Thursday, October 4, 2012

The End is Near: Group 40 COS Conference

As you may or may not know, Ukraine is currently the biggest Peace Corps post worldwide. We've had almost 500 volunteers in country at one time, which is absolutely amazing compared to some the smaller Latin american countries and African countries that only have about 50 volunteers. I came to Ukraine a little over 2 years ago, as part of a big expansion wave of volunteers in groups 39 and 40. I'm part of group 40, which consisted of about 90 TEFL-secondary volunteers (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Group 39 was about the same size, the only difference is that they had a handful of volunteers who had higher education degrees (PhDs, MBAs and lawyers) and came to teach at the university level.

Group 40!
A week ago, most of the PCVs from group 40 gathered together in Chernigev, an oblast in central Ukraine.We had a short "Continuation of Service" conference, also known as COS. I'd always thought that COS stood for close of service, but the acronym was carefully explained at the conference. We had sessions on post-Peace Corps life, resume building, how to join the Foreign Service, how to say goodbye properly to your community, and of course a Talent show. It was great to see everyone again, I hadn't seen a lot of people since our Swearing-In conference in December 2010.

Pretending to eat Semechki (sunflower seeds) with my fellow Region 6-ers (Kharkiv and Lughansk oblasts).
Holding up the Ukrainian flag with Charley, Nathan, Laura, Danielle and Jun from my cluster/link cluster! 
Taking a token flower photo with Nicole... we've been friends ever since we sat next to each other on a flight from Chicago to DC for Staging!
Our conference was only 3 days long, with the first and the last day being arrivals and departures. So it was short but sweet, and we managed to have fun at a little place called Chicago nearby. Here are a few photo highlights :D

With Nathan and Laura from my cluster :)
For old times sake: the classic asian photo of all the asians in group 40.
Caroline, Grace, Egle and Sara popping their 'bows.
Alison and I repping the East as the only two group 40 volunteers in Kharkiv oblast!
Actually, I tried to organize a Fashion Show with categories like "Most Integrated into Ukraine", "Best Free Box Find", "Most Original", etc but it totally flopped because no one brought any extra costumes to show off. But the Talent show was much more interesting than a standard Ukrainian concert - we had a variety of acts from singing, rapping, playing the guitar, a hairy chest contest, and a saxophone!

Cary, Dara and Kurt proudly belting out Lughansk oblast's anthem.
Nitai rapping about Nathan.
Sing-a-longs with Ryan and his banjo were awesome.... especially the  "Rock Me like a Wagon Wheel" song :) Fun fact: Ryan is the only person in our group who brought a banjo to Ukraine. 
The session that I thought was most interesting was the one focused on saying goodbye, there were a lot of little things that I hadn't thought about. Oleg, the Peace Corps Regional Manager who was leading the session, explained to us that Ukrainians are very sensitive and they are easily offended if you don't say goodbye or if you give unequal presents (such as favoring one person with a really expensive gift).True to Ukrainian tradition, they recommended that you should throw yourself your own goodbye party (and pay for everything, including small gifts for people who meant a lot to you). This is a cross-cultural moment, for Americans would expect just the opposite... similar to birthdays, where Americans expect to be treated by others and Ukrainian birthdays mean that the birthday boy/girl has to pick up the tab.

We worked in small groups to think of different gift ideas that would be appropriate for different people such as the Ministry of Education or our Ukrainian friends. 
Brainstorming on flipcharts... classic Peace Corps style. 
Andrew and Katie presenting on what to get your school director and counterpart. 
Another thing that I learned was that its bad luck to gift someone with a knife - Ukrainians believe that this means you will cut all ties to your relationship, so you should ask the person to pay you 10 kopecks (Ukrainian cents) for the knife.  This is interesting because I'd never heard this before and I figured that knives would be a great gift here, considering that most households have super old and dull knives from 50 years ago. Good, quality, sharp kitchen knives are hard to find in Ukraine and expensive... but they're definitely worth the price because having to work with a dull knife in the kitchen drives me crazy. One of the first things that I did when I got to site was immediately go out and buy new knives!
The dull Ukrainian knives that were in my kitchen when I moved in . The knives in my first kitchen were way worse - I only had 2 and they both couldn't cut through meat or potatoes. 
The knives that I use now - I bought the 2 on the right for about 40 UAH each, and the far left is  a KitchenAid knife (my most prized possession, passed to me by a PCV friend). 
This is how I know I've been in Ukraine too long: I took photos of our room at the sanatorium because it was so nice, complete with a mini-fridge and a tiled bathroom! Our bathroom even had a shower curtain! It was so nice to be staying somewhere that wasn't an old Soviet-style sanatorium with crappy beds and a bomb-ed out bathroom. Also, I was ecstatic about eating a pizza from Dominos Pizza because its been far too long since I've had real pizza from a restaurant (made without ketchup or mayonnaise).

Dominos pizza!!! 
Nicole loving her couch-bed :D
I have a real bed with a real mattress! Usually Soviet-style sanatoriums just have a lumpy mattress roll on top of 100 year old springs for a bed. 
Our bathroom is beautiful... its so nice to see tiled walls instead of wallpaper or painted concrete. 
I have mixed feelings about ending my time here in Ukraine - I haven't been home in over 2 years. While I definitely miss my family, friends, and American snack foods, I know that once I'm home I'll miss Ukraine. Its a different culture and lifestyle, filled with different foods, scary street dogs, endless babushkas (grandmas) and rich in traditions/superstitions. I'm glad to have had the chance to see my friends one last time before we scattered back to our sites all around the country! Group 40 is leaving the country between November 16th and December 14th - I'm staying until the last day because I still have some work to do with my grants, but I'll be home soon enough!


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