Ukrainian Canning Jar: A lid is being secured to a jar of plums and juice with a device called a key.

Olya at the peech: Olya washing dishes in a basin at the wood-fired peech. There is no sink in the kitchen, but the building usually has running water. Just now, however, the well is dry. The barrel on top of the peech contains the makings of what will become 15 or so liters of vodka.

A fire in the bake oven: A fire has been started in the bake oven, this time for bread. When the oven is up to temperature, the remnants of the fire will be raked out, and the bread inserted with a long paddle.

St. Nicholas: A pair of children, costumed for a school play, pose with St. Nicholas. There is no sitting on Santa’s lap and whispering into his ear. Nicholas is treated with respect and awe.

Paraska & Babas:  Paraska, her mother Maria, and her mother-in-law, also named Maria, take a break after the day spent canning. The Maria’s are both 80, cousins, and close friends since childhood.

This article to the Franklin Journal is long overdue! The last one was sent in July, a five month gap and I apologize. I have no excuse except to say that Year 3 in Kosmach is much different than Years 1 and 2.

While some of the magic has worn off, relationships have deepened. Work is more focused but working in Ukraine continues to to frustrate. I seem to have acculturated to the Ukrainian version of cold germs and haven’t been sick in months. But on the downside, intermittent problems with sciatica have curtailed my long walks on the mountain roads. All in all, I continue to feel simultaneously like a foreigner and like a member of the community.

This past week I had a meeting at the Kosmach Central School, just a short walk from my office, with two teachers about the ecology program, “Creating a Clean Community,” that we are promoting for the school children. On my way in, there were a hundred plus children of various ages in the school yard, gathered for some sort of assembly. As I passed, first one small child and then another and then a score of them called “Hello” to me. Soon the older kids were joining in, and the Head Master simply paused in his organizational efforts while I was being greeted.

When I first came to the village, small groups of young boys would often say “Hello” to me and then I would hear them behind me, running away and laughing. They still say hello but are no longer embarrassed by their daring.

At the other end of the spectrum, this past Friday, the First Deputy, a coworker and I were to pick up the t-shirts for our children’s ecology workshops. This involved traveling in the Deputy’s car to a Farmington-like town so that I could go to the bank for needed cash, and then on the way back to a New-Sharon-like town to the print shop. This was in the plan for a week. Friday, I arrived at the office and let my coworker know that I was here. He responded that the Deputy could not go today. Rats!

Later I learn that the Deputy has gone to the Augusta-like city, and my coworker did too! This last bit of news makes the first bit all the more annoying. Yes, the Deputy probably had to go on official business, but had they asked, I would have gone along, too. The banking could have been done, and a later trip to pick up the t-shirts would have been that much easier.

This kind of last minute change of plans happens with unbelievable frequency here in Ukraine. Coupled with learning about important meetings less than 24 hours in advance, it makes work life extremely frustrating. It’s a vicious cycle: Yes, I’ll do that on Friday; oops, just found out about this important meeting I have to attend. Gack!

Our project to educate local children about the problem of plastic waste is moving along, albeit slowly. There is great support from teachers and other community leaders for the program but scheduling the workshops has proven to be trickier than anticipated. The schools are scattered, most are more than 3 kilometers away, and only two of these are accessible by bus. Given that my Ukrainian skills are rudimentary at best, I need the help of an English teacher or an interpreter for each of the nine programs. Obstacles remain but they are not insurmountable.

Towards the end of September I took a trip to Zurich to visit with some Chicago friends who were there on business. We spent three days walking around the old section of the city near the lake, eating delicious food, and having long conversations around the breakfast table in our AirBnB. Zurich is a hospitable city, populated with people who speak English fluently, and a public transportation system that was amazing for its ease of use. The electric trains pull quietly up to platforms that allow you direct access to the cars with no steps or gaps, and the large, clean windows make it easy to see where you are going. It’s a little pricey for tourists but with a three-day unlimited-use pass, it was still reasonable.

One afternoon we took a train out into the countryside, and the scenery changed very quickly from urban to rural. Within minutes we were looking at just exactly what you’d expect Switzerland to look like, complete with mountains and cows. Lovely.

One of our breakfast table conversations centered on the question of how World War II might have unfolded differently if Switzerland had not remained neutral. Surely cities like Zurich would have been destroyed by bombing, but the question remains, would the war have ended sooner if Switzerland had joined the Allies. Certainly the Nazis would have had a harder time hiding their loot. Our discussion brought to mind the statement by Elie Wiesel that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

On an entirely different note, I am writing this on Christmas day, though it is not at all Christmas here. Much of Ukraine is Ukrainian Orthodox, very similar to Greek Orthodox, and the Church follows the ancient Julian calendar. Today is referred to as “Catholic Christmas” if it is mentioned at all. The “real’ Christmas will arrive on January 7, and New Year a week later on January 14. Much of the country does celebrate December 31st as New Year’s Eve, but the rural areas, especially here in the Carpathians, cleave to the old date for Christmas.

Gift giving occurs on Saint Nicholas Day, December 19, totally disconnected from Christmas but an important Church holiday, nonetheless. From what I’ve observed, adults seldom exchange gifts and Saint Nicholas celebrations are mainly for children.

Today was a busy day in the large kitchen adjacent to my quarters, however. My host, Paraska, her mother and her daughter, got an early start on a day spent making and canning beet salad. Not at all what Americans would think of as salad, this is made with shredded beets and carrots, vinegar, herbs and spices and will be eaten cold during the winter. Anything made of a mix of vegetables, cooked or raw, is called salad.

I helped peel the cooked beets but otherwise mostly observed. The cooking was all done on the big, tiled, woodburning stove, called a peech, in huge aluminum pots. Canning jars here are different from the ones found in American kitchens. The lids do not screw on but are fastened with “key” that presses a lip tight around the top of the jar. Prior to sealing the lid, the jars are placed in a huge kettle, resting on a towel, with water up to their necks. While they are heated to boiling, their lids placed just loosely on top. To test for leakage after sealing, the jars are set upside down to cool.

Salt pork and other meat is similarly canned, but rather than heating the jars in boiling water, they are baked for a long while in a very hot oven. In this case, the cavernous wood-fired bread oven that is part of the peech.

Paraska’s mother-in-law joined us during the afternoon and we did celebrate “Catholic Christmas” in the evening with a light supper and a bottle of homemade vodka. The Ukrainian government would like the Christmas holiday moved to the Gregorian calendar date. But the Hutsul people in the Carpathian Mountains will have none of that!

This column does not reflect the opinions of the US government or the Peace Corps but is based entirely my own observations and experiences.

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