Jess, who recently returned from a two year endeavor in Ukraine, was kind enough to accept interview questions regarding her experiences! Thanks so much for your participate Jess!
Click below for the interview!
Firstly, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. The vast majority of the MikeDiDonato.com readers are engineers or scientists who live day to day in cubicles and labs. This lifestyle is pretty much the pure opposite of a peace corps volunteer who has learned Ukrainian and fully immersed herself in an Eastern European culture for 2+ years. Your experiences are really intriguing and unique and I’m so thankful that you’ve agreed to share some of your life with our corner of the internet.
MD: Just to recap, you’re finally home after 27 months in Ukraine. Welcome back! I’m sure it’s somewhat of a culture shock to return to the American way of life.
Having lived the last years fetching water from a well and self-chopping your fire wood for heat, do you find yourself viewing the American lifestyle any differently than you did prior to your time in Ukraine?
JP: You caught me at a bad time as I’m subjected to the morning news via parents. Local and international- there is a whole lot of petty stuff they pay attention to i.e. the chain smoking baby and that, so far, is the thing that is annoying me. I do have to say that I”m still adjusting so pretty much anything that I’m experiencing kinda feels weird. I still need deodorant b/c I refused to buy a tube offering any combination of honeysuckle, lemongrass, morning dew etc. I just wanted unscented or something non-dramatic. I guess the biggest one-liner could be that I am seeing how much we (as Americans) have and how little we realize it.
MD: Most of the folks here have near constant access to internet either through high speed cable or smart phones. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that we all have some degree of technology addiction. Can you tell us a little about Ukraine’s technology infrastructure and the role of technology in your town of Altinyvka?
JP: Swizz question! So people say that everyone and their Baba (gram) has a cell phone in Ukraine. It’s true and in that respect they are kind of more connected. The mobile system works on a pre-paid SIM card system with most companies offering things like internet, international calling deals, and deals on texting. No one is charged for incoming calls and most companies allow clients to talk to eachother for free, for a certain period and then they are disconnected. So I had Life;) (a phone company) and so did most volunteers, and so did my family in Ukraine. I could call and talk for free for 30 minutes when there would be a beep, we hung up and called eachother back. It was nice.
In Altynivka, as I said, everyone had a mobile. Even kids who were away from their mothers had a mobile. They are big on staying connected as a means of feeling safer, meaning if a kid is not at home they have a mobile so they can be contacted in case of anything. Also they are stuck doing loads of boring things like stuck on an Elektrichka (local train), marshrutka (mini bus), or taking the cows out to pasture. The phone comes in very handily when you just can’t take another stop on the Elektrichka or the cows are particularly boring. For volunteers, it really keeps us from going crazy with loneliness or worry or collaborating the next camp, or project. Anyway, the reason I am telling you the niceties about mobile phones is because in most of the places volunteers are placed, internet does not yet exist either in dail-up form or DSL.
The mobile phones are great, especially in a small village like mine because that is about as good as it gets in terms of staying connected. The phone lines in Altynivka are so old that they can not support whatever it would take to even establish a dail-up connection. Also, no Internet provider wants to do the work to get Altynivka connected so Alt. is still w/o internet. I was told all of this multiple times as this was actually the main project I undertook as a volunteer. Despite dangling even Dollars in their faces, they would not take the steps to put the equipment in. This is especially sad as you can imagine a school that is still relying on 1982 etc. textbooks for the most current information. Additionally, even dail-up in other villages is too expensive for someone with a salary from the village so most people aren’t pushing for it. The phones can connect to one’s computer so even though it is slow, it still does the trick. So Basically in about March of 2009 I began using the internet via mobile for my needs. It was slower than a glacier but my other choice was to walk 2 miles to the train station and go to the next city which actually had DSL.
Honestly, technology, I feel is still making it’s debut in the village areas and in the cities there is a range from the worldly techie to a more village mentality. Like I said, many schools still do not have internet (which would actually be an interesting thing to find out, how many don’t). And even if they were offered I don’t know if they would have the capacity to pay the monthly bills. The way services are computed differs from the US and in some ways it is freeing but in other ways that freedom is exercised to eek pennies or kopecks in different ways.
MD: How would you compare the diets of the typical Ukrainian vs. the typical American? Do you think you’ll adopt any of the cultural foods from Ukraine into your next generation American diet?
JP: So, a little bit about the diet in Ukraine. I lived in the village and that, I hear, is kind of different from larger cities. This is mostly because the people in the villages are responsible for about 90% of everything they eat. They grown their own produce and raise their own mean, fed from excess of the previously mentioned produce. So there is a lot of hard work put into making that happen. Then you add on a little something called the Holodomor, which was three different periods in time (1932-33 being the most devastating) and one could say that the Ukrainians are pretty economical with their food stuffs.
This is where I elaborate on that. After a Ukr family has raised a pig to the slaughtering point, they do so. In the most respectful and loving way. Quickly and using every single morsel. In preparing the meat bits for canning, they boil/fry they in very little water. This is so they can render as much fat as possible from those meat bits. After the meat is in the jars they skim all of that fat and also can it. They take the solid layer of fat just below the skin and cut that into about 1.5×3″ chunks, salt it, and put that in a jar to can… This is called Calo (pronounced Sahlow) The excess meat from bones, cartilage, and anything else that you may know as headcheese is all put into the recycled stomach, for eatin’. The organs like brains, kidneys, heart, liver, etc. are ground up and put into the cleaned intestines and the blood is all used to create blood sausage.
So I told you all of this so you know how they appreciate their food. I don’t need to talk about the garden, that’s pretty straight forward with maybe worthwhile comment that they are heavy on potatoes, red and white beets, as well as garlic. Excess garlic is mostly for the meat canning processes. The others are for feeding themselves as well as the livestock.
So why do Ukrainians have an average of 10 fewer years to expect in life? Their kitchen is not at all like the current, American kitchen. Yes I did make a generalization. The village kitchen in general is higher fat. They recycle everything including the grease from the previously cooked meat. Don’t get me wrong it’s delicious. But every one of the volunteers who regularly ate in a UKR kitchen during their service admitted probably needing a cholesterol check upon getting back to the US.
So to answer your question :) I absolutely will bring loads back. Among the dishes, which were delish and plentiful (remember your favorite cabbage-wrapped rice delights?), I will bring back many of the ideas in their kitchen principally among them saving/ not wasting as much/little as possible. The principle lesson is economic living. The kitchen is really simple like fried eggs and fried potatoes one night and fried pork and carrots with mashed potatoes the next night. Borshch is served on its own because it has two big Ukrainian legs to stand on. The crazy dishes come out when the holidays happen. You can attest to this. Think of all of the stuff you ate during the crazy New Year celebrations.
Unfortunately, eating the freshest of fresh fruits and veggis as well as the best milk and eggs ever, I think I’m in for a shocker. At times I certainly, did entertain getting some chickens if I ever get a place where I would be able to. And beyond that, I wanted a Jersey for that amazing milk and maybe some homemade Icecream.
What I WON’T bring back? For sure I will never eat Calo, not even for old time’s sake; I will never make meat jell-o; I will never eat headcheese; and I can certainly stand to deal with only the fat from the current meat and not have to use the old or nearly as much grease as they use. Even though it was good to eat at the time.
MD: You talk about the efficiency of the Ukrainians with their food, do you feel the same conservation and economical practices overflow into other parts of Ukrainian life? Specifically, I’m curious about use/preservation of natural resources and the environment.
JP: Oh such a great question. It seems, from what I experienced, talking about the environment and resources like rivers, lakes, land not used for farming that they do have a long way to go when it comes to realizing the impact of polution in those areas. One can drive anywhere and see loads of trash that has been thrown into a pile because most cities don’t have a garbage removal system in place. The waters in man-made lakes and some rivers is reputably polluted both due to Chernobyl and further human neglect.
That being said, I guess going from the macro up they are SUPER economic. There is very little wasting of anything when it comes to personal/ home life and even into work life. I guess you can say that basically, if they are directly affected, they put loads of work into making it economical but when you get to a bigger situation like land they don’t take care of or if they are passing by in their car, etc. There is very little sense of guilt to neglect it or even disrespect it.
About other natural resources like mineral deposits etc. I don’t know about that. I would venture that in general, if it is a UKr org, there are probably some shortcuts happening by virtue of the culture. Remember Chernobyl? I guess cultural behaviors don’t dissolve when the USSR dissolves.
MD: Speaking of the USSR’s collapse, how do the people of Altynivka view politics? Within the last year, Ukraine has peppered the news in the states after various election fiascoes. Do you think democracy is embraced/encouraged? Finally, on the conservative – liberal political meter, where do the people of Ukraine reside?
JP: People in Ukraine were blissfully out of the political loop. I noticed a general awareness of what was going on but it is similar to the micro/ macro ditty I was talking about concerning economic living. They knew that the politicians were corrupt and they voted but I didn’t see loads of talk about politics in the village. At least not anywhere within the realms of action. There are many more things for them to be immediately worried about like their sow that stepped on a piglet, or that the potatoes need to be weeded and sprayed etc. They also had a response that lasted about 3 seconds when talking about politics. That being said, it is a policy in Peace Corps that we to not engage people concerning politics so we continue our persona that is not immediately associated with governmental dealings. I never engaged anyone but during the elections, both in the US with Obama and within Ukraine, people did talk. In Ukraine, it was largely defeatist with a heavy emphasis that their vote didn’t matter and nothing they could do would change things. I know that in school I was the only one setting up student governments and talking about leadership with an emphasis on civic duty and right now I can’t think of a class they took that only focused on political systems.
MD: Iteresting! I forgot that the Obama election occurred while you were overseas. How do you think Ukrainians view Americans in general. What are their stereotypes of us as a people?
JP: Most of the people kind of thought Americans were just like the movies they saw. Either that or they carried thoughts from the USSR with them. I met one guy who confessed that he thought all Americans were super lazy, dumb, and fat. He said that in the same paragraph where he also said I changed his mind. Their stereotypes have a lot to do with air and food. They say that every single drop of our food is full of chemicals as well as our air is very very polluted. They, for the most part, are unaware of a lot. I often got a surprised response when I told them something about America.
When I was there and when I left, they all had said that they wold think of every American the same way they thought about me and that if every American was like me America was a good place. I think I did educate them about Americans and I think I did leave a good impression. Basically every American who came to Altynivka gave them a good impression and on the whole we represented ourselves nicely there.
Of course there were a couple of dudes who never got over their hatred or prejudice for Americans despite getting to know me. Don’t know why and don’t care. They were not respected people in Altynivka so whateves.
MD: Can you tell me a little about the peace corps in general? Were you pleased with the organization and the people? Do you feel like you got what you wanted out of the program?
JP: www.peacecorps.gov That’s the best way to find out about the Peace Corps but I’ll tell you the 5 cent ditty. It is a governmental, non-political, volunteer organization that is invited into developing countries to provide volunteer services like Teaching English as a Foreign Language; Community Development; Youth Development; Ag services; IT services; and I think others services. Our three goals are to Provide our skills for service to these countries and the citizens, Learn about the country and citizens, and then bring the knowledge back and teach Americans about those countries. I was assigned to the Youth Development which includes some teaching of Healthy Living, after school clubs, and projects. When it was all said and done, I couldn’t teach but I rocked the after school clubs and I did projects the majority of the time. We organized fundraisers, Halloween events, wrote a grant for a Community Center and had a fabulous Opening for that. We did other little projects too but in the end the kids were involved in loads of Leadership roles, established something of a student government, and the whole goal of it all was sustainable development.
I was really happy with the Ukrainians who worked at the Country Office for Peace Corps. i was always impressed at how hard they worked for us and this, they said was because they really believed in what we were doing. think this was an amazing thing to be a part of because if they didn’t believe in Peace Corps’ mission it would have been kind of hard to get things done. In my village, because of my remote location, I had loads of autonomy. This means that I had really little cause to be disappointed in the org. here were some stupid particulars occasionally, but nothing I could remember.
I absolutely got what I wanted out of the program. It changed my life, I feel like I was directed towards something just a little more rewarding than my old job/life and I have a loads bigger family!
MD: Last question, do you think you’ll go back to visit/live in Ukraine again for any extended length of time?
JP: If by that you mean to live, no. I don’t think so. Right now, I kind of see it as a step along the path and of course I’ll go back to visit as often as I can, but that country has a long way to go before it entices me to live there in any real/ permanent capacity. I’ll take the many lessons I have learned from Ukraine and my family there and use them where ever I live and I guess that is a great way to practice the 3rd goal. The alcoholism and super-patriarchal society make it a place that I would not want to find a partner from nor raise kids in. I guess that means that I don’t trust myself to be a good enough parent to keep my kids away, because there are certainly parents there who do. I simply believe that a society has a big influence on it’s generations and I want to be permanent in one that I agree with, the majority of the time.
Jess, Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail. I hope that the readers enjoyed this step into the life of a peace corps volunteer as much as I did.
Best of luck as you continue on to your next adventure. Keep us updated!! Thanks again!!!!
2 thoughts on “An Interview with Jess!”
This was great. Good questions and good answers.
Awesome adventure. Although, I’m confused how you could not like headcheese…