Inner Circles

Jordan Limoges, Ukraine 46

My host dad during PST in Ukraine was exactly the kind of stereotypical Eastern European man you imagine when someone says “Vladimir Putin”, except his name was Nikolay. A big, burly guy with neck rolls, a close-shaved head, and hands the size of frying pans, he was always wearing a black tracksuit and trainers. He had some sort of military job. His favorite food was pork fat, he favorite drink was (of course) vodka, and his favorite pastime was fishing while drinking vodka. Despite his intimidating appearance, he was a boisterous, friendly type, laughing at me when I came home drunk and driving me to class when it rained.

My host sister was exactly the kind of stereotypically beautiful Eastern European girl you imagine when someone says “mail order bride”. At 16, she had already finished Ukrainian secondary school and was attending the university where her (our?) Mom worked. Every day she’d get impossibly made up, put on a pair of skin-tight jeans, and take a never-ending stream of selfies, swinging around her long blonde hair. Her name was Anya. She was a rebel type, and she let me in on the fun. Together, we smoked hookah, snuck cigarettes in the garage, and drank vodka with her friends. Slowly, she became my friend too. We watched American sitcoms to practice her English, and she’d help me with my Russian.

You know how it is in PST – everything is new, everything is exciting, and everything is exhausting. After a beautiful yet stressful autumn, my first Ukrainian snowfall arrived sometime in early November. On weekday mornings, I was always up before the rest of the family; before Anya, curled under her covers upstairs sleeping off last night’s party, and before Vlad, in that eternal tracksuit. On this particular morning, though, I ran into the latter on my way out the door. He gave me a hearty “dasvidanya” and watched me begin to make my way across the snowy yard.

Suddenly he was calling my name, telling me to turn around, making elaborate gestures with his hands. Through my limited Russian and the way he was picking up his feet, I got his point, but it didn’t seem to make any sense. “You mean I’m supposed to walk like this?”, and I lifted my feet knee-high with each step, swinging them out to the side before setting them back down; I avoided covering my boots in snow, but it felt ridiculous. I looked back, and Vlad was giving me the thumbs up and nodding. What the hell? Do Ukrainians really walk like this in the snow? But I went with it, lumbering like some monkey across the yard, out the gate, and into the street. As trainees, we’d been drilled on the importance of shoe-cleanliness in Ukrainian culture, and while no one in the street was walking as I just had, I figured my host dad was being extra careful.

A few nights later, I was hanging with Anya and some other college students, smoking in the park. Anya was telling a story that was getting quite a few laughs, and although I couldn’t understand it, I heard my name a few times. By the end everyone had stopped smoking because they couldn’t breathe, doubled over in laughter. I prodded Anya to tell me what was so funny. She imitated me walking across the snow, picking her feet up to her knees, and managed to gasp out “My father! He was joking you! But you believe him!”

Really, Vlad? Really?

And you know how it is in Peace Corps. What could I possibly do, other than laugh along at myself?

Ukrainians are a very closed-off people. Maybe it’s left over from communism, or the brutal Stalin years, or just decades of really miserable living (WWII, forced famines, prison camps, etc). Whatever the reason, I’d been taught that it was very difficult to make it into a Ukrainian’s “inner circle”, their group of closest friends – those they can trust, confide in, play practical jokes on. Yeah, I’d believed Vlad, and he made me look like an idiot. But I also felt a change, a kind of new acceptance, when we got home that night, and I imitated that walk across the living room, while my host dad laughed his enormous laugh and said “Privyet, dotchka.” Hello, daughter.

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