When you sign up for the Peace Corps, you are, to some extent, aware of the challenges you’ll face. You have to learn a foreign language, integrate with a community, and live in an unfamiliar and strange (at least at first) environment, to name just a few.
But of course, there are the challenges which Peace Corps doesn’t exactly cover during training. For example: distinguishing between the smell of an electrical fire and burning trash. You’d think that it’d be an easy distinction – but let me tell you, it is not. Probably because both involve burning plastic.
I’ve had a host of electrical problems over the 12 or so months I’ve lived in my town. They’ve involved complete and inexplicable loss of all electricity in my apartment, loss of electricity in only one area of the apartment (followed two weeks later by the same problem in a different area) and what was almost an electrical fire in my kitchen. This is not the best-wired of domiciles (<— understatement). The way in which my apartment was wired, and then rewired baffles every Ukrainian electrician who has viewed it. I have had the delightful experience of listening to a man, dressed head to toe in camouflage and sporting a furry winter hat, call my electrical system several exceptional (and possibly anatomically impossible) names.
Which brings us to this evening. I arrived home from my counterpart’s house, where we had been industriously making ornaments for the school’s New Year’s tree (they don’t have Christmas until January 7th, but most of the traditions associated with Christmas in the West are celebrated in conjunction with New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day.) Desirous of a shower, I switched on my water heater. Nothing sparked, nothing untoward occurred. About 20 minutes later I went from my bedroom to my tiny kitchen and noticed the merest whiff of something. I pondered whether or not the smell was indicative of further electrical troubles, or whether (as often occurs) I was simply smelling yet another pile of burning trash.
I switched off my water heater and contemplated the mess of wires which the last electrician had assured me was kosher. I decided to leave the issue until the morning – that particular section of wiring is linked only to my hall light, my doorbell and my water heater.
Another twenty minutes later, I am summoned to the hallway by what sounds like my doorbell – if someone were leaning against it unrelentingly.
My doorbell is not the most pleasant of sounds. It never fails to cause me to start suddenly, as it announces visitors with an angry aggressive buzzing noise. At that moment, that same angry aggressive buzzing noise was emanating without cease from my wall. I looked at it, then decided to see if someone was, in fact, leaning against my doorbell. (First time for everything, particularly in Ukraine.) A quick glance outside my door proved that was not the case.
I swatted at it, and then yanked on a little metal bit (it really is an exceptionally annoying bell.) The buzzing stopped, but the bell continued to buzz to itself. This was, of course, an odd state of affairs, so I summoned my neighbor to get his advice.
My neighbor is a jolly fellow, short, round and red (although not yet sporting the white hair and beard required of a Santa Claus). He’s probably about two more slices of salo (denatured pig fat, a Ukrainian “delicacy”) from a heart attacked. He attacked the problem with gusto, and decided in fairly short order to stop the problem by removing my doorbell entirely. He then opened it, sniffed it and pronounced it fried, stuffing it under my noise to prove his point. We both agreed the only thing to do was to toss the damned thing out. He tied off the exposed wires with electrical tape, and clambered off the chair. He reminded me that at any time, with any problem, I am to come straight to him, because, after all I am “just like one of his own.”
Then he asked if I had any food to eat, and whether I was hungry. I assured him I had food in the apartment, and that I was neither cold, nor hungry (these two words sound alike in Ukrainian, and it amuses my Ukrainians to no end that I have trouble distinguishing the subtleties of their pronunciation.)
This is something I truly love about Ukraine. Despite faulty wiring, and burning trash, when I have a problem I can go next door and my neighbor drops everything he’s doing to help me out. Then he tries to feed me.
I love this country.