“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.