Awkward Stumbles and Fuzzy Memories: Memoir of a Peace Corps Volunteer
by Kathy Ivchenko (Ukraine 1994-96)
$8.99 (Kindle); $14.95 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96)
Awkward Stumbles and Fuzzy Memories, Memoir of a Peace Corps Volunteer is a lively, entertaining, and insightful account of the author’s experiences living and teaching English in Ukraine in the mid-1990s.
Author Kathy Ivchenko takes us out of her comfort zone, a small town in Wisconsin, to Eastern Europe during a time of regional transformation. She returns home two years later with a lifetime of memories and a Ukrainian husband. The author is a wonderful storyteller, and her writing is very personal. We feel her frustrations, “awkward stumbles,” and achievements. There’s substantial detail throughout the book, a testament to her precise recollection of people, places, and experiences.
The author informs us at the outset of her reason for applying to the Peace Corps. “I didn’t have anything else to do. I had just finished college with no job prospects. My love life was nonexistent.” Her reaction when she receives her country assignment is, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” And why, she wonders, does the suggested packing list include both a triple goose down winter coat and mosquito netting.
How did training go? “It was brutal.” Her language instructor informed her “I don’t know how you will pass.” She struggled during her three weeks with a host family and wondered if they had invited her because “They were hoping to marry me off to their son.”
The author transitions from training to her project, falls into her element and shines. Because of her prior teaching experience, she is given a challenging assignment: teaching advanced English to future Ukrainian English teachers at an Institute (a specialized college of higher learning). Resolving to provide her students with more than just English, she creates lesson plans that combine language, literature, and thought. One assignment, to read and be ready to discuss in English Harpur Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She develops an American culture class that, at one session, contrasts Walt Whitman’s poem I Hear America Singing with the lyrics of Billy Joel’s A Piano Man. She and her roommate open their dorm suite to the school’s students to practice their English and interact.
“My favorite classes were when I could get my students to laugh,” she tells us. They laughed the most, she notes, when she was commenting on life in Ukraine, which included the appearance and sudden disappearance of local and imported products in the stores and open markets, and sleeping in layers of pajamas under multiple wool blankets when the town’s central heat sporadically went off in the middle of winter.
She ventured out into Eastern Europe and became a seasoned and resourceful traveler while confronting regional issues such as not having a Belarus visa on a train passing through that country. She was escorted off the train and after some hours of interrogation, was provided the needed visa. Her train, which needed to change track gauges, had remained near the station and retrieved her for the onward journey to Warsaw.
And, she found love, a student five years younger. The last two chapters, entitled “I do” and “Honeymoon” are a love story. Upon close of service, she tells us, “We jumped right into life in Wisconsin. He got a job as a bartender at the local bar while finishing up his degree at the local university.”
The book concludes with powerful words about her Peace Corps experience. “Not only had the path I had gone down changed me as a person and the way I saw the world, but it also changed the way people saw me.” She continues, “Things were frustrating, uncomfortable, and depressing, but I also have never laughed so hard with some amazing people that became lifelong friends.” And concludes, “I wouldn’t trade my two years with the Peace Corps for anything.”
I heartily recommend this book for its vivid and engrossing account of personal discovery and growth, “awkward stumbles” along the way, and resilience and achievement; and for its insights into post-Soviet life from a young American and Peace Corps volunteer who lived it.
Reviewer Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96) was later the Assistant Inspector General for Auditing at the Peace Corps. As a member of the Explorer’s Club, he has visited many countries and has also monitored elections for the UN, written the soccer World Cup’s operating procedures, reviewed UNICEF and USAID programs and National Endowment for the Arts grants, served as an advisor on Washington, D.C.’s 2019 Bus Transformation Project, and has published a half dozen travel books.