A love letter to Ukraine
Feb. 24, 2022. I stared at the TV screen. There, on the nightly news, was the view from the hotel in Kyiv where we stayed in 2018. I could see the long road leading to the soaring Victory column in Independence Square and wondered how long it would remain standing. Putin and his Russian army were invading. Again. Ukraine is a country of everyday heroes, of warm-hearted and fiercely patriotic people. They love their country; they will fight for it and they resist aggression in sometimes surprising ways. They welcomed us, educated us and touched our hearts during our visits in 2018 and 2019. This writing about the tiny bit of the country and its people we experienced is my love letter to Ukraine.
The hotel where we stayed in 2018 in Kyiv had once been used by the communist elite. One could see traces of its former glory in the ornate carvings, the lavish use of red velvet and gold. The thick floor-to-ceiling drapes muffled the street sounds. A kind observer might characterize it as faded elegance. In truth, it was tired and shabby. The sun had marked the velvet curtains unevenly and highlighted dancing particles of dust. No one had replaced bulbs in the chandeliers, so they cast a rather dispirited, uneven, watery light on the comings and goings. The red carpet covering the wide staircase was worn and dirty. The enormous restaurant area was almost empty. I imagine financial resources were lacking to renovate and modernize, so they worked with what they had.
The hotel's location was superb: right in the heart of the old city with a wonderful view of the square and we couldn't wait to get out and explore. It was a brilliant day. A wide, tree-lined boulevard ran along one side of the hotel. We began walking. I noticed that each tree had a poster attached. I soon realized that these were large black and white photos of students and other young people who had died in Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Each was marked with a name and the victim's age. Despite the warmth of the afternoon, I felt chilled. Their eyes followed us as we walked. Their faces marched with us, forever frozen in their monochrome youth while the technicolor world moved on around them. War is a very real and ever-present fact of life here.
Although we were almost the only diners, we decided to have lunch in the hotel restaurant the next day. The waitress was an enthusiastic, buxom young woman with limited English. We ordered soup and bread. When she brought the food, she said to Jim, "Here, you must try this." She took a thick slice of bread, slathered it in butter and then proceeded to pour sugar over the lot. "Here! Eat. Is very good!" She was so earnest and so clearly wanted to please, that he couldn't refuse. I was mentally rolling around laughing at the cultural contrast. I simply could not imagine an equivalent in an American restaurant. After Jim pronounced it wonderful, she left, satisfied. Later that summer, I was talking about the incident to Ukrainian friends in Canada. "My Baba always made us bread, butter and sugar as a special treat," my friend's husband said. Indeed, she did share something special I could never have learned in a guidebook.
The next day, I decided to take a tour while my husband was giving his paper. The young lady at the desk labeled "Tours" spoke no English. I had read the brochure and knew what I wanted to do. Pointing, gesturing, drawing are very useful tools and we finally got it sorted out. I was unsure whether my guide would speak English but, to my relief, she did. She told me of her country's rich history and I marveled at beautiful gold domed churches, frescoes and icons. However, my real education that day was in the form of a monument to the Holodomor genocide. In 1932 and 33, Stalin engineered a genocidal famine that killed millions of Ukrainians. Two enormous statues called Angels of Sorrow represent the guardians of the souls of the starved. A haunting statue of a starving girl holding several stalks of grain called "Bitter Memories of Childhood" is dedicated to the most vulnerable victims.
We also visited Lviv, where we were met by a professor from the university where Jim would be speaking. His name was Mykhaylo. He was of medium height. A fringe of grey hair circled the back of his bald pate. His English was minimal, but, oh so much better than my Ukrainian. I slowed my speech, enunciated and chose high frequency words so we could communicate. He proudly showed us Lviv's historical center, with its cobblestoned streets. We discovered a bustling pedestrian area with an eclectic mixture of eons of history next to modern and quirky cafés and shops. The bell in the church tower intoned mournfully. Its very stones seemed to sigh with the collective weight of their struggle. Incongruously, against this backdrop, we descended a steep, dark stairway and were directed to a table in this inky cave. We watched mesmerized as young servers used blowtorches to caramelize the sugar on our coffee. Above ground again, we indulged in a beer at a nearby café. We had quite a selection, either paying tribute to or mocking political figures. There was one called "The Beer of Hope" dedicated to Obama, another deriding Trump. Justin Trudeau was also featured. We chose one whose title translated into "Putin is a Dick." That is the most polite translation I can give. We left Lviv at 4 a.m. in a torrential rainstorm. Mykhaylo insisted on driving us to the airport. As we were leaving, he pressed a package into my hand. Later I discovered a small oil painting of Lviv's historical center. I will always treasure it and it has a home in my office.
Jim forwarded an email Mykhaylo sent to him and other colleagues with the following message:
Now, all of Ukraine is one family.
Eastern Ukraine - our shield and sword.
Western Ukraine is an opportunity for our women and children
to save their lives.
None of us thinks that we will agree to capitulation and "putin's russian" world.
We will win together.
The thread was filled with pledges of support from scientists around the world.
I grew up in the Ukrainian heartland in Canada. I ate pierogies filled with potatoes, cheese or meat and smothered in sour cream and fried onions. We enjoyed borscht, also topped with a good dollop of sour cream. Leaves of the cabbage, that humble vegetable, cradled seasoned ground beef and rice covered in a tomato sauce, our cabbage rolls or holubtsi. Its fermented cousin, sauerkraut, was a staple. Pickles and homemade sausages, vinegar in soups to make them sour: These were our links to our Eastern European heritage. My Ukrainian heritage is now buried in the eighteenth century, but my trips to Ukraine and Romania have solidified my affinity for that part of the world.
There are many more stories of kindness and generosity shown to us by the people in this part of the world. Through an accident of geography, tragedy seems fated to haunt the Ukrainian people. Dictators come and go, but I know the Ukrainian spirit, national identity and humor in the face of adversity will always stand strong.
Linda Morris is a Lake Oswego resident.
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