January 21, 2021

My Christmas 5,000 miles away. Alone. And in far-off and very cold Ukraine.

By John Guy LaPlante

Not easy. In fact, I suffered through not one, but two Christmases like that as a Peace Corps Volunteer there.

Notice that I capitalized Volunteer? Peace Corps always capitalizes “Volunteer.” And it’s never the Peace Corps. It’s always just Peace Corps.

Some of you are familiar with that 27-month adventure in my life. Some are not.

So please excuse me if I re-cap for newcomers to my blog post. They may not be familiar with Peace Corps.

Well, it’s a federal government program based in Washington, D.C. It was established by our President John F. Kennedy. He was very proud of it.

It sends Volunteers to other countries in the world to help out. Many, many countries. And the Volunteers go for 27 months.

What’s interesting is that Peace Corps doesn’t decide by itself where to send its Volunteers.

 Some countries around the world become aware of what good things Peace Corps does in countries already participating. Would like to become eligible, too. And then petition Washington to see if it’s possible for it to send Volunteers to their country.

The services that Peace Corps provides vary from country to country. Mostly they are educational. Volunteers teach. In the classroom or hands on.

It may be agriculture, or public health, or community development, or home economics, or whatever else might be helpful to people there.

When I first heard Peace Corps’ standard hitch was 27 months, I thought that was a strange number

27! Why not 24? Or 30?

Well, a simple answer. Volunteers train for three months when they arrive in that foreign country.

Yes, they are trainees. They go to classes six days a week. They study primarily its language, but also its history, culture, and economic, political, and other realities of that country. Such as its type of government, general working conditions, leading religions, and so on.

 The training is intensive. At the end they get tested. Of course they expected to pass the test. The great majority do. All this is climaxed with a memorable ceremony in an elegant building.

In Ukraine, it was in Kiev, the beautiful capital. In the morning. Dignitaries on the rostrum, Ukrainian and Peace Corps. A band played. Speeches. Finally we were all asked to stand. Took an oath to serve well. And that’s when we became Volunteers.

And right then and there we each got an envelope with our assignment. Maybe in a big city 400 miles away. Or maybe in a small town 90 miles away in another direction.

 Off we went, some by train, some by bus. And that’s where we would spend the next two years.

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. It has many millions of people. We were just 350 Volunteers total.

I was in a very large city, Chernihiv, population 200,000. I was the only Volunteer there. So most of the people that I got to meet had no idea of what a Peace Corps Volunteer is.

And that was true also for all the other Volunteers.

The official language is Ukrainian. But nearly everybody in the greater Chernihiv area spoke Russian. So I had to study Russian.

Like Volunteers in other countries, all of us in Ukraine received the same amount of money every month. Yes, regardless of our age or the kind of work we did.

It was pegged in some strange way to what Ukrainians in similar jobs to ours would get paid.

Oh, right from its start Peace Corps was a young adult’s thing. For twenty-two year olds. Twenty-five year olds. Young men and young women.

But some 15 years ago, some Peace Corps official made a suggestion that really got attention.

“Older men and women! They have life experience! Wisdom! They may be yearning for an adventure! And may want to give back!”

Peace Corps gave the suggestion much attention. Did research. Decided that was a great idea. Began recruiting older men and women along with younger ones. But the older ones were always a small minority.

I heard about that. So Interesting! Thought about it for several months without saying a word to anybody. Then applied. I was 76.

But I had grave doubts. Right at home I had many responsibilities. And I worried a lot about my family’s reaction. The reaction of my friends. Would they pooh-pooh it and gang up against me? It was a big concern.

Yes, 27 months was the normal hitch. That’s a long time away from home. Was I up to it? And it seemed such a strange hitch. Why not 24? Or 30?

Well, I found out that for the first three months you’re a Trainee in the country you’re posted to. Not a Volunteer. You go to classes six days a week. Learn about its geography. its history. Its culture. Its main religions. The kind of government it has. And so on.

And most of all, you study its language intensively. Many hours. Then you get tested. If you pass, happy day!

Oh, I must mention that at the end of their 27 months, they attend another very beautiful ceremony, then go to the airport and fly home.

Peace Corps then was serving in more than 75 countries. Not France, or Switzerland, or Italy and such. They didn’t need Volunteers

All more “exotic” countries. 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 quite well. Yes, even now in my old age.

I knew that serving in France was out of the question.

But I was confident Peace Corps would send me to a country where France had had a big role and where French would still be useful.

For instance, maybe Haiti, Morocco. Vietnam. Even Equatorial Africa, though I prayed Peace Corps wouldn’t do that!

Yes, some older people in those countries still use French.

My thinking was all wrong.

Peace Corps decided to send me to Ukraine in Eastern Europe. It’s a former republic of the USSR – the United Soviet Socialist Republics, which consisted of Russia and 14 others.

I was shocked when I got a letter saying it would be Ukraine. I thought of saying “No, thanks.” Thought about it a couple of weeks. Then replied, “Okay!

Much, much later I found out that I was sent to Ukraine because it had far better medical services essential for older Volunteers.

A big planeload of us flew off to Ukraine. Some 65 to 70 of us in all. That’s when I discovered 11 or so of us were “older Volunteers.”

But now Ukraine was struggling to make it on its own as a democracy with a capitalism-based economy.

Ukrainian is its official language. But I’d be working in a section where people spoke Russian. So I had to study Russian. Awfully hard for me. Every evening I would study, study, study. In the morning I couldn’t remember the words. Awful!

I got tested by Peace Corps, as all prospective Volunteers did. I was very nervous, very anxious. Well, I flunked.

I was terribly afraid Peace Corps might send me home, which they had the right to do. But they kept me, saying “John, you have been trying so, so hard!”

Which was so true.

Well, I had a very successful 24 months as a university-level teacher of English. But why English?

The fact is that a great many university students all over the world are eager to learn English – American English, not British English.

Knowing English in their own country, Ukraine, India, Peru, wherever they live guarantees a high, impressive, well-paying job.

But many young adults in those countries see the USA as THE country in the world. Some dream of emigrating to the U.S.

So that’s what I did. Taught them English, yes. But also lots of important stuff about our country.

But all Volunteers are also expected to find and work at an important something or other of their own choosing.

It turned out that I worked at several big projects besides my teaching.

I established an English Club at the very big Public Library. It met every Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. it was free to anybody interested, regardless of age. I had 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds, men and women.

I presided. Every Sunday I spoke about certain aspects of being American. Our geography. Our educational system. How to get a visa to enter the USA–that got everybody’s attention! Freedom of the press. Medical Care. And so on,

People were free to ask questions.

I did my best to answer them properly. Some questions were difficult to answer. How blacks are treated in our country. Why is healthcare free — it is for many Ukrainians.

The city had a complex system of public transportation. Trolley cars, which were free for old people. Conventional buses, which charged, but were faster. And twelve-passenger vans, still more expensive, but more comfortable.

Oh, sure, government officials and rich people drove cars. Everybody else walked or used public transport

I said the system was complex. if you used the same type of public transportation every day to get to work and back home, no problem.

But if you wanted to go see somebody in another part of the city, big problem. You might have to use different kinds of public transportation to get there and back.

I decided to create a map that would show the best combination of public transportation to use. That became a huge project. It involved my getting to know the city, working with officials of the various systems, and dealing with the City Council and even the mayor. But finally I got it done.

It exists to this day and of course many improvements have been made.

We senior volunteers, age 50 and over, numbering only 35 or so — some starting their hitch and others finishing it — were spread out all over the country. And had a special association.

It was created to interact with Peace Corps management in Ukraine, to discuss and resolve any issues that came up affecting all of us.

The president of it was finally flying home, his hitch over. I ran for president and was elected.

Well, we had three four-day get-togethers somewhere in the country every year. Our reunions included formal business meetings and wonderful social events.

Each meeting was held in a different part of the country. So I got to visit all major areas of the country — while most Volunteers spent their entire 24 months in the city or small town where they lived and worked.

In fact, I turned 80 in Peace Corps and was incredibly surprised to be congratulated by Peace Corps / Washington, D. C. as the oldest of some 7,500 in nearly 80 countries globally. That’s an approximation. I don’t remember the exact numbers.

My oh my! Astonished, I asked what had happened to my predecessor, who I heard was an octogenarian.

 “Oh, we had to medically evacuate him.” !!! Enough said.

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

It’s a big book. 543 pages.

Peace Corps was a good experience. But I wrote “Unvarnished” as part of the title because nothing is perfect, right?

 I wrote that book as a tutorial for anyone interested in serving in the Peace Corps and learning what it’s really, really like. The good and the not so good.

And of course I was sure many others would enjoy reading it as a very unique once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

 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 sworn-in Volunteers, most move into an apartment on their own.

I chose to live with a second family, and then a third. I paid the final two families for my room and board. My thinking was simple.

The families were different. But no husband / father. Divorce is so common. In one, the woman had two sons, grown up and married and on their own. The woman worked as purchasing agent in a small company.

In the other, the woman had a daughter who had a good office job teaching in public school, and a son who was a senior in public high school.

I felt living with three different families would provide me with three different windows to look out on what life in Ukraine is really like. I was right about that.

I also felt that as an old man, it would be smart for me to be living with somebody who could help me if something bad befell me.

Oh, we’d be paid by Peace Corps. It was about $300 a month, in hryvnias. The hryvnia is the Ukrainian “dollar.”

That amount was about what a Ukrainian would earn doing the same kind of work. In my case, as a university-level teacher. Truth is, I found it 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 back then, where snow and ice are the norm.

But in Chernihiv they didn’t do a 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.

As it approached, my thoughts kept drifting more and more back to the USA.

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

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

 An email arrived in minutes, of course. But an ordinary letter would take 10 to 15 days to get to me. My folks back home did not realize that.

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. Yes, December 25 was just another ordinary working day in Ukraine, with stores open and everybody going to their job or whatever.

But it was the winter school vacation time, so as a teacher I had days off.

Christmas turned out freezing cold and gray and windy with 13 inches of fresh snow on the ground.

And I was homesick. To change my mood I headed to the huge and wonderful municipal Korolonka Library. More than 100 years old! It was closed.

I had forgotten. This was a Tuesday. On certain Tuesdays it closed for thorough cleaning.

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. But not for stamps. 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. Then finally Arthur picked up. He was delighted!

His wife Marita was by his side. So good to hear the latest about them and my three grandkids.

Next my daughter Monique and her hubby David in California. What a surprise for them. They were delighted, too.

They both picked up phones, as they always do, which was great.

They, too, were wonderful about keeping my morale up. Many emails . Many letters and packages.

Then I did reach my son Mark and his wife Stacie in Georgia. Wonderful! But darn, my two little grandkids were already in bed.

Then I called my sister Lucie 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 for me.

What was amusing is that they had all said the same thing. “Dad, your voice is coming in so clear! It’s like you’re just next door!”

Finished, pleased, 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 boarded with. Ira and her son teen-age son, Slava.

They were devout. They went all out on 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 one, in gorgeous vestments. Great solemnity. Fine organist, enthusiastic choir. Impressive in so many ways. Memorable. I felt all these believers were true believers.

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

Yes, I spent a second Christmas in Ukraine. It was much easier. I was more accustomed to everything.

I went back to the Post Office to make my calls. Still many letters and cards and gifts. But there was a big difference.

At home, living with my third family by this time, I had the blessing of a great and marvelous technical breakthrough. Skype!

It’s my friend Sheila in Boston who told me about it. She’s a tech expert. And how!

Sheila is still helping me. Yes, she is! She has a key role in my getting these blogs of mine posted.

Familiar with Skype? It’s a computer app, so to speak.

I had an Internet-connected computer. So did most of my contacts back home.

Through Skype, I could see them and talk with them! And it was free! How wonderful! Yes, I’ve used a lot of exclamation points here! All well-deserved.

Again I paid attention to the time differences.

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 hour, any day of the week.

If you have relatives or friends in other countries and you want to contact them, consider Skype. In most cases it is free.

I also had computer problems. My son Mark was a great resource

Peace Corps isn’t easy. Typically, I’ve found, a quarter of all Volunteers return home early.

Well, I served the whole hitch. It was worth the effort. It taught me much. I made many friends. It made me feel proud.

And I recommend it to promising young people, and of course I speak about it to older folks I feel might be receptive.

For younger people, Peace Corps service sets them up for positions of responsibility and leadership. In my opinion, it’s worth as much as a master’s degree, say.

It’s surprising how many returning Volunteers do go on to graduate school, 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.

Well, twelve years have passed since I served. And I’m pleased to say I am still in touch with some former students and half a dozen 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 is not good.

Now Christmas is coming up soon. And I’m here back home in Morro Bay on California’s central coast.

My loving daughter Monique and her hubby David live just 7 or 8 minutes away by car. Which is fabulous for a very old man who lives alone and might need help at any hour or any day.

Oh, unlike Ukraine, no snow, no ice here, ever. There are palm trees in my neighborhood. Flowers in my yard. The Pacific is just a mile away. Some people are at the beach or in the harbor boating and surfing. It’s a different world.

I’m definitely in the Christmas spirit. And doing my very best to keep my chin up, despite the terrible Trump shenanigans still going on in the White House.

Plus the horror and devastation of the huge, huge covid-19 pandemic, making so many ill and taking the lives of so many.

Putting so many out of work, forcing so many to go hungry, terrified they might lose their apartment or home, making it impossible to maintain their various insurance policies or keep up with routine bills.

And making it difficult for young people from grade school on through university to continue their education, and so many other awful consequences.

 But there is very good news. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are about to be sworn in, and planning and getting ready to put into effect some sensible, much-needed programs.

As some of you know, I met and chatted briefly with Vice President Biden in Ukraine when he flew there to carry on negotiations for President Obama.

And we have been praying and hoping that an effective serum would be developed, tested, and approved within a few months.

But now we have the fantastic news that not one, but three serums have been developed, and great quantities are already on their way here to help our people and to numerous other countries around the world. Months earlier than expected.

Slowly but steadily life will go back to normal for us. Hallelujah!

That said, how sad and tragic that so many millions of people around the world have lost their lives to it and so many other people have had their lives upturned by it.

I do wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

With many more to come, I most sincerely hope.

Oh, If one of you is interested in learning more about Peace Corps, or knows someone who might be, please email me at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com.

It will be my pleasure to be helpful.

Within a few months I will be 92 years old. I will have had 91 Christmases. My two in Ukraine were certainly among my most memorable.

An important PS. As the coronavirus grew worse, Peace Corps made a huge decision. Decided to recall all Volunteers from every country in the world where they were serving, yes, even China. Imagine what devastating news that was to them to have them come home with their hitch only partly finished!

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