19 November 2009
A Day With Family
Throughout my years traveling and living abroad I have sometimes passively and sometimes actively found or acquired “parents” and “family.” There are, of course, my birth parents. Then there is my “DC Mom” in the form of Aunt Robin. Then there’s my Belgian family from when I studied abroad and my Shanghai parents - Jim and Deb - from when I was living in China. Most recently, I acquired John and Lois as my London “Rotary parents.” Needless to say, having the change to connect with an old friend from college and meet her “Ukrainian parents” from Peace Corps sounded like a wonderful time.
As usual, it started with a two-hour mini bus ride from Kiev to Chernihiv northeast of the city. It involved detailed instructions from Gretchen that included things like: “When you get off the metro, turn left and go through the doors and down the escalator into the station. You'll go through a turnstile to exit. Once you're out the doors, turn right. The first set of doors on your right is the entrance back into the metro, so walk past that. After that you should see a set of stairs going up. Take those stairs!” That is, it was an adventure.
Upon arrival we met up with her 14-year-old, 6 foot 2 host brother Aleksei who would act as tour guide extraordinaire. Gretchen had just set him up with an email address and the usual sibling bickering was happening. “No, you write the email and I’ll proofread it,” she said. “No, you jut write it. It will be much faster,” he countered. “But it’s YOUR thank you letter. YOU have to write it,” she reiterated. “But it’s hard and I don’t want to,” he pouted. “Oh, alright,” she coalesced. The only thing missing was some name-calling and hair-pulling.
After towning around and seeing the six million churches as well as a canonization in action Gretchen suggested we nip back to her host parents’ place “just to grab her bag.” Yeah right (in a very good way). Two minutes in the house and we’re all staying for dinner. I’ve also been invited to spend the night “but not in Gretchen’s room, silly. No boys allowed!” Gretchen is in her late twenties. I mention in passing that I’d like to see a village and ten minutes later we’re trudging through town to catch our bus to the village where Gretchen’s Ukrainian grandparents grew up. She and I look like American tourists. Meanwhile, Mom looks like she’s about to head down the catwalk in Milan.
Mid wander through the village we approach a farm and see a man waving at us. “Do you know him,” I ask her. “Oh yes, that’s my uncle. He lives here. He is also a communist, but don’t say that to him.” And the day just got way more interesting (as if it wasn’t before). We pop in to say hi, everyone is introduced, I stand there with a smile plastered on my face while they all talk in Ukrainian. After he gave us enough apples to feed a small country, we head for the cemetery and cow pastures to literally “watch the Cows come home” and come home they do. In fact, they march out of the pastures in a single file line, walk right through town to their house then “moo” until someone comes and opens the gate. Seriously. It’s remarkable. How come Ukrainian cows are so much smarter than American cows?
We get home just in time for dinner. I bring a bottle of vodka as a “thank you” without knowing Ukrainian tradition states that a gift of vodka must be finished completely with the guest present. Thank goodness I bought the smallest bottle! We talked about home and family, we picked on Aleksei, we drank vodka. And when it was all over we ate an upside down sweet apple cake thing that was simply divine. My bus departure time was fast approaching, which meant a quick - albeit sad - farewell with tidings of good luck, an open invitation and, hopefully, an adopted set of Ukrainian parents as long as Gretchen doesn’t mind sharing!
I love Ukraine.