Sunday, June 24, 2007


I was just woken up by a strobe light flashing an eery green glow over my bed. But no nightclub music - just the rustic silence of a hot summer night in New England. As I gradually woke up, I realized that the culprit was a firefly - a curious beast I hadn't seen in, quite literally, decades.

I first came across fireflies when I was very young, at my Dida and Baba's summer cottage outside of Montreal. My most vivid memory of the time is wanting to catch them in jars. I don't know what I planned on doing with the fireflies once I had them in captivity, but there was something particularly fascinating about creatures that deal with the darkness of night by creating their own light. Far more ingenious than our flashlights with their batteries that tend to run out at awkward times. I'd like to pretend that I understood a great life lesson at the time, or gained insight into evolutionary adaptation, but I can only recall thinking that these bugs flashing their light over the shrubbery and through the woods were really very pretty...

The strongest image in my head from that trip to my grand-parents' summer place was how proudly Ukrainian all there neighbours were - the rocks lining a garden painted in alternating sky blue and yellow, the patriotic insistence on naming everything in their language. But now that I'm back in a very cultural-melting-pot oriented country, I'm beginning to realize how important preserving a sense of cultural identity is and why my grand-parents and their friends need to hold so strongly onto their language and food and traditions - not to the point of being disappointed that their grand-children don't speak the language, have Ukrainian names (funny story there about one of mine... apparently my parents thought my middle name was Ukrainian, but it's actually Polish, which really couldn't have been worse), and that their own children didn't marry Ukrainians.

I've spent the last few days with a very international group of people, which has been very entertaining (an Italian struggling with the American concept of meatball subs) but also enlightening (how baffled the Germans are by the terrible New England driving and the 'need' for gas-guzzling SUVs). The Europeans are appalled by how much meat and how much food Americans eat at lunch. The Americans are surprised that the Europeans don't want to work on weekends and would like to go home at 5. Not that it was limited to international mis-communication: I got shocked expressions from the East Coast boys when I pulled out my very West Coast carrots, pita bread and baba gannouj for lunch (a completely serious 'where's the meat? it's not a meal without meat!'). The Dutch student doesn't understand the Australian accent, and the Boston accents are even occasionally difficult for my West Coast ear... Everyone has a slightly different sense of humour (one German is very sarcastic and 'yells' at the graduate students whenever anything is broken (ie, most of the time), who still occasionally take him seriously - until he slides into a big grin and laughs at them. At least it makes long days in the lab very entertaining for me...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

flatirons, wildflowers & my own antique roadshow

Boulder is an interesting crossroads - for me, it's the end of graduate school (except for all those papers I need to write...) and the beginning of a post-doc. It's a modern town near a major city (Denver), but is also where the Wild West used to be - exemplified by people wearing crocs (those very popular but absolutely hideous plastic shoes) with their cowboy hats. Symbolically, Boulder lies literally at the end of the flat Mid-West prairies and at the base of the Rocky Mountains, with the foothills jutting out of 1st St. in spectacular slabs of rock called the Flatirons (as they look like upside down irons. sort of.).

But the most striking aspect of Boulder is the active lifestyle inherent in living here. The city is well-designed - bike paths throughout the entire town, a bus system the Bay Area should be jealous of (oh wait.. any bus system would fit that criteria...), and a walking mall down the center of town. More than that, athletes and outdoors enthusiasts are everywhere. I see cyclists on their snazzy road bikes every time I step out of my apartment, runners along the trails and, without exaggeration, every time I sit in a cafe or restaraunt, I hear conversations about the latest rides (road biking - and they frequently include phrases like 'only 50 miles'), most recent back-country ski adventures (yes, it's June and they're still skiing) and 'bagging 14ers' (that's hiking to the peaks of mountains of 14,000', a popular Boulderite pasttime). As I slowly get the lingo down, I have to admit to feeling rather out of shape... But I have made a solid effort to fit in, and am beginning to feel much more comfortable in my new home. While Boulderites may be slightly outdoors-obsessed, that's not a bad thing. Especially when I get to take advantage of others experience...

On my first weekend in Boulder, my friend Chris took me on a very steep climb up South Boulder Peak (gorgeous, fabulous and very, very 'up'), and while this past weekend one of my new labmates took me backpacking in Pike Peak National Wilderness (fancy name for part of the Rocky's just south of Boulder). I am struck by how close the wilderness is - 10 minutes in the case of the day hike, or an hour and a half for backpacking, and you are out in the middle of nowhere, hearing no cars and encountering very few people. The hike to the top of the flatirons (or S.Boulder Peak), gave a stunning view of the flat prairies and the city of Denver jutting out to the east, and the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky's to the West. And having travelled just a little further, the short backpacking trip gave us forested mountains with occasional meadows full of red and purple and blue wildflowers. With the occasional deer skeleton draping over a rock reminding one to be careful of the cougars. But that's another story...

But hiking aside, last week I finally accomplished the first step in becoming a true Boulderite - I got a commuter bike off of craigslist. For those of you who don't know, is an online free listing service for various cities, and so far has been my magical Boulder source of apartment, bike and soccer team. After posting for a bike to ride around town, I got several responses. The bike I randomly chose to buy turned out to have definite character. It is a 1970's blue Peugeot with large handle bars that make me sit up straight while biking and with the old-style gear shifters down on the frame. I liked the funky old look to the bike when I bought it, but didn't realize quite the deal I got until the next day, when I went to register the bike at the university bike station (yes, there's a whole permanent bike station on campus, with staff that will give your bike a free tune-up - very enlightened and eco-friendly - very Boulder...). The bike guy staffing the station took one look at the bike and pretty much offered me twice what I had paid, pointing out that it still had all its original Peugeot stickers and was in incredible shape. He was kind of shocked that the gears actually work (though I haven't quite figured them out yet). Sadly, the very sweet, rather young kid shot his chances of acquiring the bike when he pointed out that the bike was positively 'ancient' because it was last registered in 1981 - before he was even born...

But although my bike is slightly too tall for me (prompting me to almost fall over whenever I get off of it, much to the amusement of passers by), it has too much character for me to give up. So yesterday I biked home from work, stopping at the very Boulderish Wild Oats market for some local organic fruit and veggies, and then biking up the idyllic Boulder Creek Path - where I had the pleasure of seeing a cross section of Boulder enjoying the very warm evening. It was twilight, and I could still see the outline of the Flatirons everytime I looked up. There were kids floating down the stream on inner tubes, several men fishing off a bridge, families out for walks, and even a set of river kayakers going down the rapids.

I think I'm going to fit in here just fine...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

culture lag

So after 4 airports and about 36 hours, I finally made it back to the US, and to my new home on Monday evening. Highlights from the trip back included figuring out how to unplug the children's fire engine ride in Helsinki airport (it was next to the bench I was sleeping on, and disturbing me with occasional sirens. there is probably some very traumatized Finnish child out there), sitting next to a very entertaining history buff on the long flight from Frankfurt to Denver with whom I had multiple debates about long-term effects of various wars and the source of ethnic tensions in E.Europe, and finally getting picked up at the bus stop in Boulder by a friend and being taken immediately to the last half of a kick-ball game to be a token girl.

Immigration was entertaining on every end, particularly in leaving the Ukraine. The passport officials wanted to know a.) why it was that I had been to Moldova - apparently tourism was not a believable response - and b.) why my middle name was Kasimira ('because my mother liked it' didn't go over well!?!). But they finally stamped my passport and let me out. Getting into the US was even more fun, but perhaps inappropriate for a public blog...

Between the time changes (9 hours between L'viv and Denver) and crazy flights, jet lag has finally set in, and I find myself bright-eyed at my computer at 5:30 in the morning. And it has finally hit me that what's really keeping my stress levels up is not the jet lag, but rather the culture lag. There are no 13th century buildings in Boulder and gold church domes do not dominate the sky-line. The headlines on the news describe how you could contract lethal bacterial diseases by walking into the hospital and how a bartender dealt with a violent drunk woman in Denver, not the ramifications of the latest bombing in Iraq or the political consequences of Yuschenko's pact with the Ukrainian prime minister. The concrete is used on the roads, not in architecture. The sidewalks are... even... !?! And driving in a car does not feel like sitting in a video arcade racing game. Not that that's a bad thing. But I think it will take me a few days to readjust to the Latin alphabet and the lack of chickens running around.

But as my adrenaline rush from the last month of travel slowly starts to fade, and I start to digest everything that happened in the Ukraine, I'll keep you posted on adventures in Boulder - and with my attempts to recreate the poppy-seed cakes and homemade varenyky I have become completely addicted to...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

photos from the Ukraine

There are too many interesting stories to tell, but know that I have finally made it back to my new home in Colorado, and have put all my photos on one computer in one place, there are several photos that have stories that beg to be told...

There are windmills in operation throughout the Ukraine. They are made of wood - often propped up by trimmed tree trunks. In some ways I am so impressed by the pastoral and romantic nature of preserving the old way of life - the plowing by hand, the cutting of wheat by scythe, the common use of horse and cart (though the cart wheels are now mainly tires - a distinct improvement, I believe). However, the life is hard, and tractors have their place. There is a lot of talk about how the collectives made the work easier than each family taking care of their farms. The sight of old-woman bent over working in the fields is at once beautiful and tragic. But my cousins keep a bright view on it all, and over several shots of vodka debated whether the hard labour kept them living longer...

Here are two photos from our visit to my Baba's village. My cousin Michael is showing my mother where the house was, and above it lies this monument that was erected in 1848 to commemorate the end of serfdom. Such a great and important step.

The house where my Baba grew up was located on this grassy area in the picture below. All that is left of the house is the well (blue-painted box in the back), that is still used by new tenants on the land. I think the house was taken over by another family who were re-located to the village from their original homes. A ridiculous tactic of the Soviets - probably intended to destroy nationalist feelings, but only ending up creating bitter tensions. However, what happened to the house is a lovely story - apparently when the family moved to another town, they took the entire house, piece by piece, because it was such a well-built house (kudos to my great-grandfather, i believe). Somehow that feels better than having the house fall down due to neglect.

We don't know where the moved house is.

However, my Baba's neighbour (on the right), was so excited to see the family of her old friend.

There are chickens all over the villages - running around with the geese and the ducks, and the horses and the cows...

The Armenian cathedral in L'viv was one of the most stunning in the Ukraine - tiled mosaics inside that caught the light.... In stark contrast, the house was where my grand-father grew up. It was (and still is) considered a large and wealthy house, as it had two windows facing the street (yes, that was singular - pretty much one long street in the village) - most houses only had one window. And finally some photos of my new-found family...

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Varenyky swimming in butter: Meeting my Baba's family

It is shocking how one moment of decision can change the course of not just your life, but the lives of generations down. For the risky decision of a great-grand-parent who had the foresight to leave everything he knew and had for an uncertain future, I have never gone hungry, had to tend a garden out of genuine need for the food, or had to ask my parents to sacrifice so that I could go to school. The last few days have been a little like peaking into an alternate universe of what might have been had a different decision been made. It has been fun, beautiful, exciting, and yet difficult and sad and life-altering at the same time. I guess that while I had heard the stories, I never genuinely realized how fortunate my fate has been. So please forgive a very long and slightly somber entry today, but I don't know how to explain this trip in fewer words.

My original motivation for visiting the Ukraine is to learn about my grand-parents and to meet my cousins. A few days ago, we left Kiev back for L'viv, where our family lives. L'viv is by far my favourite city in the Ukraine - it's a UNESCO world heritage site, and it's easy to see why with rows of brightly painted buildings built under the Austro-Hungarian empire, churches of every country and denomination, and public statues and parks absolutely everywhere in the city center. The St.George's cathedral near our hotel is at the edge of the Ivan Franko Park, which was once very beautiful with maple and beach trees, a statue of the namesake, and a small gazebo - unfortunately the park is run down with too many weeds and half the lanterns missing light bulbs (stolen? or just never kept up). This cathedral was my great-grand-mother's favourite chruch in L'viv, and was where my Baba was sent to high school (and in her last few years had to keep secret that she was married to my Dida, as she would have been kicked out of school if they had known - she only got to see him when she went home on the weekends).

Outside the city, however, are many large blocks of Soviet concrete - one of the more rickety blocks is where some of my cousin's on my Baba's side live. You climb several flights of stairs to a small 4-room apartment that are eerily grim - floors are uneven, the balcony is on a steep slope (down), and the kitchen is out of a 1950's catalog. However, the home is made bright with photos and icons, and the feast prepared by my cousin Michael (my Baba's first cousin, so my first cousin, twice-removed, i think) and his wife was most impressive - soup with noodles and meatballs, sliced white bread, cheese, sausages and, most importantly, varenyky (perogies - typically filled with potato) with butter and smetana (sour cream). The generosity of people far less fortunate than we are was overwhelming. My cousin Michael remembers being a little boy, and my great-grandfather telling his father to leave while they could, as the Nazis were retreating to the Red Army. His father said that the Red Army would liberate them, but my great-grand-father replied 'liberate you - they'll liberate you alright, liberate you all the way to Siberia'. Which is exactly what happened.

My mother's second cousin (so her generation) eerily similar to her brother, my uncle - same facial structure, same way of gesturing with his hands, and same excitement over taking pictures. He has a little girl (so my third cousin - very confusing, I know), who was dressed all in pink and was very bouncy and excitable.

Of course, this was the second lunch of the day - a fact which seems to exemplify tradition when visiting family in this part of the world.

Earlier that morning, we visited the L'viv cemetery, which is beautiful - very green with many trees, ancient statues and interesting stories. A cousin of mine (who would be a few years younger than me now, killed in a car accident) is there - no statues, just the most basic nailed-together wooden cross, with no engravings or etchings, but with photos lovingly attached. It was the simplest grave I saw there, but perhaps the most striking. My cousins take great care over the flowers on the grave.

From L'viv, we drove to the town where my Baba grew up, Xolosko. It is a tiny town: a run-down church (there aren't the funds to repair it properly, so mass is held in the priest's house next door), a line of cows walking down the street to be milked, and the stream that my Baba talked about so fondly, still filled with ducks and geese that are roaming about happily. The chickens run around the village and look after themselves - as chickens are meant to do! Every house has a well-maintained garden and a well-maintained well. There are electricity and telephone lines (a more recent improvement), but no running water - everyone has their own well and their own privy.

As we walked through the town, we met several older people who, as soon as they found out who we were, started to weep and couldn't contain their joy. They were my Baba's friends, and remembered her and my Dida with such fondness. They live a hard life, but do not complain or ask for more - they take huge joy and huge pride in their gardens, their farms, their icons and their houses. Everything is done by hand, from watering to cutting the grass (with scythes).

We were invited for what can only be described as a veritable impromptu feast (the first lunch of the day) by this wonderful old lady who remembered the great kindness of my great-grandmother. We were treated to her finest: coffee (instant, where we felt the difficulty of accepting generosity - trying to take enough to appreciate the kindness, but not wanting to take the last of the coffee granules), potato pancakes (to die for - with fresh herbs, and done in butter), boiled eggs (taken from the nests minutes before - the freshest possible, and yes, you can actually taste the difference) and bread thickly spread with butter (a luxury). A simple and delicious meal, but perhaps proportionally the richest meal I have had.

The house where my Baba grew up had been inhabited by a family relocated by the Soviet's from some other town. The house had been one of the best in the village, with an extensive garden near the village's monument to the end of serfdom at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, all that is left of the house is the well. The house was of such good quality that the new owners moved it to another village when they left. However, the view of the stream and the church that my Baba describes is still there, if a little overgrown. And the memories persist - we were told by friends that my Baba's family did so well with their bees and their garden and my great-grandfather's cabinet-making that they were quite well off. So well off that some jealous sister-in-law once made the statement that my great-grandmother's vareneky were 'always swimming in butter'.

Storks bring good luck in Ukrainian folk lore - perhaps because they keep the thatched roofs clean - and we have seen many in the countryside. I was most pleased to see a stork walking along the road as we drove away, back toward's my Baba's town. I hope it makes a home there.

We also visited my Dida's family and village - both more prosperous than my Baba's, but in no way less generous in the number of both feasts and cousins. I had the great pleasure of rolling up my jeans and running through the fields to a stream with a flock of cousins about my age. But more on that later when I have more time - I must grab a last plate of verenyky before hopping on a plane out of the Ukraine - leaving me with the distinctly odd impression that I'm leaving home.