Sunday, November 15, 2009

Am I ready for Winter?

Winter comes early and stays late in Ukraine, like an unwelcome guest. I came here with the new winter clothes I had bought in Toledo, Ohio, during visits to my children and grandchildren, just for the occasion.

Having lived in Florida for ten years before joining the Peace Corps, I had long ago given up my winter wardrobe. I didn't own a coat, let alone boots and long-johns. We don't have summer, fall, winter, spring in Florida like they do up North. The shedding of the live oak and massive banyon trees signals subtle seasonal changes, but it is mostly spring and summer.

I got used to it. How glorious to see the purple, pink, and coral shells surrounding the tiny white flowers of the bougainvilla in full bloom in the winter. To plant impatiens and other annuals in January that you couldn't put in the ground up North until June. How exhilarating to go to the beach in February to soak up the winter sun while snow fell in Toledo. That's when my grandkids loved to visit, and I couldn't have been happier.

Even so, I was a "snow bird" at heart. Afterall, I had lived in Toledo for some 20 years. Before that it was Madison, Wisconsin, where the winters were long and hard, the coldest I've experienced. Before that it was in Massachusetts, where I went to college, and before that Rochester, New York, where I grew up. I still in some ways call Rochester home, I think because it was home to my mom and dad. We had some amazing blizzards back then, in all those places. Even Washington, DC, where I lived before moving to Florida, had it's seasons, and not just the political kind.

So it's not like I never experienced winter and four seasons. The changing seasons composed the rhythm of our lives. They were entwined in our being--the colors, the scents, the changing light of the morning sun and the evening sunset. The first snow. The lime-green budding of trees. The early sprouts of daffodils and tulips pushing through hard ground. The long flowing arms of pussy willows and yellow forsythia. The lengthening of days and the hot sun of summer. The splendor of fall, of red, orange and yellow trees swaying against a cobalt blue sky and flowers brighter than ever in anticipation of their resting time. Vivaldi had it right.

I will never forget the moon that sat like a huge golden ball on my neighbor's lawn in Toledo one autumn night, the biggest moon I have ever seen before or since. I shook my head in disbelief, and looked again. Was that really the moon? I felt like I could walk just a few hundred yards east and be on the magic kingdom. The moon was that close, that bright, that accessible. To this day, I see that moon in my mind's eye, and think of the changing seasons.

I brought that image to Ukraine with me. It's never been duplicated, but I'm once again living in a place with four distinct seasons.

I relived the pleasures of spring in Chernigov as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT), where the lilacs were as bountiful and beautiful as those I remember in Rochester, which billed itself as the lilac capital of the world. I greeted summer in Starobilsk as a full-fledged PCV, when gardens were planted and the berries were ripe. I sunbathed in my first bikini in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. I basked in the light of fall through the golden leaves of trees in Lenin Park, until I fell and broke my arm, and brought winter a bit early to Starobilsk.

Now, in November, the days are short and the nights are long, only some 8 hours of daylight. It rains a lot and the roads are a muddy, wet mess. It's dark by 3:30 in the afternoon, I kind of complained to my cousins Leo and Kathy Curro, who live in the mountains of northern New York state, not far from the Canadian border. Kathy reminded me that we are sharing life on or near the 45th parallel. As far away as I feel at times, there's not that many degrees of separation between us. It's cold and gray. Low dusty clouds hide the sun day in and day out. I am anticipating the below zero weather, the snow and ice, with some dread. It's the ice that scares me most; I'm more afraid of ice than flu. But I think I'm ready for winter.

Well, I thought I was ready for it. I have my shiny bright blue, double-zippered Lands End coat with a big fur-trimmed hood, matching slip-on rubber shoes, and a pair of boots with thick soles. I have long-johns and sweaters to layer up.

For some reason, though, my outer winter gear doesn't seem quite right. The coat is not stylish here, nor are those rubber shoes.

The first time I appeared in the library in my winter outfit the librarians looked me up and down, stopped at my rubber shoes, and wondered aloud if I had the right clothes for winter in Starobilsk. Those shoes certainly are not warm enough, they said with concern. Truth is with a broken arm I can't get my boots on and off, so I just slip in and out of those rubbers. it's hard enough to get in and out of that coat. I didn't know how to say all this in Russian. I just said it's ok. I'm warm. Thank you. "Etta harashow."

A few days later the director of the Library, Iryna, wearing knee-high black leather boots with pointy toes, asked me if she could buy me a pair of boots! A few other people have made similar offers. I don't usually blush but for some reason I felt myself turning red at such generosity.

Natalia, who was with me in the library, wearing a belted fleece-lined leather coat that came down almost to her ankles, added with a laugh that my coat needs help too! From afar, she said kindly, I look like a little girl in a too-big hand-me-down jacket!

It seems that lots of folks in Starobilsk are wondering whether the Amerikanka is really ready for winter.

I guess I didn't hit the right balance of style and warmth in my winter blues. I've decided to keep what I have and hope my arm gets strong enough so I can put on my boots, and the trak things that go on them to walk on ice. The boots are bright gold with fur, klunky but comfortable, and now I'm thinking they are not really stylish either.

Wait until Starobilsk sees these boots. I think I'm in for more ribbing, but hey, what the heck, laughing through winter wouldn't be all that bad. It never occured to me that a Peace Corps Volunteer could bring such good cheer to the winter season of Ukraine with so little effort. Wait until they see my matching bright blue wool cap and earmuffs!

1 comment:

  1. You've not lost your gift of narrative, and I suspect you'll solve the fashion issue as well. The comments of the librarians are priceless. Lorin