Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Double-U: Ukrainian Underwear, or How to Not Lose Your Luggage

Tired of introspective philosophical posts? Good, me too. So let me tell you a story.

As you might remember, though I arrived on-time in Kyiv, my luggage did not. Thankfully, I'd packed my somewhat respectable "city outfit" and some deodorant in a carry-on. Between that, and the generosity of the other girls on my team, I wasn't doing too bad.

When the team got to Kyiv ready for the tour, my luggage was still nowhere to be seen. I don't mean that it wasn't in Kyiv. I mean that no one knew where it was. The company hadn't tracked it down yet to tell me that it was stuck in an airport in South Africa. And while the sanitorium we were staying at had a laundry machine, and I was content to wash and rewash my two t-shirts until the end of time, there was one thing out of the bag I was really missing: underwear.

My leader had told our student tour guide that I would have to do some shopping if we hadn't found my luggage. (He was envisioning full-out shopping. I was envisioning a week of slobbery and as little money-spending as possible.) So, about five minutes after I had met her, Tanya pulled me aside and told me she was taking me shopping.

Now, apart from the awkwardness of telling this girl I barely knew that I didn't need blouses and shorts, as my leader had told her, but that I needed underwear, add this to the equation: Did you know that in downtown Kyiv, there aren't exactly stores where you can buy a pack cotton panties? Because she did. The solution: a lingerie store in the square.

Ten minutes later, I was trying desperately to do mental calculations of European sizes, while a kind storegirl tried her best to speak English to me as I went through racks of what I usually buy for other people's bridal showers.

As I handed over my grivna, I heard Tanya's cell phone going off. Sure enough, my luggage was found the moment that underwear became legally mine.

Now, this makes for a great story and some interesting souvenirs, but friends, let me save yourselves some of my embarrassment with this simple advice:

Do not pack cash in your check bag. Especially those fancy looking gold dollar coins. These ones.

I'm usually a pretty smart person, but for some reason all reason deserted me when packing my U.S. "souvenirs" for the Ukrainian students. Oh, I thought, these would probably be cool for them. In they went with the keychains and the peanut butter.

I really don't care a whit that they weren't in my luggage when I got it back. I was just glad to get it back! But I might have preferred making a different first impression on my dear friend Tanya.

But I suppose I should look on the bright side. They didn't steal my underwear.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Parlez-vous English?

I'm a dork.
(Duh, you blog.)
So sometimes I journal about my life.
(Duh, you blog.)

When I started my journal entry about France, the first thing that I wrote about was the language. I took enough French in high school and college to be able to speak to people, but learning it in American classrooms is completely different from being on the streets of a French city. What you don't realize in class is that the words you are learning, these strange formations of letters and sounds...they have...meaning.

"Well, duh, you stupid American."

Laugh if you want, but I'm serious. I didn't understand how these words can be used as keys to unlock the ideas flowing out of someone's brain and sliding onto their teeth and tongue until I had a need to open the lock.

Being able to communicate with a stranger in a way that is foreign to you but comfortable to them is simply wonderful. You feel as though you belong. You can sink into the knowledge that even while you stumble over words and phrases, what you're saying has some semblance of meaning to them. Even reading street signs seems like a treasure.

Not to mention that on a trip composed of Americans, you become extremely popular when it comes time to order food or ride the Metro. The very first night we were there, our trip leader went up to the information desk and asked, "Parlez-vous ingles?"

I almost died.

But speaking the language was one of my favorite things about France, because it kept me from being too much a tourist on my tourist trip. I was able to talk to people, make acquaintances, and get the information I needed when I needed it. I could keep from standing out too badly in a crowd. (Although being the, as the Russians call us obnoxious Americans, "americos" that I am, fitting in ended as soon as I laughed. /Squawked.) I got to tell all of my friends what the enthusiastic audience members were saying when they approached us after a concert to thank us and applaud us. And even though language barriers are miniscule for children, I was able to play with the French kids I met and teach them American games.

I Not to mention Parisian, which is almost the same thing.

Now, contrast that with getting off the airplane in Kyiv, with my luggage nowhere to be found, and being greeted by this:

потерянный багаж

Confession: I have no idea how to read that. I google translated "lost luggage." Not only did I not know the language, I didn't even know the alphabet. Standing in line at the lost luggage office, listening to strangers speak a language that I couldn't even separate into words, and having officials give me forms and point me to other desks with unreadable signs, I couldn't help but wonder what I'd gotten myself into.

Thank goodness I was working in an English camp.

Maybe it was because I had just been in France and connected so much to the country because of the language, but the first few days that we spent in Kyiv freaked me out a little. If I were to get off on my own, I would be done for. I felt impaired, as though I couldn't really connect to the city without understanding what was being said.

So, I did my sightseeing, and hung out with my lovely (English-speaking) tour guides, and enjoyed what I saw.

It wasn't until I went back to Kyiv at the end of the trip that I got the interesting perspective of being the translated-for instead of the translated. The students who had been working with me to learn English all week were suddenly taking care of me, ordering food for me, and getting directions for me--in Russian. (I think. It might have been Ukrainian. Shoot, it could have been Polish for all that I know.)

I was completely and cluelessly grateful. I did a whole lot of clumsy smiling and nodding. I wonder if that's how my tripmates felt when I ordered pizzas in France? Of course, they didn't get the cool experience I had of hearing my friends' accents suddenly "disappear" when they began speaking their native language. (Yes, that thought actually went through my pea-brained head.)

Forced dependency is humbling, but good. Because as much as I can speak bad French, I'm not French. If I had tried too hard to speak bad Russian, I might have started thinking that I was practically Russian enough and missed the point.

It was cool to have them order gelato for me too, but gelato is cool anywhere.

I missed having the connection that I had to France, though. It was incredible that I could sneakily insert myself into the culture's surface by saying "jambon" instead of "ham." If I go back to Ukraine, I'm definitely learning enough to order my own borsch.

I'm sad to say, of all my time spent in Ukraine, I really only used one word effectively: собачка. Sobachka.



At English camp, everyone you want to hug speaks English. But dogs you want to
cuddle with obstinately refuse to learn.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where you are, but with who?

Tell me choose one major difference between my two trips. Go ahead. I dare you.

My answer? The people.

Now, what I don't mean is the people that I went with, or that the people I got to know on one trip were of some higher caliber than the other. For both of my trips, I traveled with a group of people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn't, and became friends with all of them. There is definitely a bond that comes with going to a foreign country together.

When I was in France, I didn't make a single friend who wasn't American, because the
trip was structured around simply seeing the country. Yet some of the best memories I have from that trip are of talking to members of the French choirs who hosted us, speaking bad French to enthusiastic strangers. Having conversations. Playing with French children and getting to know their names and faces.

I saw some of the most incredible sights I've ever seen in my life in France, and had some of the most unforgettable experiences. Not only to see the grand cathedrals of Europe, but to sing in them? Talk about something being beyond words. Or rather, don't. Because it's beyond words.

But the sights that I saw were just that: sights. I went there, I saw it, and I genuinely enjoyed it. I took photos, I look at them, and I want to go back.

When I was in Ukraine, though, I wasn't in Ukraine to see Ukraine or tour Kyiv. I was there to be with Ukrainians. To get to know them, to speak English with them, and to love on them. And I did. I left a little piece of my heart back there in Ukraine, because there were people to hold onto it for me.

You can travel to a city and google important sites to see. You can even get a tour guide, if you like. But there is no better way to see a place than to go with someone who lives there and loves it and simply say, "Show me your Kyiv. Take me to the places off the maps. Take me to your favorite spot, and it will matter to me because it matters to you, and you have come to matter to me."

Or say something like that, but in less vaguely grand terms so that you don't freak them out.

It's one thing to look across a river and see a skyline. It's entirely another to have your friend pull you aside, point to a building, and say, "That's where I live." I know because I've experienced both. I've already forgotten what most of the landmarks I picked out from the map in Paris look like, but I think I will always remember that building next to the smokestack across the Dnipro River, because it means something to me. It's connected to a person.

When I look at photos of my trip to Ukraine, I want to go back not because of the places, but because of the people who make those places meaningful for me.

So what does all of this mean? Well, mostly it means that I get to be full of wonderful memories. But it also means that for those going abroad, if at all possible, you should get out of your comfort zone and not just hang out with the people you went with. You should occasionally sit and talk when given a chance to go and see. And you should embrace the chance to get to know a country from the inside of its people's hearts, rather than from the outside of its buildings.

Maybe if you're lucky, they'll wave you off at the end.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Coming Home and Coming Back

If you were to visualize me guiltily sneaking my way back onto this blog, it would probably look something like this:

Ok, it's true. It's been seven months since I've touched this thing. But in my defense, I have kept up a bit with my other blog, justifying myself with the knowledge that this one was originally a themed blog for a class.

However, running a little bit with that theme, I have some interesting (well, at least I think they're interesting) things to say. So bear with me.

This was a summer of travel, and not just the travel that comes with the road trip home. Here's what the past three months have looked like for me:

Starting in Norman, Oklahoma after my semester ended, I spent a week in the hill country north of Austin, Texas at a conference with InterVarsity, the campus ministry I'm involved in. From there, I went back to Norman for five days of "downtime," which primarily involved mysteriously having no electricity for a weekend, hiding from a tornado, and doing storm cleanup for my cousins (who lost their house and barn) the day before I flew overseas to...drum roll please....France.

Yes, France, the place that I have always dreamed of going! I was there on a "study abroad"* with my University choir, touring the country from Paris to Nice giving concerts in grand cathedrals, seeing the sights, and speaking bad French to enthusiastic and friendly French people.

After two weeks in France, I flew home for two weeks, and then flew out again for another two weeks in Europe. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

The destination this time: Ukraine. I spent two weeks there working with CCX (es-es-HA, for those of you who are like me and are Cyrilliterate), an organization like InterVarsity that ministers to university students. I staffed an English camp and worked with students, both Christian and non-Christian, to immerse them in the language, improve their English skills, and study the Bible in English to improve their reading. I also spent three days in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, before and after the camp with the staff and some of the students. It was such an experience that I really can't hope to capture "what I did" or "what it was" in a few sentences.

But readers, if you are still out there, fear not! What I want to chronicle here is more in keeping with this blog's original theme than simply a journal of my trips (although I would love to tell you all about them! If you keep an eye on my tumblr, I just might). I want to look at my two experiences abroad: so similar and yet so different. Look at the cultures, the places, the people I went with and the people I met, and how my perspectives have changed--or haven't.

In my mind, I hope to do a miniseries of posts on this, if only to get my thoughts down before I totally Americanize again. In reality, it may be one or two. But stay tuned (or re-tune?) for what is coming!

*study abroad: noun. Experience overseas for which one requires scholarship, and so agrees to participate in a purely perfunctory program to receive course credit for minimal effort.