Ukraine Memories

At about the same time last year, I was in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, giving free English lessons to Russian-speaking locals using new edition coursebooks bought at a bookstore in Bern. I was in strange territories, far from everything familiar.

But however different things looked, sounded, felt, and tasted at first — I sampled my first-ever pizza topped with mayonnaise in Kremenchuk — eventually, it was fairly easy for me to feel at home in the former Soviet republic.

The Ukrainians, I found out, are just like Filipinos: warm, hospitable, and generous. It was a breeze for me to befriend people. Had it not been for the language barrier, I could have made more friends there. My students were exceptionally bright and easy to handle. They were sweet as well, showering me with thank-you gifts and cards at the end of the course. My personal favorite present was a bottle of home-made honey given to me by Nikolai, a Ukrainian pensioner whom I miss so much to this day.

Of course, just like in any other situation, there are exceptions to the rule. How can I forget the cranky Ukrainian shopkeeper who thought I was stealing her ice cream when I took them out of her freezer? But I later “made peace” with her when I returned to her shop four weeks later, bought some fruit juice, and smiled after paying her. She surprisingly smiled back. You see, right after the unpleasant ice cream incident, my American flatmate, an experienced missionary who had been in Ukraine for a long time already, told me that one should let the Ukrainian shopkeepers, many stricken with paranoia, do their job. No customer was supposed to do any ‘product touching.’ “That’s their responsibility,” she said. Well, at least in small stores.

After my English teaching stint and other church volunteer work in Kremenchuk, I hied off to Donetsk, chaperoned by my flatmate, by bus on a seven-hour journey to visit a Filipino missionary who had been doing ministry work there since December 2002. It was a blessing to see Sarita at work, persevering to meet the needs of a local church there and serving the community’s poor and needy whenever she could. And boy, her Russian was impressive!

My last stop was in Kyiv where I welcomed my husband at the Borispol international airport in mid-August, after almost six weeks of separation. We were supposed to do research work together — meeting ministry workers and taking some documentary photos and video shots — for the Manila-based missions school I was accountable to.

We first visited a Swiss-American missionary who has been spearheading a street children ministry with another missionary, an American, for a few years now. Both spoke Russian amazingly well (it served as an inspiration for me…yes, I can be fluent in German if I want to). The children there at the center were surprisingly friendly, and one particular 11-year-old girl warmed up to me completely that she even appointed herself as “the photographer’s assistant,” operating my Nikon SLR camera with so much ease.

We also met some Messianic Jews who would later take us to a rather ill-equipped men’s drug rehabilitation center where former drug addicts, now Christians, shared their life-changing testimonies with us. We saw during the visit that they lacked basic food supplies. And so, we headed off to the nearest supermaket after our talk with them, and bought a whole cake and a bottle of Coca-Cola for their afternoon snack. It was already a big deal for these men who kept saying spaseeba (Russian for “thank you”) to us. That humbled me.

There was also this visit to the Hillsongs Church where a nice lady in the guest relations team gave us the contact information of the CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) Headquarters there in Kyiv. Both were pleasant experiences — the worship service at the Hillsongs Kyiv and the impromptu ocular inspection of offices and TV studio at CBN Ukraine, courtesy of an accommodating translator named Vitaly. The CBN visit was especially relevant to me since I used to work at CBN Asia based in Manila.

In between these major appointments, we encountered drunk men and hungry streetchildren in malls (they wanted my lunch on two separate occasions), desperate men in costumes who posed with tourists for a small fee, talented buskers, pathetic-looking beggars, and wily con artists. It was…interesting.

Accommodation-wise, our apartment in Kyiv was nothing fancy at all, although it had the basics (kitchen, toilet, and living room with a double bed and a single sofa). I remember sleeping on the bed which could have well been the habitat of a zillion dust mites. Talk about sleeping with enemies! In contrast, Sarita’s apartment in Donetsk was clean and cozy. The one in Kremenchuk, meanwhile, was described as “communistic” by my flatmate. It was there where I had to drag my 28-kilogram luggage all the way up the five flights of stairs reeking with the smell of cat pee (it was pure torture).

Ah, Ukraine. I miss this country, despite the linguistic and logistical challenges a visit entails. I’d like to: 1) hold English lessons in Kremenchuk once again; 2) bring some winter clothing for some of the cash-strapped people in Donetsk who don’t have a heating system in their shanties; 3) cook decent meals at the drug rehab center in Kyiv. Countless possibilities.

Suddenly, I’m reminded of the many things people take for granted here in good ol’ Switzerland. (Note: Also published in Oikos Online.)

RANDOM TIP: Take a peek at my Flickr photo album on Kyiv here. My other Ukraine-related blog posts are the Mashrutka Challenge, Outdoor Market, and Toilet Talk. If you have time to kill, do read them.