Once again I am behind in my blog posting. And once again I am bloggin’ it up at 6:30am on the train! (gotta love the morning. Especially since there were some dudes in our hostel that were getting home just before we were waking up, obviously aka loudly getting home from a night on the town.) Regardless, gotta love the mornings!
Last we I left you, I was in the car on the winding, pot-hole ridden roads on the way to the Carpathian mountains. Apparently, we did not take the best road but it was a beautiful one! Unfortunately we arrived at night so we didn’t get to behold the mountains upon arrival.
Our Carpathian mountain accommodation was booked by our trip’s Travel Research sponsor, Cobblestone Freeway. When chatting with Vincent Rees, our lovely coordinator, about what we were looking for in the mountains, I said that we were looking for something unique where we could rest and recharge. And he said he had just the thing.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was an incredible experience! We were given GPS coordinates to get to our location, Bukovets (NOT Bukovel, which everyone kept saying I was going to, which is a popular tourist destination) which led us to this large school where we were met by our host, Yaroslav Liutvin. He then led us to where we would be staying – up the a steep, winding, rocky hill to his warm, welcoming cabin on a mountainside. I was a bit surprised at first– I think in the chaos of getting ready for the trip, I missed the memo that we would be having a homestay experience. But it was an absolutely unique experience! We were warmly greeted by Yaroslav’s lovely wife, Svitlana, who had a feast prepared for us upon arrival! Yaroslav also pulled out his Samahon aka home brew. It is a horilka (vodka) that he makes with this really interesting kick to it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Turns out to be ginger, AND the “golden root,” which I can’t remember the Ukrainian name for but it apparently only grows in the Carpathian mountains. Yarslav freely pours this Samahon throughout dinner – and one shot is drank over 3 toasts. The first toast is to friendship. The second is to love. And the third is to the women. And then you do it all over again. And again. And again. And again…. You get the idea.
Yaroslav pulled out his guitar and his fiddle, and he and Svitlana sang some Ukrainian folk songs while we visited around the table.
The Carpathian mountains are a mountainous region that span from the Czech Republic to Romania. They run through the southwestern part of Ukraine. They are not quite the Rocky mountains we are familiar with in Alberta, but rather more of a rolling hill situation. We were staying in Hutsul territory. Which I personally like to equate to the Shire and the hobbits of Lord of the Rings. Matt said he felt very at home in Hutsul territory. However, there are a few other Ukrainian identifying regions which run through the Carpathians. The transcarpathian people, for example. And also, the Lemko people.
My grandfather, Mykola Maryn, was born in a small village in the Lemkivschyna region. The Lemko people are an ethic sub-group of the Ukrainian population that inhabit a small stretch of the Carpathian mountains.
My Dido Mykola’s village is now located in Poland. And while I would have loved to, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit the village. I wasn’t able to locate it while planning for our trip. As well, it was impossible for us to take our rental vehicle outside of Ukraine. So unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be this time around.
My grandfather (currently 95 years old) was very artistic. While he currently has Alzheimer’s and barely has a short-term memory, his long-term memory remains intact. Dido used hide from Baba and paint landscapes of the Carpathian Mountains of varying sizes, ranging from portrait size to huge murals on the side of the shed. I imagine these were meditations of his village, and of viewpoints he used to visit when he was young.
When we woke up the next morning, I saw the stunning beauty that are the Karpaty that Dido was painting. The cabin we were staying in is on the side of a mountain. With sheep, cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, etc. You leave the cabin and having a stunning view of the valley in the foreground, and the rolling mountains in the background. We all fell deeply in love with the Karpaty. The mountains were the perfect place to rest and rejuvenate our spirits, as things had been pretty jam packed in the first part of our trip. I could have spent much longer here, but unfortunately, we just didn’t have the time.
We spent the first part of the day just taking in the property and the views. I did a bit of writing, went for a bit of a walk. We then decided we wanted to go on a bit of a hike. Yaroslav had gone to work, so Svitlana told us which way we could drive up the mountain. However, we wanted to grab some coffees first so stopped by the store. Bukovets is a very small village so consequently, Yaroslav just happened to be at the store! One thing led to another and somehow, we had bought beers and were doing shots of ChaCha with the store clerk (who is also Yaroslav’s friend and the godfather of his son, Sviatoslav). And then the mayor came in (who happens to be the godfather of his daughter, Anhelica), and more chacha was had.
ChaCha is a Georgian wine. But don’t let that fool you – it is a potent substance with 40% alcohol content….We learned this the hard way later. Some of us more than others **ahem**Patrick**ahem**
Yaroslav insisted that he take us to the mountain side. And so we went in his SUV and headed off into the mountains. He drove us to the first viewpoint which was spectacular. You had a great view of Bukovets and the surrounding villages nestled in the valley amongst the mountains. This is where we had originally planned to go, but Yaroslav had other plans. He subsequently took us further and further into the mountains. And every viewpoint we stopped at was miraculously more stunning than the last. It was amazing to see that people could live so remotely in the mountains! There was no way that our rental car could have made it as far as we did on the mountains so it was a good thing Yaroslav took us. He said people get to their houses by horse in the more remote areas. He then took us to the very top of the mountain (about a 15 minute steep walk uphill… steep), where there was a Cliffside with a spectacular view of all the rolling Carpathian mountains as far as the eye can see. He showed us engravings which were apparently carved by the Vikings on the cliffs. And then took us into the forest where we had a fire, cooked sausages, had some beers and… more Chacha.
We asked Slava if he would talk to us a bit about his thoughts on the war. Which he said was hard, but that he could for our project. He said how lots of people think the whole country is at war, and foreigners won’t visit the country. But, referring to the land around us, maintained that Ukraine is a peaceful place. He said he has former students that have gone to fight. Or students in his school have parents that are fighting. So many people without my prompting have talked about how there is no work in Ukraine and it is very hard to live in the country. And Yaroslav was no different.
At this point, Yaroslav feared repercussions from his wife who was preparing dinner for us, and didn’t want to leave when it was too dark so we hit the road back through the mountains to the village. As we were driving down, in the headlights appeared a soldier in full uniform walking up this dark gravel road. Yaroslav pulled the car over to talk to him, came back and said that he was the father of one if his students that had come back from the East for a holiday that was on the weekend. And he thanked God he was still alive.
Before heading back home, Yaroslav stopped by another store for another beer, which somehow led to more ChaCha accompanied by beer and salo (Ukrainian delicacy, essentially cured pig fat!) and then we finally made it home where there was more beer and food and samahon. Some of us hit is harder than others **ahem**Patrick**ahem** but the night was a blast!
Our hosts were not related to me whatsoever, but they treated us generously and welcomingly that they felt like family. I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality in the beautiful Karpaty! There is definitely some hobbit-like magic in those mountains…. And we got the rejuvenation we were looking for. Despite Patrick’s pounding headache as we left the mountains on the winding roads.
And here we made our way to beautiful Chernivtsi! To meet with my profoundly welcoming and hospitable cousin, Ivanna Makuch, her brilliant daughter, Sofiya Fedorovka, and her generous father, Ruslan Fedorovka. We were greeted by (yet another) bountiful feast before we were whisked off for the full day Ivanna had planned for us.
She set us up with a meeting with the Artistic Director of the Chernivtsi theatre. He told us about the history of the theatre, what they do currently, and took us on a tour. It is an absolutely spectacular theatre.
She then took us to the Central Chernivtsi graveyard, to see the graves of soldiers from the city that have died in the war out east. This weekend was a holiday in Ukraine that celebrates family, so there were lots of people in the graveyard. It was striking to see people at the gravesites of their loved ones. Many of the soliders from Chernivtsi died in 2014 in the Donbass battalion. The city pays for the gravestones of those who have died, so they are all unified. They are large and have almost a life size picture of the solider in uniform engraved on the tombstone, as well as their medals. They erect a Ukrainian flag next to each grave. So you can look out onto the graveyard and see where a soldier in buried. Ruslan, Ivanna’s husband, worked with one of the men whose grave we came upon.
We then went on a walking tour around the city. Chernivtsi has a very eclectic history as it was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also close to the border of Romania and Moldova. And you see this eclectic influence everywhere. We walked down the main cobblestone boulevard, and eventually made our way to Shevchenko Square. There was another memorial set up for the soldiers who have died in and around the Chernivtsi region. There were 97 of them to date. Young people in their twenties, one as young as just 20 years old, and a handful of those over 40. It seems like these same kinds of memorials exist in every Ukrainian community – a line-up of photos of the fallen soldiers with their name, age, where they were born and where they died.
We ended our night with way too much food at this restaurant which specializes in the eclectic cuisine of Chernivtsi’s eclectic history. The next morning, Ivanna and Sofia picked us up and we went for a tour of Chernivtsi’s gorgeous University. It is like something out of Harry Potter! I wish that the University of Alberta looked like this university.
We then went to the Chernivtsi bazaar to do a little bit of shopping. Matt was very proud because he did his first exchange in Ukraine without me! Congrats Matt! It is a huge chaotic bazaar, as bazaars tend to be. Patrick wanted to buy a belt, and Ivanna took him to a booth of someone she knows to sell him a very good belt. She told me as we walked away that his son had fought in the East, and that she was going to call him to inquire if he would do an interview with us. She said that his father said he might not want to – as it is very frightening in the east, and he said you can’t believe what they say on the news.
We headed home for yet another feast before we had to catch our plane back to Kyiv. While the soldier Ivanna inquired with couldn’t come over, he said that he could do a phone interview. So after lunch, Ivanna called him and did an interview with him. Ivanna is a professor of Political Science at the Chernivtsi University – she is extremely well spoken and very intelligent. Unfortunately, their level of dialogue was way out of my realm of the Ukrainian language so I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. After she got off the phone with him, Ivanna shared her thoughts on the current situation in Ukraine, which we recorded. Once again, most of what she said went over my head. But she herself speaks so passionately and articulately, that she could be talking about anything and she would be compelling. Yet alone a subject I imagine is profoundly close to home.
After Ivanna spoke, I asked if Sofiya would be willing to say a few things. Sofiya is 16 years old. When I first met her in Ukraine in 2006, she was just 5. And she was this tiny, adorable, bright eyed little girl. I remember she was quiet and shy, and stuck very close to her mother. But you could tell she was absorbing everything going on around her. Sofiya is still the same way – she keeps her cards close to her chest. She also is a teenager and knows how to work the camera for Instagram! Despite being on the quiet side, Sofiya is still taking everything in around her, and if prompted, has a lot to say.
Sofiya shared her thoughts with us in English (cause she’s amazing), and just like her mother, she spoke intelligently and thoughtfully. She shared that she feels like people her age are not patriotic. That there is a sense of apathy about the war out East. She feels like people her age, herself included, want to leave Ukraine and study abroad so that they can have better opportunities and get better jobs. Because that isn’t possible in Ukraine. Her school has done fundraising events for the soldiers out East. She has students in her school who have parents that have either gone to the East, or are out East, and her school has done fundraising events for the East. But this seems to only exasperate the desire to leave so that they don’t get caught up in it.
Sofiya says that while she wants to leave as well, it is not because she doesn’t care about her country. She wants to study abroad so she can get a better job and can help her country better in the future. I was very impressed because not only is she just 16 years old, but she was also sharing these complicated thoughts well beyond her years in English. And her insight was a very different perspective than what I was expecting.
It was then time for us to head to the airport. Ivanna and Sofiya came. And yet again, even though I’ve really only met them three times, it was sad to say goodbye. It is a very special thing to feel that kind of love for family so far away. This was my last meeting with family in Ukraine (except for a cousin or two who have come out of the woodwork who want to meet when I am back in Kyiv for 24 hours! I need at least 2 more weeks in Ukraine to fit this all in!!).
But now, our trip is moving onto the next stage.
The next week will be based in Sloviansk, which was one of the first places sieged by Russian separatists, and subsequently liberated by the Ukrainians. So while it is a safe place to go, it has been touched by war. We will be meeting with veterans, internally displaced people, municipal officials, and see the destruction caused by this conflict. So far, so much of our trip has been about the beauty that Ukraine has to offer – its beautiful landscapes, its generous people, connection with family and exploring my roots. And in and amongst this are reminders of something more happening. A memorial. A soldier. Tipping a shopkeeper, and he puts it in his donation jar for the soldiers out east. As I sit here on the train, there is man in army clothes having a nap.
It is our hope that we can hear many peoples’ stories, thoughts, hopes and reflections, bring these back to Canada and humanize the situation in Ukraine. And share these stories from the country where my heart lives within the country where I was born.
Will try to keep up with the blogging as I expect the next few days to be quite full!