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October 24, 2011

One thing that Peace Corps Volunteers in Ukraine realize is that we make for good publicity. At least that is how it is for me here in Kirovograd. Not that I mind, because I usually get fed (this is important – PCVs rarely, if ever, turn down a free meal) and people are generally really nice about it.

In addition, my showing up to something is usually because I am involved in or attached to it in some way. Such has been the case on Friday and today. There is a wonderful program in Ukraine called Bibliomist. The program falls under the umbrella of IREX, which is a fabulous organization with whom I have lately been lucky enough to forge a connection. The Bibliomist program is able to work because of a partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  the Ukrainian Library Association (ULA), local and national governments, and libraries throughout the country.

Bibliomist fosters the development of a modern public library system in Ukraine as a step towards improving the socioeconomic conditions of its citizens. Part of their work is providing Internet access and computers that are equipped with web cams, headphones, and a scanner, to libraries throughout Ukraine. To get the computers and Internet access, the libraries apply through a competitive process, and find out which ones are chosen for that round.

Recently, Bibliomist awarded new computers to a number of libraries in my oblast, and I have been invited to the opening of several of the centers. I missed a couple already, but good fortune was smiling on me last Friday, as one of the libraries in Kirovograd received new computers and that was the day of the center’s grand opening.

Grand indeed! We arrived and found the computers behind a ribbon, numerous local media and many people there. After we arrived, I was invited to speak at the opening – and I did nothing to deserve the honor but show up! I said a few words, mostly related to the fact that the word “міст” in Ukrainian means “bridge” in English, and how it is important that programs like Bibliomist provide a bridge for people who may not otherwise have access to information. (By the way, in Ukraine, more than 75% of the population lack access to the Internet). Nevertheless, I must have done well enough to impress them in some way, because I was invited to cut the ribbon to the center, along with the mayor of Kirovograd (I am running with the big dogs now!) and the head of technology for Bibliomist Ukraine.

Of course, after the ribbon cutting there were media interviews – this is the second time I have been passed over…I believe it is because I spoke at the opening and they got footage of me cutting the ribbon, so I ended up on television anyway (last time was at the opening of our photo exhibit last month, where I was also asked to speak at the opening). Then they rolled out the cake and coffee/tea – I have to say, that was the first cake I have tasted in Ukraine that I really liked – it was similar to an American cake – nice and moist, with whipped cream frosting (and sugary confections, but I left those alone). Yum!

But it got better yet! Soon after we ate our cake, the director of the library invited a few of us into her office and what do you think we found there? Champagne! My day was made!

Interestingly enough, after we returned to the library and I was later on my way to the bus stop, a man approached me and told me how beautiful I am. He soon caught on to the fact that I was not Ukrainian, and then he was really interested. Well, I was not. I told him I have a boyfriend – he persisted. He asked for my phone number, I declined. I also declined his offer. He persisted, and I finally said “no thank you” a number of times and left. It was trippy. I had heard of this happening to some of the other (i.e., younger) volunteers but this was a first for me. I don’t know if I should be flattered or offended…

Then today came, and another appearance – another center opening in Svitlovodsk, a rayon center in the Kirovograd oblast. In attendance at this one was also the deputy director of my library, the regional head of Bibliomist, and the country head of Bibliomist. Once again I thought I was there as an attendee…though I suspected I would be asked to speak (indeed I was). This one was a completely different opening – when they described the library and Bibliomist, they also discussed programs and services the library provides. Before we even got to that, though, we were greeted on the steps of the library by people in traditional Ukrainian dress (or traditional regional Ukrainian dress) who were singing, and the traditional welcome of bread and salt.

After the ceremony was over (yes, more television footage and newspapers too) I realized it was after 2:00 and my stomach reminded me I had not eaten in a while…well, that was soon alleviated as we were brought to a very nice restaurant and provided lunch.

Tomorrow are more openings, which I will, sadly, miss as I am conducting a guest lecture at the university. The topic – The U.S. Stock Market. Not exactly my specialty, but I plan to make it work. Next week, though – another opening! I like getting out and seeing other libraries, talking to people. Makes me feel like I am doing more of the “Community Development” part of my work than I usually do.

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