First Semester Review: Calligraphy Blackletter Hands

The third and final instillation of my “First Semester Review”. Finally! It’s halfway through the current semester aaaaaand I’m still posting about the last one. Oops. But now I can (hopefully) move on to posting more current/super cool things I’m working on! Well…that’s my goal anyways. We’ll see what grad school has to say about that.

For those of you that don’t know: I’m left-handed.

Yup. I said it. I’m part of that small whatever percent of the population that gets asked the most obvious/peeved question by on lookers while writing “Wait, are you left-handed?!”. Noooooo, I just decided to pick it up today.

Clearly, this lefty has some rightie-world issues. Calligraphy is one of them.

My love for lettering started, well, a long time ago though my modern lettering practice began mostly while I was in Ukraine. I would spend hours writing, sketching, and analyzing. So not only am I a self-proclaimed typography snob, but a hand lettering snob, too. Basically, I love letters.

In my adolescence I bought a “Calligraphy Starter Kit” and tried as I might, I SUCKED. I thought it was hopeless and couldn’t for the life of me understand why my letters never looked like the ones in the book. Little did I know that it wasn’t my skill at all (for once!), it was literally because I was doing it wrong (though not by fault).

Wrong you ask? Oh, I mean wrong because I’m left-handed. But how?!? Well, because calligraphy is actually designed for right-handed people. The pen nibs, strokes, and angles are all designed by dragging the pen rather than pushing the pen the left-handed way.

I can’t even get most regular pens to work so why should I think calligraphy should work. Thankfully lefties are quick adapters — we have to be! — and on the first day of class, as the only lefty in sight, I finally figured out the great mystery behind why calligraphy never worked for me.

It’s because I have to write at a 90* angle. 90*s!!! (no, not the band)

Let’s get this straight — I’m not a “hookie” or a “sideways writer” or any of those weird terms people call lefties. I hold my pen/wrist like any other rightie out there…just…with my left hand. So imagine having to turn your paper 90* and learn to write your letters sideways and work on a sentence from top to bottom. Talk about mind-blowing. It wasn’t easy at all. And though things got easier with endless hours of hand-cramping practice, it still didn’t feel natural.

I’m (clearly) still beyond frustrated since I’ve tried to turn my well practiced lettering art (that I do mostly in pen and pencil) into a calligraphed hand but my style doesn’t transfer well into 90* side ways writing. There’s always hope of course. I’m sure with years of sideways writing practice I’ll improve. But at least for now I’ve mastered a few blackletter hands and can sideways write all the love letters to Dracula I could possibly fancy.

Rant complete. Now enjoy some photos.

First Semester Review: Bookbinding I

Continuing with my series, I now present a semester review of Bookbinding I.

I love bookbinding. Like, I really, really love it — which is why I’m continuing in Bookbinding II this semester. Prior to this class, I hadn’t had any experience in bookbinding, well, other than constructing mock-ups of pamphlets and books for graphic design. Even back then, the mock-up production phase was my favorite part of the whole graphic design process (that should have been my first clue). There’s so much precision and exactness in measurements and production that this highly anal retentive girl can just go to town with! It’s great. Basically, to be semi-melodramatic-but-also-totally-serious, bookbinding changed my life. If I’m not making books I quite literally miss making them. Some might say I have a problem, but it’s a problem I’m very okay with having.

First Semester Review: Letterpress I

A while back I had the idea of creating a “Semester Review” on Borscht & Babushkas as a way to share with you all what I’ve actually been up to in my MFA Book Arts studies. And also, you know, just so you have some evidence that I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth or that watching marathons of LOST is not the reason I’ve been slacking on blogging (although that does sound quite nice).

This is part one of three in my “Semester Review” series that will feature my classes from last semester: Letterpress I, Bookbinding I, and Calligraphy Blackletter Hands. Well…actually it’s a three year MFA program so technically this is Part One of Six which would make this post Part One (A)…or something like that…

All technicalities aside, I’m absolutely loving my program –– which is good because it’s uhhhh pretty much my entire life. While I haven’t exactly had time to post recipes with tantalizing food photography or every reminiscent thought I’ve had about Ukraine (I’d probably run out of blog space if I did that), I have for the most part semi-diligently documented my work throughout the semester (thanks camera phone!). At some point I will take much nicer photos of my finished projects, with a real camera, but I find the process photos just as interesting and I hope you do as well.

(click on the first photo to view in a larger slideshow format)

Field of Dreams

For the past couple months I’ve been dealing with another running injury, this time my other leg. NOT COOL LEGS, NOT COOL. I’ve thought about sawing them off. I might have a good shot at the special olympics that way. But I’m pretty sure they don’t take self-amputees, so I guess that’s not really a good idea. I’ve been dealing with running injuries since…March basically. First my left leg, now my right. Ugh. Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe how I’m feeling. All I want to do is run. Run across the country and grow a long beard. Oh wait, that was Forest.

When you’re not dealing with injury, running is one of the greatest things. You don’t need any real equipment, you just lace up, and go. Anywhere. It’s freedom at its purest. Running outside in Ukraine always felt so freeing — well, when I wasn’t worrying about the 2,348 million things that came with running there. But those moments running solo in the fields, watching the sun set over my village, or seeing a flock of crows take-off from the newly plowed land – those moments were breathtaking.

My Ukrainian village isn’t the only place to feel that way though. My hometown in Illinois is dotted with forest preserves and prairie paths that take me back to Ukraine (I mean not literally, I couldn’t run that far, but mentally). I guess if I run far enough out of Iowa City I’d surely end up in some cornfields…but some things just aren’t the same.

Throughout two years of my Peace Corps service I dreamt of having the luxurious option of going to the gym. Especially on those days when the windchill crept at a low -20*F and I had to go on a training run, or when I grew tired of my MTV yoga videos, Tony Horton’s voice, or lifting Ukrainian children as dumbbells…I dreamt of the gym and all its glory.

In Ukraine, I ran throughout the winter with very limited running accessories, ran the same routes a billion times. I severely rolled my eyes when anyone in my distant homeland complained about having to go to the gym. I thought, “COOOOOME ONNNN you guys, I would trade 100 goats for that option!”. But…that was then.

Now I’m at a big 10 university where most of my tuition dollars are funneled into a state-of-the-art gym that looks more like the inside of a Carnival cruise ship and has a (rather ironic) lazy river running through it. Yea. I’d never been to a gym like that since my family is a family of YMCA people — the kind of gym where you’re lucky if they have A/C, the machines might be built in a Flintstone fashion, and the average age is 78.

Basically, the first time in my new gym caused a near melt-down. I went to the gym looking for a simple bike machine to ease my running pain and found only touch screens and gaming programs. I tried about 4 different machines, feeling overwhelmed by the options, the choices, the buttons that aren’t actually buttons because it’s a screen. An elderly woman watched, judging from behind me (probably not, but it felt like it). She clearly had no problem operating these machines, but I felt SO DUMB, so out of place, so behind. I’m a young person, and young people are supposed to know these things, right?

I gave up on the bike and wandered to the treadmills, since those are something I can usually figure out. Even then the machine was way more complicated than necessary, and my attempt to run brought tears of pain. Great. Crying at the gym. Those people muse have thought I was a loony for sure. It wasn’t the best gym day. I left thinking of how much I wish I could run and how overly state-of-the-art the gym has become.

Basically, I’m back to first world problems — the hot tub’s too hot, too many options for dining out, the gym is too techie, etc.  I finally have a gym, and I’m complaining about it, ha. That’s really what it comes down to. I have that option yet all the terrifying techno mumbo jumbo machines make me dream of running in the fields of my Ukrainian village (though, maybe without the packs of wild unfriendly dogs).

I’ve been missing my village. Of course not every aspect of it, I’m quite alright with not having to take bucket baths again, hearing pigs being slaughtered or cat sex at night. Nope, don’t miss those things. But I do miss the simplicity. I miss walking through the fields and hearing only the wind.

Grad school has been keeping me busy, busier than I’ve been in a long long while so my nights aren’t spent writing anymore, which I really do miss. Instead I’m waist-deep hand binding books, setting and printing metal type, and practicing blackletter (gothic) calligraphy — but I love it, so that works. I guess my socially atypical rejection of technology fits rather nicely with the work I’m pursuing. All I need is a time machine set to 1450 (oh and I’d need to be a man cause I would never go back in time as a woman).

Annnnnyways, time has been passing quickly and most days I feel so distanced from Ukraine. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m still readjusting, or that I’m busy with school, but in so many ways I’ll stop and wonder about my Peace Corps service and think “Huh, that really did happen.” I’m not really sure how to describe the feeling. I feel a bit like Kevin Costner finding sanctuary in the open field but not knowing exactly why. Well, except I don’t hear voices telling me to build a baseball field. But most of the time, Ukraine feels like some sort of weird and distant dream — one that involved zero baseball but a lot of mayonnaise, marshutkas, and mesh.

It’s technically only been 5 months since I left Ukraine, but I haven’t heard anything from the Ukrainians I invested time to make connections with. It makes me wonder if I didn’t try hard enough, if they even remember me, if they’ve forgotten. I miss seeing my students, their hilarious personalities, and watching them grow. I miss writing about the ridiculous things that would happen in my week. At the moment I feel so disconnected from it all. I’m standing in the field waiting to hear the voices, waiting for them to remind me, for it to come back and ground me.

But it all grows hazy in the distance.

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September 1st

Some of you might be wondering what I’ve been up to since I haven’t been blogging as religiously as I had in Ukraine. I know, I know, shame on me! But really, I’ve been a little lost — lost in lala letter land (feverishly practicing my lettering skills) and lost in America and what exactly I even write about anymore. Maybe I can’t write without Ukraine. Maybe Ukraine was my writer’s mojo, for it certainly did supply me with endless stories of drunken dealings, cultural confusions, and transportation trepidation.

Now my life is…is….boring? Okay, boring might not be the right word. But it’s certainly much less exciting and spontaneous (not that every day of my life in Ukraine was just that). Really, I shouldn’t say life is boring per se because in reality I just moved to a new city and started my graduate studies in Book Arts — something that couldn’t be more perfect for my interests. My studies in and of themselves are pretty freaking awesome!!! and I’m already in love with my classes (Letterpress I, Bookbinding I, and Calligraphy Blackletter hands) and the work I’ll be doing this semester.

But other than that, uuuuh, I have no life. Ha. It’s true.  But let me tell ya, my lettering skills have improved significantly because of it! I haven’t been here very long and I’m no newbie to moving somewhere new and ‘integrating’, but making friends here seems so daunting right now.  Amongst volunteers, you were basically all insta-friends, though closer to some than others. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to have a normal social life…or have normal anything…though I’m not sure normal is what I want anyways.

Yesterday was the first U of Iowa football game which meant that there were about 4 times the number of (most likely underage) undergrads day drinking than entire population of my village. If going to Walmart made me freak-out, you can bet I didn’t really care to be around tailgating mayhem. So like a true loser I walked from my apartment to campus to get some art supplies for homework. Ended up forgetting my wallet (d’oh!) and had to walk back thinking I’d avoid the stadium but ended up on what is apparently THE tailgating street. Nothing reminded me more of just how out-of-place I’ve felt since coming home than walking against the tailgating flow as the only sober person. It felt like everyone was a blur around me, a blur that I don’t feel like I can really relate to (well, actually, I was probably the blur to them). Before even moving to campus, while I was applying, I had premonitions that I’d feel pretty out of sorts in this super American environment. I knew, even then, that this would be a major change so it will take some time.

While I can’t relate to the blur of tipsy tailgaters or the guy wearing a beer box on his head, I can relate to geeking-out with my fellow classmates on all things book. My fellow classmates get me on that level at least and it’s great to be around art people again. And I really do see potential friendships there (I mean, our classes are pretty damn small so I hope we’re friends!). Also, the internet tells me there’s a Peace Corps association for the University of Iowa that I’m hoping to get involved with and meet people that way. So I know I’ll have friends here eventually (there is hope!).

But for now it’s a whole lot of missing my Peace Corps friends and Ukraine, still feeling slightly out-of-place, figuring out this blog, yearning to travel already, loving my classes, and of course lots of lettering practice.

Now, enjoy some photos.

Video: Wrapping things up at site

I’m finally getting around to uploading and editing some videos from my last few weeks in Ukraine. I took quite a few so there’s more to come! I made this video during my last few weeks at my Peace Corps site in Ukraine. It’s yet another tour of my house (never enough of those, right??) paired with some emotions/thoughts I had at the time. Forgive my broken/un-practiced English…and for any motion sickness that might occur. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m cooking beans in every video I’ve made…I love me some beans!

Enjoy!

market musings & metric meddlings

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The highlight of my weekends here in Illinois, similar to my weekends in Ukraine, consist of a trip to the market. In Ukraine the market is called a “bazaar” or “rinok” and here we call them “farmers’ markets”,  but they’re basically the same idea — fresh local food.

Now that I’m back in Illinois, I feel so lucky to have experienced the magic that is the Ukrainian bazaar as part of my weekly regiment. It taught me what was in-season, when produce peaks, how to eat seasonally, and just how important it is to eat fresh and local. Fortunately for me, I moved from the bread basket of Europe back to the fertile grounds of the Midwest where farmers’ markets sprout weekly in the suburbs.

U.S. farmers’ markets, however wonderful, pale in comparison to Ukrainian bazaars, the bountiful pyramid shaped displays of fresh produce still caked in dirt, with old women shouting prices and professing to you how beautiful her petrushka or morkva looks. They are out selling produce almost every day, in every season — no matter the weather, it’s incredible. In-season produce of Ukraine was CHEAP — fresh, local, and cheap — couldn’t get any better than that!

Local farmers’ markets now seem foreign to me, even though they’re ironically where my local eating education began — between those aisles of white tents with no haggling allowed. But after living in Ukraine it’s all very different. The markets aren’t filled with little old ladies that, hunched back, dug up those carrots herself, but mostly families and farmers that drive down from Michigan or Central/Southern Illinois.

Since my return most farmers’ market visits are spent thinking — everything is so…so…clean. Where’s the dirt? Why are those carrots and beets so small? You’re charging how much for potatoes?!? It has been strange to realize that no public transportation to the market is needed and I don’t have to worry about carrying it all back since we just drive. Most bazaar trips in Ukraine would take up half a day and leave me with sore shoulders wishing that I didn’t eat an apple a day and that potatoes could somehow miraculously be lightweight.

I often forget I can’t order things in Ukrainian or Russian or by the kilogram. I got some pretty weird looks when I tried to order some salad in grams at the Whole Foods deli. I tried to make-up for my honest mistake by switching to ounces and then ultimately admitting I forgot the U.S. doesn’t use metric so “just give me that small plastic container, yea that one”. The workers timidly handed me my container of salad, probably looking for some white remnants around my nose or needle marks, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I figured it was easier for them to assume whatever they did than explaining (in what I imagine would come out with a cowboy accent) “I’m not from arrrrround heeeeeere!”.  Maybe I’d go on to say there’s a snake in my boot and then quickly leave the premises….I wish that’s how it went. But I’m probably just known as that weird “grams girl”.  I might go back and try to order in grams again, just to see what they do, maybe even add a little bit of Tyrone Biggums reenactment in too.

Anyways, enough of terrorizing the Whole Foods deli workers. In a few weeks I’ll be moving to Iowa City to begin my MFA in Book Arts at the University of Iowa. My mom and I made our first trip (ever!) out to the campus and moved some things into my apartment (aka spent hours assembling Ikea furniture). It was so nice to see where I’ll be spending the next three years of my life….which is super weird to think…three years, in once place!

Prior to making my campus visit, everyone I met told me I’d just love Iowa City. And they were right, well what I saw of it I did love — loads of trees and grass, historic homes with wrap around porches, ridiculously friendly people, bike paths galore, and a river running through it. To my surprise it’s much hillier than I expected (with a HUGE hill right by my apartment, yeeea that’ll be fun to bike and run). My apartment is a lovely old building with hardwood floors (a dream come true!), a shower with hot water, a toilet that’s attached to the floor, and no (apparent) holes in the walls for slugs and toads. I really have such high living standards now. But really, it’s a cute place and gets tons of light, unlike my current abode, which means (drumroll please) — the perfect set up for food photography!!! Yes, this is how my brain works.

My future flatmate and fellow Illinoisian (whom I found via Craigslist while I was in Ukraine), informed me of the best news ever — Iowa City has farmers’ markets, two times a week. TWO TIMES! Now my weekend highlight can also be my mid-week highlight and I can keep on eatin’ fresh and reliving my bazaar moments (not bizarre moments, though I have plenty of those too).

I will most likely forever miss the bazaars of Ukraine, but I am still thankful for any amount of fresh local eating I can be a part of, thanks Iowa City! I have a feeling we’ll become good friends.

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fresh Thai basil — smells of black licorice! Fresh basil is the best.

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morkva — carrots

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sugar snap peas if you please

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Michigan blueberries are the greatest

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red kale

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(I promise I won’t always take photos of my farmers’ market purchases. Okay, maybe not promise, but I’ll try)

home is where the heart is

just when you thought it was over, borscht and babushkas is back! to your (hopefully) delight or (possibly) dismay, my blogging has not come to an end. i think this is the longest blogging break i’ve taken because, quite frankly, america has been keeping me busy — between family & friends, to the distractingly enjoyable illinois summer, to semi-unnecessary trips to target, and even to making sure i get enough microbrew beer and giant cups of coffee to drink.

not to mention that on top of that i’ve been struggling with a wee bit of writer’s block and deciding which direction i’ll take my blog. my brain is still trying to adjust back to life in the land of the free and home of the brave. you know, just attempting to comprehend everything and fit in again, no big deal. i didn’t really anticipate that i would take so long to get back into blogging. but it was comforting to discover, while watching a jane austen documentary on the plane ride over, that  jane too had writer’s block when her family moved from the quiet country side to the big city. i know, i know, i’m no jane, but there is certainly some truth in losing one’s creative space, daily rhythm, and little village hobbit house sanctuary of writing.

readjusting to life in america has been overwhelming at times. the amount of cars, comfort & luxury, packaged foods, smart phones, electronic everything have just been a few of the things that freak me out. i’ve still yet to load a single thing into the dishwasher and tend to forget about the existence of microwaves and sidewalks.  i have admittedly readjusted rather quickly to having a shower (a hot one at that!) and laundry done not by hand — lest i forget how wonderful these are.

honestly, i never anticipated missing village life so much or finally coming home and thinking of it so often. even though prior to ukraine i’d read about every book on going off the grid, canning, eating locally, and everything amish, so i was a little weird to begin with. even so, i figured, i’d come home, to this place i’d longed for so deeply, everything would feel just right and that would be that — but it hasn’t been so. some things have remained the same but for the most part everything is different — from my closest friends moving away, to babies growing-up, and of course to the way i look at things.

a week or so before i was to leave my village i procrastinated packing with the longest movie i could think of — lord of the rings. i decided to only semi-procrastinate and watch my favorite of the trilogy, “the return of the king”. at the end of the movie, upon a much awaited return home to the shire, frodo says “how do you pick up the threads of an old life? how do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back?”. with only one week left in my hobbit house (fitting name, huh? i guess i really love LOTR), knowing a huge transition was about to take place i of course couldn’t help but tear up at this scene and think “frodo, you got it so right…*sniff* so right”.

i knew that soon my dear peace corps friends would disperse and i’d say good-bye to my gracious ukrainian hosts, to a way of life i came to love, and try to pick up the threads of my old life. it’s not that i wasn’t looking forward to going home, but i knew like frodo, though with significantly better looking feet, that there’s no going back, everything is about to change.

it has been only recently that all of this has started to sink-in. i have moments while cooking that i gather the food scraps and think i’ll just take them out to feed the chickens and turkeys. or i’ll sit under the shade of our backyard trees and think of the steady hum of village life and my walks down the quiet dirt roads. but then i realize, “it’s really over. i’ve finished peace corps and a huge formulating chapter of my life has come to an end. i’m really not going back”.

i can see how all of this might make me seem unhappy to be back or might make you wonder “well, if you love ukraine so much why don’t you just marry it stay there??”.  i am happy to be home. never before have been so proud to have served my country and to have represented america. i can’t help but get emotional with the playing of the national anthem for it always brings back memories of moments i sang it during my service. heck, i cried during my hometown’s 4th of july fireworks because i was so happy to be home. my country is dear to me, do not mistake that. but returning is still somewhat bittersweet, ukraine is still fresh in my memory and i have a lot of readjusting to do. with leaving any place, culture, or lifestyle behind, one will miss certain things.

isolating during service was certainly nothing new to me or any volunteer, for the majority of those 27 months it was a daily struggle. even at our close of service conference we were prepped with a warning of continued isolation even upon return home. i think most of us wondered, “well, we’re from there so how could we be so different”. but it really is different. we’re different.

what might have been partially due to jet lag, the first week or so back in america i felt i felt lost in a blur of unfocused faces, i felt so out of place. i would linger in the lines of ezra pound’s poem understanding exactly what he felt in the frugality of his words:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

a fellow returned peace corps volunteer initially thought everything seemed of plastic and things that were once natural, now seem oddly unreal. it’s such a strange feeling to no longer be completely at home with a place that should be home. i guess i’ve always been a little out-of-place in america with my amish dreams. but now that i’ve had the chance to take my little house on the prairie lifestyle for a test drive, i know that it’s what i love and how i feel most at home.

as they say “home is where the heart is”, but sometimes home is no longer just one place — it is neither truly here nor there — but a way of living, finding shared goals, and common mindsets. so maybe this is where i’ll continue to share my bit of “home” — my recipes, photos, stories from ukraine, grad school book arts adventures, and pioneering dreams.

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an american flag for everyday i’ve been gone. just kidding, we’d need way more flags.

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from my welcome home party — i shocked even my own mother with picking/pitting 15 pounds of cherries and making 4 double crusted cherry pies from scratch. all in a pioneer’s day of work.

taiwan & thailand in 5 x 5s

in a few days my month of after-service wandering/sweating/eating/photographing my way through southeast asia will come to an end and I’ll set out on one last flight — this time headed for home to put the “R” in my RPCV status (returned peace corps volunteer).

I will certainly miss southeast asia — what am i going to do without all this amazing cheap ‘n delicious street food or coconut flavored everything??! but i dare say it’s high time I go home, stop living out of my backpack, have some chicago deep dish, and finally be with family and friends.

I’ll be seeing you on Monday, America.

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