It has been a week since I have arrived in Luhansk, Ukraine, and much like last year, the days have been a blur. I’ll try to give a short synopsis of my trip and my first teaching week, as well as some observations of this city after one year.
There was no drama in the trip as there was last year, thankfully. After the debacle with Air France, I was a little nervous about the prospects of making it all the way to Luhansk with all of my possessions intact. Lufthansa, however, is run like a well oiled machine. I was not able to fly directly out of Boston, so I took a commuter flight to DC (the only hassle was waiting in a line for 1 ½ hours while the United folks found flights for people stranded from a cancelled flight to Denver), but once I got to the front of the line, they were able to check me and my bags directly to Donetsk. Of course, Air France said the same thing.
The flight from DC to Munich was uneventful. The food was not quite as good (served Scotch though!) and I was seated with two high school seniors from Maryland, who were quite nice. One was deathly scared of flying and every time we hit some turbulence, she would ask me if it seemed “normal.” The two girls were part of a tour group organized by one of their teachers and were planning to visit Italy, France, and Spain.
Munich airport is huge, but so well laid out and organized that it is a snap to get around. The shuttles are terminal specific and go directly to the desired area without any detours. I had 45 minutes to get from one plane to another, but in the end I got to my gate, in a completely different building, in less than 20 minutes. The flight to Donetsk was a breeze and I was even a little early.
I was met at the airport by Olena, the head of the foreign languages department, and Oksana, who was my liaison last year. We were all pretty relieved to see each other. After a brief misunderstanding as to where I was to pick up the bags, I blew through customs (they just waived me through) and we were on the road to Luhansk.
Yuri, our driver is a real pro. The construction that was evident last year was completed and the road was in great shape. I was also able to get a good look at the countryside. It reminds me a lot of Lancaster County—rolling hills, lots of farm land, and small towns dotting the roadside. Yuri got us to the University with only minor problems in the rush hour traffic.
Olena and Oksana joined me for dinner at the University Café. There is a whole new batch of students running the café this year, although Gallina still seems to be in charge. The food, once again, is excellent.
This year I have come prepared with a Russian phrasebook. Last year, knowing very little about the local customs, I showed up with a Ukrainian phrasebook, which was useless; Olena said that Ukrainian is like a foreign language in these parts. We are only 50 miles from the Russian border and about 125 miles from Rostov-on-Don, so I guess this makes some sense.
The girls at the café have become my test audience when I want to try out my Russian. They are very, very nice and help me with my pronunciation. They speak very little English, so if I want to talk I have to do it in Russian. Last year I had to make do with pointing and hand gestures. This year I can hold my head up high and say in a loud clear voice, “adin kofye, spesiba” (another cup of coffee please), “kag dyila?” (how are you?) and “dobraye utra” (good morning). I am eternally grateful to them for their patient help. I have been able to communicate reasonably well with complete strangers and have been able to order lunch at a restaurant, and even search for a baseball bat (or the moral equivalent) at a whole series of stores and kiosks.
The students in my class this year are very good. Last year we had some outstanding students and some who spoke very little English. This year we have the middle. The nice thing is that we have had to use no Russian in class. Irina (one of my partners from last year) and Helen (who replaced Natasha, who went to further her studies in Kiev) have been excellent partners. We have a very good working relationship and their knowledge of language pedagogy is outstanding.
This year’s program is featuring elements of “American Culture” as a vehicle for learning the language. This week we have been concentrating in US history. We’ll also have units on business culture, literature, and cinema. I am able to give a basic 1 hour lecture without a translator and the discussions that we have held afterwards have been very good. For instance, today, after lecturing on WWI and WWII, the students wanted to discuss the moral consequences of Hiroshima. As an added bonus, one of the students is one of the University’s history professors, so he and I have to be careful not to get too theoretically technical for the other students.
Today is Constitution Day in Ukraine, sort of like our 4th of July. I was impressed that all but two students made it to class, which is a testament to their dedication. Except for the security guards, we were the only people on campus. As I right this, I can here the fireworks downtown.
As for my observations—Luhansk seems to be continuing to grow. Many new buildings are being built around campus; there have been renovations to many of the University buildings. I have noticed that there seems to have been a small increase in prices, but nothing drastic. There does seem to have been a process of consolidation in the beer garden industry, however. I want to investigate whether this is because they went out of business or that the city is getting stricter with permits.
All in all, Luhansk is a pretty pleasant place to be. In my next report, I’ll discuss the discovery of a real live coffee shop in the heart of Luhansk.