Tag Archives: Christmas

Motherland

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What does it mean to be something?

I have always proudly proclaimed that I am Ukrainian. And I know that to be true.

Yet, when people would question further, I would have to admit that no, I didn’t speak the language (besides the essentials: namely, food items and “I want to eat”). I don’t know the dances. I wasn’t born in the country. Furthermore, I had never been to the country.

What does it mean to be Ukrainian? And how could I say and know it so fervently to be true when all evidence pointed to the seeming vacuity of such a claim?

Perhaps like so many things, part of identity is habit and familiarity. The people most consistently in my life were Ukrainian, and thus so I identified. They spoke the language, cooked the foods, knew the history, preached in the church. While I personally could not do so myself, I embraced our collective history as part of my own personal story. (Even as I was writing those words, I absentmindedly got up to throw some perogies on to boil as a midday snack.)

Despite the fact that we spoke zero Ukrainian, my cousins & siblings & I carried the Ukrainian Church Christmas program for many a year, completely confusing the few actual Ukrainian-speaking kids there (Note the super Slavic camel? None other than your favourite blogger!)

Perhaps desire plays a role. I could not speak Ukrainian fluently, but I so wanted to learn and would pore over my aunt’s old буквар, insisting she and my mom quiz me by singing “Head and Shoulders” in Ukrainian. I would painstakingly sound out those Cyrillic puzzles that would unlock Christmas lyrics, so that I could join my aunts and uncles in carolling. I spent many evenings with my mom at the kitchen table, repeating the litany of our family’s devastation and reconnection throughout years of war, making notes on aunties’ and cousins’ names and origins until they were woven into my own meandering quilt of memories.

Or perhaps identity is in our blood, our genes, our soul. Because despite being born in Canada, speaking English as my first language, and not being allowed to dance growing up, the moment our train rolled onto Ukrainian soil and I saw the green hills of my motherland, I felt a connection that surpassed all evidence to the contrary. I was home.

After a few days exploring Lviv (where my mom completely took over as tour guide and wowed both me and every Ukrainian we met with her beautiful, fluent language skills!), we made the 3 hour drive to Lanchyn, the hometown village of my mom’s father. As the road rolled beneath us, my throat ached with suppressed tears, a joyful ache I couldn’t begin to put into words. All those campfire quizzes with my mom and aunt; all those Christmas Eves standing on my icy front porch, taking my youngest-child-responsibility seriously and searching for the first star to appear; all those Ukrainian Baptist conferences in middle-of-nowhere Saskatchewan, trying with all my might to discern just one or two phrases from the flowing conversation – I was finally here in the place where it had all started, the soil I had always longed to know.

And as we pulled into the Lanchyn post office parking lot and my mom’s cousin Mariya leaped out of her car, tears already streaming down her face as she called “Сестра, cестра!” (my sister!) and embraced my mom… That solidified what my heart already knew, that these people were family, not strangers, and that I had a place here despite having never been here before.

This feeling was affirmed when we arrived back at their beautiful home and found that Mariya had made a side of perogies to go with the meal, because she had seen on Facebook how much I loved them.

We spent 2 days with cousin Mariya and her family, spontaneously spending the night with no luggage on hand. We met her son who built an incredible house for his family on my Gido’s property. We walked to my Gido’s old school which has been renovated into a community town hall. And we did what I have always dreamed of doing, since hearing my Gido’s poems about his homeland read at his funeral: we walked to his beloved river Pruit and waded in its sandy shores, looking at the very mountains that my Gido thought of and longed for every day he was away from them. In that warm water, with the same warm sun that has touched my hair in Canada beating down on me in Ukraine, another piece of my story – and soul – was complete.

After only one visit to this rich (in history, in complexity, in contradictions) land, I cannot even pretend to lay claim to an understanding of it. But it’s yet another thread, this one pulsing with rich gold and blue, woven into my story…

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Travelling up the Carpathian Mountains on the Bukovel panoramic gondola

Land of seeming incongruities. Traditional singers protesting for #FreeSentsov at the Shevchenko monument next to a mobile tattooist

Treasures of Lviv: “Пузата Хата” buffet (home to the most mind-blowingly incredible dill cream pie), “Second-Hand” thrift stores, and traditional delicacies (hot dogs or Ruffle chips, anyone?)

красивий Лев, Львів

Granja #3: Strawberry fields forever…

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Wow, it seems like we haven’t written in this blog since last year!

* Pause for all the Melnyk clan to laugh appreciatively *

Happy 2012 to you all! I don’t know how the northern hemisphere is faring, but down here, Josh & I are still married and doing very well, so if Winnipeg actually did get an Ikea, I will assume the world decided not to end after all. (For the confused of you, ask Josh one day about some of his favourite EA stories :P)

After leaving our farm full of nuevas experiencias (if you missed it, read about it here!), we were suddenly left without anywhere to go, because our illustrious “friends” (yes, of the lumberjack, strawberry and rainbow variety) completely disappeared. We took a week as a mini-holiday and stayed in various hostels and campgrounds around El Bolsón, meeting some incredibly interesting characters and trying to find a new farm to take us in.

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Applying for university from our campground in Argentina… Just another normal day while traveling! 😛
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We ended up receiving a cryptic but friendly reply from a WWOOF farm we had emailed awhile back: it said merely, “¿Tienen carpa, chicos?” (“Do you guys have a tent?) We got picked up the next day by Carlos and driven out to a strawberry farm near Lago Puelo, a small town about 30 km from El Bolsón. “¡Hay un montón de WWOOFers aquí!” Carlos said, laughing… And he wasn’t kidding. There was a veritable village of tents set up around an outdoor kitchen shelter and seven other WWOOFers sharing the space.

Our tent overlooking the strawberry fields (forever…)
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It was quite a change after being totally on our own for the last week, and after living in the middle of nowhere with only one other couple for company for the last month. It was such a change that I hid in our tent for the first hour, trying to muster enough sociability to get out and join the throng. But, as Josh kept reminding me, it would be very good practice for living at camp, so eventually I faced the music (literally: there was constantly a guitar floating around) and let myself love and appreciate and be challenged by our time there. The crew included Jean and Judi, who were both from the South of France but hadn’t met until this farm; Roxane (French) and Robbie (Dutch), who went to university together in Belgium; Arlette and Faylin, recently graduated from high school in Illinois; and Alec, who majored in Yoga and Sitar at his Buddhist university in Colorado.

Every morning, we’d get up and breakfast together, then pick and sort strawberries until 1:30pm. After lunch, it was too deathly hot to be working in the sun, but also too hot to siesta in our tent, so we’d cool down by the little stream that ran by the house or walk to town for popsicles. The sun would finally relax around 8pm, so we’d work until around 10pm. When it was finally too dark to see if you were picking up strawberries or slugs, we’d go and make dinner. Jean, who had been a Boy Scout for years, was the self-appointed chef, leaving the rest of us with not much else to do but chop veggies, play cards, and cuddle with the two farm kittens while we waited for dinner.

Waiting for dinner with Chef Jean:
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It’s amazing we managed to fill the buckets, what with the amount of snacking we did while working!
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For Christmas, as previously mentioned, we decided to have a potluck where each WWOOFer would make a dish from their home country. On Christmas eve, all of us WWOOFers sat around the kitchen all morning, preparing our dishes for the potluck that night and watching 30 Rock – it felt just like Christmas holidays at home! Suddenly, Faylin and Arlette came running into the kitchen, demanding to know if we could all stop cooking for a bit. They then chucked scraps of paper in the air and sent us on a farm-wide scavenger hunt, which included shimmying across the river on a log bridge, braving the bee hives, and chasing down the host’s son who had a clue in his pocket. When we arrived back at our kitchen, panting and swimming in sweat after running around for an hour in +30C, there were juice boxes and cookies as prizes on the table!

The party started that night around 11pm, as we all carried our contribution to the feast out to our hosts’ backyard. Les français made crepes and tomato quiche, Robbie painstakingly crafted a triple-layer coffee-butter cake, the Americans made mac-n-cheese , and Josh and I concocted a glaze out of Patagonia honey and oranges for the Christmas ham. Carlos insisted that each of his kids try some of the “ham from Canada” (which, I believe, were some of the only English words he learnt). We then got to watch the kids open their presents, and they all got bathing suits for their Christmas trip to the beach… Where were the wool socks and new flannel pjs? 😛
Paola, our other host, passed out our gifts: huge jars of strawberry jam that we had made the day before. (And a month later, we’re still enjoying it!) The evening wound down with a Regina Spektor singalong around the fire – not exactly caroling, but close enough!

Jam-making with Paola:
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Carlos serving our international feast:
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Christmas jam sesh:
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Christmas day, Josh and I got up early, decorated the kitchen with streamers left over from my birthday, and left a tub of dulce de leche for everyone from Santa. Then, we walked into town and went to a little church we had seen the week before. It felt a bit like the Ukrainian church: all the kids (from adorable toddlers to awkwardly adorable preteens) put on a little pageant, and then at least three different “brothers and sisters” got up to “give a word” to the congregation. The people were so friendly (we got kissed and blessed too many times to count!), and it was wonderful to be in a church community again. No matter what language you speak or culture you find yourself in, there is a sense of home and of family within a church.

For lunch, we bought sandwiches at the YPF gas station, which was literally the only place open on Christmas. We ate our Christmas lunch of milanesa sandwiches sitting on the boulevard, and afterwards walked another 2h to el lago of Lago Puelo: a gorgeous, clear, turquoise blue lake surrounded by mountains. We lay on the beach all afternoon, and I ended up getting a tan for Christmas!!

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For dinner, we were planning to just go back to the gas station to get food (so classy, I know, but it was the only place in town that was open!), but on the walk back, we found a little restaurant on the side of the highway that reminded us of our favourite restaurant in Kenora – and it was open! The owner came over and explained that he had misplaced the menu, but he could still tell us what he had. So he started to recite: “Pizza, thirty pesos. Milanesa, twenty… No, twenty five pesos. Empanadas, twenty five pesos.” Then he looked at us expectantly. It was possibly the most adorable menu I’ve ever encountered!

We walked back home under the stars, in the still-warm night air. It was a very, very merry Christmas!