A holiday party in Ukraine

The mid-2000s rank high among the toughest years of my life. My mother took suddenly ill and died from congestive heart failure in January 2004. Then three months later, doctors diagnosed me with acute myelogenous leukemia. I survived without needing bone-marrow transplants, but multiple chemotherapy rounds and countless blood infusions have made me ineligible for donor lists.  Toward the end of my cancer journey, one physician put it succinctly. He started with, “So now you’ll enjoy the final twenty or thirty years of your life.” I was only thirty-eight at the time, so twenty or thirty years?  “Think of it as taking time off the clock so you’d have time on the clock,” he clarified. Honestly, though, my filthy eating habits and aversion to all exercise will park me in dirt much more quickly than cancer.

Over the next couple of years, I flirted with teaching high school, at which I failed dismally, and in 2007 my father suffered a catastrophic body-wide infection that cost him his colon. He’s still kicking hard today, but at the time he required nearly six months for recovery. Friends, should you ever need your open wounds packed or someone to give you subcutaneous injections, call your boy, Chuck.

As mentioned, teaching didn’t work out, and I contemplated returning to suicide prevention, the career I’d followed for decades and to which I’d eventually return, but I was now in my early forties and emotionally exhausted. In my early twenties, I’d dreamed of joining the Peace Corps, and at that point, with no wife and children, that dream returned. My father encouraged me. “Go,” he ordered.  “I’m well, and I’m not an old fucking man. Go.” With this blessing, in April 2008, I applied and interviewed, and in September 2008, I flew with Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Group 35 to train before beginning our assignments in Ukraine.

After two months of learning language and teaching methodology, I headed off to Ternopil, a city in Western Ukraine of (at that time) 350,000 people, not too far removed from its village roots.  My job involved teaching business and colloquial English to at least five groups of students per semester.  I also led English groups, film groups, literature groups, and I participated and helped plan summer camps. All this happened in the Department of Foreign Languages for Banking Business at Ternopil National Economic University, where I landed because I have a master’s degree in English Literature, and because they’d requested a male who wasn’t too young.    

Snow! I arrived in Ternopil just after Thanksgiving 2008, and for the first time I was living in a snowy climate! Ukrainians very much guffawed watching me tumble across ice and snow while marvelling at the obviously prodigious density of my bones, even after chemotherapy. Once I’d slipped while carrying an office chair between buildings. My legs swept up over my head, I went down hard upon my back, and the chair, solidly built with steel framing, thudded squarely on my chest and head.  Both Chuck and the chair remained unscathed, however, and I persevered until learning the “duck walk” necessary for keeping vertical. Yes, I’d come right at the start of a record-breaking, freezing winter, but more importantly, punctual for the holiday season.

Two weeks after moving into my tiny apartment on campus and warming up to my students, my colleagues invited me to an interdepartmental holiday party set at a local restaurant called Marzipan, one of maybe two fancy establishments in town, to honor the new year and Christmas, which in Orthodox countries follows New Year’s Day by a week. So much for the image of Peace Corps volunteers living sparsely upon faraway veldts, at the edges of rainforests, or harvesting plantains. Ternopil restaurants feature Wi-Fi, and I carried a cellphone. Where there aren’t parklands, the enormous lake in the center of town, or universities, you’ll find pizza and sushi joints.  On the appointed evening, I climbed into my official Peace Corps “uniform” – a black business suit with a Peace Corps Ukraine pin affixed to the lapel — and with invitation in hand I headed to mingle with professors from three departments – Banking Business, Finance, and Agriculture.

At first, the event progressed like any other work-related party. Small congregations gathered near an enormous metallic silver tree, its blue and red blinking lights casting patterns across sequinned evening gowns, or they sat on plush loveseats organized into conversation areas. A few hovered around me, curious about California, my teaching philosophies, and how I was getting along so far from home. My departmental colleagues kindly translated when I failed with Ukrainian words or phrasing. All was quite orderly, very formal, any day in our office except we were better dressed. Finally, we went into the dining room.

I sat at a long table, one of three, laden with fish, enough to fill Monterey Aquarium were the creatures still alive. I spotted salmon, perch, haddock, trout, you name it. A friend to my right offered me perch, pronouncing it “perk.” I politely corrected her, which she loved, inspiring others to see how I’d pronounce other dishes.  Salads based on root vegetables rounded out the feast.  We ate. Occasionally, someone would rise to give a toast.  Toasts are quite defined in Ukraine.  We toasted the meeting, the men, the women, and love before I lost count.  I don’t drink, but to not offend I was obliged to participate in the first three. Colleagues explained that after the third, I could exclaim, “на коні,” meaning “on horseback,” synonymous to saying, “I’m driving tonight.” 

We ate and toasted for an hour before one of the men invited me to bowl with them. Marzipan is a complex, really, with dining rooms, dance floors, and bowling lanes. I’m no Pete Weber in any universe, but watching the Ukrainians provided small revenge for the ribbing I’d taken for my slides across ice and into snow. None of the men used the finger holes, instead scooping the ball into their palms. The women followed proper handling form, but walked up to the line, swung the ball back and forth several times before pushing it up the alley. One man from Finance tripped himself, stumbling across lanes before straightening himself. Those toasts were in full effect.  A server announced the second course.

Second course?  The fish was merely the appetizer. Now we dug into beef, pork, голубці, вареники, more vegetables, and more toasts. I wasn’t drinking, of course, but so, so much food.  “The fish was the appetizer,” I kept muttering to myself. “The fish was the appetizer.  Fuck me . . .”  “CHUCK! DANCING NOW!” a male colleague bellowed. Off we went to the dance floor.

We danced with one another, not each other, since no one danced in pairs. All formed a large circle around the parameter of the room. Styles were varied and free form, but soon a woman initiated a hanky dance. The hanky possessor selects a dance partner from the circle, the pair dance for a bit before the possessor places the hanky on the floor. The partner kneels on the hanky, and both exchange a small kiss, and the hanky changes hands. Repeat as often as necessary. We continued this activity for forty-five minutes or so, before someone announced the next course. Are. You. Fucking. Kidding?

Then more dancing. Then more bowling. Then another course. Holy shit. How the hell am I dancing or bowling when I’m about to pass out?

I’d noticed one colleague, Nadiya, wasn’t dancing. I sat, introduced myself, and asked why.  Her grandmother had passed a couple months prior, and Ukrainian mourning dictates certain do nots, including dancing, for up to a year beyond the death. Nadiya talked about how her grandmother was famous for her embroidery, and how during the war she’d been forced to work for German occupiers. Grandmother was quite the baker as well, but most importantly she was quite the survivor, given what Nadiya explained to me about not only German occupiers but Soviet ones.

Weddings, birthdays, holidays – celebrations are all or nothing in Ukraine. Ukraine has suffered through one occupation or another since the Mongols burned Kyiv to the ground in the Middle Ages.  Their language, their religion, their customs were all suppressed, and once winning independence they began celebrating everything and taking nothing for granted. They worked hard, prayed hard, and played hard. Those who don’t are viewed with suspicion. My conversation with Nadiya was only the first step toward my understanding in this regard.

After a while, I felt a large pair of hands grab my chair and pull it away from Nadiya. I turned and found the Dean of Agriculture, smiling, his tie and coat long gone. “I LOVE AMERICA!” he bellowed.  He pinched my cheeks, and then he slapped me, not hard, more like an affectionate bear who doesn’t know his strength. 

“AMERICA!  ЛЮБИТЬ УКРАЇНУ?”

Indeed, I do love Ukraine and told him so.

He laughed straight into my face, grabbing my shoulders, shaking me, a worrisome thing given all the food inside me. “TИ ВИКОЛДАЧ!!!!  TИ ДОБРОВОЛЕЦ!!!!!”

Yes, I was a professor, of sorts, but not really. Definitely I was a volunteer, however.

“Я ТЕБЕ ЛЮБЛЮ!!!!”

I was growing quite fond of him too, although I couldn’t say I loved him. Our conversation ended when colleagues appeared to rescue me. They apologized for him, explaining that he was “relaxing,” but I didn’t care. Points for enthusiasm! Once again, back to dancing.

Dawn was breaking over buildings in the distance when I finally made it out of Marzipan. Colleagues climbed into cabs, but I demurred since my apartment was a ten-minute walk away, even in snow.  I staggered along trying to remember when I’d experienced any night that intense. And why was my coat so damned heavy? Colleagues had found it in the cloak room and stuffed every pocket with baggies of fish, beef, pork, vegetables, голубці, and вареники. Fuck me. The fish was the appetizer.

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