Tag Archives: Ukrainian-Canadian

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

Gradtirement begins!

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My maternal side of the family is incredibly close knit, and I grew up surrounded by cousins who were as close as siblings. We are also incredibly Ukrainian, clinging fiercely and proudly to a culture that first Russians and then Germans attempted to wrench away from us. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that I realized “goomkah” wasn’t the English word for “elastic band,” and that other kids didn’t spend most holidays hanging out at their Ukrainian church until midnight.

I am literally “first generation and a half” Canadian, with a mom who was born in Canada but whose older siblings were born in German camps during the war. We knew the stories of the family in Ukraine and Belarus who had been lost during the war, and the miraculous reconnection thanks to the tireless work of the Red Cross with aunties and cousins presumed dead, but until the dawning of the age of easy internet access, we never dreamed of actually connecting with these faraway loved ones on a regular basis. But eventually connect we did, and now with an epic celebratory trip looming in need of a destination, I couldn’t imagine a more amazing destination than going ‘home’ with my mom.

However, there was no need to hurry straight there! While I have had the privilege of roaming throughout Europe before, my mom has never traveled in Europe outside Ukraine. So, while sitting in my apartment in China, I took the plunge and booked us flights arriving in Rome and leaving from Lviv three weeks later. Now we just had to plan all the fun things in between!

When you travel with the same someone as often as saratree tends to do, you inadvertently develop roles to expedite the planning process. I have definitely become the “things to do and eat” person, while Joshua is the “accommodations and public transit” expert. Realizing that I would need to step into the role of all of the above on this trip was, to put it mildly, freaking terrifying.

While I did have more travel experience than my mom, I felt woefully inadequate in the role of navigator (Josh seems to think my philosophy of “I always get to where I need to go…. eventually!” is amusing rather than functional, and let’s just say that my mother’s sense of direction is even more… ethereal than my own). Moreover, my mom was struggling with a chronic ankle injury that limited her mobility and caused her fairly constant pain. Was a cross-European backpacking trek really the smartest idea?

Maybe not smartest, but definitely most awesome.

A word about my mom. My mom is, as I alluded to above, a first generation refugee who grew up in the culturally and geographically challenging rural North of Canada. Her family didn’t speak English and she had never seen a city or running water until she was 14. She has faced unimaginable hardships in both her personal and extended family life, and worked for decades as a nurse where she was expected to cope with other people’s grief and pain on a daily basis. As a child, she suffered numerous health problems, including damaged veins in her legs that left her with constant and painful swelling in her left leg, and a ruptured eardrum that left her half deaf, caused by a drunken doctor attempting an ear exam.

I confess that because I’ve grown up with these things, I have taken them for granted for most of my life. Mom’s leg that was a different colour, or the fact that she wouldn’t hear you when you talked to her on a certain side, well… those were just normal parts of her, like her collection of matryoshka dolls or her hazel eyes. But living in very close quarters with her during this trip (and planning daily activities that pushed the physical limits of her normal relaxed retired life!), I saw the extent to which she is affected on an hourly basis by these things: whether it’s in the ankle swelling that causes sandal straps to not fit properly, or the careful selection of seats to ensure she can hear the waiter, or even something as simple yet tiringly constant as the quick glances towards and away from her “rainbow leg.”

And yet in spite of (or because of?) all this, my mom is the most gracious, compassionate, generous, and life-loving individual I have ever met. She has instilled me with a sense of joy in the everyday occurrences of life, as well as a sense of healthy respect towards suffering: it happens, it’s hard, so we need to support each other and learn from it.

Also, did I mention that she’s just super fun?

My mom seemed thrilled to have the chance to visit Italy (apparently she has been captivated by the idea of Pompeii since high school, of which I had no idea!), and I was equally thrilled to have the chance to play host in one of my favourite countries, despite all my worries about her well-being. I knew that if anything happened to her, not only would I feel horrible, but I would face the wrath of my three older siblings. It was one thing for ME to go irresponsibly gallivanting across the globe, but to drag along my respectable mother who was supposed to be relaxing in her much deserved retirement??

As it so often turns out, my fears were groundless. Every day, my mom astounded me with her strength, humour, and resilience. She was wonderfully encouraging to me in my newfound travel agent role, offering generous amounts of much appreciated reassurance and excitement. She appeared charmed by the vast assortment of accommodations I found for us, embracing the shared bathrooms and hostel breakfasts with aplomb. She bravely tackled Rome’s metro guarded by machine gun-toting militia, the scorching heat of the Foro Romano, the endless staircases of Venice. Most notably, she never complained. She would request to sit for a minute, or accept my offer to lug her suitcase for awhile, but she would never complain.

Our charming conglomeration of accommodations. I was VERY pleasantly surprised (read: relieved!) at how lovely they all turned out to be… I chose them mainly for price and location, and was keeping my fingers crossed for all the rest!

Our biggest hurdle… the infinite bridges & staircases of Venice (aka the city where my respect for my mom’s chutzpah quadrupled)
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Planes, trains, automobiles… and vaporettos

Life is hard. Challenges get thrown our way (sometimes more due to our choosing than other times!) But how different could our experience of challenges be if we simply stated what we needed, or what could be helpful, rather than resorting to ineffectual kvetching.

El Foro Romano: never fails to be utterly awe-inspiring

Hey Joshua… “[El Foro] is a good place to find a thumb.”
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My perennial favourite of the Foro – the Temple of Romulus (AD 307), with the original bronze door and the lock that STILL WORKS
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Mom taking her role as traveller-tourist seriously and not missing a thing!
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Views from Venezia

All life lessons aside, it was also just pure fun to play tour guide to my mom in bella Italia, a country I have now had the privilege of visiting for the third time and that still leaves so much to be discovered each time I arrive!

Amazing new discoveries with Mom, such as our blissful Santa Marinella beach day

First time in the Pacific!!!
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The rainbow puzzle box of Burano
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Late night strolls down to our favourite neighbourhood landmark
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And then, with coins thrown into Trevi to guarantee yet another return (it’s only had proven success thus far for me!), it was ciao! to the Romantics and hallo! to the Germanics as we boarded our Schlafwagen to Vienna…

(To be continued!)