The day was cold, snowy and drab, not unusual for Christmastime for me. But I was the only one bustling about to do my last bit of Christmas shopping. The time was just a year ago, the place, Donetsk in Ukraine. My family and I were on assignment at the university in Donetsk, teaching English as a foreign language. It was Friday, Christmas Eve.
Always before in my teaching experience Christmas Eve was a holiday filled with last-minute purchases, food preparation, picking up items left on layaway and bustling about with other "last-minute" shoppers. But here it was different, very different.I went to work as usual on Christmas Eve day as did everyone in Donetsk. It was not an unusual day. Because I taught an English class, I introduced and sang Christmas carols with my students. It was literally the first time that any of them had ever sung Christmas carols. The students were amazed at the feeling that such carols brought to them. Natasha said, "When I came today, I was not in a very good mood, but now I am." These students represented the fruits of 70 years of communist domination. They were not averse to singing Christmas carols. In fact, they sang with fervor and spirit but not together or on tune. Many had no idea about pitch, but they sang with gusto and from the heart. The Christmas carols had never sounded so good to me. I mused even then that the laws of this former communist country do not prohibit such singing in public university classes. It is only in the "Land of the Free" that such things might be questioned or frowned upon.
After class I left as quickly as I could. Because public transportation runs erratically, particularly when the weather is cold, I walked down the main street on Donetsk, not ablaze with lights as in our big cities, but dim, with no Christmas decorations or commercialism at all. The communists long ago killed the celebration of Christmas. The early darkness added a measure of melancholy to the already dim environment. Dark, fur-covered forms appeared in front of me as I trudged along, almost groping my way along the main street.
At last I came to the main square of Donetsk. Still no lights, but a statue of Lenin. Lenin, who replaced Santa Claus, God, Robin Hood and other heroes. Lenin in a workman's cap, striding forward, never standing still as real statues are supposed to do. Lenin, at whose feet the people place wreaths when they marry, whose image they wear on their lapels.
I continued on my way, now composing a silent poem to myself about this Lenin. Merchandise is not available in good supply or in great variety in Donetsk, and so I entered each store along the way hoping to find something - something for my family for Christmas. Most of the stores had a few items, but many of the shelves were bare.
Finally, I decided that perhaps a piece of cheese might just be the ticket for my family. But cheese was difficult to find. I entered every store. One store had some macaroni and a few cans of fish. Another had some dried, ugly looking fish. Finally, there it was in this store. I spied a piece of cheese, about two pounds. I got in line behind four women. A little old woman, with dark coat and shawl, thick, ill-fitting glasses, hunched back, had a wrapped purchase in front of her. She had given the clerk a stack of Ukrainian Kypon notes. Inflation is so rampant that pensioners are forced to beg to survive. She had a big stack of small denominations, evidently the kind that one gets when one waits on the street with outstretched hand. The clerk counted and recounted the pile. I watched her count the same pile about five times. We waited. Two people in front of me left the line. The cheese was now within sight, almost within grasp.
The counting continued, and I turned my attention elsewhere and watched the assortment of humanity pass by, all wearing heavy fur hats or scarves or a Russian chopka like mine, all craning their necks to see what treasures lay concealed behind the counter. All had their bags waiting for that unexpected deposit and all would feel that sense of achievement, of success when the "hunt" would be rewarded. I know the feeling well. One knows that skill and judgment and superior stratagem are responsible for success.
I was awakened from world of dreams by a hand reaching for that precious cheese. Some clerk behind the counter had seized "my" cheese and scurried off to the back room. I think I can guess. Some important official or "contact" had entered the back way and procured the "goal" right under my nose. Oh well, I had only waited 20 minutes.
I left the line; the counting of the "pile" continued as I left the store. I walked on down the street and finally found some bottled water for sale. I bought a bottle for my wife, knowing how much she would enjoy drinking without boiling it. Now I had to carry my books and the bottle home. Having walked, waited, and looked a lot I was rather exhausted, so I took the "chicken" way home. I didn't want to wait for a streetcar and try and cram myself in, so I hired a taxi and spent an exorbitant sum ($1.50) for a ride home. An exorbitant sum for the people in Donetsk, where the average monthly wage in U.S. dollars is $12-15.
Christmas morning, we all opened our gifts. The bottled water wrapped in plain brown paper. I got a Snickers bar, a bottle of water and a real box of cornflakes. But the most precious gift was gratitude for America with its opportunity, abundance, commercialism and Christ in Christmas.
Robert V. Schwartz is a professor in the foreign language department at Ricks College, in Rexburg, Idaho. He is married to the former Barbara Koontz, and they are the parents of six children.
From September 1993 to June 1994, the Schwartzs and three of their children lived in Donetsk, Ukraine, where he taught English at the so-called "Free University," which was established at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
About this experience Schwartz said, "Students pay tuition, and excellent teachers work in difficult circumstances to help the students have a good educational experience." It was while in Ukraine that the experience described in the story occurred.
"It was a difficult time for all of us," he said, "but we experienced and learned a great deal, experiences that are now priceless to us."