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.