7 things a summer in the Carpathian Mountains taught me
It may be almost six years since I first boarded an overnight train to Verkhniy Studennyi, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains. But, starting a travel blog would not be complete without a mention of the place that not only inspired my career, but left a lasting impression on me.
I spent two summers in Ukraine. For the first, undeniably my favourite, I worked as a children’s sports instructor in the Carpathian Mountains, and in 2013 I returned to the country to lead a media faculty for an education provider just outside of Kyiv.
Having recently moved to another new country it felt only right to have a look back on my Ukrainian adventure and how the experience has and will continue to influence me daily.
From opening up to new music choices to making a number of new friends, here are a few lessons I learnt in this bizarre yet fascinating country:
TO LOVE MORE OPENLY
Forever a romantic but admittedly a slight commitment phobe (I guess I’m not great with the idea of forever), my time in Ukraine taught me to love much more openly and be more honest when it comes to how I feel – cheesy I know. At first I thought there was something in the water, with a number of colleagues, myself included, entering into whirlwind romances, but I soon found it wasn’t just us expats that were feeling the romance. The Ukranian culture teaches to love openly and to love honestly, and it starts at a young age!
From my American friend serenading his Ukranian girlfriend, to the young boy that asked me to help him pick flowers for his crush and a 10-year-old that wanted me to proofread a poem to his classmate, I was taken aback by the purity of romance in this charming part of the world and the openness of even children to express themselves. This was completely different to what I had experienced as a British kid, whereby a playground game of 'kiss catch' was more likely to turn into a rowdy game of 'bulldog' than result in flowers and chocolates.
Though the thought of marriage still gives me palpitations, Ukraine taught me that the odd love letter never hurt anyone.
THE ART OF HANDWRITTEN LETTERS
In keeping with my last point, the art of hand written letters was a major takeaway from my time away. Not only did the children send each other love letters but they passed on their experiences to their parents through handwritten notes.
We held a letter disco for the children and they left us with messages to say thank you for their time with us. I also turned my phone off for the entire summer, leaving me completely in the present and with more time to write not only letters but creatively too.
Perhaps it was the idyllic rustic allure of the mountains or the feeling of isolation from being in a tiny village so far away from loved ones, but children, teachers and staff alike were all getting in on the trend.
YOU SHOULD NEVER STOP LEARNING
My time in Eastern Europe taught me that you should never stop learning, no matter how old or how accomplished you may be.
The students I met ranged in age from 4 to 17 and all showed complete dedication to a life of learning in all forms – spiritual and academic. Students were eager to participate in yoga and mediation classes, while some of the young teens were reading the likes of Dostoyevsky - and not in their mother tongue!
YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH MUSIC IN YOUR LIFE
From The Cranberries’ Zombie to Gotye’s Somebody I Used to Know, and our talented colleague’s rendition of Guitar (see the terribly blurry and shaky video above), my time in Ukraine was filled with laughter and music. The talented children took pride in their own piano, guitar and vocal performances, while every evening staff would grab a moment in a mountain café lodge we called “Luda’s”, where everyone would sing songs until the early hours.
Though holding a tune is still not my forte in life, my drunken self attempting to dance like Shakira made many appearances.
My best friend Emily, aka the other half of Geebsley, even got a musical note tattooed on her to celebrate the summer. I’m still secretly annoyed she opted out of our group decision to all get bird tattoos, mainly because hers turned out better.
…BUT YOU CAN DRINK ENOUGH
To many people in 2012, Ukraine meant two things, the Euros and vodka. The latter was presented in a deadly form – pure and therefore deceiving, resulting in many eventful nights.
As a group of expats, we spent the summer in an exciting haze of music, romantic encounters and vodka fuelled lake parties – the worst of which led to me waking up in the middle of the woods one night, the items of my handbag leaving a Hansel and Gretel style trail to civilisation, or at least the only civilisation we had that summer – camp.
DO WHAT YOU LOVE
I’ve always been the sporty one in my group of friends and throughout my 2012 summer I truly lived for it and I bloody loved it! I spent my long work days climbing stunning mountains with groups of eager sporty kids, teaching netball and rounders, rafting, participating in yoga classes and playing basketball after work hours with the guys of the group. I learnt to not hold back my love of sport and thoroughly enjoyed competing with the guys at basketball shootouts – I still haven’t mastered the art of dribbling.
I was on a minimum wage and couldn’t have cared less! It taught me that doing what you love is so much more valuable than any form of paper money.
YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY FRIENDS OR TOO BIG A FAMILY
A summer away spent with complete strangers showed me how important it is to let new people in and how you should have friends from all walks of life.
From a hippy guy called Alex - whose hate for social media has meant he's been a nightmare to stay in touch with – to my wee Irish friend Emily, full-of-life American Julie and my Ukranian pals Nastya, Oleg, Rita, Lena, Katya and Kristina to name a few, we bonded over our differences and excitement for an adventure.
I’ve gone on to meet up with many of my mountain friends in London and Prague and I’m hoping to head to Odessa for a reunion or two next year. Despite the fact we’re thousands of miles apart, I also still class my Irish gal Emily as one of my closest friends along with the other Emily, my uni sister, former housemate and fellow travel buddy (The blondey with the beaming grin above).
So despite consuming copious amounts of vodka, that I’m probably still suffering from today, I couldn’t have asked for a better and more unique learning experience. And for that reason this bizarre but breathtakingly beautiful part of the world will always have a piece of my heart. Спасибо!