“It’s called inception.” – Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Inception (2010)
The first snow fell yesterday. That was the kick. I am in the second dream level now. The first snow came some seventy days after I first stepped on Ukrainian soil and barely 24 hours after I had temporarily relinquished my passport to the university in order to have my registration finalized with the proper governmental authorities – housing, immigration etc. Rich in poetic and literary allure, the first snow marks the transition from the temporary to the semi-permanent; from the seasonal to the annual. Up until now I had been living here as a visa-free guest and operating on a 90-day mindset. From this point forward, may stay is no longer temporary and I can no longer be mistaken for a tourist.
I came to Crimea as an English Teaching Assistant on the Fulbright program. I was unsure what exactly this would entail. As it turns out, that ambivalence was shared by my host institutions. My first few weeks here were somewhat frustrating as it took a long time to establish a normal work schedule. I am deeply indebted to my colleague Marina for helping me obtain an apartment and internet service. Without her assistance, my first days here could have been brutal. After initial meetings and protracted negotiations, ambivalence gave way to some semblance of structure and routine.
I essentially perform three functions here: guest lecturing at a university, English teaching at a library, and facilitating an English club at the local “Windows on America” library. I supplement these activities with Fulbright outreach and consultations with prospective applicants. For the most part, this amounts to informing them about the application process, advising them on essay writing, and preparing them for the necessary tests.
I live in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea and home to nearly 350,000 people. The city was established as Aqmescit (White Mosque) by Crimean Tatars and re-named Simferopol after the annexation of the Crimean Khanate by Russian Empress Catherine II in 1784. Sorry, that was a temporary lapse. I remember now my solemn vows to exclude facts and learning from my blog. Anyhow, Simferopol is nothing special. There are some nice cafes and restaurants, but it doesn’t take long to see it all. I am, however, infatuated with its affordable cost of living – groceries, restaurants, transportation are all quite affordable. It obviously doesn’t hurt that the Fulbright grant is reasonably generous. I rent a
two-room room-and-a-bed apartment located within walking distance from a market and the central bus station, but more about that in a future installment. As is common practice, my apartment is a third-generation Fulbright legacy shelter passed on by colleagues who had come before me.
My host university is Tavrida National V.I. Vernadsky University (TNU), the largest and most comprehensive university in Crimea founded in 1917 and named in honor of an important geologist. At TNU, I am affiliated with the English and Translation Departments. Periodically, I am invited to give guest lectures on various subjects to students training to become translators and interpreters. So far, I have spoken on topics such as the American education and legal systems, and human rights. I look forward to doing more at the university and getting to know the students better.
My secondary institution is the Ivan Franko Republican Library of Crimea. The library celebrated its 90th anniversary on November 30th. Ivan Franko was a man of letters and revolutionary remembered both for his literary and political accomplishments. His face is on the twenty here. The deputy culture minister of Crimea made an official request to the US Embassy to send an English teacher to the library and they got me. I teach two groups that each meet with me twice a week. My students are the employees of the library who have volunteered to participate in the course. The lofty objective is the increase the librarians’ familiarity with the English language in order to improve the library’s effectiveness and capability to communicate with colleagues from other countries. I find myself in uncharted waters as I am not a trained English teacher. I toiled away at university writing political science papers about war and conflict, institutions and compromise, and drawing supply and demand curves in economics courses. No TESOL/TEFL. No pedagogical coursework. I find teaching at the library to be a challenging, but rewarding experience. I think I have made inroads. The students keep coming back, for the most part. At the very least, coming to my class seems to be more useful and interesting than an hour of work. Low threshold, but I’ll take it.
Lastly, I conduct a voluntary English club called “Conversation and Games” at the Windows on America (WoA) library housed at KIPU – the Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University (CEPU in English). Windows on America sites (also known as American Corner posts in some countries) are English-language libraries sponsored by the Embassy, where students (and others) can access books and other educational materials in English, surf the Internet, learn about the United States including our universities, and attend various clubs facilitated by local ex-pats such as Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbrighters. My English club at WoA is the newest and most relaxed aspect of my work in Simferopol. I intend to expand my role at the center next semester.
KIPU is a new university, founded post-independence and housed in a former Red Army barracks. It is a common practice in former Yugoslavia to convert old military buildings into universities and it seems that the same is true here. KIPU exists to serve the needs of the Crimean Tatar community and, indeed, Crimean Tatar students compose more than half of the student body. Crimean Tatars have called Crimea home for centuries. They are Muslim and their language is related to Turkish. In one of the worst examples of Stalinist terror, the entire Crimean Tatar nation was accused of Nazi collaboration and exiled to the steppes of Uzbekistan after WWII. Almost half perished during the deportation and the first year in Uzbekistan. Nowadays, Crimean Tatars are returning from exile to their ancestral lands and beginning anew. There are about a quarter million Tatars in Crimea (12-13% of the overall population); the community has grown larger than the one still in exile.
To do best of my ability, I seek to make myself available for oureach activities by speaking with students about the Fulbright program and advising prospective applicants on the application process, essays, and test stragies for the GRE and TOEFL. Last week, Fulbright was in town (and around Crimea) promoting the program and searching for prospective applicants. I went around town for the various outreach events and may be doing more of that in the future. Note to self: Business cards are a must, make them already!
On weekends and occasionally Fridays, I travel around Crimea. I’ve visited Bakhchisaray thrice, Sevastopol twice, and Yalta, Alushta, Sudak and Novi Svet once.In November, I went to Kiev for an ETA conference. I spent Halloween weekend as an international election observer in Odessa. This was an exhausting and surreal experience for which I regretfully did not have time and energy to encapsulate into words immediately, but perhaps I will do so ex post facto when time permits. Two weeks, I undertook a soccer pilgrimage to Donetsk. I shall write about this next.
Not everything is rainbows and sunshine, however. The onset of winter and the first snowfall foreshadow an ominous predicament for my professional future. It is already December 11th and I haven’t touched a single grad school application nor have I typed a single word of an admittance statement. The deadlines are closing in fast. At this rate, I may likely find myself taking another (unplanned) gap year. I am enjoying my Fulbright experience at the moment and I will not let such trivial matters as the future or the rest of my life weigh me down. Life is good now and the future can wait. An international team of expert thieves specializing in subconscious grand larceny called extraction would have to traverse three dream levels and insert an alternative idea in my mind through an experimental method called inception in order to convince me of the contrary. Luckily, I’ve shelled out top dollar for the best subconscious security that hryvnias can buy. Do your worst, DiCaprio…I am the king of the world now!