to walk there, by which time I was late. The service was quite beautiful, even if I could not understand a thing the priests said. The service was not held in the cathedral, but in a chapel in the seminary, which is right next door. The icons were much older, as far as I could tell, and there was a particularly beautiful one of Christ next to the door, which people would kiss as they entered and exited.

The chapel was reasonably full. There are no chairs or pews, so everybody stands. The priests stand mostly with their backs to the congregation, sort of like the Catholics did before Vatican II. There were not many young people, but there were a few. We were always taught that the Soviets discouraged religion, but it seems that they were unsuccessful. Indeed the vast majority of people grew up in the Soviet era. It is the young people, those who are growing up in the new market economy that are not going to church. This is not either good or bad, but it is interesting how our impressions of the Soviets were wrong in some respects.

I played it smart on the way home and took a cab. Best 10hr I ever spent.

In the morning I did some work on class and napped, then after lunch went back to the central market. It was open this time, and I have to say, the place is a labyrinth. The market is a series of stalls spread over about 4 city blocks. Several of the areas have been recently renovated with canopies, new paving blocks, and lockable steel stalls. Much of the older section is still wood.

The stalls sell everything from motor scooters to intimate apparel. There seems to be some organizing principle, i.e. you don’t have motor scooter stalls next to the shoe stall. But other than general categories, everything is pretty well mixed up. Unlike a flea market in the US, the market only sells new products (auto parts are the only exception I have found). I was a little disappointed, as I wanted to find some traditional Ukrainian crafts to buy for friends back home. But it was fun walking around. I did find the woodworker Natasha introduced me to and I bought a carved box for 35hr, and if you see it, you'll know it is worth every penny. I did run into a coin dealer near the pet stalls (kittens and puppies) and bought a 50th anniversary medallion of the Soviet Revolution, and a three penny piece from Nickolas I.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad day. But I didn’t get much rest either!


Maria said...

Bill, Bobbi gave me a link to your blog, and I'm enjoying it very much! As for the coffee, could it be that they use a different method? For example, they might use a Moka, which doesn't need a filter. Take a look at one here: They might also have a cloth filter, to avoid the disposable ones. Ask around.

Ray V said...

Bill, short of an actual viewcam, I feel like I'm right there with you.

Can you get ground coffee or coffee beans? We'll get some filters over to you. I can certainly relate to the coffee experience. I hope your pursuit pays off in the meantime.

I really enjoyed your description of your Sunday adventures--cathedral, taxi, market, etc. I wonder if Oksana might not have a recommendation on traditional arts and crafts. Your observation on church attendance is quite interesting. Is this representative of the country or is this just a Luhansk reality?

Thanks for sharing your adventure on the Blog. What a great idea!

kate m said...

Hi Bill! Barbara sent out a link to your blog. Sounds like you are having a great time and eating very well. If I drank coffee I would have a cup for you; you must be totally craving Dunkins! Sounds like Dr F would like the food spread there. Enjoy the rest of your time there, I look forward hearing more about your experiences.

susan said...

I hope this puts an end to your heavy coffee drinking.
As for the Russian Orthodox Church if you were to attend the same in the states a tradtional ROC people would stand and there are a few chairs in the back for those with disabilities. The priest chants everything and that which is sung is acapella. You will find that people come and go in the church at will as the service is lengthy. The reason for no chairs and no organ is they frequently met in basements and where they could so that they would not get caught. This is what we were told at the Russian Orthodox Seminary where we attended services weekly even vespers.

Linda K said...

Hi Bill,
Have been following you adventures,sounds awesome except for the coffee. If you have time send the library a post card and we can post it up in the fall with others so the kids can see what we do in the summers. Can't wait to here more. Linda

casaled said...

Hi Bill, so happy to hear about your experiences and I am a bit overwhelmed by your efforts to explore other cultures. I just returned from a trip and was terrified driving through Manhatten to get back to Boston. Oh well, we are lucky that your are our ambassador from the states. I really have enjoyed reading about your experiences. I bet that you won't be filling that gigantic mug of java that you sport during the school day. Oh well, it is good to cut back on caffeine...maybe. Barb has sent us the link so you should probably get lots of mail. I am interested to know if there is still a great ballet corps in the city. I should say that my daughter is more interested in this than am I, but I will send her question along to you. Anyway, I look forward to hearing about your further adventures.

Rick said...

Hey Bill,

I'm enjoying your blog, so thanks for taking the time. It's interesting to get a glimpse of the reality behind the propaganda message many of us grew up with, though I doubt it was altogether false (eg, about official Soviet atheism).
I'm reading The Wormwood Forest, which is about the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. It seems that after the disaster a rumor spread that it presaged the apocalypse, per Rev. 8.11: "And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter." [Chornobyl means "wormwood" in Ukrainian]. The Soviet media took the rumors seriously enough to televise interviews with Orthodox church leaders emphasizing that the end of the world is impossible to predict. But the Orthodox church has always been the creature of state rule in Russia, no?

Marilyn said...

Bill, could luck on the coffee. When I went to Prague, I could not believe how bad the coffee was, although Prague at least has some coffee shops with okay coffee. I learned to be especially doubtful about places that promised me "European style coffee." At one restaurant, there were so many grounds in my coffee that when they placed it on the table, I looked at Jay and said, "I'm not drinking that." I think by this point in time, my phobia of coffee grounds is legendary so 'nuff said.

Marilyn said...

Sorry, try "good luck" the dyslexia or the schizophrenia worsens!