Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Returnings

On Returnings

This year is the 6th time I have been to Luhansk, Ukraine to teach in Franklin Pierce University’s Summer Language Institute. It is almost like a homecoming, really. In my first year here, I didn’t know a soul, literally. The people from the Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National Pedagogical University tried very hard to show me around the city and keep me from getting too lonely before my FP colleague Mary G showed up. At that time, no one knew what to expect from the other, but as the month drew on, we formed a real working relationship and many lasting friendships.

Over the years, the faces changed on both sides. Oxana, without whose help and guidance I could not have survived in Luhansk or managed to successfully teach two huge multi-level classes has left the university. Nataly, who literally saved my life when I got sick the first year, left to finish her studies in Kiev (but is back!). Ira, who had been with us for 5 years, has had to limit her involvement as she continues her studies. Drs. Hagerty and Van der Reit have both retired from Franklin Pierce and now contribute their experience and vision to new endeavors. Dr. Hagerty is the provost of the Hellenic American University in Athens, while Dr. Van der Reit has become an entrepreneur in the US.

It is in this context of change that I find myself again in my room. Getting here this year was quite the adventure. Because of budget constraints, I only had $1,400 to get to Kiev, which immediately became a challenge. The only flight available at all that fell within budget included two layovers, each for extended periods. So as I left my house on Friday afternoon, I knew what I was getting into, but an intellectual understanding of a situation is far different from the reality.
My ex-wife, Susan, and our friend Tina drove me to the airport on Friday afternoon. We left an hour to get to Logan Airport, which under normal circumstances would be more than adequate. What she and I had not counted on was traffic to Cape Cod, and so my nice relaxing trip to Logan became a nightmare. Once we hit Somerville, the traffic slowed to a crawl. And as we move at 5mph down I93, we watched the minutes… and hours... tick away. I tried hard to maintain a Zen attitude, but I have to admit, by 6:30 I was despairing to make my 7:15 flight. As we inched towards the tunnels that lead to Logan from I93, Susan was able to maneuver us into the right lane, enabling us to slide into the tunnel and the road opened before us and we made it to the airport in 10 minutes. While I was waiting at check in, a airline worker gathered all of the people for the London flight and gave us priority check in, and security was a snap. So I was in the happy position of having 15 minutes for a quick bite and a beer next to my gate.

The flight to London was quite nice. Next to me and across the aisle, there were mothers and their small children, who I learned were going to 1st grade. Now, anyone who has made an extended flight with small children around knows that the cramped quarters of an airplane are not the ideal circumstances for a kid to show how good they really are, but both these children were the best behaved and politest kids with whom I have ever flown. The little girl next to me and her mother were visiting family in Lithuania and towards the end of the flight we had a pleasant conversation.

I had 8 hours to kill in London. Not quite enough to explore the city, but enough to potentially become a problem. I decided to go through immigration for a laugh and walked around the perimeter of Heathrow a bit. It was a little chilly outside but I was breathing the British air and watching the great mass of humanity pass me by. I did have a chat with a fellow from Dubai who was on his way home after an extended trip to the UK. But all in all, my British experience was very limited, but I did scout out a train that would take me into central London in 15 minutes. While I decided not to try it on the way to Luhansk, I may give it a shot on the way home. Even walking around the city for an hour will be a treat.

From London, I flew to Helsinki, Finland. I have heard on good authority that Helsinki is a pretty rocking town, but to be honest, even with the prospect of 17 hours there, my insane fear of missing a connection prevented me from trying to venture into the city. And it was 11pm at night and I was dead tired. I did take advantage of the free Wi-Fi to send some e-mails and check my classes, but soon, I found a quiet bench to lie down and using my laptop case as a pillow managed to get 5 hours sleep.

Helsinki’s airport does not seem to be very busy at any time, but at 6am on a Sunday morning it was quiet as a tomb. The shops were open, and I did manage to get a nice breakfast at the café. Another two hour nap on a more comfortable couch and I still had hours to kill. At least I was somewhat productive and managed to read a huge chunk of a book I need for a series of lectures I am writing.

When I finally made it to Kiev, I had two hours to get through customs and passport control. As some of you may have experienced, this could have been touch and go. But in preparation of the Euro Cup soccer championships next year, Kiev built a new international terminal. “Simply amazing” is the only way I can describe the difference between this year and the last five years. I was through passport control in a record 10 minutes; there were three large and modern luggage stations and customs was large and well staffed. I was chosen for a spot check and was questioned about some things in my suitcase, but even with that delay I was out of there in a half hour. And as I walked into the main terminal building, there was my friend and colleague Ira with my tickets for Donetsk.

Ira and I had a quick meal at the outdoor café near the domestic terminal (which has not been renovated) and caught up on news. And as quickly as I arrived, it was time to board my plane for Donetsk. On the flight I sat next to a Ukrainian woman who was living with her husband in Ohio. She was on her way to visit some relatives near Donetsk and we spent a pleasant hour in conversation. Upon landing, we said our goodbyes and I found Natasha and her husband in the airport. We collected my bag and drove into Luhansk.

At this point I was pretty worn out, but we chatted awhile and watched the brilliant thunderstorms that lit the sky. I napped fitfully in the car and I woke up just as we passed the Metro market just outside of Luhansk and within a few minutes I was in my room.
The University Hotel has undergone some renovations in the last year. They expanded the hotel by moving down the hall; there are now a total of 16 rooms. And my room also had some improvements. They added some electrical outlets (which will allow me to have the satellite box and the TV on at the same time), added a very nice area rug, and a new refrigerator.
My first day in Luhansk started off rainy. I arranged to have breakfast at 10am to allow me to sleep in, but I woke up at 7am and decided to go to the internet café and check in with everyone. After breakfast I went back to the hotel and took a nap for a few hours, had my dinner, and then went down to my favorite café, “The Clearing” to read and have a few beers. Vica, who has worked there many years, was happy to see me and I think that she is now a manager there. But with all of the rain, it was quite chilly so after a few hours I went back to my hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday was Constitution Day in Ukraine, so I also had the day to myself. I wanted to make sure that Olga, the café manager had time to spend with her family, so I only had breakfast at the café and set out on my day. After the internet café, I went to The Clearing. The waitress was going to bring me a beer—but I declined; it was only 10:30. So I had a few lattes and worked on the class I was writing for Franklin Pierce and waited for my friends Lee and Utoshi to come by.
Lee and Utoshi are friends from Luhansk and we had a pleasant walk around the city and dessert at a nice café in the center of town. Lee has been to the US twice and her English is very good. She works now at a shop in the center. Utoshi works with computers and is a jewelry maker. They have been friends since childhood and have an apartment in the east side of the city. They walked me home after our dessert and went to a birthday party for one of their friends. I relaxed for a while in my room, then read in the café and waited for my friend Galina to call.

Galina and I had a pleasant dinner at the restaurant of her godfather and then walked around for a little while. She lives past the stadium off of Defense Street and we walked between my corner and her corner twice. Finally, it was getting late and we stopped by her apartment to pick up my French press and thermos which I left with her last year. I also had a chance to chat briefly with her brother Sasha, while she looked for my coffee pot—Sasha had moved it and she couldn’t find it! I had to head home before I was locked out of my hotel and she told me she would find the coffee pot and we would meet again to pick it up.

So as I write this, my class starts in less than two hours. Starting today the real work of the summer begins. But more on that latter…