A November 1994 trip
to Kiev by Chrystyna
Quote: This is a story about one of my experiences during a month-long business trip in Kiev, Ukraine. I haven't been there in six years, so to seek updated information about conditions here would lead you nowhere. This is just for entertainment.
It was a question all of my previous hosts posed. Perhaps they believed that with the fall of Communism they could court new blood back into the 'Old Country.' Perhaps the ties were still strong enough for those who left 40 years earlier, like my paternal grandmother who did not learn English because she believed she would return to her homeland shortly after World War II. She died in Minnesota, after she raised the sons she brought with her and saw her grandchildren go off to college.
I replied to Mrs. Stosia's question with the same naïve sincerity I'd used in the last two weeks, 'If I had to, I could. I could live anywhere. However, I thank God I have choices.'
Stosia's peanut eyes crinkled around her deeply-etched face; her gray eyes were somber and she nodded wisely, suddenly flashing one of her bright, toothless smiles. 'We'll drink to that!'
And we did another shot of the honey liquor they called medivka.
I decided that Ukraine couldn't be that bad. Perhaps if I wasn't getting married, I would have stayed in the artistic city of L'viv to write. Located in the Halychyna province of western Ukraine, my father's side of the family once called it home; my paternal grandfather used it as inspiration for the paintings with which he supported his family. On the other hand, I was on the last leg of my business trip in Ukraine and I was getting tired. Sensing this, Sasha -- my business colleague -- and his wife, Kira, invited me to visit the small village in the Chernihiv province located just northwest of Kiev. We were to have Sunday dinner with Kira's relatives and I was looking forward to getting out into the country.
The journey took us through pleasant scenery, past developments of vacation cottages, called dachas, for the politicians and others who were lucky enough to still have some money or at least an important title. When we arrived in the village where Kira's grandparents, aunt and uncle lived, I was charmed by the old-style homesteads: cottages with thatched roofs; white-washed walls; low sheds harboring a variety of livestock; dusty country roads threaded with running creeks. In the distance, I caught sight of the golden dome of the village church and begged Sasha to stop there first.
'After we pick up a little something for our hosts,' he said, parking the car in front of a kiosk. We were on the main street of the village and though it was relatively early in the morning, there was an impressive crowd of people milling around the market. Sasha stepped up to the vendor and I watched him from the corner of my eye while Kira chatted me up about the town of her birth. When my comrade returned, he proudly showed me the bottle of clear liquid.
'Samahon!' Moonshine. I knew I was in trouble and tried to assure my liver that this trek into the deep realms of vodka and rich, fatty foods was almost over.
My hosts then obliged me with a visit to the church. I was desperate to experience the roots of my religion and it was especially important to me as my wedding would take place in the Ukrainian Catholic church I grew up in, back in Minneapolis. It seemed especially imporant to do this for myself before going through the traditional ceremony since I was still torn between two rites: my mother is Orthodox; my father is Catholic, but both Ukrainian churches were once the same. In the 16th Century, half of Ukraine's religious leaders fell under the pressure of Polish reign and gave in to recognizing the Pope as the head of the Church. Though the Catholic branch was able to maintain its Greek rites, even to this day, the rest of Ukraine has not forgiven them. And frankly, I found the whole political thing silly; I was much more interested in which church maintained its spiritual basis - not who sent more money to Ukraine's poor or who was involved in what politics, or what the latest news was from the Home Country.
We reached St. Michael's - ironically, the patron saint of my mother's church back home - and I was delighted to hear the tinny voices of a choir indicating that service was still in progress. Obediently, I donned the head scarf my maternal grandmother gave me specifically for the trip but more against the late Fall chill than for tradition. Once inside, my heart fell. The interior was gilded in gold and rich blue tones, decorated with icons and accented with faux white marble, and lit solely by candlelight. Overall, it was grandiose for a small village parish but what depressed me was the emptiness: the only attendees beside Sasha, Kira and I were the four choir members and a very drunken priest who ducked behind the altar when he spotted us.
'He thinks we're KGB,' Sasha whispered while tugging on his black leather jacket. He tipped the matching beret toward the priest and grinned mischeviously at me. It was a grin I'd learned to love on the street-smart, jubilant man.
We stayed for only a little while. The acrid taste in my mouth was the same I remembered when I visited Pechers'ka Lavra, the Eighth-century monastery in Kiev and the first in all of Ukraine's history. During Soviet rule it was turned into a museum and it remained so after Ukrainians won independence over their bedraggled country. However, the Lavra resumed its operations as a monastery while throwing free enterprise into the mix. Kiosks selling kitschy tourist souvenirs were scattered all over the property, but the church itself, though functioning, had become a relic for tourists to observe. I sadly observed the theatrical performance which took place and which spoke loudly of the religious condition in Ukraine: a tour group led through during mass watched the small number of worshippers from behind velvet ropes, just as if they were watching a re-enactment and not an actual service. The only solace I got from the visit was the purchase of two icons for my wedding ceremony, handmade by the monks. It left me feeling like a hypocrite, though.
'I hope I didn't make you late,' I apologized.
Sasha laughed at me, 'Of course not! They don't even know we're coming!'
I suddenly felt extremely self-conscious. If nobody was expecting us then certainly they were not expecting a Ukrainian American! I knew that only two things could happen when we walked in: they'd be shocked into silence - which was dubious considering the nationality - or I would become a celebrated hero returning to her homeland even though I'd never been to Ukraine before.
We stepped through the doorway into a pantry where miscellaneous canned good were stacked and stored. I deducted that this was the cooler then. The dirt-packed floor stopped at the edge of the threshold of a wooden floor laid in a woven pattern and leading us into a brightly-lit kitchen. Delicate curtains, reminding me of both my grandmothers, billowed away from the windows to allow the streaming sunlight in. A small kitchen table rested against the far wall. There were several charming antique furnishings scattered about with dried flowers and herbs, and, on the walls, traditional icons hung in every corner, their frames draped with the always-accompanied rushnyk - an embroidered towel.
I heard Sasha bellow out greetings and Kira's sing-song voice echoing her husband's. Kira made introductions to the surprised, but sincerely delighted, hosts. I hugged Mrs. Stosia - Kira's grandmother - who hugged me to my core; Kira's aunt, Mrs. Olena, broke away from the enormous paddle holding a rounded loaf of dough, ready to go into the clay pich. Surrounded by the two, babushka-covered women, I immediately warmed up to the way they spoke through their smiles and twinkling eyes while my perceptions of the place were being tugged between charming and depressing. Familiar scenes from Little House on the Prairie replayed in my head along with the romantic notions I used to have about living in the 'Olden Days,' but I was also smacked with the reality that these people were living 'like this' in the Nineties.
Sasha whisked me into the next and last room of the cottage. It too was brightly lit with sunshine. Against two walls were three beds, puffed up high with goosefeather pillows and comforters. Kira's grandfather, Mykhailo Federenko, was propped up on one of the beds facing us. He was ancient looking but his eyes still fired a lively spirit from his pinched and weathered face. The room also contained a large card table - the dining table - and a china hutch filled with dishes and decorated eggs, or pysanky. As in the kitchen, the walls were adorned with various icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary as well as photographs of long-gone relatives; each of them draped with a hand-embroidered rushnyk. To one side of the room, a small partition stood to separate what I supposed to be a 'private' room for one of the four people who lived there. Sasha took me behind it and pointed to a small wooden desk neatly organized with books and papers as well as another bed. Right there, I understood that there were really five people sharing this two-room cottage, for a final sleeping place was located in an alcove atop the backside of the oven.
'It gets very cold here in the winter,' Sasha explained. 'This is where Kira's younger brother sleeps. He has to keep warm, otherwise his joints become inflamed.'
I glanced at my friend, 'I'm sorry to hear that.'
'You would like him,' he continued, flashing me a grin. 'He's also a writer, but he's in Kiev right now.'
We were interrupted by an invitation from Anatoly, Kira's uncle, who had just come in from some chore. 'Sit at the table! Tell us about our young amerikanka!'
Sasha and I sat down in the bedroom/dining room while Kira excused herself to the kitchen. My offers to help were turned down with impatient waves from all three women and I found myself among the three men, instead.
'We brought you a gift,' Sasha announced to them. His six-foot-three frame filled the room where he stood and, with a lot of embellishment, he reached into his leather jacket and slammed the bottle of samahon on the table before us. Mykhailo's grin consumed his whole face as he raised his hands into the air and muttered, 'Good man, good man.' He directed a glance toward Anatoly who was already reaching into the china hutch for glasses.
It took no more than a minute and I was downing my first shot of the day, laughing that it was 'noon somewhere.' The women called out cheerily, informing us that we would have fresh bread in just a few moments. Due to the nature of the rustic surroundings and our unexpected arrival, I was preparing myself for a small peasant meal. In the meantime, I savored the heat inside my body and the sweet aftertaste of the honey in the liquor we continued pouring.
Kira came back to join us at one point, wiping her hands on a borrowed apron. 'Come here, Chrystia,' she called quietly. 'I want to show you something.'
She continued smiling, pressing me. 'Take one for your grandmother, one for your mother and one for yourself to give to your daughter.' (She seemed so sure I would have one some day.)
'And pack up some of those holubtsi to take home with her too,' Mykhailo intervened, sending a wave of chuckles around the room.
Sasha cocked an eyebrow at me, 'Ha! They won't let her out of the country.'
'That's why she should take them,' Anatoly winked. 'Then we'll see whether she can really live here.'
I obeyed and picked three of the fragile eggs which Titka Olena promptly wrapped in small embroidered handkerchiefs. This is too much, I thought. The eggs are enough, but to have the handkerchiefs as well! I was still stumped on how all of the food had magically appeared.
'Chrystia,' Mrs. Stosia called to get my attention. 'Do you like the rushnyky?'
'Oh yes!' I said politely.
'Which is your favorite,' she asked.
'Well,' I said, taking a look around the spinning room. There was one in particular which I liked though it was a modern pattern of gold threads mixed with a bouquet of wildflower colors and patterns. It seemed too Russian for me rather than authentic Ukrainian. I caught an encouraging smile from Kira and suddenly remembered that a guest should never offend her hostess, which Kira was foremost in my mind. I, therefore, did not want to jeopardize our relationship by not pointing out her good tastes.
'That one,' I pointed to the red-rosed rushnyk in the southwest corner which I knew would someday goto Kira. I smiled grandly at Kira. She did not smile back; in fact she stunned me by turning away, a crushed look on her small face.
I still had no idea what was going to happen, but when it did, the whole world seemed to fall from beneath me. Stosia rose in slow motion from her seat and gently took the rushnyk off the icon it embraced. I believe I let out a silent, stunned scream and shook my head when I heard her say - quite happily, 'Then, it's yours.'
I turned to Kira who was eyeing the towel. 'It's yours! I can't take it! You must have it,' I pleaded, pushing it toward her.
In the States, I feel certain, this would not have been a problem. But I was a stranger in a foreign land, brought up on the watered down version of Ukrainian hospitality in comparison to what was going on around me. There was no way, no matter how much I pleaded (and I did so gently, afraid to offend anyone) that I could not take Kira's rushnyk.
The ordeal was a long one. The merriment picked up around me as though nobody recognized how ill I felt about the gift. I felt alone in that room with Kira. As I gingerly held the cloth between my fingers, she leaned over to take a closer look at the embroidery, her dark, curly hair hiding her eyes. Her shoulders slumped slightly under an unreleased sigh and I was about to tell her something when Anatoly suddenly broke into our world, dragging us back into the room with another series of stories and questions for me.
Our dinner ended pleasantly with a walk in the country to rid us of the stupor we'd drunk ourselves into. I posed for pictures with the various farm animals while the two old women laughed at the goose who refused to sit still in my arms. I forgot about the rushnyk, except that in the back of my mind I was planning on leaving it behind for Kira.
When it came time for us to go, Kira and Sasha scrunched into the front seats of the small Russian vehicle and I lay across the backseat, exhausted, mildly sobered by all of the food. The conversation on the way back to Kiev was one-sided as Sasha tried to keep things light. I started to imagine the tension between Kira and I building again and I really wanted to air out the events that happened back at the cottage. When I started to say something, Kira's soft voice interrupted me.
'Just promise me that you will do one thing,' she said as she turned in her seat to face me. I met her large, dark eyes and was relieved by the genuine smile on her face. 'Use the rushnyk in your wedding ceremony and think of us on that day.'
I was suddenly struck that perhaps Christianity had not died at all in Ukraine; it was still alive and kicking in the homes of my hosts, in the cottage we were leaving behind, in the cupboards and open doors, in the treasure boxes of kindness and generosity extended to strangers from foreign lands. Those were the roots that still clung to the turmoiled Ukrainian soil, and that was all I needed to understand in that moment.
'Of course I will, Kira.' And I did.
'And this one,' she said, while pulling me behind the partition and pointing to another icon in the southwest corner, 'is my rushnyk. I hope that Titka Olena will give me this one.'
It was clear that Kira's aunt was an artist; the craftsmanship on the towel was distinct, graceful. I took in the enormous rose heads and flowering bouquets threaded with black to enhance the vibrant scarlet. The ends of the rushnyk were further decorated with an expensive eyelet. I nodded to Kira in mutual appreciation over the handiwork.
'She will give it to me, I'm sure,' she added in secret confidence.
I was overtaken with the simple gesture of friendship from Kira, of the desire to bond with me. I smiled at her and kissed her cheek, 'Of course she will.' And we shot down the medivka we'd been clinging to during the art tour.
I don't recall when or how it all happened, but with the downpour of more shots, the noise grew among our little group of seven and the next thing I remember is taking a close look at the table as we prepared to say grace. It was brimming with our placesettings as well as a variety of dishes. The table was laden with food, reminding me of a traditional twelve-dish Christmas feast. Fresh-baked bread wafted its steamy smell toward me, mingled with the other aromas of wild mushroom gravy, cabbage rolls known as holubtsi, jams and pork hocks. Homemade pickles and stewed vegetables added color next to the dish filled with kasha - buckwheat cooked fluffy with eggs. Sausages, accented with garlic, lay in pink slivers, and fresh goat cheese was crumbled for the taking. But before I could dive into all of that richness, I was served a bowl of green borscht. Made with chevril to give its distinct, tangy taste, it is filled with hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and sour cream, all swimming in a meaty broth. It is, by far, my favorite soup in the world.
Being the guest of honor, I was offered to fill my plate first. I dived into the kasha and tried my first bite of one of the cabbage rolls, also filled with buckwheat and meat. Typically, I have tolerated cabbage rolls, they're certainly not my favorite, but there was something about Titka Olena's recipe that made me gluttonous. I couldn't get enough if I had tried. I continued heaping more rolls onto my plate, dousing them in the wild mushroom gravy, while complimenting the cooks repeatedly.
Olena and Stosia laughed with me, their thin, graying wisping out from underneath their colorful headscarves, vast bodies rolling with each pleased chuckle. They took turns helping me pile more food onto my plate stating that I was too thin anyway, while Sasha continued pouring the shots, and Anatoly and Mykhailo teased me.
'A toast to our amerikanka!' Anatoly raised his glass, sweeping it toward me. 'Yizh! Yizh!'
And so I did as he ordered and ate.
We toasted to everything that day: to America, to Ukraine, to God, to good friends, good health, family - those present and those unable to be with us. We toasted to my fiancee waiting at home for me, to my decision that we would honeymoon in Ukraine (Stosia took my idea seriously and joyously told me that John and I could share the partitioned room while Kira's brother stayed in Kiev). As the merriment reached a crescendo, Titka Olena - which she insisted I call her - took my hand and squeezed it affectionately.
'Here, I want you to have something,' and she waddled into a corner of the room as everyone fell silent and she gently pulled out a box. Uncovering the lid, I saw six hand-painted eggs nestled in straw. She gently pushed the box toward me, 'Pick three.'