'Could you live here in Ukraine?' Mrs. Stosia asked.
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.