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Local woman learning new culture in Peace Corps

January 28, 2013
Molly Rivkin (second from right) picking apples with new friends in an orchard in the Ukraine.

By Molly Rivkin
Bonners Ferry

Molly Rivkin
After two years of applying to join the Peace Corps, changing my mind repeatedly before fully committing to it, and three months of intensive language and cultural training, I found myself in a small village in Central Ukraine.

I am a Youth Development Volunteer and work in the village school, leading after-school programs, teaching some English, healthy lifestyle classes, and sports.

Though my work is not always clear cut, and I rarely understand an entire conversation in Ukrainian language, I am bumbling forward, learning as I go.

Ukrainian culture never ceases to surprise me.

Ukraine has a long history of wars, enslavement by oppressive governments, an atrocious deadly forced famine, a nuclear meltdown, and a few joyous moments of independence. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, a communist government, until it fell in 1991, allowing Ukraine to pursue independence.

In the midst of its chaotic newly earned independence and shift to a new government system, Ukraine is still experiencing acute growing pains. It is a country that is both new and very old at the same time; this juxtaposition makes itself apparent in Ukraine's new and longstanding traditions, which baffle and confuse me on a regular basis.

Click for larger image.
A newer cultural enigma, the cellular phone, has come with the rise of technology.

Most people have cell phones, even here in my little village, and I haven't been able to decipher a defined phone etiquette. Students answer calls in class, teachers step out in the middle of an exam to take calls, even priests answer their phones while conducting religious ceremonies.

An older tradition is hospitality. I cannot stress enough the complete and utter importance of food for Ukrainians, especially when entertaining guests.

As a foreigner and guest I am often overwhelmed by the amount of food served and the pressure to eat it all. My Ukrainian hosts literally pile food onto my plate as fast as I can eat it.

If I put my fork down for a second they urge me to keep eating, saying things like, “don't feel ashamed, eat as much as you want!” Also, simply, “eat, eat, eat!”

Initially, I was a little embarrassed by the loud conversation at meals, and constant pressure to eat more and more. Now, I've learned that when I'm done, I must simply put my fork down and ignore the friendly heckling. I am told this intense food tradition comes from the forced famine, Holodomor, that Joseph Stalin imposed on Ukraine during his brutal reign.
Molly enjoys a snowy sleigh ride with friends through the Ukrainian countryside.

Scholars disagree on exact estimates of the death toll, and report anywhere from three- to 12-million Ukrainians starved to death during normal weather conditions at peacetime.

This catastrophe left Ukrainians with a deep rooted appreciation for food, and a near obsession with feeding each other.

Ukraine is smaller than Texas, and has little diversity, apart from The Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is home to many Muslim Tatars and small concentrations of Romani people, mostly in Western Ukraine.

Two languages are regularly spoken, Ukrainian in the West with sprinklings of Polish, and Russian in the East.

There is no clear boundary where one language starts and the other ends.

When the Soviet Union was in power, Russian was the official language, but people often spoke Ukrainian in their homes. When Ukraine gained independence, Ukrainian became the official language, and is now largely taught in schools.

Through the marriage of these two languages a third has emerged: Surzhyk. Living in Central Ukraine and studying “clean” Ukrainian language, trying to navigate yet another language can be confusing and discouraging.

The blending of the two languages has become so complete that people often do not know which they are speaking.

Ukraine is endlessly interesting, with its languages, culture, traditions, history, and people. The Ukrainians I've met are some of the more lively, generous, and welcoming people I have ever come across. Though their lives are often difficult, and their history painful, they are still lovers of poetry, theater, song, and dance. Their weddings last up to three days, and they celebrate more holidays than I can keep track of.

If you want to learn more about my experience in Ukraine, I blog at, and welcome you to visit.

Molly Rivkin, the daughter of Linda Richardson and Mitch Rivkin, is a 2005 graduate of Bonners Ferry High School.
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