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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)

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