When we were in training, I specifically remember being told, ‘this is not a job where you don’t meet your neighbors.’ Being from the Southern United States, I thought, well that’s no big deal. I know a lot of my neighbors back home, and make new friends in the grocery store all the time.
When I got here, I may have been faced with the harsh reality of my placement:
1. I don’t speak any slavic language. Seriously any slavic language would have done, Polish, Russian, they would have chut-chut understood me, and it would have given me a foundation for learning Ukrainian.
2. Ukrainians aren’t Southerners. What do I mean by this? They don’t make friends in the grocery store line. Typically when you encounter someone in your building nothing more than dobre den (means good day) is exchanged. This can be actually be a fabulous thing. It means that there are no chatty cathy’s on the tram or the bus. I can sit for that hour or 30 minutes in my own English world.
I must admit, these two factors kept me in my own little world for a long time. I would sometimes meet the occasional stranger on the street that heard me talking in English, and they would strike up a conversation. Because those who know English, studied it in school and what not, don’t frequently have a chance to talk with a native speaker, much less an American–they get taught British English in school. So sometimes my lack of language was helpful. It made me sort of a novelty or attraction.
And of course, we used this Americanness in our ministry. I teach all kinds of English, and this will increase quite a bit this year. They have, long before I arrived, used the Americanness to their advantage. Offering language courses, English Clubs, and American holiday celebrations.
But still in the midst of this, I don’t know my neighbors. I don’t know anything about them. I rarely meet random people on the street that I end up having some kind of relationship with.
So recently, I obtained shared custody of a dog. Our co-director of the student center, Volodya, his wife, Ira, and I have shared custody of the cutest dog known to man. We found this stray puppy in the village where Ira’s parents live. She followed us for like 10 meters before we decided to take her home. She will live with me, and I will get her trained and fixed, and then when I leave she will go live a happy life chasing chickens in Volodya’s village. Apple, the lovely dog’s name, is a very happy, very excitable, very loving little doggy, and she wants to greet everyone. Old, young, smelly, Polish, she wants to meet you.
My apartment has sort of a courtyard in the middle. This courtyard is surrounded by like 8 or 10 four-floor apartment buildings. When I take Apple out, we always go to this courtyard, into some over grown grass, cause this lady doesn’t like to poo with watching eyes upon her. The thing is, not only does Apple love everyone, they all love her too. It’s amazing. Before I got Apple, I thought that you weren’t allowed to pet other people’s dogs. I had never seen anyone pet another person’s dog on the street, so I assumed this wasn’t something one did.
Wrong, oh boy was I so wrong.
Everyone stops to pet her. When I’m walking down the street I always hear people say, ‘what a cute dog!’ ‘look at the tiny puppy’.
And because of her eagerness, and cuteness, she’s helping me to break down those boundaries between my neighbors and me. After just about a month, I now know names of some of my neighbors, I know the ones that have dogs. I know the dogs’ names and ages. The woman downstairs told me all about her family one day while our dogs were playing. How her son actually lives just across the courtyard with her grandchildren, and how thankful she is that they are so close. I’ve also met her wonderfully jolly husband.
All of my neighbors LOVE my dog. And while my dog plays with them or their dogs, I steal moments with them learning about their families and their lives, as much as they will let me. They are all so kind with my Ukrainian, and try very intentionally to help me understand when I don’t. Lots of my neighbors speak Russian as their first language, and when I tell them that I don’t understand Russian very well, they switch to Ukrainian for me.
Somehow, all the things that separated me from my neighbors before, no longer exists due to little Apple. Just this morning, we were out in the courtyard, and a mom brought over her little boy. We were trying to acquaint the puppy and the little boy (only a year a 4 months, precious!), and in the process I learned that she knew some English, and that she hadn’t spoken in 10 years. I also learned that she had three children, 6, 5, and 1, two girls and a boy. I got the chance to tell her what I do here in Ukraine, and even advertise our new preschool a little bit.
I hate that I’ve waited so long to start meeting the people with whom I share this small part of L’viv. But it is truly amazing, to me, how Apple has made it possible. How having this tiny animal has really enabled me to get outside of myself, outside of my shyness or lack of confidence in Ukrainian, and dig deeper into a community that has always been there, but I have yet to explore. I look forward to going on many adventures with little Apple, and I hope through these last 5 months, they will continue to break down the barriers between me and others to allow me to be more present here. I look forward to sharing more stories of our outings.