My Bandura Plays Everything


100_1622The sun whispers for a change of pace,something for her to fall asleep to, but simultaneously remind her of her transcendence, her omniscience, her evanescence.  So he strums and sings “Hraye vse moyu banduru,” and as he speaks so too he does, letting the evening chords gently sift through the air of his humble country,  in his voice a heavy burden being lifted.  As he sighs with his instrument I join in a deeper yogic inhalation… feeling the interconnectedness, the stars of our distant dusks aligning, and I look up, within, and realize that magical realization that suddenly, for only a split second, everything is clearer.

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I am whisked away to where I met him, the man who claims “my bandura plays everything”, a moment that I haven’t understood the significance of until this moment of clairvoyance.  I had wandered off on a spiritual walkabout through Kiev, abandoning the suffocation of the American girls and plans and letting the golden sublimity of the inviolable steeple guide me to and fro.   In the courtyard of St. Sofia’s, home to saints and followers from the incipience of 11th century Kiev, in the presence of ecclesiastical elegance at its finest, I was yet taken away to the sound that was carried to me by the breeze, and it hit me just as gently.

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My first time to witness a new instrument being played, is like the moment an archaeologist finds another missing bone, it brings them that much closer to the fuller picture.  But (objectively? speaking), this feeling is so much the grander, for I couldn’t have imagined it’s sound, it’s shape, it’s soul, until seeing it and feeling it with my own two eyes, two ears, two everythings.

100_1628So, in the presence of this ballad built bandura I stood, letting myself close myself off to all else and open myself up only to its sound.  It was clear to me that, at that moment, all I had to understand about Ukraine was found in this sound-the pain, the suffering, the passion, the beauty, the rhythm and the soul.  As the strings turned in vibration to one another and followed each other in the nature of their maker, so did I follow, rising in mellifluousness and drifting back down in the same manner you melt between the pluckings of a harp.  Except the power of this harp was, for me, at that moment, going to be irresistible, not that I would’ve ever tried to resist it.

100_1634As fresh as it feels now, as new as it feels in its awakening in my soul, it’s hard to imagine this serendipitous sound found me over two years ago, in the heart of Ukraine.  Words that I only understood through his sound, now appear to me more clearly in his voice as well, as sweet a sign as any of the growth and understanding that has filled my transience as I try and sit for only a moment, to make sense of this transformation.  The curiosity that inspired me to turn the corner of that church, to close my eyes to that music, to struggle to speak with this soulful muse, to listen softly to his songs that meant nothing to me and everything to me at the same time,  the desire to understand these people and their weighted hearts, still takes me today every which way I roam. Everlastingly subtly shining in the spirit of the Ukrainian soul, it seems that I will forever be in tune with this bandura that plays everything.

Gathering of Family Near the Alamo at Christmastime

Gathering of Family Near the Alamo at Christmastime

Here I sit, in the midst of the discovery of my own home town, perhaps so rightly now symbolizing the nature of novelty, of unearthing what had once seemed to be caked in the clay of normalcy, malleable places and people that seemed to be of no particular importance to me, serving no purpose (or perhaps it is more apt to say my vision wasn’t fit to see them clearly, in their true light, to call them by their right name).  Finding quaint localities to mark as your own, giving new meaning to the places you’ve already known from somewhere else, all of it happens under the umbrella of enlightenment, the greater understanding of what it means to be alive.  To have the ability to everyday open up to the opportunities that want so desperately to embrace us if only we were brave enough to walk around with our arms wide open.  And the beautiful thing is that as you gain, as these impressions and people and sounds and glorifications become a part of your microcosm, you don’t lose anything!  You still  have all of the joy and miracles and blessings and sunsets, the sadness and tragedies and unfortunates and dark nights, the abyss and the highest heavens, is all still yours!  Its such an incredible feeling, emotion, state of being, so that each moment becomes so much the more vivid, lucidity piercing the silences that take you as you roll between the bed-sheets of bliss and tumble out, prostrate and proud of what you now know, always more than you did before.  Moreover, this feeling is compounded when each instrument is in tune with the other.  When the ringing of the high hat hits upon the muted trumpet holding out, grumbling the trombone fills the foundation, a saxophone growls in trebled response, the bass draws the line that keeps all the sounds connected in synchronicity.  The past passions are the trumpet, temptations the trombone,  sensualities the saxophone, present pace the drum beat, and your heart beat the thump thump thump of the bass.  How liberating to let yourself play conductor to yourself, while you sit front row, mezzanine and opera box and take in the whole harmonious happening.

Amanda and I celebrating my return to America in Chicago with homemade varenyky in Ukrainian Village

Amanda and I celebrating my return to America in Chicago with homemade varenyky in Ukrainian Village

Such is the view I soak in at the moment, during an epoch of my life whose inception promises more sweet beats, more melodious wanderings, more sensational solos and more flowing harmonies.  Today alone I felt such a powerful wave of emotion wash over me that I hesitated not to let the tears come, but not out of sadness, out of this incredible realization that the fabrics of my life were being so tightly and so lovingly woven.  In clay red, the foundational threads of my Texas upbringing snake sinuously through the rainbow thread of South Africa, which with strength and poise charges through the golden grain yellow thread of Ukraine, and so am I displayed in a tapestry on the wall for all to see.   Recently the needles have moved in such a way as to come together seamlessly, meeting at the focal point of the tapestry for now, the only noticeable point on it where they come together in such magnificent union.  It’s happened through two mutually exclusive events in my life, each of which have done wonders to demonstrate to me the value of time that is free to be given to others in the name of doing good deeds.

The owner of the restaurant and the cook of the varenyky, that latter of which only speaks Ukrainian.

The owner of the restaurant and the cook of the varenyky, the latter of which only speaks Ukrainian, even after 12 years in America.

My Kossack friends, who I tried to offer a toast to, to which he said "No!  I don't drink!" (in Ukrainian, a phrase I rarely heard in Ukraine, especially from a Kossack)

My Kossack friends, who I tried to offer a toast to, to which he said “No! I don’t drink!” (in Ukrainian, a phrase I rarely heard in the language, especially from a Kossack)

One of them happened last night, and was the culmination of a great deal of waiting and planning and investment and love between Ukraine and America.  In the fall I received an email from Nupur Agrawal, the current president of Trinity University’s Rotaract.  The deafening pulse of the heartbeat of this entire benevolent undertaking begins and ends with this organization, Rotaract, which I helped to found in my tenure at Trinity.  They are the college fledglings of the full-flown Rotary Club, working in the name of service and community to build a more sustainable community through commitment to values of heartfelt dedication to projects that truly build human capital and give those without the power to believe.  I have received emails from them for the past two years despite have truly disengaged for the most part from the group at the end of my senior year at college.  Nevertheless, it came in handy as I used the email chain to get in touch with Nicole Castro, the former president (and a hand-picked protégé by myself when it all began).  I had desired to get the group involved in helping to raise money for the grant that I wrote through the Peace Corps, which was to help my school purchase new textbooks and support the English Bucks program.  Well time passed and the troops didn’t make it to the front lines, not able to show their true colors in battle.

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Nupur and I in our “traditional” clothing

So the email from Nupur.  It wasn’t to me, but a general announcement talking about the plans for the new year and “what did the group want to get involved with this time around?”   I took the email (as well as the subtle pressures from my school to get a computer for the English department) as a final call to arms, the last chance to get involved in the fight.  A heartfelt email to Nupur evoked an emotion in her and I knew that she was on board and wouldn’t give up until she had seen this one through. They immediately began to brainstorm ideas for fundraising, and I eagerly chipped in my two cents as the school year and my time in Ukraine wound to a close.  Days at school become less about how I led the classroom and more focused on leaving the foundations that I had laid intact as I transitioned out.  My greatest desire was to leave the school with everything they wanted, and to feel that, with their vote of confidence, they would carry on the initiatives that I began after I was no longer with them.   My wish was granted when Nupur sent me an email, letting me know that through various fundraising (which I would come to know included raffles that awarded restaurant gift certificates as well as grand prize of a Kindle all donated through the channel of the Rotary, a postcard sale, a bake sale, and generous contributions through the Rotary Club of San Antonio) they had raised not $1,000, but $1,500 for our school!   Such elation had not been felt in Nemyriv for ages (at least not by an American boy), and it was all I could do to keep the smile from reaching not just ear to ear, but from Ukraine to America.  My heart swelled in the kind of humility and blessing that a captain of a ship must feel as he fights against the raging sea and odds that didn’t put his crew on the opposite shore, but  when the anchor sets in and they feel the sensation of their toes betwixt the sand,  well how else to describe it but to say that he felt like me at this very moment.   The following days were ones of pride, as I began the steady process of sealing all the cracks that still remained, and even making sure to give the whole thing a new coat of paint (preferably a light green and purple, as such would be the result of magically fusing opposing colors of America and Ukraine into a new beautiful creation of national expression).   I purchased the computer and projector, with more textbooks on the way for next year, and touted them into the school on my very last day in Nemyriv.

My vyshyvanka rested comfortably in its loose linen against my bouncing body, the elegant embroidery protruding proudly from underneath the opening in my navy blue blazer, Kossack mustache in full form and pride for Ukraine swelling in smile and paraphernalia of the same inspiration placed delicately along the table for 14 in the cozy little backroom at Madhatter’s Tea House.  So was the scene for the union of Rotaract and their former president turned teacher turned inside out and back again to show his true colors in all their splendor.

Nothing but wonder was felt on my side of the table throughout the entire evening, as I turned on my role as host with such automation, you’d have thought I was still in Ukraine (aside from the powerful strides of the Slavic tongue marching then dancing then tickling along your eardrums).   Their shot glasses already in form on the tableside, I glided around and poured them their wine and with “Za zdrovya” the night commenced as any Ukrainian American beautiful lovefest of good feelings and celebration and sentimental stories should commence.  At the head of the table, all eyes turned to me as question after question flowed out of the guests, shining in their excitement and energy, reflecting the spirits that had taken them from 0 to 1500 in such a short time.  We dug into the spirit of Ukraine, the political stability, the pride of being an American in the country, what their work meant, and I found myself naturally pouring out in exuberances perhaps meant for a less humble occasion, but such was my excitement and natural predilection for leaving my heart out for all to see.

Eloquences came in the midst of them, moments of silence as I spoke words that I knew were true and that were felt  by all as the same, powerful in their coming from a place that no one knew, in the uncovering of that place and revealing it as such a human place, a place that echoes the people of the same name in thought word and deed, in their defining heights and boundless lows.  In the heat of it all I spoke about the most important to me in Ukraine, Mama Nina.  “The most beautiful aspect of life in general that I was able to discover was how people become a part of one another so naturally.  Here was a woman whose husband had died a year ago, still in mourning, who took the risk to take in a boy from the other side of the world.  A great great transformation in her lifestyle, a huge risk, everything about the way she saw her role in this world would change.  Yet when it was clear that I was going to call her “mama”, she so naturally called me “son” and we became one another’s solace in so many powerful ways.  That speaks the greatest volumes about the love and hospitality of the people of Ukraine, of humanity in general when you let yourself open and then, arms around each other, never let go.”

Two of the exciting new members of Trinity's Rotaract team

Two of the exciting new members of Trinity’s Rotaract team

The second moment happened a little bit later into the evening, after I had spent some time learning about the others, the process of their fundraising (how incredible it was to learn about what they had done for this boy, these children, this world they knew nothing about except what was made in a video), we ventured on to the dessert.  In the final weeks of my time in Ukraine, I got the students to make a bio page that introduced themselves to our American friends, telling them why they were thankful for the new textbooks and their support.  I compiled said biographies into a book with captions of the students reading and relishing in their newfound confidence and empowerment, a book titled “Nash Vdyachnist’ (Our Gratitude)” printed all in color and bound in spiral.  I began to read the student’s words, until I realized that it wouldn’t be too hard for the others to join in , and so proceeded the beautiful reading of this story, each person reading the words of Dima or Nastia or Oksana or Andriy.  Genuine laughter filled the room as each reader attempted to read it the way the students meant to write it, others just biting the bullet and reading the way the students did write it  (whether it be “these books are of great impotence us”  or “Besides to my mind these textbooks are too easier than our others” amongst plenty of others).  Yet I was overall so impressed with my students and the heartfelt words they summoned to thank our generous friends, and many even spoke kind words to Mr. Adam, thanking the Americans for “giving us the clever and kind Mr. Adam who is the best of the best!”

The Kearls, Joan is the Rotary sponsor of the group, a constant believer in me and our work together

The Kearls, Joan is the Rotary sponsor of the group, a constant believer in me and our work together

It was hard to not see my heart beating as such a moment became and stayed at wonderful for the rest of the evening.  “I ask you, please from time to time look at these books and let them remind you of the work that you have done, of what you were able to accomplish for a group of children on the other side of the world.  You didn’t just raise money and cut a check to a faceless place or group, you learned about these children and invested real heart and soul into this, and it shows what you see before you.  Please be proud that you have been a part of this project and let this book be the fuel that keeps you going on this path, because Lord knows you have chosen the right one, and I am so blessed to have walked it with you.  Thank you all again so much for everything, and may you be blessed in all that you do henceforward.”  Hugs went all around and the weight of the world felt so light, if only for a moment.

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I dusted the sleepies out of my eyes and and felt my heart skip a few beats to fall back into rhythm with the smile and spirit of twelve twenty-something girls, holding a sign that said “Welcome Back Adam”, a hat and a saxophone drawn subtly in its wake, the soft strength of their Ukrainian countenances holding me like a butterfly (but like one would on their fingertip, his wings dancing in the wind, but he needn’t fly away for beauty comes serendipitously only so often).  I stood before them as a six by eight intercontinental projection, an American boy in his Ukrainian garb, the greater embroideries visible from the chest up, which was all they could see, and I smiled for the photo as they gathered around the boundaries of me, although for sure the feeling was boundless.

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This feeling begins and ends (well it is still only beginning) with a dear woman named Tamara.  Finding one another as I exited the stage of my first thespian performance in years, she scooped me up and threw me into deeper waters than I knew, a stage I had yet to grace-the university.   Yet, I didn’t find myself with any sort of fright (of the stage kind or otherwise), as my calling there didn’t involved the hackneyed grammatical lessons that I had become used to on a daily basis, but rather the subject that I might actually be in the higher rankings of knowledge in as an American in Ukraine-jazz.    This opporturnity came only after I had proven myself in the classroom through a lesson on developing writing techniques, and a subsequent revealing conversation with Tamara.

My first impression of her (and as I later found out hers did for me) proved misleading.  She was matter of fact, speaking in straight arrows that hit where they were supposed to and could have meant nothing less than to pierce you right away, a rigid countenance and firmly held posture, letting no one knock her down.  But there was a soft gentleness in her eyes that I was trying to grab at, so I responded playfully at times, smiling and in even coyfully jesting when I felt it right, but none of it an act, only an attempt to really get to know who I knew was there.

Tamara and I

Tamara and I

The day of the conversation, she offered me a cup of tea and beseeched me to sit down and eat all the cookies that her department had ever acquired, I mostly silently acquiesced.  The ball began rolling slowly, but soon enough we picked it up and began hitting it back and forth, volleys and slams and backhands and forehands all seamlessly floating across the net, a hustle here, a frolic there, but the game went on as if we had played together many times before.  This happened when I did it, said “the word”.  Whenever I say “the word”, my eyes become a deeper blue, filled with soul and swing, blinking on the 2 and 4 and a light emanates in the color of passion, the lighter kind, and all in the room are the objects upon which it shines and they feel it, oh yeah they feel it . Tamara felt it more than anybody, the gentle softness or soft gentleness coming forth in our tacit understanding that this would be more than just a tea and cookies relationship.  She lit up and said “Well then, let us do a seminar on music, a discussion from your heart.”  I couldn’t have felt more in tune with the moment, and it was obvious she was swinging to the groove, so together the synchronicity was deafening and we went on to put on our show.

So it all went on without a hitch, as life does when you can’t tell the difference between today and tomorrow save the colors of the sky, because you are the river you are flowing on.   The school year was closing to an end at that time, and Tamara and I stayed in touch throughout the summer.  We even had lunch together at her place where she showered me with the greater parts of her warmth and hospitality.  I sat down with a cup of tea and some chocolates before me, and a recording of the Queen concert that I had attended just a few weeks before, (she had been observant enough to notice a tall American boy with a straw-woven hat in the front row screaming his lungs out, a smile that seemed to speak of that day of music).  I felt the thoughtfulness and care in her every move, so gently gliding in and out with a tired but proud sweater wrapped around her shoulders, shoulders that are always confidently held and able.   We spoke about things that I wonder if she has ever spoken about with a 25 year-old boy, much less in English.  Something so easy about the way in which people are accessed, how the light shines forth from their yearning aura once the wall is broken down and they no longer have to speak like Pyramus and Thisbe, (the difference is they couldn’t tear down the barrier, but we can).   One book closed, we opened another, this one not proverbial but indeed that of my South African soul.

When she said the other “it” during that conversation, I realized that she was someone, who although I barely knew her, I knew could be trusted with the most honest and vulnerable thing I have ever done in my life.   Since that time, she sent me lovely emails describing the fleetings of her impressions, the rest to come at this moment.  She carefully sifted through the pages, all 250 that she had printed out and kept in a large cardboard folder, keeping an eye out for the penciled observations made in the margins and in between the lines.  “I love the way you describe your boys, the love is clear,”  she told me in regards to the native African basketball boys that I coached in Kayamandi, just across the bridge from Stellenbosch where I spent those indescribable five months.  While her maternal instincts kicked in regarding my hubris, sexuality, and abandon, overwhelmingly she felt the strength of my relationship with Siya, Sox, Monde, Prince, Wonga, Esethu, and Ayanda.  She wanted to share them with the world.

After our seminar on love back in November

After our seminar on love back in November

Fall came and went and our friendship grew, I committed myself to every opportunity I could to be involved in her classroom, her life.  I even had the blessing of sharing my story about Esté with her second year students in a seminar on love, where I learned more about myself and those students than I had in a long long time.  Yet time flew by and before I knew it I was back stateside, but forgot that I had left a part of me with Tamara.  She didn’t forget.

Upon my return I received an email that described so sweetly what I looked like in Ukraine while not even there:

…a part of your soul is still here, my students do remember your classes as the brightest moments in our academic routine, Max’s (her son who is a breakdancer, and a dear friend of mine now) buddies recollect your music which made his birthday party so very special, my colleagues (Tamila and others) also keep the warmest memories of your short but so productive a stay with us. Your picture is still on the poster and I say “Hello, Adam!”, passing by…Your humble “professor Mom” keeps  quoting her professor Son whenever a chance arises.

The hip hop boys and I (Tamara's son directly behind me in a sweater) after his birthday celebration.

The hip hop boys and I (Tamara’s son directly behind me in a sweater) after his birthday celebration.

Six weeks later, (just a week ago), the part of me that was there met the part of me that is here and if ever I’ve had an out of body experience it was at that moment.  It was the same where the students held that sign, welcoming me back to the world I’d never left.  And the emotion hadn’t even begun to surge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe stood amongst the class with slightly shaking paper in hand, at the mercy of the eyes of me enlarged on the screen before her, and began to speak with a confidence I couldn’t have imagined.  “My people, my friends, my comrades, I come to you today to address the issues that face our country at this moment.  We can wait no longer to fight against the injustice before us, the time is now!  For years now we have been let down, beat down, but we shall not fight this way.  We have seen inequality in housing, work, living wages, and opportunity, and we shall see it no more!  Let us come together against the indignity that has taken our country, and bring it back to the people of South Africa.  The time is now.”  (Well, I don’t remember it word for word, but it was pretty close to this).  I felt my heart skip swell as I understood that what I had done was working, that I was seeing the results of my time in South Africa in a new way.

Set with a task to read the story of my Kayamandi boys, the girls of the second year English class were also asked to discuss the history of South Africa from the late 1950s til Mandela’s presidency.  Learning about apartheid in a way they had never done before (because they had never done it before), they then prepared a speech in the vein of Mandela, to show their understanding of the ineffable man who led that country to unforeseen places.  His spirit was summoned so delicately and poignantly, and I made sure to tell the girls that he would be so proud if only he’d been lucky enough to have heard.

Still in a dream-like state, (as much from my three hours of sleep as from the magic of the moment), the conversation pressed on, and I found myself beside myself,  twirling in the South African sunshine, overcome with pride for the conjunction of my worlds in such a cohesive manner.  “I can say that you are such a great coach, and that I remember such a ‘Kayamandi’ moment in my life,”  says Yulia, “I have known black people before, but for some reason I wasn’t open.  This helps me to understand the beauty of these people,” says Tanya, “I could see their eyes, the power in them that you described, they are so beautiful,” says Dasha, “I am so full right now, so thankful to share this world with you, if only you knew,”  says I.  The colors of the rainbow nation sparkled and radiated in the air that we breathed, sighing deeply in the understanding that humanity is so precious, if only we could hold them as such all the time.

Boys of Kayamandi

The boys of Kayamandi

The championship team, the men of Kayamandi

The championship team, the men of Kayamandi

Third time’s a charm, but so is the second and first, and so went our meetings  about the boys of Kayamandi, our exploration into the heart of South Africa. As South Africa is, so is Ukraine, never far from my heart, (especially that part that still rests in the cradled arms of  the narod Ukrayeeny).   With such an easy feeling and the knowledge that Mama Nina still sits there waiting for me at the dinner table, my students still unfold and smooth out their English Bucks wondering how the boy on the front side of the bill is doing, she still wanders loosely through the streets with a cigarette in hand and tragic poetic thoughts dancing in her mind, it is clear to me that although I am here in this new world again, my life with Ukraine has only just begun.

My students with their brand new textbooks showing their true colors

My students with their brand new textbooks showing their true colors

The cleaning ladies of Nemyriv School#1.  We became good buddies at the end.

The cleaning ladies of Nemyriv School#1. We became good buddies at the end.

Sweet sweet Liuda and her family, who put on an amazing farewell dinner for me in true Ukrainian fashion

Sweet sweet Liuda and her family, who put on an amazing farewell dinner for me in true Ukrainian fashion

The great toast, in celebration of my 25th birthday, done in Nemyriv's finest restaurant with only my finest friends.

The great toast, in celebration of my 25th birthday, done in Nemyriv’s finest restaurant with only my finest friends.

My beautiful family (and dear Tanya on my right) on my final evening in Ukraine.  I love them so much.

My beautiful family (and dear Tanya on my right) on my final evening in Ukraine. I love them so much.

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Embrace the People of Kayamandi

02.03.09

These kids are incredible and I am absolutely blessed for this opportunity

It’s Monday again, and I am sitting at my computer again, searching for the quote that I want to summate today’s practice.  As a student in the Service Learning and Community Development course I am enrolled in here at Stellenbosch University, it is my job to compliment classroom learning (social theory pertaining specifically to community development) with an on-site experience.  Blessed being the key word of my life right now, of all the opportunities available I was chosen to work with the Kayamandi Basketball Team.

Kayamandi is a community resting just outside of Stellenbosch, across a bridge that connects quite literally a world of change.  Forget your wineries, forget beautiful Afrikaans women, forget decadence and materialism, forget plumbing and definitely forget infrastructure.  Forget your preconceptions about native Africans, forget your notions of what a ghetto really is, forget everything you know and look at this community exactly as you see it.  In desperation, in need of serious help, its people seemingly shattered, beat down, losing the good fight, the bad fight.  Yet embrace that fear of doing without, embrace the idea that you can forget all those things and still be happy.  Embrace the people of Kayamandi, that is where its heart lies.  In the eyes of the youth, the future rests; in their hands, a basketball.

As head coach for the Kayamandi Basketball Team (simple, but they all like the name) it is my job to be a leader of the team, to encourage each and every one of the players to give it their best everyday at practice. Today I roll up to practice as always, in a pure white vehicle from the university, emerging with five other white people.  They are all volunteers, part of the International Student Organization of Stellenbosch, who have expressed a distinct interest in the youth of basketball.

Mylene, from France, is the veteran of the coaches, as she worked with the players last semester as well.  She has this way of handling issues with vigor and tenacity, very knowledgeable about the game, and surprisingly tough.  Raissa, from the Netherlands, is about 5’11” and has broader shoulders than I do.  She plays basketball for the Maties team at Stellenbosch, so her skill is real and tangible as a coach.  Siobhan, is American, but her family has very thick Irish roots, and her boisterousness is evident at practice.  She has less obvious talent and knowledge as a player, but her enthusiasm and rapport with the players is awesome.  Dave, also from America, came to Stellenbosch as a junior in college, and is now back for his Master’s degree.  Aggressive in a fun but forceful way with the players, he is a laidback guy off the court.  He is married, 22, that still freaks me out for some reason.  And finally Nik, Russian-born, German-bred, a definite personality on and off the court, an amiable and carefree guy (perhaps because he is a huge pothead).

As per usual, we are immediately attacked by the trail of tiny black children who followed our car up the alleyway.  I still remember the first time I saw them.  Hair frazzled in variations of afros and braids, cute pastel shorts that complement their Miley Cyrus and WWF shirts so well.  Yeah, it shocked me too.  They smile with the brilliance of 17 suns (one for each child), and laughter rings out, the only universal language spoken.  Many of the children are without education yet, and all they speak is their native tongue, isiXhosa. It is a tribal language, one of 11 in South Africa, featuring clicks and guttural speech.

Yet you really don’t need to understand what they are saying at all, because it is all in their eyes.   Deeper no abyss goes as you look into their dark, dark, dark brown eyes.  You see where innocence remains and you want it for yourself, but can’t take it away.  “Come play with me”, “Walk with me” “Laugh with me”  “Throw me through the air and catch me”  “Pass the ball to me”  “Share your life with me”.  Each set of eyes says the same thing, but something completely different.  Moments like these is why we live to see.

 

One of the newer players, I am still having trouble with his name, came into practice today with 4 young girls and three young boys, all around 12-15 years of age, a big difference from the 16-20 year olds on the team. “Hey man.  Are these friends, family, players?” I ask him as hopeful as possible.  “Yeah coach, they are kids that I work with and I told them about the practices we are having.  I thought it would be a great idea to bring them along to see if they enjoyed playing. I think it would be great for them and for the team.”  He had brought them there because he felt the need to begin establishing a foundation for a younger Kayamandi basketball team.   My job as a coach was brimming with optimism already.

This young man did not even realize it is my duty, and a goal of the team’s, to recruit young players in hopes of establishing a future for the Kayamandi Basketball Team. Many of the players have graduated high school and their schedules are becoming too crowded to make a long-term commitment to the team, thus it is critical for the continuity of the program to develop skills and dedication in younger players. The fact that this young man, whom I had once perceived as having a bad attitude, took this initiative upon himself really gave me hope for the future of this team and this organization. I knew at that moment that the task of recruiting a new generation of basketball-ers was underway. I embraced this new opportunity, doing my best to make the new players feel comfortable and at home.

As soon as practice began, the guys on the team helped the younger guys lead the stretches, cheering them on all the way. It was an awesome feeling to see the present and the future of the organization working together in a cohesive group. Next, the volunteer coaches really stepped up and worked with the younger kids on one side of the court while I worked with the older guys. At the end of the practice we ended with a head-to-head competition, a shooting competition. As soon as the competition began, the older guys began missing very simple shots. At first I was disappointed and got on their case, until I realized that they were doing it on purpose. Every time they missed a shot, the guys would clap, and every time they made it they would “Boo”. They were allowing the younger players to win the competition, and absolutely loving it all the way. I had never seen them come together so well, and enjoy themselves to such a genuine extent since the beginning of my coaching.

I was so happy that I just sat back and observed, taking in the moment, appreciating the natural way in which the guys actions symbolized an acceptance and welcoming of the new kids into our group.

I thought to myself, life is beautiful, and your job as coach is what you are doing right now.  I cannot express how that pride has filled in me, and how hopeful I am for the future of this team.  I am so anxious to see what they will accomplish, how far I can watch them succeed.  Blessed.

 

The funny thing about alarms is that on the days most important to set them, the days that it is oh-so-critical to be on time, are the days that you accidentally “no honestly, it was a human mistake” set the clock to 8:08 PM instead of 8:08 AM.  The day of the Kayamandi Klassic Basketball Tournament.  It is my one tangible measure of success as a coach of the Kayamandi High School Basketball Team. Surely there will be other ways to understand the impact I had on these boys, and the consequent impact they had on me, but this is the first chance I will have to really coach them in a live situation, to understand how Team Africa (baby blue) plays against Team Africa (navy blue), not how they play against Team World.

As my alarm won’t go off until 8:08 PM, I am conveniently awakened by the pounding of the rain outside my window.  Great, the one day we want to play basketball on the outside court, nevermind it being the biggest day of the basketball year in Kayamandi, the rainy season has decided to shed its overcast light on the streets of Stellenbosch, and surely the nearby streets of Kayamandi as well.

I text Mike about how sorry I was for being late.  Texting can either be super convenient, super romantic, or super cowardly, not really anywhere in between.  This time its super cowardly.  He says to swing by anyways, and by this point I already have my high tops laced up and I am running out the South African door.

We are in Kayamandi now, Mike told us we had to do something with the fresh fruit that we bought for the tournament today.  The rain will not cease and desist, only comes harder.  It really is a shame too, the guys were pumped about today.  I could see it on their faces when we watched Space Jam just the other day.  I had spent all day calling throughout Stellenbosch, all the movie rental places in town, asking them what basketball movies they had.  “Basketball movies?  We have Remember the Titans.”  “No no, that’s football, I need basketball movies”.  “Oh, of course.  We have Like Mike”.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

I ended up going onto DC, the underground system at Metanoia, and by the grace of God, someone had downloaded Space Jam.  I secured it, as well as Rocky, unsure if they would be up for Space Jam.  But surely enough, amidst the 10 large pizzas from Roman’s (for less than R500, a steal), and after witnessing highlights of ESPN’s “Top 50 Dunks of 2008”, they welcome Space Jam with arms wide open.  There is no possible way these boys from an African township have the sentimental or pop-culture understanding to appreciate the movie the way I do, but they appreciate it in another way.  Lesotho, (he is one of the more soft-spoken characters, everyone laughs when I say his name.  Not really sure why) started cracking up at some comment Larry Johnson made about someone’s momma.  It is the most animated I have ever seen him, and it caused the whole room to erupt.  The energy in the room was overwhelming, and I had no idea they were ready for today.  I burned them all copies of Space Jam, the soundtrack, just to make sure they were extra psyched for the big day.

Sox faces up against one of the stronger looking Africans I have yet to see in person, and the game begins.  Only an hour ago, we were about to leave Kayamandi, having dropped off the fruit with Mafa, Prince’s younger brother, he has a great amount of talent for fourteen, I am excited to see where it takes him.  A van, filled with about ten Africans in sweatshirts and rain-jackets, pulls up behind our car, and that strong looking African emerges.

These are the boys from the township of Mbqweni (Buh-kway-knee), otherwise known to the boys of Kayamandi as the fearless men of Desmond Tutu High.  Their leader approaches me and tells me that they never got the message about the tournament being cancelled.  Seeing the disappointment growing in his eyes, I realize that these guys have driven quite a ways to play basketball, and to turn them away now would be to go against the spirit of not only Africa, trudging through rain or shine, but the spirit of competition.  “Rally the men!  We are playing ball!”  Nik flanked to the left with Siobhan to go back to Stellenbosch and get the jerseys, Raissa staged right to keep the young African children busy, Mylene and Dave tag team the phones in hopes of contacting Wilson to find the key to open the gate to get inside, and I charge down the middle sending the rest of my men to grab the other players from around Kayamandi.  The battle has begun.

So this African man.  Number 10.  He is a menace and a threat to my ego as a coach, and to any chance of my boys coming out on top.  Therefore he must be eliminated.  The battle plan is to prevent him from ever getting the ball and if he does, to not let him do anything with it, and if he does just makes sure it doesn’t go towards the basket, and if it does…well damn.

This guy is good, I’m talking single handedly operating the game as he wishes.  Strength, agility, form, he embodies them all in respects to a true specimen of a basketball player.  His passers are crisper, shots smoother, movement grander, than the rest of the team combined.  There is no way to stop his greatness, just inhibit it as much as possible.  We are playing a four man zone defense, with one man guarding number 10 at all times.  Sox was not up for the job, so the far shorter Lesotho has been given the task, and he is doing wonderfully.

Halftime.  I get to do my coach thing. “Alright fellas…”  “Coach! What we tell you about that?”  Prince speaks up, the most dynamic personality on the team.  I look baffled, and he responds accordingly.  “You can’t call us ‘fellas’.  Its not a good word to use to us”.  Thinking I understand I continue.  “Alright fella… excuse me, men, first of all I am so proud of you guys.  I know this isn’t what we expected for today, but you are doing great out there.  Lesotho (giggles scatter) awesome job guarding number 10.  I know he is still scoring a lot, but you are stopping him from taking over the game, so well done.  Sox, slow down, relax and take your time with the ball.  Let’s really try and run the offense we have been working on.  Siya, great hustle off the bench, we need that energy the rest of the way.  Again, take your time, all of you, relax, enjoy yourselves out there.  You all are facing a tough opponent and you are sticking with them.  Whatever happens, it makes me so excited to see you guys play.  I really feel like your coach now.  Thank you for being my players…Alright enough emotion, let’s kick some Tutu butt!  Victory on three.”  1,2,3…Victory!

My warriors trudge off the field, haggard, worn.  “We were so close guys, and for that I am so proud of you guys.  You faced a stronger and more mentally prepared team, and you fought with them tooth and nail.  I know its tough to lose after being so close, but now you can at least smell victory, so you can put that forward to the real tournament.  The one that truly counts.” It came down to the buzzer too, we had a chance, and they couldn’t execute the inbounds play, number 10’s press was too hard.  I was frustrated but hold it back to be strong for my men, my pride for them is far greater than that for myself.  I see appreciation for these words resting underneath their defeated faces, and so I take their disappointment and throw it to the wolves.  “You know what guys, who ever made the rule that only the winning team gets to celebrate?  You guys are the only winners I see out here today.  Let’s head to Roman’s! Pizza on the coaches!”

Fifteen African boys and several white people, all here to celebrate their loss in statistics, victory in spirit, fill all of the seating at Roman’s Pizza.  African boys around pizza is similar to watching a magic trick.  Now you see it, now you don’t.  The pizza was gone in minutes.  I set aside my hunger, realizing how much more they need it, how much more they deserve it.  I just stood there in my Banana Republic tie, khaki cords and high tops, as they ran across all points of the court in their baby blue, head bands, and high tops.

Prince is doing his thing, which involves a lot of talking and nonsense.  The guys love it though.  “Speech, speech, speech!” they all chant directed at the MC himself.  Not normally the bashful one, Prince refuses, pointing the speech chant in my direction, and at the behest of the group, I emerge from my chair, empty orange soda bottle in hand, my mic for the moment.  “Wow guys.  I’m not really used to talking for long periods of time, I get kind of nervous…”  Laughter at my obvious self-deprecation follows, I am rather known for my diatribes that come as often as I have inspiration.  This moment is certainly one of those moments.  “You know watching you guys out there made me proud, but I feel like my warriors need battle names, for your personalities are different on the court.  First off, Prince, since you so kindly handed the mic, I will provide your nickname.  You have this way of prancing across the court, always making sure you aren’t sweating too much, just glistening, tucking in your shirt just oh-so-right.  You aren’t a Prince, you’re a princess!”  Prince says “Aah, Coach” only in the way he can, and the boys laugh, primary amongst those Sox.  “Sox, you have no reason to be laughing.  At least Prince knows how to dribble the ball.  I thought you were dating the basketball as much as you were carrying it.  For that reason I deem you Travels”.  A roar emits from the room, and Sox is smiling bigger than ever.  “But seriously guys, I was so proud of you out there.  Watching you from that sideline, I swelled with excitement, and the reward of seeing my boys turning into men on the court.  I am so blessed to be a part of your team, and I thank you all for having me as your coach.”  Applause and a chant “Coach. Coach. Coach.” fills the room as I take my seat.  The strength I felt in that moment, not only as a coach, but as a person, is indescribable.  We took a picture shortly after, I hope it comes through in my smile.

The funny thing about alarms is that on the days most important to set them, the days that it is oh-so-critical to be on time, are the days that you accidentally “no honestly, it was a human mistake” set the clock to 8:08 PM instead of 8:08 AM.  Thunder never strikes the same place twice, and today is not such a day.  Mind you, the importance is ever-so-great, as great as the previous Kayamandi Klassic Tournament, for today is the same day, just two weeks postponed.  Except it is not the same day at all.  I wake up at 8:08 AM for my alarm is set at that time.  I need not concern myself with raincoats (I don’t have one anyways) or rolling up my khakis to avoid the splashing of water on the cuffs (found out that’s why the kids in high school said my pants were flooding, because you roll them up when its flooding. I always thought it was contradictory, because if my pants were flooding they would be too long, right?).  No, I lace up my Nikes and tighten up my tie, smiling as the South African sun pours through my South African window.  Today is the day for South African basketball.

Yesterday I spent in bouts of sadness, happiness, without Esté, with Esté.  The sadness occurred when I found out I couldn’t go to the ballet that Esté had asked me to on that shining Sunday afternoon, with two bikes.  “A-dihm, I am soooo sorry,” and she was.  Her friend didn’t reserve enough tickets and there wasn’t enough room at her friend’s mothers place, for the Afrikaans girls were staying the night in Cape Town.  Key word being Afrikaans girls, I had a sneaking suspicion it would just have been taboo to bring along an American boy, have him spend the night with Afrikaans girls in any capacity.  Of course I don’t say this to Esté, but I am not afraid to express slight disappointment.  “I was so excited too, I would love to be on the town with you,” and I would.  “I know, Cape Town is so lovely, it is one of my favorite places to be and I would certainly love to be there with you too.  I really am very upset, but there is nothing I can do at this point.”  After vain suggestions of buying my own ticket, sleeping on the floor, or outside in a tent, anything just to be with her, I realize it would be so difficult to be back in time for this day, this big big day.

I walk onto the court, looking around at the God-given beauty of a background for today’s action.  The grandiosity of the majesty cannot be accurately described, for the jagged peaks that thrust forth from the depths of the wine lands defies definition.  The definition that it defies provides the same in the contrast of natural beauty to rugged reality.  As African children scatter themselves across the court, you see others in the unkempt grass next to the court, littered with brokenness and more.  Still others peer in through the chain link fence that separates the wanted spectators from those unwelcomed.  Others still wander on the rolling Kayamandi streets, into their homes hidden in shame behind wooden fences.  Homes that are composed, on a good day, of cardboard roofing, corrugated and corroded tin in once cohesive sheets, all packed tightly together in sad solidarity.

More are removed as they walk the bridge that connects Stellenbosch to Kayamandi, a moving representation of the bridge that when you cross it you become somebody, and on the other one of the others.  You move, in a matter of moments from stark starvation to superficial satiety, from winding winelands to wandering wastelands.   But with every loss is a gain and with every gain a loss.  If coming into Kayamandi across that bridge means losing wealth, your shoes, your opportunity, let it be so.  Because when you lose all these things, you gain the spirit of the people of Kayamandi, a fascinating strong and incredibly well-preserved sense of unity, family and love that is found where you are afraid to look.

The foreground is simpler, but just as meaningful.  It is a testament of the hard work and persistent effort of the players, the coaches and myself just a sunset ago.  Brooms swept hard across the blacktop on both sides of the court.  Only one side has basketball goals, still not sure what the other side is for.  Nevertheless, we went to work.  Siyabonga, Monde, Prince and a few of the younger guys were the only players who showed up, but their work ethic made up for the other absences.  To watch these African boy-men at work, MP3’s clipped to their pants pocket, earphones resting gently underneath their baby blue headbands, is to witness a microcosm of the subtle differences, in my opinion, of the American vs. African culture.  The way they push a broom and carry their posture so proud is natural to them, but to me it is a sign of their upbringing, the lives they have led and will continue to lead.  The court is left shining in a matter of an hour and a half (the shine is a matter of perception, but I can see the reflection of champions in it) and it remains so today.

Back when the team was down and out, frustrated and discouraged, I sent them a text message that said “Hey guys. Missed seeing you on the court this week.  Know that I will be at practice today ready to play.  But also know that this is your team and it is what you make it.  If you want to succeed, I expect to see you at practice today as well, ready to play.”  That day the entirety of the team showed up and we had an incredible conversation about the future of the team, what they wanted (out of themselves and me)  and set the tone for the rest of the season.  I sent out a similar text this morning.

“Where the hell are Ayanda,Prince and Sox?”  Apparently no one heard me so I repeated it with greater tenacity and force.  You have to turn the volume up for a moment at times just to make sure you can hear as clearly as everyone else the words in the air.  “I don’t know coach, I saw Sox this morning with Prince, but Ayanda lives near the High School, I don’t know about him.”  I receive variations of this answer and look at the sun in the sky.  “It is 11 o’clock, time to begin and all the teams are here except for ours,” brief moments of disappointment and frustration relieve themselves now instead of later, “and we even have the home court!”  I send Mbuphulele, Siya’s younger brother, to go find the other players and in the meantime attend to my other coach-ly duties.

I don’t really need a megaphone. “Hello everyone, and thank you for coming out on this beautiful day to be a part of this beautiful gathering of basketball players from around the Western Cape.  In other words, I am happy to see you all and have your colors and teams represented in the Kayamandi Klassic Basketball Tournament.”  The kids on the unkempt grass cheer the loudest.  “Each team will play every other team once, guaranteeing three games for each team.  After all the teams have played one another, the two teams with the best record will face off against one another in the championship, and the winner crowned champions.”  I imagine the teams licking their dark brown lips, tasting the victory that is imminent, but they all tease themselves except for one.  “Thank you all again for being a part of this day, play hard and play strong, but most importantly have an incredible time and cheer your teammates on!”

I give a quick sideways look to Ayanda, Prince and Sox, but Prince’s charisma turns it into a smile.  “Ay, coach, you look shaahhp today,” says Prince as he tugs on my tie.  I swallow a little bit of my pride. “It’s 11:15.  I’m glad you are here, you look pretty good yourself.”  And he does.  They all do.  I stand back for just a moment and soak in the glory that will surely reveal itself when I least expect it.  I admire the simple regality of the Kayamandi Outdoor Stadium (or so I have deemed it called.  In the email to the teams I just said “the basketball court underneath the bridge”.  This sounds a bit more proud).

The Kayamandi Outdoor Stadium is the battleground of four teams from around the greater Stellenbosch area. The beauty, the weathered look of Xhosa boy-men as they handle this round ball, passing it back from one to another, exchanging smiles, withholding pride, is a look that I have never seen from someone with a basketball. The nets hang from the baskets with masking tape, the tables and chairs sit between concrete and unkempt African grass. The white board used for a scoreboard seems so strange sitting there, the Xhosa children gathered round it, fighting over the marker to keep the score of their elder athletes. Teams wear their colors proudly, rest against their dark skin the boldness was more pronounced, the strength apparent in their bodies. My team wears baby-blue, and they wear it with the ferocity and pride that the Tarheels did those years ago when a young Michael Jordan crossed the court.   Prince looks the closest thing to MJ, the rest too dark, too native, too unique to be compared to a basketball player from America.  No, they look stronger, more ready in their relaxed intensity.  Their shorts hang loosely just at their waists, sagging is a misconceived trait of the street.  These guys are tougher.

Prince is bald-headed, Wonga undulating waves of Afro close to his head, Siya with baby-blue headband to match, Mana with tightly woven dreads that fall inches to the foot around his head, Lesotho the same dreads but they stick straight up, shorter more firm.  The diversity of their personalities is held on their heads, but their solidarity on their feet. They all have their Nikes laced up tight, their prized pair they got on a grand donation last season.  Their eyes hold a fierceness, yet a relaxed and friendly quality all at the same time. They are all here to compete, but most of all to enjoy their brotherhood, their bond. The competition begins.

My clipboard in hand, more a symbol of status and decoration than anything, I approach my guys with the first words of the day.  “You guys look great, you look proud.  And I am proud of you.  I am just so excited to see you all play, to put into play what we have worked so hard on this year at practice.  Siya, you and Prince, Sox, Wonga, and Ayanda start it out for us strong.”  “Nah coach, I don’t want to start,” Siya says.  “Let me come off the bench”.  When someone is amazing they continue to amaze you.  “Alright then, Lesotho, we need your ball-handling out there, can you handle the offense?”  Light laughter crosses the huddle, “Yeah sure coach, no problem.” “Alright then, Team on 3.  1…2…3… “Team!”  It resounds through the air like the pulse of sound created from a waterfall.  I watch patiently as my men walk onto the court against their toughest opponents of the day, Mbqweni, the team of the Goliath number 10.
We lost.  A poor basketball performance overall, but we are just getting warmed up. Earlier that week we had secured a ghetto-certified, 1980s boom-box, which of course provided the oh-so-needed adrenaline once the teams oranges, bananas and Gatorade ran out in a matter of minutes.   Electricity hard to come by in Kayamandi, we got lucky with our 50 feet extension cord, which we plugged in through a neighboring house (with the help of some Xhosa brothers using their language to work magic) and stretched it as far as we could onto the non-used court and plugged the bad boy in.  Conveniently a tire rested nearby, and one of the many African children grabbed it and brought it to me.  I put two and two together, placed the boom-box on the tire, popped the CD in and let the good times roll.

Now the experience would not have been complete without the proper music, but lucky for me I happened to bring along the Space Jam soundtrack-it was legendary. “Everybody get up, it’s time to jam now…” It’s unbelievable what will happen next “…welcome to the Space Jam”. I attempt awkward solo dances and the players turn the crowd into a perfect circle in a matter of seconds, and it was lights out after that. Player after player hit the middle of the circle, to a chorus of “whoomps” and “ohs” and “aaaaah snaps”. Break dances, pimp dances, Kayamandi dances, American dances, the whole circle is filled with an energy that is hard to describe.  Monde, bless his soul gets the MVB (Most Valuable Booty) for his gyrating rendition during the chorus.  He let his shorts down just a little bit in order to give the innocent bystanders their moneys worth.  I rolled up my chords and realized that I would never look at Monde the same again.

Now R.Kelly has made one legitimately class-act song, and it is on this soundtrack.  “I Believe I Can Fly”, comes on and again, so naturally, I embrace my brothers, and in a matter of moments the entire team has their arms around one another and are swaying back and forth in the spirit of a gospel choir.  Prince is the director, waving his arms back and forth in time to Kelly’s  soul, singing the loudest.  Siya is next to me, he belts it quite strongly as well.  I follow the words of the song with my body, doing the running man when he says “see me running through that open door”, fist clenched tightly as I give thanks to the Lord up above.  Then the guys yell “Coach coach coach,” and push me into the center, for my solo.  Without hesitation I give them everything I got, the years I have waited for a moment like this shows in my passion as I act as their coach, their leader, their friend.  The energy that was indescribable before is overflowing now, gushing from the hearts, the voices of the boys in baby blue around.  Little African eyes watch their older brothers, the boys they want to become in the future.  I pinch myself to understand that I am breathing.  This is not something out of a dream.

It was like something out of a dream. I have been listening to this soundtrack since I was eleven years old. I have danced to “Space Jam” thousands of times in my backyard as a boy mowing yards, in my car driving across San Antonio, TX. I have rehearsed the dance moves so many times in the mirror it truly is not even funny. And now here I am, surrounded by African boys and African men and African girls and African women, breaking it down to my favorite pump up jam of all time. Only in Kayamandi.

The next two games are critical, as they determined if we reach the championship game. So, essentially, to become champions we have to win the next three games. Of course we just take it one game at a time. Game one, won, but barely. Game two, won, healthily. It was that time. Game three.

In between preparing my boys for the championship and preparing myself for this moment, I make the time to call back Esté, she must have just returned from the ballet.  “Hey there, it is such an amazing day, you are still coming, yes?”  “Of course, but how do I get there?”  In the next few minutes I get a hold of Bradley, who said he was coming out to support me, ask him if he can go get Esté and be here in time for the championship.  Bradley hasn’t failed me yet and he will not do so today.

This is no average Kayamandi Klassic, no we are coming full with not only oranges, bananas, Gatorade and an awesome atmosphere provided by the boom-box, no we are going to have a 3-point competition.  “Alright, each team please select their two best three point shooters and send them to half court.  Each player will have one minute to make as many three pointers as possible.  Whoever makes the most, wins their team a new basketball.”  The boys select Sox and Prince to represent them from behind the arc, but as soon as number 10 steps up, the game is over.  He of course wins, my boys put on a sad performance, they are just getting their anxious nerves out before the big game.  I take the opportunity to act all diplomatic and important, posing in a picture with the winner.

            Emotion is scattered across the court like the pieces of a puzzle; separate they mean nothing, but together they form the picture perfect. This 8 piece jigsaw comes together now in the emotion of Kayamandi. They come together in the spirit of Kayamandi. They come together with a mission-not to win, not to lose, but to play the game of basketball the way it is meant to be played. There is a moment in the midst of human interaction when nothing can be said with words. It is the eyes. Each of the players pupils, dark abysses of vigor, strength held in their irises, brows furrowed as if “champion” is something not to attain, just to wait for with arms wide open. My job as their coach was done.

The halftime buzzer (Mylene’s whistle) is called with the waving of Mafa, Prince’s brother, who is in charge of keeping time.  Now as I mentioned this is no ordinary Kayamandi Klassic.  Not more than an hour ago Rebecca arrived with her dance squad in order to perform for the halftime show.  Absolutely, a half time show is very important to making any tournament a success.  See, Rebecca, several months ago was blessed with the opportunity of teaching a group of 12-14 year old girls in Kayamandi how to dance.  Who would’ve thunk it that a white girl from Washington D.C. would be teaching native African girls to dance?  Well its true, and I could think of nothing better to provide the entertainment.  The boom-box doesn’t allow you to skip songs, no you have to listen through until that song.  Well we don’t have time to listen until track 11, so Mike Leslie, the supervisor of the ISOS-Kayamandi Project, comes through big and decides to drive the Stellenbosch University vehicle behind the court as close to the goal as possible and blast track number 11 as loudly as possible.

Fifteen Kayamandi girls in three rows of 5 each dance proudly confidently and with as much soul as possible, to Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul”.   If this is what he was talking about, I need to reevaluate my opinion of the song, for this is truly a moment that combines beauty and soul in such a cohesive way.  This wonderfully pudgy girl in the front row has the most precious energy.  She shakes it back and forth and back again, not thinking about what happens next, only that she is at all times a foot in front of the rest of the dancers, that way she stands out in all her glory.  I call for an encore and they find the beat, and do it all over again.  I am thoroughly impressed and the entire crowd gives it up for the Kayamandi girls.  I turn around and smile at Rebecca, give her a big hug and say thank you so much for doing this, they were wonderful.

Then I turn to the other side, the side I wanted to be on and smile at Esté so carefully so gently.  She smiles back as she stands strangely unfamiliar next to Lisa and McKenzie, who stand next to Bradley.  Bradley wears this wonderful little cap on his head and is smiling just as big, quite taken with the whole scene.  If Bradley wasn’t taken with something I feel I wouldn’t be able to tell, for he always is cheerful and just as jovial as the moment before. I know that Esté is quite out of her element, this is a big step, coming out with American girls on your own to watch this new American boy as he shows you all about himself, what helps him to breathe. All I want is to hold her in my arms for more than a moment.  But here is not the place, now is not the time, I have a championship to win.

I have played basketball my entire life. But this day was perhaps the first day I truly watched basketball. The Kayamandi players have participated in tossing a ball through a hoop for several months now, but never have they played basketball. Nor had they on this day until now. No scattered interaction, no flailing of bodies back and forth across the court, no lacking of experience was evidenced by the players on the court. The harmony of hands, the strength of the arms that passed this ball, were one. The communication was silent but so loud between the individuals, now one.

One minute. So much can happen in sixty seconds. I call a timeout.  “Look at you all.  I am proud to look at you and call you my team.  Rather to say that I am a part of your team.  It has been a blessing to be your coach, and all of the hard work is paying off right now.  You guys look beautiful out there.  You are playing basketball.  You are working together.  Most importantly you are having fun.  Go out there, give it all you got, and smile, because today, win or lose, you are champions in my eyes.  Champions on 3, 1…2…3 ‘Champions’!”

The emotions again scatter for all those playing, all those watching. Yet for those waiting, knowing the moment is but seconds away, the picture remains clear. I am one of the scattered, running up and down the sideline as if I were a reserve, waiting for my chance to fight alongside my men. The air brims with excitement. The game is all tied up. Basket good, Kayamandi is up by two with thirty seconds to go. Rarely  do my feet touch the earth as I bounce like a rabbit for the last half minute.

Mbqweni marched down, and it appears to be the march of a champion. They get a chance for a three. I close my eyes and hear the clanking of rim. Number 10 gets another chance from behind the arc,  I close my eyes again.  Oh God, they still have the ball. The last 10 seconds is lasting a lifetime, as the final battle takes place around the rim for the ball. All I can do is watch. Each man leaps with all the energy left in his body for that rebound, as if the ball contained an elusive remedy. The ball, gravity appearing to have chosen a side, would not go in the hoop, and the baby blue jersey comes down with the ball. 3…2…1…

The ball rises into the air as the whistle blew and a sea of Kayamandians charged the court fists pumped in the air, I number amongst them. One would have thought we were world champions by the looks on their faces. I certainly feel like one. The emotion that followed is no longer scattered, but focused in grand shouts of euphoria and arms waiving in invincibility, high fives are thrown in such intensity they become high tens.

He barely has room to move.  “I would like to award the championship trophy of the 2009 Kayamandi Klassic to the Kayamandi High School basketball team.  Congratulations to all the players for their hard work and congratulations to Kayamandi for their victory!”  A trophy (one that I had engraved for the tournament that was supposed to be two weeks ago, so the date says April 22, 2009) is held in Mike’s hands.  It is less of a handoff than a returning of what was seemingly rightfully theirs to begin with and the meager 12 inch trophy is held so high as if to say “this is bigger than anything than you have earned”.

And in a way it is. This is a moment that truly had been earned, with all the energies and emotions fit for only a champion to have.  The boys of Mbqweni had the skill, the talent, the know-how to be champions and they probably should have been.  But the men of Kayamandi had the heart, the perseverance, the wherewithal and they did win, and in such poignant fashion   I embrace as many as I can and we smile for the camera. Kayamandi children of all shapes and sizes are present for the photo, and it takes some effort to have a frame filled with only baby blue jerseys and a white face with a whiter smile, bigger than I have felt in a long time.

Remember that indescribable energy I mentioned earlier, the one that was overflowing?  Well it doesn’t take much more now than a quick glance to my immediate left and right (African smiles are bigger than yours, more heartfelt than yours just by their nature) and right behind me (Afrikaans smiles, nestled between sinuous strands of brown hair and just below discovering eyes, are bigger to me than yours, more heartfelt to me than yours just by her nature) to realize that energy is about to flood over me in a newer and more profound way than even now, the celebration has only just begun.

 

I channel the same spirit from the speech a few weeks ago at Roman’s, except bigger, grander, more pronounced and with more inspiration. “Today, I saw something beautiful.  I did not see 5 players out on the court in baby blue, no I saw one.  You guys played together, moved together, and so won  together.  I don’t know what more to say but that I am blessed to be your coach, to share in this experience with you, thank you so much for having me and giving me so much to be proud of.  This day is for Kayamandi, this day is for you.  To Champions!”  Bottles of Windhoek, Heineken, Foundry’s, Savanna are raised high in the air and a resounding “Champions” fills the air outside on the patio of Brazenhead.  Bottles clink and white smiles are more pronounced against their darkened weathered skin, they have fought a battle today and they fought hard.  I find nothing wrong, on the contrary everything right, with them celebrating as hard as they fought today.  Asking only the question “What will it be?”  I rallied my cash together and a round for the entire team.  The round I bought is the round they drink right now, christened with the clinking of “champions”.

Somebody starts it, it may have been me but who cares, we all join.  “We are the champions my friends, and we’ll keep on fighting til the end, we are the champions, we are the champions, no time for losers cuz we are the champions of the world…  I can hear Freddy Mercury’s voice trailing in that angelic tenor, Brian Mays guitar strumming power chords in the background of my soul’s soundtrack, but in the foreground the voices of the men of Kayamandi, as ever present and bold as when we sang the uplifting anthem by R.Kelly not more than a few hours ago.  I should have developed a sore by now from all the times I have pinched myself, only doing what Blessing forces me to do, its all her fault.  Showering me with the gifts of family, of friends, of lovers, who shower me with gifts of love, of fellowship, of community.

It’s only ever so often that I have the opportunity to get to know my players when they aren’t players, just people.  “Thanks for the drink coach, now get me another one,” Prince speaks loudly and most often of the group.  Sox says something in isiXhosa to him and smiles real big, he speaks the most often in his native tongue.  It’s not that he is incapable in English, far from it actually, he is one of the oldest players on the team.  Whenever I speak to him at practice, he just smiles real big and nods, the other players throw jabs his way in isiXhosa.  “Why don’t you get your boyfriend to buy you another one, he’s been hanging all over you all night,” I say back to him, referencing the way Sox gets buddy buddy with Prince more often than not.  “Yeah right coach, we were just looking at all of my women.”  Wonga grins, his large brown lips part and his silence suits his speech, he always acts the strong silent type, but congenial and in a way that makes you feel comfortable around him. Esethu gathers behind Prince to see the pictures.

Yeah, his name is Esethu (Eh-say-two), not Lesotho (Leh-sooh-two ).  I didn’t find this out until the tournament today when I said “Hey Lesotho, come over here for the picture!”  He did, we took the picture, and shortly after amidst the glorious euphony set against the equally marvelous cacophony, Dave came over to me.  “You know his name is Esethu, right?”  I suddenly realize why the entire team laughed evertime I said his name, including him in a begrudging sort of way.  “Why didn’t you ever tell me?  I feel ridiculous!”  He laughs, telling me with his laugh that he was a part of the schtick all along, so his words are redundant.  “I thought it was funny, all the guys said not to say anything, I figured today was a good day.”   I marched immediately over to Esethu and said “Hey!  Esethu!”  “Yeah, coach” He responds just as naturally as when I called him by the other name.  “No, Esethu!”  He smiles real big, knowing the gig is up.  “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”  I throw a friendly jab to his shoulder.  He laughs more than he normally does, he is a more focused type of guy, keeping his cool.  “Ha ha, its okay coach.  It didn’t bother me, I thought it was funny, don’t worry.”  The moment is gone in the movings of the champions and I remember this day also as the day I met Esethu for the first time.

In the company of brothers you never feel lost.  “Something about her man, I don’t know what it is, but its crazy and its awesome.”    I speak now to Siya, who sits right next to me while Monde goes and hits on an American girl at the other table.  He looks good too, his thin faint mustache compliments his skinny and boyish frame quite well, but his black collared shirt and cropped black fedora, shorter than normal but perfect for him, make him look like just enough of a man to be pulling the moves he is pulling.

Yes, Siya is an amazing listener, or maybe I’m an amazing talker, or maybe he just doesn’t know what to say.  He gathers my words, processing what they mean and how special I feel on this day, how proud I am.  I tell him so.  “I was really proud of you out there today, you were strong, and you stepped up for your time.  Your momma would be proud, I’m sorry she wasn’t there.”  He ponders some more and replies so heartily, so kindly in the way only he does, “No man, it’s alright.  I had fun today.  Thank you, coach, you did good too.”  The rest can call me coach, but I want him to call me Adam, but I don’t say so now, perhaps I will bring it up later.

I walk the streets of Kayamandi, never before have I done so at dark, but I am following my brothers.  “Where are we going?”  I just saw the guys stop and talk to some fellow Kayamandians.  “Don’t worry coach, just follow me,” Prince says.  Oh goodness, not sure I want to follow Prince.  But worry is truly the last thing on my mind right now.

See, just a moment ago I was slightly buzzed from my several SoCo and Limes at Brazenhead, when we decided to get and go, it was passing midnight and the coaches were feeling guilty for getting the players slightly drunk.  All except for Nick, the German pothead.  “Hey, you cool with this, sharing it with the guys,” he holds out a joint as big and round as his index finger and I just laugh.  “You do this stuff plenty, if you trust this situation then I trust you.  I am just a kid right now, not a coach.  Let’s just enjoy ourselves.”  We find a prime location in the garden-like area behind the Drama Department and the guys gather around.  The way they gather, coolly, nonchalantly with just slight gaps between one another as they form an odd shaped semi-circle, tells me that this isn’t the first time they have done this, my naiveté is removed and life carries on.

So Nick peaced-out, but I decided I had nothing better to do than be with my players, enjoy this night (now a new day) to the fullest I could and so I stayed.  I also wanted to catch Ayanda’s performance tomorrow, he was helping the local high school Drama program put on a performance for Mother’s Day.  What practicality of me that is left at this point (I’m really only slightly buzzed on two different levels, much less so than many of the others, especially Monde) realizes that I cannot walk back to Stellenbosch by myself late at night.  “Its okay, you can stay with me at my place,” Siya answers my call for help, and we carry on with our march into the night, the night of champions; the night which came after the day of champions; which all occurs within the life of champions.

Surrounded by the scattered sounds of Kwaito (some consider it South Africa’s version of hip-hop, loose loops of African beats pressed against tight verses spit in isiXhosa and English) I step into the circle of screaming Xhosa men, boys, women, girls, as they stomp to the beat and make their challenges.  “Come on coach, let’s see what you got.”  It’s funny being called coach by Nati, one of the guys who comes to practice every so often but doesn’t really play with the team, maybe because he is like 24, maybe because he has a kid, maybe.

Suddenly I realize that I literally am in the middle of the dance circle.  I am in the middle of the dance circle in the middle of a Kayamandi street.  I am in the middle of the dance circle in the middle of a Kayamandi street in the middle of the Western Cape, in the heart of South Africa, or so it must feel to all those here because the pulse is deafening, the energy magnetic, the soul unfounded and unprecedented.  “Oh yeah Nati, you wanna see my moves?  I don’t know if you are ready for them.”  All I have is my confidence, as Siya, Prince, Monde and a few random African faces look at this white boy who stands amongst them, above them, trying to humble him.  I won’t have it.  My signature move is the running man and so I do a little bit of that to the less than familiar beat, throw myself into some move only found in an Usher or Justin Timberlake video, stand still and then kick that dirt off my shoulder.  I step out of the circle to the applause and laughter (with me not at me) of Nati and the onlookers, one in particular is taken with me.  “What is your name?” she speaks with confidence, she is on her home turf, why shouldn’t she be?

A beer or two later I ditch the confident speaker and find Siya, I am so alive but weary on my feet.  I say goodbye to the guys that I can find, they grin and say “See you coach, thanks for being with us, nice moves.”  I thank them all for their efforts, their loves, their spirits (especially Monde, he has the biggest grin of all, I can’t resist giving him some extra love).  See, in Kayamandi, when you part the non-verbal words involve a brother’s hand slap, but instead of going in for the bro-hug, you pull back with your hands, and rub the index fingers across one another as quick and as firm as possible, beginning the formation of a snap while in their hand, so when you release, the sound is made.  It’s hard to describe, easier to do, once you’re an African brother of course.  Really don’t know what that means, just know that if I wasn’t one before, I surely am now.  Simply because I was the white boy who danced the dance at a true, genuine African block party.

            The South African sun shines through the Kayamandi window and I breathe the air of Siyabonga Mbobo’s humble home.  He allowed me his bed, soft but firm, like Siya’s heart, swelling to me, natural to him when he told that he would sleep in the chair in the other room.  To him it was nothing, it was a part of what he does in his everyday life, what he has been taught-to give to others the love and comfort that you yourself would desire, and give it with twofold heart.  To me it was everything, it was a part of what I learn in my everyday life, what I have been receiving as the surplus of love that has spread itself across my life and thus my purpose-to take what I receive and give it to others with the love and comfort I myself received, place it in my hand, open it up in the wind and let the earth spread it across itself.

I open my eyes and smile as I look at my tie resting akimbo on the table next to me, my Nike high top sneakers do the same on the floor.  I slept in the same white collared shirt and brown corduroys that I wore cheering my team on yesterday.  I want to feel like a champion as long as possible.  Actually, I just never went home after the game, just straight to dinner with Esté, then to Esté’s room, then to Brazenhead, then to the park behind the Drama Department, then to the South African block party, then to Siya’s house, where I lie now.  As my feet touch the cool concrete floor, I realize that Siya is nowhere to be found, and my heart worries a little bit, but not too much.  I take in the atmosphere in Siya’s home, old basketball pictures on the shelf, his one good tie and Michael Jordan hat thrown in a corner next to a bag of chips.  The bed I slept on, the chair he slept on and a stool are the only furniture in the home, its simplicity represents the needs of the Kayamandi people quite well-they don’t need much, just a place to lay their heads and a roof over that and they can wake up with the South African sun shining through the Kayamandi window as I just did and smile just the way I did.  They are thankful, I am thankful.

A pastime of old, I just never imagined that I would be watching Spongebob Squarepants on a 15” TV on the edge of a bed in a 100 square foot room in the middle of a South African township. I now rest in Siyabonga’s family’s home, even humbler than his own, and meant for more people.  After I wandered around for a bit earlier today looking for him, Siya came back, smiled and said good morning and let’s go.  We then headed to our present location, closer to the bridge that connects Kayamandi and Stellenbosch, nestled off the main road.  The homes in Kayamandi are laid out with no specific design or purpose, except to be a gathering space for families to tuck in their loved ones at night.  The aerial view would similarly show a sprawled out town, fidgeting to become comfortable amongst rising elevation in the foundation it rests upon.  Siya’s house is tucked in behind several other houses, not along a street corner like every other house one might see in a typical neighborhood.  No, rather than take the sidewalk you roll up your jeans and take the mudwalk, through dirt and trash infested earth to the doorstep of the Kayamandi home.

A mat before the door says “Welcome” and I say “I feel already so”, not out loud but to myself.  Siya opens the door and says “Mola”, which is isiXhosa for “Hello.” Mbuphulele (Boo-poo-lay-lay) smiles wide at seeing me, and his mother and one of his sisters stand up to greet Siya’s American brother.  Siya has another sister and another brother.  His brother Thembalani, is about 17 to Mbuphulele’s 13 and Siya’s 20, and used to practice with the team.  He wore this funny little cap that never fit his head right, and the bill stuck up at a non-180 degree angle.  “I know, its how its supposed to be” he said when I asked him about it, smiling softly.  Since then he has stopped showing up, Siya said that he has gotten into trouble with his friends, something that Siya has warned him against, but that he must learn for himself.  I was sad to see him go, he had potential.  Siya’s other sister is pregnant with Siya’s first nephew.  Siya was very upset the other day however because he thought that his sister had had a miscarriage, its what the doctors told her and he was devastated.  This was two days before the tournament.  But he showed up bright eyed and bushy tailed yesterday and told me “They made a mistake!  She is fine and the baby is fine!  Oh such good news!”  Expression of this sort is rarely seen from Kayamandi men, but he lets out his joy in bursts of appreciation for the gift that God blessed his family with that day, with his team that afternoon.

After Xholisiwae (Koh-lee-see-wa) showed this American boy her Miss Kayamandi pictures (they have beauty pageants like that in townships too, refreshing I think, but she is beautiful either way) and I started feeling like a part of the family, Siya took me inside and I sat with his mother.  Our embrace earlier was natural and without hesitation, she knew what I meant to Siya.  “You would have been very proud of your son today,” I tell her, but all in vain, she only speaks isiXhosa and Afrikaans.  How frustrating it is to be limited at this moment, when I have so much to say, so much to express, so many questions to ask her about her life, her history, the things she has seen, the boys she has raised.  “She said she is proud of me in all that I do,” Siya gives me the translation and I search for something to say.  Something else comes out.  “Seeing you, being here with you, it reminds me of my mother.  I do miss her.”  She smiles in the same heartfelt way that Siya does, (that must be where he gets it from) and says something in isiXhosa, seemingly before Siya even translates, there is something about her tone and the way she breathes when she says it that has that enigmatic maternal quality of wisdom to it.  Siya takes a similar breath.  “What did she say?”  I know it is something that will ease my heart, I could feel it in the way her words hit my heartstrings, just plucked in a different language.  “She said ‘Tell your mother not to worry, you have a family here’”, focusing his eyes on me with with solemnity, respecting my response to this.   All of the strings are plucked at once, filling my entire body with a sound that I have never heard before and may never hear again.  All I can muster is “Yes” and stand there in awe of my surroundings.  If it wasn’t the block party that told me so, or the bed made comfortably for my overstimulated soul, or the way he said “good morning”, or the moment three beautiful Mbobos stood up and hugged me like they had known me for years, or the breakfast of fried eggs and toast that Siya went all the way to the market to get in order to feed my needy stomach, if it wasn’t those moments that told me, surely it could not be any plainer to see.  I was part of an African family.

Sometimes it feels like I have spent a majority of my time in Kayamandi waiting for the guy with the keys.  See, the major gyms and student buildings in Kayamandi have large padlocks on them at all times, that can only be unlocked with a key.  I say “a key” for a reason, because I truly believe that there is only one copy of each to key to the corresponding lock for all of the locks in Kayamandi.  Heaven forbid they use a combination lock, that way they can just tell the person in charge how to open up the building.  This happens all the time before practice at the gym, and we have to peer through the gate to read Wilson’s number and call him.  Wilson is the foreman of sorts for the gym that we practice in, and I’m sure he doesn’t like us sometimes, because we are always calling him to unlock the gym.  I even gave him a copy of our practice schedule, but I believe we have waited, on average 15-20 minutes before every practice while we either (a) wait for Wilson to bring the key (b) don’t get a hold of Wilson and have to send someone to go fetch it or in the worst circumstances (c) don’t get a hold of Wilson so someone goes to fetch it, and in the process he remembers and opens the gym and we have to send someone else out to fetch the person who went to fetch the key in the first place. I say all this because right now Siya and myself are waiting with Ayanda for “that guy” with “a key” outside of the Drama program building, eagerly anticipating the Mother’s Day performance.

A sound emerges from the back of the room, I look, and three Xhosa teenagers walk in single file, the sound pours soulfully from their lips.  They walk reverently, patiently, purposefully as they aim for the front of the room to share their gift of song with the world.  Less moved by the words they speak (they sing in English) I close my eyes just to feel the strength of their harmony.  The richness of true African voices, matched in harmony, can truly be matched by no other.  Don’t take my word for it, go hear it for yourself.

The group is two women and one man, probably around my age, who carry their voice as far as they can go.  One woman takes the middle route, the man the foundation, and the other reaches for higher ground.  Her voice rises in passion and hits not a note, but a place that cannot be found in any other way.  It is a place that is shared by all those that can hear it, and needs no language to understand, it reverberates in the depths of your being and you realize that this place is where the heart rests when its weary.  This place is where the mind goes to when it must be cleansed.  This place is where the body goes when it has pushed itself beyond human strength and needs to understand how to carry onwards.  This is a place that enlists hope, pride, and virulence as its soldiers, and fights the enemies of love.  This place is given color and definition through the other voices, but its power is its own.

While in this place, I look around me and know that I should be nowhere else this Mother’s Day.  African mothers of all shapes and sizes wear their colored shawls and spotted headbands, the colors of the life that they lead are draped around their waists and carried in child-form in their arms.  Babies, in the womb and out, rest in their mother’s laps, unknowing of the meaning of this day, but giving thanks more than many who know, because they still understand how much they need the comfort of their mother’s arms.  I look at Siya next to me, and out the windows into the Kayamandi streets, I like to think in the direction that my mother is looking out at me at this exact moment, 12,000 miles away.  But she need not worry, I have a family right here.

Time.  I don’t necessarily manage it well, since I don’t keep that calendar and what not.  However, perhaps the reason I have been able to get away with it, is the people I surround myself with.  Yet the funny thing is when you see yourself in other people, realizing how annoying it is, you smile, but never really seem to change.

I look at Mylene.  “Where the hell are Ayanda and Sox?”  She laughs, “Don’t look at me, talk to your boys.”  I am waiting with Mylene and Nik and a majority of the Kayamandi Basketball Team with a Universiteit Stellenbosch van outside of the basketball court in Kayamandi.  We had some extra funds, so Mike allowed us the opportunity to take the boys into Cape Town to go to the beach and hang out for the day.  I told them 9:30 AM, so we could get a head start on the day, but of course the first boy did not show ‘til 9:45 and now it is 10:15 and Mondé went to fetch Ayanda and Sox who have decided to take their precious time in getting here.  Mylene agreed to come along, but has to be back in the early evening, for she has a final in the morning.

Twenty minutes later the bus is full of eager native African boys,  (some of them men) ready for a long awaited and well-earned trip to the beach.   I sit on the front row, next to Nik who sits next to Mondé.  The bus is alive with Xhosa chatter and laughter, I smile and look up to the sky.

 

He struggles as we grab him and head to the ocean.  “No! No! No!” Mondé screams as we get closer.  He escapes once, but Siya is quick and lassoes him back into the group, we continue our march.  I have him by the arms, Siya by the legs.  “One, two, three!”   He flails something crazy as he flies into the Atlantic Ocean.  He jumps up and down, our feet experience the coldness that his body now feels, the water of the Atlantic in late autumn.  His wife-beater soaked through he throws it at us, with that big ‘ole grin of his.  There is none bigger, I could swear my life on it.

The boys on the shore understand that any of them could be next.   As such they begin to strip down.  But instead of swimsuits, they wear some strange version of spandex long underwear.  It fits them skin tight, and I guess acts as underwear in colder weather, not really sure, I just sit back and watch.  They younger guys (Prince and Siya’s younger brothers, and two other guys whose names I somehow always forget) don’t even have this luxury, they just strip down to their whitie tighties.  That is some sight.  The dark chocolate skin of the native African youth, running into the ocean, whitie tighties fill out their big African behinds as they race, hoopin’ and hollerin’ like Speedy Gonzalez into the ocean.

I slowly realize that a swimsuit would be a useless piece of clothing in Kayamandi.  Siya tells me he hasn’t been to the ocean in two years, when he came with the Kayamandi Basketball Team coaches at the same time of year.  It makes me sad in a way to hear that.  These boys live less than 50 miles from the ocean, a beautiful ocean at that, and yet they have not been to the beach more than a handful of times in their entire lives.  It is but another of the many testaments of their culture, their lifestyle, their humility, the things that help me understand who they are.  These are the same qualities that make me realize how blessed I am to be a part of their lives, this team, this country.

 

There are collisions of passions that occur in such rarity, that they deserve their own feeling.  Call it a “shooting-star” experience, for as quickly as you see it, it is gone.  And while you may see another shooting star in your lifetime, you know that it is not the same as the one before, you are at a different part of the sky, it flies in another galaxy far away.  Stellar may be used to describe this experience, but still that suggests the feeling is out of this world.  I say it is beyond, because others may see it as well, and not understand.

It is a product of your experience, your life, your love.  Therefore it does well not to try and define it, for placing labels upon something limits its possibilities.  I say all of this in this way only to show that while others may see certain moments in my life as ordinary, well they have obviously never seen a shooting star.

I brought my horn along with me, the boys said that they wanted to see me play it, I certainly don’t want to deny them the experience.  As the boys dry off from the cool ocean water,  I begin to jam out on some blues, my go to as of late.   I seem to embrace the way it fills my soul, fully.  The boys dig in, they are loving this.  I doubt many of them have heard a saxophonist before.  Aside from Wonga, whose life I shared in for an evening a few months ago when their was a jazz concert in Kayamandi.

We had a blast.    Supposedly there was only seats for people that paid for the food, but I wanted to look cool for Wonga, plus we were both hungry, so we snuck into the line and jacked someones silverware and enjoyed a hearty African meal.  This was all the while watching a wonderful South African jazz band, full with singer (she was this hippie white lady with a guitar oddly enough, but she pulled it off)  backup vocalists/dancers and a saxman, who was the same guy I saw playing with Coda, a jazz fusion group that Bradley brought us to back in February.   Ever since, Bradley has kept me on the up and up in terms of the jazz scene.

I attempt to bring the experience back to the guys, figuring out how to jam to Goldfish, the group I saw at the Cape Town Jazz Festival with the horns and electronic jazz.  I figure it out and the guys smile, Mondé is right there with me all the way.  “Let me try it coach!”  Not sure I want his big ‘ole mouth on my horn, but how often would I have this chance?  I tell him what to do, kind of, but he is already blowing into it as hard as he can, I hold down some buttons to change it up for  him, he starts going a little crazy so I lay off.   The power of the horn, it takes over all who touch it.

I sit against this little brick wall, looking at Siyabonga standing on top of it, with my horn.  He looks so happy.  He plays a little better than Mondé did, some control in his jutting breaths.  But I don’t care.  The fact that I have the ability to see this moment come to life, tells me that I am alive.   I brought my horn down to South Africa, knowing that I would be able share it, that jazz would help people understand who I am.  Yet the fact that it was in the hand of a native African youth, whose family I had become a part of, whose passion I had shared in as his coach and his friend and his brother, is more than I could have ever imagined.  I take a deep breath and stare into the ocean, Siya’s sound carrying me into places that I never thought I could go.

 

I stand up, looking around at the empty plates next to the empty pizza dishes below the filled expressions of the Kayamandi Basketball Team and Co.  “Speech! Speech! Speech!”  the boys cheer on as I clear my throat.  They are aware I don’t need their encouragement, but it has become part of the tradition.  “I have played basketball for as long as many of you have been alive, but I have not truly appreciated the game until now.”  I want to capture their attention early, this one is going to be more serious, I have so many feelings I could express to them.  “As your coach I have learned more about basketball than any amount of years of playing could have taught me.  I have learned not only about the game, but the players on the court-you.  You all have welcomed me from day one into your gym, into your lives and put up with my silly stories and emotion, understanding that it was a learning experience for everyone.  You all challenged me to challenge you, and you came through.”  I pause to prepare for the climax.  “The day that defined us came, and I watched as you all truly played basketball, it was beautiful.  It is with strength and pride that I can call you all champions!”  Cheers erupt from the tables, this is so much fun.  “I am so blessed to have known you all, and I hope that you feel you have been able to grow as players and people while I have been your coach.  It has been such an honor to be called by that name.  Thank you so much, you all will be missed greatly, and I wish you all the success in the world in the season to come.  To champions!”  We raise our water glasses, clinking them together.  The boys clap their words of approval.

I have spent the past week being sentimental, preparing gifts for friends that I will miss, etc.  Consequently I found a great deal on some picture frames, so I made 10 copies of the championship picture and framed it for each one of them.  Just to make sure they never forgot that day, they would never forget me.

So often I do things and honestly do expect something in return.  Other times I expect nothing.  And even still there are moments where I do not expect something, but secretly wish it might happen.  Mondé stands up, smiling that smile.  “Coach, I just wanted to say a few words on behalf of the team for you.  Just want to say thank you for all that you have done these past few months.  You have worked so hard with all of us, to share your knowledge and love.  And we have had success because of your hard work, and because you have believed in us.  I just want to wish you the best of luck in all that you do.  You will always be remembered for your time here.  To Coach!”  I am speechless as water glasses are raised again.   I am very rarely overwhelmed, touched by experiences, but I have to work hard to hold back my tears.  That’s what this team means to me.

We have a few extra Rand in the budget, and Nik and I agree to throw in some of our own money to get the guys ice cream.  “Paying for 20 ice cream cones please, they will tell you what they want.”  Each one of the guys goes up, some get plain vanilla, others chocolate, Mondé throws in a few extra Rand to get his dipped in caramel.  They devour pizza like it’s nobody’s business, but they seem to treasure this ice cream, perhaps more of a treat.  I love to take pictures, so I convince everyone to walk back over to the beach to capture this moment, the Kayamandi family enjoying ice cream on the coast of South Africa in autumn with the biggest smiles you have ever seen.

 

I sit next to Mylene now in the front seat of the van.  We decided that we have time to take a quick journey to Signal Hill, this beautiful lookout spot above Cape Town.  The van ride over quickly becomes one that I will never forget.  See, I had van and bus trips back in high school where all the black guys would sit in the back of the bus and free style rap.  They would start out like “Cha cha boochie cha cha cha boochie roll call…”  upon which a select individual would throw down like a two verse rhyme about themselves or something.  Other times they just battled, back and forth verses dissing each other, often talking about peoples momma’s and what not.  I jumped in once, but that story is for another day.

Right now the bus is filled with raucous sounds of laughter after Sox just laid one out on Mondé.  Sox is getting all up in his face, then looking at the other players, while pointing at Mondé and then ending back up in his face with the same final punch of a line.  I can’t understand a word they are saying, it is all in isiXhosa, but the energy is dynamic.  They are standing up and almost shoving back and forth.  You can tell who is good by the speed they rap at, and the reaction of the guys when they end a verse.  Mondé and Sox seem to be the resident rappers of the group, but Prince and surprisingly Wonga throw down a few lyrics as well.

This lasts all the way to Signal Hill, and the guys pile out of the van, eager to experience a rare photo shoot opportunity.   Wonga and others have switched from rap, to a much more peaceful African gospel kind of hymn.  Wherever they go, they seem to wander in packs, letting their rich African voices fill the air.

As we pose for a great photo opportunity, the whole team together with Devil’s Peak and the outskirts of Cape Town hundreds of feet below us, a chorus emerges again.   I rock back and forth to the rhythm of this African harmony, amazed at the beauty of their voices.  Somehow, from the graces of God, (perhaps to make up for the challenging conditions they live and grow through), each one of them is blessed with a voice that can pierce the thickest of airs.  And each one knows their role, magically as if they had rehearsed this before.

Wonga, releases a rich baritone, expressing himself in greater tones than is usual for his stoic demeanor.  Mondé releases a high tenor, the kind that is distinctly African, there is a way the voice trembles and rumbles as it hits the ear drums that is only heard from a soul born in the heart of Africa.  Siya sings more in unison, but smiling all the while.  Prince, the show-boater as always, conducts the crew as he releases his tenor into the South African sky.  A picture is captured while I am amidst this experience, I can only imagine the look on my face.  This whole day has been a blessing but to be surrounded by these men, my men, to have marched into battle with them and now to be experiencing them in such grand colors outside of the court, finally understanding where their passion for life and spirit comes from, well I cannot explain how that feels.

 

The bus ride back the boys continually erupt in verse, this time more spiritual.  Paul Simon’s Graceland is one of the more pivotal albums in his career, perhaps in musical dynamism that exists.  It certainly is one of the albums that has become most important to me, listening to “You Can Call Me Al” from the time I was five years young.  There is a song on there called “Homeless” that begins with an African chant.  Paul Simon says “Somebody say…” and rich voices echo “Eh, eh eh, eh eh”, and then says “Somebody cry…” and the voices echo “Why why why…”.  This continues until Simon cuts out and the voices come in native tongue with a pounding hook of a harmony.

Well, as I sit in the front seat, already taken with the songs and the beauty of the voices, Mondé shouts out “Somebody say…” and the men echo “Eh, eh eh, eh eh” and he sings “Somebody cry…” and the men echo “Why why why”.  And this continues until Mondé cuts out and the men come in native tongue with a pounding hook of a harmony.

I want to shout out, “I know that song, oh! I know that song!”  but realize quickly that what it will take to explain will not be appreciated as fully as I am moved at this moment.  I am hearing where this song, from an album that defined my youth, originally came from.  And from the lips of the people who created it, and they are my family.

My family, this day I established that.  I learned so much about these men who to this point I have mostly only known on the court.  They shared, naturally, their lives and spirit with me.  I cannot imagine what my life, what my experience in South Africa would have been without them.  Words cannot express.  Kayamandi.

            I stand there in the streets of Kayamandi, looking over the humble township one last time.  He places the hat in my hand, I put it on my head.  “Hey!  That’s my hat!”  he says so naturally all I can do is laugh out loud.

See, on the evening of the championship while at Brazenhead’s, before we headed downstairs, I sat next to Siya and had a grand conversation.  “You gonna miss me?”  I asked him.   “Yeah of course, but I will not forget you.”  I decide there must be something to remember each other by.  “I think we should trade hats, I really like that Michael Jordan one that you wear, and I’m sure you can find one of mine that you like.  That way whenever we wear it we will think of one another.”  Siya doesn’t get hit be creative inspiration often, but when he does he comes to life.  “Yes, and when I come to America to see you will be walking around and I will see you and say ‘Hey! That’s my hat!’”  Without stopping he starts cracking up, with some of the wildest laughter I had ever seen from him, and I had no choice but to join in.  His delivery was just so grand and so real, something about the way he didn’t pause the whole while, it just all came out.  “Hey! That’s my hat!”  I shout back, amidst scattered laughter.  We remained in that fit for at least a full minute, definitely one my top five laugh fits of all time.  It just tickled me.  I guess you had to be there.

I stand there next to my bicycle, looking at Siya, MJ hat on my head.  It doesn’t even look like MJ, the guy is an off-white color, with like an orange jersey against a an awkward green-teal background.  It says “MJ” on one side and “23 on the other, the only way I would’ve known it was His Airness. Every time Siya came into practice wearing this hat I just smiled so big.  It fit his head kind of funny like, a little small for it, so as it rests on mine, it looks even funnier, but I love it.

I hate goodbyes.  I try and say they are “see you laters” but this one feels like it really could very well be goodbye.  I delay.  “You better start that club you talked about with Esté,” I tell him, in reference to his suggestion to Esté that they create an “I Miss Adam Club” when I leave.  I thought it was one of the sweetest things he ever said.  “Yeah, of course man.”  A pause fills the air.  “Sorry I could not find my momma, she is not to be found today.”  “Well you must give her all my love, she meant so much to me in only a day, but through you every day.  I am so thankful to have shared in her life, in your life.”

“Well, my brother,”  I begin my final words, “Getting to be a part of this team has been a blessing, but getting to know you has been the greatest of all.  I even wrote about you in my journal for my class.  I said ‘And my proudest achievement is named Siyabonga Mbobo’.  I went on to discuss how you have symbolized the strength of this team, and the strength of me throughout these past four months.”  He listens carefully, he always does, I hope he understands the intensity of my emotion.  “Your friendship has meant so much to me Siyabonga.  I will wear your hat with pride.”

We embrace one last time, he says “You always have a family waiting for you in Africa.”  God.  If only I were able to be so succinct in my emotions, life would be easier sometimes.  “Yes…I love you brother.”  “I love you too,” he returns it, I can tell it feels strange to him, but I know he means it.

I ride away from Siya, from Kayamandi for the final time.  As I peddle I am struggling not to turn back and walk to those gates one last time, to see those African children peering through, just wanting to watch their elders with a ball.  I am struggling to not go back to the gym, run around and find Wilson with the key, have him unlock the doors so I can run one last lap, but by myself, to feel the spirit that my men left behind in this gym.  The gym that contains so much sweat and dirt and heart and soul, days worth of bouncing balls across the perimeter, in hopes of finding success, victory in the bottom of a net.  The gym where I would watch young men Africans in their three piece suits without the coat but with the fedoras (for men only), strolling in at random moments while Nik and Dave and Mylene and Siobhan and Raissa and I stood around watching the same beauty of their presence.  The gym where every practice I stood at the free throw line with Mondé, praying that it was the day he would learn how to shoot.  The gym where the foreshadowing of champions showed itself, boys becoming giants, unhinging the roof and waiting to play ball in the African sun.

I am struggling to not turn back to the site of the Kayamandi Klassic Basketball Tournament, dancing to Space Jam as African boys watch a white boy let loose in the middle of the circle.  The place where a picture that defines the joy in my life was taken, “Champions” written widely in the white smiles of darkened boys with baby blue jerseys.  I struggle not to turn back to Siya’s home, to walk across that “Welcome” mat one last time, to feel the sense of fellowship, of belonging to an African family one last time.  I struggle to wipe the dust off my high tops that pedal further and further away, the final reminder of the many days I walked amongst the streets of this place.  The only place that could give me this feeling, and I feel it one last time.  Kayamandi.

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Closer To The Sun

(The following blog was written over the course of several months, and so it is a little scattered in format, but here are the basics.  The first story purely, retelling the events as they happened, without a whole lot of present day perspective.  The rest of the stories include my initial thoughts of what to write, raw and perhaps non-sensical, and then my present day thoughts in italics.  Sometimes there was nothing more to add, so feel free to ask me to add something if you are so inclined.  Otherwise, I hope that it all makes sense and you enjoy my meandering thoughts and searching words)

I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm

One of the more beautiful exposures in human relationships is the feeling of being naked with someone.  Awfully terrifying as the vulnerability leads to insecurity, revealing your imperfections perfectly but then something happens.  Fear of what you can no longer control subsides, and a simple easiness fills the air, your smiles, the way caresses softly, sensationally bring joy to every part of your energy flows seamlessly like the water rushing over stone, touching everything and nothing at the same time and so is the enigmatic nature of discovery.  The discovery of being naked with someone.

And what I mean by “naked” has nothing to do with clothes, or perhaps everything with clothes, but rather them being on.  My relationship with Tanya has unfolded quite naturally, seeing that we have had the required ingredients for a friendship available to us readily in abundance- energy, honesty, imagination, curiosity, voice, desire, creativity, heart, and strangely valuable, (but not so much really), time.  It’s amazing how much of your happiness is predicated on other’s time (happiness in the grander sense via the idea that happiness is only real when shared).  So little has been the time of others for me (lost in their own illusions, preemptive self-protection because someday I will leave this place, or just simply disappearing) that it has given me the golden opportunity to become fully a part of at least one person’s life here.

As with so many people who prefer rather to be protected under the shade than be exposed to the brightness and strength that is the sun, Tanya’s revelations come more from what she doesn’t say than what she actually says.  It’s not that she doesn’t like the sunshine, she is just fair-skinned and cannot be forced there without a risk, so rather when she needs to be replenished, like a flower yearning for blooming, she steps out and lets her soul breathe.

Until a few months ago I had never experienced this sunshine soul remedy outside of our everyday surroundings, our relationship had been locked up in the wintertime reservations and not allowed us to venture farther outside of art studios and such.  She started the journey off right by the mentioning of tequila, and the night proceeded quite splendidly from there.  I took care of the guacamole and the music and the letting free of Latin souls into the unexpecting.  Salt Tequila Lime, Salt Tequila Lime, Salt Tequila Lime.  My favorite part of it all, (aside from the feeling of sentimental ecstasies and mercury rising and heightened senses) was watching the way that Tanya just chomped down on that lime, sticking the whole piece in her mouth at once and noticing how she tried to suck every last citrus-sensation from this rarified experience.  And then we danced.

Whenever you’re in a fortress you should be wielding a sword.  It doesn’t have to be gilded with jewels or maintain the secret strength to protect Middle Earth, but you should be able to lead an army with it, and at least invoke some fear in those around you.  With this basic understanding of  garrison etiquette Tonya and I stormed the gates of Kamyanets-Podilsky, our plastic toy swords glistening resplendently in the burgeoning spring sun, winning the fight against winter today, and so unto declaring the clear skies and victory on the horizon.  While our march was more Monty Python-esque  than Kossack (picture me trying to clap my hands together like coconuts whilst fancying my sword before me) we managed to garner the attention of the peasants amongst us, especially inside the walls when I galloped along shouting “This is my kingdom! Beware all you my enemies, for I shall perish you!”  in Ukrainian.   Tired of all my boasting and land-claiming and enemy-perishing, Tonya and I retired to calmer environs, to get an idea of what the lesser amongst us were busy in.

Moments later I found myself in a world all unbeknownst to me, but definitely all in it.  My hands cradled the spinning wheel, the clay rolling softly, gently over my virgin fingers, and to so like a woman I touched her and molded her in only the way she was to be made.   She, taking form quietly and sinuously, began to feel real to me, I growing excited and amazed and bewildered at creating her, smiled and giggled and marveled like a child who has experienced the blessing of wind upon his wearied brow for the first time.  His hands guided mine like the branches of a tree hold its leaves, always supporting but yet the butterfly wings of the maple flap on in their own unknowing but yet naturally motion.  And just like the leaves lives are dependent more upon the sun than the branches, yet all is connected, so too did my energy come from the sun, the simple sunshiney-ness that is the process of discovery, of learning a new world.   Inscribed with the letters BFF, Tonya and Adam on opposite sides, painted and made fabulous, this new world now sits in proud mug form, ready for her debut as a vessel of nourishment for me, and so the cycle continues.

My coming of age with the leaders of the community, planning for our big Eco Den, how to organize our plan to truly make things happen in Nemyriv (leading myself through it all, speaking my mind, polishing my growing Ukrainian) 

There was this eagerness to my actions, an absolute vigor to the way in which I approached every relationship, considering it in relation to how it could help me help make this community a better place.  I asserted myself in a way that I had yet to truly do in Nemyriv with those outside of my immediate work environment (in a way it reminds me of the feeling of urgency I had in Guatemala, sitting down with leaders of the school after only a week or so, broken Spanish testing itself in the most natural of places).  An energy persisted between Liudmila, Irina, and I which reflected promise inasmuch it presented tension, allowing room for development and growth in the discussion, letting a truly open, honest space become the all around us.  However realizations of how we were but a few fish trying to jump out of the fishbowl, while the others had slowly learned to ignore the stench of apathy now inside, going about their daily habits without turning attention to what lay just beyond the glass.

The realization that my work in development is more meaningful to me than being a teacher, how this impacts my day to day habits and feelings.

I had perhaps begun to indulge in the flakes of this indifference, poured into our bowl every few weeks either by the Ukrainian government, or by memories of times that were never changing.  My job at school remained the only constant in my  life, and perhaps for this reason, I grew restless of it all, the challenges there pushed aside in the name of focusing my energies elsewhere.  Still don’t know if the kids seemingly developed the same through my changing mood, or if theirs actually infected me more.  Perhaps it’s better to describe it like a tired relationship where you realize that you can’t leave because you have security, but yet you still yearn for freedom so you distract yourself with other endeavors (while remaining faithful to the other all the while).  That said sometimes people just aren’t meant for each other, and at this time I had my first inklings that my life alongside the community was going to bear richer fruits than my time at the school ever could.  Whether that remains the same today I suppose we will find out in my final months there.  

Lights…Camera…Dammit 1st grader don’t run in the halls!

The finishing of the grant writing, conversations with America, the film begins.  A 3-4 minute video becomes a full short-story documentary.  Life as Writer, Cameraman, Producer, Director in the opposite of Hollywood.  The joys and pains and excitements and frustrations.  The wonderful feeling of getting to know my students in another way, becoming close with them through the process, doing my best to explain to them the importance of what we are doing.  (Be sure to mention the Texas lessons, the jumping of Sasha, receiving the Korovai free of charge, getting the whole school involved with it all).

If we are still going with the whole tired relationship thing, I guess this was a moment in time where I discovered some hope in it.  It goes along also with this feeling I was having of aching, my legs and arms doing that strange falling asleep thing, so that when you go to use them they betray you and you can do nothing about it.  The making of this video allowed me to stretch my legs again, to invent something brand new, reveal to myself the endless possibility in me, and what I am capable of doing when given a challenge.  The writing of the script happened in almost a Kerouacian way, (minus the sleeping pills and bottles of uninspiring inspiration) and I busted it all out in an evening, it came so naturally what we should be saying in the video, what an opportunity I had to share my community with the world.  My actors and actresses did not disappoint and my patience only really grew throughout it all.  I learned so much about the kids along the way, and I like to think they learned something about me.  Yet, as is life at that age, fleeting realizations are not reflected upon and are so lost in that infinitely small place where pictures transition in an old-fashioned slide-show, and only when you go back (if you make the time) can you gather what once you knew again.  It was the first time I really understood how much I craved the understanding of someone in my town, the real investment of at least one person from my school (aside from Olha) in who I am, and consequently I wanted to gain even just a smidgeon of the same in them in return, and I wanted (and still do) so badly for it to be a student. 

As it was a year before in village schools, my lesson on Texas was one of the greatest times I have had with my students.  Somehow it had taken me a year for them to truly learn about where I am from, and I didn’t waste a minute.  I showed them a slideshow about Texas, read a book about San Antonio that I magically found in the bookcase (love it when the minutest details of where I am from find me wherever I am), had Texas-talk time with expressions such as “Well I’ll be darned!” and “Howdy, partner” and the class favorite “Hot dog!” which they used as “Hot dog! I’ll have a hot dog!” in their subsequent dialogues.  And to cap it all off, I did some country western dancing with my sixth formers which they really got a kick out of, especially the roping the cow part, and Olha was filming it all the while, capturing the moments which many of you have witnessed first hand. 

In the final filming of the story I wanted to use a Korovai, which is a ceremonial Ukrainian bread that is often presented when new members are introduced into Ukrainian society, or simply to represent a fruitful friendship.  When I went to pick-up the Korovai, and was getting my wallet out ready to pay, the manager of the shop said “No, it is our gift to you.” Confused I tried to gain clarification and they said “Yes, it is free”.  I was so touched by the gesture that I was without words in either language and I proudly carried the Korovai to school and the final scene, featuring all the kids that I teach, was proudly filmed, Korovai in hand, now with multiple symbols of multiple friendships forged. 

Talk about the reception of the video, how everyone really dug it and the money was raised within 5 weeks.  Be sure to praise the kids and the generous donors for their contributions.  How humbling a process it all was to watch people around the world support this effort, how it helped me to truly understand the value of what I am doing here.

This is something I am proud to say you all know about, and I want to just say thank  you again for the love and generosity you showed in supporting this endeavor of mine, of my community.  It was one of the greatest feelings I have experience in Ukraine to go to school and tell everyone of the success we were having an a weekly basis.  I could not have expected such a positive outcome, although I never really doubted the success of what we are doing.  It was the first and last time in my life in the past two years where I have felt a true bridge built between the two separate lives that I was once living.  I felt so healthy, so full, the way I should feel, and it was, of course a temporary feeling, as in life so often w are meant to be struggling so that we always give things a value and never take them for granted. 

Women’s Day 2012 (I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing)

First ever art exhibition.  Posing in my favorite sweater amidst painting my wintertime wonderland.  Dancing with Tanya to jazz, salsa, joy is in the air.  Changing the names of my paintings, watching as Tanya types my name like you type an artist’s name, filled with pride.  Encouraging Nemyrivians to come check our art.  Standing next to my portrait so proudly with my sweater, people telling me how it looks more manly than me.  Providing the atmosphere on my saxophone, staying positive for Tanya, loving feeling my energies combine in a magical way.

I think the pictures will speak for me on this one.  Save it to say that passions all around me were colliding, and I felt really excited to be amongst the members of my community.  Although, it is good to note that I found out the unwillingness of people to take even a moment of their time for something as peculiar as the arts.  How really I was amongst a different people, and how glad I was that I had found the few who could make me a better person, who could challenge me everyday, but it only seems natural that we instinctively always find our way to the warmest place, as much because it keeps us alive, as it is where we, at the end of the day belong.

Baking peryshky becomes second nature to me after my delicious apple pie (talk about going to Vinnytsia for PCV gathering and making a night of it all with Sophia) and first try with Maxim and Olha, so I decide to bake peryshky (all on my ownsome)  and bring them to school for the 8th of March.  How beautiful the reception was, and how I think I earned some real brownie points (or peryshky points) with the teachers (except the male ones, haha).    Even put an apron on for the family, making a simple man meal, but nevertheless taking care of my ladies (As much as they would let me).

Birthday celebration with Sabina (missing the train to help Janira)  meeting her friends and toasting to our spontaneous meeting  on the bus, finally feeling comfortable amongst a group of Ukrainian 20 somethings.  Search for a good club (tale of my first discrimination) ending up at an awful excuse for a club with a DJ (more like a bro with a mike and a “Party Like A Rock Star” T-shirt)  who just kept yelling awful phrases that I can’t repeat, half because they are that bad, and half because they don’t make any sense anyways).

Spontaneous trip to Theo, arriving and playing crazy American game, then going out to a karaoke bar, where Theo and I became famous for our rendition of Aerosmith’s “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing”.  Night on the town with our drunk friend.  Next day Sauna day and Oh! what a day, me with 10 nekkid girls, making the most of the last days of snow.  Naked snow angels, bucket showers in the nude.  More American games at night at Pete’s, tacos and guacamole and too much vodka (should never ruin Mexican food with vodka again).  Becoming infamous for “shakin’ it fast” with the group.

Dandelions and Such

Nadia’s proposition to join her in performing a scene from Bradbury’s Fahrenhiet 451, not understanding the full intensity and value of what it would actually become, the wonderful people I would meet (the time I would have to spend with Nadia, watching her endless tragedy unfold before me in its many splendored ways).  The feeling of being back on the stage, how the ability to perform had never gone away because I haven’t truly stopped doing it in some form or the other since that day seven years ago.  Working alongside Ukrainians, noticing the subtle things in the way they spoke, the way they acted, trying to offer my perspective but facing challenge.  Enjoying life as always with Nadia, tagging along as a part of the group when she wasn’t there, jamming out with Dima and Irene, playing the hand-clap game with her during their smoke breaks (take a moment to offer a portrait of each character in the play, not in the play really but the actors). Our first performance, the hustle to find the piano player, pulling out all the stops at the try-out, celebrating afterwards with cognac and chocolate somethings.  Making it to the next round, life on the big stage, improvising as usual, but pulling it off as usual.  Everyone loved us and we felt really good about it all, but since it was a Peace Corps sponsored event (I didn’t really recognize this fully until the jury was almost all American)  we didn’t win, but knew we were the winners.  Celebration afterwards with guacamole and tequila once more, playing American games (Twister and beer pong), laughing and loving and dancing and hugging and photographing all the while (my mind wondering, wandering to where Nadia fell off to this time, missing her presence, so rarely it is truly felt. How much I treasure every moment with her).

Let’s Go Green…ish

The beginning in February, time passes by, realizations of Spring coming, ridiculous amount of useless meetings with Liuda, changing the dates, changing the goal, changing the makeup of participants (the difficulty in locating the latter from my school).  Talks with Nemiroff, Malena, Miska Rada about supporting our efforts, feeling like a big shot making deals and so on.  In days prior trying to cross the t’s and dot the I’s, doing most everything on my own (wishing for more involvement from the school, who conveniently enough decided to try and change everything at the last minute despite doing nothing up to that point to show concern).  The big day, running around the town gathering final supplies, preparing signs and materials for clean-up, inspiring the final troops.  My big moment begins with the auditorium half-full, but by the end it was full, 100 participants in all (we reached that goal).  Felt very proud to be leading, to see so many excited faces.  The competition begins, I ride in a tractor truck to collect the trash, Tanya in another.  Immediately understand the failure of finding a real weighing machine, having to guestimate a lot, the beginning of the calls of “injustice” start to foreshadow themselves.  Calls from all the students, sweating profusely, raising my voice and not enjoying it.  Yet, excited to see the energy and effort from the kids, really a sense of pride of watching my community being cared for.  Yet trouble begins when we are delayed and people are yelling at me to return back, and then the whole not being able to recycle thing, feeling truly alone for the first time in a long time, lack of support from all ends.  Reward ceremony and the infamous 2nd school “injustice” that would later haunt me to no end.  Crying tears and disappointed looks more than smiles and thank yous, city government lady tells me to be more organized so that others aren’t offended, annoyed at how she speaks to me in such a way after I poured my soul into the event, how she had no right to say something so callous while I was simply telling her thank you for her support, how this came to symbolize my feelings about it all as I ran off on the train to Chernivtsi.   (Talk about what is happening now, concerns for the future, wondering if what you did has any long-term impact or if it all will simply die.  Can mention the English Bucks program here too, as well as end of the year conversations with director and Olha, the awful feeling it left in my mouth).

No Child Left Behind (Jazzman Remix)

Sitting in the dandelions, thinking of Nadia, just doing, being, nothing, a girl comes walking up to me with a smile and two ice creams in her hands, says “Tse vilne?” and I say “Zvichayuhno” and she says “Morozevo” and I say “Dyakuyu” and her name is Marina, the girl who sat next to me on the train for 3 hours but never said a word, and now in the sunshine, amongst the dandelions, a saxophone sitting next to me, we become friends (speak to how this excites the traveler in you, on many levels, one being how rare it is that a girl makes such a move in Ukraine).  Reunion with Janira, letting her soul out to dry, purchasing fixin’s for the guacamole (its becoming a habit by that point), getting ready for the big concert of Janira’s.  Watching the cutest version of some Ukrainian Texans cowgirl dance, loving being a judge for this competition.  Jamming with Ryan on the banjo, Country Road, When The Sants Go Marchin’ In, my moment in the spotlight playing Watermelon Man, Over the Rainbow, how the crowd actually gets into it (especially when I throw my jacket off), loving the energy of being back on the stage.  Mexican food and guacamole for dinner, kickin’ it with the American posse, good sleep for the next day with Bob.

Early rise to Bob’s site, arrival for WELL seminar, although not even technically signed up I become the man of the hour with my sax in hand, leading the musical sessions (a slight realization of how wonderful it would be to somehow do something like this for the rest of my life, how much joy it gives me to share the world of music with others).  Being dubbed “Justin Bieber” thanks to the flock of teenage girls that are giggling around me the whole day, secretly always enjoying the attention, but not flaunting it at the same time (but maybe milking it a little bit, naturally, not purposefully).  Late night fire at Bob’s, his wild ramblings after cognac, his revealing of me as a “real guy”, not to waste the charm and do something good with it.  The next day on the town just kickin’ it with the townspeople at the football match, then back to Janira’s.

The next day in Xhotyn at the Renaissance Festival of sorts, witnessing a battle recreation with knights in armor and such.  Summer coming before Spring and loving the rays filling my skin with new energy, meeting new friends and hanging out amongst the town, midnight wanderings in Kamyanets, one o’clock conversations with old men on benches by the train tracks.

Quietly playing my saxophone in the park against a tree, with nowhere else to be.  Enjoying just existing without any cares (meeting little children and eager twenty-somethings and earning 50 Hrivs in less than an hour.  Writing Nadia’s song, inspired by the birds in the trees.

My Favorite Spot

Sabina and Nadia (with Slava and Paulina, their friend fromRussia) join me at my favorite place in the park (delve into a description of the setting, how it makes me feel, how it makes me feel when I am there alone/with wonderful people).  A day of art with the ladies, with markers and pens and pads, capturing the moment by the pond in whatever form best means you.  For me, it means having a little jam on the bridge, laying aginast the railing, letting it all soak in and fly out and back again.  Sharing our art, little jazz concert from Nadia and Paulina (and Slava), wondering where I found these Ukrainian girls singing swing classics.  Then I perform my song for Nadia’s birthday, almost embarrassed but proud of what I had done, I think she knows, give her the earrings, wonder what more is behind the eyes and the lips and the soul that has yet remained so mysterious to me.  Girls leave, concert in the park, meeting of Vlad and Co., partying in the park for the first time with newfound strangers, letting the night take me.

Other favorite spot, found running, across both ponds on the edge of it all, where I sit to pause during running (describe the process of romantic running) what peace I find therein.

It’s this little spot on the bridge where I stop every time I walk on it for at least a thoughtful moment, often times losing track of the time or what I was actually intending to do.  The weeping willows hang sallow near the surface of the pond, almost teasing it with its whispering tears.  Further along that side is where my other spot is, away from most every sound save the fluttering of the butterfly’s wings and the gesticulations of the reeds, the sputtering evening songs of those still without their mates at the end of another searching day.  There I sit for longer, wanting to go nowhere but be everywhere at once, and so I know that if I leave I will be doing the opposite.  Running is certainly always secondary to the discovery of something beautiful, and I will stop and soak that in before I worry about where my feet are taking me next.  You should never start running with the ball until you have fully caught it.

My Favorite Things (Perhaps also mention the camping night with Tanya, the amazing jam session around the camp with the accordion man and real Ukrainian stuff)

Starting out with a seminar with Tamara (describe our new relationship), revealing the world of music to eager Ukrainian students, watching their souls come alive as mine does, witnessing so wonderfully the beauty of what I do and how it transforms those around me. // Bus ride to Kiev with Sabina, dig into our fascinating conversation about relationships and sex and emotions and what it all really means.  Leaving Sabina, going to Mel, kicking it with him at the Golden Gates on the saxophone.  Meeting a fedora-donning, vest-wearing jazz smiling soul like me who invites me to his gig that evening.  After the most wonderful Ukrainian meal in a long time (oddly enough it wasn’t Ukrainian, but rather this wonderful shrimp pasta with French bread stuffed with fish, salad and Oh! how tasty) heading back out onto the town to meet with the musicians.  They were playing  at the same place I remember discovering on my first trip toKieva year and half earlier, when it had just opened, this beautiful sculpture garden of sorts on the backstreets of the city.  The guys were jammin’ out with a  sweet groove and it only got sweeter when I stepped in (take a while to  paint a picture of the relationship between saxmen, then the band, then the world).  The next day getting back to Vinnytsia in the afternoon to meet with Gayane and her students, more sax playing, then into the city to discover musicians (meeting with Igor, “The Thrill is Gone”), Nadia afterwards and the Silly French Smoky Bench.

So after my debut on the Ukrainian-English stage, I was introduced to Nadia’s English professor, Tamara.  She seemed quite serious at first, but more so keen upon my joining her students for a seminar.  I of course heartily agreed and after the first one went swimmingly (loved being in front of an audience that could understand 90% of what I was rambling on about) we talked about music, and so of course jazz, and consequently I was invited back to a second seminar.  This was where I was really meant to be anyways, and I dug into the history of jazz/music (aren’t they one in the same?) and slowly her students went from frozen winter buds hiding underground to blossoming sunflowers turned to the sun (in this case me and they revolved around in orbit according to the rhythm on the radio).  From this I developed quite a solid relationship with Tamara, a fifty something lover of English and discovering new people (and truth as I later discovered), and she seemed very interested in discovering who I was, so as I saw fit I let her discover.  Two months later we have an email chain over 20 still rolling, I have had dinner at her home with her son (whom I jammed out with as he break-danced on the streets of Vinnytysia, “That was dope brother!” was the reply I got, no joke) spoken of most lofty things, and she has just finished my South Africa story.  It was an unexpected friendship, but has become quite a rich one in its honest simplicity.

Kiev is always full of exciting adventures.  As much as I enjoy the simple quietude of Nemyrivian life, something about the metropolitan lifestyle always invigorates me.  And quite often too it ends up being with my saxophone that I stumble upon the most joyous of occasions.  This group was awesome, and had a unique vibe which I hadn’t to that point experienced in Ukraine, and it was so fun to watch the bass player slap it out, guitar man singin’ his harmony, vocalist du-woppin’ in Russian, and then they switch it all up and the vocalist plays guitar, the guitarist plays bass, and the bassist saxophone.  I thought I would jam with the bass and guitar, but for the most part we went guitar and sax on sax, and the interplay was woven tightly and of the finest material, brightly blue but enough light for the night.  It was such a thrill to feel out the motions alongside a sax man once more.  

Speaking of a “thrill”, as of late one of my newer musical acquaintances is a man of humble stature, rockin’ a newsboy cap straight on, dressing in simple button downs and jeans, with a little limp in his gate that matches the sway of his groove. His name is Igor, and he rolls with a wild crowd, the ragged wanderers of lonely streets, circling like pigeons for attention for bread crumbs, knowing not limitations until they are full, shooed or scared away.  Nevertheless, life is exciting around him, and soulful to boot.  I found him singin’ B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone”, except it goes more like “Zeeee Ssssrrrriiiilll eeezzz gah-on” when he let’s his soul out, but he really does it and it works and I blow my blues along with him.  We have a hell of time trading fours, he trying to echo my sax with his voice, I doing the same with my sax, and a nice little crowd of random lovers of good things stops by to take a peak at what it could be like if they joined band instead of the football team.  

Born to Run

Arrival in Mykachevo, buying of the boxers, meeting of the many new volunteers, tacitly deciding to just kick it with them for the weekend (for some reason I feel dissonance with this, weird but anyways).  Go into town (halfway with Felipe, our buggy driver, describe Jennifer here).  Arriving into town, how it is oddly like a high school reunion feel with the many faces you haven’t seen in months (or years) and the genuine slash forced conversations that therein result.  Excited by the music, I decide to go and dance, inspiring a 50-something Ukrainian to join me. Then, “When the Saints Go Marching In” started playing and I couldn’t control it any longer and grabbed Jennifer and we put on a little dance show and people gave me that look as always, but maybe it’s not because I am an American in Ukraine, maybe it’s just because I am me.

So the boxers.  I realized as soon as we got off the train that the only boxers I had with me were the ones I was wearing, and that’s not cool to wear for three straight days, so I went on a hunt for a pair of cheesy Ukrainian boxers.  Soon enough I found that the sexual phrases were only written in Russian, and so my options were limited, as my understanding of Russian sexual innuendos is definitely novice at best.  Bypassing the pair with the many different sexual poses as they were three sizes too big, I found one with a rocket on the crotch which said “Vsyehgda gotovy” which means “Always ready”.  I am wearing them right now.

Jennifer was a super cool-gal, it is always thrilling when you notice the child coming out of someone in pure bliss and bright colors.  I was half-way joking about asking the buggy-driver for a ride into town, but expecting nothing allows you for the greatest possible return, and when he said “yes” or some variation of that, we climbed into the back of his horse-drawn carriage, Jennifer giggling and jumping up and down as I translated her euphoria to Felipe.  How we found a Felipe in the wine country of Ukraine I am still baffled at, and that we could share a moment amidst hay and tired creaking wagon wood even more so. 

Waking up early to the race day, walking into town with Dina, getting ready for the race.  The countdown to the race with me in the bathoroom, having to run out from the toilet and take off my shirt as I am running across the start line, a minute behind everyone else.  I go strong as the “Stallion” and finish in 50 flat.  Back in town later rockin’ the saxophone with Ryan once more on banjo, tent-full of Americans and Ukrainians lovin’ the vibe.  Back at the house hangin’ with Diana, Jennifer and Houston and the Tuna Turner, avoiding the madness of the night and just stayin’ cool.  The next day perform to Gotye with Jennifer, back into Mykachevo, kickin’ it at bar across from the train station, deciding to play a little something something, as always a musician hears and wants to join, he has some funky renaissance instrument that I have never seen and my musical flexibility reaches a new level.  They ride the same train and Ryan and I hike it across the carts to hang with them, share musical stories, jam out a little bit (describe the reactions of Anton and his partner).  Anton busts out the bagpipe and again is reaffirmed my love for what I do and the beauty of the language of music.

So yeah.  The lady said I had at least seven minutes until the race started.  Then there was someone also taking a nervous pre-run dump, so I waited and then right when I realized I should just use the women’s, a woman decided to use it first.  She said, “We start in five minutes.”  Another minute went by before the dude got out, and I know I didn’t spend more than two minutes in there, yet nevertheless I bolted out of there, toilet paper still on my shoes, and so everyone at the finish line, so thought I was okay until someone said “Pobihaly pobihaly!” translation “Get your ass going, they’re already gone!” and so began the second 10K of my running life. 

 

Right, the musicians.  While my eyes were closed two vagabonds heard my tune and were diggin’ on it, asking if they could take part, I not understanding what instruments they had, of course said “Hell, yeah” and was pleasantly surprised when they busted out the last things I would’ve expected.  A clarinet and some sort of middle-ages violin that involves buttons which break up the chords while you use a bow to play it, you have to see it.  In any case, I quickly realized why the saxophone was made into a jazz instrument, yet forged on anyways with this new challenge.  We continued our jam session later, and surprisingly, no one on the train minded, especially since the Gypsy people were in our wagon.  His partner, the clarinet guy, was just so tickled by it all, and begged me to play my saxophone. 99 times out of 100 I say no, or just let them press the buttons as I play, but I was intrigued to try out the clarinet, and so we switched it up for a few minutes, fiddling around at something we knew not, but could feel out.  Ryan and Anton did the same thing with banjo and crazy thingamajig and we went on whoopein’ into the night…

Finding the Peace Within

Reading the Tao of Pooh, Tao Te Ching, trying to live the philosophy in day to day life, experiencing something close to fullness and enlightenment in Sokelets.  The lightness of it all, and how it will be a guiding force for me this summer.

This captures quite succinctly the way I have been attempting to lead my life for the past month and half, and it is working out quite swell.  Reading these books, I have always been left with such peace and resolution, and that mixed with the sensible and always poignant (to where I want to be moving that is) sentiments of Emerson has gotten me closer to this childlike wisdom that is part of the essence of Taosim, that and action through inaction.  This has been the toughest part, for there are positives and minuses to this tenet of the philosophy (called Wu-Wei).  It is rewarding in that I am finding the simplicities amongst the complexities, allowing for everydays to be the best days, that is finding something to rejoice in them.  Yet at the same time, I have found complacence in not actually doing as much sometimes, finding myself spending hours aimlessly in my room in Nemyriv,  doing everything unspecial while my blog sits open on my desktop, future responsibilities looming as they do so well with uneasiness as if they might fall at any moment, but yet they offer you shade and you so you rest a little longer. 

 

Closer To The Sun

Back at home now, ready for the next adventure.  While the sunshine waits for me and my new Ukrainian bathing suit with arms wide open, currently I am (still) basking in the glory of the most amazing musical night of my life.  It all started with my decision to ride intoKievwith my brother Jenya and his friends from Kozelets who were working at a restaurant that day for the concert.  Turns out that the main cat had worked the day before, and he had this special pass because was waiting tables, for the band!   After my impassioned expression of my love for the band, he gave me his “Staff” pass  and I began the incessant nervous excitement that would take me, as high as the sky, and almost to the sun, but as Iracus so was I.  Here’s what I mean.

I heard that this pass (which I had been proudly flashing around to Theo and Tonya whenever an opportune moment presented itself, which was always) could get me anywhere I wanted, from some guy who had the same pass that was wandering around the concert area.   So, I asked the security if I could get in with my saxophone, because previously (badge-less) I was denied access to the Fan Zone, part of the madness surrounding Euro2012.  At first he said no, until I held up the pass, feeling like inside a moment fromWayne’s World, and he said “Oh sorry sir, I didn’t notice that, please forgive me.  Right this way”  Well, he didn’t say all of that, but he may as well have because that’s how I felt inside the special space.  Theo and Tonya had tickets to the special area, but they couldn’t access it for another hour, so I had this time to wander around in the wonder around me.  I just tried to blend in, not really wanting anyone to ask me any questions, or have to ask any questions myself, as not to blow my cover.  I just sat on the edge of the VIP section of the concert as important people came and went, the bustlings of ensuring that the musicians stay in Kiev would be an unforgettable one (for good reasons).  I took a moment for myself to lean against the front railings before the stage, trying somehow to imagine  what was to come, the feeling (as in love, waiting for that first kiss, unable to handle the knowing of what is to come, so you turn away and wait until the already predicated moment) overwhelms you so much that you can only handle smidgeons of imaginings at a time.

When Theo and Tonya entered the concert area, they pushed their way to the front, where I was waiting in stadium position (saxophone at a cumbersome angle for any trying to get around it, I spread-eagle as to take up as much room as possible).  And after some shrill giggles and jumping up and down all giddy, I decided to test the power of my pass, as I had been to nervous with my saxophone to do so, it doesn’t exactly help you blend in (and the fact that I just realized that my straw hat makes me stand out everywhere, and the six foot four thing, and in this situation I was un-cool as hell as I anxiously waited for my whirlwind to come spiraling down.  I finally played it cool and walked smoothly past the guards without saying a word, like it was all I was meant to do, and began my curious search backstage for what I knew not.  Of course I immediately tested the limits of this pass, found the boundary (which subsequently invoked the unforgiving desire to break that boundary, someway somehow, even though I was already farther than I ever thought I could be.  Such is the nature of power, especially when in the world that you have always dreamed of being).  I carefully watched those around me, listening into conversations about the drummer from his roadie, how “He is so superstitious you know, always has to have his sports drink, you don’t have them here I guess.  Always has to enter the stage from the same side, always shakes your hand in a particular way.”  I quietly followed this roadie, hoping that maybe he would be the one to help me in my quest beyond the limits.  Carefully playing my hand, I was patient, and first decided to take a look at it all from backstage., where the magic would happen in less than three hours.   I dared call out to Tonya while I was on the stage, and left myself like an sheep in wolf’s clothing, only hoping the wolf wouldn’t pick up my scent.  A photo was snapped, and then another with Theo in it, and I returned to soaking in the glory of where I was.  Musician’s instruments scattered precisely across the stage, cases flown from acrossEuropewith the logos of the band, techies fiddling with instruments or just shooting the shit, no one knowing that I wasn’t one amongst them.

So this unquenched desire, this persisting nagging of what lies over the rainbow was finally starting to overwhelm me in a way that all other reason was blinded, and the white fluffiness started to show on my skin, softness where once was a furry hide.  I approach him and say, in English “Excuse me sir, I was wondering if there was any way you could help me meet the band,”  the zipper slowly coming undone, but the guise still intact.  “Absolutely not.  Who do you work for?”  Despite practicing with Theo this exact speech earlier, I am showing my true colors, “I am working with catering,”  I said, a sick nervous feeling building up inside of me.  “Who do you work for” he repeated without missing a beat, “I’m a volunteer,”  the fluffy tail turns into a little stub, a bouncy bob of a thing, “Who do you work for?” , “Sorry to bother you,” as the costume rapidly begins to fall off, but yet I have a chance to escape before they put the pieces together.  “Give it to me,” he says with that awful look your parents give you when they aren’t upset with you but disappointed, and points to the exit.   I sheepishly walk through the gates I had not only moments before entered, at first in embarrassment, then anger, then foolishness, doing that whole rewind thing in my head of “what if”?  But soon it came to me (as in nowish, 24 hours later)  that I had flown closer to the sun than I could have ever imagined, than anyone perhaps thought possible for a boy of my stature, in the position I was to the sun, with such a wax that I had used.  I just felt  so high and the ecstasy was, somehow, still going to bring me back close to heaven, but this time by a whole new force.

The energy was already flying sky-high after the phenomenal performance put on by Elton John  and a fine supporting cast including these two cellists who had opened the show up with some pretty gnarly renditions of Michael Jackson, U2, AC/DC, and even Nirvana.  The over three hours of standing in one place had not taken strength but rather built up suspense, as Tonya , Theo and I rocked out to the soulful pop piano of Sir Elton, and what a powerful voice he has!   And yet life was only going to get better, the moment we had all been waiting for just around the corner (a corner, by the way, which I had been beyond hours before).   The lights went out and the cries of ecstasy rang through the sea of rock worshippers as the guitar began to lay down its riff, the smoke from the back of the stage billowing towards us, the mist above the sea, but clarity in the sound of a voice, the presence of a guitar.  With a  die-hard fan on my shoulders and my heart screaming, I let out the loudest manly cry possible as Brian May and Roger Taylor let their inner-souls sing, together better known to you as Queen.   Without Freddie Mercury before them, the rock legends were led by the most famous of all American Idol losers, Adam Lambert.  Wearing a tight leather jacket with gaudy and frivolous shoulder pads donning sparkling feather, black leather pants, and hair firmly bouncing between rock and pop, Lambert appeared not a far cry from what Freddie Mercury may have rocked if his late twenties had been in the 2000s.  But Queen, oh my god Queen.

A god amongst men, a master of his art, Brian May is perhaps one of the best example of classic rock’s most versatile and ingenious guitarists, and in forty years he hasn’t missed a beat.  Already losing myself in the sheer awe of it all, I flipped out when the voices rang out “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!” , the guitar shredding of my dreams playing out in a way I couldn’t have imagined, and as the solo section came out I just kept screaming “Oh my God, oh my god!” as if I was approaching the top of a roller coaster and was actually reaching out to him asking for help.  Here was heaven on earth and my soul swung with each power chord, my heart soared with each wail, I almost had to close my eyes for the feeling was too great (kind of like in love, when you can no longer stand to look into someone’s eyes for fear your heart will burst, it’s swelling so great, so you close your eyes and let the other senses find a way to balance you and the process repeats).  The show only got better as time went on, Adam and Brian finding incredible synergy, the voice of Adam complimenting the power of the sound with its sheer intensity and confidence, much too like Freddie once did.  Roger Taylor lent his vocals to “Under Pressure” and “These Are The Days Of Our Lives”, both were carefully captured and sensually sealed, the passion in both of them palpable.

I could recall moments of glory from every number if I wanted, but for me the world-rocking moment came when the band (much to my surprise actually) busted out with “Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger now he’s dead” and the knowledge of what to come made me right hot and bothered with anticipation, nevertheless managing to enjoy every slicing and dicing moment.  And then it happened, the guitar solo of my dreams, “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” signature, perhaps one of the greatest riffs in all of guitardom, and I banged my head in sweet reverie, recalling the moments of air-guitaring and jamming out with my father in the living room of our Florida home at the age of 6, then and there falling into a love that I would never fall out of.  Rarities in life are cherished and cannot be described save as completely and utterly yours.

Life from there hasn’t stopped, and I have just returned from my 10 day journey inCrimeaworking at a summer camp.  Found some cool American musicians who are also working at this English camp, and we have started a little group called theInterCampCrocodiles, even though I prefer The Three Little Birds, as we play the eponymous song of Bob Marley.   We jam out every evening for the kids here and even have been asked to gig around a little bit at the resort we are staying at, tonight playing at the local beach bar and grill.  The kids are great and excited and the volunteers are a solid mix of people from all over the States, and it is good.

Soon enough I will be leaving this beach to another, staying inBulgariafor a month with Wizard Camp, and fromSofiawill be on a train with my dear friend Borja fromSpainon our way across the Balkans.  Belgrade to Sarajevo, Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik to Ljubiana, Ljubiana to Venice, Venice to Barcelona, Barcelona to Madrid, Madrid to Budapest, Budapest to Nemyriv.  I only have 13 days, so most places will be day trips, but I have no doubt that however it actually works out, the two man American-Spanish band known as “On the Road” will lead the most memorable debut tour that will be the first, and perhaps the last of their short-lived, but fully-lived careers together.

Thank you thank you thank you for the chance to live this life and celebrate in the blessing that is discovering the way to you(rself).

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Adam, Mister Adam (Tutor) and other short stories

Planting the Seed and Trying to Watch It Grow

You  know that feeling when you have known someone for a long time, but not really like close friends or something, more like you see them everyday at work and say hello and maybe offer a compliment now and then, you know the comings and goings of any courteous person who works with you.  Except then a long time passes, say a summer vacation for example, and you see said people and they shout out your name and you reply in a rousing and confident tone “Hey…You!!!”  Except you say it in a different language and  follow it with some “How are you”ish phrase and they forget all about the fact that if they were to truly ask you “Do you know my name?”  then you would have to work your  magic again to avoid the fact that you forgot completely (completely in the sense that if someone says it outloud you will remember).

I did this dance for a while on the first day of school, just shouting out “Nastia!”  when all else failed, and letting the four of them decide who I meant.  We got straight to work (mostly in Ukrainian, three months of no English means you regress to smiling and saying “yes” to everything that I say “yes” to at the end of my questions (not too far removed from what I do quite often in Ukrainian)), me attempting to start things off on a stricter level, that way my 7th formers don’t end up shouting “Meester Adam!  James Brown!  I Feel Goodt!  I Feel Goodt!” after 20 minutes of instruction.  We created posters for each one of the classes, making up class mottos ( such as “We are cool, we are the best, we learn English better than the rest!”), rules, and goals, that now hang above the door and I point to quite often to remind them of the rules they break everyday.

Since that first day school has flown by, celebrations coming and going, frustrations and realizations coming with them.  It all seemed to be going wonderfully, Olha had asked me to perform something for Teacher’s Day and so I decided to change the Beatles’ “Yesterday” (which all Ukrainians somehow know and love, know being used in its black and white connotation here) into a song about teachers, written in Ukrainian.  I walked into the music teacher’s room, where I heard her playing “Yesterday” on her violin, somehow beautifully thinking that this would be the song to play, serendipity at its finest and the rehearsal went swimmingly.

The day of the performance ended up being just myself and an 11th former who plays guitar, and we decided to let the audience come together on the final verse, for I had passed out the words to everyone in the auditorium so that they could follow along.  I stood at the threshold of the stage, approaching a new moment in the course of my relationship with my school, and let forth a declaration of my appreciation and love for my dear teachers, how my experience in Ukraine “meant nothing without their support and care”.  I soon after explained the directions for the sing-along part of the song, and went forward into the thick of it all, and it went by without a hitch.   I sang as loud as I could in Ukrainian and the students joined in harmony (or something close to it, or completely far from it depending how honest you are or how much you care)  and the energy in the room was palpable, a healthy portion of gratitude was being doled out by the musicians on the stage and the voices in the crowd.  It felt real good.

Yet the trouble came (as it always does) when I began to subconsciously look for some sort of approval, some sort of recognition that it wasn’t just me who felt it, but that someone else was bursting with that effervescence that is joy and pride and all other wonderful things that come when you are simultaneously experiencing and giving “it” to the world.  A wise man said “seek and you shall find” and I am still confused at what He meant by that, because it seemed the more I sought the less I found, or rather sometimes intentionally created just to hear what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to know that I was appreciated in this school, that on this “Teacher’s Day” that someone actually recognized me as a teacher, that my fellow teacher’s recognized me as a teacher, that they would find it in their Eastern European hearts to actually let go and express exactly what was on their mind regardless of the consequences or the letting of their words forever into the air.  I received one “Molodets” (“well done”) from an unexpected someone, but nothing from the expected someones.  I had poured out my heart to them, prepared something wonderful for them, given a year of my life and soon more to them and their school, and I guess a simple “Thank you” in the course of a year would be nice.

Yet since that time, as I reflect upon the memories and emotions that flooded me at that moment, so much has happened.  So much love has been poured into me, so much energy has been harnessed, and I am pouring it right back out.  Perhaps more than anything I continue to reorganize the Ego within me, throw out those selfish desires, replace them with the spirit of a servant, and radically change the way I perceive the world around me.  Less and less do I need, and, the more and more I realize that, the easier it becomes to be without.  And the funny thing is, as understanding kicks in, I begin to receive all that I was wanting before, simply because I am not craving it, I am not looking for it.  Although there is something I have started seeking more passionately, and I think I am starting to understand what He meant.

Jazz Is In The Air (And On The Airwaves)

Sweet sweet jazz music.  The autumn sun shines brightly, bringing out the true radiance of my yellow sweater, highlighted by none other than my blue pants (the ones that inspired my South Africa book “Color the Pants Blue”, I had received them right when summer came about, and had yet to have a real opportunity to share them with the world).  Sweet sweet jazz music.  Dancing freely in the wide open spaces (it is almost redundant to say this, for, at least to me, one can hardly truly break loose without ample room to throw your arms and legs and inhibitions into the air) I smile and secretly it becomes contagious.  Not right away, but as they watch Gayane and I swinging it so carefree, I know that the “No no, I don’t know how”s and the “But I love watching you more”s are just kind excuses for the burning desire in their hearts to let themselves just be, within the elements and spirit and soul that this music brings to life.

The reason we are dancing is the simple truth that we know not what else to do.  The more complex reason is that it is Vinnytsia Day and the jazz orchestra is playing some swing standards and I have never heard jazz music in the fresh air since coming to Ukraine.  Pasha and Dasha and Misha and Anna all stand to the side, twiddling their thumbs and talking about things that must be quite dull in comparison to what our bodies are talking about right now.  Every song brings out a new energy, and I am in love with the sound.  After each musician I get up the guts to go and talk to them and tell them how wonderful I felt listening to them and that I am a jazz musician see look at this saxophone case to my side I never go anywhere important without and won’t you let me play with you someday?  I even bust it out for a moment as I hear this Latin guitar ensemble playing “Tequila” and join in on my saxophone and a spontaneous dance party erupts around me.  The excuse-makers kind of start shaking their bodies a little bit, while Gayane and myself continue our prancing while some fellow American volunteers begin movin’ and groovin’ it (like James Brown would have if he were 65 and white) and last but most definitely not least a babusya (Ukraine’s matriarch) feels it and lets go with some little jig that I wish she would teach me because it was truly glorious.

The clock strikes not more than once more, and another dance party begins.  Gayane and I noticed this group of girls kind of trying to feel the music, so we went over and let our moves speak for us. They must have spoken quite clearly and powerfully, for within two or three minutes, what had started out as a friendly gesture turns into one of those dance circles that you normally see black people make at your junior high dances but are always too afraid to join them, because Heaven forbid someone pushes you into the middle and you have to strut your stuff.  Soaking in the moment, we smile and realize the beauty of what we have created, and let it grow on its own, our job is done.  Yet as we walk away, a news lady, camera man close behind, spots us and asks if she can ask us a few questions.

The next day at six o’clock I made my debut on Ukrainian television, speaking about the beauty of jazz and swing and how I love it all so.  If part of my life here is sharing this music with people so completely and wonderfully (and it is), then I must say, my life is becoming more and more fulfilled.

My Sabbath

The day after my 15 seconds of fame (I heard that’s about how long it was actually, I didn’t have the chance to see it myself, only random kids who said it with their voices and others who said it with the way they turned their head all the way around after you have passed, obviously you turning your head also because you wonder if they saw you on TV, I wonder what actual stars feel like) I ran about Vinnytsia in my bright colored clothes and shared the spirit of the same essence with those around me.  My first opportunity came when Pasha told me that we would be meeting with an important desirer of English (wanting is not enough) in the morning.  More of this important desirer in a moment, for now I must take a moment to illustrate to you the hues, cast mostly from a heartbreaking noir film aching for color, of Pasha.

We met this summer at Wizard Camp, he was immediately thrilled to meet this man from Texas, (he had heard all about me from Valerie, the volunteer who once lived in Nemyriv with me and invited me to meet him before, but I guess it was meant to work out this way) and I was excited to meet a fellow male teacher of English (how rare they are in this country, only one exists in my entire rayon (county)).  Not only was he a teacher but he had expression and emotion and energy and ideas like no other Ukrainian I had met, his knowledge of English and his manner of speech filled with past experiences and the desire to truly not just have English as a second language (or third language for all people living in the former USSR)  but as just another native language.  His distinguishing feature though, above all else in my mind, was his desire to become a Texan, tantamount to the same yearning that a young fledgling might have to get out of that nest, except Pasha is full grown and ready but something is holding him back.  Now about that.

A few weeks ago, after several months of spending every Sunday with Pasha and late Saturday evenings too, he takes me onto the balcony at Gayane’s apartment (more on her later) and said “I need to tell you something that has been on my heart” and so I waited and didn’t expect the shocker that came next, because Pasha has a big heart and is always expressing it fully, almost more so than I am, but the source of it all is different.  He continued on with pain in his eyes, “Adam, I have a son, I saw him for the first time in 8 months today.”  I waited and processed as he continued on about his son and then said “He lives right now with his mother, my wife.  I also have a wife.”  I had known neither one of these things nor even a hint of them for the past 3 months of getting to know Pasha, so easily put I was unsure what my next move was.  So I just listened.

Weeks later the listening hasn’t stopped, for the stories keep coming.  Pasha has since explained to me that his wife (who he just officially divorced a few days ago) belonged to this special Christian sect that he also pledged his faith to, whose beliefs eventually intersected with his own conscience, and not so gently.  This dissonance could not just sit in his soul, so he told his wife, and she proceeded to leave him and take their son.  She came back.  Then one day Pasha came back and almost all of his things were gone, she had skedaddled (a word I should teach him) with whatever she could, but left Pasha’s heart, in pieces on the floor where everything had once been (he still has their wedding picture up, he wants to remember the good times, but as a fuse always leads to something exploding, so to starting from the beginning spark just leads to destruction for him).  He confesses quite outwardly his loneliness, his simple human desire for company, he sticks to me like white on rice (another expression I should teach him), for many reasons, but mostly because I am good to him.  This lack of love in his life has torn him apart and made him quite desperate, which isn’t attractive on anyone, and, as such, has left him ironically even lonelier than before.   It has even made me question my relationship with him on many occasions, especially those in which he is drunk or trying to find some easy fix to satisfy his yearning heart.

But I can’t help what I mean to him, and the fact that I feel kind of special around him because he is a fascinating guy and a caring person with a big heart (which, he wanted me to tell all you Texans,  has a “lone star burning bright” inside it).  He does have this incredible desire to someday (imagine the best Ukrainian-Texas accent you can, I know it’s pretty unimaginable) “live on a farm, taking care of my cattle over there yonder, somewhere near Lubb…, Lubbo… how do you call it again?  (Lubbock)  Yeah, of course, over yonder in Lubbock” (He has become obsessed with saying “yonder” and things like “stick a fork in my I’m done” at all the right times and all the wrong times too).  Oh, he wants me to buy him a Stetson when I’m home.  That will seal the deal on the friendship for sure.

The bottom line is to say that Pasha has, in some strange way, come to represent a majority of the relationships that I now maintain in Ukraine.  Not all are such sad stories, and not all speak to my heart in such a powerful way, but nevertheless the nature of them are the same.  What I mean is this: what I receive from these relationships is minimal, in terms of what I am learning, what I am gaining, how I am being truly challenged, how much I am receiving in so many different meanings of the word.  Rather my relationships have become about giving, about sharing what I have to give with all of those around me, and knowing that, because of the blessing that fills me, it is now only my desire but my duty, to give so completely to anyone that needs me here.  Such an understanding has manifested itself in many ways, and I will carry on to that in a moment.  But for now back to that important desirer of English.

Her name is Yaroslava, and she was crowned Miss Ukraine (yes, like Miss America, except prettier and she sings in the second most melodious language in the world (yeah, that’s Ukrainian, it’s not Russian, I will show you)).  For about a month we met at Pasha’s favorite little joint which is a half Italian half Mexican food joint, that depending upon which section you sit in either has cheesy photos of pizza on the wall (pun intended, also interesting to note now that “chessy” is one of the more difficult concepts to explain to Ukrainians, I have tried on many occasions) or Ukraine’s interpretation of life south of the border, my favorites  which include the repetition of the only Spanish word they know “burrito” in various fonts and colors and Antonio Banderas as Zoro superimposed on a photo of what must be some mirage-inspired desert with ridiculous looking Mexicans donning sombreros also super-imposed behind their churros. 

So, Yaroslava and I talked of life and how to say things like “Ukraine is a country full of rich traditions and an eager people, whose desire to create a better future is as rich as their borshch” (a Ukrainian beet-based soup that is a staple of their diet, quite tasty after a cold day).  She spoke about her nervousness about communicating in English with people on the streets of England, and I taught her how to say things like “cheerio” and “top o’ the morning” which are my go-to phrases to impress an Englishman.  I hope she used them (she must have done something right, she received 8th place in the whole world!).  I guess she was using me for my sweet English skills, shameless Ukrainian women dragging boys along just for the accent (happened to the Beatles too I guess) for I haven’t heard from her since she returned.  Nevertheless, it might be something to put on my resume, “taught Ukrainian children and Miss Ukraine the English language”.

The rest of the day is spent at different English clubs.  Vinnitsia is stock-full of twenty-somethings desiring to hone their English-skills in order to truly compete for work in the place that everybody wants to get to in this country, Kiev.  Thus there are many different organizations that dub themselves “English” courses, some are more capable than others.  The first organization I go to at noon likes to use a lot of goofy British videos to teach their kids English and print out whatever cool thing they find when they type in “English slang” on Google and call it a day (to be fair I wouldn’t know what the hell to do if I were to teach a foreign language, which tools are the best, etc., so I don’t blame them).  Such is why I go, to give these students a true a taste of what life is like in America, and that if you say “give me a fag” on the streets of America you may end up being introduced to more than just smoking.  Some of the highlights include showing the clips of “Borat” to demonstrate table manners and consequently joining the “dinner table” to see if they learned anything from what Borat did, watching them perform skits using words like “bangin’”, “let’s raise the roof” and “peace out” in all the wrong ways, and calling upon Charlie Brown or School House Rock when all else fails and letting them figure out what “blockhead” means.

Soon after this class I run across town to Wizard to team up with my partner, (it has also become natural in his lexicon to use “partner” following the word “Howdy” whenever he sees me now, grinning from ear to ear), Pasha.  Our act has taken on quite it’s own rhythm and flow, roles understood but always searching for more attention, we both need a lot of it (but, if  you can believe it, Pasha more than I).  For nearly three hours every Sunday afternoon we are joined by 10-15 pretty talented students between the ages of 16-22 for a discussion based around various topics including extreme sports, literature, music, and even Ukraine’s induction to the European Union (which took the form of “blind date” type gathering where each student represented a country of the EU and had to explain why it was worthy of its membership, Ukraine having the toughest job of all).  Pasha and I come with random videos and songs and articles to pass around and share with the class to promote discussion (recently Pasha has become obsessed with the 90s series “Tales From the Crypt” which, watching 15 years later, should not have ever been a children’s show) which also usually involves me improvising something at random (I have become quite good at this which, while useful, can become quite dangerous if you rely on your improvisational skills without any actual rehearsal.  It’s like jazz, you dig?).  One of these random ideas has taken an integral role in our clubs, that being debates (which, if any of you ever decide to teach English as a foreign language, is an incredible tool to challenge kids abilities to think for themselves and in a moment and not just spit out what they got from their out of date Russian Ukrainian British textbook).

Our most recent club was centered around the court system, and a majority of our club centered on a mock trial, with me as the defendant, Pasha as the judge, and the students as the defending and prosecuting attorneys, as well as the witnesses and jury (ironically they were the same students who witnessed and passed judgment, maybe that’s what Ukraine is doing wrong).  The facts of the case (composed by Pasha) read something to this effect- “A week ago the defendant, Adam Tutor, hit one Rick Perry while driving his car, resulting in Mr. Perry’s Death.  Tests showed Mr. Tutor to be sober, although his girlfriend had broken up with him that very day.  Mr. Tutor was reported to be very helpful with Mr. Perry after the accident, yet he was caught going 130 mph.  The question is whether this was manslaughter or murder” (I think this was inspired by talks Pasha and I had previously had regarding my feelings toward Mr. Perry, although I guaranteed in the trial he is a guy I would love to have a beer with, just not in the Oval Office).  The jury, after a passionate effort from my attorney, found me guilty of manslaughter (we had tried to convince them that it was the fault of incompetent doctors that truly killed Mr. Perry), but then, in a blessed turn of fate, Pasha received a phone call from the hospital that Mr. Perry was in fact only in a coma and is now alive and wishes that Mr. Tutor not receive prison time, but merely a fine for speeding.  Perhaps I need to reevaluate this man based on three things-his forgiving nature, his superhuman strength (130mph would kill a non-Texan), and, uh, wait, what’s that third one?  Come one, ummm.  Nope.  I don’t know.  Oops.

Fireworks Come After The Wedding

Most days you wake up and it is what a day is-Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner and the things that make you thirst, make you hunger in between.  Yet some days you wake up and you forget all about Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner because you feed upon the life that presents itself to you and imbibe upon the bacchanalia that surrounds you, (although not the way Bacchus would have done, well not on this day at least).  My first Nemyriv Day was such an occasion, ( forget the exact date now actually, but it was sometime in late September, that’s for sure, I’m gonna say the 24th).  Anyways, in Ukraine there is a celebration for everything, (every other day I have to wish blessing upon Natalia or Mikolyaev because it is their “Angel Day” (today it is Vira, which means “faith” in Ukrainian)), so it made sense that Nemyriv would celebrate the day that it was founded, when it first called itself Nemyriv (which, rather solemnly means “unpeaceful” which is what they named it after the original name “peace” got their town burned to the ground by the Mongols six centuries ago).

Not really sure what to expect, but hoping to play with my friend Sasha who runs the “batoot” (trampoline) in the park everyday during which it is above sixty degrees (so April-ish-October-ish), I carried along my saxophone (which I think I just decided to name “Nadia”, which means “hope” in Ukrainian, I think it sounds prettier than just “hope”, and everyone here needs a little of it) and headed into the Nemyriv streets.  Now on those Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner days, these streets look pretty simple- the one well paved road leading to the one stoplight in town, which is located at the heart of the center in front of the House of Culture (effectively the performance hall for the town) and the Catholic Cathedral which is also the bell and clock tower.  Lenin watches over this heart, as he does in most towns, and stands in front of the abandoned movie theater, as he does in most towns.

Yet today there are no cars at this stoplight for there are no cars on this road.   No, the whole street is closed down and there is a lightness in the air that I hadn’t felt since the first official day of Spring and it was glorious.  People ran hither and thither, to and fro with a gaiety that is more fitting on me, yet somehow today is quite becoming, chasing their little children or gathering together like chickens around feed, pecking around for the latest gossip.  Lenin’s view was slightly hindered by the giant blow up slide manifestation and Sasha’s trampoline relocated to a more prominent position, his random assortment of cotton candy stand and shooting range and children’s assortment of things that you would find at your local Chuckee Cheese was the hit of the day and he was soaking it all in, so he didn’t have time to play with me.  Never mind it all,   I turned my attention to the giant stage that had been set up in front of the House of Culture, filled with little girls in flowery dresses dancing or a strange man trying to be something like a clown (he wasn’t convincing anyone though), and for a moment I felt strangely alone amidst all the hubbub, looking for a place to play my horn (isn’t that what we’re all really looking for?).  Absorbing this unfamiliar site for a little bit longer, I finally decided to take myself to the park and find that place to play my horn.

I had not been but warming up when a familiar looking fellow caught my eye and eventually he caught my eye catching his eye and before I knew it I was strapping on my saxophone and following him to this large gathering of people all fancied up in Sunday dresses and sharp looking suits, and at the center of it all was a bride and her groom.  My dear friend’s name is Rooslan, a musician who I had played with when I first arrived to Nemyriv about a year ago now, and now he is a videographer of weddings and other formal events, both of which collided quite beautifully on this sunny autumn day.  The introduction to the wedding party proved redundant mostly, as somehow they all already knew me, although I couldn’t recall a single face.  Nevertheless this proved rather useful as I seemed somehow to blend right into the motions of the celebrating, while also naturally standing out ( 6’ 4”, an American accent, and a saxophone strapped around your neck will do that sometimes).  Rooslan told me to play some blues or something and so I jammed out a little bit to the unsuspecting ears of the newlyweds, and then we toasted and I said “Dyakooyoo shcho ve zaprocyly mene s’hodni, shchob ya mih podilitesya dzhazz z’vame.  Ya vam bazhayoo nichoho ale nayuhkrashche!”  (Thank you that you invited me today, in order that I could share jazz with you.  I wish you nothing but the best!) and they all clapped and we drank champagne from plastic glasses and then I played one of the only Ukrainian songs I know as I exited and they sang along and danced and I carried on back to my little bench in the center of the park next to the fountain next to the playground next to the palace, the most noticeable place in the park, hoping not really to be noticed again (but secretly not worried about it all too much).

Soon after another wedding party scampered along with merriment (and probably a little bit of vodka, actually it turned out to be cognac) in their step, and one of the guys recognized me from a time we had met at Nemyriv’s most popular bar, Ellips, and before I knew it I was taking swigs of cognac straight from the jar and waiting for my second wedding gig of the day.  This time I played “Over the Rainbow” for the lovers and they were wooed and wowed and oohed and ahhed and whatever other emotions come in those kind of moments and I was just giddy with excitement at the chance to become Nemyriv’s “wedding singer” for the day.

After joining my friend Volariy (who, for most of fall, was my unofficial trainer at the gym, making sure always to place his giant hands around my chicken legs and tell me stories about how he used to be the champion dead lifter in the oblast (like state))  for a nice dinner I headed back into the center, watched the finals of the arm-wrestling champion that took place just in front of the abandoned movie theater, behind Lenin’s back (think of the cheesiest scenes possible from that movie with Sylvester Stallone), and wondered about into the center until I happened upon some friends.  I spent the rest of the evening wandering about between random acquaintances, dancing my butt off to crazy Russian rap, kickin’ it with my old pal Misha who I hadn’t seen much of lately, and dancing like a Kossack (Ukraine’s unofficial cowboy who wears a mean handle bar mustache and a long thick lock of hair that proceeds directly from the center of his head without any other hair surrounding it, it’s pretty wild) with my little nephew Maxim.  That was probably the most memorable part for me, the moments spent with my family out on the town, seeing mama Nina in her nice clothes and laughing and smiling in a different environment, she hardly ever gets out of the house.  Liuda and Olha were there too, and we shared in moments that when captured in still frame so rightly show the joy that was had, but still leave so much missing as the revelry means so much more to those on the inside than what you plainly see on the outside.  As the fireworks danced in the sky, bursting with pride above the clock tower, falling somewhere into the ether, I smiled as I looked back down upon my family, around at my community, and realized how proud I was to be a part of this town, truly today back to it’s original name for a sense of “peace” resonated through the air.

Jazz. Feeling. Human Again

It’s easy to notice people that move like you-it’s in the sway, the type of freedom, the aura that exudes from their very stompings on the group, like a magnetic pulse it pulls you in and you understand that moving to the beat of your own drummer means sometimes you have to share that rhythm, you get to share that rhythm.  I had just arrived, looking for Gayane, but instead spotted her, dancing to the swingin’ sounds of the Vinnytsia Jazz Band, the sunlight falling in between the downbeats, she the only one dancing, I the only one smiling because she is the only one dancing and so I carried on with that smile.

Gayane is my go to gal for everything music related, being that she is Armenian and not Ukrainian, there is no sense of propriety about the way she expresses herself, she just does what she wants and feels the beats that no one else knows and cares nothing about what they are thinking unless they are thinking about joining in and in that case she welcomes them with open arms and her big brown eyes.  She is a beautiful supporter of my jazz music, and has recently become obsessed with “The Girl From Ipanema” but more about that later.

She is to my left, and the man from Brazil is to my front,  and jazz lovers are all around me.  Just the man with his guitar, if ever a portrait has been painted, he quietly took us away to a far away place, playing so delicately “The Girl From Ipanema”, of course the place he took me was still so fresh in my mind, Katy on the shores of Salvador, the feel of those cobble-stoned streets underneath my unprepared flip-flopped feet, the taste of caipirinhas as you close your eyes and know the exact time of  day by the sound of the tide coming to and fro upon the sand closer and closer to your toes.  Not so long after the show I spoke to him in Portuguese saying “Muito obrigado” then asking him in English what sounds and sights of Brazil influenced his music the most, as I had just returned from Brazil not too long ago, and then ended it by saying “Todo estaba bellaza”, and he laughed politely but not so politely so that I knew he thought it was pretty cool to meet an American in Ukraine who spoke to him in Portuguese, or so I told myself.  No matter either way, at least Katy was proud of me.

Many other musicians from around the world came and went during the next 24 hours (including this wild piano/drum duo from Russian with this chick piano player with hair straight outta some Suzanne Somers workout video, but man did she kill those keys when she played a funked out free-style on Brubeck’s classic “Take Five), but the highlight for me came after the show by the American quartet featuring Abraham Burton.

I had met their translator earlier that day (by fate of course) in the street and asked if she could try and pull some time for me to chat with the band, seeing as I was probably the only American jazz saxophonist that would be watching the show, and so of course Abraham and I would have something wonderful to talk about.  I waited patiently as random Ukrainians struggled for their moment with the American (little did they know they were already amongst one) and realized I wouldn’t get my seven minutes in heaven (it would’ve felt the same for me) as their Ukrainian manager man guy was telling everyone they had a plane to catch in Kiev in only 5 hours and had to book it out of there.  I caught the drummer as he was leaving saying “Hey man, just want to say thanks so much for a great show,”  he smiled and said real cool-like  “Yeah man, glad you enjoyed it,” and waited albeit hesitatingly for he knew I wasn’t done and could’ve gone on for a while.  “Yeah, I am actually a musician from the states, waiting for a chance to see some real guys play.  You really made my day,” and, right foot pointing outwards with his gait finishing the conversation, said “Cool man, hope to catch you someday state-side”.   And with that a little jazz boy’s heart soared, and it would only be taken higher.

Abraham, the leader and saxophonist, was about to get away when I said, “Hey, just wanted to extend my thanks for coming out here, loved it man.”  His jazz man cap tilting just ever so slightly on his mellow and easy countenance, his unbuttoned thrice loose fitting black silky collared shirt smoothly complimenting his worry-free and newly refreshed soul (just cathartic and yeah yeah yeah) he said “It was our pleasure man,” and I plowed forward.  “You see, I’m a volunteer here in Ukraine, have been here for a while and have been waiting for some real music to come my way.  And to see a true sax man, what a treat.  I’m a sax man too!”  And then his broad shouldered but soft torso came closer to mine as he took my hand in one of those bro-man hugs where you bring around the other hand to give a nice pat on the back and all is well, except this time I had to constrain myself as it all happened so fast and he said “Alright man, keep it up brother,” let go of my hand and walked away.  I don’t know if he heard the purity of glee that poured forth from my blissful soul as I watched him go, understanding the bond that had just been created, but something tells me he will remember me when we catch each other, someday, state-side.

If You Want To View Paradise, Simply Look Around And View It

It’s simple to feel light when the world around you is perfectly easy.  La di da, la di di…in a world of pure imagination.  I sat down in a chair and looked straight ahead almost dumbly excited for knowing nothing of what was going on nor what would happen next, only seeing her smile softly brimming with energy and this spark that happens when you simultaneously predict and understand the full value of the complete transcendence of the moment that is about to occur because you decided to share your soul with another’s of the same color.  She points it at me, this pencil with no eraser, and says, grinning widely and light dancing off the wrinkles next to her eyes, “Draw!”  Now of course if she had actually said “Draw!” then it might have seemed a little more natural, but she doesn’t speak English and so said “Maluyeh!”  and course I knew what it meant but no one had ever said that to me, in English or Ukrainian, so I really didn’t know what it meant.  My unsteady hand lurched towards the easel in front of me, as my eyes and brain and some neurological process whose direct course of action from synapse to production of motion I still have yet to understand even slightly, attempted to translate the still life of bottle, apples, tiny leaf-enshrouded flowers, and paisley backdrop into a semi-reasonable outline of what was to be the first real painting of my natural born life.

She takes the brush from me and flicks it effortlessly in what must look like haphazard ways to the naked eye, and in fact is such but only to her it is the right way the free way- “Relax.  Be free, this is your creation, stop thinking so much and just go,” is what she said and so encapsulated the beauty of our friendship as she handed the brush over to me.  Tanya is amazing and she is my artist friend, truly an angel sent to add some zest and color to my life in a way that no one else here in Nemyriv (or in many places for that matter) has been able to do.  We were introduced one cool autumn day on the telephone from the kitchen of our school when I took Natalia’s phone (her mother and my mother’s longtime cook friend  whom I chat with on an almost daily basis as I watch my mother go about her culinary tasks) and said “Hey I have something to offer you and I hear you have something to offer me, and so we should meet and be friends” or something spontaneously wonderful to that effect and so our friendship started.

Our relationship has taken on beautiful hues and wonderments since that day, learning about one another through oils on canvas, words in the air, smiles abounding, or swing steps swaying.  Every time I go to visit her I am welcomed by the kind of smile you wish you could see everyday when you wake up and so you would know that it would be a glorious sunshiney day.  I sit down on her couch and we sprinkle our thoughts about the room, she tells me about the latest painting on her wall, and what she is working on next (As we speak she is painting a portrait of me in her new art space.  It is vivid and wonderful and Oh! what joyful fun we have together.  Yesterday we even busted open a bottle of Triple Sec that we found in cleaning out the old storage space, something that must’ve been fifty plus years old, purchased from Cuba during the whole communist thing, and we drank some and danced to beautiful Latin music and I felt like I was anywhere but Ukraine).

I tell her about how my perspective of the world around me has changed, how I now view things more vividly and brightly and with an eye for the space between, (it’s where the beauty bursts forth from in brilliant understanding), how I am so glad to have met her and that I think we are so much the same and there is no one like her that I have yet found in Ukraine, and I am so happy to share in the brightness of our souls and teach one another and smiling on the inside when we both know that, language aside, our feelings mean the exact same thing in completely different and wonderful ways.  She truly is a breath of fresh air in my life, and I am so thankful for our friendship, all the things it has taught me and all it will teach me so soon.

Back to that whole letting go thing.  As soon as I discovered what it felt like, I couldn’t get enough of it.  I told Tanya about how it felt so wonderful, and she said “Yes, oh, I know, yes, so nice” in that calm and reassuring way that she can do so well, making me feel like a million bucks.  I told her also, after the first day of actual painting, that I couldn’t remember the last time I had truly held a paintbrush, that I must have been like eight years old and I could never have truly appreciated it all then.  I told her of the exhilaration I felt when things went right and when things went wrong, because it was something so incredibly new and fantastic and it helped me to understand so much more clearly and appreciate so much more the world that had chosen her, that she had fallen so perfectly into.  She just smiled and did that cute little thing she does where she kind of shrugs her shoulders up close to her shining countenance and her cheeks get all red and she kind of giggles a little bit and says something sweet that often I understand but sometimes I just decide to let the smile say it all.

The feeling of putting that final brush mark upon that first painting is something that I can truly not describe, but let’s just say discovering new kinds of pride and joy (maybe I understand Stevie Ray now) is one of the most rewarding feelings that has surely been discovered, and so I ran home like a child with his all A’s to show my momma and see if she would put it on the refrigerator.  She put it in the school on the kitchen wall instead.

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)/  Just Say “Dance” And Watch What Happens

Her body moved sinuously through the air, as if there were this complex of lasers that she were moving in, out of, halted but flowing, strangely natural looking for her but bodies don’t move that way.  I tried to move my body the same way alongside her, as if a leaf drifting to the same motion as the river it floats on, but the river is in control and sometimes the leaf is picked up by the wind.  She stopped and put her hands on her hips, her face becoming more Russian than usual as my straying and awkward became expressed to her as “No, no, you are thinking too much.  Just relax and allow your body to move the way it wants.”  I just smiled to myself and to her in a different way and said “Now I know that you know how I feel with the swing”.  She does that little laugh that is a friendly recognition of mutual understanding, not really even a laugh but more of the kind of smile that is overwhelmed and so it lets energy out in some indescribable whisp of air that makes a sound something like a laugh, and so it is that I know she is more than just there.

Originally I had gone to meet Nastia.  She was the girl that I had spotted at the Jazz Festival, moving to the rhythm of the 2 and 4, swinging her hips just so in that way that girls do when they don’t care if someone is watching, or when they really want that someone to be watching.  Eventually it became so that I was the someone watching, and this time I was feeling kinda spunky so I took her hand without really asking her and we started dancing to the jazz music that is never playing on the streets of Ukraine so when it was you better believe I made the most of it all.

Three weeks later we were sitting across from each other at a somewhat contrived coffee shop in the mall (any coffee shop in a mall must be that way) wondering what we were really doing in each other’s lives.  As chance had it, Pasha had begged and pleaded his way into joining me and, fancy that, Nastia had a friend that joined her as well.  Conversation began somewhat naturally, simple courtesies and “well tell me, how does that work out for you”s  and so on, until the word “jazz” was uttered (in its simple mellifluous yet sensual falling from the tongue it has a way to stop all ears upon its liberated “zz” that you see far too rarely in the English language).  It had come about due to Nastia mentioning that what she really wanted to do was “dance” (upon this word the girl next to her, Nadia, lit up the same way I did with “jazz” except I wouldn’t really find this out until later).  Nastia was really passionate about putting together a dance for her university’s birthday party, and she had always wanted to learn how to swing, and so it was almost tacitly confirmed by the nature of it all that I would be leading a swing dance for the first time in my life (but they wouldn’t really find this out until later).  I spent most of the rest of the conversation not really there, lost in some bliss of making Nastia the perfect swing mix so that she could get her body ready for the big day.

The music began and, as it always does when I hear that big bass thumpin’ along and the tsss tsss of the snare with the clap of the high hat, my body just started going, kind of like cartoon characters when their legs are moving real fast but they’re not going anywhere, the fight or flight response kickin’ in before you are even aware, yet instead this is more like the dance or glance response, either let go or just stand there and look around at how you have no idea what to do.  Yet all too quickly I realize that there are five girls staring at me who have absolutely no idea where to begin, the glance response firing from all cylinders, although they seem have confidence and control over their bodies and what they do.  In the same whiff of realization it becomes clear to me that I have no idea how to teach women how to dance, as I have only ever danced the man’s role and so I spend moments of gleeful laughter and confident confusion trying to figure out to give these eager girls the same confident confusion, so at least we’ll be in it together.  As it becomes clearer and clearer to me that they are eager for more, their thirst clear in the way have already begun to move free of the form I have taught them, I begin to just run around and dance with each one of them in turn and spin them freely and wonderfully and they smile and as they laugh and turn away I move on to the next and on the tip of my toes feeling light as air live in the fantasy that must be the moment I am in, yet really is only just beginning.

(Long story short we decided to perform Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”  inspired in our choreography by the movie “Swing Kids” about a group of German youth who protested the stifling inhibition of expression during the war by letting their souls shine through swing.   The feeling of dancing on stage was a first for me and I hope not a last, and what I learned along the way will be invaluable to me as I continue my search to strike chords of empathy with all forms of art.  If you want the full story, (believe me I could talk about it for days, the movements and the life and the love of this music is so bright) please don’t hesitate to ask I will be writing much more on this experience).

Yet above the liberation and the power you feel when you flip a girl upside down, what I gained was a friendship that I know will last for ages.  Far closer to me than Nastia, my actual dance partner for six weeks, Nadia has become an integral part of my life here in Ukraine.  To tell her story would be a book (I am thinking about writing such a one) but suffice it to say that now that she is in it, I cannot imagine my life here without her.  A beautiful transformation happened so subtly and naturally in our relationship, it is hard for me to remember the exact moments that triggered the more ultimately defining moments.  A few stand out in my mind.

 

The space between people on public transportation in Ukraine is usually quiet and little, leaving room only for awkward breaths or pockets of discovery.  In Nadia there were both as we would ride together to swing practice in the city, Nastia already waiting with the dancers and I tagging along from 50 kilometers away, my accompaniment playing a soft staccato to my bursts of life.  She had this way of offering everything while offering nothing, simple sarcastic moments opening up the opportunity for understanding, then closing right back up upon further inquiry.  She would be hiding something, but wanting me to know, I could see this trust building and I would reach out for it, seeing it clinched in our fists that I could have pried open easily if I so desired, but I was waiting for her to give it me herself.  It mostly happened when I found out that she was a dancer beyond the swing world, that she had come from a place that she didn’t mention too often anymore.

It completely happened quite unexpected really, when she called one evening just wanting to let me know that she didn’t know if she would be able to make it to swing practice on Friday.  I asked her why and an hour later we were still on the phone together, she beginning the slow process of unfolding her soul to me.

Nadia is a dreamer and a free spirit and an aching body that is trapped in a world that is not capable of understanding the way her body moves.  She is being inhibited most by her father, who will not support her or, if he can manage, allow her to even mention the word “dance” in front of him, for reasons that take longer to mention than I can say here.  Suffice it to say that at one point Nadia was under the instruction of a Russian couple who have won international dance competitions in ballroom, salsa, and Nadia was traveling all around the country lending her spirit to the world, until one day she realized she couldn’t do it and wanted to dance another way.  Some people couldn’t understand that, and so began the phenomenal transformation that is a butterfly in reverse metamorphosis, being taken from the skies and air and colors and becoming once more something grounded, inching across in search of sustenance, and finally locked restlessly back once more in the cocoon.

Since that conversation our worlds have opened up to one another.  She has sent me numerous emails filled with her favorite dance performances, the people that have inspired her, even a few where she is taking part herself.  I have given her my South Africa and Chicago stories, and she has dived into them head first, understanding the beauty of our exchange.  She has called me to ask me to record my “American accent” for demonstrations of various English accents and even a slang-ified version of “The Three Little Pigs”, while I have called upon her to help me translate a 500 word speech which I gave recently to an audience of over 100.  We have danced together and felt freedom, we have laughed together and felt joy, we have roamed the streets of Ukraine in search of nothing and found everything, we have sat together in the dim lamp light of a café and talked about jazz as we turn the pages of one of jazz’s greatest photographers.  We have given each other our trust and our friendship and it has become an investment that has paid off greater than either one of us could ever have known.

Sabina From The Bus

One of the greatest things about the people in this world is there are always more of them.  More to discover, more to smile, more to live and to grow and to tramp across the ground with careless abandon and brimming with that feeling you get when you first step of that plane into a new world and breath the air that you have never breathed before.  We have the beautiful opportunity to meet any person at any time, but the probability becomes infinitely higher when you look and talk and act different than everyone around you.  A smiling American in a golfer hat jabbering in English as he sits on a bus amongst humbly dressed Ukrainians whispering under tough upper lips, for example, probably has as high a chance as anyone.

Such was the exact situation when I met Sabina, a young twenty something who was sitting next to me on the bus for the forty minute bus ride from Vinnytsia to Nemyriv, getting up the courage to ask me where I was from, and if I would be so kind as to help  her with her English, because she had always wanted to improve it and had never had the opportunity and now was her great chance and Oh! if I would help her wouldn’t it be nice and yes that is all- which is exactly what she did (in Ukrainian of course, cuz’ if she could’ve said that in English she wouldn’t need my help), 2 minutes before I had to leave.  We quickly exchanged phone numbers and I left the bus wondering what it all did mean exactly.

On a bus again together three weeks later in Vinnytsia, she tells me (again in Ukrainian) “Honestly, I enjoy so  much our time together, and I feel like I am learning so much.  I have had many teachers, of English and other subjects, but nothing quite as exciting as working with you.  Thank you so much for being my teacher”.  I didn’t really know what to say, I was kind of taken back by it all, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything special save for being myself and smiling the whole time.  It was only our second time meeting together,  and already a great impression we had made upon one another.  There was this very comfortable atmosphere that had developed between us, like kindred spirits who have been waiting to sit next to each other on the bus and be curious and so it goes and so it goes.  We sat together for an hour after our first lesson and learned all about each other’s lives, speaking of love and dreams and what friendship truly meant to us, gently touching upon the colors that would begin to paint themselves so naturally soon enough.

Since that time we have continued to share in one another’s life, through simple phone calls to say hello, or meeting at the pizza parlor in my town (which I had never been to in the year prior to that) to share stories and learn some swanky English slang.  In fact, she sent me a message just the other day which read “Hey Adam!  Whazzup?   How’s life treatin’ you?”  and I thought it was an American friend until I read her name and knew that I had done something right.

Sabina has become a simple yet sweet representation of the social capital that is available to me outside my own community, engaging and interacting with people from every as I roam from here to there with that smile on my face and golfer hat on my head (even though Nina says “Fooh! Throw it away!  It’s not beautiful!”).  These kind of relationships and moments are what I am living for here and they have only just begun.

Adam, Mister Adam (Tutor)

It wasn’t long after I got off the plane onto the tarmac in the chilly Kievan air that I truly understood that I hadn’t left home, but that in some strange way, this was home.  Greeted by the shining face of my bubbly Armenian friend Gayane (my partner in dancing and jazzy adventures) as soon as I arrived in Vinnytsia at 1 o’clock in the morning after traveling for 24 hours then losing 8 , I was greeted by my friends of Wizard Camp once more the next morning.  We spent the next 5 days wandering through the winter wonderlands of the English language, the highlights of which were self-directed skits in the Christmas spirit (ours featured Santa as a couch potato who didn’t want to deliver presents) as well as the discos led by DJ AJ (yeah, that’s me) and my portrayal of Snihorichka (Santa Claus’s little snow granddaughter, who helps deliver the presents on St. Mikhalayev’s Day).

Kids ran in and out of my room, one of the greatest who I met is named Mel (his actual name was Andriy, but that’s another story).  He’s got this Ukrainian Abercrombie and Fitch thing going on in the way he dresses, something you don’t see very often in this country, his hair drifting in soft feathers across his forehead, an aura about him that is beyond his years.  He speaks phenomenal English for his age, as he has some family in America, and his parents are well-off enough to travel there every over other year.  He brought a fancy iPad, iPhone, and shiny acoustic guitar to camp, and thus, amongst other things that he offered, the coolness factor was a done deal.  We connected immediately, talking about the blues, playing samba together, I was amazed at what he knew, how he grew into the music so easily.  I had never met a thirteen year-old (in Ukraine or otherwise) who seemed so ready for this world.  He was reading Steve Jobs’ biography (in Russian) and declared that he will be a millionaire in his twenties after attending business school in New York City.  We spent many a free time together, just kickin’ it and listen to music, I gave him all the blues that I had and sprinkled some jazz amongst it all, he really dug the B.B. King, playing it at top notch on his iPad everywhere we went.   To top it all off, we threw together a sweet version of “Girl From Ipanema” and Gayane sang and it was sexy and every was pickin’ up what we were puttin’ down.  He helped me remember very quickly why it was easy to be home.  “Thanks for everything, really,” he said as we parted  “I won’t forget you, Mr. Adam”.

….

I love it most of all when he opens my door, I hear his jagged tiny footsteps before as they hurry so up the stairs and I already start smiling then he says, in English, “Go eat.  Meester Adam Tutor.  Go eat” .  Dear Maxim, his little pink ears sticking out farther than they should from his strong round face, his Ukrainian version of a rat tail hangs just a few inches along the tape of his scrawny neck.  I didn’t really understand the value he would play in my life until recently.  Last year we spent some memorable weekends together, building leaf fortresses in the park, playing popcorn on the trampoline, even recording a slash metal music video fresh with Mohawks and air guitars (I will find it for you don’t worry), but it all just seemed like fun and games.  Yet just this pass weekend I learned that being the cool American uncle is more than just laughter and wrestle fights on the rug (that stop not when somebody wins, but when someone starts crying. He starts beating me even harder after that).

This past weekend was the 7th birthday of my Ukrainian nephew and what the festivity it was indeed. The living room was transformed into the rare occasion two-table set up, and I drug every stool and chair that we own to the table for the evening filled with 14 guests plus family (I bragged to Maxim that I had 15 at my birthday, but then he reminded me that he hadn’t included family in the numbers.  I was humbled).  The birthday got kicked off and Maxim lasted about ten minutes longer than he normally does at the dinner parties (so he was there for about ten minutes), eating a few meager bites of his mashed potatoes (which is all he ever eats.  I tried the little piggie bit from “A Christmas Story” once, but it didn’t work out very well), then running off upstairs.

I found myself reacting strangely to his departure, trying to get him sit down with his family, using words like “politeness” ,“rude”, and “show some respect”, and slowly realized what I was becoming.  I felt this urge all evening to be more than his cool American uncle, as I saw that there was no strong voice in the room that told him how to behave or how to say thank you or how to not yell at your mother as you not so kindly remind her that you don’t eat anything but mashed potatoes.  It was the first realization that I had had of this kind, the most vivid display of paternal instinct which had undoubtedly been building ever since I really started to love the little guy.  Well, it kicked in again the next day.

Maxim and I were sitting at the kitchen table, playing Legos (forgot how terrible I was at those) when the phone rang and he answered it, coming back into the kitchen with a funny kind of look on his face saying, to Nina, his grandmother,  “It was my grandmother, she wants me to visit”.  Now this was a funny thing to hear, as the only other person that I have known him to call grandmother is the mother of Taras (Maxim’s stepfather) who lives and works in Italy, and couldn’t call us on the home phone.  No, in fact this was the mother of his biological father, who hadn’t been in Maxim’s life since he left four years ago, save for a birthday hello two years earlier.

Poor little Maxim’s mind seemed to churn with the complications of growing up without a real father, of having his own present father-figure live in Denmark while he was developing into a boy that reads and writes letters to Santa Claus and smiles and laughs and cries.  Nina didn’t know what to say at first, and so she asked Maxim what he wanted.  He didn’t know, he walked off confused, when he entered I said “What’s wrong with saying hello?” and he replied “He left when I was three”, probably leaving a lot of other things that were unable to leave his tongue, or spell themselves out in his head.  Nina spoke from the empathy of being a grandmother, suggesting to Maxim that if he had lived with his father instead and she could never see him, that she would be absolutely broken-hearted.  I agreed that they hadn’t really done anything wrong, so they should not be hurt, if all they want to do is show him some love.  Of course I didn’t really know the whole story.

As I walked slowly from my cozy spot in the kitchen I entered the battle zone as Nina sat on the couch, Olha up on her feet, hands to her head as if holding it back from bursting, Liuda storming off shouting something with nothing but disgust in her eyes, little Maxim standing there helpless and didn’t he know it.  I stupidly tried once more to assert my point of view, trying to be innocuous, but realizing I had no idea what I was saying.  “He has no idea what he is saying,” Olha said to Nina.  Sitting down in the kitchen just wanting to stay out of sight of poor Maxim’s innocence, Olha came in and explained to me that the parent’s of Jenya (Liuda’s former husband, Maxim’s biological father) were absent at every point that Liuda and Maxim needed them during the divorce, when Jenya was caught cheating on Liuda for the second time (he currently lives with the woman and her son out of wedlock).  She said that she worries for what they want now, and how it will affect Maxim.

So, Maxim ended up going, being trained before hand on how to behave while there, coming back a few hours later with a toy Uzi in his hands and confusion in his eyes.  When Liuda asked him why he was upset, did he not like the toy, he simply said “Yeah, it’s a toy,” or something to that effect, and it was his beautiful way of saying “What is a toy, or a blank envelope filled with 300 Hrivni, when you, my father, have left me void of an understanding of what it will mean to be a man in this world.”  It occurred to me at that moment, as I watched his temporary moment of clarity turn into his firing his new toy at some helpless object, that the way I view my relationship with him will be forever changed.  I even told this to Olha and Nina, that  I feel truly invested in this family, that the love is real, and that I want to be a positive male influence on Maxim’s life while I am here.  Hopefully I can find a way to do that while being his cool American uncle, it really is so much fun.

School has been oddly un-school like for the past three weeks, with me facing a stomach bug for a week and being mostly useless, trying to get the newspaper up and running again, and now sitting at home for the third day straight as our school is closed due to sub-zero temperatures and twenty percent of the students being sick.  However, the name “Mister Adam” has taken on a new meaning, and it is not in the authoritarian role of teacher.

I have been buttoning my britches (my big-boy ones)  as of late when it comes to movin’ and shakin’ at my school.  Last semester I finished everything on a high note, handing out the first copy of our school’s newspaper to community members and school leaders alike (I, oddly enough as the American with a complete lack of understanding of Ukrainian grammar, am the self-declared editor) and to top it all off, it was distributed at the entrance to the concert celebrating the 10 years of cooperation between our school and the Peace Corps.  I had organized it at the behest of my dear colleague Olha Yevhenivna, my right hand and guiding light in all that I do here, and it turned out to be an incredible experience in many aspects.  I learned the power I have to bring people from all sectors of our community together, and the energy it gave me to move amongst the ebb and tide of it all.  I helped to direct each one of our classes skits/dances/songs, incorporate my amazing artist friend Tanya into a spontaneous art creation on stage, locate a hip and modern group from the city to come in and play for us (and even join them on their final number, a blues venture where I let my soul shine), and even managed to write a speech (and with Nadia’s help) give it in Ukrainian to my unsuspecting students and colleagues and community leaders.  It was a shining moment for me in my career here thus far, a symbol of what we have been able to accomplish and resounding way to end the old year, with promise for the new.

Since the calendar has been tossed out and replaced by a new one, January moving into February so soon, I have been putting my community development hat on more and more often (which I guess, since it’s winter, would be my warm fuzzy winter head gear that reminds me of Buddy the Elf).  I have been meeting with the director of our school on a weekly basis, laying the groundwork for the projects that are coming up this semester.  Amongst such simple renovations as placing a “What’s up?” at our school display board with photographs, to starting a “Teacher of the Month” plaque in the hallways to promote motivation for our staff, there are several more major projects I am excited about making happen.

The one our director is most excited about is a Parent Teacher Organization that will create transparency at our school where it never existed before, a bridge between parents and teachers that before was a treacherous jump between cliffs, an open communication that can help ensure that parents know what is going on in our school.  Essentially it will be like any other PTA, where teachers meet with their homeroom’s parents and explain what is going on in their children’s lives on a day-to-day basis.  The critical twist is the additional meeting every month which will provide parents with actual skills through teacher-led seminars with titles such as “How To Support Your Child At Home” ,  “Homework Means You Can Help”, and “Education Continues Outside These Walls”.  Such seminars will (hopefully) open up parent’s minds, and create a positive learning environment at home, which has been shown time and time again (and is the reason why our best students are our best students) and so the program will be built around this basic principle.

Aside from this, we have just started to get our green on, establishing our community as a testing ground for a project being done by Peace Corps Environmental Working Group, a volunteer led committee headed by my dear friend Theo (you’ll recall her smile from pictures of training long ago).  We will be the source for Vinnyts’ka Oblast’s water testing, using special kits provided to test the cleanliness and whether it is potable or not for our community.  Moreover, stipulations of our participation require us to commit to a environmental project within our community, one that will promote an issue that should be brought to the attention of our citizenry.  Conveniently enough, talks have naturally sprung up about what to do with the trash problem in our community, and “recycling”, a word that many don’t even know exists, is finally being discussed with serious implications.  Leaders from several parts of Nemyriv have presented genuine interest and possible outlooks on how to make something actually happen in the way of recycling.  More to come on that as it unfolds.

The greatest task that I am personally taking almost full responsibility upon my shoulders, is the Peace Corps Partnership grant that I am writing looking to allocate funds to our school for the purchase of new textbooks.   I have been working tirelessly with my director and Olha to establish a reasonable amount of community contribution, becoming bold enough to make confident proposals to the director requesting larger amounts of funds than she would normally invest, and reaching out to teachers and communities far and wide in America for support for the grant.  The books would completely revolutionize the methodology of our classroom, and give our students a chance to compete alongside real learners for a chance at the best universities in Ukraine.  Within this grant, which I am calling Project Motivation Renovation, I am asking for funds to start our “English Bucks” program, something inspired by Wizard Camp, but adapted to the English classroom.  Currency would be used to encourage students to behave, progress, and became engaged in their English learning in a new and exciting way.  Students could use their “bucks” at the end of each month in exchange for candies, pens and pencils, or even “get of homework free” cards.  It is a grant that could have a truly lasting effect upon the state of English learning at our school, and as of very recently finding my support building for the project, I feel good about where it will go in the future.

 

All in all, I have come to really appreciate my new life, the challenges that face it, and the blessedness that seeps through it as I come home to a warm meal and loving mother every night.  I think I could get used to being called Mister Adam.

 

 

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The Best Of Summer in Ukraine (And the World)

I still remember that moment, the daze of my wearied soul knocking upon that door, saying, (in a British accent of course), “Room service ez ere!” and the yelps of laughter behind that door, and smoldering of hugs and smiles that followed the opening of that door.  There was so much to process at that moment, I had come so far so quickly and already my world had been turned around.

It all started with the voice of the English man.  He came lumbering into the hostel as I lay half awake at half past five in the morning, his shirt unbuttoned about two or three buttons too much, tucked out and fluttering still from the jostle of his step, rubbing his eyes as he thought about dismounting so gracefully upon the couch, but instead stood next to his bacchanalian companion saying “Oh man, that was a bloody shit-show, it was.  Goodness how bright these lights are.”  I smiled as I picked up the accent right away and told him I would be going to London quite soon, it was my next stop.  “No mate, don’t go there, you’ve got it all wrong.  The girls here, they are the ones.  So many of them.  The girls in the UK, they just don’t match up you see.  They eat too many pies.”  My being tickled begins but he hadn’t finished, “You see it all goes to their thighs and bum, it just doesn’t look good.  The girls here must not eat pies.  But the girls in London, yeah, too many pies.  That’s their problem, too many pies.”  Tom, what a fine chap, wonder how his pie-filled ladies are doing now.

It quickly went from Tom to my reunion with Anna Lena.  There is this beautiful quality in friendships, between the people within them, that while so much changes to those people and those relationships, their smiles never change.   We embraced, her wild wavy light brown hair (touched so slightly by the Eastern European sun) falling just passed her shoulder and the same free spirit in her eyes.  Exclamations of how crazy life is, how small the world is exchanged, “You look the same!  You look great!”  was the word on both of our lips, although I added some words about how she always changes her hair, remembering the sweet bob that she pulled off shortly after I had met her three years before.  We hadn’t seen each other since that summer in Denver, I only really knew her for like six weeks, but there was this beautiful knowledge that there was something special existing between us.  We even joked once that if we weren’t married by forty then we would elope and run off to Africa together.

Anna and I in front of Ukraine's pride, the great Taras Shevshenko

Anna Lena grew up for part of her childhood in Mozambique, as her parents were and still are, missionaries.  This aspect of her fascinated me because I always yearn to be near people who have been enriched, immersed in other cultures, if not because they are wonderful and open-minded people (as she is) but to absorb vicariously or through some transitive property the feeling of being a part of that world.  Seeing how she (and then her brother after this trip) have turned out gives me confidence to perhaps someday raise a family abroad, seeing the excess of perspective and love that Anna has, used to spread amongst the people of the world so that they too may understand the beauty in themselves.

Anna and her brother Mica (who had just visited his old college buddy in a nearby oblast, he also happened to be a Peace Corps Volunteer) were in my part of the world because they had just finished a three week tour of Turkey as part of a International Politics course, learning about the relationship between society and government, and just getting to hang out in and around Istanbul and much of western Turkey.  Our conversation was sprinkled with their impressions, both of Turkey and how it compared to Ukraine, to the US, to their other experiences in various cultures.  Yet the most interesting conversation was yet to come.

I would have known the back of that head from anywhere, I just never expected to see on the revered Potampkin Steps of Odessa, staring upon the portside ships and the pre-dusk waters of the Black Sea, wondering at how far he had come.  “Wella that’s a varmit if I’ve ever seen one!”  I shouted out and I’m sure more people turned than just he, but it was only his reaction I was concerned about.  “Ah hah! Well lookee here, I’ll be darned,” the same hearty chuckle and warm smile that I remembered, the same strong ranch hands as they patted me on the shoulder, “Well, your GB is waiting for you at the restaurant, you must’ve walked right past her.”  He finishes his sentence as I see my grandmother on the phone and my phone begins to ring until she sees me and starts that beautiful laugh that I missed so much, “Well I called your father because I couldn’t figure out this damn phone, but here you are!”  and the same wonderful speaking of whatever comes to her mind, no need for introductory or transition sentences, just spit it out.

I hadn’t been so tickled in quite some time (aside from the “pie” talk of my British friend) as when I watched my grandparents try to order their food, speaking in slow and loud English and pointing without reading glasses on to their dish, speaking as if they had done this always and as if the waitress could actually understand.  I just sat and let it happen for a while until I intervened and did my best Russian impression as possible, being that I speak Ukrainian.  Grandaddy kept pointing to things and speaking in English and GB playing her familiar hand of embarrassment saying “Oh for crissakes Larry, let Adam take care of it!” and then Grandaddy does this “Hurrumph, well Betsy” kind of thing, while I begin to crack and GB notices and does this cute thing where she turns her head as she crunches her nose a little bit and waves her handkerchief in the air as she says “Oh hush” and continues the laugh that I had just started.  If conversation really is like playing tennis, I think they have a pretty good volley going after 50 years together.  They would continually catch me throughout the conversation just smiling at them, and GB would say “What is it?”  and I would say something sentimental, or just about how crazy this all was, and she would say “Oh, for God’s sake!” or actually commit and say something like “I am just so impressed that you are here, learning this language, living this life, we are very proud of what you are doing”.   We drank plenty of liquor (I tasted my first margarita in 10 months, I thought it was lovely, GB said it was half-assed, I realized my lack of perception of what I was actually missing in my American life) and laughed and Grandaddy told some story from the olden days that made me miss the patterns of speech and the way of conversing that my grandparent’s generation has, and we decided to carry forth to our next destination.

***

At the time I wasn’t really carrying a bathing suit with me in Ukraine, I hadn’t packed one, thinking that I would get it in the mail from my family, so I was just wearing my white soccer shorts.  The night before we had seen off my grandparents after the blues club flopped, who were to meet with me again that evening at the Opera House, a gorgeous display of architecture that presents itself as the center of Odessa.  Now we approached the shore of seaside Ukraine, in all the gloriousness of Ukrainians in speedos meant for Europeans a la Arnold in the 80s, except the ones that wear them look more like Arnold in the 2010s (on a good day, not his, but theirs).  My favorites stand in their Fay-Bans with a half-liter bottle of Chernhivske Svitlo Pevo (light beer) , splay-footed and unconcerned with anything but that next sip, their bellies hanging over their trunks in such a way that you have to look a little bit closer to see if they are actually wearing one, which doesn’t sound very appetizing, but you really can’t help yourself, that’s the painful beauty or something of it all.  The rest (more women than men) lay scattered across the dirty blonde sand (but not the sexy kind, the kind with thick shells and actual dirt, remnants of vodka gatherings display themselves like the calls of a slow parakeet, echoing the sentiments of moments before whilst new words are still in the air).  And they don’t just lay, no they put on a show, leaving nothing but a few chaste fingertips between their nipples and the summer sun, just the kind of thing that will make an American boy look twice, until you realize that she probably is the same age as your students in school, and you feel strangely out of place.  Wow, yeah.

My friends, the San Antonio guy is on the far left

The gentleman had already won my heart by proclaiming that he also played the saxophone, but following my revealing of my Texan-ness, he sealed the deal, shouting “San Antonio Spurs!” in a rich Eastern European accent that just touched me because it was so unexpected and so perfect.  Anna, Micah, and my saxophone all rested comfortably in the sand a few meters away, but they felt so far away as I soared above sentimental lane, as he continued “Too-nee Pehr-kerr, ye-ehs!  Manu G-inoobli! Ah hah!”  and I almost forgot where I was, until they offered me warm vodka, and I accepted and I remembered so clearly where I was.  Moments later I busted out my saxophone, and after a few tunes they quietly fell asleep (not sure if from boredom or the warm vodka), but needless to say I felt pretty alive, so I got Anna and we had our photo shoot.  Since I had quite recently showed her the majesty that is the Sexy Sax Man (for all those who haven’t had the pleasure you must- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaoLU6zKaws), I quietly figured out the sax line from George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”  and just went to town on amidst the softly crashing waves on the shore.  While I was missing the outfit, I feel that the setting and the incredulousness of it all made it all quite fitting, as I just continuously repeated the sax lick as I waded gently into the sea, the water coming up around my waist and the picture was just something that, well, you had to be there (let’s just say I caught a few people loving the hell out of it all, even a few girls giggling and clandestinely snapping a few photos, I wonder where they are now, what stories are told of those captured moments).  Needless to say it would not be my last gig on the shores of the Black Sea.

Smiling because of Anna's recently purchased Ukrainian bathing suit

One of the many perfect places to play your saxophone

After spending two and a half hours trying to translate the subtitles of the opera to Micah and Anna, trying to wrap my mind around the story I had just witnessed (the beauty from the outside was, like a bookcase, but a glimpse of the wealth it held in its many stories inside), we spent a lovely dinnertime on the cobbled streets of Odessa with a nice bottle of wine before heading back to the hostel, where we consequently pulled an all nighter.  The reason I did this is because I had to leave for the airport at 5AM, so I didn’t want to spend 120 HRV just to sleep for a few hours, and I wanted to make the most of my time with Anna.  The minutes turned into hours, the photos became stories, and 5AM rolled around without much more than a blink of an eye from me, and I rode off in a sunrise bound taxi to the Odessa Airport, London or bust.

A brotha' couldn't be happier, and don't even get me started on sista'.

So that door.  Well sure enough it opened and my sister was the first one in my arms, her curly hair bouncing along with her accessorized self, necklaces chasing quickly behind her ten months of waiting, screaming and holding me tight.  She was followed by a more poised but still soft and tear stained mother, the feeling of being a boy fit so nicely amongst my weariness.  Dad trailed with that new look he has, where his face gets a little scrunched up, the wrinkles around his eyes complimented quite nicely by the welling of something that could be saline-filled, but to never know as we embrace and I take him in my arms, feeling how while I am taller, there is something in a father’s touch that  makes you know.   I can’t quite remember the words that were exchanged, my mostly delusional state made all of the impressions meld into one giant is-this-the-real-life-or-is-this-just-fantasy kind of state of mind.  After going through the craziness of seeing a bunch of clothes that I had missed so much but had left behind (including my blue pants, which I rightly put on right away) I went to change my clothes and get ready for the evening ahead.   I remember worrying about if I would look skinny to Mom, because she was always telling me I needed to eat more, so I asked for affirmation, in a subtle way.  “I was going to say sweetie, you look so healthy and strong.  I am so glad that that Nina is taking good care of you,” smiling as I realized that after all these years her words still held such a preeminent place in my heart.  With my blue pants on, I did that little stretch that I used to do (and still do) every time I put them on, remembering the story I wrote about them and why the title fit, and headed out with my parents to this classic British pub just down the road.

Digging into my hearty portion of fish and chips and sipping on my gin and tonic, admiring the smiling faces of my family from all directions, I heard something that tickled my ear buds in a foreign way, yet quite familiar all the same.  I quieted my family so that I could eavesdrop upon what I thought were Ukrainians conversing it up right behind me.  Although tired I am never shy, I pried, “Vybachte, veh z Ukrayeena?”  They just barely smiled, not nearly as excited as I, and casually said in English “No, we are from Poland” and I was left to continue the conversation “Yeah, alright, I just arrived from Ukraine where I have been living for the past 9 months and the language sounded so familiar”, and they bit and said “Sure, they are very closely related,”  raising his glass and saying “Na z’dorvya!”  and I smiled and let them be for the quietude on the feminine side of the table suggested there was no need for my spirited moment (although I swear one of them was trying to do that unnatural thing where you hold back a smile, who would want to do that?).  I smiled and my family seemed to silently recognize the space between us wasn’t just a matter of miles and feet, but something that is now a part of our diverging life experience, a gap that would take time and patience to begin to close.

Walking along the streets of London, the chattering of all people falling upon my open ears, I realized it isn’t such a bad thing to not understand what is going on some of the time.  However, the sensation of being able to just go up to someone and ask them where the bathroom is, without having to be in a soundproof room and stare at them intently so you don’t miss a single word or else wander aimlessly around the train station like a damn fool, is something I may never take for granted again.

Dad, Me, and the blue pants in front of the "Cuckfosters" sign. Great shot

Exiting the London Tube, (the announcer kept saying “Cuckfosters” in this funny British accent and it sounded like something else and I couldn’t stop giggling), the gray skies of London welcomed us, it felt exactly like it was supposed to, or how I imagined it at least.  The Tower of London loomed in the nearer than farther distance, it didn’t look so impressive right away, scaffolding and teenie boppers with iPhones ruining the true antiquity of it all, (it’s hard to feel like you are in such an ominous presence when many other triflings manage to cast a strange shadow).  Approaching the actual tower from the front it all made more sense, even though the shades of the faces in the crowds seemed to be a careful representation of all the cultures in the world, gathered here in this place, again, such a strange site to see, but somehow it enhanced the experience for me.

In the far right corner our Beefeater guide (they only wear the red for the most special of occasions) and the people from all over the world, looking down the walls of history

It had been so long since I had seen any real diversity in people, Ukraine a melting pot of some sorts in that there is some diversity in the variety of hues used to paint the people over time, but there is very little foreign presence, actually more Ukrainians are leaving than others are coming in.  This is to say that as we were led by the Queen’s Guard (whom we often call “Beefeaters” thanks to my grandmother’s favorite gin)  into the tower, I was just as thrilled by the history and walls worn down by the touch of so many generations of kings and prisoners escaping and midnight romances of princesses and paupers as by the conglomeration of people, that walked around me, just absorbing this moment for the something wonderful that it was.

Amanda jumping for joy in front of the Tower

The family jewels, earlier in my lexicon only used to make a jab with the fellas about their package or something of the sort, now stood before me in all their regality and elegance and bling bling (if only one of those Lil’ guys could get their paws on this stuff, the true definition of “ice”).  Used for close to a millennia, the crowns and scepters and swords and capes strewn with golden embroidery rested in glass cases for lustful eyes to take in fully, videos streaming of the moments in history such rarities were ceremonialized. It was quite a sight to see, but the award for most impressive metal (in so many ways) in my eyes had nothing to do with jewels (except in the former sense I mentioned).

Yes. I couldn't believe it either. You want to take your eyes off of it, but you can't. Perhaps Henry's plan.

No, rather it was the absolute magnitude of King Henry VIII’s codpiece, which protruded not at all slightly from his suit of armor, I guess he had a lot to protect, he did have to produce the next heir (and if he really filled that thing, then I can understand why he got so pissed at Anne Boleyn for not giving him a son, such a plow should certainly produce something fertile).  It’s funny that such things never stop being funny, no matter how old you are.

***

 

 

***

This is the point, four months from the beginning of this story, that I have realized something.  The more I try and fill you in on the slighter motions, the looks in the eyes and the emotions swirling in my mind of all the many impressions and depressions and whatever lay in between from the entire past 100 something days, the more I will deprive you from the present state of things, the many new and whirlwind of happenings in my life.  Yet at the same time, I don’t want you to hear the new album without listening to the old, so that you may understand where I have come from, how the rhythm and maturity of voice carries, where my Muse comes from, (imagine trying to comprehend “Pet Sounds”, “Rubber Soul”, “Highway 51 Revisited”  “A Love Supreme” without first hearing the debut records, how could you ever really know what it meant?).  Quite rarely however do we go back and listen to the discography (although we should) but rather we find the greatest hits and stay happy and get the general idea, the highlights, the definitive moments.  So here it goes-The Best Of Summer in Ukraine, featuring “Mama Meet Momma”, “On Top Today” “Wizard Friends With Smiling Faces”, plus the hit single “I’m Just So Crazy For You (Gone)”  (for the B-sides just write me an email and you will receive them all, plus a few alternate takes and behind the scenes audio).  Enjoy.

Cheers! (To the Streets of London ) to the tune of “Help!” by the Beatles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU7JjJJZi1Q   “Help!”

Drinking Savannas, my favorite beverage from South Africa that I haven't found since. It made my day.

Cheers! To the streets of London

Cheers! To history and tea abundant!

Cheers! To the sound of music, Cheers!

When I walk along road, (the left side, not the right)

I try to make a memory, a very lasting sight.

Playing in front of Big Ben was off the chain

But jammin’ with those Romanians was even more insane

My friends from Romania who jammed outside of the Underground right next to Parliament and Westminster Abbey

Sax in hand I went into the night

I got onto the stage, felt such a fright

But then I felt the rhythm of a real jazz band

And the blues within my soul again (soul again)

With my family we painted the whole town red,

Only after world-class theatre and sentimental drinks did we crawl into bed

It speaks for itself I think. Nothing like having the symbol of London as your metronome.

Attending Westminster Abbey really was a treat

Even the regality of Buckingham could its beauty beat

We saw the royal changing of the guard play MJ’s “Bad”

Ate finger sandwiches and scones and felt so glad

The men on horseback who played Michael Jackson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Jack Sparrow to a pleasantly surprised crowd

Smiled at people in English and they smiled back

Electric blue is still the best thing to go with black

Cheers!

“I Know It’s Only Ukrainian (And I Like It)” – to the tune of “I Know It’s Only Rock’n’ Roll (But I Like It)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOMTnLHDWRA   – “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”

If you could speak any language in the world, which one would you choose?

Chinese for the business, French for the lovers, Spanish and you sure can’t lose, sure can’t lose.

But I didn’t have this choice that you do, I was put here with a goal

To teach the children English, to connect with the people, but now it’s taken me all over the world (all over the world)

Chorus:

I know, it’s only Ukrainian (And I Like It)!

It kinda works in Poland and almost sounds like Russian (And I Like It)!

The second most melodic language in the world and I like it like it yes I do!

I met Bulgarians, spoke with Russians, chatted with Polish.

Can’t you say “Tak te shcho, Ukrainian!”

On the way to the airport from the London streets, I heard a sound I knew

I said “Ve z’ Ukrayeena?” they said no we’re from Bulgaria, but nevertheless a conversation grew

On the plane to the city of Krakow I saw a Polish face,

I spoke nothing but Ukrainian and he his native language, but we filled the silent space (the silent space)

Chorus

Unreal?? Well she wasn't a real belly dancer, but she was really trying. It was crazy rhythm and unknowing of what happens next. Goodness.

(Instrumental solo-Adam Tutor on sax, gypsy woman belly dancing, dirty bearded man on the djembe, backgrounds of Polish and international voices roaming the streets of Krakow)

 

 

 

 

Chorus

I met Bulgarians, spoke with Russians, chatted with Polish

Some of my favorite people in the world

Kicked it with Kamila, She introduced the family to (Polish cuisine).

The family and my dear Polish friend Kamila, on the far right

Crossed over the border (spoke real Ukrainian).  Met a one man band (made it a duo).

Entered shadowed bar (put back vodka). Wandered open streets (checked out churches)

Got back on a train (to my hometown). Met with my boy Misha, (at the train station)

Got in a Volkswagen taxi (and it got real).  It’s only Ukrainian (But I like it!)

 

“Momma Meet Mama”, to the tune of “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCeD_6Y3GQc  –  “Good Vibrations”

Gathered around the table to cook homemade varenyky (Ukrainian dumplings_

I, I love the simple scarf she wears, round her weathered eyes, I know not what she stares

I, I love the way she touches me so, smiling out loud I know how much she cares

Chorus

Oh Momma won’t you please meet Mama, for this moment I won’t wait any longa’

This feeling could only grow stronga’, worlds collide toss Atlas asunda’

My my Momma, please meet Mama! My my momma, please meet Mama!

I watch her lips, the words I know so well, I translate her sweet thoughts, her only name

My heart beats fast, as the embrace is made, I know my life will never be the same

Chorus

Mama…

The warmth I feel it could not be real ( Oh My Momma, this is Mama)

Never gonna forget when my, my momma first met mama.

Treasure it, keep it, locked up in a sacred place…

…Love…

Chorus

“Suppertime”, to the tune of “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (aka Will Smith)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr0tTbTbmVA  –  “Summertime”

My living room at suppertime, the place of so much joy, but no more than on this glorious day.

Supper supper supper time, time to sit up and fine dine (it’s suppertime)

Welcome all to the Ukrainian home, a place where you can never feel alone

Just a little place to gather together, no matter the season, no matter the weather

Outside is always there, inside now grab you chair, all your friends and family will be there

Set you on out a glass and a dish, don’t forget the shot glass for making a wish (making a wish)

Put a little something in your glass, but not too much, for you know it won’t last

Raise your glass in the air like old times, cuz this is Ukraine, (Budmo!), it’s all about suppertime.

Chorus

Supper supper supper time, (suppertime), time to sit up and fine dine

Supper supper supper time, (suppertime), kick on back and drink some wine (it’s suppertime)

The food is out and there’s a sort of a hush, there’s no way we’ll eat all this stuff.

I couldn’t eat half of this, Ukrainians must have a stomach of unlimited vastness,

The food is hot and the hostess tries her greatest “Eat your food! It all is the tastiest!”

Looking around at your American son, wondering what to do to get this feast begun.

A little bit of this and a little bit that, try some of everything cuz that’s where it’s at,

You think about eatin’ and your foreign family does likewise, but the hostess has her glass raised to the skies

You wait to see why she’s making this scene, she says “Za Zdorvya” , “To Health” is what that means

You toss back the vodka, to what’s yours is mine, your belly is now ready to experience this thing called suppertime

Chorus

It’s early in the meal and your stomach starts to get, a little bit curious as to if it will let

All this deliciousness to go unaware, cuz’ all these dishes have caught you at a glare.

The dumplings full of potatoes, grab you some homemade sausage, some garden fresh tomatoes,

Head to the borshch this is the genuine dish, a soup made with beets with a taste so rich.

You check out the salads and you think you will miss, the greens and the lettuce but don’t be a ditz,

Just try the cubed veggies and wonder at how the, taste of it all just really does grab ya’

All the food is enjoyed by all of the family, hosts and guests exchange flows like honey

While the sentiments are translated spoon by spoon, it feels somehow like it’s a family reunion

Then the second toast rolls around, “Pour pour!” and the vodka don’t come down

You reach for the bread and cucumbers, a Ukrainian chaser

Everybody waits for the next line, father stands up and offers one real fine

“Thank you for everything, I couldn’t have imagined, what my son’s life would be like without you, his momma, a godsend”

You smile at her, to your family, it seems true, all of this food seems so different so brand new,

There is an air of love and of happiness and this is the real definition of supper gladness.

 

 

“What a Diff’rence Ukraine Made” to the tune of “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” (the Jamie Cullum version)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1r6GcPqFSo  –  “What a DIfference A Day Made”

With GB and Grandaddy in front of Kiev-Pecherska Lavra, one of Kiev's more historical grounds, full of beautiful cathedrals and underground caves that act as a mausoleum for priests of old.

What a diff’rence Ukraine made, it’s people in color,

showed my family something other, than the life they once knew.

The sky shone so clear, upon the hospitality that is so dear,

Helped me switch from fourth to fifth gear, in the world I call mine.

Oh! What a diff’rence Ukraine made, here my family before me.

Just my grandparents and sunshine only, our chance to discover, the world in each other

It’s thrilling when you, find your childhood behind you

What a diff’rence Ukraine made, made a diff’rence ‘pon me

The steeples of Ukraine rose above green and so clear, the history of the church below to revere

Those who helped guide me now I could steer, cuz’ the sun only shines…

Oh! What a diff’rence Ukraine made, I have jazz to help me see.

A girl who sings like a bird in a tree, with a rhythm called swing, but with a ring

It’s lovely when you, see that light the way that they do

What a diff’rence Ukraine made, made a diff’rence ‘pon me. (‘Pon me…)

“Hello Katy”  to the tune of “Hello Dolly” by Louis Armstrong

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmfeKUNDDYs  –  “Hello Dolly”

Katy and I on one of our many beach get-aways.

Hello, Katy. This is Adam, Katy.

So nice to have you back within my arms.

You smile at me, Katy.  And I can see, Katy, that nothing in this world can do me harms.

I feel my heart sway, when you look at me that way, just like you would when I held you way back when.

Gollee gee, Katy, you look lovely Katy, kiss me and never go away!

(Instrumental solo: Eyes battering, lips quivering, breaths being given then taken away, the crescendo comes at the part where the crescendo usually happens when two lovers meet in an airport in Brazil after being lost away from each other for 10 months across the oceans of this worlds)

I feel my world sway, as I tell you darling hey…I love you and I don’t where it begins, or ends, but

I know now Katy, today and forever after Katy, that our love is here to stay!


“Salvador”
to the tune of “Mexico” by James Taylor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P55RlFLWIOU  –  “Mexico”

Salvador, Brazil

On the shores, of true Afro-Brazil.

Feel the  rhythm, so vibrant but chill.

Just kick back, watch the waves as they bounce off the sun

Mo’ Salvador, the color of the people as rich as their soul.

Parades in the streets wherever you go,

I lose myself in the know

One of the best demonstrations we saw was on Bahian Independence Day. Kind of like being in Austin on Texas Independence Day. Except instead of banjos and guitars and spurs you got drums and bongos and fedoras. The energy was overflowing.

Capoiera got that powerful kick, just like the caipirihnas.

With acaraje you should stick.

Big bottomed Bahianas with their hair done up.

Katy at a Caipirinha Stand on the Beach in Salvador. Beautiful woman, warm sand, sweet Brazilian rum, what more could you possibly need?

Acaraje, a traditional dish made by the Bahianas. It takes too long to describe. I'll just say it tastes like how you feel in Brazil.

The Bahiana, the feminine physique of traditional Salvadorian culture, and the pride of Afro-Braziian cuisine

Mo’ Salvador, palm trees sway and tell me hello

Cobble stones streets and you dance through the night

Drumbeat will keep it real tight

Old churches jutting into the starry sky,

the spirit of Africa will make you high,

Colors in the stones, soft like sand between your toes.

At a jam session on the shores of Brazil with a true Brazilian jazz band, playing a funky version of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" for my lady and 200 spectators. One of the more incredible feelings of my life.

Mo’ Salvador, music in the air but you don’t even know

Mo’ Salvador, your body just naturally gets low

Mo’ Salvador, music in the air but you don’t even know

Mo’ Salvador, your body just naturally gets low

Mo’ Salvador, Salvador (gonna samba on in) Salvador

Mo’ Salvador, Salvador, Salvador

At the entrance to the Sao Joa Festival, which just happened to start the day we arrived. Life is just really beautiful sometimes.

 

The Girl of My Dreams to the tune of “The Girl From Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8VPmtyLqSY  – “The Girl From Ipanema”

Smiling, shining, like an angel from heaven, the girl of my dreams makes my engine get revvin’

And when I get started I don’t ever stop you know why

She moves close to me and my heart is a pumpin’, the girl of my dreams, boy she really is sumpin’

I melt, into her arms, and she don’t even try

The beauty, of her soul encapsulating

The touch, of her hand titillating

The power, of her love penetrating

Each time, she looks at me with those brown eyes,

I throw, my blessing into the blue skies

No need to look, so stop with the wishing, the girl of my dreams is what I’ve been missing,

 

That’s why I’ll be complete for the rest of my life, for the rest of my life, when I call her my…

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Just So Crazy For You (Gone)  to the tune of “Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQnAxOQxQIU&ob=av3e  –  “Truly Madly Deeply”

A waterfall, a running stream, under a starfruit tree

A mountain top, a cave below, in waves so blue yet so green

I cannot stop to take a breath I’m just  so crazy for you

But when I’m gone I’m really with you cuz’ our love will only

Last forever, no storm it can’t weather, Sim, Eu te amo too

Chorus:

Under that palm tree over the warm sand, in the green room where we’ll only be, we’ll watch that sunset over the ocean, until we float away in the breeze

 

 

And when that note is rising brightly into your deep brown eyes,

I’ll play it longer, play it stronger until you recognize.

Our time was real our love is sealed how could it truly be?

That such a place brought us together with the desire and yearning to really

Know each other, embrace one another, the space between us free

Chorus

It’s almost too easy Katy, we let our hearts to find, their beating right together

Just call my name and to you I’ll run

You-oh-you, oh darling yeah

A waterfall, a running stream, under a starfruit tree.

A mountain top, the cave below, in waves so blue yet so green

I cannot stop to take a breath I’m just so crazy for you

Chorus

You-oh-you, you oh you, yeah, uh-huh, I love you so bad so bad oooh, Yeah I love you so bad, so bad oooh

***

(Following song is dedicated to the Ukrainian Language camp that I attended for 5 days with other Peace Corps Volunteers, where I was the leader of a group called the “Big Teddy Bears” and acted as the general of sorts in presenting our team every morning (in Ukrainian) to the other campers.  Other highlights included humbling myself greatly, meeting wonderful expressive people, scoring in the football match, and being the MC for the talent show, my saxophone featured as a solo, within a blues number, and in an acoustic version of the camp song, which I sang and played in Ukrainian (you know what I mean))

 

A Texan Tryin’ To Talk Ukraine  to the tune of “Englishman in New York” by Sting

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d27gTrPPAyk&ob=av3n  – An Englishman in New York

I don’t drink vodka I’ll take whiskey partna’, prefer a steak with my potatoes

When I say “Dyakooyoo” it’s gotta lil’ twang, I’m a Texan tryin’ to talk Ukraine

See me dancin’ along the riverside, around babusyas and hopniks,

I take two steps each time it’s my refrain, I’m a Texan tryin’ to talk Ukraine

The dance to the camp song that our group inspired so beautifully, and the song which I play and sing quite often for Ukrainians dying for an American to sing their songs

Chorus

Ooh, amongst Americans I sound most barbarian, I’m a Texan talkin’ Ukraine

Oooh, let me say it again, perhaps less than barbarian, I’m a Texan talkin’ Ukraine

I am a leader, I keep my chest out strong and proud, if they are wiser no one knows

Learning is a humbling process for us all, just keep smiling and try harder every day

Chorus

Learning how to make Ukrainian jam and conserve vegetables, in Ukrainian of course

The accent keeps on droppin’, but those words they keep on floppin’, at least I know I am not alone

Those words they keep on changin’, so I keep rearrangin’, just go with the flow and never be out done

When push comes to shove I make my presence known, if I fall then I get right back up

My confidence will trump your fancy grammar anytime, if I believe then who are they to say?

That final performance, everyone was on their feet and I was leading the way. I started to know how rock stars feel (American jazz stars who sing Ukrainian and play the saxophone that is)

I am a leader, I keep my chest out strong and proud, if they are wiser no one knows

Learning is a humbling process for us all, just keep smiling and try harder every day

Just keep smiling and try harder every day, just keep smiling and try harder every day

Chorus  (amidst “Just keep smiling and try harder every day”)

The River Bug Blues  an original by Killing the River Bugs

(The following is an actual song that I wrote, not just wrote off of someone else’s song, but actually wrote.  It is dedicated to the musical memories made between myself and a German vagabond, Anne, who came my way through Couchsurfing this summer.  She played guitar and this cute little German flute, and we sang and danced and created music throughout the riversides and streetsides of Ukraine for two glorious days, decorating the normally placid and rhythm-less comings and goings of Ukrainian lifestyle with a little bit of heart and a whole lotta soul.  It was a beautiful weekend)

The beautiful moment when Anne and I lent our instruments to a wedding couple for a whirlwind 2 minute photo shoot. I wonder how they look upon those photos now. (the "funky and fresh" guys are on the bottom right)

(Guitar intro by Anne)

Yeah I saw you down the road with a whole in your shoes,

Oh I saw you down the road with a big ole whole in your shoes

You looked at me and smiled and I said let’s go play some blues

Jammin' on Anne's cool little German flute

We went down to the river to let our shines,

We went to sit by that river to let our souls out to shine

You say killing the river bugs is our game, I said that sounds like a real good name

Anne chillin' and just lookin' like herself. I felt like I had known her in a past life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we took our show on down the road,

Yeah we took our brand-new show down far that road.

He said you sound funky and fresh, I said I think this just might mesh.

We took our joint, to another point

Yeah we took our joint, way down to that there yonder point

Boys were tappin’ their feet, people wanna meet, a sound so sweet

The hip hop boys invited me this wild drum session/ tap dancing phenomena show where I attempted to process the drum beat and the intensity of this tap dancer all while more than 50 gathered around to watch the spectacle. (I am in the bottom right corner). It was insane.

Now you gotta go, go far away

Yeah you gotta go, but right now I wanna say

I got some news, as long as you’re wearing them shoes, you won’t forget these blues

Anne with Nina and I in front of our house. She traveled on this ghetto babusya bike with like 40 pounds of stuff on the back, all the way across Ukraine. I thought it was awesome, Nina thought it was crazy

***

(The following tune is inspired by the first true mountain journey of my life, in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine.  I spent 5 days on a trail clean-up, hiking through brush and chopping down trees, picking up trash and clearing the way for future wanderers with trail-mix.  I couldn’t have done it without the support of my fellow volunteers, I didn’t realize going into it all how unprepared I was.  I had to carry a backpack on my back and my stomach because I didn’t have a real hiking pack, I had two year old running shoes on my feet with dying socks, and my warmest layer of clothing was a light cardigan sweater, that, along with my straw fedora, got me dubbed “J-Crew” for the remainder of the trip.  Despite it being some of the most physically taxing and exhausting 5 days of my life, the fresh blueberries from the bush in the morning with my oatmeal and the feeling of being on top of that mountain, or in the valley below throwing a Frisbee with the sunshine and smell of true nature all around, was more than enough to make it one of the more rewarding experiences I have ever had with Mother Nature)

The camping crew on our final day together before heading home.

On Top Today  to the tune of “Beautiful Day” by U2

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co6WMzDOh1o&ob=av2e –  “Beautiful Day”

My world is a room, it rises up and I hear the sound

A hopeful bird, from the mountain top and twirls around

Feeling cold, my jacket on and rain in the air,

Miles to go, but I think I’m already there

With my boys on top of one of the highest peaks we climbed in our trek. Also the time I realized that I never really climbed to the top of a mountain before in my life. A pretty great realization.

They say there is beauty here, but for this dirt on my face

I can’t see much farther than my own tired shoelace

On top of the highest peak, expressing my true emotion.

On top today, another trip a tumble, but I’m on top today

This feelings here to stay

If I rise above, then I can find sensation,

In the goals of my own mind’s creation

 

 

My feet are tired, but my heart is strong and true

I’ll take that mountain and then sing upon the blue

 

On top today, another trip a tumble, but I’m on top today

Pinch me, this vista surely is a taste,

Of the grandeur of the nature of God’s good grace

Enjoying reading Thoreau while chillin' and soakin' in the world that surely he was talking about (maybe without a fedora and unbuttoned sweater, but hey, it felt more natural).

Never known this kind of view, never known how life becomes you

Never known my voice is so loud, never known expanse in the sunlight,

Never known the power of might, never known how a smile makes it alright

Never known the true meaning of south, until I’m lost and I wanna find out

Today…today…

On top today, another trip a tumble, but I’m on top today

Yeah. I feel the same way. You keep looking and looking, and it never stops being awesome (but there is not just "some" awe, there is a lot, so it's more like awe-ful, but not like that, you know what I mean?)

Pinch me, this vista surely is a taste,

Of the grandeur of the nature of God’s good grace

If it’s above me then I reach it now, to look from on top it is my vow

If it’s above me then I reach it now, I reach it now

 

 

On the way back home, we trudged through about 10 kilometers of mud and off-road and poorly marked trails, exhausted and feet ready to fall off. Then angel came down in the form of a logging truck converted into a Ameri-vac (aka mountain bus), I hailed it down and then spent the next hour chatting with these beautiful mountain workers, teeth stained from gathering blueberries, amazed at the sight of six Americans in the middle of their world. And then it started pouring outside for the next half hour. God really is found in the mountains.

***

(The following song attempts to capture the spirit and life that I lived in two weeks at Wizard Camp, an English-intensive summer camp for Ukrainian students from ages 8-16 that was held at a lovely little sanatorium just north of my city.  Myself and four other volunteers (dear friends Theo and Patrick included) worked alongside Ukrainians, Russians, and an Armenian who all taught English for a living, in facilitating this camp experience for the kids.  What I originally anticipated to be a luke-warm experience, turned out to be one of the most enjoyable camps I have ever worked at.  Hitting the books by day discussing and role-playing subjects in a many host of ways, by night we were donned in costume dancing it up at the discotheque, making S’mores round the campfire (my personal doing), or singing blues in the sunshine.  The relationships I built there continue to this day, and are a big part of my happiness, as I see those same smiling faces every weekend.

PS:  The song this is based on actually became the hit of the camp, after Patrick, Pete, and I all decided to put on our best country and sing this at the bar every night (to the behest, but actually enjoyment of the Ukrainian bartenders) and then for the talent show, it also being the last song at the last dance.)

The American boys with wobbly legs doing their rendition of Garth's most spirited song, (pun intended).

Wizard Friends With Smiling Faces to the tune of “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks

(I couldn’t find a version to attach on the internet, hopefully you have it or can find it, or just imagine the tune in your head)

The pride of my experience at Wizard Camp, The Cool Cats and Saxophone, the group I led as we marched into the beginning of camp to a blues riff, doing a little West Side Story chant and dance when introducing each member. We were truly the "cat's meow".

My horn I toot, cool cats follow in suit, with a hip style and an easy sway

With a pride and a glow, we put on a show, we put out the moves of the day

I saw the surprise, the look in their eyes, as I took the mike said my name

Listen all you, if you think this party’s through, don’t stop now let’s make it rain!

 

 

Wizard friends with smiling faces, really give me a kick, yeah they’re all aces

Myself and Pasha, aka the Wiz Kids, the band who made their debut (and so far only performance) at Wizard Camp

If I had things my way, I’d always stay

See there’s no need to complicate this, come to Wizard Camp and get back to basics

Oh Wizard friends, with smiling faces.

With my favorite camper and one of my favorite people, Dasha. We pretended to be nerds, but its not too far from the truth really.

We’ll all follow along, and he’ll sing a song, one we’ve all heard before

Just keep it tight, and just make it bright, and you I’ll always adore

The wannabe Texan, Pasha, in my cowboy shirt and some girl's pretend cowboy hot. He watches George Bush speeches every night because he loves the way he talks. What a guy.

Attention to glean, costumes to be seen, just give me a chance and then

You see me fly across that dance floor for hours, say I knew him when

Chorus (x 4 or whenever it wears off)

 

(If you enjoyed Adam’s First Album “The Best of Summer in Ukraine (And the World)”, please be tuned for his second release, “An Adam of All Trades”, to be coming out sometime this fall)

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Pervasive Feelings

10/04/11

Close your eyes.  Now let yourself dream, but do that whole conscious dreaming thing that the psychedelics talked about where you put yourself into an Inception like world that you have created for your own nocturnal pleasure.  Put yourself into the job that you love to do, that you have decided you may be meant to do for the rest of  your life.  Feels good, right?  Wait.  Now practice speaking to the people around you.  As much as you explain to these people, they still look at you like you are from another planet, and even though this is the dream that you have chosen for yourself, you can’t make them understand everything you are saying.  If you had to guess you would say that maybe they gathered half of the words coming out of your mouth, something in this world not so dream-like.  Now open your eyes.  Do you see what you have been dreaming of?  No, of course not.  But I do. 

Ira and Tonya, two of those who rarely understand. But at least they know the way to their teacher's heart.

I stand in front of them, their frozen expressions immediately melted as I exude the warmth and excitement that I am trying to share with them, if not through my words then through some cultural-continuum osmosis or something, whatever gets the job done.  James Brown plays from the speakers of my computer and I sing as loud as I can to make up for their lack of soul (it’s not their fault, only a handful of white men have more than a handful of it), pointing to those that I know should be singing the chorus, thinking back to a few days before when I received similar results in the village school, but how I would sing louder if that’s what it took.  Smiles abounding and the ice not broken but evaporated (at least that’s what I told myself) I told them all to relax, now the fun was about to really begin.

The fluidity of motion, the ease of it all, the confidence that rung in the silence between the sentences that I paused to take a breath for, I felt like I was back on the jazz stage.  No saxophone in sight, I just smiled and carried forth.  “Does anyone live in a house that was built by their family member?” hoping someone would bite the bait I find that hand and use it as fuel.  “Now surely when they building they didn’t just start slopping down bricks, letting the bricks teach them what to do next.  No, they had a plan, a blueprint, a drawing of some sort.  They did research on how to build a home, spoke with others about the risks involved, the proper way to make a solid foundation.  Then, and only then, after many months of careful planning did they begin to build the home you live in now today.”  Like a master of rhetoric I let them soak in the metaphor and continue forth.  “Writing is the same way.  Without a foundation, without planning, without spending more time on these things than the actual final product, you will not have a final product, or you will have one that will collapse when you think it is just at its strongest.”  Without missing a beat I jump into the reading of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”.

The desiring wisdom in their furrowed brows reminds me of the opportunity that I have in the remaining five minutes and so I take a deep breath, the kind that you take before you go all the way underwater with a snorkel, so as to see as many beautiful things as you can, and not to swallow too much salt water either, and begin. “The opportunity you have is incredible.  The fact that you have chosen this opportunity is even more so.  There are so many who look up to, especially when you aren’t looking.  I admire you so much for what you do, it tells me that you and I understand that our lives are not about us.  I hope that you take this experience today and bring it wholeheartedly back into the classroom, sharing this knowledge with those who desire it, and believing in it, in yourselves, in them, all the way.  Thank you for being here today, thank you for being you, and I hope to work with you again in the future.  Have a wonderful day.”   The faces of thirty teachers open up finally into greater grins and a light clappter (supposedly this isn’t a word, I just looked it up and it is not in the dictionary.  I feel I have used it quite often, this is what being in Ukraine does to me) spreads across the room in a polite way and variations of “Thank you” in Ukrainian accents, as I smile and do that shuffle thing with my papers that newscasters do after signing off, but think that they aren’t still on the air, but secretly they know that you can still see them feel professional or unique or something.

So after all my reality turned into a dream come true.  While so often I am in a room knowing that so much of what I am really after falls through the cracks in the lesser experiences or interests of their adolescent eardrums, for the first time in this country I felt that every word I spoke was useful.  I felt that I was really in control, and that they were really interested and desiring to know the products of my experiences.  Nevermind that I have the advantage of having spoken this language all day, every day of my life (with a few recent exceptions in my new life in the world), but I was in charge, and would have been even with a group of native-English speaking teachers.  What I had to offer was real, and it was good, and while not the end-all-be-all in the field of writing, it inspired someone, if only for a moment.  That’s all that really matters right?   That moment?

With the braver of the teachers from this group, including good ole' Volary, the one gentleman scholar who proved to be the commanding voice of them all.

After realizing the value in such opportunities, how much I enjoyed the aspect of teaching when my audience is mature and willing, the feeling of speaking before a group of people with rhetoric and passion and honesty reminding me perhaps of the part of who I am that I don’t often enough get to experience, I have returned to this room several times since that first day.  I have the beautiful experience of being the closest volunteer to the city, Vinnytsya, so naturally (or perhaps I have earned it) I get to be the volunteer who reaches a greater audience, perhaps the greatest seeing the way that knowledge and words spread so much more quickly in the city (or perhaps just in a different way.  Case in point, my picture was in the education department of the Vinnytsya newspaper with a saxophone in hand, a picture taken when I came to an English-speaking club one weekend to enlighten folks about the power of jazz. I got a call from my boss saying “Hey, I saw you in the paper”, and I said, “Hey, what are you talking about”.  It’s a smaller world).  I work closely with the head methodologist for the oblast (kind of like a state but not) in foreign languages, which is pretty cool because she is a good person to impress, and just the other day I told her thank you for everything and was just in such a marvelous mood and she said “You have such a nice smile”, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but coming from a Ukrainian is a big deal, especially one who is quite serious and dry in her speech and general expression, now she never stops smiling when I am in the room.  Come to think of it, this happens a lot lately when I am in the room, to other people.  Guess you could say I’m feeling good and I am spreading the love as much as I can.

22/04/11

We carry around things in bags and cases and rucksacks and such other materials that hold not because we want to protect them, but because we are all quite secretive and enjoy being mysterious, knowing that people are looking at them like men with super powers trying to see what’s inside, when all they really have to do is ask, it’s what we really want after all.  “Mr. Adam, what’s in the case?” Dennis asked me.  Dennis is naturally a curious kind of guy, both in the sense of his natural ability to not be able to keep his hands off of anything (including his 5th form classmates) and curious to me in how this is his nature yet he never figures out how to touch his homework.  “It’s my saxophone,”  I tell him.  “Ooh! Mr. Adam! Mr. Adam!  Play now!”  “Oh, I don’t know,” doing the whole I’ll pretend like I’m not going to do it but everyone knows I’m going to do it thing, “Please Mr. Adam! Please please!”  Feeling all of the attention that I wanted for the moment, I cave in to his request.  Or course if I brought my saxophone to the park I wanted someone to ask what was in it, and of course I was going to play it.  If the jam session starts earlier than you expected, it just reminds you that you are a jazzman for a reason, so put on your best hat and get the show on the road.

My Fan Club. Nine year old twins and their friend, they stuck around for the whole show.

The gig that started with Dennis’ curiosity has turned into the word on the streets in  Nemyriv  (Te choov pro koncert Adame v parkoo?  Mene duzhe podobayetsya djazz mooseekoo!  = You have heard about Adam’s concert in the park?  I really dig jazz music!).  By the word on the streets I mean the sound in the park every Wednesday at 6 o’clock.  See the spot that I played that day with Dennis and the twins is in the center of Nemyriv’s beautiful park, right next to the fountain and also the guy that runs the trampoline.   This guy, Sasha, also sells cotton candy and silly little toys for kids, as well as runs a miniature shooting range under a tent with BBs ( yak ukrayeenskooyoo dlya “you’ll shoot your eye out!”).  I asked him what he does in the wintertime, he says nothing.  Needless to say I held great respect for such a man (who twirls a mean cotton candy by the way, ask anybody in town and they’ll tell ya’ the same) and somehow he garnered the same respect for me, smiling that day as more and more children came to his side of the world.  “Ya dopomozhoo t’voya beezneez?  Potim ya hochoo chistina t’voya hroshi!”  (Am I helping your business?  I had asked him, he nodded and so I said Then I want a part of the money!).  We smiled and a beautiful business was forged on that day, he told me he played guitar and said we would play together and be called Batoota Komanda (The Trampoline Band) and he laughed and liked my spirit and said okay.

Nastia, the luckier twin who was brave enough to don my saxophone. It's as big as she is!

Well the day that Sasha and I will make our debut will be someday soon now, I have had to fly solo for my sophomore efforts (can you have more than one sophomore effort?  Would it therefore be a junior effort?  I don’t know how English works anymore).  The common denominator in all three of the gigs (aside from the springs on the trampoline acting as my percussion and the sun shining perfectly on upon the bell of my saxophone, as if highlighting the brighter side of the blues) was malinkee Ukrayeekee devchenee (little Ukrainian girls) between the ages of 4 and 9.  I remember ten years ago when I began playing the sax, my major motivator was it was the next sexiest thing to the drums which all my friends were playing, and the guitar was too cliché, so I was going to make women swoon over my sexy saxy skills.  I guess I got what I wished for, just don’t know where these girls were when I was between 4 and 9.  I am not trying be the pied piper for little girls or anything, just stating the reality of my fan base.

They run from the playground where there twenty-something mothers are unsure what this strange boy is doing in the park with a fedora and a saxophone, playing jazz in the middle of nowhere Ukraine (when I asked one of the ladies if she liked jazz she just straight up shook her head, she didn’t know what she wanted, but her little kid was sure as hell swingin’ to the beat).  A medley of adorable Ukrainian/Russian emerges from the smiling blonde faces in front of me, as they kindly ask for more, they want to keep dancing.  Normally when I play my eyes are closed, but I can’t help sneaking a few quick looks as they twirl around in circles and giggle in that way that little girls do when they want to dance.  I just keep on keepin’ on til there is no one left listening (playing solo gigs on a saxophone for an hour and a half ain’t easy, unless they look at you in that way that says “We don’t understand, but we want to.  It’s cool, we don’t know why, but we want to.  We don’t know why, but we want to”).  I even played “Summertime” by request from a man in his 50s last week, he sat next to me and we talked about life and the music and such wonderful things for a good thirty to forty minutes, playing a few songs amidst personally talking to his girlfriend on his telephone  (who is currently residing in New Jersey) and following the chants and encouragements of the masculine part of my fan club, six or seven ten year-olds who love to just say “Money, money”  (in English) and smile as they rub their thumb to their pointer and middle fingers and burst into Ukrainian laughter as I burst into jazz.

After my gig this Wednesday it’s time to go global.  I have dates scheduled in Trafalgar Square in London and downtown Krakow featuring my sister on vocals, then a solo gig on the streets of Hamburg, where soon after I bring my horn halfway across the world to Salvador, Brazil to play alongside the crashing of the waves and the beautiful rhythm of Afro-Brazilian bands for an audience of one (the only one that really matters).  From small town Ukraine to the heart of African culture outside of the continent itself (always we gravitate to the roots of what we are). I just think of lil’ Louis Armstrong on the streets of New Orleans in 1920, thirty years later bringing jazz to every corner of the world.  He sang “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing” and Lord I believe it so call the world and tell ‘em jazz is coming.  The Jazz is coming. Ya dig?

Having a solo jam session on the fire escape of my house at sunset. My neighbors far and wide told Nina the next day to keep up the sound. I'm waiting for someone to not like jazz, for someone to say "Be quiet!" . But they keep cheering me on. Guess I'll be waiting for a long time!

23/04/11

We gather around the colors, wanting so badly for ours to be special, hoping that it turns out just right.  I smile at my sister, she is coloring something on hers with that special little crayon.  Momma is placing these cute little leaves on hers, then placing it in the cradle of a fishnet stocking, something is strange.  Then I say “Look at mine!”  except it doesn’t sound anything like “Look at mine”, rather more like “Divees’ do moya!” and then it all made sense.  What felt so much like the simple gathering of family at a dining room table the day before Easter to make the eggs look so pretty so that the Easter Bunny would smile a little wider when he hid them, was quietly transformed into the beginning of my first Ukrainian Easter.

The sun shone brightly upon the garden to my left, the soil freshly turned to get ready for the tomatoes and cucumbers and onions and such, Nina hurried back and forth between her baking of Pasca (easter bread, also the word for Easter) to say “Oh hoh!  Mih Haroshee malchik!  Duzha kraseeva!”  (Oh hoh!  My fine boy!  Very beautiful!) when I showed her the egg that said “Ya lyooblyoo moya sim’ya” (I love my family).   My sister Olha was being trying to make an egg that was prettier than my American flag one, and I gave her a high five and said “Moledets!  Mee choodova komanda!”  (Well done!  We are an awesome team!), speaking not only to our egg-painting skills, but our tree painting skills.  See, Ukrainians do this weird thing where they paint all the bottoms of trees white, about a foot from the ground along its trunk.  I expressed my confusion in exasperated tones, but to no avail, they couldn’t put it into words I understood, or perhaps there is no reason and I understood everything.  I told them we don’t paint our trees in America, and they said something and I shrugged my shoulders and Nina said “Oh bozheme!  Maleenkee khilopchik!”  (Oh goodness!  Little boy!  (she has many such names for me, my new favorite is Dzhigit , which means “strong man”.  I have come a long way from “”little boy” in only a month).

With sister Olha and our best in show.

Such was the lightness in the air on the day before Easter in the Darchenko household (I think I have earned an honorary extra last name-Adam Jared Tutor Darchenko (Or Adam Larryvich Darchenko, this would be my Ukrainian name.  They like to take the father’s name and add a suffix to it like –ovich for guys or –ivna for girls, and they say it like a first name.  “Hello Adam Larryvich” they said once, but I told them to stick with Mr. Adam).

24/04/11

Remember when you were in high school, and you wanted to join the latest and greatest club and so you had to go through all these ridiculous Animal House-esque initiations just to be in marching band or the thespian club? (Okay, maybe your idea of the latest and greatest is different)  And recall the most unexpected part of that whole process being when five people stormed into your bedroom at 4AM with water guns filled with cold water and grabbing you by the ankles until they realized that you were naked and so let you put clothes on and then blind-folded you and walked you down your stairs to the car where they took you to a random place in the woods and then “initiated” you?   Well, I do.  And my feeling on Easter morning was something similar, in the whole awaking and wandering off to somewhere where you don’t really know what to expect part, not because you are blindfolded but because you are asleep and wondering how you got stuck carrying the 20-pound basket of ham and cheese and  Easter bread and eggs that are to be blessed.

Honestly I had heard a lot about the Ukrainian Easter, how it is part of how you are “initiated” (for lack of a better word) into Ukrainian culture, namely because of having to stand outside on Easter morning from 12AM til 5AM just to have the priest give his blessing upon your Easter bread.   Luckily I missed the whole having to stand outside in the still 40 degree morning of Ukraine forever, but I certainly didn’t miss out on the blessing part.  The priest walked around with a bucket of water and this big paintbrush thing but on the end weren’t bristles ‘cuz bristles don’t fling water that way.  When I say fling I mean fling.  In a manner similar to how kids gathered into the Splash Zone at Seaworld, just to be blessed by the water splashed by Shamu’s holy tailfin, so did the priest douse the onlookers (and sometimes their baskets) with his holy water (or rather His holy water).  He would come by and say “Xhistos Voskres!”  (The Lord is Risen!) and then proceed with said Shamu blessing.  I don’t mean to take away from the decorum and reverence of the moment, but the pushing and shoving of Ukrainians and giant baskets caused the situation to feel rather desperate and chaotic and times (again, children and whales with big tails), so in such situations I find myself with a shy sort of smile on my face, because I’m not sure whether to laugh or the opposite of laugh.

I got my answer.  The priest, who is a friend of the family’s father (perhaps irrelevant, perhaps not), had just blessed our basket, and the entirety of my face, with holy water.  Struck without warning, I may have said “Oh Shit!” as I began laughing, I may not have, the memory is fuzzy now (just glad, if I indeed did, that no one could understand me.  Of course, except the Lord.  Oh Lord. )  The priest was smiling real big, I think he knew who he was blessing, and the joke was on me.  I decided that through some strange transitive property of holy patriarchy if the priest is smiling then that means that God is also smiling, so since God and Jesus are like blood, then surely Jesus is smiling too, so I decided I had the green light.  So, I slowly batted the water off of my blessed eyelashes, and brushed the side of my blessed face with my blessed hand, and widely let open my blessed smile.

With Nina at 5AM for our Easter Feast. The delicious looking bread is Pasca, baked in Nina's stone oven. That's the blessed food. And my blessed smile

30/04/11

When I wake up (particularly on the 30th of April, 2011) I put my pants on one leg at a time just like anybody else, except when I put my pants on they stop short of my lower thigh.  And if my pants stop short of my lower thighs, chances are that I am wearing my running shoes.  And if I am wearing my running shoes you can be sure that I am going running.  And if I am going running, you can bet your bottom dollar I am going to run 10 kilometers.  And if I am running 10 kilometers, I don’t want anyone to forget what I looked like that day as I crossed the finish line.

I stood at the finish line (which right now is the starting line) having just hustled back from the bazaar after buying the sunglasses to complete the outfit.  Right, the outfit.  So you know most of it, the shorts, the running shoes, the sunglasses.  In some mid-evening wandering throughout the quaint town of Berehovo (a delightful little town on the border with Hungary so much so that more people speak Hungarian than Ukrainian (kind of like border towns in Texas, except they drink vodka instead of tequila) my friends and I happened upon a second hand shop (they are actually called “second hand” but when you read the Ukrainian it sounds like se-k-ohnd xh-end in the same vein of such funnies as Bee-uh Mak (Big Mac) and Ve-st-air-en b-ah-rr (Western bar)).  This se-k-ohnd xh-end shop was of course plentifully stocked with suede vests, and naturally the struck my fancy.

The artists at work on their model

As Patrick finished the tattoo on my right shoulder, Theo working on the heart that said “Mama” across my chest, I couldn’t stop giving Patrick grief for coming all this way with me and not putting out for the suede vest too.  He had conveniently brought a plaid cut-off vest, so he wore that for solidarity and I stopped the joshing (so many words I could never explain to a Ukrainian.  “Who is this Josh?  He funny man, yes?”).  Linnea, one of the PCV’s who came with us to the shop the day before, purchasing a plaid shirt for her marathon team’s white trash theme, made the remnants of her cut-off shirt into bandannas at my behest and the outfit was complete.  See, most people who ran the team relay marathon dressed up, but, not one to be outdone, I figured, how many people have run a 10K in a suede vest?  Could I be the first?  Will my nipples really chafe as bad as everyone says, or will I find the experience quite liberating?  I will only ever know the answer to one of those questions.

At the beginning of the race. This move is indicative of Patrick and I's spirit for the first 5K. After that there wasn't much singing.

To the half-way point, doing the whole throwing of the water over my head as if I can hear “Chariots of Fire” already, the slow-motion starting a little too early as it always does, and Patrick is starting to inch ahead of me.  To this point we have been running side by side, quite a sight to see I must say, and keeping the energy and spirits of the whole group high.  I would say a third of the people ran with iPods and, since mine is long broken and I prefer the sounds of mother nature, Patrick and I decided to be the iPods for the other two thirds.  We took requests, from runners that we passed to keep them motivated, singing “Light My Fire” with the bacchanalian spirit of Morrison, but surely the proudest moment was our pure white version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that burst into the air of the rolling valleys and mountains surrounding us, as if inspired by Mother Nature without even thinking.  Berehevo is known for their wonderful wine country, and while I trained in the pride of Nemyriv, Central Park, there was a certain energy that was gained from the sinuous roads that carried us alongside parallel stakes in the ground, grapes adorning them as if metals for the soldiers at attention in rank, ready for their moment of truth, to serve their country proudly.  Their was a little sentimentality in me as well, such expanse and landscape reminding me of the life that encompassed me two years ago in the heart of wine country South Africa, how maybe I was running to run there all the while.  I tried to keep thinking such thoughts as mile five got longer and longer.

The city of Berehovo coming back into view, I give my wearied spirit the energy it needs, thinking about the path to the finish line, how there will be plenty of people cheering me on, a clear road for me to see the way home.  Instead, the cars continue to run all over the road, I tip-toe along the place between gravel and grass trying to keep my balance while looking over my shoulder for more traffic, what little energy I have left is being exhausted for such an unnecessary motion.  The people that I thought would be cheering me on are rather looking at me quite strangely (granted, I didn’t dress for respect but to be a spectacle, so maybe I got what I was after).  Still, there is no semblance of a marker or something that would tell people why 120 Americans are running through their town, which is just another reminder of the country that I am in and how never to expect something, especially when you need it for your turbo-boost in the final minute of your 6.2 mile run.  Nevertheless I turn on the extra fuel for the final 200 meters (even more awkwardly along the center of the city square, dodging old women with baskets and children with ice cream as I trudge forward) as I finally cross the starting line that is now the finish line, raising my hands into the air, “Chariots of Fire” still playing somewhere in my head.

The MIV (Men In Vests).

When I began training a month earlier I decided that I would run this 10K without stopping and I would break an hour.  I pushed myself in the weeks before, despite winter pushing into the first two weeks of April and having to run in three layers for the first time in my life.  I ran probably 25-35K a week that April, combined probably more than I have in my entire life.  I discovered so many new parts of Nemyriv, it’s flourishing park and the many different paths and where they go and what happens when you try and find the way to the other side of the river.  I discovered the beauty of using your body as a powerful instrument, and how right when you think there is nothing left, you just tell yourself to keep going and so you do.  I opened up a whole new side of my life (I continue running now at least 4 times a week) and the peace I receive in these runs is the best way to soak up the sunshine that now penetrates Ukraine).

I think that says it all.

57:25.  I didn’t stop once.

Two beautiful friends. Reunited as Champions.

08/05/11

Nina with her birthday present. Oh, and some flowers too.

I figured Nina must be pretty psyched that she has so much to celebrate this weekend.  Yesterday was her birthday, and I found this out unexpectedly from Olha, so glad I came home early from Vinnytsya.  I chilled with former PCV Matt who now lives and works in Vinnytsya, he is also the guy who runs the English Club where I did my jazz lesson, and he said I should stick around because everyone had been asking when I would return.  I did, and we spoke about some issues that had been on my mind, namely the nature of celebration in Ukraine and what is the proper way to celebrate-decorum, spirits (mood vs. alcohol), actions reflecting purpose of day.  It sparked quite a stirring, and so naturally it was on my mind as I walked with Nina to the cemetery on Mother’s Day.

I almost felt that whole blind-folded feeling again, which is strange because whenever I get that feeling I can see clearly, its just that I have no idea what’s awaiting.  Or rather I have some idea but expectations are dangerous when interpretations come through another language, and so I choose to be blind and it is a funny feeling.

Mother’s Days of yore consisted of me staying up late the Saturday night before and making some well-inspired card (running out of ideas because after Mother’s Day, mother’s actual birthday, and Christmas I have used up about 50+ ideas throughout the years.  Yet somehow I manage).  I ended up making such a card for Nina, slightly belated with one side featuring her birthday and you flip over the card and it’s for Mother’s Day.  My best Ukrainian made card yet, I must say.  Card-making skills aside, this Mother’s Day seemed to be everything that I thought it wouldn’t be.  See, Ukrainians have this way of making holidays either really sad and sobering or really excited and drunken-ing.  I never know which way they will be, but so often they begin the first way and end up the second way when it doesn’t seem like they should.  Perhaps I was silly to think of Mother’s Day as a time to celebrate my mother, after all we had driven to Nina’s mother’s house.  But as soon as we arrived there was this debate about whether I should come to the cemetery or stay behind and prepare for lunch.  Nina thought I should stay back, but her niece’s husband (Kolya, I think) said no, he is a part of the family or something like that, and so I trudged alongside them.

I began to laugh as Kolya said something, but then remembered the embarrassment I experienced at the anniversary of Nina’s husband’s death, decided just to follow the footsteps closely, blind again.  At the cemetery many people were gathered around some memorial, others stood at the foot of their loved ones wearing their cloudy masks or just taking them off for there is no reason to hide anything from them anymore.  There was a brightness to the day but a languorous something stole it away from me as I paced alongside Nina and her cousin, who walked to the center to meet Nina’s mother.  I hardly have time to say hello before I am being pulled down not ever so gently by the neck and given a big ‘ole babusya kiss by this sweet sweet woman.

A babusya is Ukraine’s version of a grandmother, except their status as matriarchs supersedes the familial territory, and flows quite naturally into everyday Ukrainian society, making the babusya one of the more powerful forces around.  You wouldn’t think it by looking at them, their floral patterned scarf wrapped delicately around their grayed hair (that you never actually see), cute little boots below skirts that hang to their shins, and their often carrying about twice their weight in bags as they steadily climb onto the bus.  At first you think that they are hunched over because of the weight of the bags, but then you realized that these leaders of Ukraine have worked themselves so hard, working the fields without machines or animals, but with their bare hands for 50 years, that they are all now unable to stand straight up, more often at an angle closer to 90 than 180.  Their eyes are so full of kindness and their wrinkled faces roughed and weathered as if you could read their faces like a palm, with little lines drawing creases into the history of all they have seen, so naturally their brows are furrowed but cheeks are rosy, where they keep their hope when the smile comes around.  I take all of this in after being pulled closer to 90 than 180 by Nina’s mother, every fitting part of the matriarch that she represents, and even more so on this day.  Or so I thought.

One of my favorite pictures yet. The woman to my left is Nina's mother. Babusya in true form

For some reason everyone is putting candy on the graves, I would ask questions but my blindness hasn’t improved my hearing in Ukrainian, and I think my question limit has been reached for the present moment, so I carry on towards a field and feel very alone and out of place, searching for answers that aren’t there.

The goats would, but they were on a rope that forced them in a circle. It was lovely to watch

Hard-working and lots of love. This woman is amazing. The little girl is cute too.

A lighter mood pervaded the rest of the afternoon, enjoying a fine cooked dinner where I didn’t say very much, just kind of watched as a different babusya ran the show.  I spent time watching Nina’s grand-niece (or is it just cousin, I forget) chasing after goats, getting a nice photo opportunity with said grand-niece and Nina working in the field, and all seemed well and good.  Until Nina had us pull over at the cemetery where her husband is buried when we returned to Nemyriv, and the original sadness comes over me again, as perhaps I finally understand.  I walked with her and watched as she placed candy upon his grave, it slipped onto the ground not once but twice, how painful to bend down the second time and put it back into place once again.  The mood was altered again by the grand-niece (no more than 4 years old)  who decided to take the candy and start throwing it at graves, highlighting the strangeness of the moment I was in, the rupturing moment in you when something is certainly quite extraordinarily odd in its spontaneity that initially your instinct is to smile, but then you realize that such an action has only heightened the pervasive (all of the feelings in Ukraine are this way, nothing stands along the edges, but it all seeps into you kind of without telling you) grayness and sorrow of everything,  grand-niece starts a temper-tantrum perhaps to take the attention elsewhere, I just look at Nina who wants to make her happy, but the ever-present sadness in her eyes keeps anyone from believing in anything except that a part of her is missing and there will be no real celebrating for quite a long time.

16/05/22

The streets are so familiar but the feeling is so new.   “Everyone here loves you,”  the Americans told me just the day before.  “Yeah, all our parents have showed us pictures of you playing your saxophone and stuff, and we are like, ‘We’ve never even met this guy!’”  “Yeah, my mom came into my bedroom in her nightgown just to tell me that you had arrived” another continued seamlessly.   Coming into Kozelets was mostly just about spending time with Natasha, not for any other sentimental value.  I don’t really know if you can call all of it sentimental value, seeing that I am only gaining the knowledge of all that has happened now, so it’s hardly sentimental I guess more than just the pure reality of the moment I am living.

The New Kozelets family

See, there is this new group of Americans in Kozelets and Natasha has a new boy living in her home, Matt.  He’s alright, a little on the bland side for me (and I think for Natasha too, she burst to life when I came around).  I spent some time with them on Saturday helping them with a project they were working on, going around to different shops in Kozelets and trying to get support for some fundraising, letting my new-confident Ukrainian go as far as it can, watching those at my side struggling, seeing myself in them, how far I have come.  Saturday also just beautifully happened to be Natasha’s birthday, which I really had no idea about until Matt told me the day before.  Aside from having a jam session in Natasha’s honor, Matt kindly providing vocals for “Happy Birthday” (I’m getting good at that one), we had a great meal of shaslik, Ukrainian’s barbecue food, more like a kabob that anything and birthday cake.  I was able to offer one of my better toasts yet, which was surprisingly not as cool feeling as translating Matt’s toast from English into Ukrainian.  I cannot really remember when I’ve had the opportunity to be a translator of any sort for anyone anywhere, so to recognize that I could move seamlessly (the seams are a little off mind you) between Ukrainian and English, was just the icing on the cake to all that had happened in conversation with Natasha to that point.

The round of applause, most importantly by the birthday girl herself, after my playing of "Happy Birthday!"

The conversation flowed so naturally at the dinner table where once I had struggled to put together my emotions and simpler thoughts.  Natasha just glowed as she showered me with compliments on my Ukrainian skills.

We have come so far together.

And she isn’t just the kind of mama who says these things because you’re her American son.  She was my toughest critic, when I wasn’t doing well, or would miss a beat she would tell me so and tell me I should know better.  Many people have told me that my language is quite nice, yet to hear the same from the woman who has seen me from the first day I sat down at a dinner table in Ukraine, the only sentence I could utter being “Ya ne rozoomeeyoo”  (I don’t understand) and keeping a dictionary on the third seat that no one was using, well needless to say I felt like a million bucks ( I have tried to teach my kids this in class, so they won’t say “I’m fine”, but rather “I feel like a million bucks”.  It hasn’t caught on, but neither did Vanilla Ice’s fade until Will Smith wore it as the Fresh Prince.  Maybe I just need to get a cool black guy to come teach with me).

Jammin' with Jenya. (Jammin' is a relative term as he just picked up the guitar and was playing some Russian folk song that I couldn't follow).

The most exciting part of it all, I think was that for the first time I realized that someone could actually see my personality through Ukrainian, the full range of it all.  From the struggles of wanting so badly to tell you why I was crying today, to having my tutor help me with a letter to you in your language because I don’t know how to tell you I’m sorry that your mother passed away, but that she raised a wonderful daughter, to coming home one weekend and sharing your life completely and wholly with that person and opening up a whole new side of life and emotion and energy that no one knew you had (in Ukrainian).  This is to say that the weekend with Natasha and family and friends (I even got to see Rado, who I hadn’t seen for four months, I thought he had disappeared.  We spoke for hours in Ukrainian about life and where it was going, I had never spoken in Ukrainian with him, it was like starting a whole new relationship) gave me the feeling that I am coming of age in my Ukrainian skin, that perhaps for the first time in my life I am actually able to be me in two different languages.  There are plenty of rough edges, my learning is far from over and I will strive everyday to become more involved with this language, but until that time I know that where I am is a beautiful place to be and it will only get better and as it gets better so will life here so naturally do the same.  Doors will open themselves to me, relationships will wait like letters overflowing in the mailbox to be opened up and explored and my appreciation of the world around me will only become that much more. I am more man than I have ever been, and it feels good to be this man.

Gathered round the table with family and friends for the birthday feast.

25/05/11

I sit at my desk right now writing this blog, the words come out to you as I think them in my head, without stopping who invented such a thing like punctuation it really is so limiting to expression

My mind is turning a mile a minute (or rather a kilometer, such unconventional units of measure don’t fly anywhere but America) as I prepare for my coming excursion(s).  Tomorrow is the last day of school (it will have already been by the time this blog is viewer-ready) and I feel as giddy as I did when I was the age of my students, I don’t know if that feeling every changes until you stop being a kid and actually grow up (i.e. get a job that doesn’t have a summer break, so anything besides a teacher).  Work at school as flown by since spring decided to come, the kids natural lackadaisical spirit doing that whole pervasive (from now on I call it the p-word) thing we talked about and getting me all senioritis-like even though I’m not a student anymore, and shouldn’t be allowed to feel such things.  But sometimes it’s unfair working with a bunch of 40 and 50 something women who are not 23 year old boys in a man’s body, expected to behave in the same way as them.  I’ve managed to find a way to play both roles quite well, although the 23 year-old boyman may be winning.

Olha (she is such a hoss) and Maria (also a hoss, for a 6th grader) cheering on their favorite teams.

This works out well for the school actually, considering I had the energy and proactive-ness to run the first fund-raiser it seems like the school has seen in years, a football tournament that we recently had which raised about $130 for the school’s new football field (it doesn’t sound like a lot, because it’s not, fund-raising isn’t easy when your people fund-raising don’t try and the culture of your community is still p-word by paranoia and suspicion that your students are spies trying to take your hard earned money for…god knows what).  Nevertheless, $130 goes a long way in Ukraine, and I just sat down with the director to start the plans for the new football field today (although I learned we cannot put in new grass because the field is built on top of an old Soviet bomb shelter, that Olha said is still used by someone but no one knows who or for what or why. So that’s why the field is made of dirt.  Oh! the things that inhibit progress in this country).  Perhaps something really will come to fruition from my wanting to go out on top and actually say I did something of substance my first semester.

My fifth graders (Andriy the trouble-maker with fedora) being themselves, but this time in the sunshine.

The Champions of the Day.

In reflection, this semester has been so much more of a learning experience than a serious rookie season, kind of like try-outs, or even your college years all squeezed into six months, and then the big leagues begin next season.  I have learned a great deal about what I am capable of when I put my heart into something, and what happens if I don’t.  I have learned that my laptop has been as much of a friend as an enemy to my teaching, because now all my students want to do is listen to James Brown and dance (which is sadly when the boyman part of the 23-year old sometimes wins out and has to just “get on the good foot”).  I have learned more about the Queen of England and her family from Russian made British formed textbooks than I ever cared for.  But most importantly, I have learned that I am good at what I do, and that I enjoy what I do.  I have trained hard and now am ready for show time.  I just hope show time is ready for me.

My summer begins this Friday as I head to the shores of Odessa to share my life with a dear old friend from the States, as well as world-wandering grandparents.  From Odessa I jump on a plane to London to meet up with family for my gig in Trafalgar Square with my sister.  Down to Krakow, across the border to Lviv, a hop and a skip to Nemyriv and Kozelets to see what it’s like to have your Ukrainian family next to your American family (or is it the other way around?).  Two weeks later my life changes all over again as I fly to Salvador, Brazil for what could be the greatest two weeks of my life.  And that’s saying something, because I have lived a rather blessed  life.

If time really does fly when you’re having fun, then this summer will be traveling at the speed of sound. Sultry, the jazz on the shores of Brazil.  Bustling, Ukrainian picnics by the river.  Illuminating, laughter in many different languages.  So many beautiful sounds will fill my life for the next three months, a soundtrack to the memories that will forever be blessed to me.  I cannot wait to share this blessing with the world.

Doing that sharing in the heart of Kiev's Independence Square. How quickly jazz will be heard, Yeah, the speed of sound.

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“How Many Adam Tutor’s Are There In Ukraine?”

(March 18)

Laughter is tossed across the room like the basketball we spin on our fingers to show the on-loookers our fabled talent.  A box of pizza is turned upside down as another is opened, if you listen closely enough you can hear the tear of the teeth through the layers of tomato and cheese and ham and sentimentality.  A beer sits to the side of each person like an obedient dog on a leash, they pull it back closer to them when it gets too far away.  The cards are scattered in colors of green and yellow and blue and everything in the middle of the amoebic circle, wandering eyes silently signal curiosity, whose turn is it next?  Niet niet niet, (other grumblings of mixed Ukrainian Russian something in between) I clearly pronounce It is Anton’s turn,  Bohdan just reversed it, and they nod and smile and take another sip of beer. 

It is the second of the three games of UNO that will be played this evening, and the scene feels all too familiar to me, yet so different at the same time, in this new life.  Discussions transpire, its speakers perspire, in English, conversations about the facets of our relationship, the dynamic drawn between language barriers, their appreciation of my tryings, my appreciation of their doings.  Banter is batted back and forth as banter does, the nature of it is to be between friends, for the counterplay is so fluid, as if you can…(finish each other’s sentences). 

Several days later, cleaning up the same room I had helped to dirty days before, I couldn’t help but smile in the realization of what the ability to have «banter» really meant.  Misha, the force behind the creation of this banter, the man who brought me into this group, who welcomed me into his circle of friends, his home, his trust, his life.

I met Misha several months ago when I happened to be eating lunch at an irregular time in the cafeteria, alone in an oddly chosen seat, and a tall rugged looking fella walked in.  At first he looked intimidating, but as soon as he sat down across from me, familiarity became almost instantaneous, his amicable spirit and genuine excitment to meet me doing away with all superficial preconceptions.  Misha is a big guy, not big like fat, but big like built, my height but with broad shoulders and a thick middle and firm foundation (as opposed to fading love handles and chicken legs from yours truly).  His hair hangs in a shaggy mane-like way to the nape of his neck, straight and messy, blond and dirty.  His street ensemble is a white GAP sweatshirt with the hood sticking upon the outside of his leather jacket which rests comfortably against the waist of his not-too baggy jeans, jeans which leave plenty of room to show the high-topness of his high tops (in Adidas blue and white).  His out on the town (otherwise known as discotheque) clothes include the same from waist to toe (excite make the Adidas black and white), with a white collared shirt unbuttoned three buttons and a form-fitting sharp gray blazer, buttoned until the party starts and whoever unbuttons it first gets dibs.  Misha is the life of the party at every party, and keeps it real while keeping it ever-changing.  His most defining quality (at least on the bar scene) is turning everything into a song, and being sure to sing it so that everyone in the bar (and a few walkers-by outside) can hear it.  As perhaps you have gathered from his description, Misha is a basketball player, and, fittingly enough, his favorite song to sing is «I  Believe I Can Fly».  He busts it out at the most random times, basically just an expression of his joy or excitement in a given moment, and even has a few Ukrainian humorish variations, «I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch this guy» (instead of touch the sky, he thinks its just plain hilarious)  and more often than not placing his shoulder against my shoulder and his arm around the other and we sway back and forth in the middle of the lamplit Ukrainian night.

With Misha and gang at the Royal Pub listening to some good ole American oldies (sung in a Slavic accent)

Yet as fun as this guy is, and as crazy as I first really recalled him to be, there is a genuity to his character that has yet to be matched in my time in Ukraine.  He tells me things like You are my brother, my home is your home, and Hey man, man I am just really happy you are here man, and I will let you be the big spoon tonight (I taught him what spooning was, partly to assuage his slight homophobia, lighten the mood a little bit).  I have stayed at his home a number of times, and he has cooked me breakfast lunch and dinner, always going the extra mile to make sure that I feel as comfortable as possible.  We have had the equivalent of the «Let’s take this to another level» conversation in regards to our friendship, and the continued presence of his name on my cell phone shows that he is not afraid to reach out, a quality that I so desire in a real friend.  We talk about girls, the future, the prospects of the NBA playoffs (he is a Celtics man, I say wait til the Spurs really turn on their engines in the Finals, if our friendship lasts beyond game 7), and just everyday things.  He was the first to ask me about my trip to Crimea, the one who asks about the details, the person who at the end of the day you tell about your day, because he really wants to know because he understands that a friendship is a two-way street and that he doesn’t want me to pass him on by, nor does he want to pass me by.  There is a level of emotion and understanding that is often difficult for me to locate in a male relationship, a deeper respect of who we are and the things we value in life.  We value a good conversation over a good beer (well, I prefer wine, he poked fun at me the other day and bought me a Screwdriver) and just the knowledge that we are sharing in each other’s company, in the moment, at any moment we can, and at the end of the day knowing that there is nothing better than a smile from a friend. 

(March 22)

Displaced, but feeling like dis’ place (forgive the creative licence) was going to find me many homes over the next week, I strode through the Crimean breeze, 5 hours of rockety Ukrainian train sleep under my belt, 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my stomach, and two bags strapped carefully over my shoulders (Misha gave me his travel duffel in replacement for my tattered plastic checkered babusya bag, open to the air and opening me to humiliation according to my masculine peer).  After 17 hours and my first experience on an overnight train ( all but entertaining, my reading of Ukraine’s history making me rather depressed and nervous that something eerie would happen the highlight in the spike of my emotions throughout the evening), the search for my first destination, Bakchisaray, began.

Several weeks before, while in search of how I could become the most warm as fast as possible, I decided to take up Sasha’s offer.  You may recall Sasha, my teacher of Ukrainian from back in the early months of my Ukrainianhood, during my training in Kozelets, the way he always said «That’s my boy» to reinforce the masculinity between us (you may also recall that until Sasha came, I spent 10 hours a day with 6 women, 6 days a week.  Sasha was my beckoned call for brotherhood).  As such, we formed a unique bond which has carried over until now, and he offered his home in the center of Crimean Tatar culture, Bakchisaray.  A week after his offer I accepted, only to discover that he had in fact been called by Peace Corps to come to Kiev and that he wouldn’t be in Crimea again for three months.  My mind was set on going to this beachside getaway, and Sasha could sense I had no other options, so he said that I could stay with his wife and daughter.  I felt awkward about the idea at first, but he assured me that «there are worse things than a nice, handsome American boy coming to visit»,  that his wife would enjoy my company and his home was my home.

After brief introductions and a tour of the apartment whose bed I learned to love over the course of the week, she took me to the heart of the old city of Bakchisaray, where the original inhabitants of Crimea (the descendants of Genghus Khan and his cronies) first made their homes.   She dropped me off near the trail that would take me to my first tastes of history, and wished me good luck, life was all in Russian now (except I don’t know Russian, but I didn’t need it anyways, the voice of Spring speaks all languages).  Before heading up to the cliffs of the great cave city (more on that in a moment) I stopped and took in the religious heart of the ancient Bakchisarayan land, and also the oldest monastery in all of Ukraine, (if not also the cutest), the Uspensky Monastery.   Built around the 7th century, this old religious foundation, built into the side of the cliffs, reeks of Orthodoxy, its iconography and ancient Cyrillic lettering all pointing to the same faithful images that rest in the corners of walls of every Ukrainian I have ever met.  There was plenty of land in the area, and so this choice location suggests some greater reason behind its precarious perch, but answers unknown, it was a fascinating start to my journey, the beginning of my Spring-time discovery.

Uspensky Monastery-the stairs to the congregational space

The Monastery again, the view as you leave the congregational space. Cute huh?

What’s your favorite color?  Mine’s green.  Don’t really know when I decided this was so, it seemed the earlier you figured out a definite color the sooner you gained favor with the choosy girls on the playground in the recess days, they seemed to like a man who stood his ground.  It is quite funny, really looking into that question, of the time I decided my favorite color, such a seemingly arbitrary moment now, but, surrounded by the flourishing life around me as I walked up the scattered dirt path, I begin to feel a sense of recollection, of perhaps not the moment, but definitely why.  I don’t know if it was the immensity or vividness of it all (I am sure there are much greener greens plenty of other places), but rather the fact that it seemed like the longest time in my life that I have gone without seeing real green life.  This is also probably connected with the fact that for the first time in my life I was counting down the days until spring arrived, wondering when the snow would melt at the end of March.  The landscape is no Machu Pichu, but it felt like it to me after six months in flat farmland, never venturing more a couple hundred kilometers from my home, never seeing anything but dying grass and snow since you could remember.   I had to travel almost 1,000 kilometers to find it, but there I was, surrounded by the same tall oaks and limestone escarpments as from the heart of the Texas Hill Country in the multicultural stomping grounds of once-upon a time Russia.  I sat down on a bench for a moment, and with the breeze blowing across my nostrils ever so gently, I almost felt transported back to the days hiking with Tres and Paul, imagining us together on the bluffs of Lost Maples, until the sharp pangs of Russian interrupted my Emersonian bliss and helped me continue onto my next destination, Kaluf Kale, the cave city of Bakchisaray.

The first flowers I had seen (in the ground) in 4 months

Further toward the top, I hear the sound of a wooden flute and I follow it, because as a rule I follow music wherever I hear it (and also because there were no signs to speak of and I had no idea where else to go).  As I find the source of this hauntingly appropriate music (later I found out he is there everyday, it sounded more like a money making scheme sadly) so too I find the source of my desire-the cave city.  I can only of course see bits and pieces jutting out from the cliffside, seeing as the majority of the city was built at the top of the cliff and then underneath and off toward the outer edges, I cannot make out much, and so decide to continue upwards, growing nothing like weary, only stronger as the Sun poured its rays upon me, all the while displaying more and more clearly the beauty She has in store for me.

The wild horses field

I spontaneously plant my foot like making an amateur post in a game of two-hand touch and switch directions, running as fast as I can until I don’t know when.  I could’ve kept going but I stopped because the wind had ravaged my ears and the rest of my body was indeed shivering, seeing as I had taken off my winter coat (in transition to spring without the zipper-thingy and hoody).  Never feeling so free, I decided to just break wind (wait, I wonder if there’s a connection) and feel the openness of the world around me, liking to compare myself to Alexander Supertramp as he ran amongst the wild horses in Into the Wild (minus the wild horses part, but the freedom and sense of isolation for me must’ve been the same).

A real, natural smile. Literally, I didnt even have to try, I was feeling it all in me already.

I had just finished my meditations at the top of the bluff, laying at a 15 degree angle on an outcrop of it all, staring down into the beautiful valley/canyon below (just so you know, not sure how accurate my usage of these geographical/geological terms are, such matters were my only ‘C’ in college).  I didn’t even honestly know it was there, which made it all that much more beautiful, getting closer to the edge and then getting those funny imaginations of what it would be like to fall and then feeling silly so you scoot back a little bit farther but not far enough so you still don’t feel the energy between you and expanse of it all.  I just laid there with my eyes closed for minutes at a time, thanking God for the beautiful things that I was seeing, just pure giving thanks for everything in my life, not knowing when I was going to have the chance to be that close to Him again.

The view from my meditation spot (or nearby it)

She turns and smiles and says Pryveet, I return the same.  Honestly just curious for a nice vantage point, but more honestly curious about returning back into the world of socialites after my pastoral getaway (feeling so at peace it was all so natural, so intentional, but so natural).  Approaching the crest of the rock I speak clear and non-American Ukrainian, Mozhna sidayuh and she nods her head in approval and so I sit, looking into the vastness of the world around me, wondering how the ancient Tatars (the people of this land from the 16th-19th centuries) felt when they looked upon the same.  Broken again from transcendental thoughts, but this time it is not Russian, Do you speak English?  And I reply somewhere between baffled and super-excited How do you know?  And she just as surprised at my answer as I to her question says I didn’t, I was just asking and I, preoccupied with the notion that people can pick me out as an American just like that say what I am preoccupied with.  I thought you could tell I was American just from the way I said three words in Ukrainian, goodness me, where are you all from?  We are from Poland the shorter one with wavy dirty blond hair says, the other taller, a little more full-formed wearing a stocking cap but I could guess brown hair from the complexion.  We laugh at the seeming fate of the situation for the moment, and we decide to take some pictures (this was her original reason for asking if I spoke English to begin with).  Once they saw how fun it was to take a picture together I knew I was in.

Inside the cave city. It was cozy. A little rough around the edges, but cozy.

We spent the next hour roaming around the cave city together, taking fun little photos when the frame between earth and art suggested it.  Wait! I said, handing them my camera and starting to run again, with how quickly and often it happened I was starting to feel like Rabbit, the only difference being I knew where I was going.  Take a picture of me as I jump, I say over my shoulder running towards the edge of the cliff, getting ready for the photo that will make me look I am jumping off the ledge, having to do it like eight times before Kamila got it right.  But it was well worth it.

Yeah, so their names are Kamila and Marta. I had honestly forgotten Kamila’s name as soon as she told me (why does that always happen, damn short term…oh what’s the word….oh yeah, memory).  It’s funny really the differene in confidence you feel about knowing someone just between knowing their name and not knowing, not sure a more dramatic increase in awareness comes for quite a while after that moment of personal exchange.  Already feeling incredibly at ease and at peace with the world, it gave me that much more confidence than I already had.  So, how long are you planning to be in Crimea? I ask them, political wheels already setting the foundation.  They tell me til the end of the week and so I ask them what their plans are and they lay it out in full detail and it all sounds great and I say I don’t have a plan and they say nothing.  Then I lay the cards on the ancient stone table.  So, I am here in Crimea on my own, just traveling and seeing what there is to see, except I don’t know what there is to see, and I open to ideas and new discoveries.  Since we are going to be here for the same amount of time, and seeing that that I have a free schedule, how do you feel about me joining you all for part of your journey?  Boldness had never been so that way, and Tact so unawares because of Innocence and Free-spiritedness, and they understood these things quite well.  Wow, um, I don’t know, let me talk it over with Marta, says Kamila, I waiting patiently, absentmindedly while their deliberation transpires.  Well, maybe it would work, but it is a little weird for us.  I mean, you’re a stranger.  I try to explain that they are doing CouchSurfing, and how is that better but they refute my argument however strongly and so all I am left to do is just smile and continue to believe in what I said without saying anymore, they seem at a leaning Yes at the moment, so my job is just be cool enough that they don’t tilt either way.

Marta on the left and Kamila on the right. It was all so natural

From there on the charm and child that comes out of me on the road is in full force and we laugh and play some more, and I make some little jabs like Hey I know I’m a stranger to you, but would you mind taking a picture of me here?  never feeling anything but carefree all the while, a spirit their conservative Eastern European-ness wouldn’t understand.  But, like Kerouac naturally impacted even the toughest conservatives in cross-country conversations with his vagabond-ian ways and self-assurance, (people that feel so restrained secretly desire to be so free), I know that my energy will win these two girls over, and that our journey together will create memories that they wouldn’t trade for anything.  Neither would I.

The charm I was talking about, I think

(March 23)

Something about pretending that you know where you are going helps to make you feel better when you ask every other person you pass, This way right?  However weary I am at this point in the day I do my best now to show it as I stride toward my next virgin experience, the seaside breeze blowing a careful scent of reassurance and direction my way, (I can even hear a little bird whisper and I skip a little to answer his lighthearted tune).

Yalta from above, the sight of the sea still fresh in my mind

Not even a moment ago (the day has flown by, but so slowly too) I took my bus from Bakchisaray to the former Soviet naval hub at Sevastopol, and then straight on to Yalta, the heart of seaside living and nightlife in Crimea.  The greater part of my journey was spent gazing with anticipation out the window, waiting impatiently for the sight of the sea.  Albeit an overcast day at first, once the bus turned the corner from the mountain I felt that same moment of elation that was cast over me the day before as I stared upon the verdant Spring awakening, it rousing the sentimentals in me as the emanating of the water towards the horizon always does so naturally by making me look so far.  It is logical that I look back seeing as I have no idea what is ahead.

The mountain view from the outskirts of Yalta


Famous Russian/Ukrainian author Anton Chekhov, his portrait in his Yalta dacha, which I visited hurriedly (with a solo guided tour in Russian

Varanstav Palace

So often we wander away to find something new, searching for brand-new experiences with an unknown name, and yet we end up exactly where we feel at home.   After running around trying to connect with Marta and Kamila, (and spending far too much money on phone cards to call them) I decided to just chill at the Varanstav Palace.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what it really was all about if I tried, the history of it, the people who lived there, it was just enough to see this clear picture of the history of architecture in ancient Europe.  I walked through the gates, and realized I had never truly walked through gates until that moment, such momentous hinges turning and revealing yet another anachronism in my ever-surprising day.  The spires of the castle shot up in some sort of Legoland fashion, imaginings of such places and constructions only ever drawn up on sketch papers when you dreamed of such things.  I took it all in for a moment, the sunlight casting light and I notice my shadow growing longer, and so I proceeded through the lovely parkgrounds to the place where I decided to chill by the sea.  I had yet to sit by the water in such a way since my new life had begun, never felt such solitude, I just listened to the roll of the waves and how there was no other sound but my voice a bit later when I decided to sing some Jamie Cullum…All at sea, with no one to bother me, forgot my roots, if only for a day…

View of Varanstav Palace from the adjoining park

Livadia Palace

History has this beautiful way of being able to go farther and farther back, keeping us chasing for the moment that made that moment a moment, who influenced that person, the original person.  Yet instead of getting lost in the very roots, we can almost as easily look at flowers on the branches and get an idea of what it all means.  As I stood before the Livadia Palace I felt I was looking upon some of the more beautiful and telling blossoms of our world’s history.  Set along the coast, tucked away so that even Lonely Planet has a hard time describing exactly where it is, this is the grand location of the meeting between the Big Three towards the conclusion of the war in Europe in February of 1945.   In scattered rooms in this blushing white building, FDR, Churchill, and Stalin came together to decide the fate of Europe as Hitler was beginning to fall.

The Big Three

Unfortunately I came on the one day that the Palace was closed, but I felt I could hear Stalin’s voice as he demanded extra votes for Russia in the United Nations, how he pushed and pushed for Poland, how the shape of Eastern Europe was given as a bartering gift for Roosevelt’s hopeful corraboration with the future of Russia.   I could feel Churchill’s scoff as he watched FDR’s failing health give in to the gruffness of Stalin, how the power of the world was being discussed in smoke-filled and vodka-tinged rooms, the momentousness of the Yalta Conference (as it became known) all poured out to me as the sun began to set upon the Crimean seascape.  I wondered what each man felt when he watched that same sunset from the same spot over sixty years ago, how the weight of the world felt, so often we can barely carry ourselves.

The sunsetting landscape from the palace window that FDR, Churchill, and Stalin gazed upon in the rare silent moments between night and day

Tired (in body and and foreign mind, and of eating bus stop food) and yet so fulfilled, I sat in the dark of the mashrutka and only wanted to be home.  So often I feel that way at the end of a long day, especially the end of a long day running around a land completely in Russian, speaking no English for the entire day for the first time in a long while.  To add to that, my phone had just died as I was trying to call Katya (Sasha’s wife) and I had no idea how to get home in this foreign world, if the bus was going to stop in the middle of the road as some buses have done in the past, how far I would have to walk and how to turn left and right and straight again in the new Spring dark.  Also, a trip that should’ve taken two hours at most, was set for almost four, and all I had to keep me entertained (I am still too afraid to fall asleep on any sort of public transportation, as easily as I could have fallen asleep) was some apocalyptic film like Predator playing in Russian and actually making my stomach hurt more than easing it.  After plenty of texting back and forth to Kamila (for some reason chose her as the go-to person, she has this spunk about her), realizing how much I actually wanted company when I thought I would want to do it alone, almost to a desperate attempt actually, I had settled on the fact that I was officially alone, at least for the next four hours.

I mulled over in my mind on how to speak to her.  After twenty years of speaking to girls, you would think it would be a bit easier (although only a few months in the language that I was about to bust out, and not so often had I been bold enough to say the first word, so words are never spoken because they never say anything, that’s for sure).  It kept me entertained if nothing else, practicing the words in my head like a boy before prom in the mirror, and finally just asked her if it really was going to take all this time to get home (not exactly a pick up line, but I just needed something to say, not trying to flirt with her, only wanted some company).  We go back and forth between Ukrainian and Russian as she explains to me the situation, then it seems we are done talking, but I don’t give in that easily and so I pursue my difficult job of being able to speak to people in Ukrainian but not being able to carry on a conversation because it is so hard for me to understand what they are saying, I hope this changes in another six months.

Finally she asks if I speak English, in English, and again I feel like a nuisance because everyone seems to know my language in their land but I don’t know theirs.  So we talk and talk becomes laughter and laughter becomes confusion and I feel like a complete idiot when she says, So do you just carry around a dictionary or something with you?  How do you communicate with people?  Some of this question in Ukrainian, some in Russian, some in English, but all quite clear to me.  I try explaining that I am not as stupid as I look right now, that I have an awful headache and have been speaking Russian all day and running around all day and when I don’t have full energy communication in this language is made exponentially more difficult.  She only smiles, she has such a pretty smile, but still I feel awful.  And yet somehow I smile as well, and she asks if I need help getting home, and I say that would be great, she even goes out of her way to do it.  At the bus stop in Simferopol she walks with me and makes sure that I get on my bus back to Bakchisaray and then says Okay, Ochen pryyatno, and walks off into the nightlight of the recently barren streets.

After Marcia there was Max, who was going to the same place as I in Bakchisaray, the hands of the clock on some tower somewhere just past ten and eight as we walked along the still unknown at that time streets.  He was a lawyer in the city, a friendly face and couldn’t been much older than I, his smile made me feel great as he asked me questions on the sidewalk and I gathered the strength in my body and answered his curiosities.  Although I was aware of where I was, he could sense that I needed a companion, such empathy as I try and pour out was being received by him at that moment, and he walked me all the way to my door, shook my hand and carried off in a strong gait across the parking lot grounds towards someone that was waiting for him.  I did the same, giving Katya a big hug as I entered her home, apologizing for the worry, calling Sasha and doing the same (learning he had almost called Peace Corps) and fell onto my couch bed and that night it felt like a sleeping place made for kings, as they reflected upon the bounties of their kingdom.  Like these kings, I too reflected upon the bounties in the beauties of this world, and how blessed I was to have such angels watching over me, showing me the way around discovering lands, then back safely into the arms of places more familiar, eyes shut and next time you wake you do it all again.

A little playtime before bed with Katya and Sashas daughter. I dont know if she ever got the picture that I dont speak Russian

(March 25)

The only thing worse than recognizing that your credit card is missing, is realizing that your credit card is not in fact missing but is inside a Russian bank in the middle of a beach resort town in the middle of fifty degree spring in the middle of how-the-hell-did-I-get here.  Well, I didn’t have this exact thought at the moment.  In fact, I said to myself, Hey myself, don’t worry, this happened to you once before and you know how to handle this situation.

I communicated the situation rather calmly to Marta who was throwing on her jacket, Kamila was taking the 15th minute of her 20 minute shower.  She reacted more excitedly than I had, I tried reassuring her it would be a simple jaunt across the street (actually didn’t say jaunt, I have to be aware of my speech when I am around non-native speakers, forgetting quite often that they may not understand my loose grammatical manner and sometimes antiquated diction).  Heartily she disagreed, but alas there was nothing to do but wait for Kamila.

The day before had been relatively uneventful for the amount that it was tiring.  After waiting for Kamila and Marta for two hours in a park in Sevastopol (ironically reading about the Yalta Conference in this great book about the Roosevelts on the home front in WWII the day after I visited its stomping grounds), I finally heard a shout from the road above, and it was the girls screaming my name, and the realization that I was actually going to be able to travel with these two girls.  I spent most of the four or so hours between Sevastopol and Sudak (our beachside destination) wondering how much to interact with them, how much to leave them alone.  So began the strange dynamic that was built up throughout our time because I always felt that I was slightly intruding upon their travels, they never did anything to make me feel otherwise, and their lack of communication to that point the only suggestion that maybe I was.  I only cared to the point that I wanted to feel at ease and show them that I was thankful to have company, I didn’t feel too terribly bad about joining them, I knew I would make it worth their while.  Kamila constantly reminded me that I was a stranger, with off-handed compliments and phrases that made me read between the lines far too much (I claimed it was the language barrier, or maybe the cultural barrier.  She claimed it was neither, just simnply the fact that I didn’t know who she was).

The cute side of Kamila, rockin my cap. When she wasnt cute she was "saucy". I taught her this word and she lived it after that.

After arriving in Sudak, the girls spent the next hour to and hour and a half dragging me along as they asked seemingly everyone in the town for a place to stay, even though we already had an hotel to stay at for a decent price.  The ATM across the street was where we stopped to get me money before we went into the hotel lobby and checked in, finally laying our weary bodies down on our cozy beds, Kamila disgusted that she was in a hotel room, wanted to be living it a little rougher, said it was the first time she had ever stayed in an actual hotel while traveling (and after further rumination I arrived at the same conclusion, although having some comfort didn’t take away the life of the adventure for me).  After discussions of life on the road, how I had met people who I still stayed in touch with after only knowing them for a day, my not-so-subtle attempt to say Hey maybe we will be good friends after this?  Who knows?  Give me a chance!   Kamila revealing that she had been proposed to by a guy in Morocco, but that she really didn’t stay in touch with anyone seriously that she had met purely on the road, definitely had never let them anything close to in with her.  After the conversation faded and turned and faded again, we all just naturally began to do the same.

Trying to do this alone was a big mistake.  That’s my card!  Just give it to me, I have documentation!  I told the woman who was holding onto my card with her clammy Russian hands.  Realizing that I understood mostly what she was saying, but didn’t want to believe it, I went to fetch Marta from the mahazin around the corner, to get her to speak to my cause.  All to no avail, the woman wouldn’t give me the card, not even if I had shown her my birth certificate, we had to return later that afternoon to the bank’s central location.  Marta gave me this look that said I told you so, and then she said I told you so and then we carried on to our excitement for the day, leaving thoughts of things that were out of our control to the wind, to pick them up when the time was right.

Should be one of the postcards for Novy Svit, right?

Twenty minutes and sunshine later we were basking in the rays of Novy Svit (New World in Russian), and never had the name of a place made more sense to a boy from Texas traveling in the seaside world of Russian Ukraine.  I spun around in a few circles, dancing as I did, feeling the joy around me in only perfect colors, then running along the paved path down down down, towards the sound of the sea below me, looking wondefully alive to anyone that could see me, which was mostly no one (part of the beauty of the whole scene for that moment and the moments after was the ability for this place to actually feel like it was yours, no one comes here in the spring when the water is colder than the air and the air is colder than you would like).  Before Kamila and Marta were even in sight, I had already begun the transition to beach Adam, except this transition was a newer one.

We dont look like strangers do we? Thats what I kept trying to tell Kamila.

So eventually I actually decided to man up and go full in…well kind of

Normally I would just have to throw off my already unbuttoned shirt blowing in the wind, kick off my flip-flops and run across the golden sand to the awaiting waves in front of me.  This time I took off my jacket (under which was still a sweater and collared shirt), carefully took of my socks and shoes so that no sand would get in them, and then walked quite carefully over the grayish-blackish half pebble half sand sand towards the chilly shoreline.  It didn’t take me long as I rolled up my blue jeans and tip-toed around the incoming wake, dancing a little bit as it hurt to leave my feet in the water for more than five seconds at a time.

In pure motion. I am a champion at this stuff. My record is 12 skips, (which is a lot in case you were wondering)

Showing Kamila that technique is nothing without the perfect rock

New sensations all around me I felt like a child, picking up little stones and skipping them across the place where the sky meets the water, realizing that I had never skipped rocks on the sea before (and also the greater realization that I had never done anything at the sea before, because I had never been to the sea.).

Thats me! Doing a push-up in the 50 degree sea.

Happy and freezing and loving it after my "dip" in the Black Sea

After laying out on the beach (with my shirt off outside for the first time in seven months, the sand felt so nice against my bare skin) we decided to take a little hike around the cliffs that encompassed the beach we had spent the last hour and a half  hanging at (actually I was half tempted to just continue lying there getting my tan on).

Perching ever so delicately on a rock above the sea

Hiking around the stones, transitioning between my colorful collared shirt and sweater, to just my collared shirt, then my collared shirt completely unbuttoned and blowing in the wind so it hardly hung onto my body, Kamila donned me with the name Golas.  Golas, what does that mean?  She smiled as Marta and she giggled and she said Naked man.  A strange sort of bond developed between Kamila and I then, the donning of a nickname always builds a bridge (at least the beginning of it) where nothing existed before, a demonstration of some sorter greater appreciation for a person, beyond the casual understanding of who they are, to something that is a part of their spirit.  However fitting the nickname was didn’t really matter (although it did fit quite nicely) what mattered was that, lying there on the rocks, the ions being thrown our way from the sea breeze, calming us in such a natural way, thinking about nothing and everything at the same time, a smile was exchanged between Kamila and I that suggested I am glad you are here to share this with me.  Not sure who said it, but someone did, and everything moved on as everything does in the relationship between the world and our recognition of it.

Marta, me, and Kamila: Stones Against a Seaside Canvas

Frustration is not a major part of my emotional diet, in fact,  I have it quite sparingly, like the ice cream sundae, too many times and your stomach hurts.  That is my passport, I said once again, in a language he could understand.  No this is a copy of your passport, not the original. I want the original, he said in a language that I couldn’t understand normally but got it right then.  His furrowed brow and unmoving gaze became more so that way everytime he spoke, Marta and Kamila stood firmly behind me, consumed in the same resolve as I.  Well, the original is at my home 1,000 kilometers away, so this will have to do, I said and before I finished he said, Well I am not giving you your card unless I have the original, and I said, I am not leaving here until I have my card, and we walked twenty paces and turned and even though I was the Texan, he got the first shot and it broke my stride, so I had to sit down.

Ninety minutes, two short lectures from Kamila about how this is not America, and a discussion with the boss (who was more on my side than the jerk of a guy who just happened to have possession of my debit card) later, the bank determined that there was nothing they could do without some sort of identification from the bank that this was indeed my card.  As it was a Friday evening, now at 5:30 (we had arrived at 3:30)  people were anxious to get home, and the jerk of a guy decided to catch his bus home, so luckily he headed out.  But funnily enough, about five members of PrivatBank (as it infamously lives on in my memory) were staying on to see this whole debacle through.  It wasn’t everyday they have something American in their presence (my card)  and so they surely wanted to milk the process of returning it back to me, the longer they could feel in control the better.  Taking in the whole scenery, I start to actually smile as I sign onto my online banking to find the evidence they desire.  Kamila thinks I am just acting like a little kid when I make some jokes and laugh or keep smiling, but I try to assure her that life is very short if you can’t laugh at yourself (when Russian Ukrainians have decided to hijack your debit card and you will spend your evening in a beach resort town inside a bank on a Friday night).  I print off everything I can find on my USAA account, showing them very clearly that this is my acount, and that I withdrew money yesterday evening at their ATM machine, in Sudak, at the exact time that they have on their records.  From their reactions and my subsequent translations from Marta, it appears they aren’t in fact interested in the fact that this indeed my card, and that I am doing everything I can aside from applying for my passport all over again, but just want to see my credit card number on this paper.  I think about what would happen if I was a smart ass and just decided to write it in a pen on the paper at that moment, but I decide it is better not to pour gasoline on the Eastern European fire.

Great she has the picture on her camera, I think to myself, giving the girls a thumbs up.  But I don’t have enough money on my phone to send it to you, is the translation I understand from Ira’s mostly Russian Ukrainian.  See, the bank decided, after I spent an hour online trying to find them what they wanted, that what they wanted was a color copy of my passport.  Kamila had scoffed even more than I at the idea, pointing very indignantly at the copy I already had, what difference did it make if was in color?  Beyond reasoning with these people, I just succombed to their idea that I get someone in Nemyriv to take a picture of my passport on their phone and send it to the banks’s my loyal employee, who was lending me her phone for said calls.  First I called Olha, to explain to her how to explain to Nina where my passport was.  Then Nina called Ira, my nineteen year old very giggly next door neighbor, who then called upon Ihor, the father of little four year old Natasha who I practice English with for fifteen minutes a week before she decides she wants to play.  Another hour and an entire neighborhood a thousand kilometers away’s help, I had the color picture of my passport in my inbox, which I forwarded to the bank and said Okay great!!  Now you can give me my card!

I put my hands on my hips in this What more do you want from me? kind of way, and said How many Adam Tutor’s are there in Ukraine?  This was my response the fact that my color passport wasn’t enough, now they wanted an official, stamped and signed document from my bank stating that this was in fact my credit card.  Nevermind that they could have just told me that the first thing and I think that would’ve given me amnesty for everything else, but I had already shown them my bank documents.  I tried convincing them that my bank was a national bank and doesn’t hand sign anything, and certainly doesn’t stamp anything.  Nevertheless, I sent USAA an email telling them that my debit card was being «held hostage» in Ukraine, and I needed offical documention «with a stamp» to get it back.  The response message said, Thank you for your time, we will get back to you in 24 hours.  I told Mr. Man (the guy, who was actually quite nice but also quite paranoid) that he would be here for quite a while.  He said he was leaving at nine (it was now 8:15) and I said I wasn’t leaving until I got my card, he said, I can call the militia, I just smiled and said nothing.  No one seemed to want to give me their phone so I could call America, so finally I tried Kamila’s, and by some grace of God, I got through (conveniently ignoring the This will cost an inordinate amount of money, are you okay with this? Message I heard before saying yes).  The American voice on the other end sounded like an angel, and I felt like I had truly been saved.

The room is filled with laughter, I hold the card in my hand and say, Hell we are all good friends, vodka on me! (in broken Ukrainian, but they all enjoyed the sentiment).  The fact was, that after spending six hours straight with someone in  a closed space, you either have the choice to sit in silence and frowns, or let emotions roll and smile and get to know each other in this oddly intimate sort of way.  I went through more real stuff with those five people at the bank and Kamila and Marta than I have gone through with a number of people who I can call more than acquaintenances.  We smiled and shook hands and I told them all Thank you very much, although a part of me thought they should be saying I’m sorry, but all this was forgotten as they saw their favorite American guy ever walk out the door.

The infamous PrivatBank building, where I spent the longest five and a half hours of my Ukrainian (or American) life

Re-enacting the treacherous moment the next morning

Act 2

Act 3: Almost a Shakespearean Tragedy, but thankfully there is a happy ending.

There was a lightness to the air as we stepped outside that night, that had never been so hard earned.  A part of me wondered if this is what a freed man feels like after being released from the big house for a crime he didn’t commit.   It suffices to say that no matter how long it had to be fought for, justice had been done, and hours later I fell asleep with a little bit of wine in me.  Then I woke up, checked to see that the card was actually in my wallet, and fell back into a newer sort of dream.

(March 27)

Waking to the sunshine is always a pleasant start to your day.  Then you check your wallet and realize that, while your debit card is still there, you have absolutely no money.

See, while I was in the bank in Sudak, I had plenty of time to surf the internet, and, while checking my email, saw a receipt from Peace Corps that my new funds were now in my Peace Corps account.  So I didn’t sweat the fact that bank told me I couldn’t use my credit card until Monday,when their bank in Dnipropetrovsk decided to clear it for good (they never actually received complete confirmation that this was indeed Adam Tutor’s card, but I just wanted the card so I could go home.

The Genoese Fortress

The next morning I was liberal enough to spend some of my precious remaining money on entrance to the Genoese Fortress at Sudak, an incredible lookout just above the Black Sea, hiking along its old stone walls and looking through little lookout spots and taking in the sea breeze for all it was worth.  After another journey onto the beach, this time in Sudak, we packed up our things and headed out of Sudak, wondering what could happen next.

The view from the top into the city of Sudak

Cheesy, sure. Awesome, for sure.

Found a Texan restaurant in the middle of a seaside getaway in southern Russian dominated Ukraine. Gotta love how everyone wants to be a cowboy.

Chillin near the waves (which as you can see this one rising) which decided to soak me from bottom to toe. But no worries, kicked it on the beach for another two hours to dry off, white tee blowing in the wind loving life.

When we arrived in Simferopol 3 hours later, I checked my Peace Corps bank account (afraid for some reason to check my USAA one, the man in the bank said the machine would eat my card, a ridiculous notion in hindsight).  I thought there was a glitch when it only read 20 HRV (basically $2.50).  I sadly withdrew the money, bought my 8 HRV ticket home, said a goodbye to the girls (the look in Kamila’s eyes saying more than her stoic emotions had ever shown with words, I knew she would miss me, if just a little bit) and headed back to Bakchisaray.

I spent the remaining 12 HRV for the taximan to take me as far as he could to the place I was staying in Bakchisaray.  As soon as I got home I checked my email, to find a note from my bank saying that, due to the email I had sent earlier at PrivatBank, they had decided to freeze my account, meaning I couldn’t withdraw any money from it.  I immediately  emailed them, telling them that I desperately needed to get money, I had my credit card, and they should unfreeze my account right away.

The next day is Sunday.  Banks are closed on Sundays. EVERYWHERE.  The desperate attempts to get a hold of my bank are in vain, and I have no money in which to get me from Bakchisaray to Vinnytsya, very far away.  I have to call my colleague in Nemyriv to see if she will wire me money, she calls my host in Bakchisaray, who says she will lend me some money.  I feel awful about this, so I finally try to call my family back in America, my last last resort.  Somehow they hear my call over Skype at 430 AM, and call me back.  Eventually they are able to get my bank on the phone, but my bank won’t unfreeze my account without hearing my voice.  So, my parents put the man on speakerphone, hold up their phone to the phone with the man from my bank, and we somehow communicate to each other and everything is solved.

And so, the adventure that began Thursday night with the forgotten bank card, finally came to end at 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon as I withdrew 400 HRV from a bank in Bakchisaray.  I kissed the money I was so happy, and then it blew away in the wind.  No, I’m joking, I had the money. But where one adventure ends, another begins, right?

(March 28)

The throne of the Khan

So, it’s Monday and  I decided to go visit the Khan’s Palace in Bakchisaray. Awesome, and an incredible amount of history there.

The language of the Tatars. Really a by-product of Arabian and Balkan collisions many years ago.

The courtyard of the palace

Point being I spent just long enough that by the time I had returned home, taken care of some business, and ran to the bus stop, the bus was just pulling out, AND he decided not to stop for me.  In the few minutes that I was waiting for the next bus, were the minutes that I could’ve used to get to my 1:40 bus to Simferopol to catch my 2:45 train.  I managed to take the 1:50, arriving in Simferopol by 2:25, plenty of time to catch my train right?  Wrong.  Bus driver tells me he is not going to the bus station next to the train station, but a different one.  Blew my mind, so I hopped out, looking for the “57” to take to the train station.  I saw it and it was for some reason turning the other way, so, with my 20 kilos of luggage I start running as fast as I can, only to fall flat on my face five seconds into the sprint. Corduroy pants torn at the knee, blood dripping from the same place, I gathered my dignity (what was left of it) and got on the next bus, who said he was going to the station.  It is now 2:30.

Five minutes later, he says to sit down, I say no, I am getting off soon.  He says where are you going, I say to the train station I told you that, he says I am not going to the train station, I say well that’s just great, which bus is going, he said that one.  So, I jumped off yet another bus, and climbed into the one in front of me, he said Yes we are going to the train station.  Thank god.

Seven minutes go by.  It is now 2:42.  The bus driverman decides to stop at least 500 m from the train station, so I resume my habit of running across the streets, in order to salvage my remaining three

minutes to get to the train.  I get to the track and ask where the train to Lviv is.  Lviv, he says, it just left. Fudge I say (except I didn’t say Fudge, I said the mother of all curse words, the F— word), then ask him when, he says just a moment ago, I say Fudge again, and proceed to exchange my ticket.

At 3:15 what a site you would’ve seen outside the Simferopol Train Station.  I lay, sprawled out, leaning against my backpack, eating a banana and slugging some water, wiping the sweat from my face, with

the left pant leg of my corduroys rolled up above my knee, (still bleeding), wondering what in the world happens next.  Luckily I got a hold of my Peace Corps friend, and he let me stay the night at his place.

(March 29)

The next day I spent the early morning with another volunteer whom I had met the previous night (walking around a restaurant (which happened to be a multi-cultural gathering, more diversity in that room than I have seen in my entire time in Ukriane, wild) til 9 PM in the exact same state I had laid outside earlier that day), watching a cool sax/accordion duo on the streets of Simferopol.  Hey, shouldn’t we eat lunch earlier if I want to catch my train at three?  I asked her.  She said Let me see your ticket.  Your train leaves at one

fifteen, she said.  No no thats not right, look at this number it says three, I said.  No no, she said, that number means absolutely nothing, this is the time of your train.  We need to hurry.  It was 12:25.

We proceeded to run to grab my bags that resided about 10 minutes away, put me on the next bus to the train station and send up a prayer to the Lord above, asking him to clear all traffic so that I did not miss my train for the second day in a row.

1:15.  Sitting on the bed of my train, I reflected upon how many things could’ve gone wrong, could’ve gone right, over the past week. I reflected upon the fact that I had never actually learned how to read a train ticket, and that even if I had been at the train station the day before at 2:30, the train would still have left a hour and fifteen minutes before.

YET more than anything, I reflected upon the fact that no matter what the situation, no matter how many things went wrong or went right, there was always someone watching over me, alongside me, helping to make sure that I was safe and sound and got home at the end of the night.

The last sunset I watched in Crimea, from a peaceful vantage point above the history of Bakchisaray. I felt a deep connection to that place as I left, sentimental me becoming so at this very moment.

(From my journal on the train ride home)

There will always be a Marta and Kamila to fight for me in the heat of battle, fighting for a stranger they came to know and love.  There will be a Katya to fix a warm meal when all you’ve eaten is bus stop food, a Sasha to offer to translate those complex feelings to that Katya.  There will be a Martin to drag you along to his life a day because you barged into his, and he will give you a bag of Doritos and a place to lay your head.  There will be a grace to listen to saxophone music with, and then remind you that you are dumb ass and don’t know how to read a train ticket.  There will be a Nina and an Olha waiting at home, cheering you on.  But most important of all, there will be your mother to hear your Skype call at 4:30 AM from thousands of miles away, a father who stands beside her until you have enough money to get you safely home.   And always also there will be a Katy, loving you from across the world, whose prayers help make all of this truly possible.

I am so loved. I am so blessed.  I am so alive.

Didn't you believe me?

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