i’m begining to wonder if paska (traditional easter bread) is actually ukraine’s fruit cake. everyone bakes it and gives it to each other, but the sheer abundance of them lends to many door stops. my host mom baked 6 paska loafs for easter, and that doesn’t even include paska that other people have given us. so yea i’ve been eating paska, every day, every meal. and just when i thought my paska eating days were coming to an end, i came home to see 7 more freshley baked, iced, and colorfully sprinkled paska–looks like paska will be in my life for a while longer.
but thankfully they were not all for us. the next few days are actually labor day here in ukraine. and it’s also the weekend after easter. at which time, because christ has risen, families go to the cemetery bearing gifts of paska, eggs and candies and honor the dead. so i sat with my host mother at the kitchen table as she carefully wrapped each loaf of paska in cellophane and tied with a ribbon. once they were all neatly packaged, she tucked them away into a basked along with yummy looking candies, chocolates and cookies.
i was really tempted to ask just exactly who was going to eat all of that food…but i thought that might be a cultural faux-pas so i decided not to. and it’s a good thing i didn’t cause i found out the answer soon enough. my host mom, sister jenya and i piled into a taxi and headed to the tiny little village their family is from. after driving a while through farm land we stopped beside the cemetery, piled out and filed in through the gate along with other people, all with vibrant fake flowers and baskets in tote.
the somewhat twiggy hilly cemetery was a labyrinth of gated graves sites with slightly rusty metal crosses and picnic tables (all it needed was mist and a spandexed david bowie). but instead the sun was shining and it was bustling with people all greeting each other with ‘kristos voscress’. i followed my host mom and sister till we reached the grave of their grandma and great-grandma. they entered the small gated area around the grave sites, kissed the photos on the tombstones and arranged the spread of goods on the graves. then we sat at the graveside bench and table. and sat. and sat. and sat some more. thank goodness for my stellar ability to day dream. as we sat there i noticed a little kid sneaking from grave to grave picking out the candies and stashing them in a bag. i turned to jenya to tell her but she didn’t seem bothered by it. and theeeeeen i understood. the candy is supposed to be taken by the kids. pretty much like a second halloween. except creepier. more and more kids trickled by, some with bags almost too heavy for them to carry. i asked jenya how old is too old to be a kid…cause i definitely wanted to take part in this. i was 59% kidding, 41% not kidding.
after nearly all of the candy was snatched, decorated eggs warmed by the sun, and most of the crackers were infested with ants, we decided it was time to go for lunch. with basket in hand, we walked from the cemetery down the dirt road leading into the village to the house with the famous pear tree. i believe i mentioned this already, but this pear tree actually fed the entire village during ‘famine’. (and i say ‘famine’ since it was actually controlled killing by the soviets, from which around 10 million ukrainians died). so needless to say my host family’s 160 year old pear tree is very special.
we set up a table under the generous shade of the old pear tree, and as usual had way too much food on the table. everyone at the table seemed very concerned with the fact that i don’t eat meat and kindly kept presenting me with food, which funny enough was actually all meat…so i don’t think they really got it lol. shot glasses were passed around and filled to the brim with vodka and vino (wine) and several cheers to health were made. we took a tour of the land, which has always been in my host family’s family, and was pretty substantial. saw an outdoor shower and an outdoor toilet that made me realize my outdoor toilet could be much much worse. and then i realized that this really is village life. and i very well might (and foolishly hope) to be assigned somewhere like that (i know, foolish, but i really like a challenge). though when i told my host family that i hope to live in a small village and grow my own food, they said ‘kristen, it’s nice to see a village, but not to live in one’…which, in the middle of winter, with no electricity or running water, i might come to say they were right.
in other news, my training group finally made it out of town and ventured to the big city of kyiv! we were all pretty stoked to go there for the first time. not only to see some sights, possibly mcdonalds, but most importantly get some much needed peace corps money from our bank (which isn’t in our town). though, of course, no peace corps business can go without a challenge. part of the task in kyiv included us all asking for directions in ukrainian to certain locations….which actually went fairly well, granted i cheated and read hand gestures too. we didn’t get to spend much time at all in kyiv. not even enough time to go to mcdonalds (waaawhaaa). but we did stop at the peace corps ukraine headquarters, posed with obama’s photo, ate some falafel (not very ukrainian of us), and saw some statues.
sadly, most of our time was spent frustratingly trying to find our bank (which apparently isn’t very popular). and a few hours later, when we did find it, its red neon light seemed to shine like the holy grail. inside i sucessfully withdrew my living allowance from a bank teller, using only ukrainian (woot!) and stashed my cash (over 2,000 hrivens) in my bra, which turned out to be a very safe place. kyiv really just felt like any other european city. big boulevards, very expensive cars, french colonial architecture…and for a moment i think we all forgot we were even in ukraine. (well minus the metro, which still feels stuck in the soviet era). but once we became sardined on the marchutka, and drove far away from fancy cars, restaurants, cafes, mcdonalds, mcflurrys and all things mc, we quickly came back to our little ukrainian town reality.