Sunday, June 26, 2005

June 25-26, 2004: Reflections on My First Ever Days in Ukraine

This has been an emotional weekend for me. One year ago, on June 25, 2004, I boarded a bus in Munich, Germany, which arrived the next day in L’viv where I was greeted by relatives I had never met, and from whence I was whipped away to my paternal grandparent’s hometown. Thus a year ago this weekend began my first pilgrimage to my ancestral homeland, and although the trip to the Ukrainian border took well over 24 hours (and it took an additional three hours to arrive in L’viv after clearing the border), I can basically say that I had entered Ukrainian space already the moment I got on the bus in Munich. I was the only one on the bus who did not hold a passport from a post-Soviet country. Russian and Ukrainian were spoken throughout the bus. All the movies were Hollywood flicks with voice-overs in Russian. An hour or so into the trip, people’s bags opened with food emerging, and the beer and vodka began flowing in a scene that I would see repeated over and over again on buses and trains throughout my stay and journeys in Ukraine. When the movies weren’t playing, we listened to the mixture of Ukrainian- and Russian-language and American pop that I became accustomed to and with which I fell in love while in Ukraine—i.e., I am not as intolerant of Russian pop nor of the Russian language as are many diaspora Ukrainians. I really like Russian pop, even if I do defer to and prefer Ukrainian language variants whenever possible, and would like to see the Ukrainian-language pop industry grow.

I was in heaven from the start. It was incredible to be absorbed into a world where everything was East Slavic, in which the smell of kovbasa was everywhere, and the humor was nothing other than, well. . .nash. I still don’t know how to describe to my non-Ukrainian friends the Ukrainian sense of humor. There is a lot of playful teasing of one another that is involved, among other things. I sat in a seat just in front of the row of three seats that always occupies the very back of modern luxury buses—so this was not my first trip on a truly “Ukrainian” bus, by which I mean the to me fantastic buses from the 1960s and 70s that still run from town to town within Ukraine—and listened to two guys, speaking in Ukrainian, tease each other and others with whom they had struck up conversation in an almost nonstop but jovial fashion. They clearly knew one another well and were traveling together.

My head really was swimming. And then the next biggest thing happened: we hit the Polish border, and even though Poland is now part of the EU, there still is a significant border check. It is not an open border, mostly since the EU has put a 7-year moratorium on the movement of laborers from the new member states to the western ones, while at the same time allowing Western businesses to go East and pay lower wages, and also allowing Western capital to flood Central European markets with products made by Western European companies and farmers that get higher subsidies than do Central European ones (thus a Spanish tomato was selling cheaper in Budapest than one made in Hungary last year). So the border is still militarized, even if it is a bit easier now for Poles to go West.

That was my first glimpse of the fact that even within the EU, the West and the East (or East-Central, or more simply Central, however you may like it) still do exist in separate spheres. In other words, I had that feeling, so often remarked upon by travel writers of the past three or four hundred years or more, of clearly leaving the West and entering the East. But as one sick to death of Western, corporate-globalization driven consumer society (although I do admire Western European culture a great deal), I was certainly marking this crossing not with Bram Stokerian horror but with jubilee, and no doubt my companions on the trip were helping with that.

As soon as we got into Poland, the superhighways (the autobahns) disappeared and we were on single lanes affairs that, in the US, would be called “county roads,” and that only occasionally widened into two lanes before shrinking again into one. These main highways often divided villages in two, and when they went into towns, they went right straight to the heart, just like the old highways of America did before the invention of the highway system. The architecture changed markedly, as well as did the condition of the buildings themselves. Things were older, and what was more, more decayed. It was incredibly enchanting to me, and it still is. The grass in most places was allowed to grow much more wildly. Everything seemed more natural, less plastic, less silicon, more coppery, more earthy. There were chickens all over the roads, and geese. And already I was feeling very much more at home with the appearance of things.

We made a stop at a very modern gas station and convenience store where I could buy some pierogi and boršč (I think, but maybe it was borszcz; I don’t know when Polish uses a haček or z). But in general, wherever you are in Europe, you can actually buy pre-made and ready-to-go, and still yet very high quality food at roadside stops, in contradistinction to the abundance of crap food that is available on the road in the US.

At this stop, we could buy booze, and the first really funny thing happened on this trip: the driver walked around asking if everyone had gotten back on the bus, and thinking that all were present, he pulled the bus out of the lot. I looked out the window and saw a fellow running desperately across the field that separated the gas station and highway in a path via which he hoped to intersect the bus, if he could run fast enough. Given the belly that was jiggling up and down in front of him as he ran, he is lucky that people noticed and shouted to the driver to stop. The guys sitting behind me laughed and said things like “He’s leaving behind his last 100g [of vodka]!” and, “I saw him talking to that dark-haired, blue-eyed Pol’ka [Polish woman]—he’s having to leave his heart back there.”

I still had not yet talked to anyone on the bus. I was too shy to open my mouth. Not because I am a shy person, but because I was embarrassed by my language skills. I am one of those diaspora Ukrainians who spoke Ukrainian as a child and who spent some early years at SUM camps and Uki school on Saturdays, but who then lost much fluency growing up. To some extent, I maintained an ability to understand what was being said to me in general, and never forgot how to say a good number of things—such as, “Daj meni khroshi [Give me some money]!” as my father likes to joke. Thus one of the biggest reason I went to Ukraine was to learn to speak and understand better (and speaking and understanding are, as far as I am concerned, vastly, vastly different faculties, with the latter being far easier than the former, and this is the opinion of someone with a working knowledge not just of Ukrainian, but also of Latvian, German, and Spanish). I needed to overcome the one thing that I felt guilty about in my life, and that I felt was the biggest thing holding me back from experiencing my life to its fullest capacity: that I could not speak Ukrainian that well. There are lots of very complicated reasons why I felt that way, but one can say that I am now overjoyed with the progress I made in the eight-month period that began that day on the bus.

Of course, the other reasons for going to Ukraine were just to see and hear and smell and taste and feel it. It was to meet relatives, and although I expected to meet people with whom I would feel I had some kind of karmic connection in the past, I was not prepared for the frequency of such encounters as I ended up having, or for the intensity of the feeling when it came. Going to Ukraine was a deeply spiritual experience for me—the most important of my life. I can be moved to tears when joyful, and my eyes welled up many times during my stay in Ukraine—probably as many time in eight months as throughout my entire life. I am a passionate person. This first trip to Ukraine was the greatest passion of my life, and I cannot wait to go back this summer. I fell in love with Ukraine just how she is. This is not to say that I don’t see the need for major improvements there. But I don’t want the baby to be tossed with the bathwater. You can read on and on here in this blog to get a sense of what I mean. In part I loved Ukraine because of how much so she is not a Western or “European” country (in the newfangled, postmodern or EU sense of “European”), but also in part for how much so she is. She is truly a borderland, and should never forget that—it is the essence of her incredible culture.

And of course, I knew of the pending presidential elections and was quite keen to be in Ukraine to observe things as they developed, even if my preoccupation at first were not at all on the elections. However as time went on, I was more and more preoccupied with it, and became swept up in the fervor with my family and friends, and was not content to be a mere observer. And like most Ukrainians, I think, I can say this about the Orange Revolution: I definitely did not expect it to happen, but certainly was not at all surprised when it did.

But back to the bus: I eventually did start talking to people. This was after I listened to the two guys behind me talk on and on about Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, and then some more contemporary writers that I had become familiar with through my one summer at the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute. I just had to turn and introduce myself to them; I was sitting in front of the first contemporary Ukrainian intelligentsia I had the chance to meet! (And by that I mean, intellectual fellows born and raised and still from Ukraine and not the diaspora)! We chatted, and they seemed to like me and were patient with my butchered Ukrainian, and I liked them. We shared beer and food off and on for the duration of the trip. One of the fellows was a journalist with his own blog, and both were from L’viv.

This got the attention of the young woman sitting with her mother in the chairs across the aisle from me. I had been trying really hard not to look at her during the trip, for she phenomenally beautiful and I did not want to be lecherous. After I chatted with the fellows a bit, she turned and said to me in German (I guess she had heard me say to the fellows that I spoke some German, or maybe she thought I was diaspora Ukrainian from Germany), “It is good that you are coming back to your grandparent’s country to learn their language. Where will you be going?” I told her to Pidhajtsi, and she smiled and said that she had lived in Ternopil (70km from Pidhajtsi) as a college student, but was originally from Buczacz, a town even closer to Pidhajtsi. We chatted more, and I asked her for her number, but she said that she now lives in Poland where she is studying psychology and preparing to go to the US for a masters degree, was on her way home for a summertime visit and would be very busy. It was a polite hint—I guess I could not hide my excitement and attraction.

This gives me, however, the opportunity to comment on how this was, already, my first exposure to how contemporary Ukrainians in general think about diaspora Ukrainians. For Ana—the young woman on the bus—Ukraine is “my grandparent’s country,” and Ukrainian is “their language,” even though by now my grandparent’s have lived much more of their lives in the US than in Ukraine. What was important to Ana was that they were born and lived there for their formative years; I was not. And I would agree: Ukraine is by far more of my grandparent’s country than mine; but also, I am rather insistent on the fact that the US has become more of my grandparent’s country than Ukraine is, too. I know this is heresy for many diaspora Ukrainians, but I will state position here again (as I have elsewhere on this blog): Ukraine belongs to the people who live and make their lives happen there. For the rest of us, it is a spiritual land, not a real place of everyday existence and struggle, even if a big part of our everyday existence and struggle here in the US is geared toward her well-being (as was my grandfather’s, and my relatives’ in Germany who worked at the Ukraine desk at Radio Free Europe, or my aunt who now is the librarian at the Ukrainian Free University in Munich, or my other aunt who was the courier to have carried out of Ukraine on microfiche the crucial essay entitled, “Internationalism or Russification?” during the late 1960s).

But definitely don’t get me wrong: Ukraine as a kind of spiritual homeland is extremely, extremely important and of very, very value; we are not simply Americans and my grandparents did not simply become Americans. We are Ukrainian-Americans, which is a third identity all unto itself, different from American and certainly different from what it means today to be Ukrainian (i.e., to be someone born and raised and still living in Ukraine), and we NEED Ukraine as a spiritual homeland. But we also NEED to learn how Ukrainians themselves feel about us, and my feeling is that until we in the diaspora learn to appreciate the difference between a real place where you continue to sweat and bleed, and a spiritual one, you will never be able to understand Ukrainians’ attitude toward the diaspora, and the building of bridges between our communities with Ukraine will continue to be difficult.

So with that, I can say that what finally motivated me to take my first trip to Ukraine was the legacy of grandfather’s everyday struggle for the betterment of Ukraine. That is, my grandfather had been one of the main funders for the construction of new Catholic Church in Pidhajtsi that was being christened on June 27 (which turned out to be my first full day in Ukraine). My grandfather had passed away 1 ½ years previously, and the consensus in my family was that I should be the one to go and represent him and the rest of us at the ceremony. I had been stating for almost three years that I was preparing to go to Ukraine, but one thing or another stopped me from going. I was listening to my heart. I knew this was going to be an important trip for me, and I was intent on going only when my heart said the time was ripe. When my aunt called from Germany and talked to my father and the two of them agreed to ask me to go to the ceremony, I knew the time had come. Pora! Because I waited for the right moment, I ended up arriving in Ukraine exactly 60 years to the very day that my grandparents had left their village (I learned only one week before leaving Ukraine that my father’s parents left the Pidhajtsi area on June 26, 1944), and also in time to experience the great post-Soviet awakening of the country called the Orange Revolution.

I will have to finish this sometime later. . .

So the bus finally arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border. . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to the rest of the story