Monday, May 3, 2010

May Day Weekend in Starobilsk

The English Club at the Park

May 1, International Labor Day or Workers' Day, begins a series of patriotic holidays in Ukraine. The merry month of May is full of them. Starobilsk began the celebrations with a festive May Day parade, an art show, and various events and activities at Lenin Park.

Robust labor songs and marching music (including some John Philip Sousa, which stopped me in my tracks!) blared from the loudspeakers of the Cultural Center as people walked to the park. I stopped for a while and listened to the music.

The park, which had been lovingly raked, planted, painted and cleaned all week, looked beautiful, aglow with red tulips and flowering trees and bushes. Balloon vendors, booths, clowns and the art show added to the colorful scene. Many families took advantage of the nice day, while kids screamed with joy on the playground. I was happy to see Olena, selling her beautiful folk art. We were soon joined by our friend Natasha, a former teacher and Starobilsk expert who showed me around town when I first got here almost a year ago (Olena, left; Natasha right, above). I won't ever forget the kindness of strangers when I arrived here, a raw recruit unsure of what I was doing.

I spent the afternoon at a family picnic at my university teacher friend Natalia's house in Lymon, a few miles past Camp Sosnovy, with her husband Vasyl and college-aged sons Artur and Artom. I got to meet her lovely and vivacious sister Olga and her husband, and Natalia's brother and his wife. Their father, who is grieving the recent death of his wife, and another brother, couldn't make it. Although the sisters and brothers are all grieving, it was a fun gathering, in the country, under the trees, near the river, surrounded by golden fields and white flowering bushes in amazing profusion. Life goes on. The bushes glowed in the setting sun, as the boys, Natalia and Olga played football (soccer)and volleyball. The food, cooked on the fire Artur and Artom had built with logs and sticks from the woods, the salads, fruits, fresh bread and wine, and the company above all, were fantastic. We actually had fun attempting to speak some in English, some in Russian. Olga was especially curious about English words. I'm always grateful when anyone even tries to say a few English words!
The gathering evoked lots of memories: family picnics with my mom and dad and sister and brother in Rochester; with my own family and children in one of the great Toledo parks, or on the beach at Nantucket, or in Saint Petersburg; with my sister and her family and friends, and with my mom and brother, in Tallahassee. What great memories.

On Sunday I headed for the park again. The Library was closed for the May Day holiday and so the English Club had decided we should meet at the park. I was surprised that 15 people showed up, including the kids Ira, Alina and Ira, the college students Maria and Tonya, and our faithful community members Olga, Tonya and Dr. Tonya. Alosha and Sergei and some welcomed newcomers joined us later. It was informal and relaxing. We chatted about the weather, the beauty of Starobilsk in spring, the May Day holidays.

I always have some surprise in my backpack, and this day was no exception. I pulled out a sheet of paper, held it up with a flourish, and asked people to gather round. When I got their attention, I started to read, slowly.
"I wandered lonely as a cloud," I began. Ah, yes, William Wordsworth's Daffodils! A famous poem by a famous 19th century Romantic poet from England, I noted. Dr. Tonya beamed with pleasure, as she recalled having read this poem in a college course many years ago. We shared the good feelings.

Some members took turns reading the poem in English, then translating it into Russian. It was lovely in both languages. Tonya, Olga and I helped mime and pantomime the images...wandering like a cloud...the "crowd" of golden daffodils, dancing along a lake, twinkling like stars on the milky way, so "a poet could not be but gay." When the poet saw them later, in "that inward eye," in his imagination, his heart sang, and he danced with the daffodils. By then Tonya, Olga and I were pointing to our heads, to our "mind's eye," clasping our hands to our hearts, and dancing merrily around the park bench. Not the most graceful dancers, but we were rewarded with some good laughs for our efforts!

It was a perfect poem for a perfect blue-sky day in the park. Tonya of Koorychevka said the smell of daffodils reminded her of her childhood, in the Kiev area. So did this poem. Could she keep the copy and read it to her class? Sure! Dr. Tonya said there were no daffodils in Starobilsk when she was growing up. They are relatively recent import. Really? That sparked a good discussion. The young ones couldn't imagine Starobilsk without daffodils. "They for sure...hmm...flowerish?.. they like it here," Maria said, stumbling for the right words. She couldn't remember "flourish." I know the feeling, and I helped out. "Yes, daffodils FLOURISH here!" Love's labor was not lost on this grand May Day weekend. I am thankful for simple pleasures.

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