Friday, September 3, 2010

The nicest person in all of this country....

(Rob writing) is our hostess, Valentina, whom we know as Miss Valla. Most people here won’t even meet our eyes, and a smile of greeting is simply out of the question for us ugly Americans overseas. Our reception was positively glacial until a few people began to get used to us. But Miss Valla is unfailingly cheerful, friendly, generous and kind. She’s given up her bedroom for us for weeks on end, she’s fed us when we were hungry, and she’s kept us company when we couldn’t find a friend.

Soon after we arrived here for our second visit, just after our near-disastrous court visit, she appeared in our room with a slip of paper that must have cost her a great deal of effort. On it were written three English words: “Invite dinner borscht.” Since then we’ve had soup, macaroni chicken, more soup, chicken and potatoes, vareniki (another national dish) and more soup all prepared by our gracious hostess. We never know when she’s going to appear, but whatever she feeds us is always good and welcome.

Mealtimes are also our informal language lessons. All three of us know a bit of German, so we laughingly use that. English is so foreign to Valla that she can’t interpret the sounds. They don’t even sound like language to her. Once when I was learning the names of the foods on the table, she asked me to say the English word for “khlyeb,” which is bread (does that give you an idea what a jaw-cracker this language is?). When I gave it to her, she tried it, then signed to indicate that her tongue wasn’t made to form that “br” sound! Her language doesn’t contain the br diphthong, nor the th, nor several others. Long “a” sounds are also missing.

The funniest sign language episode happened yesterday afternoon. We were sitting at the table when we saw a motor scooter through the window. I asked her if her word for it was “vespa” because I thought I saw that in the dictionary (the Italian company Vespa makes scooters sold around the world). In fact, her word for it was basically “motorcycle” with all of the sounds nativized. Then I asked her if she would like to have a motorcycle. She said no, she walks. Then she signed what would happen if she had a motorcycle: a crash, followed by her death, followed by her lying in the church with her arms crossed over her and the cantors singing funeral songs! You had to be there, but I laughed for ten minutes over that one.

One night her grandson and his family came over, and we all spent an hour or so together over hot “chai” (tea). He and his wife have two beautiful small children, a boy and a girl. The little 5-year-old boy likes Spiderman, and he recognized the theme song when I sang it for him. I’m sure he was puzzled to find that a grown man knew so much less of his language than he did. Valla’s grandson knows more English than I know of his language, so we communicated less pitifully than we might have. He has responsibility for the pension system at the technical school where he teaches, and he wants to grill me with questions about the U.S. pension system! I wonder if he knows how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer such questions. We have an appointment to exchange all of this information using Google Translate. The site requires good internet service, so we’ll see how it goes. The hour we spent with all of them was probably the most real grown-up fun I’ve had here.


  1. Valla sounds like an angel! Glad you got to have some grown-up fun!
    Love you guys!

  2. What an amazing experience! Looking at Miss valla's photo, I can just imagine her acting out the "death by motorcycle" scenario. What a precious woman.
    Praying for God to grant you favor with the judge, for Aaron to feel completely safe in court, for God to allow the judge to see what HE in His wisdom wants her to see---and for AARON to come home with you soon!

  3. Grown up fun with the locals is GOOD. I well remember being there in '09 and when we were befriended by a local who took us out to eat and spent the evening with us visiting in really decent English, it was SOOO special.

  4. I can totally imagine your motorcycle charades! The Ukrainian lady we are staying with sounds just like Valla. She is constantly feeding us and is very animated when we are attempting to communicate. She does know a few English words, because she taught English a very long time ago. She has forgotten most of it. So we are acting out with hand signals most of the time. We never know what creation she will come up with for dinner but there is always soup.
    I hate the rest of the Ukrainians are not so welcoming. That is not the experience we are having here by the Black Sea. We are greeted with smiles everywhere. Though we are certain we are the talk of the town since it is very rare for American to be this far south. We are continuing to pray for your journey!

  5. You'll have to think of a good gift to send her! Hang in there! That's what I keep telling Ben on Fb. Meagan gives us the updates if I can't get near a computer. We are enjoying your blog and slow progress toward bringing him home. Our church prays for you and people are so curious about you all. Prayers and hugs from home, Trish


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