In January 2003, I moved into a three-story, Soviet-era apartment building in a small agrarian city in western Ukraine surrounded by fields and forest for a two-year Peace Corps assignment. As a foreigner new in town, I found my life was as socially distant as it could be. Sub-zero winter temperatures had generally confined the city’s residents indoors for months, so, aside from teaching a class at the local university, I was effectively isolated at home.
Here are five things I learned that could come in handy as we all try to keep our social distance and stay healthy.
1. Discover new recipes, but experiment carefully.
Dairy and beer don’t mix. As obvious as that sounds, I was a little too quick to oblige when offered this unique local delicacy at a birthday party. The first sip actually didn’t taste too bad, but it probably wasn’t wise to finish the pint. I was struck down with food poisoning for nearly a week, crawling from bed to bathroom.
After recovering, I learned to try new things and got to know myself in the process. After all, I had to feed myself in a reasonably healthy way. Living on my own was a new experience. I was only a year out of Miami and had always lived with multiple roommates. For the first time, I was completely alone.
Once I recovered from the food poisoning, I avoided meat, teaching myself to cook with only vegetables and learning to pronounce their local names in the markets.
Peeling potatoes by the kitchen window became a weekly form of meditation. For comfort, I researched recipes for tortillas and other delicacies from home, which have been perfected over time and form part of my culinary repertoire today.
2. Exercise can be easy. Get creative
I ran through snowy forests and augmented a typical routine of push-ups and sit-ups with free weights improvised from water jugs that I had stockpiled for the few days each month when the pipes and plumbing ran dry (fortunately never while I was ill).
Missing skiing, I sought out the next best option and bought cross country skis at the local bazaar. My boots kept slipping out of the cheap bindings, and there weren’t enough downhill slopes, but it was satisfying to try a new sport and a welcome excuse to go outside.
3. Take a digital detox. Time to open that book on the shelf.
Because there was no internet in my apartment, I had to go around the corner to an unpleasant smoky café, so I preferred to read books. Given my surroundings, I chose a few on Ukrainian history and tried some of the great poems of national hero Taras Shevchenko.
For other reading material, Peace Corps volunteers received issues of Newsweek and the Kyiv Post, which usually arrived in bunches every 2-3 weeks and provided a crucial window to the world.
I didn’t have a phone either. There was a single, faded yellow rotary phone in a small room down the hall, which was shared by all the residents in the 20 apartments on my floor. I didn’t have many numbers to call anyway.
4. Learn something new. No time like the present.
In my case, I discovered jazz. Packing one suitcase with two years’ worth of items didn’t leave a lot of room for CDs (remember those?), but a friend had shared the best of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I was hooked. Accompanied by their soothing horns, I learned to appreciate tea and began experimenting with creative writing.
Of course, there was a new language to learn as well. Every day, I sat at my kitchen table reviewing new words and phrases picked out of the local paper. Twice a week, a teacher came to my apartment to explain colloquialisms and grammar. Each morning and every night, I reviewed stacks of flash cards in bed.
Fortunately, it was possible to build a vocabulary relatively quickly despite the absence of regular conversation. By the time winter finally became spring and invites came from friendly local colleagues for barbecues and weddings, I had managed to build a solid knowledge base to be able to communicate with new friends. I could even show off a few lines by Shevchenko.
5. Take it easy and get to know yourself.
So here I am again in isolation, this time in London with a wife, which presents a different batch of challenges and opportunities, the extent of which we likely don’t yet fully recognize. However, we are learning as we go so if we ever face quarantine together again, we’ll be able to draw on our current experience.
At least I already know not to drink too much sour cream with beer.
Jeff Hartman, Miami Class of 2001
U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer – Ukraine 2002-2004