Saying Goodbye

At 2 pm I glanced down the hall to the room they call the new big, in which I taught the teenagers of an evening. The language centre in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, was always growing, with a plan to convert the cellar into classrooms. The continual renovation made the term: new big. The room was decorated, with serviettes waiting to be cake-smeared and lollies for unwrapping. It was my last day.

Thinking of my camera, two blocks away at home, I slipped into hat and coat. All eyes were upon me as I exited the cloak room. I wasn’t supposed to know about the party. “I’ll be back for my lesson at 6 pm,” I said casually. Mouths dropped – I would miss my party – Marina realised first, of course, that I was joking.

But it was Lena who donated her weekend to my first days in Donetsk almost a year earlier. In the cupboard of the Soviet apartment they’d chosen for me she’d left a jar of homemade plum jam with fruit from her mother’s village garden. She pointed it out when we arrived on the first evening but didn’t say she’d made it – by the smile in her eye I understood. It’s a nice thing to have done for a total stranger. Meanwhile the institute had stocked the fridge with groceries and the receptionist Tanya had the jug boiled as I walked in the door.

I remember Lena at the airport – she had a 1960s hairdo and behind-the-iron-curtain clothes – feminine, becoming and quite different to western styles. I remember as we’d driven past the White House, the seat of city government, how Peter the driver said, “That’s where the thieves live.”

At lunch on the following afternoon, in a café by the Karlmeus, when I asked what Lena’s ex-husband did, she replied, embarrassed, in her suave, winter-coat-thick accent, “We don’t ask what people do in Ukraine.” It was my first lesson. “There are many Ukrainians,” she said, “who have money but are technically unemployed.”

She’s a mother of two but can never remember their ages. She started to explain how it was, life in and after the Soviet Union. “People should only create and not destroy,” she said, “This is our history.” She was worried about her children’s futures in an uncertain, capitalist Ukraine.

Lena was most insistent I phoned Australia to tell my family I was alright. She almost came all the way from her house to drag me to the institute to do that, in the first days. “You are always so calm about everything!” she said, with frustration. But it’s easy to be calm there.

Marina, meanwhile, was quiet until I discovered her sense of humour. We took to criticizing each other, for fun, as a sport. She used to say the most horrible things at meetings, about me, in front of the Director. And I loved it. Nor did she mind when I suggested she must’ve grown up in a circus and probably had circus elephants still living on her apartment’s veranda.

One day she came to work in a cardigan that fashionably featured a single button, where there might normally be two or three. I pulled her aside and said, straight-faced, “Don’t worry. I know teachers’ salaries aren’t much. I will ask the other teachers to donate a few kopeks and we’ll buy you a couple of extra buttons.” She was outraged! I was laughing.

She coined my nickname: the difficult Australian. When we returned from summer holidays Lena said to Marina that I’d missed her. “Yeah,” Marina replied, “Like a headache.” It was the cue to start up again.

Yet sometimes we’d sneak away to eat flatbread-rolled kebab-like zapykankas in the park or deluxe hot dogs, Donetsk-style. Such hours were precious.

Classes would end late evening but if I found energy it was a simple matter to phone Svetlana. “Shall I stop by?” I’d ask. “Sure,” she said, most often, “and why not bring a bottle of red?” We used to talk into the wee hours, and dance and sing. It’s a good thing Ukrainian neighbours don’t bother about noise.

Svetlana explained how living in Ukraine meant always having to consider how to earn money, with seemingly endless problems – a state of affairs Bangladeshis can perhaps relate to. “But in Ukraine,” she said, “people are still nice to each other. Nobody cares if their neighbour is having a nice life.” And I saw that.

Once I was buying a bottle of wine at a kiosk by the marshrutka taxi stand, and the woman behind the counter asked in Russian, “Sweet or dry?” I asked for dry and the woman looked me up and down before saying, “Is it for a girl?” On the way to Svetlana’s there was only one response: “Da”. “You’ll need a nice bottle then,” she said, before scouring her selection to find the best. She checked the chocolate situation too.

On the weekends Svetlana and I would sometimes find a café to watch the afternoon pass, by tradition first meeting at our regular place: beside the left shoe of the Lenin statue in Lenin Square.

When it comes to Val – well, her kitchen is where I learnt much of what I came to know about Ukraine. She made sure I was well familiar with the cuisine.

It was through her I picked up additional classes with the three-year-old Senya. His mother wanted him to be bilingual. His classes were not stressful or rigid. The instruction was, “just play in English.” And we did. Senya was obsessed with Spiderman.

At the end he had tears in his eyes. “When are you leaving?” he asked. “After eight days,” I said, accurately.

“No,” he replied firmly, “After three days!” He had the concept of bargaining but lost the concept of numbers at crucial moments. He hoped to lengthen my stay.

I mention Senya because he discovered a new term I came to embrace. From confusing English pronouns with his country, he once told Val he lived in “Mykraine.” And that’s the thing of it – it became Mykraine.

The language connected: they enjoyed when I invented words, in the way that happens in any living language, what you can’t get in books. There was the Soviet washing machine I had, plastic, semi-manual, the size of a television set. You had to load the water by bucket before plugging it in. Lena chuckled when I called it the “electric bucket.” And in the park after rain, when I pointed to a small flow into a drain and called it a waterfall, and was rebuked because it wasn’t a waterfall, well, the English teachers took amusement when I said it was at least “waterfallish.”

With grammar: they knew the rules and I knew the answers. Team work: they could explain the former, which native speakers are not taught; while I helped apply the rules correctly.

The decoration and food in the new big: I’m not sure I wanted it. It represented such an enormous loss, about to come. On the other hand, as an Australian had once described my moving there as “throwing myself into a transcontinental abyss”, well it hadn’t been at all bad.  Surely I could do it again?

I’d been dreading that there might be cake restrictions, as there were on Teacher’s Day when each teacher had a single slice ration. I remembered those cucumber and parsley sandwiches with the bread cut so thinly they must’ve split grains of wheat in the process. The institute liked to save. But these things did not recur.

Instead both Lena and Marina gave speeches so full of praise I was convinced they were talking about somebody else; and Marina, in describing me, didn’t use a single bad Russian word.

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