Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I have a hard time letting any grass grow between these toes. As spring has arrived here in North Central Romania so has a bit of cabin fever. As soon as we were done plowing our fields and planting our potatoes, Orthodox Easter was around the corner. As a result, I had a week vacation from school and since I had spent last year in the village to celebrate Easter I decided this year I would take the opportunity to visit & reconnect with part of my family heritage in Ukraine. The family tree gets complicated and very confusing, so long story short, my grandma’s father on my dad’s side of the family was born in a small village outside of Chernovtsy, Ukraine. Thus, I have some distant relatives that still live in this village and as well as Chernovtsy. I made my way over, well around, the Carpathian Mountains over to the northeastern part of Romania. From the city of Suceava, Romania I caught a bus, it was more of a soviet era boat on wheels with pulled dark red curtains and a poster of a topless women taped up behind the driver. I was warmly welcomed into Chernovtsy, Ukraine by some distant relatives with hugs, kisses and a plenty of conversation in Russian & Ukrainian that I could not understand a word of! That was one thing entering into Ukraine and observing the road signs that passed us by, I had not even a clue what they said. However, I love an adventure of any kind and I looked at the language barrier while in Ukraine just as another adventure. I was spoiled though, the wife of Ivan, one of the distant relatives, Luda speaks and understands English pretty well, their daughter in law is part Romanian and thus speaks Romanian and a lot of people in general in Chernovtsy speak Romanian…Chernovtsy used to be apart of Romania and was actually the capital city of the northeastern region Bucovina. Ivan and Luda took me to there home and made me feel extremely welcomed. Naturally, there was a feast of a meal with never ending portions, all of which was excellent, with an American flag on the table to make me feel welcome and a shot or two of vodka! The Ukrainian vodka that I drank was excellent…very smooth and clean, even more so than the top shelf vodkas I had drank in the U.S. and being more than half the price. I was fortunate to have Ivan and Luda’s daughter in-law seated next to me at the dinner table those first couple hours as I was able to express how excited I was to be in Ukraine and how thankful I was for them to take me in and make me feel like a part of their family, no matter how distant we are. I spent the first two days with Ivan & Luda showing me all around Chernovtsy, which is a beautiful university city with a lot of character. I visited Chernovtsy’s grand bazaar, a bit different than the one in Istanbul, but of the same idea, you can find anything from a new/used car to a wedding dress. Ivan is quite the comedian, so while he does not speak very much English nor I any Russian or Ukrainian, he would approach usually the best looking young women he could find to ask if they spoke Romanian (which most did) and ask them to translate what he wanted to tell me. This discussion was always followed by the women blushing when Ivan told them I was a single 27-year-old American who speaks Romanian and would they be interested in having coffee with us later, ha ha! Before I arrived in the Ukraine I mentioned to Ivan & Luda that if it were possible I would like very much to visit Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev. Just to explain how hospitable and wonderful these people are, when I arrived they handed me a round trip bus ticket with a two day itinerary for Kiev! So, after visiting all around Chernovtsy for the first couple of days, I took a 21:00 bus 500 kilometers to Kiev. After a 12-hour bumpy bus ride through the night I was greeted at the Kiev bus station by one of Ivan & Luda’s son, Sasha…that is short for Alexander. Sasha is also 27 years old and is a third year attorney at a private firm in downtown Kiev. It was around 6:30 in the morning so the natural thing to do was grab some breakfast. We arrive at his centrally located, communist style block, bachelor pad apartment with open beers in hand and two more in the bag. After the beers were completed we moved on to the next serving, fried eggs with rye bread and it all finished off with one shot of vodka! After a brief nap, I was feeling revived from the lack of sleep from the night before and we hit the city streets. Kiev is BEAUTIFUL! It is a large city but with a very comforting feel to it. It is a very old with great architecture. The streets are filled with all sorts of people from all over the world and everyone dressed to the tens, especially the women all dressed very stylish and elegant. As I walked around, It was hard not to be distracted by the simple beauty of all the Orthodox Churches gold plated circular domes. Everything I observed in Kiev from the many large green parks to the subway system are all very well maintained and clean. It was great to be back in a large city again and soak in as much of a new culture as possible. Kiev has moved right up there next to Istanbul as great cities I have visited so far! My two days in Kiev went by too fast, but Easter Sunday was a couple days away so Sasha and I were back on a 21:00 bus from Kiev to Chernovtsy to be back for Orthodox Easter. Easter Sunday was quite the day. I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to go with Ivan & Luda to the main Orthodox Church in Chernovtsy. All the city streets were jammed packed with cars and families carrying their Easter baskets in hand. Everyone made long rows with their baskets and patiently waited for the priests to come out and bless the baskets as well as themselves with holy water. After our Easter basket and we were soaked with holy water we headed to the village where my grandmother’s father was born and raised before leaving for the states. I was very very excited about this visit to the village. I arrived and was immediately greeted by 5 elderly women and 1 elderly man who all grab me at once and did not let go the whole afternoon I was there! Everyone was hugging and kissing me while crying, even the man, Stephan, gave me a wet one right on the lips, ha ha…and all talking to me in Ukrainian/Russian! It was quite a scene to say the least! My grandmother Helen, had visited the village before she passed away many years ago and they were all very excited to see Helen’s grandson Alexander, me…the whole time I was in Ukraine, everyone called me Alexander not Alex which I really liked. Luckily, there was a friend of a friend’s brother’s cousin who was there and spoke Romanian, so I was able to understand all they were telling me and vice versa. It was quite exhausting listening so attentively trying to pick up a word here or there in Ukrainian, hear the translation in Romanian, break it all down and then respond back in Romanian, let alone while everyone is talking so anxiously at once! Their village is much larger than the one I live in Romania and is much different. However, there were many aspects of their lives that I knew much about from my time spent in Romania, such as agriculture and fieldwork! Never in my life would I notice the difference between the soil in a Ukrainian village to that of a Romanian one and the difference in haystacks from one country to another, but I do and I did! They all laughed with amazement when I told them I had just planted potatoes with my host family in Romania and that I had no problem using an outhouse. The women cooked up quite the feast of traditional cuisine, which was all very similar to what I eat at my village in Romania and very good, maybe not the best for my cholesterol but oh well! Obviously before we began our feast we all had shot or two of Vodka…the tradition I learned when drinking in vodka in Ukraine is you do 3 shots, each with a different toast, when I asked what each of the toasts represented, they all laughed and said the only remember the 3rd one which is to the women in your life or future wife if that is that case, and then they started in, just like all my friends and neighbors do in Romania, “I have a grand daughter or a niece or a friend of a friends sister that you should meet,” ha ha! As much as I enjoyed eating sushi at a hip new sushi bar in downtown Chernovtsy and sipping a delicious cappuccino with a beautiful Ukrainian women on a street corner in Kiev there is something to be said about getting back to the roots of life, so to speak. 19 people sitting down to a table that only has room for 10 maxim, plates of home cooked food and drink pouring off the table with people that just an hour ago where complete strangers in a village in Ukraine that I cant even pronounce the name of… eating, drinking, laughing, sharing stories with not a worry in the world! I have always been a believer in the “little things in life” and I tell you taking the time to sit on a tree trunk on a crystal clear Easter Sunday talking about cow manure and apple trees with good hearted people, who come close to tripling me in age is actually one of the “little things” that makes life that much better. I left the village full to the brim, a bit tipsy from the vodka, wonderful stories of my Grandmother Helen and a huge smile on my face.

Once Easter was over so was my time in Ukraine. I was able to squeeze in some Russian billiards with Ivan & Luda’s oldest son, Tolec and some of his friends…by the way Russian billiards is played on a large billiards table with smaller pockets and larger balls and with different rules thus it is really difficult but still a good time especially with some chilled Russian beers! Ivan and Luda, decided it would be better for me if they just drove me 150 kilometers southwest to the border of Ukraine and Romania, where I could cross the border into Romania and I was only 50 kilometers away from the village…just another example of the amazing kindness.

I had a wonderful time in Ukraine and it was just the right kind of “get away” I needed! Also, with having learned a bit more about this one part of my “Diverse” family heritage, I can only wait until I make it to Malta and get in touch with the Maltese part of my blood line!