Monday, April 25, 2016

My Sweet Luda

I opened this blog post the very first week I was in Ukraine and have opened it many times since, but could never figure out quite what to say about my host grandma, Luda. Now I'm home, and I still haven't been able to write about it. Whatever I can write will be an inadequate expression of how I feel, but I suppose it's high time I crack down and just do it anyway.

Luda is in her 70s, and she is the sweetest person you could ever meet. On the first night I got there, I was really homesick and I wasn't able to speak with anyone back home because we didn't have wifi. I had been crying, and I went out to the kitchen, she heard me and came in. She immediately understood and gave me the most empathetic, loving look. She hardly said anything, she only asked if I wanted tea. So she made me some tea and sat with me until I was done. That first experience with her touched my heart, and I knew then that she would take good care of me. And she certainly did. She made me feel so loved from the very beginning and never failed to understand how I was feeling, what I was thinking about, and what I needed. Even though we hardly spoke the same language, we understood each other perfectly. She speaks some English, and now I can say a small number of things in Russian, it was enough to get by. But we understood each other beyond the language barrier, it was like we were best friends that had known each other for years. The kind of friends that know, without asking, exactly what you want to eat, when you want to go do something or just watch a movie, that know when you need advice and when you just need a listener. Luda is one of my very best friends. She knows what tea I drink at any given time of the day, she knows when I need a nap, when I'm worried about something, when I need advice, and when I needed to spend time with her. She understood everything. I understood her, as well. I know what tea she drinks at any given time, when she is upset about something, what she needs that will make her happy, and when she really does want me to help with dishes even though she's insisting that I go rest. I'm so glad to have found a friend like her across the world. Who would've thought?
I've got endless stories about her. FAR too many to write. That I won't force myself to do, haha. I love all her silly phrases like "children garden" (playground) and "floor coats" (slippers). She was so willing to learn English for me and wasn't afraid to speak even though she made mistakes. And I'm glad because her cute mistakes made smile. She had some other phrases that she would always say. She told me to say some things out loud to myself every morning, and it ended up having a bigger impact on my life than I originally anticipated. In her happy, inspiring voice she'd say, "I am happy. I am glad. Every day you need say this! I am strong. I am beautiful. I all can!" Starting out my day with such positivity changed everything. In the mornings, we'd sit down for breakfast, and she'd look out the window then look at me and say, "Today is a good day." And every night we'd sit down for dinner and she'd look at me and say, "Tomorrow will be better." She just has the most amazing outlook on life. She taught me to trust God entirely with absolutely everything. She taught me that happiness really IS a choice! No matter what trials we face, she taught me that we can absolutely always be happy. She taught me so many life lessons. How to listen, how to be a good friend, how to be strong, how to adjust, how to trust God, how to let things happen, really too many to list. She made me laugh. She danced when her exercise music came on, she found it hilarious when she fell down, and she told me funny stories all the time. She sewed while I crocheted, we went for walks, we went to the ballet, and chatted over lots and lots of tea. My time spent with Luda was one of the highlights of my time in Ukraine. Of all the things I saw and did, Luda changed my life more than anything. I know now that she is the reason I needed to go. This post could never fully express my gratitude and love for her. I'm so glad I can keep in touch with her, and that I'll learn Russian on my mission and be able to speak more fluently with her. I love her. I will always hold her dear to my heart. So, there's a bit about my sweet Luda. <3

Me & Luda
This was at the ballet "Swan Lake." She was happier than anyone I've ever seen probably. It was the cutest.
"I will be beautiful babushka (grandma)! All people will fall when they look on me!" She was really excited about this cute apron my mom sent for her. :)

She insisted that I let her do her hair & makeup and change her shirt before I took a picture of her wearing it. "I need be beautiful."
This sweet lady sews boxers for men in the army. She was down to the last of her fabrics and thought this polka-dotted piece was absolutely hilarious when she found it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Munchkins

Teaching was certainly one of the highlights of this adventure. From teaching, I learned how to do more crafts than I can count, and how to get six kids to make the craft at the same time. I learned to appreciate every little hug and every time they said (meaning they wanted to come with me), "I want to Teacher Jessi!" I learned not to get so frustrated when they cover the table in glue or spill water everywhere or just start running in circles for no apparent reason. I learned how to get them to lay on the floor so I could take a nap for a minute. I learned how important and how helpful it is to plan and prepare. I learned how to talk about scissors and a piece of paper for five minutes, and the list goes on. Of the many things I learned from these kids that will help me in various areas of my life, perhaps the greatest lessons of all were patience, love, and how crucial it is to make kids feel important, loved, and capable as they are still growing up. I've loved teaching these kids. Not always, I will be honest. There were days I did not want to go to school, times I got so frustrated and lost my temper, times that I just lied on the floor and let them run in circles around me, and times that I caved and didn't make the older ones do the lesson at all because I was just too stressed to fight them on it. I had a lot of those moments, and I regret them some, but those are also some of the times when I learned the most. It was when I yelled at them that I learned how important it is that they feel loved, and when they covered the table in glue how important it is to have patience, and when I ditched my lesson how important it is to be willing to instead just change and adapt my lesson to what they wanted to do. I will remember my time with these kids forever, I've changed for the better because of these three months I got to spend with these crazy munchkins.

Here are pictures of my kids & they're names (left to right)! I would like to say a little bit about each one of them, but there's no need for this to turn into the novel that that would make it. So all together, they are kind, sensitive, selfless, big-hearted, real sassy, smart, hilarious, energetic, helpful, caring, absolutely crazy, loving, and welcoming. I sure love them a lot, and I'm going to miss being Teacher Jessi. <3

Kindergarten & Basic Reading (about 5-7 years old):

Sasha, Roman, Darina, Artom, Olia, Dasha, Maria, Yeva.

Teacher Jessi, Lev, Darina, Yeva, Olia, Dasha, Peetya, Sasha, Kiril (hiding), Maria

Roman, Lev, Peetya, Maria, Sasha, Teacher Emery, Dasha, Teacher Jessi, Olia, Kiril, Darina

Pre-Language (about 3-4 years old):

Samantha, Teacher Jessi, Kristofer

Kristofer & Samantha. They might be my favorite PL kids because they will sit on my lap and watch Tarzan with me. <3

 Yarik's forehead, Katya


Follow Up (about 6-8 years old):

Lera #1, Diana, Mariia

Diana, Teacher Jessi, Mariia, Lera #1
(There is a Lera #2, but the one picture I have of her won't upload, darn.)

Follow Up 3 (about 10-11 years old):




Sunday, March 27, 2016

"There's no place like Europe."

I failed to post about Scandinavia at the beginning of March..oops! In Stockholm, Sweden, we walked around Old Town and just did a lot of sightseeing. In Norway, we went to a couple museums, and went on ferry rides! They are both spots I definitely want to visit again at some point. I'll skip the details and settle for pictures since I have five more countries to write about!

Stockholm, Sweden
Oslo, Norway

This past week we traveled to five different countries. First, I will write a little bit about the bus that took us to all these places. We had a tour guide who so kindly took us on tours of all the cities and talked to us on the bus about who knows what else was all in Russian. That was fun for like a minute. Then it got real annoying, haha. Our tour guide talked for literally HOURS at a time on the bus, and we came up with more than few ways to get rid of that horrid microphone that he unnecessarily yelled into the whole time. Most of our funny stories from this trip took place on the bus. It was quite the adventure. 

On Sunday, we arrived in Budapest. We went to the spas after some sightseeing, and it was so nice. The famous bathhouse is basically just a few giant hot tubs. After a 20-hour bus ride and a very long day, that was just what we needed to ease our crankiness. There were also some saunas and ice baths which we lasted about 34 seconds in before we ran back to the hot tubs. That night, we went on a boat tour, and it was absolutely beautiful! 

Thermal Baths
Boat Tour

Monday we were in Vienna, Austria. It was really green and so so pretty! There were a lot of blossom trees beach cruisers, and horse carriages everywhere. We went sightseeing and saw some really pretty gardens and buildings. We loved wandering through the streets finding our way around. Later on, we stumbled upon a cute little park at which we spent a while playing cards and eating snacks until it was time to go back to the bus. It was lovely. This was one of my favorite cities! 

Tuesday and Thursday we were in Prague, Czech Republic! On Tuesday, we went to Charle's bridge and to the astronomical clock and walked around spotting things we wanted to see and do when we were back on Thursday. When we went back, we made sure to try some pastries worth the trip for just that, found a cute cafe to drink tea at, and then a few of us went to the national library. This was one of my very favorite parts of the whole trip! Oh, this library was absolutely beautiful. Its ladders, second story balcony, and millions of timeless books reminded me of the library in Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, we couldn't go further than a small flimsy fence barely in the doorway, but I've plotted more than one way to go back and walk those halls and climb the ladders. After a slightly heart-wrenching parting, we left the library and kept climbing the stairs to the top, which did not disappoint!


Prague brought out the inner child of us all with these huge bubbles! 

On Wednesday, we drove to Dresden, Germany. We parked at this cute little park with a pond. There was a bridge going over the pond that led to a few castles and cathedrals! It was beautiful. We tagged along on the tour and then went inside for a while. It rained, which always makes for a perfect day in my book. :) We walked in the rainstorm to a courtyard and I loved every minute of it. Then we found directions to a wall that plays music when it rains so we walked to that! It wasn’t raining by the time we got there, but it was so cool. It looked like something straight out of Dr. Suess! This city was particularly one on my favorites for walking around. It was also very green here, and the buildings (though I don't know what they were because of the whole Russian tour thing..) were impeccable. 

Friday was Poland. Auschwitz. Though it was indescribably difficult, I'm grateful for the opportunity I had to go and learn about the Holocaust in a very different way than ever before, and for the way the things I saw and felt there changed my life forever. It truly was far too heavy to put into words.

There is something about traveling that you just can't get any way other than actually traveling. My months in Ukraine and traveling Europe have got me hooked. Hooked on experiences. Hooked on learning. Hooked on searching. Hooked on living in the moment. Hooked on elsewhere. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

"Toto, we're home. Home!"

After my disastrous first week here, I did not believe a word ILP said about getting to a point where Ukraine would feel like home. But it turns out that with their twenty years of experience compared to my one week, they were right. Hence, the title of this post. (I'm not sure why I've adopted a "Wizard of Oz" theme for a couple of these, but I have. So.)  I admit, I love it here. I love everything about it. I love walking everywhere, I love taking the metro and the trolleys, I love the language barrier (it's hilarious), I love the kids I teach, I love every experience I'm having and all the ways I'm learning and growing.  Well, I've been awful about writing about some of the small things here, as opposed to only big vacations and such. So, this post may be a little scattered, but I want to share some of these stories. Little pieces of Kiev that make me feel at home, or make it feel like home here. Or that are just funny.

1. The stars. It is completely rare to see the stars in Kiev. The first time I saw them here I was so happy. In Utah, I was pretty used to there only being about ten stars in the sky. I still had a special love and wonder for the stars, but I found myself frequently wishing for there to be more stars in the sky. Here, there were the same amount of stars as there always are in good ole Riverton, and I was in tears I was so happy. It was the first time I felt a little piece of home here, and one of the possibly very few times I didn't find myself wishing for more stars. Those ten stars were the perfect amount. They were my stars from home that I love so much.

2. Bell towers, cathedrals, and sunsets. I can't say that Ukraine has got Santorini beat at sunsets, but the views from their bell towers certainly do not disappoint. On Saturday, Emery, Caroline, Rozzie, and I went to visit St. Sophia's cathedral in Andriyivsky, about 20 minutes from the station we always meet at. This has become one of our favorite little towns here. St. Sophia's was built in the 11th century, and has hardly been touched since. It was amazing! The detail in this cathedral is impeccable, and the glass cases that protected the parts of the ground that were left completely untouched was surreal. It reminded me of the historical feel in Athens. After that, we went to the bell tower. This challenged a couple of us who have fears of heights, small spaces, and get dizzy easily while going up spiral stairs, but that certainly kept us laughing hysterically. The sun was setting as we climbed up, and the view from the top was something to marvel at.

3. Maidan. Near Andriyivsky, this is where the 2014 riots took place. I watched a documentary on the events a couple weeks ago, and I felt more love for the people of Ukraine than ever before. I started to look at them differently on the streets, it just changed my whole perspective. The documentary is called "Winter On Fire". If you're interested in knowing more about what sparked the outbreaks of violence in Ukraine, or you like history and documentaries, or you're bored, or if you care about humanity at all...WATCH IT. But the reason I write about it here is because there is a part in the film that talks about a religious leader getting special permission to ring all the bells at once when the riots got really bad. The last time they had rung all the bells at once, before two years ago, was in the 11th century. And they were the bells in that picture, in this bell tower. That might not be so interesting to anyone else, but I thought it was neat!

4. Luda. Oi, there will be a post all about my cute host grandma when I have more time and I can write sufficiently, but I just love her so much. She has made me feel more at home than anything else here. She reminds me of my grandma Carol, the way she insists on treating me like a princess, compliments me even when I'm a downright wreck, and gives the soundest life advice. She reminds me of my parents with her magnet collection on the fridge, and her insane care for my well-being. She is my family here. And she definitely keeps me happy and laughing! Every morning she gives me a pep-talk of sorts. One time she told me my fate through an intense game of MASH. And the way she figures to say things in English sometimes I just can't help but laugh about, like when she called a playground a "children garden." Or when she told me to go get my "floor coat," meaning my slippers. She's the cutest lady. 

5. This one has nothing to do with feeling at home here, but it was funny. I'll spare you the boring details I just tried to make a story of, and sum it up instead. A 30-year-old Ukrainian man told me I had ice on my butt and offered to buy me tea. In Russian. Figuring out what he was saying is the boring part of the story, so I'll just leave it at that!

I'm loving it here. I'll always remember the stories we have, the memories we're making, and the ways we are all learning and growing. We've all been so grateful to have found an English-speaking LDS ward close enough to travel to that happens to be right next door to the temple. That is where we feel most at home of all. I'm learning to appreciate the little things, like short waits at the bus stops, and running into missionaries. There are tender mercies all over the place in Kiev. I'm sure they were everywhere in Riverton, too, I probably just wasn't looking for them so much. I think there are just buckets of 'em being poured all over the world! 

I've found great joy in looking for these small miracles and the things that make me feel at home, and I've found great humor in all the things that make me feel helplessly out of place. I guess "elsewhere" has that effect, and I'm slightly obsessed with it. So that's where I'll be. You can find me elsewhere.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

You Can Find My Heart In Greece

Oh heavens, I've postponed this post for far too long because I knew it would be difficult to put my experience in Greece into words. But I suppose it's about time I try!

We spent two days in Santorini, and two days in Athens. We first arrived in Santorini. We stepped outside and I was immediately swept away by the smell of fresh, clean, humid air. That's a smell and feeling I've always loved, so I knew these next few days would be some of the best. And boy, was that an understatement...

Two things I learned upon arriving in Greece were first, that Greek people are quite possibly the kindest humans in the world, and second, that European driving is completely terrifying in more places than just Ukraine. A man from our hostel picked us up from the airport and told us about Santorini the whole frightening drive there. (Passing cars on a one lane, two way street by driving into oncoming traffic is less than absurd and more than frequent.) When we arrived, another man working at the hostel elaborated on the must-sees and -dos of the island. We took their kind advice and planned what ended up being the perfect day. It began by waking up before the sun. Let me just say that I have only succeeded in doing this a few times in my life, and when I do, it's with certainly adequate reason that I've been called "Satan's advocate" at least until I get a solid nap in. So you can imagine my surprise when I woke up (and remained!) chipper as ever! The view on our morning hike did make it pretty easy to be okay with the lack of sleep, though. We climbed through an idle construction zone to find the cobblestone trail, and I will never forget the moment we rounded that corner to see those famous Greek buildings all lit up in the dark, sitting aside the sea that held the crescent moon shaped island which so elegantly framed its volcano and few small islands. We all audibly lost our breaths, and there were even a few tears shed. I wish I had a camera that could do justice to this place, and a mind that could think of words sufficient enough to really share this experience with all of you. But what I've got will have to do. :)

The view only got better as we climbed, chasing the sunrise. When the sun did finally make an appearance, those beams had me convinced that the Second Coming would occur right then and there.

It's safe to say I have never been that happy before 12 PM before. Those pictures were taken in Fira. We rented four wheelers for the day and rode them to the other side of the island and visited Oia, with a few pit stops to beaches and such along the way. To my fellow Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fans, Oia is where it was filmed! This is where those famous blue domed, white and pastel painted buildings are located. The view from these places did not disappoint either.

We rode back to Fira for the sunset after spending a while there. But this wasn't just any sunset. This sunset made me believe that you can not only love but actually fall in love, with something other than people. This sunset made me wonder about what exists in the great abyss of sea and sky. It made me appreciate God's marvelous creations so much more than I did previous. I love the indistinguishability of where the sky begins and the water ends. I love the way the sun intensifies to its best right before it dies down. I love the way the water welcomes the sun as it appears to dive. I love that the reality of that illusion is that the Earth is actually rotating upwards in relation to the sun. This sunset made me fall in love with the sky, the sea, the horizon, and the way they all dance together at the end of each day. Now, again, these pictures don't do it anywhere near justice, but we had to try.

This sunset perfectly concluded our day as well as our time in Santorini. The next morning we packed up and headed to Athens! Though it broke our hearts a bit to leave our island, Athens wasn't so bad to leave to anyway! Our two days here solidified my belief that Greek people are the kindest ever. It was refreshing to be able to smile and laugh on the streets, and a huge (but good) shock whenever people approached us on the streets speaking English! These are things that just don't happen in Ukraine. I would've liked to see the looks on all of our faces the first time someone asked us in English if we needed help when we were so clearly lost, turning the map in every direction, looking hopelessly for street signs.

In Santorini, I fell in love with moments that take my breath away, and in Athens, I fell in love with the green. I've missed that more than I realized. I noticed that when I looked back to see that over half of my pictures from Athens were of leaves and flowers. (And my feet..? I'm not entirely sure what that's about.) haha.

God's creations are truly divine. He sure knew what He was doing when he painted the color green across the earth. I think He might have a special place for Greece in His heart because He must have spent some extra time making it most beautiful.

The next thing we quickly learned to love here was the food. Oh yes. Greek frozen yogurt, souvlaki, loukoumades, crepes. (I'm pretty sure I devoured most of these before taking a picture, oops!) Souvlaki is what we call a gyro in America. It's that beauty in a pita wrap right there. Loukoumades, hold on to your seats, are fried donuts pumped full of chocolate, covered in chocolate, and sprinkled with chocolate cookie crumbs. Just let that sink in while you jump on planning your next vacation to Greece. We also became a little too acquainted with the cute girl working at the frozen yogurt place...and we're not even that ashamed.

The verdant hills, walls, and ground, along with the food were, of course, amazing, and all part of the experience. But what was the most profound about Athens, what I still can't completely fathom, is the fact that this city is built on top of an ancient place where real people used to walk and live their normal lives many ages ago. We figured we'd be shunned if we didn't go to the Acropolis museum due to the conviction in everyone's voices when they said we must go, and now I understand why. Everything in the museum was dug up from these ruins, and the floor was built in such a way so you can look down and see sections that were left untouched from these first habitations. The Acropolis, the temples, and all the other historical sites were also amazing. It was so surreal to step foot in these places that were among the first on our Earth to be civilized and had been left to exist as they were back then. It's hard to explain things I can't even wrap my mind around, but that was a feeling I will never forget.

Greece taught me the goodness of people's hearts and the history that resides underneath what we've built (you can take that literally and metaphorically). It taught me to not pass up any opportunity, even ones as small as sleeping on a roof or taking your shoes off to walk in the sand. Greece is where that quote on the wall in the Riverton, Utah coffee shop I've spent hours staring at that says, "wherever you go, there you are" finally made sense. I learned to seize the moment and be where I am. This is where I got hooked on traveling and decided to never stop. This is where I left a piece of me. Greece was one of my greatest adventures yet, and I highly suggest you find a way to allow yourself the same opportunity to be changed by the Greek people and culture. You won't regret it.

So, if you need me, you can find me elsewhere. And if you're looking for my heart? Well, it might be somewhere in Santorini's sea or Athens' trees. Go look there.