My Peace Corps experience, part one

Before I go on, let me say first off that Peace Corps is an amazing opportunity for Americans who have graduated college. I say that because those are the two most basic requirements, you must have graduated college and you must be an American citizen. I have heard people say they wanted to do it after high school and other people who didn’t know a Bachelors degree was a requirement. There is no experience that can compare with being able to go abroad for 2 years without paying all the costs involved, be guaranteed a job and health care. That kind of opportunity is just rare.

Let me also clarify that Peace Corps isn’t a way to pay off student loans. When I was in school, my Perkins loans, were less than 1 percent of my total loans and my Peace Corps service paid off I believe only 30 percent of that. While I was serving my loans were deferred, but my unsubsidized loans accrued interest. Thus, I had to pay to volunteer. For that reason, I ended my service days before I could have had a proper Close of Service (COS). I was not told that until I was paying my last visit to the Peace Corps office in Moscow.

Still, with all this, I still think Peace Corps is true to its’ motto of “The toughest job you will ever love”. You might hate it at the time, but it will always be an experience to look back on that was pretty amazing.

I graduated with a degree in Spanish and Linguistics and some certification to teach English as a Second Language. The certification was mostly a collection of linguistics classes, I had to arrange my own practicum which was useful but was a far cry from what a person needed to go teach overseas. Still, most volunteers are hardly qualified for the jobs they undertake so this is all normal.

I came very close to going to Colombia, to Villavicencio with EF education. I went so far as to attain a visa. But because there were so many travel warnings to Colombia, and because I was mostly afraid I would have no real “backup” should something go bad, I opted for PC. Alot of it had to do with not wanting to break my parents hearts should I come back in a body bag. Because it was only my second time overseas, and because it was for an extended period, and because I was a little nervous, I opted for PC who then promptly sent me to Russia. I left in October of 1996.

My family made fun of me that with a Spanish degree, I went to Russia. I ‘d had a study abroad in Ecuador and from that experience I had a fire burning in my belly to experience more travel. Maybe it was because I grew up in sheltered suburbia, but I felt I knew the real education was going to take place outside the classroom doors. I wasn’t disappointed, and what a long, crazy trip it was. When all was said and done, I came back with another language in my bag, but the Spanish I labored in college to learn had gone AWOL.

Our group, Western Russia 5, the 5th group to go to Russia. We were trained in Vladimir for three months in Russian language and culture. The culture training was kind of ridiculous, but the language training was good because our teacher was very good. My group was considered advanced because we had learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Only about 4 of the 30 some of us knew any real amount of Russian. Our groups oldest member was 30. We were a young bunch. We would have benefitted from some balance in that area. Our group quickly cliquified, many of us who were out of the clique going our own ways. From within the clique escaped stories of debauchery.

In Vladimir we lived with families. My family was most excellent. The woman of the house treated me so amazingly well. Those days with the family were at once great but also exhausting because the perpetual language barrier. They kept me well for 3 months. They had 2 daughters, both brilliant and attended Moscow State University.

I hoofed it to the school where we were trained every day and learned the lay of the weather and the land. There were milk tankers, where people would bring their pails to get milk and impromptu markets selling garlic and other food items. We arrived to negative 20 degree celcius weather and it only got colder. I saw hoarfrost for the first time. I learned the difference between 2 layers and 4 layers of clothes. I sat and drank tea endlessly with the family, listening to a language I didn’t know. Olga, the mom prepared me a very special meal for Christmas as she could tell I was having a hard time dealing with the weather, the social climate and wondering if I had made a big mistake.

After training, my job was in a small little town called Cheboksary. Cheboksary is the largest town in one of about 20 independent republics with in the 11 time zones of Russia. They have their own language and their own culture and their own government. The best word to describe them is rural. My counterpart, the woman who would guide my work there and was my only contact there, was Lyudmila Vasilievna. She was an older woman. She was a force of her own, like the weather.

My job was at the Institute of Education. Upon getting off the train, after sleeping on the train all night (yeah right, like I slept) I was supposed to give a lecture on methods of education. While I had been warned that I was supposed to prepare this to give these lectures to about 100 teachers upon arriving, I had some scant notes that were more like a reiteration of what I knew than having any real value, as near as I could tell. I had no idea what would be truly appropriate, I had no idea of what to expect, what the venue would look like, how much if any English they would speak, where I was even going to sleep that night. So as I ached for nothing more to go sleep when I got there, instead I was ushered up to a stage to give a lecture that was to last for 45 minutes. About methodology of teaching English. Good heavens. What a joke.

A sea of peasant faces from the Chuvash country side looked up at me. I didn’t know it at the time, but they had all traveled hours to be there that day, and most of their English was memorized phrases. Things like “It’s a beautiful day!!!” “Take out your notebooks, children!!” and “Reapeat after me!” All with a heavy emulated British/Russian accent.

I started out at Suggestopedia and ended up at the Natural Approach. The whole 45 minutes in front of this sea of faces what everything from bewildering to frightening. I was 26, had never taught before and was “lecturing” these experienced teachers on how to teach. It was hard to ignore how wrong it all was, but I couldn’t really say much about this either. I bootstrapped, improvised and started to ignore the first of many incongruities that filled my service in Cheboksary.

It gets more strange.

By counterpart was a woman by the name of Lyudmila Vasilievna. She was old, should have retired, but had an iron will and a history of Soviet Russia. She fed me a can of fish in oil for lunch and I was told this was a great delicacy. The smile strained across my face as I tried to not show my fatigue, my bewilderment, my lamenting the earlier speaking engagement.

For the rest of the day she trotted me to different small classrooms where Chuvash teachers basically listened to me speak. They did not give me any topics that I should speak about, I was just to speak. Apparently they were to just bask in my English.

Before every speaking time began, Lyudmila would proudly announce all of the great and wonderful things she had done for the teachers there, should they have forgotten, and then the coup de grace was “I have now brought you an AMERICAN!” I was trotted out like a prize poodle and was to speak.

I knew nothing about my audience and was told that their English was not so good. Not surprising since it was in fact their third language after Chuvash, and most of them had never heard spoken English from a living person. They were however, dear, kind gentle people who I sat in stark contrast with my iron-willed colleague. Their genuine motivation and excitement to learn English and how excited they were to meet me was baffling and sweet all at once.

That day, my first day was long, long, long. I was taken to my apartment after my 7:30 AM arrival at 8 PM. During the course of the day I had met the Minister of Education for the Chuvash Republic who was apparently responsible for my being there, so I showed appreciation. I smiled.

This was a fateful smile.

During the speaking engagements, my audience was kind, and I learned some tricks. I knew if I showed where I was from by drawing the outline of the US and showing Portland in relation to other major US cities, I would draw ooh’s and ahh’s from my listeners. I found this to be positive. Over time, I learned that they all knew a few people I knew, like Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller. In fact, they were experts on them. I knew if I stuck to these subjects, I would have a better chance of being understood, my English, that is. If I basically took what I said out of English textbooks that I knew they used, that would be best for my low level teachers. That worked very well for me. I mixed that with some diplomacy, smiles and nods and the myriad speaking engagements I had all over Chuvashia that 6 months went well.

Seldom was I able to teach. When I did teach, I was given some handpicked excellent students. It was awful because with zero familiarity of what they knew, what they needed to know, what would be interesting to them, what they studied, my teaching was constant trial and error. Usually error. Expecting to them to speak was like asking them to make fools of themselves. But I couldn’t just give them the grammar translation stuff they had from their current teachers, primarily because even their current teachers could do a superior job at that than I could. I worked very hard in these days and was mostly grappling. I thought it would be nice to do fun things, but the students only wanted serious work. If only I knew then what I know now.

Several times I was placed in say a library or a large classroom and the room would be filled up with students. The students were to then ask me the questions they had formulated for me. The questions were wonderful. They would ask me if I like to go to the circus with my brothers. Naturally the answer was YES! They would ask me my favorite food, color, author, if I had read Pushkin (I hadn’t yet). There was a beauty in these young people, they were so unjaded. So uncynical and sarcastic. They had no pretenses whatsoever. In Russia, intellectualism is revered as a really very desireable quality. Young people got to be cool by being intellectual, well read. I wish we could start a movement like that here. They were serious at school. School was serious, important and a privilege. When my little Q and A session was over, I was often asked to sign their little notebooks. They would stare at my signature, it was so different from the Russian.

In other places in my life, I was discovering banya, the market, downtown, finding a tutor, and suffering from some of the most major depression I have ever experienced. This was largely due to that fateful smile I gave the Minister of Education.

On my first night there, he invited my fellow Peace Corps person and I to his apartment for tea. I said “No way, I am beyond tired.” after my 12 hour day with no sleep in a strange, cold place. She reminded me that in cultural training, we were told repeatedly that the way to make connections was to accept these invitations, and he was after all responsible for us being placed there. She made a very good point. We walked down two stories in the dormitory where we all were staying, roaches scuffling in the corners, to his apartment where he promptly poured us shots of vodka.

This was before I had learned how imperative it is to tell people that offered vodka a polite excuse and expect their understanding. Russian hospitality is such that if you say no to anything, it is like an affront: you are not accepting their kindness, you are rebuffing their offers of goodwill. I hadn’t learned how to manipulate these situations on my first night. Within a half an hour, he was the Minister of Hands and I couldn’t get him off me. My Peace Corps friend intervened and got him away from me and got us back up to our apartments.

From that point on, it seemed that his understanding was that I wanted him, and he in return and she had merely gotten in the way. I spent the next six months dodging him, avoiding him, but still needing him to make my work possible.

My work was also sort of a joke, as the Institute had no money to do teacher trainings, I spent the better part of the day on busses going to schools. It was in this time I grew increasingly distressed about this circumstance. My colleague wanted me to get money. I wanted to get money but I knew precisely nothing about writing grants, foundations, projects or anything of this sort.

This was a hard time, I was disillusioned. I had this minister chasing after me, holding my hand, gazing lovingly into my eyes, clearing rooms of workers so he could have private chats with me, and I was mortified. He had to be at least 50, and I was 25, knew next to no Russian, and had not at all felt prepared for this. When I appealed to Peace Corps, the woman in the office who could have changed my job told me this was all my fault because I had smiled at him. Naturally I was incredulous.

Another volunteer fielded a strong phone call from me. I either needed to change sites, or I needed to go home. The minister had gotten the message that I was not in the least interested in him and my opportunity doors were mysteriously closing.

At that point, the difficulty ended, thanks to this particular volunteer, my site was moved to Saratov.

In Saratov everything was really, really good. However, I felt like damaged goods. I had trouble after that really bad start, with 6 months of winter, a bizarre harrassment situation, and a strong bout of misery, getting back on my feet and having any real sense of how I might really benefit my new site.

In a new found social life, I made friends with a young man who was getting his doctorate named Kostya. Kostya was beyond good to me. He was perhaps one of the best conversationalists I have ever met, taking me at a time of real difficulty and always being nothing short of a really good friend. I began spending most weekends in Moscow at his grandparents house with him.

Shortly after arriving to Saratov, in an attempt to clear the slate, I took a short trip to Ireland via London. I was travelling alone from my home in Saratov. It was really a fascinating trip in many ways, though very solitary and on such a scant budget that by the end I mostly just felt like a penniless traveller. I spent much time reading in my new surroundings, absorbing sunshine and Saul Bellow. I went up to Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. It was a wonderful, much needed break after a long hard winter. But travelling alone is in itself a small challenge. There were friends to be made, and usually they were Dutch. The Dutch always seemed to be the friendliest and without any pretense. The Irish also were wonderful. I went to Wicklow County, Dublin, Edinburgh and passed through London on my way in and out. The last stop overnight was in Belgium. There I inadvertently left all my underpants.

When I arrived back to Saratov, I was ready to start again.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Mrs. T says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for this wonderful post. I love hearing about people’s travels and esp. PC experiences. I would love to travel to Russia- my friend adopted a daughter from Petrozvdosk- which is north and west of Leningrad. What a beautiful language and culture they have. It’s so empowering to travel alone. I have done it several times and I felto so amazing afterwards.

  2. Zhenya says:

    Yes, you are very brave, Heather. Though am a native Russian I don’t think that I could have done a PC trip to Russia. I would have probably cried my way back to USA within a month of stay. But what an amazing experience this must have been for you!

  3. jane says:

    Holy wow – what a story. In many ways it makes me want to go back – well, the part about Vladimir does, anyway. Of course, you know that I too developed a problem with a guy becase I smiled at him (although luckily my problem ended after a couple of hours). I can’t wait to read the rest of your tale!

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