Before I continue writing about my travels in Ukraine, I wanted to go back to Indonesia. I’ve been thinking about Indonesia a lot this past week because an important presidential election was just held there and because I just went “back” to Indonesia after reading and reviewing Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc. The presidential election isn’t quite over because both candidates claimed victory and the official counting won’t be finished for another 10 days. It’s a pivotal moment in Indonesia and all of that got me thinking about my first days there.
So here’s a short story I wrote some time ago about sambal and masuk angin. Enjoy.
The burp caught me off guard. It was my second day in Indonesia and I was busy worrying about lunch, learning a new language and my own foolish decision to accept a yearlong job offer in a country I knew almost nothing about. “They had a dictator named Suharto. It’s the fourth largest country in the world and the most populous Muslim nation. Bali is there. And, it’s going to be hot,” I told my friends in a self-assured tone that was masking all of my deepest fears.
On my first day in one of the hottest countries I had ever allowed my pale, prone-to-burning body to enter, I had gone to lunch with teachers and students from my language school. “Sambal,” my teacher Asti said as she handed me a plastic bowl with a red substance inside. I had watched as everyone else at the table took two, three, four or even five spoonfuls of the red sauce and dumped it on top of their plates full of rice, vegetables and meat. Two spoonfuls later, I was a total wreck. My pale skin had turned bright red, I was sweating profusely and I was desperately trying to hold back tears. “You like spicy food? You like chili pepper sauce?” Asti asked. Why, oh why, hadn’t she asked this a minute earlier?
The loud, deep burp interrupted my painful recollection of lunch. I was startled. I looked over and saw a group of middle aged motorcycle taxi drivers sitting with their tank tops rolled up over their bellies while smoking clove cigarettes that created clouds of intoxicating smelling smoke. As soon as they noticed me, the shouts of “Hello, Mrs.! Where are you going?” and “Beautiful” started. And then, one of the drivers burped again.
Before I embark on a weekend of eating grilled things to celebrate the birth of America, I thought I would show you what I ate for a month while in Ukraine. These days Kyiv (and to a lesser extent Lviv) have many options. Sushi has really taken off in Ukraine. In Kyiv I lived by a place called Yellow Ocean (slightly racist), I never did have sushi over the month I was there, but it looked good whenever I walked by. I tend to live by the “when in Rome,” so “when in Ukraine, eat Ukrainian food.” I love Ukrainian food, now maybe it’s the Proust-like link to my childhood and my grandmother’s warm kitchen in upstate New York where she always let me help her chop and peel and instilled a love of food in me at an early age. So call me biased. Two very traditional dishes (you will also find variations in Russia, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe) are borsch, a beet soup, and varenyky, dumplings (called pierogies by Poles in English). On one of my first days in Lviv I sat on the main square in downtown and treated myself to both plus extra sour cream — you only live once.
Sour cream is one of those items Ukrainians have in their fridges at all times. Add it into soup, mix it in with salads, sweeten it with sugar and vanilla — it’s one of those ingredients that is adaptable to whatever you may be cooking or eating.
I like to think that borsch is in many ways a beautiful metaphor for Ukraine and it’s regional variations. No one borsch is the same — some people add beans or more tomatoes, sometimes the beets are cut very thin, other times you get beet chunks. Borsch is one of those dishes that everyone will say their mother or grandmother makes best — better than your mother or grandmother.
And then there’s green borsch which is totally different from red borsch. Made with sorrel and often served cold, it’s meant as a summer soup.
One thing I didn’t grow up with in the diaspora with was salo. Salo is essentially pork fat. People will slice off slabs and snack on it while drinking vodka. I actually like it when it’s mashed up with garlic and spread on brown bread. It’s one of those things you just have to try.
Some potato piroshki:
One of the cheapest places to get a Ukrainian meal in Ukraine is Puzata Hata. The chain has locations across Ukraine and for a few bucks you can get a plate of delicious varenyky, meat stuff ones pictured below.
My last week in Ukraine was spent interviewing activists. The activists in front of Ukraine’s Parliament, pictured below, held blue and yellow signs reading “new power, new reporting” and showed off the letters they had written to ministers demanding to know what actions they had taken after 100 days in office. While Ukraine is dealing with a real war in its east, another battle is being waged in the capital — the fight over reforming a system that has been systematically robbed and corrupted for more than 20 years. You can read my piece about activists who are fighting against corruption here. Many people described to me the apathy and fear that settled in over the Yanukovych years — the Maidan shattered all of that. Now, activists aren’t afraid to get up close and personal with ministers and demand to know what they are doing.
Pictured below is Hanna Hopko, who I interviewed in the piece I linked to above. Hopko represents the new, young face of active Ukrainians. In her early 30s, with one daughter, Hopko told me she constantly thinks of her child in everything she does. What makes the situation even more dramatic is that her daughter and husband aren’t in Kyiv with her, they live in Lviv. When the revolution began to look dangerous, Hopko sent her daughter to her parents and now she goes to see her when she can. The majority of people I interviewed in Ukraine I spoke Ukrainian with unless they felt comfortable in English (so much faster to transcribe). This often led, at least I like to think so, to deeper conversations and an interview at the end of my interview. People were naturally curious about me and my Ukrainian that is accented and makes me sound like I am from Poland (the diaspora accent). Hopko was running around in front of Parliament talking to me, other journalists, and then to me again before I was the only one left. I watched her switch seamlessly between Ukrainian, Russian, and English (she translated for Joe Biden when he was in town).
Towards the end of our conversation she told me something interesting. At one point she had left Ukraine during the protests to attend an event elsewhere in Europe. As she was flying back to Ukraine, she told the friend sitting next to her on the plane the story of a Ukrainian writer who fled Ukraine in 1946 and recollected how he would never return, even with a Soviet invitation, because there was nothing to return to and because he wouldn’t allow himself to be used as a tool of the regime. She recited some of his famous lines to me and then said that she knew she had to go back. Ukraine has had a large migration rate with many people going to work in countries like Italy and then sending money home. Ironically this money allows people to pay exorbitant bribes to get their kids into the best schools in Ukraine. Hopko, like many activists, told me now was the time to fight for Ukraine and that they weren’t planning on moving to any other country.
For me personally, it was an interesting remark because my grandparents on both sides made the same choice as the writer and because of that I have been afforded so many opportunities. When I told my relatives in Ukraine all of the places I have lived and traveled to since I last saw them I noticed their eyes widen. I then had another interesting conversation when I was writing another piece about Crimean Tatar activists in Kyiv. Crimean Tatars are the indigenous inhabitants of Crimea. They boycotted the vote that gave Russia a pretext to annex Crimea in March. At the end of my interview with the head of the Crimean Tatar community in Kyiv, he asked me about my family background. When I told him, he said to me, “then you understand what we are going through.” While I can’t directly understand the pain and difficulty of the decision my grandparents made, I to some extent can feel what they gave up when their country was invaded from both sides in the 1940s and then how proud and active they always were in the United States, never afraid to speak Ukrainian or say they were from Ukraine during the Cold War years. My dad once told me the only time he got into a fight as a young kid was when a kid at school called him a “Commie” for speaking Ukrainian with his parents. To him and my grandparents that was a high insult.
Once upon a time there was a man named Viktor Yanukovych. He says he had a rough childhood in the Donetsk area of eastern Ukraine. He spent some time in the slammer for robbery and assault during his teenage years. Then in 2004 he ran for president of Ukraine against Viktor Yushchenko. It was a dirty campaign that involved dioxin poisoning that permanently scarred Yushchenko’s face. Ukrainians took to the Maidan in downtown Kyiv and it was called the Orange Revolution. But Yushchenko wasn’t the man to change Ukraine. Political infighting destroyed whatever might have been gained from the revolution and many Ukrainians became disillusioned. So in 2010 (with a lot of money spent on campaigning), Viktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine. And that was the beginning of a period of great theft, robbery, and corruption that is hard to fathom or explain in words, so I’ll let the photos do a lot of the talking. The painting and plates with Yanukovych’s head are on display at Ukraine’s National Art Gallery. They were taken from his palatial estate on the outskirts of Kyiv when Yanukovych fled to Russia in February.
And that brings me to the estate: Mezhyhirya (it means between the hills). I’ve been there twice now — once with some friends on a rainy day to simply see the place and this past Friday for a conference on journalism and activism as Ukraine moves forward. I had one of those moments when I was sitting at the conference where the weight of all that has happened over the last 8 months started to sink in — I was sitting in the yacht house of Ukraine’s former president, a residence so well guarded that no journalists were allowed to see it during his days in office (except the intrepid who somehow snuck in) and now the place was crawling with journos who will play such an important role in keeping politicians “honest” as Ukraine moves forward.
Translates phonetically as “fuck” not sure why the sign is there:
For a little less than $2 you can enter the estate and stroll the vast grounds. You can also get driven around in a golf cart for about $7 a person. The estate is currently being guarded by members of the self defense forces from the Maidan. I spoke with one of the guards who refused to give his name because his children are in Russia. He claimed they want the place to be turned into a national park and that currently all money from admissions is going to upkeep the vast estate and zoo. On my first trip we took the golf cart tour. Our guide, a man from Kyiv who said he never knew the place existed before Yanukovych fled, told us he loves giving tours here because of the nature. He pointed out certain areas and would say “those trees are meant to represent Crimea” or “these woods represent the Carpathian mountains.” Cue sarcasm, maybe Yanukovych was a bit of a Ukrainian patriot after all?
Ice cream stands now dot the whole estate:
Oh, did I mention the massive lake?
Every president deserves fresh milk:
And why not have a pirate ship floating restaurant?
It’s raining. It started raining last night and has continued on and off until now. After a day trip to the extravagant residence of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (current resident of Russia), I decided to go through some photos of sunny days before I go to see a French foreign film set in New York City here in Kyiv. Globalization at its finest. Seven years ago, when I was last in Ukraine, I only visited Kyiv for three days, so I feel like I am really exploring this city for the first time in some ways. The first few days I was in Kyiv were nice and hot, so of course I decided to go for a long walk. Kyiv really is a city of churches and Ukrainians by and large are religious — the western part of the country remains under Rome (but retains Eastern rites) while the further east you go it’s Orthodox. Here’s St. Michael’s with its golden domes.
St. Andrew’s is my favorite church in Kyiv. I just love the green/blue colored domes and the fact that the church sits atop a hill.
Earlier this week I attended the opera. For $5USD I saw a lovely performance of The Tale of Tsar Saltan with absolutely exquisite costuming. The opera was in Russian. Kyivans, like many Ukrainians, switch between the two languages. I think western media inaccurately portrayed the east-west divide in Ukraine in a lot of early reporting. Just because someone speaks Russian, doesn’t make them any less Ukrainian or make them want to become a part of Mr. Putin’s empire. Many people are happy to speak whatever you want. When people start speaking Russian to me I smile, tell them I only understand and speak Ukrainian (I understand basic Russian but can’t speak it) and then they gladly switch. The two are different languages. Both use Cyrillic, but letters make different sounds. There are many words that are totally different in both languages. Spellings differ, for example the city I am currently in is Kyiv in English because in Ukrainian it is Київ, in Russian it is Kiev, Киев and the и letter makes different sounds in the two languages. On our tour today our guide switched back and forth because my European friends speak Russian and not Ukrainian. The reality here is that after decades of Soviet rule a lot of people speak Russian, especially as you move further east, while as you move west many speak Ukrainian. The Ukrainian-American diaspora is incredibly firm in its stance that Ukrainians should speak only Ukrainian. But that’s simply not the reality of the situation. While I am all for promoting Ukrainian as a language and I believe it sounds much more lyrical than Russian, people should speak what they are comfortable in. And if the last seven months have shown anything, it’s that there are a lot of proud Ukrainians who are Russian speakers. Here’s the opera: