Over Easy: Recalling Ukraine in happier times

For the Valley News
Published: 3/5/2022 7:01:45 AM
Modified: 3/5/2022 7:01:10 AM

I’ve been trying to remember Ukraine, the way I saw it when I knew so little about it. It was a mystery to me when we arrived in 2009, only a little less so when we left. Before our trip, I don’t think I’d ever given more than a moment’s thought to Ukraine, except for Chernobyl.

So it is funny, in a way, that I have spent days repeatedly checking the news about Vladimir Putin’s vicious invasion. We Americans know a thing or two about ill-fated wars; this one seemed like something out of time. Was this the 1930s?

Several Ukrainians on TV said the attack seemed unreal. One day you are living your life, getting your kids off to school and dealing with headaches at work, then suddenly killer rockets stream across the sky. You have to hide underground and wonder what will stay the same and what will change. And who will die.

We went to Ukraine to visit my daughter in the Peace Corps. We are not adventurous travelers — we worry about taking the wrong train in a foreign land and ending up in the wrong country. But there we were, where we had never expected to be.

Laura served in a small village in the far west, not far from Hungary. At the border, stern guards in military uniforms eyed us suspiciously. We struggled to communicate. Hand signals and words you might use with a toddler were all we had. They must have known a little English, because we could only say hello, grin like idiots and hope for the best.

I wondered afterward if anyone was actually trying to sneak into Ukraine. When we took a bus to my daughter’s village, people looked guarded, too. I don’t think they were in the habit of smiling at strangers.

A few days later, a family my daughter knew invited us to their home. They had a mammoth meat platter set out for us, and insisted we drink. After what seemed like a complete party in itself, they took us to a field where they barbecued and put out another spread. I tried to drink slowly, to stay sober and managed to, pretty much. Several Peace Corps volunteers who were with us went shot for shot with our hosts. At some point they sang several songs and asked us to sing for them. I am not a person who knows many songs. I am a listener. But we needed to do something, so I started the Star-Spangled Banner and, with gusto, Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It was a significant cultural exchange.

Ukrainians might be dour on the surface, but once they know you, friendliness and vodka flow. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve had.

Some other memories and impressions: People were curious and a little astonished about Barack Obama, our Black president. We visited the local school, where a teacher was painting her classroom walls in the summer. I heard that the staff took a shot of liquor together before the first day of school started. Try that in America!

The village looked a little shabby in places, but it had high speed internet, better than ours at home. I took that as a signal that the world was changing.

We ate a nice dinner out for less than $20 for three. I had borscht, which featured beets. I had exercised my freedom as an American to avoid them all my life, but the soup was rich and tasty. Another time we had pizza with mayonnaise sauce. It was a bridge too far.

We traveled to Lviv, where we stayed in a hostel in the handsome main square. There were cafes nearby and an outdoor area where people danced the salsa. It was hypnotic to watch. I had a long talk with the hostel host, a graduate student who wanted me to explain America’s immigration policies. I think he very much wanted to come here. He was studying computer science. I couldn’t explain why doors were shut to him.

I learned that the Ukrainian language and Russian are quite similar. During the day, Ukrainian viewers watched Russian soap operas. Some people had relatives in Russia, or had lived there for a time. Old men had served in the Soviet army. I was told the people from the two countries are like cousins.

But still, Ukraine has been turning toward the West. I think people can be stirred by ideology and patriotism, but what they want most is a better life. They see it in Europe.

Our minds in turn have turned toward Ukraine, as the world changes in ways we can only begin to know.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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