Thursday, April 21, 2011

My New Hometown


Sylvania Main Street Scenes: My apartment is on the 2nd floor of this old house, with the bay windows. Below: With daughter Elissa and with neighbor Robin in front of my apartment home; painted bench in front of a restaurant ("Tree City"); history museum; Elissa in front of her apartment building, on the 2nd floor of a clothing store; street scenes at night with sparkling white lights on budding trees, some shops.

Sylvania is a pretty little town of lovely houses, some small, some medium, some, the newer ones, very large and elegant. It was once a farming community; it's now a suburb of Toledo. It's grown up and out a lot in the last 20 years or so. The town is noted for its good schools and civic vitality, a place where people care about their neighbor-hoods and civic services. It has beautiful parks and recreation areas for kids of all ages.

I live in downtown Sylvania, right on Main Street, which has a mixture of older homes, 19th century and Victorian, some, like mine, made into apartments, and a variety of shops, stores, cafes, a historical museum, several antique stores and art galleries. It reminds me of a small New England town, where everything is in walking distance, or of a lively neighborhood in a big city, like Woodley Park or Cleveland Park in Washington, DC. This is what I am loving about being in the heart of Sylvania. There's a street life!

Actually, in some ways it is like Starobelsk (старобедьски), Ukraine. Same size, same flavor. Both have about 18,000 people; a small town feeling; lots of little shops; a long winter. Spring is just starting to emerge in northern Ohio, as in eastern Ukraine. People are kind and friendly. Lots of spontaneous meetings take place on the street. How about a cup of tea? Sure!

So what is the difference? That's hard to describe. More paved roads and streetlights here than there. More cars and traffic: everyone has a car, to go to the city, the large shopping malls, to work, to sports and cultural centers. Not so in Starobelsk. Sylvania has a suburban look and feel, a suburban-urban dynamic, less rural. The nearest town to Starobelsk is an even smaller rural village, and the biggest city, like Lugansk, is 2 hours away by bus, marshruka or train.

Also in Starobelsk just about every house, mostly little white brick houses with green or blue shutters, like Luba's, has a large garden, filled with vegetables, flowers and herbs. Produce is brought right to the table, or preserved for winter. Any surplus might be sold in the bazaar or on the streets, or shared with those in need. Many people have chickens and pigs. The pace of life is different, an almost pre-industrial sense of time, determined by seasonal tasks: planting, tending, harvesting, preserving. Life's more task-oriented in general in Ukraine. Life takes on the pace and style of farm life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course the big cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa are more like big American cities, bustling centers of commerce, trade, retail, and industry.

For a volunteer, a big difference, of course, is the language: I was surrounded by Russian for two years. I took the Peace Corp's language classes, which are fantastic, studied, tried, but I never became proficient. I learned survival Russian and how to survive in a Ukrainian context, and I grew to understand the language more and more. My pantomime became more effective, more dramatic, and I could throw in a Russian word now and then. Not that I could engage in a real conversation. It was hardest after my brother died. No one with whom to share my grief, to talk about Loren, to remember. It was hard after Luba's family tragedy involving her son Sergei, too, because it took me forever to piece together the information that shattered her life. But it was part of being a PCV, and overall, I got used to it.

Now, it's just the opposite. At first it was strange to hear English. But how easy to communicate, to have long conversations, to talk religion and politics and poetry, to talk about daily life and little things, and to read signs, like the one I'm looking out my living room window, "Harmony in Life." It's the sign for a yoga center and shop next door.

It makes life so easy, almost too easy. I think I'm going to need another challenge.








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