So, it’s Ukraine. The Peace Corps has invited me to spend 27 months there. Ukraine-Group 47 will meet on March 24, 2014 in some large city on the east coast of this country before we fly out together to that country to begin our adventures. I accepted my invitation at the end of September and was immediately deluged with a host of emails and links and forms and medical tasks from the Peace Corps. The next months would be busy becoming official and ready to serve my country.
First came the phone call from my recruiter giving me the news, then the follow-up email. I had a couple of days to officially decide and reconfirm my commitment to this endeavor, an endeavor now—finally—with a destination. The first thing I had to do was look up Ukraine on the map to see where it was so I knew exactly where I’d be spending two years. It’s the largest country in Europe for one, about the size of Texas. Russia is to the east and northeast. The Black Sea is to the south and Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland are to the west. Belarus is to the north.
I tried to remember when I had heard about Ukraine in the past: 1986, Chernobyl; 1991, Independence from the Soviet Union; and sometime around there Oksana Baiul from the Olympics figure skating. That was about it. Luckily, the Peace Corps offers a ton of information to sift through, to read and study and those first weeks after my acceptance, I pored over everything I could. To me the most interesting was a cross-cultural guide with information on history, geography, politics, social customs, with stories galore written by Peace Corps volunteers describing life in Ukraine to us eager Americans wanting to know everything there is to know in one handy publication.
One of the first things you learn is that it is not the Ukraine, just Ukraine. You wouldn’t say that you’re going to spend a semester studying at the Sorbonne in the France. And I began to read about the food, the people, the weather and my mind is off to think about what I’ll need to pack. How can anyone possibly pack for a two year trip. How can I pack for a county with four full seasons when I’m only allowed 100 pounds of luggage? Winter jacket, winter boots, gloves, and all, plus…maybe…will I need a sleeping bag? Plus summer clothes. And transitional clothes for spring and autumn rains. Luckily the Peace Corps’ returned and current volunteers are happy to share packing lists and tips and suggestions on what to bring and what to leave at home.
Most of this information is shared via social media sites and since this whole experience is about facing my fears, I broke down and joined the scene, something I had been avoiding for all these years. But I quickly found it’s a wonderful way to connect to other volunteers, connecting across the miles, at times instantly to ask questions and get back tens of answers, some useful, some not. And out of this foray into social media I’ve come out with at least one very good friend so far. There’s a Facebook group for those of us leaving for Ukraine in March, just as there was one for each of the groups that preceded us. There’s a similar group for us volunteers over the age of 50, with our own set of unique concerns, with many discussions on learning a new language and all the medical tests we’re subjected to, about leaving our old lives and starting new ones.
Now, three months into knowing where I’ll be, how do I feel about it? I’m not concerned about the cold weather or the need to be indoors half the year when the weather turns. I’m not concerned with the food, I’m of Polish and German stock and many of the foods will be familiar to my taste buds. I’m finding I’m concerned with the language, concerned about not being able to communicate and express myself, fearful that I’ll fail miserably at being able to talk to anyone and fall into the abyss of loneliness and isolation. Which is funny because I tend to remain alone and isolated even when I know the language. Perhaps it’s more about connecting with others, not wanting to be the total outsider, scorned and laughed at for being so different, for not fitting in.
For now, I’m still learning what I can about my new home. Ukraine has been in the news almost daily for the past month. There is civilian unrest against the current government’s politics. Not unlike other countries, including this one. There are protests and thousands of people braving the cold to stand up for what they believe in. The protests have been making the news around the world and many of us are concerned about our deliverance there. The Peace Corps has told us that they are monitoring the situation and that things are still on schedule for us. I am monitoring my own attitudes and preparations and am happy to report that things are still on schedule there too.