Monday, November 14, 2011

Checking In

I'm sittin' in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one-night-stands, my suitcase and guitar at hand
And every stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band


Homeward bound, I wish I was homeward bound
Home, where my thoughts escape, at home, where my music's playin'
Home, where my love lies waitin' silently for me
-Paul Simon “Homeward Bound”

So, it’s been awhile.  There’s no reason I haven’t written.  It certainly hasn’t been lack of inspiration, or lack of energy.  Maybe it’s been a bit of apprehension trying to write something of any worth.  I’m at the point where conclusions must be drawn.  Loose ends tied up, and sleeping dogs woken up.  I’ve taken the opportunity of the past few weeks to make a bit of a “Farewell Tour.”

I’ve been from Simferopol and Sevastopol in the south to Kharkv in the far east, and Lviv in the far west.  I’m in Kyiv now.  I’m sitting in a coffee shop paying American prices for coffee from a french press, and finishing some work.  Well, I finished (sort-of) the work, after hours of procrastination reading and re-reading the same four articles about Providence College basketball, the Friars’ first win, and the start of the Ed Cooley era.  I have a couple of meetings today, and then it’s back to Zhmerynka.  I won’t be leaving town for the remainder of my service, until the fateful day I board a train with two tickets, one for me, and one for my bags and head back up to Kyiv to bid a fond “fare thee well” to my “dvoyridna krayina”, my second country.  I won’t say my adopted home, because my home is only one place, but this land will still hold an important place in the Chronicles of Meegan the Youngest.  I imagine there will probably be a movie made on it.

On this tour, I only spent a few days away at a time, mostly weekend days, and always coming back to my home base in Zhmerynka.  It was great, I was able to really finalize my time here.  I performed a few feats of strength I had hoped to complete while here, and enjoyed delving back into the country.  It’s easy to get into a routine here.  And, in so doing, the country loses its novelty.  Not that travelling around Ukraine is completely novel anymore, but it reminds me of the beauty, diversity, and breadth of the country.

The first achievement on my way:  I jumped onto a moving train.  I take trains all the time.  They are completely commonplace for me, now.  But, and this is a big but, I had never been so late as to need to jump onto the train.  I’ve been so late as to miss the train, but that’s a whole different animal.  Calmly arriving at my train three minutes before departure I began walking the length of it down to my wagon, which to my chagrin was the very last wagon on a substantially long train.  I must have had to walk the length of fifteen or sixteen wagons.  All of a sudden I noticed the train started to move.  Sometimes trains shunt a bit while waiting, but it didn’t stop immediately, so being a bit concerned I scanned for an open door.  The conductor was standing on her platform yelling at me for being so late.  She decided that she would deign to give me an unnecessary hand, as well . . . after I was already fully on the train – grabbing me by the middle of my sweatshirt and giving a solid yank.  I still had a few more wagons to traverse before I made it to the end, but it was an auspicious start for an 18 hour train ride.  The train ride included a stop at some small town with one of the best sandwiches I have eaten in Ukraine as well, so I’m glad I made it aboard.

The second success is not necessarily a good thing.  But:  I was finally bitten by a dog.  I’ve been chased by dogs since I started running here.  I’m barked at on a near daily basis by any number of fearsomely boisterous canines, but never has one made the first move.  My bite-less days in Ukraine all ended though, and it ended last night.  Running to the top of the High Castle in Lviv there were a number of people at the very top.  It’s a beautiful view of the city, and being without glasses I just made a summary examination and started back down.  Before I could make it off the lookout point a big ol’ dog came and gave me a solid nip on the thigh.  He yelped a bit when he bit down, probably because my legs are so muscular from all that running that he hurt his jaws.  And, it serves him right.  I’ve been hoping for a dog bite for awhile, because it always meant a free trip to Kyiv to being an anti-rabies regimen.  For this dog to take the liberty of biting me when I already had a scheduled trip to Kyiv was not only audacious it was a very blatant show of disrespect.  If I was a more petty man I would have shown him who’s the boss, and I’m not talking about Tony Danza.  Contented by the fact that I’m at the top of the food chain, I elected against that.

Today will be a full day.  I have an interview with my Regional Manager, a language proficiency interview, and a grant to close out.  I’m also hoping to see Khreschatyk today, but we’ll see if I have time.  I have about six hours before my train, and should be done with all my work around 4:30 or 5:00.  It’ll be the second to last train ride I take in Ukraine.  While I’m certainly not getting sentimental[1] there is getting to be a lot of finality in my movements.  It’s the last time I’ll do this, or the last time I’ll do that.  I know I’ll come back here someday, so I’m not that upset, but there has been a bit of melancholy attaching itself to some of my actions.  

I’ll go more in depth as to what I’ve been up to soon.

This is all I know for now.

Be good,

Pete.


[1] I have not had any emotions since high school, with the exception of the manly ones: anger, disdain, disgust, disappointment.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Eating McDonald's in Ukraine

Entering the promised land:  clean bathrooms, free wi-fi, here I come!



I have a confession to make:  I love McDonald’s in Ukraine.  Truly, “I’m lovin’ it!”; or as we say here:  я це люблю”.  I’m not confessing that I love McDonald’s, I’m confessing that I’m not embarrassed by it.  I know, as a young Peace Corps Volunteer, I should not readily admit this; but, there you have it.  Forgive my candor, but sometimes it’s liberating to publicly acknowledge my guilty pleasures.[1]  So let me be very clear:  I love McDonald’s; and I love McDonald’s unrepentantly.

I probably go to McDonald’s more here, in Ukraine, than I ever did at home (if drive thru[2] coffee doesn’t count).  This seems to be the general consensus among most of the Peace Corps-eans with whom I am acquainted.  I’m not sure why, but it just seems so much more desirable when I’m far from home and captive to my own cooking.  In the absence of affordable restaurants with other types of cuisine (Thai, Asian in general, classic delicatessens, diners, seafood, and the list goes on and on and on . . .), McDonald’s fills a palpable void.  There are a few other aspects which are important to consider:

  • Beef – I can eat beef at McDonald’s in Ukraine!  Beef is frightfully absent from my diet.  As a red-blooded American male this is hard to countenance.  Here in Ukraine I regularly eat sausage, pork and chicken.  Beef is the rarity.  As such, McDonald’s is an easy way of adding beef to my diet (without having to cook it myself).
A chicken roll and a cheeseburger.  There’s some beef under that bun!

  • Coffee – For the majority of my time in Ukraine I have been blessed with substantial amounts of tremendous coffee, mostly from Updike’s Newtowne, in North Kingstown.  Those days have long since passed; gone gently into that good night.  As my days are getting fewer I have not asked that any more be sent, and I have been surviving on instant Jacobs for the past 3 months.  It is nice, when away from my apartment to get a decent cup of coffee, and not have to pay too much for it.  McDonald’s has decent coffee at a good price.
  • Professionalism – Perhaps this quality, professionalism, is one that is most sorely lacking in any field in which customer interaction is a necessity.  I could go into specifics on that prior statement, but would prefer not to.  I have never had a bad experience at a McDonald’s in Ukraine.  At virtually every place I frequent, here, I have had something infuriating happen.  This has never been the case at McDonald’s.  Certain things exist here that make this happen:
    • Friendly Staff – Staff smile at customers here.  If I don’t have exactly 73 kopeks, that’s OK, they’ll be able to make change.  If I do have that 73 kopeks, they thank me for giving them exact change.
    • Expedience – If my meal takes longer to put together than expected, the cashier will apologize, and tell me that is the case.  In fact, once when ordering breakfast my meal took so much longer to put together than acceptable, that they gave me a card for a free ice cream cone or small soda.  Expedience and efficiency are not things that Ukraine is known for, and to get to experience them, even in small doses is a welcome reprieve.
    • Order – Lines exist at McDonald’s in Ukraine.  This is perhaps the only establishment in Ukraine that can say this.  It is nice to arrive at an establishment and not have to keep my elbows high and box out every person that comes in after me.  Every now and then someone will come in and sneak to the front, but it’s the exception, and not the rule; that’s a nice thing.
    • CleanlinessThe premises AND bathrooms are always clean.  If I am sitting at my table longer than expected, and my meal is finished, my tray is even taken for me.  I feel like I could eat off the floor of most of these restaurants here.
    • Quality – Frequently, when ordering a meal here, we’re not quite sure what we’ll end up with.  At McDonald’s, for better or worse, that is not the case.  I always know exactly what I’ll end up with, and it’s always exactly as I ordered it.  Granted, I don’t make special orders, it’s still nice to experience consistency with quality.
The chicken roll, my “healthy” alternative.  It’s a tasty treat. 
I am a stalwart defender of McDonald’s . . . and globalization in general.  I refuse to humor self-indulgent westerners that claim that McDonald’s kills culture.  In two words:  It doesn’t.  Culture isn’t something McDonald’s can kill or nurture, and showing a successful business model is not doing developing countries a disservice.  In fact, some of the best practices are beginning to be used by up-and-coming restaurants that are homegrown.  Chelentano Pizzeria would be indicative of this.  Regardless of this fact, culture is something that people have a responsibility to maintain and preserve on their own.  To put is simply:  I don’t expect any Ukrainians to force me to maintain my American traditions, and I’m sure no Ukrainians expect Americans to help them uphold their traditions, especially not an American restaurant.  

Living one hour and twenty minutes from the closest McDonald’s, my location is one of envy for many fellow volunteers.  But, just as I do not apologize for the privilege of being American, I don’t apologize for having such ready access to that chapel of capitalism.  Just the sight of the golden arches can brighten my day, even if I won’t be dining their.  It’s true!  Also they have barbeque sauce.

And that’s all I have to say about that!

Be good,

Pete


[1] While we're at it, you should know that I also love LFO.
[2]  I hate this spelling of the word through, but am using it as the variant preferred by McDonald’s.




Monday, September 26, 2011

The Kyiv Marathon



Towards the end of the Kyiv Marathon and trying to keep the legs moving.
The following is an account of my first marathon.  It should be noted that, though I have submitted this narrative fully centered on me, I had incredible support over the course of the marathon, specifically near the start/finish.  A loud contingent of Peace Corps Volunteeers assisted us by cheering with spirit and enthusiasm whenever we passed.  I also had a wonderful pit crew, namely my friend Sara who served me Gatorade and GU upon request.  Their support was humbling, and greatly appreciated. 

For my first marathon, I ran the 2nd Kyiv Marathon in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 18, 2011.  The following is my report of the events of the day:

As with most things in this part of the world, the event, the 2nd Kyiv Marathon in Kyiv, Ukraine, was “organized.”  Over the duration of the four months since I registered and race day the course changed at least four times, and always for the worse.  I was excited for the first course which, though difficult, was absolutely gorgeous – going around the most beautiful cathedrals, statues and parks in Kyiv, including a quick jaunt over the Dnipro River and back.  Ultimately the course became a loop of five miles run five times following a little pig tail loop in the beginning to round out the necessary distance.  The start was Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s Independence Square, the main city square.  Those of you familiar with coverage of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution seven years ago would have seen this square on the nightly news.

After the start we continued down Khreschatyk, the main street of Kyiv.  Like every weekend it was closed to vehicular traffic.  It was a nice area to run down (at least for the first three laps), passing political protests and counter-protests, happy people and other varied city sights.

On Khreschatyk towards the beginning of the race
Still feeling good and smiling.  Probably towards the beginning.


The course continued on down a main street but quickly deteriorated.  The long downhill (and cruelly, later, uphill) was all cobblestone.  Through streets were not closed to traffic, and on more than one occasion I had to stop while the traffic control officer tried to bring motorists to a halt.  I even saw a car hit a runner!  (Granted it was not hard, but it’s an indication of what I mean.)  This part of the course was hardly scenic, but we soldiered on.

The next step was a bit of a challenge.  Because running a marathon is easy, and anyone can do it, we were sent to run through a roadwork zone.  Not only was it a roadwork zone, but they were busy working on the road while we were running, where we were running.  This part of the course had exposed/elevated manholes (luckily they were covered), a torn off road, and enough hot sticky tar to make me never want to see the stuff again.  At the other end of the zone our fortitude was rewarded with an aid station.  The menu had apples, bananas and water . . . until the cups at this station ran out around hour number three.  They rectified the situation, but it took about 30 minutes, a tough 30 minutes to go without water.  (Addendum:  I later found out they ran out of still water after I had passed this station for the final time.  They started giving runners carbonated water.  They had already run out of fruit at this time, as well.)

Gunning for TGI Friday's
The most important part of the race for me was a bet.  After a couple of beers a month ago a buddy said a mutual friend of ours would beat me in the marathon.  Not wanting to sound weak I took him up on the bet, and the stakes were high.  The winner of our wager would receive a dinner at TGI Friday’s; this includes an appetizer, an entre, and two beverages.  To put some context around the bet, or at least the prize, I’ll mention two things:  1.  TGI Friday’s tastes so good when you miss America and American food.  2.  A meal of this magnitude would cost about 15 – 20% (per person) of the monthly stipend your humble Peace Corps Volunteers receive.The most important part of the race for me was a bet.  After a couple of beers a month ago a buddy said a mutual friend of ours would beat me in the marathon.  Not wanting to sound weak I took him up on the bet, and the stakes were high.  The winner of our wager would receive a dinner at TGI Friday’s; this includes an appetizer, an entre, and two beverages.  To put some context around the bet, or at least the prize, I’ll mention two things:  1.  TGI Friday’s tastes so good when you miss America and American food.  2.  A meal of this magnitude would cost about 15 – 20% (per person) of the monthly stipend your humble Peace Corps Volunteers receive.

I started out pretty conservatively.  Mile one was a little slower than a crawl.  I tried to keep to a very gradual build-up strategy, which is harder in practice than in theory, especially when the course map/location of hills starts as a mystery.  I was relatively successful with my conservative pacing.  By the end of mile 6 I was about a minute faster than I had planned, which I felt fine with, because I was still going a bit slower than goal pace.  My rival[1] gained some serious distance on me from the beginning.  She jumped out to a three or four minute lead.  This was easy to tell because of the two turn-around points when we would pass each other.  Self-control has never been my strong suit, but I was resolute, and kept the reigns on the horses.  I also had a few spies on the course for reconnaissance.  I hit the half way point at about 1:54 or so.  It was slightly faster than I wanted, but I had done an okay job of keeping under control.  I stayed pretty well hydrated along the course, and took advantage of a couple GU packets, but I was better served by the bananas on offer at the second aid station.  I probably should have eaten a bit more on the course, but I was trying to avoid any unnecessary trips to the port-a-johns (which, they do have in Ukraine, I just found out).  Around mile 15 another friend running (substantially faster, he finished in 3:42) told me my rival was looking strong and asked when I would make my move.  I stayed on track at a relatively stable speed, though.  Finally, at mile 17.5 I overtook my rival.  I was starting to get tired, but still feeling pretty good.  Soon I made my fourth ascent up the long hill.  It was tougher, but still not too bad.  Going back through the main section of the race where the fans, including a number of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers were, was uplifting. 

Gatorade from Sara, and PCV's cheering in the background.
This led me past mile 20, past 21 and into the final lap.  My legs were lead, and I was exhausted, but still running decently.  With no energy to recall Ukrainian I started sharing my pleasantries with other runners in English.  The general consensus was that we all could have used a beer.  Following the final turn-around and a couple of fuzzy miles I don’t remember well, I came back upon the hill.  A former minnow, this hill became a Leviathan.  Staring at me.  Mocking me.  It ultimately defeated me; try as I might, I didn’t have it to run up the hill, and I ended up walking for a good stretch, until I reached the top.  A well-paced guy I had paced a few minutes earlier put a hand on my shoulder, and gave me a “devai, bratan, blizko” (C’mon, brother, it’s close).  And it was close.  We had about a mile and a half remaining.  I had abandoned my idea of a 3:55 finish, which at the beginning of the final lap seemed to be almost assured.  Considering 4:00:01 to be utter failure, I bumbled on with about 13 minutes between me and total (self-imposed) ignominy.  I walked a few more paces getting myself ready for a final assault on the finish.  I’m vain, as well, so I wanted my friends to see me running hard.  Through the “Start” side of the Start/Finish I was cruising.  Not pain free, and certainly not fast, but I was going.  I made the final turn-around, and had about two-tenths of a mile remaining.  Hearing my name, and English encouragements I started picking up speed like a runaway train.  Running the fastest my body was capable of and with a look of absolute fury I barreled across the Finish with a fist pump, and a few seconds to spare.  I don’t know what the time was officially yet.  I imagine something like 3:59:15 – 3:59:30, but I avoided the shame of utter failure, even after the hill defeated me.

Angry at the world, and tired as hell, about 30 seconds away from a good mood.


My favorite shirt felt appropriate.  This is probably ten minutes or so after the race.  I can barely move here.

So, I finished.  That was never in doubt, and I don't think finishing is good enough.  I also brok the four hour mark, which still seems a bit average.  I knew someone that would describe this effort as "pedestrian, at best."  The goal now is shifted.  It is resting on the Providence Marathon in May of 2012.  I'm hoping that with an extra bit of training, and some exerience and a flat course I'll be able to break 3:50.  3:45 would be a time I'd be very proud of, but I'll take 3:50.  I'm doing a recovery program as we speak, so training will start in earnest in a few weeks.


[1] My rival is, in fact, a friend not a rival.  She will only be referred to as a rival because she stood between me and a Jack Daniel’s burger.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on September 11, 2001

             I hope you’ll forgive a bit of reflection in place of a true update, an update which is long overdue, and on its way.  I’m sure everyone remembers where they were when the heard of the attack.  I was a sophomore at Hendricken.  I had first period theology class with Ms. Magill.  Someone came in late, and asked if anything had happened.  Nobody in class knew anything; this was, of course, in the days before smart phones.  We heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, it seemed a terrible, but isolated incident.  Soon after, changing classes, we sloughed our assigned equations or fractions or radicals, or whatever we were doing in algebra, and watched the coverage.  I’m not sure if we were watching when the second plane hit, I know we weren’t when the first did, but the memory of the day is still crystal clear.
            I’m currently listening to NPR coverage.  I don’t know if I have the stomach to watch television coverage of the attacks.  The sympathetic tones of the NPR anchors are helpful for me, as well.  Even still, it’s emotional.  Listening to some of the stories, reading some of the information at times I’m almost physically ill.  Even as I type my face is burning, I don’t know why.  Burning as if I were embarrassed.  Perhaps I am.  This was the first time I realized that America doesn’t have every answer.  The first time I realized that there are people and ideologies that hate America, or at least their understanding of it.
            The day was most definitely the most significant day of my life.  It was undeniably the most earth-shattering and life changing.  I’m humbled listening to the stories of heroism.  I’m saddened listening to the stories of tragedy.  I’m uplifted hearing the story of the indomitability of the human spirit.
            The day is more significant, though, I think.  It’s a day for serious reflection.  Not only on what it is to be American, but what it was on September 12.  We’ve fallen away from the sense of unity that carries us few the scary days after the tragedy.  We answered the call as Americans answer every call:  heroically.  But quickly we moved away from it.  We alienated the world and our allies, polarized our politics, and have wrapped ourselves in the flag in a form of nationalistic chest thumping.
            The patriotism and optimism innate in being American are wonderful things.  We are sons and daughters of an incredible country, and I’m damn proud of it.  But, wrapping ourselves in the flag and saying “these colors don’t run” isn’t enough.  It’s not enough to be proud of being an American.  It’s not enough to fly the flag.  Go out and do something.  We should witness our patriotism by our actions, in our thoughts, and in our public discourse.  We should witness our patriotism by living up to our American ideals.  Let’s unify ourselves as a nation, as a people.  Saying once a year “never forgotten,” isn’t good enough either.  To be honest, I don’t know how to end this.  But it’s the life we live day after day.  A life we’ve been blessed by grace of God (or (accident of science) to live.  Let’s make the most of our opportunity.  Let’s not take our world for granted.  Remember today: not the destruction, and not the death, and not the fear.  Remember the sense of unity that brought us together; E Pluribus Unum made manifest.  This tragedy changed our lives, but like the phoenix we have risen, now we must overcome.  We must live lives that were worth saving.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

Be good,

Pete

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Call Me On Your Way Back Home

Dear Friends, Family, Anonymous Readers:

After three weeks on the road I returned home on Saturday.  This is quite a significant statement.  I think this is the first time in the twenty-some months I’ve lived in Ukraine that I considered Zhmerynka home.  Furthermore, I, personally, am shocked that this place that drives me CRAZY, and steals my heart as soon as I’ve had absolutely enough, has come to feel like home.  Vacation is a hell of a thing, and I love to consider myself a rambling man; but, there is nothing like being on the road to remind me how much I enjoy the familiar, the routine.
            I can unequivocally say that this trip was one of the best.  I’ll give details about the places later.  I started in Kyiv.  I met a friend, and we travelled together to Krakow.  The next day I picked my parents up from the airport.  From Krakow we made our way to Warsaw for a night, and on to Barcelona.  Barcelona was terrific.  I said goodbye to my parents there, and made my way to Pamplona.  After a few sleepless nights, and bus station naps I made my way back to Barcelona.  Flying into Katowice, Poland, I got a bus to Krakow.  My train back to Ukraine was cancelled.  I took another bus into Lviv.  The bus to Lviv brought me to another bus to Lutsk, a city in northwestern Ukraine.  Another transfer brought me to a sanitarium called Prolisok, where I spent four days studying Ukrainian.
            Finally, after the language refresher I got back to Zhmerynka.  I arrived about 5:15 AM.  The best part of my arrival was learning that over the course of the previous three weeks I had left my key somewhere.  Ever the courteous tenant, I slept for a couple hours on my bags, waiting until 8:30 to call my landlord.  Another half hour later, key in hand, I opened the door and collapsed into my practiced home life.  Exhausted and contented I slept the entirety of the day away, at least (don’t tell my dad) until 3:00 PM.
            After waking up, I realized it wasn’t just a familiar bed, and a high pressure shower I was missing.  I missed the tree I sit and read under.  I missed my train station café.  I missed the taste of stale, flat and/or warm beer.  I missed my ChelentanoI missed the town I live in.  I missed my friends here.  Hell, I even missed the marshrutka ride to Vinnytsia (even if the price has gone up 1 hryvnia each way).  Maybe it was just my vanity.  It’s very possible I missed people whispering and children shouting “khello!” whenever I walk by.  Who knows?  All I can say is that I am back home, and I’m not misspeaking/mistyping by stating that.

That's all I've got for you.

Be good,

Pete
            

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

Friends, Americans, Countrymen:

The end of the school year has come and gone since last we met.  Things are going well.  It’s been hot, but the heat is a welcome change from the frigid winter.  I think a friend of mine said it best when she said, and I’m paraphrasing here:  “After Ukraine, I never want to be cold again.”  Hopefully that isn’t something I’ll have to worry about for the remainder of my days here.  We are certainly in the homestretch.

As some of you may know, I’ve started training for the Kyiv Marathon which will take place on September 18th.  In fact, I just finished my fifth week of training.  As I’m not much of a runner, I still absolutely hate running, and probably always will, I’ve made some dietary changes to help make this transition, and training as innocuous as possible.  One element of this has been the elimination of unnecessary beers, as much as that hurts to admit.  My already greatly reduced consumption[1] has been further decreased in the past few weeks.  Saturday night is the time now I allow myself to indulge my taste for liquid carbohydrates.

Being a sucker for tradition and various other pomps and circumstances I’ve started a new routine.  I should say first, that Saturday is the long run for this marathon training program.  Yesterday, for example, allowed me a nice little run of ten miles.  After such an onerous task in the morning, I feel the evening owes me a good time.  I’ve started haunting Café Relax at the train station in town.  The café allows me an outdoor perch on their balcony where I can rehydrate, read and generally stand sentry over the train station.

Saturday night supplies

I usually roll into the café around 8:30 PM.  It’s a little late, I know, but I still get an hour of good light, and then about an hour of twilight.  It takes limited supplies to have an enjoyable night here.  I need my glasses, my watch, a book and a couple of grizzles (as the Ukrainian unit of currency, hryvnia, is so affectionately known).  For the equivalent of $1.50, I can sit with my book, and enjoy a couple of draught beers.  If I want to add another $.50, I can add in a little bag of peanuts or croutons, and if I’m feeling really baller, I can get a portion of fried potatoes for $1.00.

When I’ve had enough of my book, I can sit back and watch the hustle and bustle of the train station itself.  This provides enjoyable people watching, interesting bird watching, and even anonymity – a difficult thing to find in my town.  The sights and sounds of these two hours vary every weekend, but they don’t stray too far from a general script.  There are people hawking various foods, beverages, adult beverages and salted fishes near the arriving trains.  There are usually Roma parents, looking for glass and plastic bottles while their children seek alms from philanthropic passers-through, and often to their consternation.

From my table the platforms at the train station.

If all this isn’t enough, just imagine, I get to see the militsiya in action; stopping people for documents, sending ne’er-do-wells on their way, and generally maintaining order.  Among all this activity there is a near constant cry from taxi drivers offering their services to a tired traveler.  This is done amid the continuous ring of announcements over the loudspeakers telling us which trains are arriving, and which are departing.  Surprisingly, while the station is constantly busy while I’m holding court, I very rarely have much company on my perch.

Train platforms and kiosks and taxis in the parking lot

Watching the day reach its logical conclusion at the train station is a relaxing enterprise.  I enjoy seeing people getting on and off trains.  While train travel itself has lost its romance for me, I still like seeing people getting out there into the world.  And, while I envy whatever adventure they just had, I’m usually glad they were able to have it.  I also take a bit of pleasure watching people sprint to trains that are starting to steam, grunt and hiss.  I don’t want them to miss their trains, but the endeavor is fun to watch.  It is even more satisfying knowing that I have nothing to do and nowhere to be . . . which is depressing for a Saturday night in its own right.

Now, don’t get me wrong, watching sunset descend on Zhmerynka, Ukraine is in no way comparable to sitting at Castle Hill, or one of the harbor-side bars or cafes in Newport, but it will do.  Sometimes appreciating where we are is all about the art of lowered expectations.  I’ll take this seat, and these evenings over sitting in my apartment looking at pictures, on facebook, of what all my friends are doing.  Hell, I’ll even admit that I enjoy these evenings.  Of course I’d prefer a bit more adventure and being a lot more rambunctious.  But, there is a time and a place for everything.  Soon enough I’ll get a little time off for bad behavior.[2]  All this said, I generally make my way home around the time the sky grows completely dark.

The day comes to its logical conclusion at the train station.

Sunday morning brings a day full of promise and choices.  When I wake up, I can choose whether or not I want to go back to bed, and there is usually a strong possibility that I would like to.  I carve an hour out of the day for a walk.  It is beneficial for my legs after the long run, and as an added bonus, I’m seeing parts of my town I had never seen before.  It’s surprising how much I didn’t know about, and how many places I had never seen.  The rest of Sunday can vary.  A Skype conversation or phone call may be on the agenda, sometimes I’ll be lucky and the Red Sox will have a day game that I can stream online.  Tonight was enjoyable; I was able to watch the USAJamaica soccer game.

This, of course, is a special Sunday.  I’d be remiss not to wish a sincere Happy Father’s Day, to all the fathers, and father-figures out there.  Some of us, especially those in my extended family, have been blessed in this regard, and we certainly don’t acknowledge it enough.  I can unequivocally say that I would not be where I am, both literally and figuratively, without the influence of the man lovingly referred to as Big Dave.  I was lucky to be able to speak with my parents, brother and sister today.  Even better than that, in just a short time I’ll be meeting my parents in the Krakow airport ready to show them my favorite non-Newport city.

But, it’s late, and that’s all I’ve got for you.  So, I hope things are going well, and summer weather is making its way into your lives.  Things are good here.  I’d love to hear from everyone.  Feel free to send me an email, or poke me on facebook, or send me letter, I’ll even get a fax machine if that would be more conducive.

Be good,

Pete

[1] Greatly reduced, but it was coming from a pretty high standard which would have been difficult to maintain.
[2] Pamplona should consider itself warned.





Sunday, May 29, 2011

Trampling out the Vintage Where the Grapes of Wrath are Stored, or, Running a Half Marathon in Sub-Carpathian Wine Country

Dear family, friends, readers and confidants:

At long last we meet again.  I hope you'll oblige me while I spin a little yarn your way.

Maybe based on my penultimate post, I shouldn’t go around quoting The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but when running through wine country it just seems appropriate.  Now some of you may know, because I’m a glory hog, and enjoy tooting the horn of my own accomplishment and self-promotion, that I recently ran a half marathon.  Then again, if you didn’t previously know, the astute reader could have probably ascertained the fact from today’s title, but I digress.
           
I recently posted about my disdain for, even hatred of running.  When I say this I mean, of course, that I hate performing the actual act of running.[1]  But, as I mentioned earlier, full of hubris, self-importance and barley juice I said (after not running for a year and a half) that I would run a half marathon.  As such, I did not want to be shown a liar.  So, in order to prepare myself, for a good three weeks, I ran five times per week.  Full of confidence I would be prepared I elected to take ten days off from running to entertain my brother on his visit (more on that at a later date).
            
Now, getting to Berehove, the site of the half marathon, was not the easiest thing in the world.  If you’ve read the last post, you’ll know what I mean.  By the way, whoever said it’s not the destination, it’s the journey has never dealt with Ukrainian trains and train stations.  Regardless, we made it to Berehove hardly all that much worse for the wear.  Arriving in Berehove we got off a bus in the middle of town.  From there the goal was to find our guest house.  This seemingly easy task was made more time consuming by streets with Hungarian as well as Ukrainian names, and the fact that we had no idea where the street was.  After a half hour or so we found the place and put our bags down.
            
If you’re up for a geography lesson, Beregove is in the far west of Ukraine.  It is a Hungarian town.  As such, the street signs are in both Hungarian and Ukrainian.  The menus I saw were in both languages, and both flags were flown around the town.  The town became part of Ukraine following World War II, as did the entire oblast (regional administrative district) it is a part of.  It is also a part of the sub-Carpathian wine country, so it is a fertile place with a lot of beautiful vineyards.  There were also a lot of hills, they were nice to look at, but they made Saturday a bit difficult.
            
We arrived on a Friday.  Exploring the town was as fun as exploring any new town is (I’m not being facetious, I mean that).  There was a nice downtown area with a park, a number of outdoor cafes, and a variety of other shops and general places of commerce.  There were also a lot of people out and about which is always nice to see.  Friday was the day to check in, pick up the race number and the official race t-shirt, as well.  After checking in and a bit of exploring, I sat down for a combination of lunch and wine.  The lunch was terrific:  shashlyk, fried potatoes, salad, and a delicious Hungarian soup (I’m not sure if it was goulash, it might have been).  The wine was tasty.  I elected for the white wine.  I didn’t want anything too heavy.
            
Lunch led to more wandering, and catching up with other volunteers.  Following this lunch we were given a small tour of the town.  The tour went up the main street we were in and gave us a bit of context for the town; the religious history, the political history, the ethnic history, all that good stuff.  I could recount this all for you, but I don’t remember, so I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance.  After the tour we had our opening ceremonies.  There were a number of speeches.  There was dancing by a number of girls wearing skimpy costumes.  There were boys break dancing.  It was a party!  


[1] I am Pete Meegan and I still stand behind this statement!  (and its redundancy)  


I think this will be next year's official event poster 

My fresh new t-shirt was pretty popular on Friday.  I’ve posted some pictures, but it says:  “Running Sucks.”  This combination of the t-shirt, my build, and the fact that I was freely imbibing on the local fruits of the local viniculture proved misleading.  The festival attendees were, for the most part surprised to learn I planned to run the half marathon.  Why not, right?  Not only was I planning on running, I was planning on finishing without stopping.

Luckily, I called an early night on Friday.  Staying in a guest house with a lot of people helps keep me on my best behavior.  This Friday night was no different.  So, after performing an adequate degustation, I made my way back to get a full night’s sleep.  Up early, and after a power breakfast of beef jerky (thanks Matt!) I was ready to party.  And by party, I mean run a half marathon . . . slowly.


The official starting chute 


Starting the run was a bit exciting.  I had never run that far before.  I had no doubt I would finish, but I didn’t know how much of the race I would be crawling for.  Fortunately, a Peace Corps Medical Officer had warned me about the course.  The first quarter or so of the course was uphill.  Not very steep, but substantial enough.  The hills didn’t end there, but it was nice to have an idea of what was coming my way.  There were a good amount of runners all starting together.  Combined with the half marathon there was a 10K, a 5K and a 4 person team challenge for the half marathon.  As soon as we heard the starting signal I started my half marathon strategy:  running.


An example of the course's scenery 

 Sub-Carpathian wine country

We ran through town, and through some agricultural areas.  We ran past some villages as well.  It was, as I’ve written earlier, a nice area.  Another great thing we had on the course were a few hydration stations they were at kilometers 5, 10 (the turnaround point) and 15 (the place as 5).  While some of the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) ran in the events, some volunteered on the course.  They did a great job.  They held up signs.  They gave us water.  They cheered us on.  One even threw some cold water at my back as I cruised on through kilometer 15 (the ¾ mark).  I’m glad she didn’t ask first, I would have said no, but it was refreshing.  The only complaint I have about these volunteers is that they thought I was joking when I asked them to call me a cab.  It would have been a much more expedient way to get to the finish.  Though, I imagine that would take any sense of accomplishment out of the mix.

If you're not going to finish first, finish memorably:  The start of an attempted cartwheel 

Attempted cartwheel continued 

This is as close as I came to completing the carwheel.  No picture of me on my back exists, but if there was one it would follow. 

I have a long held belief.  It is as follows:  if you can’t be first, be memorable.  To help fulfill this belief I thought long and hard about how I would cross the finish line.  There was, in spite of everything, no question that I would cross the finish line.  I’m a Meegan, and as such, I don’t do things halfway.[1]  The finish came down to four options:  a somersault, a barrel roll, a mid-air freeze frame (this would require a photographer to catch the moment, otherwise it would just look like a jump) or a cartwheel.  I decided on the cartwheel.  It seemed the only viable option.  I didn’t know if I could cleanly perform a somersault after the 13 miles.  I didn’t want to end up with a concussion and a million stitches in my head.  The barrel roll would take to long, and I wouldn’t want to get up afterwards.  I didn’t know if we’d have a photographer at the finish, so that was the demise of any mid-air shenanigans.  The cartwheel seemed a good choice, anyway.  Unfortunately, I forgot how tired I would be by the end of the race.  I didn’t quite land the cartwheel.  I wound up on my back.  After laughing for a second, I was given a few glasses of water, instructed to stretch, and given directions to the bathroom.  I didn’t hear my time, because I was on my back, but I don’t think it was too much more than two hours.  Who knows? 


[1] Unless halfway is the only option, like a half marathon.  Hell, half is in the title of the event, don’t call me out on this.


I finished and I had a certificate, wine glass and have a medal to prove it. 

We spent the rest of the day under the green tents next to this building.  This time was full of good food, good wine, cold beer and music.  Sounds like a good day in any part of the globe.

The rest of the day was low key.  I was given a medal, and a wine glass.  I quickly put the wine glass to use.  Sampling the local viniculture for a second day was in no ways disappointing.  I had a bit more shashlyk, and some salad as well.  We spent what feels like hours under a group of tents.  Almost everyone there was American.  Some of our friends even serenaded us with some live music; a combination of guitar, banjo and violin.  I was even interviewed at some point herein.  From a combination of my dehydration, rehydration and general tiredness I cannot remember how the interview went, or even what language it was in.  I imagine it had to have been English, but I should try to find it.  

A large group went out to a disco this night.  Again I elected to close shop a little early.  I have no problems with a group of Americans dominating a disco, bar or club in Lviv, or Kyiv, or any of the big cities, but I had my doubts that such a small town could handle that many Americans.  Thankfully, it could.  There were no problems or run-ins with locals, or the law, and that’s always a positive.
            
Sunday was a bit sore.  Luckily there wasn’t much to do.  There was a lot of waiting around and reading the park.  I had coffee at a number of cafes in town, and even had a smoothie.  It was tasty.  On flat ground I was alright, but anytime stairs were involved I thought my legs were going to fall off.  But, all in all, it was rather doable.  I didn’t die.  I have parlayed that success into an attempt to run the Kyiv Marathon in September.  We’ll see how that goes.  I’m two weeks into training now.  I’m actually going to train this time, too!  Also, in case you’re interested I found a YouTube video that was made for this year’s marathon.  Here is the link:  http://wn.com/Beregsz%C3%A1sz_Maraton_2011

That’s all I know for now.

Be good,

Pete