The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love
On your last day as a Volunteer, Peace Corps hands you quite a long to-do list: run to the bank to close your individual and grant bank accounts; check in with the doctors up on the fourth floor of the office; get about 20 signatures; be sure your DOS (3-10 page Description of Service) is signed by the Country Director; meet with Peace Corps staff for an exit interview; return your standard issue smoke detector, fire extinguisher, and space heater (all three of which you’ve probably never used, but had to lug to and from Kyiv); and turn in your Ukrainian residency card. Quite a mundane ending to a two-year-long experience of a lifetime.
But the very last thing you do, once every box is checked, every dotted line is signed, is ring the Close of Service (COS) bell. Hanging in the third floor hallway, a plaque beneath it reads: Ringing this bell is reserved for Volunteers on the last day of service. Please respect this tradition. When it’s your chance to ring the bell, the clangs echo throughout the hallways and offices. The Volunteers sitting in the first floor lounge cheer. And then…well…that’s it. You’re finished. You’re done. You’re no longer a PCV. You become a “normal” person again.
It’s a strange feeling. You ring the bell and the sound sings a song of excitement, relief, joy, and pride. You’ve made it! You survived Ukraine! You’ve completed the lonesome, protracted, and demanding commitment that is the Peace Corps. The bell insures that everyone in the office hears your clang of relief and pride at being done with non-potable water, never-quite-clean clothes, and winters filled with nothing but potatoes.
Yet the tolling feels ominous as well. It’s sad and cruel. As it rings it steals away the manner in which you’ve identified yourself for two years. It signifies the end of a 27-month-long endeavor of integrating into a new culture, of learning to laugh at and appreciate Ukraine’s quirks, and of understanding how to survive the cold winters and hot summers. In a moment, it seems to audibly delete your identity. It is an ending hard and fast, like none other I’ve experienced.
I suppose I should have seen it coming. Twenty-seven months doesn’t disappear in the blink of an eye. Often, time crawled. Weeks felt like months; months felt like years. Yes somehow the end arrived abruptly. Suddenly, I was teaching mylast lesson, packing boxes to send home, making final arrangements for my post COS trip to Turkey and Israel, and saying a million goodbyes.
The goodbyes at school were long. They seemed to start at the beginning of the semester. Not a day went by that I didn’t have at least one student asking when my last day in Sosnivka would be. Then, two weeks before leaving, I began teaching the last lessons for certain groups of students. They gave me farewell gifts and posters. Finally came the last day of school and my last Ukrainian party. W gathered in a primary form classroom, the desks all pushed together to form one long table, heavy with sandwiches, vegetables, fruit, sweets, and vodka. Toasts were made in my honor. Gifts were presented. Hugs were exchanged. The most beautiful gift: a hand embroidered traditional rushnyk (towel). The most meaningful: a small, hand bound book from students with messages and notes of love written all throughout. The most memorable: a 3x4 foot large framed painting. Ukrainians extremely rarely move, and if they do it’s by car to a nearby village. I was touched by the sentiment, but couldn’t help laughing at the impracticality of giving such a gift to a girl moving away by airplane.
Goodbyes are always hard. But saying goodbye to the girls I’ve mentored was particularly depressing and tearful. They’re such sweethearts, such good girls. I’ll miss their playfulness, their laughs, the beautiful mistakes they make when they speak English. It’s strange saying goodbye to the people you love, knowing full well you may never see them again.
In preparing to leave, I’ve reflected a lot on these past two years. At the end, I’ve been thinking a lot about the beginning. As I prepared to leave for Peace Corps two years ago, I wrote a reflection on the amount of luggage we’re allowed to bring with us: two 80-pound checked bags. At the time it seems impossible. How do you pack away everything you’ll need, your whole life for 27 months, into two measly suitcases? How do you leave your life behind, start a new one, with so little?
But of course, it’s a silly question. The answer is obviously that you can’t. Even two years ago, as I asked myself this question, I knew the answer. Yet, I think after two years of living simply, the answer rings even clearer. Echoing and clanging through my heart comes the answer to this ridiculous question: YOU CAN’T. You can’t pack away your life into a bag. It’s impossible. Because my life isn’t my t-shirts, jeans, makeup, or books. My life is me. My life is my thoughts and loves. My life is Nastia. My life is Olena. My life is Jill and Jessica and Grace. My life is crying with Sofiya and singing with Maria. It’s taking my first train ride in Ukraine with Lecia, and learning to make Varenyky with Mama Natasha. It’s being frustrated with Ukrainian unpunctuality; it’s sitting in my kitchen during the freezing winters wrapped in layers of clothing and running all the stove burners to stay warm; it’s never feeling fully clean because bucket baths and hand washing just don’t quite cut it. It’s teaching my lessons and traveling by bus, train, and sketchy shared taxis across Ukraine. It’s Ukrainian hospitality, and the hundreds of cups of tea I’ve shared with people. My life, the person I am, is all of these things. Of course you can’t fit your life into a backpack or suitcase—you carry it with you wherever you are in your heart. The love, pain, trepidation, excitement, and memories good and bad fill your head and heart, and that is your life.
Then you might say that just as life can’t be nicely fitted into a packed bag, so your identity can’t be stolen away by the ringing of a bell. It’s true I can no longer enter the office in Kyiv or receive my measly monthly stipend, and my no-fees Peace Corps Passport will expire in 3 months. But I’ll never forget the wonderful people I’ve met as a Volunteer. I’ll never disregard the crazy experience the Peace Corps has been. I’ll always dream of world peace. I’ll always continue working for equality, and understanding, and education. I’ll always believe that each person’s small good works really do change the world. In my heart, I will always be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
An SCU alumna and Former Peace Corps Volunteer, Alexandra Angel is passionate about social justice, solidarity, and seeing the world. She loves immersing herself in new cultures and traditions. Here she shares a reflection on finishing her Peace Corps experience in Ukraine.