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Excerpts from Turkey

April 18, 2011

My phone vibrates and I instinctively think not to answer it, but then I remember where I am, not Ukraine, not Svesa, not somewhere where everyone will stare at me for speaking English, so I answer it.  “Hello?” I say hesitantly, as I don’t recognize the number.  “Where are you?”  The other voice beams back at me.  “On the bus,” I say, “on my way.”  “Oh so you’ve arrived?”  The voice says, sounding relieved.  “Yah, I’m just taking a bus to the city now.”  “Oh, ok.”  “Who is this?”  “It’s Jacob!”  “Oh, Jacob, hey!  Sorry, I didn’t recognize your voice.  I should be there in two hours.  See you soon.”  I put my phone away, and look stealthily around, but no one has so much as flinched at the sound of my voice.  The girl next to me looks engrossingly into her cell phone, the man in front of her stares blankly out the window, a child talks rabidly to himself across the aisle, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing signifying anyone having noticed.  I relax considerably, as I am now in a place where I may speak freely, openly, talk in a loud voice without anyone caring or even bothering to look my way.  I settle into my seat, when I sense movement to my right, something out of the corner of my eye, which must be coming from the man who has been up until now, curled over his cell phone, leaning heavily into the window.  I look over briefly, making sudden eye contact with a Turkish male.

“Where you from?”  The timid voice says in shaky English.  I turn slightly, as if just seeing him now, he having just come into existence beside me.  “America,” I say.  “Oh, America,” he says smiling now, as if the word denoted a desert, implied something sweet.  “You come first time?”  He says.  “Yes, first time,” I say, imagining the difficulty with which speaks, wanting to tell him not to worry when he fumbles for word choice, mispronounces, mixes up word order, wanting to take his hand and say “It’s ok!” when he looks embarrassed for being unable to complete a thought “I know what it’s like”, but I restrain myself, as all he’s said is “Oh, America.”  He pauses, looking at his phone, typing something in, and then shows me the screen.  “Where are you from?” I read out loud from an internet translator.  “Chicago,” I say.  “Oh, Chicago!” He says again, with that same smile.  “And you come here?”  He says, referring to the long length of the trip.  “Oh, well I live in Ukraine,” I say.  “Oh, Ukraine!” “Yes,” I say.  “You speak Russian?” He says, looking bewildered.  “Yah, sometimes.”  He looks back at his phone and types something in.  “Are you by yourself?”  I read on his screen.  “I’m meeting friends,” I say, perhaps too slowly, too over sensitized to the whole language barrier situation.  “They are already in Istanbul.”  He shakes his head knowingly.  “Do you live in Istanbul?”  “I student.  Medical student.”  “Oh, ok.”  He then retrieves a small slip of paper from his bag and scribbles something down, and shows it to me.  “I Harun,” he says, looking at the paper where he wrote out his name.  “I’m Kathleen, nice to meet you,” and he motions to the paper to have me write it down.  I write Kathleen in clear, comprehensible letters, and look at our names side by side, as if having completed some official Turkish ritual.  “Will you teach me some Turkish?”  I say slowly.  “Yes, yes,” he says, nodding.  “What is your name, how do you say that?”  He writes down some letters that appear far more friendly and feasible than Russian ones.  “Adin ne?”  I read out loud.  “Good,” he says.  “Hello, how do you say that?”  “Selam,” I read from his paper, where he writes down more phrases.  I look out the window and see we are approaching the city, the lights shining more brightly, density increasing, people appearing now more frequently.  Harun is back on his cell phone, putting something through the translator.  “You know the way?”  I read out loud.  I tell him I have directions, but that I don’t know my way exactly, thinking that I would love to have some help.  We soon arrive at the final stop, where it’s time to get off.  We stand up, and shuffle out, where I claim my bag from under the bus.  I struggle with it for a moment, which he sees as a plea for help, and takes it, putting it on his shoulder, as if it’s something he’s required to do.  “I’m hungry,” I say, as we stand unmoving on the sidewalk, unsure of the next move.  “I show you food,” he says.  “Great,” I say. 

We walk down the street, passing Turkish restaurants with outdoor seating, groups gathered around tables, men with small carts shaving off meat for kebabs, a Pizza Hut, looking oddly placed on the corner.   “These places look good,” I say eagerly, as anything appeals to me at this moment.  “No, I show you good Turkish restaurant,” he says authoritatively.  “Ok.”  We cross the street, passing a Burger King to my right, onto a more prominent promenade, which he describes as “the center”, a ped mall where people suddenly appear from all directions, a sea of Turks we seamlessly disappear into, men with carts every few feet emitting a smoky, earthy smell, roasting nuts of some kind, young, trendy men walking in large groups with extroverted grins on their faces, expressionless women holding hands with men of a similar height, more groups of men standing near store fronts, looking into their cell phones, at the people walking nearby, others being beckoned to night clubs by well dressed men holding slips of paper, “Hey lady,” one says to me, “You come to our club, deal, deal,” he says, another group of men positioned further behind, gate keepers to the third stories where a deep base vibrates through open windows, reverberating in the street below, the clubs lining the upper tiers of buildings, parallel worlds to the businesses below, an open aired Mc Donalds to my right, where solitary figures stand hunched over tables, consuming their burgers in private, empty clothing stores, shops blaring what can only be traditional Turkish music, sounding like what one would think they would hear in Turkey, a small boy selling ice cream cones, yelling things out, doing tricks to try and attract attention, more men with carts shaving off pieces of meat, as if the process was never ending, a man rolling himself in a wheelchair approaching people aggressively selling small packs of tissue paper, more restaurants in alleys, men on side streets yelling deals, shoving themselves towards you, telling you they have a very special offer, even more restaurants, so many that you think you are seeing double, that maybe the sudden influx of activity is altering your senses in some way, but on second look you see they are all really there, each one seemingly identical, appearing only feet apart, the same man in front, looking urgently at the crowd, speaking in English, saying things like, “my friend” and “where are you from?”, the same image repeating itself that it all suddenly feels  cartoonish, a large woman even seated in the front window of one restaurant, chopping something.  I look to my right, and see Harun, who is standing somewhat unevenly, with my blue bag on his right shoulder, stopped now in front of a two story restaurant, no woman in the front window, no man out front.  “This ok?”  he says, to which I nod my assent, and before we go in he types something into his cell phone and hands it to me. “You not bored?” I read on the screen, and looking up at him I laugh, “No, I’m not bored,” and we go inside. 

The Man in the Window

April 18, 2011

I walk down the street holding my small bag of trash to throw out, when I see a man appear through an open window.  I pass by without notice, reaching the corner ahead to turn. 

“Katia,” I hear shouted behind me.  I stop, wondering if it might be directed towards someone else, the man in the window surely calling a different Katia.   

“Katia,” he repeats, this time unmistakably to me.  I turn and look up at the man smiling down at me, a face I have never seen in my life. 

“Hey Katia,” he says with the familiarity of a friend.

“Is there anyone in the school gym?” 

I turn and look ahead at the school gym directly in front of me, just out of his line of vision.

 “Da,” I say. 

“Thanks Katia,” he says, disappearing inside, and I turn, continuing on with my trash.

Boyfriend..?

February 13, 2011

I watch as a man dressed in army fatigues bypasses the line with his mother close behind, handing something to an impassively faced lady who marks it with a pen as if a multiple time occurrence for her.  The man, who looks more like a boy, has Hispanic features and is stern and straight faced, staring unblinkingly at his mother who quivers a few feet away.  When he turns to leave, as if left with no other options, a man suddenly appears shouting his name from behind, wrapping his arms around him tightly, to what can only be understood as the unmistakable scene of a father and son parting.  Releasing him unwillingly, he hangs back with his wife, the two standing off to the side now, catching the last traces of their son as he makes his way through the line, removing his boots, his bags, anything extra in his pockets, and finally, disappears through to the other side, invisible to them now.  I lower my head now, as if in reverence, now face to face with my chicken wrap, and listen as Spanish is spoken to my right by a pair of men.  Taking small bites of the tough skin, I look over and watch them as they carry on uninterrupted by the outside world, their words reminiscent to me, and turn my head quickly when they notice my staring.  I watch a family ahead of me now, sitting somberly without a word, and move my attention back to the security line, where people sift through to their various corners of the world.  Standing up now, unable to break into the final impenetrable bite of the wrap, I throw it into the trash can, and join the line, unable to delay it any longer.  I hand my passport to the man covered in badges and look over to find the mother and father now suddenly absent, and turning back to the man we make brief eye contact before he waves me on, already gesturing to the next person.  I stand uncertainly next to the revolving belt, and adjust my eyes to try and catch the attention of the workers, who all seem occupied in conversation, until one spots me and motions to my boots.  I strip them off, feeling a sudden self consciousness at seeing my socks exposed out in the open and walk through the detector, raising my hands awkwardly, and am waved on by a woman looking me up and down.  I retrieve my bag and repack the discarded computer which fits uncomfortably now, and stand with my boots flopping down at the sides and my backpack spread open, a sudden vulnerability about me, and am startled by an employee who kindly points me to a chair.  I walk towards my gate, passing the increasing numbers until I find mine and take a seat facing the administration desk.  I sit across from a woman staring out the window at the setting sun, and feeling a sudden urge I stand up and switch seats to one across, catching the attention of a few people nearby.  As I sit watching the sun lower in the sky, I listen to the sounds that stand out aggressively around me, whose intonations draw me back half way across the world, and quickly plugging my ears, I wait as the music drains them out. 

I arrive in Warsaw groggy, and begrudgingly get up from my seat and walk off the plane.  I step into a large bus with a fellow horde of people and stand uncomfortably leaning again a pole.  Once inside, I wait in a security line again, this time with an irritable group, made nervous by their impending flight connections.  I watch as a woman cuts the line, attempting to get through without waiting, only to be rebuffed by a man in the front, who points her back to her place in line.  An Asian couple stands detained in a small booth to my left, the woman smiling back at the majority of the line that stares at her, made suddenly comfortable by their relative fortune.  The rejected woman stands tall in front of me, voicing obscenities about her upcoming flight and the incompetency of the Polish workforce, and says in a loud, condescending voice, “Why are they putting a flight from America, through security again.”  A man laughs next to her, and says in a thick accent, “You better hide your gun,” the two laughing, unaware of any inappropriateness.  The woman sighs heavily, and looks around as if to show her level of discomfort, and tries again, this time by asking the people in front of her if she might go ahead, to which they shrug their shoulders and allow it.  I look at the screen and notice my flight is soon as well, but decide to keep my spot in the line.  I finally reach security, performing similar actions, and as I walk away, I catch one last glimpse at the smiling woman and wonder if she’ll ever make it through.  I arrive at my gate and stay standing, watching a woman asleep on the floor nearby, when I hear my name unsuspectingly from behind, and turn to see a fellow volunteer, returning from a trip to Egypt.  We exchange greetings and shortly board the plane, sitting separately.  I fall asleep instantly, the jet lag slowly taking its toll on my body.  I awake in Ukraine, to what seems minutes later, and exit the plane, returning to familiar surroundings.  My bag now heavier than before with the added items from home, the weight now feels unbearable mixed with my fatigue.  The other volunteer insists on helping me get to my hostel, sharing the load with me, walking the twenty minutes uphill in the stinging winter air.  We stop in front of an apartment building, dropping our things dramatically, and I get out my phone to call upstairs.  The lady on the other end is clear and unwavering about her words, “No space.” I shake my head, as if uncomprehending of what it means.  “No space?”  I repeat, as if she might not have understood what she said.  “No space.” She says, her accent undetectable under the simplicity of the words.  “Really, nothing, no beds at all?”  “No space,” she says, repeating herself for the third time, the other volunteer looking at me now, wondering what it is I can’t seem to pick up on.  “Oh,” I say finally, “Thanks,” and hang up the phone reluctantly.  He looks at me, waiting for the next direction, and I tell him I will hail a cab.  He grabs one strap, I the other, and we set off to the intersection to perform the difficult task of finding a cab in Ukraine, as they operate differently than most countries, with almost no official markings on the cars, most of them just regular people wanting to make a buck.  I stand in the snow with my hand in the air, waving frantically at the passing cars, waiting for what could be a long time.  I see a car pull up to my right, and a man in front lighting a cigarette.  I knock on his window and say a street name, repeating myself when he gives me that familiar blank look, and giving me the head nod, I jump in, thanking him in a frenzied goodbye.  The car ride is short, about fifteen minutes, and he waits quietly while I gather my things to leave.  I hand him what I think is appropriate, as there are no meters in the cabs, instead people agreeing on a price beforehand, but seeing the state I was in, he accepts what I give him without questions.  I emerge from the car, racked by bags, and taking a step across the sidewalk, I promptly slip and fall on ice that is concealed by soft, benign snow.  A group of locals in front of me stops and turns around, edging towards me, but I wave them away, telling them, “Bco horosho,” looking like the helpless foreigner I am on the ground.  I stand up, a pain now throbbing in my left knee, and continue on, arriving at the front door of the hostel, exhausted, dropping my things all around me.

I take a seat at the kitchen table, joining a group discussing their impressions of Ukraine, a Dutch girl taking Russian language classes, a German and Spaniard traveling around Europe.  The German talks about hitchhiking around Europe, sleeping in his tent when no rides are found, and his interest in seeing small towns in the countries he visits.  Hearing this, I tell him about where I live, and invite him to Svesa, giving him my number, to which he responds, “I’ll call you,” and walking towards the room with the beds, I lie down and sleep. 

(Continued below)

February 13, 2011

I am crossing the small center of town, with Luda, Vika, and Jackie, the new volunteer in the next town, when my phone rings.  “Hello?”  “Kathleen,” I hear with the hint of an accent, “This is Phillip, from the hostel.”  “Oh yes! Phillip.  How are you?”  “Good, I’m thinking of coming to your town tomorrow.  What do you think?”  “Yes, please do come! It will be Ukrainian Christmas.  Everyone would love to meet you,” I say, thinking of the sensation Phillip will cause when people find out “a German” is in town.  “Ok then. Great.  I will try and hitchhike to your town.”  “Hmm,” I say, thinking out loud.  “It might be better to just take a train.  I’m not sure you’ll find many people coming out this way.”  I give him train instructions and tell him I will help him get from the train to Svesa.  “Ok then, see you tomorrow.”  “Yes Phillip, until tomorrow.”  I hang up the phone, and walk into the shop behind the others, where Sveta, the owner, is opening a bottle of champagne and gathering an assortment of chocolates.  It is Christmas eve and we are caroling around town, visiting such unexpected people as the director of the school, the two vice directors, the teacher of Ukrainian, my ex-Russian tutor, who were all surprised to see me at their door singing verses in Ukrainian.  As everything is poured, we all take a cup and sing the traditional Ukrainian song, Jackie and I more mouthing than singing, and gulping down the champagne, I decide it the appropriate moment to announce, “A German is coming tomorrow!” And without any further explanation they say, “Oh.  A German!”

Jackie and I exit my apartment, spotting the small group to our right, and join them saying, “Sproznicom,” happy holidays.  It is Ukrainian Christmas, Jan. 7, and we are going into the forest for a barbeque, or as Ukrainians call it, Shasleke.  I am dressed in tights, pants, a turtleneck sweater, a fleece, a new winter coat, two pairs of socks, as well as a pair of wool socks Natasha’s sister knitted for me, reaching the absolute maximum of warmth.  We trudge pass the small houses, following the path that leads into the wooded area I see from my apartment window.  We pick a spot beside a hill and the men begin to gather wood, while the women prepare the spread.  The first shots are soon poured, this time varying slightly with cognac as an option, and the fire grows quickly, offering some much needed warmth as the first two hours pass and our clothes start to concede to the cold.  We climb the small hill and sled down one after another, which provides some additional body heat, but disappears once back near the fire.  As the four hour mark hits, I can feel the unmistakable chill in my boots and the alarming sensations in my toes.  I look down at my feet and back at one Ukrainian, who says to me, “Don’t worry.  Someone just went to get more cognac and warmer boots for you.”  I shake my head in relief and wait patiently warming my feet near the fire, where I am soon handed a pair of male leather boots intended for ice fishing with army fatigued sidings.  I slip them on joyfully, and we each take a drink from the new bottle, cheersing to my new boots. 

An unknown number of hours later, Jackie is running up and down the hill, trying to keep warm, when I remember the German.  He is supposed to be coming in the evening and I still haven’t found a ride for him.  I decide to inform the small group and see if they have any suggestions.  “A German is coming?” They say somewhat astonishingly.  “Yes,” I say, “My friend, to Svesa,” I tell them, not wanting to reveal that I had really only just met him two nights previous for an hour at a hostel, a detail they might find disconcerting.  Vania, the one who had brought reinforcements, speaks up and offers to help find him a ride.  Thanking him repeatedly, I jump on a sled and am pulled back towards town, the rows of bulky apartment buildings coming suddenly into view, the faded concrete colored sheen shabby against the surrounding white.  We arrive at our parting place and turn towards one another, getting ready to exchange goodbyes, when Galia unexpectedly invites us up for tea.  “Tea,” I say, “Sure,” thinking how nice the invitation sounds.  We walk up the six flights up stairs to the top and all pile into their tiny apartment, sitting around the kitchen table, our feet warming on the heated floors, as Galia and her husband tell us they work at the gas company in town.  As the tea kettle is heating, we notice the bottle of cognac Vania has placed on the table, along with shot glasses and tea cups laid side by side, and we ask if this is what they meant by tea, but Galia motions to the stove, as if in defense of her invitation.  We begin the usual motions of cheersing and drinking when I ask again about my German friend.  They assure me they have found someone to pick him up, Galia now moving the kitchen table into the next room saying, “Now we dance.”  As the kitchen is being turned into a disco, my phone rings and Philip is on the other end, saying he has arrived and I triumphantly say, “The German has come!”  The group cheersing, offers the next drink up to him, “To the German!”  He arrives to the tiny apartment not long after, setting down his large pack, and hesitantly walks into the kitchen now turned dance floor.  Before he can say anything, someone hands him a drink, the group ecstatic at the new addition, and raising our glasses we all shout something different, the German, the Americans, and the Ukrainians all together at this brief moment in time.

I awake the next day, groggy, tired, and decide to go out to the market to buy some food, as I have been gone for two weeks in America and my supplies are scarce.  I walk down the front steps and see my neighbor up ahead.  “Katia!”  She says loudly, “You’ve come back!”  “Yes I came back,” I say reassuringly, as I have said repeatedly since coming back from my trip to the states.  “You missed us didn’t you?”  She says, as if uncovering some secret.  “Oh of course,” I say, as if I could say anything to the contrary.  She asks me where I’m going and I tell her to the market to buy potatoes.  “For borsch?”  She says knowingly, “Yes,” I say, and shaking her head, she winks at me, as if we have some unspoken understanding.  I continue on to the line of babushkas who sell their homemade goods and shout things at me like, “Markovka, Markovka (carrot)”, and “capusta, capusta, (cabbage)”.  I approach a babushka who is particularly shrunken and looks as though she is sitting down.  “Byrok,” I say as she squeezes my hand affectionately, “You want to make borsh?” “Yes I do.”  She looks around for a moment, and then returning to me says, “No one has beets today, but tomorrow I’ll bring you some from my house.  Meet me in the center.”  “Thank you,” I say appreciatively, “Thank you so much,” and walking away, I decide to stop at one more person, just to make sure.  “Byrok,” I say in my clearest voice.  “Excuse me,” the man says curiously, “Byrok,” I repeat louder and with noticeably forced intonation.  “Byrok?” He says looking at me, a smile spreading across his face, “None here,” and backing away I say, “thank you,” aware of the realization he is making and walking back to the apartment, I say in my head, “He knew”. 

(continued below)

February 13, 2011

“Ask questions, ask questions!” Natasha yells at the ninth form seated silently before us, “Communicate with him.”  Phillip stands in front, waiting patiently for a shy group of teenagers to open up.  “I’ll start,” he says, “How old are you?”  The group giggles, as they most often do upon hearing anything foreign, and a spirited girl in the front shoots her arm into the air and proudly says, “fourteen.”  “Where are you from?”  He asks next, a question that seems strange to me, as I know the inevitable answer.  “From Svesa,” a boy says in shaky English.  “Me from Moscow,” another one says, the group now visibly relaxing.  A boy with spiky hair raises his hand, “Where you from?”  “Dresden,” he says, a few people making sounds, while another hand is raised in the air.  “Where you been?”  “I am traveling around eastern Europe,” he says, “I have been all over.”  “But why you come Svesa?” a girl says out loud.  “Kiev, big city, but Svesa, small settlement.”  “I like to see small towns,” he says, an answer they seem interested in.  “You like Svesa?”  “Yes I like Svesa,” he says.  A lanky girl with waist length brown hair raises her hand now.  “Where you sleep?”  “I have a tent,” he says.  “I pitch it anywhere I find space.”  Gasps fill the room now, the excitement rising.  He then lifts his thumb in the air.  “I hitchhike too. Ask for rides and travel as far as they can take me.”  I watch the animated faces from the side of the room where I stand, the former timidity gone now, hands shooting up one after another.  “Where you like?”  He pauses for a moment, and says, “I loved Mongolia.  I was out in the country where they only eat meat.  It’s much colder there too.”  “What’s your profession?”  A student says skeptically.  “I’m an engineer,” he says, “I work for Hollywood.”  I watch the eyes open around the room.  “Have you seen Pirates of the Caribbean?” He says, heads shaking up and down all around the room, “I helped design the camera to film it.”  “What do you parents think?”  One anxious looking boy asks.  “At first they didn’t understand, but now they’ve accepted it,” he says, as if explaining some alternative lifestyle he is living.  This time, in clearer, correct English, Natasha says, “But why do you do it?  What is your motivation?”  Phillip is silent, as if this is the hardest question yet and says, “I want to look back at my life as an old man and see that I was happy, not how much money I had.”  The group looks on silently, as if not sure what to make of the response.  “I know I come from a privileged country,” he continues, “I know that I can afford to do this,” he says, whose meaning is probably lost on the youthful crowd.  And looking at him, thinking it might be time to wrap things up, a small girl in the back raises her hand, “Have you got a girlfriend,” the class giggling.  “No,” he says, but interrupting I instinctively say, “Phillip, yes, you do, your girl at home,” I say looking urgently at him, knowing what assumptions will be made if he doesn’t say yes, “Oh right,” he says as if suddenly remembering, “I have a girl at home,” and the class is silent, now out of questions, as the most important one has been answered.

My doorbell rings and I open it to find my neighbor standing outside.  She knows my landlady is inside and I gesture her into the kitchen.  The two sit and chat in indecipherable Russian as I stand nearby, not making any attempt to interpret.  After five minutes, they finally stand up and walk towards the hallway, pointing at the fire alarm that peace corps gave as, and ask, “I wanted to ask you, what is that?”  I explain with my hands and arms, acting out a fire, and voicing whatever Russian comes to mind.  “Oh,” they say, “How interesting.  That’s quite a good idea.”  “You’ll give that to me as a present when you leave,” my landlady says.  “Ok,” I say, despite knowing I have to return it.  Opening the door for them, waiting to enjoy my alone time for the first time since Phillip left, my neighbor stops and turns around suddenly, “Katya, your friend,” “yes,” I say, listening as she says something unclear in Russian.  “I’m sorry I don’t understand,” I say, and the two women look at each other and smile, my neighbor repeating it several times.  “I don’t understand,” I say, and fatigued, I motion to shut the door, when I hear, “boyfriend?” the meaning now becoming clear, the English sounds foreign coming from this elderly Ukrainian woman.  “No, not my boyfriend, just my friend,” and watching me as I close the door, they smile and look at each other, shaking their heads up and down as if they don’t believe me.

Little Ones

December 3, 2010

They sit before me in pairs, looking a lot smaller than I am used to, their feet dangling above the floor.  There are more than usual, and they look at me more urgently, their arms and legs fluttery tucked beneath their desks.  They have less reserve, shouting things out as they please, one even escaping from her chair to run up and give me a hug, followed by another one who does the same thing.  I guide them back to their seats, telling them to stay put much like puppies, and return to the front of the room to show some authority, but I’m silent, face to face with all these little eyes that have somehow found themselves before me.  An especially stout, even for his young age, little one in the back, raises his hand.  “Da?” I say hesitantly, unsure of what such a small person would have to say.  He stands up, appearing not much taller than when he was sitting, and rattles off something vague about his sister, whose meaning is lost on me.  When he stops talking he remains standing and wondering if he has more to say, I wait a few seconds for him to continue not wanting to be rude, but when he’s quiet, I politely tell him, “Sit down now.”  After he finishes his story, three other hands shoot into the air, and figuring they must have something to say along similar lines, I tell the class there will be no talking at this time at the risk of sounding dictatorial.  I am back in the front of the room, still quiet, observing them in their seats, which can only be described as squirming, moving from left to right as if they have a power button located somewhere on their bodies.  I notice a vacant spot in the back and see one crouched on the ground underneath her desk, looking around for something.  “Excuse me,” I say in an offended tone walking towards her, “What are you doing?”  And coming up off the ground, she settles back into her seat, not having appeared to have been looking for anything.  I turn to go back to the front and find one standing.  “Um excuse me,” I say repeating myself, “What are you doing?”  And looking at me surprised, like he hadn’t realized he was standing, he too sits down quickly.  Back in the front, I resume my gazing, noticing a new addition to the previously empty back row.  Tilting my head and widening my eyes, I stare back at her until the whole class is soon leering in her direction until she gets up, moving back to her correct place, and as she hits the surface of her new seat, another one pops up to my left right on cue, now standing at his neighbor’s desk, giving him what appears to be a hard time.  I approach him and stand menacingly behind, until he sits down as if it never happened.  They wriggle around feverishly, tottering on the edge of their seats, gibbering to themselves like the senile or drunk.  They don’t seem to answer to any kind of higher authority and appear to work among themselves resembling an ant colony, calling each other by name, shouting out whatever fleeting thoughts pass through their young minds.  “My pens gone,” one says. “I ripped my paper,” another informs, but I’m quiet, not wanting to indulge their numerous whims.  There are some still ones, who sit dazed, as if checked out from their surroundings, while others sing sporadically, their current location no apparent dettering factor.  I watch them like this for a few minutes, wondering if I ought to interrupt such a conglomerate of activity, wondering how I came to stand before such a raucous bunch, and putting myself out on a limb, I open my mouth and say, “Hello,” the little ones freezing suddenly in their seats, their attention finally on me, the alien sounding girl who has unexpectedly found herself in their second grade lives.

Translator

November 24, 2010

I arrive at school ten minutes before the bell rings, in search of Luda to find out what the topic is for my tenth form class.  Normally, I wouldn’t be too worried if I found her or not, as it is my second year of teaching and I can improvise pretty easily, but being that it is with older students who seem able to sense things like unpreparedness and discomfort whereas the fifth grade girls are mostly oblivious to a forgotten word or two, I find it necessary to find her before the lesson, so I can have some idea of what I’m talking about.  Ten minutes soon become five, five become two and as the last minute dwindles, I finally find myself face to face with Luda, who hands me a sheet of white paper and simply says, “environment.”  The word settles in my mind uncomfortably and I look down at the sheet of paper, which reads “Our Threatened Planet.  Can it be saved?” and one painful word comes to me, “Translation.”  I hold the piece of paper at my side reluctantly like a bag of trash and walk into the classroom, where students of the 10th form await me, their first lesson of the year with Ms. Kathleen.  The faces are new to me, as they are not the same from last year, and I suddenly remember Luda saying she’d given me different students, ones that needed more help in English, ones that will probably not understand a word I will say.  I clear my throat, which in my mind gives me some element of authority, and begin by clasping my hands together joyfully, hoping to brighten their sullen, 16 year old faces.  “Hello!” I say, feeling like a comedian about to perform to a less than desirable turn out.  “How are you?”  I ask, sounding like a therapist.  Some of them chuckle, as most do upon hearing my voice for the first time, and look to one another for support.  I wonder if they are just being shy, or if they in fact do not understand the words how-are-you, if which is the case, I will be in trouble when it comes time to address “Our threatened planet. Can it be saved”, which I’m unsure of how much interest it will incite, as the students have a hard time answering how they are.  “Ok then, good, good,” I say, trying my best to facilitate things, keep matters moving.  “Today we will talk about the planet.”  The moment the words are released, all the heads dart around, looking to one another as if I have just said something controversial or injurious, like I am making a campaign speech, slandering the other candidate.  I decide to start again, holding up the paper, and say, “Planet,” breaking up my sentences now, “today”, speaking only in words like I used to do when I first got to Ukraine and I didn’t know the language, saying things like “ketchup,” at the dinner table, the rest responding, “good katya!”, giving me a thumbs up for my one word contribution of the night.  They don’t seem to pick up either of the words I have said and so I translate planet and today as best I can.  “Oh,” they say shaking their heads up and down, “Got it,” they seem to say with their body language.  “Ok let’s begin,” I say pointing to the paper.  “Deema, please read.”  Deema looks at me blankly and I point to the first sentence on the page and he looks down and begins.  “The pro-t-e..” Deema stops almost immediately, staring motionlessly at the page.  I look back at him sitting in the last row alone, trying to understand his adolescent mind.  “The protection of nature has become one of the most burning problems,” I say helping him along.  “Now translate.”  He sits frozen, and seems unable to open his mouth any further.  “Ok,” I say, “Angela, help him.”  She also sits frozen, incapable of any further elaboration.  I start to become nervous, as I might have to give my own muddled translation thought up on the spot, but before it comes to that, Nina, sitting in the front row raises her hand politely.  “Nina!” I say almost shouting, “Please, go ahead.”  The words comes out quickly, compactly, like she prepared them at an earlier date, and every head looks up at me, the infallible source now on Russian English translation, to see if what Nina has said, is in fact correct.  I shake my head up and down, “Good Nina,” unsure of exactly what her words meant in Russian, as I’m not sure of the correct sentence structure for “has become one of the most burning problems.”  Seeing Nina’s examples, the rest follow.  Dasha now raises her hand, giving a vaguely comprehensible read in English, followed by an even quicker one in Russian.  The whole class once again looks to me to see if Dasha has now given the correct translation.  Once again unable to correctly translate the words, “The development of industry has had a bad influence on the nature of the whole world,” I give a similar encouraging head nod, which makes Dasha smile and the rest more hopeful of their translating skills.  I decide at this moment to slow down, and take the text word by word, using a dictionary, but when I look into my bag, I find that I have unfortunately forgotten it.  “Ok,” I say, taking a deep breath, “building, to build.”  I write the word on the board and the class looks back at me blankly.  As I reach into my mind for the translation, I too am blank, and decide to resort to my theatrical skills, something I pull upon often while trying to relay something in English.  I make exaggerated motions with my hands, flailing them around me, trying to mimic what a builder might do, feeling like I am suddenly part of a game of charades.  They look around at each other and begin to giggle, though not mean heartedly I notice, but rather sympathetically, like they appreciate my efforts.  “Stroet,” Angela says.  “yes!”  I shout back at her, excited about our progress, “Good.”  We move on to the next word.  “Pollution.”  I mime my hands in a semi circle, driving a car and follow it by car exhaust with my fingers.  Nina raises her hand and says something in Russian, which I take to be pollution, “Nina, good.”  We continue on now at a quicker pace and I continue acting out such things as “garbage truck”, “garbage dump,” and “taking out the garbage,” in which I swing my arms and let go of an invisible bag in the air.  As we get to “cutting down trees”, and I debate falling over, I see what I think is a dictionary in the far back corner and Vika searching for something with her finger.  I smile appreciatively at her, who would not let things get so far that I might have to fall over, and at the rest, who seem to be trying despite their complete lack of knowledge of the English language, and moving on, I call on Deema to read the next sentence, “All life on the Earth-from the littlest bug to the biggest whale,” and waiting patiently for him to finish, I get my arms ready at my side.

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