Of Fish Bones and Abaci (plural of abacus anyone?)
I explored a little more of my town yesterday in order to find some New Year’s presents for my host family (I’m still not sure whether the New Year’s tree and New Year’s present-giving are old Slavic traditions, or the product of the USSR’s suppression of religious holidays). Anyways, we seem to have it all in VP; five secondary schools, a boarding school, an agricultural college, three internet cafes (although the internet only seems to work at one at a time), a few banks, numerous small stores, a bazaar/market (every town has one of these), and let’s not forget the beach on the Dnepr. Of course, the picture in your head might be a bit different than reality. To illustrate that…(no pun intended) I was shopping at the supermarket (‘univermag’) for presents when I glanced over at the register, if you could call it that. The cashier was counting up the price of customers’ items on a giant wooden abacus built into the counter.
Since the big move to VP, my diet has also changed somewhat. I think much of Ukrainian life can be understood through its breakfasts, although a more exact translation of this word from Russian or Ukrainian might be considered more like ‘morning dinner’. These days it consists of cold meat jelly with spicy mustard on top (‘holodetz’, a traditional holiday dish), the ubiquitous mashed potatoes (this time with ketchup, not dollops of mayonnaise), pickled tomatoes, pickled mushrooms, pickled pickles, raw fish, and slices of raw onion. I miss the slices of pig lard wrapped around cloves of raw garlic. No seriously, I do.
I love eating at my school cafeteria for the simple fact that the food is fresh and delicious, which are words I never thought could describe food in any cafeteria. And it only costs about 50 cents. But I still can’t get over the fact that fish is served almost every day, and within that strip of breaded carp lies about 200 bones ready to be lodged in the throats of unsuspecting Ukrainian children. Yet it now appears that I am the only unsuspecting victim of school lunches. So the first thing I learned at school was how to eat all over again. You have to kind of peel the fish in half along the backbone…should I be embarrassed that I didn’t really know this?
I am still having plenty of problems with language, considering I learned Russian for the last three months and am now teaching at a Ukrainian-speaking school (although most people speak Russian at home in this area). Nevertheless all classes at school are conducted in Ukrainian, so I rarely know what’s going unless I’m talking to the other English teachers. Actually, I want to clarify exactly what I am doing here- I am teaching English and German at a Ukrainian-speaking school in a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine. If you, dear reader, ever send me a care package, don’t forget to fill the cracks with Tylenol for my language-induced headaches. And now I know that the language barrier isn’t only just blocking me in- my counterpart, the English teacher with whom I work most closely at school, convinced me yesterday (in English) that the teachers will celebrate the New Year at a local bar at 11PM today (the 28th). I was relieved that I would have an entire day to rest after school meetings in the morning, because I had been celebrating the New Year the night before as well, and was ready to catch up on some sleep. But instead of walking home after their morning meeting, the teachers descended directly upon the bar. At 11AM, not 11PM. Luckily there was food to go along with the vodka and cognac. But even if I had known it was going to be in the morning, there’s just no way to get ready for vodka shots at 11AM, especially after doing the same the night before. Ugh, the holidays…