In Winter, Still a Warm Place
Winter has arrived, that bitingly cold and miserably wet season dreaded by many PCVs in Ukraine. For me, it’s my first. Having arrived in March of 2010, I’d only heard the horrors of the worst Ukrainian winter in decades, about stranded buses, and broken space heaters, streets caked with ice and the feeling of being held prisoner in your own apartment. In June, while listening to these stories told by group 36 and 37 volunteers, I felt as though winter was a world away. Now, it’s here.
Transitioning from an unusually warm autumn to winter hasn’t been easy. I’ll admit there were times when I thought those volunteers were exaggerating. Upon updating my Facebook status one day, saying that I couldn’t wait for the first snow of the season, a PCV friend of mine warned me I had no idea what I was wishing for, that I’d be sorry. I won’t say she was correct absolutely, but I will say now that I know where she’s coming from.
The day our first snow arrived here in Artemovsk I boarded a marshrutka to school. More people crowded aboard at each stop. Standing as we made our way up a hill, the thought of sliding backward entered my mind. I thought it silly and ignored it. But perhaps my mind was trying to tell me something. A moment later, as the bus rounded a steep corner, it lost traction, slid back and to the side about 20 feet into the curb and small guardrail. Everyone gasped. Not a breath was taken until we came to a stop. By then people and bags were strewn about the bus. On any given day you can just about get to second base with your marshrutka-riding pals. On this day, bent over an older gentleman at almost a 90-degree angle with my hand on his lap to keep my face from falling in it, I nearly got to third. When our eyes met for a brief moment after the incident, it was as if we’d known each other for much longer than a 25-minute ride.
When I reached my stop near the school the elderly man exited, too. He cleared his throat and asked, “Are you the American teacher?” I told him, yes. He said, “Do you like the winter? Because we have three more months of it.” I told him what I could in Russian, which was that I like the frost and snow and that my apartment is very warm. He said, “Molodets.” Good job.
Aboard the same marshrutka the next day I ran into the man again. He told me he thought he might see me. Then he handed me a jar of preserved vegetables. They were from his wife. He explained that if I heat them on the stove just so, twisting and jabbing his closed hand in the air as if he were sliding a skillet across a burner, that they’d keep me warm. He said, “My grandson told me you’re a good teacher, so we must take care of you.” He never said which of my students was his grandson.
My run-in with the old man brought to light something I think is important to remember during these chilly winter months, and that’s that even in as cold a place as Ukraine, warmth exists among the people. That night, back in my apartment, despite the blustery storm outside my window, I sat cozily at my kitchen table, feasting on a large plate of pasta with preserved vegetables.