January 17, 2019

My Christmas 5,000 long, hard miles away.

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – In a Third World country, mind you, with a dramatically different culture and background. For more than two years. An adventure and a half, as they say.

In fact, I lived through two Christmases like that. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. Not all of you are familiar with that 27-month chapter in my life — the  real challenge of it.

Well, as you may know, Peace Corps is a young person’s thing. From its very beginning nearly 60 years old. For twenty-two year olds. Twenty-five year olds.

Some 15 years ago Peace Corps smartened up. Older men and women!  Peace Corps started recruiting them. They have life experience. Wisdom. Well, maybe. May be yearning for an adventure. And may want “to give back.”  Well, some.

I heard about that and applied.  I was 76. I had grave doubts. Was I up to it? Would my family pooh-pooh it and gang up against me? I had many responsibilities. Could I mothball them for 27 months and somehow manage to pick up the pieces at the end of my hitch?

That’s the normal hitch. Such a strange hitch, 27 months. Why not 24? Or 36? Well, for the first three months you’re a Trainee in the country you’re posted to. Peace Corps was serving in more than 75 countries, not France, or Switzerland and such. All “exotic” countries.

You attende school in that assigned country six days a week. Studied its  history. Its culture. And its language very intensely. If you passed, you put up your right hand at an impressive ceremony with many dignitaries, take an oath, and become a Volunteer. Yes, Volunteer is always capitalized. It’s a proud title.  And then you’d go to work for 24 months..

I had a good idea where I’d be sent. I speak French. It was my first language, picked up from my parents who were immigrants. Started to learn English when I went out to play with the neighboring kids. And all up through elementary school and high school and college I went to schools where much of the  teaching was in French. Yes, here in the U.S. So I speak and write French well.

So of course Peace Corps would send me to a country where French would be useful. Maybe Haiti, Morocco. Vietnam. Equatorial Africa. Because the French had played a big role in those countries and some people, especially older ones, know some French. I didn’t want to go to Equatorial Africa. The others would be okay.

I was wrong! Peace Corps sent me to Ukraine in Eastern Europe. It’s a former republic of the USSR – known to us as the United Soviet Socialist Republics. Russia and 13 other republics. Ukraine was struggling to make it on its own as a democratic and capitalism-leaning country.  We went there because it contacted Washington and requested Volunteers.

Ukrainian is its official language but I’d be working in a section where people spoke Russian. So I had to study Russian. So difficult was that that I began to think Peace Corps would send me home. But they kept me and I had a successful 24 months as a university-level teacher of English.

A great many university students all over the world are eager to learn English – American English, not British English. They see the USA as THE country in the world. Some dream of emigrating to it. So that’s what I did, teach them English.

But Volunteers are expected also to find and work at an important something or other of their own choosing. I worked at several big projects.  I also became president of our senior Volunteers in Ukraine. And as such visited all major areas of the country.

In fact I turned 80 in Peace Corps and was congratulated by Washington for being the oldest of some 7,500 in more than 75 countries globally.

My oh my!  Astonished, I asked what had happened to my predecessor. “Oh, we had to medically evacuate him.” !!! Enough said.

If this interests you, I invite you to read my 500-page book. “27 Months in the Peace Corps; My Story, Unvarnished.”

I said unvarnished because nothing is perfect, right? I wrote that book as a tutorial for anyone interested in serving in Peace Corps and learning what it’s really, really like. The good and the not so good. And of course for anyone else intrigued about the Peace Corps.

For my first three months, I lived with a family chosen by Peace Corps, trained by Peace Corps, and paid by Peace Corps. As did all my fellow Trainees. As Volunteers, most move into an apartment on their own. I chose to live with a second family, and then a third.  As a paying boarder. I felt each would provide me with a different window to look out on what life in Ukraine is really like. I was right about that.

Oh, we’d be paid by Peace Corps. It was about $300 a month, in hryvnias. The hryvnia is the Ukrainian “dollar.” That was about what a Ukrainian would earn doing the same kind of work.  In my case, as a university-level teacher. Truth is, it was hard to scrape by on that.

But this is about my Christmas over there. No, my two Christmases, as I said.

Lots of snow and lots of ice. Much more than my home state of Connecticut, where snow and ice are the norm. But over there they didn’t do a really good job of clearing it. The ice! I was so afraid I’d slip and break a hip or something.

I expected Christmas to come on December 25. After all, Ukraine is a Christian country.  But December 25 was just another workday. Their Christmas is on January 6.

What I’ll be belling you now is based on my Chapter 26: “Getting thru the holidays. They’re happy but sad, too. It’s sad for Volunteers all over the world.”

As Christmas approached, my thoughts kept drifting back to the USA.

And my family and friends back home were thinking of me. I began receiving Christmas letters and cards from them.  Each one I got brightened my day.

We had been keeping in touch with emails. Receiving real mail, mail with stamps on it, emphasized to me how old-fashioned this slow mail is.

 An email arrived in minutes.  But normally it took 10 to 15 days for a letter to get to me. My folks back home did not realize this.

And because it was the Christmas rush back home, the mail was taking longer — parcels even 4 to 6 weeks.  I was getting letters and parcels.  How very fortunate I was. But a good thing nobody was sending me a home-made cake.

Speaking of gifts, that first Christmas a friend sent me a jar of peanut butter. Not available in my city. So thoughtful! The postage? An incredible $18!  Yes, for one jar.

Yes, December 25 was just an ordinary day in Ukraine, with shops open and everybody working.  But it was the winter school vacation time, so as a teacher I had days off.

Feeling forlorn on Christmas morning, to change my mood I headed to the huge and wonderful municipal Korolonka Library. It was open of course.

Soon I got absorbed in what I was doing there and by the time I headed home I was feeling much better. Thank goodness.

But truth is, my loved ones were so dispersed from the Atlantic to the Pacific that even if I were back there, I would not have been able to be with most of them.

Of course I had been planning to call them on Christmas. It just could not come fast enough. That would be the big highlight for me.

It dawned clear and cold but sunny. Right after breakfast I took a trolley to the post office. In Ukraine the post office ran the telephone system. I would make my calls there.

I made sure to keep the time difference in mind. Seven hours between my time and Connecticut time, and 10 hours for California.

The post office had a big telephone calling room. Along one wall, ten telephone booths like our telephone booths of years ago.

I joined the queue of callers. Finally I got to one of the operators at the long counter.

 My Russian was just not up to a conversation. So I simply handed her three 100 hryvnia bills — approximately $60–and said “Cay Shay Ahh” — that’s Russian for “USA.”

She wrote 6 on a slip of paper for me and I went to Booth 6 and began making my calls.

I called milady Annabelle in California. A wonderful chat with her.

Then my three kids. First, Arthur, my oldest, in Florida. The phone rang and rang. Nobody picked up. Shucks.  I wanted so badly to speak to him and Marita, my daughter-in-law, and my three grandkids. I did leave an upbeat message.

Next my daughter Monique and her hubby David in California. They both picked up phones, which was great.

Then I did reach my son Mark and his wife Stacie in Georgia. Darn, their two little kids were already in bed.

Then I called my sister Lucie and her son J-C in Connecticut. No luck. That was a downer.

All in all, good chats. Loving. Upbeat. I had only good news for them and ditto they. What was amusing is that they had all said one thing. “Dad, your voice is coming in so clear! It’s like you’re just next door!”

Finished, delighted, I walked back to the cashier. She checked my time on the phone, then gave me half my money back. About $25. If I had known that, I would have talked a lot longer.

I was so happy. I walked back into the frigid cold but I was so pleased I didn’t mind it as much.

Now of course I must tell you about the Ukrainians’ Christmas. As I said, it’s on January 6th, a major holiday, like our Christmas.

But one thing about it intrigued me.  Ukrainians as citizens of what had been part of the Soviet Union practiced atheism. No God!

Or pretended to. What happened is that religion went underground.

People told me that even in Soviet days in some villages the people managed to keep their ancient churches open and to worship in them. Their religion never got crushed.

People in the cities also tried to preserve their religious tradition, but had to veil it and carry on as non-believers.

For most people, it was dangerous to admit being a believer. The best way to success…to a decent life…was through membership in the Communist Party, which, by the way, was open only to a select few.

The Communists had to believe and support the Communist Manifesto. Had to be followers of Marx and Lenin. Had to tow the line. Had to reject religious faith and profess atheism. Some did so sincerely. Others put on a show.

Yet I met one a few who said matter-of-factly, “We had to go along. It was the only way.”

I did get to meet atheists. Nice people. In fact, one was a fellow teacher at school.

 She told me, “John, I don’t believe in God. Or a God. My family does not believe. It is that simple.”

Yet as their Christmas approached, I saw a great excitement in the people. Even my friend the atheist was caught up in the excitement. She smiled. “It is our culture!”

 At that time I was living with the second of the three families I got to board with.  A Mom and her 19-year-old son.  They were true believers.  They went all out on their Christmas, and they involved me in every part of it, from breakfast to dinner, all very festive and special. Even insisted on taking me to their Orthodox Church for its Christmas service.

A great, old, magnificent church, many people, several priests, all heavily bearded, even the youngest priest, only 25 or so, in gorgeous vestments. Great solemnity. The drama of it. Fine organist, enthusiastic choir. Everything impressive in so many ways. Memorable. I truly felt all these folks were true Christians.

In one way I was glad they had a separate Christmas. It emphasized this was a uniquely different and interesting culture, well worth experiencing.

Yes, I spent a second Christmas in Ukraine. It was much easier. I was more accustomed to everything, including the harsh weather. . Still many letters and cards and gifts. But there was a big difference.  At home, with my third family now, I had the blessing of a great and marvelous technical breakthrough. Skype!

Familiar with Skype? No longer such a great need to go the post office. I had an Internet-connected computer. So did some of my contacts back home. Again I paid attention to the time differences. Through Skype, I could see them and talk with them! And it was free!.How wonderful! 

I did go to the Post Office to call those not on Skype. And that was worthwhile and wonderful. But imagine seeing and speaking with someone with little attention to the passing minutes!

Skype!!! It made life much easier for many Volunteers, and available any day of the week.

Peace Corps isn’t easy.  I want you to know that.  Typically, I got to  find out, close to  a quarter of all Volunteers returned home early.

I served the whole hitch. It was worth the effort. It taught me much. I made many friends. It made me feel proud. I recommend it to promising young people, and speak about it to older folks I feel might be receptive.

For younger people, it sets them up for positions of service and leadership. On a job application it carries great weight.  In my opinion, it’s worth far more than a master’s degree, though many Volunteers do go on for more education, even right on to a doctorate.

And it’s surprising how many former Volunteers use their experience to launch careers in government service and international affairs.

Ten years have passed since I served. And I’m still in touch with some former students and fine men and women I was privileged to meet and associate with. How about that?! And I read everything I can about Ukraine in the news, and there’s a lot, and too much of it not good.

Now Christmas is just hours away.  And I’m here in central California. No snow, no ice. There are palm trees in my neighborhood. Flowers in my yard. The Pacific is iust a mile away. Some people are at the beach or in the harbor boating and surfing. It’s a wonderfully different world.

And I’ll be calling my family and friends again. And connecting with them online. In fact, I’ve been at it for several days. How good it is!

And now It’s my pleasure to wish each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! With many more to come! Whoever you are and wherever you are.

Do spread the word about Peace Corps.  And why not consider it for yourself? Remember, Peace Corps wants mature applicants. Yes, they’ve smartened up. Do keep that in mind when you make your New Year to-do list. If I can answer any questions, let me know.

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