Thursday, 22 August 2013

The Happy Magpie

Kaniv amk2013
My daughter recently laughed while calling me a "hobby Ukrainian".  I instantly got the impression she was humouring me for the intense delight Ukrainian stuff gives me.  I get the impression she thinks I am like a magpie, gleefully picking out the sparkly bits from a pile of refuse - but I am a happy magpie.
Kaniv amk2013
Sparkly things call out to me.  I get such a kick out of the simple reminders of happy times, call it a nostalgia for the romantic things that tug at my heart strings.  Old friends,  comfortable with a soft reference to a common experience that forever changed our life path.  We could have been "other", but for some reason, over wide distances and across time, we carry a bond, a love of ancestral things, maybe it is simply love? Family isn't just who you grew up with, for me at least.  Family is the people who have contributed to my world view - to my romantic, rose-coloured lens view of Ukrainian stuff.

Living the diaspora experience is living "without" - hopefully living with economic opportunity, but sadly having to leave the ancestral places, the soil in which great-great-great grandparents stepped, living with a snapshot picture of the ideal past, the ideal present, the ideal future.  Really, it is living in a time warp.  A person living away from the ancestral homeland cannot possibly live in one reality while living completely in another place, but for Ukrainians world-wide, ancestry is like a gift of time - time in a bottle.

Kaniv amk2013
So in my private life I enjoy the "hobby Ukrainian" things, stuff like reading the runes in an embroidered scarf - trying to figure out the magic in the message.  Sometimes I look at Ukrainian ceramics, pysanky or other art and try to understand the symbols, the birds, the ram, the colours.  It is like I am trying to figure out what the person creating the art work was thinking, because I know artists think differently.  Some artists think in words, some think in art, some think with their hands, their bodies, their voices, others pass on a phrase or idea that has been passed on for generations.  Other boldly try to shape the world to match their vision of how it should look! How to enjoy the small things, within the big things, and still understand the huge things? How it all connects?  Try to soar above it all, and pick up the sparkly bits! You never know what you might find?  Maybe, like me, you might want to take some of the sparkly stuff into your everyday life just for fun!

Monday, 19 August 2013

Holubsti of Spinach Leaves and Millet Голубці-просо з шпінатом

With all the trends in nutrition heading away from gluten and dairy, I have been trying a new diet lately. Eliminating the "wheat belly" and the dairy issues isn't easy in the North American diet, much less the Ukrainian North American diet.  But I try.  It seem though that these particular ingredients aren't traditional offenders in the ancient Ukrainian diet.  The wheat grown on the Ukrainian steppes was a short stock wheat, with few kernels, nurtured as it was over the centuries to produce multiple seeds.  Today's North American wheat can be considered "Franken-wheat" because the plant itself is now twice in height and produces many-times the 'seeds per stock'.  Genetically modified, it has also acquired multiple times the gluten, too. Gluten is the elastic property that allows dough to be shaped into loaves, rolled into buns, and gives it a sensuous feeling on the tongue.  

So if wheat is a non starter for those cautious of the "wheat belly", what can the ancients teach us?  Well, the traditional Ukrainian diet included a variety of grains, seeds of the soil that provided quality nutrition at a budget price.  One of them is millet, просо.  And millet is on the "gluten free" list!
Freshly rolled spinach/millet holubtsi.

Today sold as a health food, due to its lack of gluten and therefore of benefit to those whose diets cannot tolerate wheat, panicum miliaceum is a wild ancestor that appears as a crop on the north eastern shores of the Black Sea about 7,000 years ago. With fertile plains, steppes and plateaus, the subtropical climate enjoyed by the indigenous people of the Trypillian Трипілля culture (4500 to 2000 BC) was well adapted for the proso, просо, an annual grass with the lowest water requirement of any major cereal, excellent for dry land or no-till farming.   Proso-millet is a cereal crop rich in nutrients, cultivated in many regions of the world, including ancient Ukraine. The small, cream-coloured grains with a small dot-like mark, used as food source and fodder, is believed to be one of the oldest foods used throughout the ages. An important food staple in Ukraine, today millet is used in bird seed, and my grandparents used it to feed the chickens on the farm north of Edmonton. Millets are high in carbohydrates, somewhat strong in taste, and cannot be made in leavened breads. They can, however, be made into flatbreads and porridges, and used much like rice. 

Come to think of it, though Ukrainian lands may have played a huge role in the important Silk Road trade routes, connecting Arabia, Europe, and Asia all those centuries ago, the common folk, the indigenous people probably didn't import rice for holubtsi, they used stuff like millet!

So today I looked at my generous crop of spinach and decided to try Ukrainian  Голубці holubtsi, but with spinach leaves and millet. I took 1 1/2 cups of millet cereal, 3 cups water, and cooked on high in the microwave for 15 minutes, almost to porridge state. I fried up about a half cup of finely chopped onion and a few finely chopped mushrooms in oil and a bit of butter.  I scalded the fresh spinach leaves to wilt them, then began rolling my holubtsi (bundles of joy!) into an oiled, prepared, short casserole dish.  A teaspoon of filling, and a tight small roll of spinach leaf, followed with more soldiers lined up like little green presents in my casserole dish.  

Then I fried up more onion in oil and butter, added a bit of home-made chicken broth, added a bit of crushed dried mushroom, salt and pepper, and a bit of fresh dill.  When that was prepared I poured the juice over the rolls, just until the liquid peeked over them.  Covered with foil, and baked for an hour at 325 F. "Delicious", my husband raved about the lovely spinach/millet holubtsi
. I think next time there could be a cream sauce, but that might involve dairy. We'll see! 


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Pontus Axeinos and Scythian Gold

unknown painter
Ukrainian Shepherd
The ancient Greek name for the Black Sea is Pontus Axeinos,  "inhospitable sea" because it was so far away for them. In times long passed they may have believed there were monsters dwelling there, but the scents, sounds and tastes of these mythical waters lured many. Indigenous people have inhabited the lands north of the Black Sea, for many thousands of years before that. Their lifestyle and wealth was the stuff of myth and legend. I heard recently that research is indicating that Greek culture may have originated here, on the north shores of the Black Sea, due to the archeology work being conducted deep in the waters off short there. Not an expert, these are my musings, me trying to make sense of Jason, the Black Sea, and some of the sights on this Black Sea Cruise.

Early Greek colonization brought foreigners to the shores of Crimea and soon the seas teemed with guests. Pontus Axeinos clearly had learned to become Pontus Euxinos - "hospitable sea". Why would people sail into the unknown, into the treacherous Black sea into uncharted territory? Why attempt landing on "empty shores"? For economic gain, of course.

The Scythians were a people who prospered through trade along the north coast of the Black Sea between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.  They not only traded extensively with contemporary Greek civilizations but had close cultural ties with them and that is reflected in the gold and silver craftsmanship shown in many museums world over.  But there is more. Alluvial gold abounded in the rivers coming out of the heart of Ukraine, enticing adventurers the likes of Jason and the Argonauts. Thirsty for wealth and adventure, eager volunteers joined Jason to be his shipmates on a perilous but glamorous adventure into the Pontus Axeinos, among them the legendary Heracles (Hercules).

The barrier between Greece and the Black Sea is the strategic passage way called the Bosphorus Strait. The waters are complicated to navigate because currents flow both ways simultaneously there. Fresh water from the rivers north flow while the heavier salt waters of the Mediterranean sea flow into the deep basin of the Black Sea through a high pressure passage way called the Bosphorus. Navigating is treacherous, even today.  A little motor boat might take a full year to take the short trip through the powerful currents! For the ancients to have done this must have taken many eager volunteers, just lining up for the exciting job! Imagine the labor required to achieve this simple goal, to acquire gold desired everywhere south of the Black Sea!

Sacrificial lambs, sacrificial rams, and burned offerings all contribute to the story. Jason, the legendary Greek hero leads his team of intrepid adventurers in a perilous quest for what we now know was an ingenious observation, a creative, miracle technology for the time.  Burned offerings, food, and the secret to smelting all came of the sacrifice of rams and lambs tended in the fast running waters descending from the north into the Black Sea.  The Golden Fleece was a new exciting technology involving pounding the skins of sheep to the river beds where panning for gold was both exhaustive and dangerous.  The fleece accumulated the heavy alluvial gold flakes and could then be burned, and the leavings smelted into precious gold, gold desired by everyone.

Now do the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit for you as they did for me?  Songs about the Carpathian mountains, songs about sheep, heavy golden earrings, the Scythian Gold, and  Jason searching for the Golden Fleece, and the dangerous, treacherous life of the people native to the lands north of the Black Sea. 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Friendly Faces

Being friendly with strangers is an important part of successful traveling. Unfamiliar places can be intimidating, so a warm smile, a generous handshake, and a few words can make for more memorable encounters. People can be amazingly kind, and honest in an instant, sharing tips and personal observations.

Summer is, of course, a time for family from the big city to travel to the family farm or dacha to help with gardening or harvesting. Workers stuck in tourist site jobs may yearn for vacation time with family but the big tourist season is short, and a pay cheque is a pay cheque. Guests from beyond, from lands to the west and north stand in line, expecting service in their own language, even from people who are essentially doing Mc-jobs. Not sure what they get paid, but is it any surprise some are uni-lingual? Being influenced, as it has for centuries, from the north, many people hope Ukraine gets a grip in its own unique identity, culture and language. So if my visit can be considered an experiment, here are some observations.

Each time I met someone, bus driver, clerk, grocery store worker, security guard, or professional, I would say добрий день. For the better part, most responded kindly, with a smile. Obviously not a local, I simply asked whether English or Ukrainian was best for them, and for the better part were rewarded with my business.

Having a chat with Taras Shevchenko 
at the Kyiv Shevchenko Museum
A couple of nice encounters underscored the power of a smile. In an airport lineup, a couple couldn't make themselves understood to the clerk. I heard and helped. Thanking me, they started in one language but heard me comment to my companion in Ukrainian. Broad smiles, and a hand shake later and they began commenting on how important their national language is, and how pleased they are to hear a foreigner speak Ukrainian. Check! A small act of kindness, and a contribution to a growing constituency of common minded thinkers. In another case, a young woman spoke in heavily accented English, telling me of her home city. With pride she told of the traditional lifestyle, the economy, and the thousand- plus year history of the village near Kyiv. She leaned in eagerly to share something important, and I realized we are of common mind, in an instant. Eagerly connecting, she made a special point to share her contact information before waving goodbye. It is as though people enjoy the opportunity to be their better selves, to be the person they want to be. And it is interesting to hear what it is they want of themselves, for their country, their opportunities.

In case after case, people really tried to connect on a personal level, effectively flip between languages, just as I and my companion do between English and Ukrainian. Friendly people, charmingly surprised with a fresh face, happy to find common ground! When I make mention of the 20 million people self identifying as Ukraine's diaspora, many are shocked at the number, but then nod with that smile of recognition. There are a lot of us!

The Scent of Honey

We were driving from Kyiv to Kaniv, and stopped to see a amazing swath of sunflowers in full bloom, the national flower of Ukraine. Our Ukrainian driver was of course a bit perturbed by another request for a photo stop, but smiled when he himself peeked over the heads of the sunflowers for a souvenir if our trip. Acres and acres of sunflowers, some in full bloom, others ripe or drying, their sunburned heads bowing heavily to the earth. Knowing how much energy sunflowers pull from the soil I stand and marvel that this crop is so huge in the area. The soil here is fertile and rich, the weather humid and hot, the perfect agricultural land.
Honey Vendor near side of road, Kaniv.  amk2013
Getting back in the car we continue driving slowly on the pocked rural highway and my companions comment on an unfamiliar odor, something stinking like sour milk. It reminds me of something and I take a minute to sniff. Interesting! So I wrinkle my nose and try to remember what it could be? An instant later I know. Familiar, I say "мед" and my companions look at me sideways, then ignore me. We continue driving and the scent grows stronger and then around the bend we see a man beside a table laden heavy with honey for sale. I smile in satisfaction that the nose knows. I think of my grandparents and a memory returns.

Once as a child, I joined the family group in taking honey from the bees. I watched at a distance as they smoked the bees and they got drowsy. Pulling the frames out, I remember my Uncle cutting off the wax, then placing the frame into the spinner. Watching the honey drip into the machine and out the spigot was super, and then I came closer. As I stuck my face over the machine, fresh warm honey splattered all over my face and hair! It was sweet, warm, fragrant, and everyone laughed with delight at my surprise!

Another time, we were late in taking the honey, and the weather changed abruptly, causing the work to feel rushed. A warm autumn day gradually clouded over, making the honey heavier and slower. But once you smoke the bees, you have to finish the job, so everyone continued, even when some darker wild bees arrived, attracted by the free lunch. Bees flying too close for my comfort, so we smoked them again, but more wild ones continued to fly near. Everyone else was calm, but being inexperienced and nervous, I dreamed up a solution. Running back into the house, I grabbed Baba's canister vacuum. Extension cord ready, I plugged it in even though there was wild laughter from the Aunties and Uncles. Bound and determined, I removed the nozzle and aimed at the bees. Pop, pop, I started sucking those pesky creatures into the vacuum canister bag! Can you imagine the laughter? Well, if you can, then consider how angry the bees got when they realized they were stuck inside the vacuum canister!

Beekeeper's house at Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky
Pasichnyk and Vulyk
Come to think of it, I honestly, can't understand why my memory of taking honey from the bees stops with that event? Can you imagine why?

Beekeeper's bee house, vulyk

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Walking the Neighborhood

Street in Kyiv in honor of Kyivan Rus' Sovereign,
King and Saint Volodymyr.
A couple of weeks ago or more I set out on a Black Sea Cruise. What drew me here? Am I on vacation to rest, am I tracing my ancestral roots, or is my inquiring mind thirsting for adventure?  I think it is more complicated than that.  Ancestral roots are one thing, but there is a context for my ancestors life choices, for leaving these lands and emigrating to Canada.  How better to understand at least some of that than to walk in their neighborhood.

The trip started in Constantinople, toured the Rock Church monastery in Sumela, visited Trabzon (the trading port through which many people from the now Ukrainian lands entered Turkey many centuries ago), Batumi Georgia, Feodosia, Sevastopol, Yalta, Balaklava, Odessa, Nessebur Bulgaria, Kyiv, Lviv, Sokal, Kaniv, and more.  History oozes out of every nook and cranny here.  Centuries old buildings, old stone babas, fortresses in ruins, castles and palaces, churches in every condition, those almost destroyed all the way through to beautifully new-built marble temples, and roads that have served the common folk for centuries. Rubbernecking like a tourist I have stood slack jawed, stunned and in awe of the swath of physical artifacts from this civilization, from the people in my ancestry.  Filled to the brim with thoughts bubbling and swirling, I am finding it hard to trim back my writing to a few paragraphs.

I may have initially thought the term "native/foreigner" was appropriate, but I have been a tourist, plain and simple.  Walking through museums, touring the sites, hearing lectures and listening to tour guide interpretations is an opportunity for serious learning. Nothing passive about it.  Watch an experienced traveler and you will see how they assume the "stance", ears perky, eyes wide and observant, and a mind swirling with connections. Notebook in one hand, camera in the other, crazy sunhat, water bottle, and sore feet are just the start. Soaking it all in means active processing.  One net of understanding laid upon another web, upon another grid, upon another......and the moment these nets cross an exhilarating jolt of recognition runs through the body.

The exponents in the display case could have been part of my life, these things could be part of my family's lifestyle, these could be the tools, the weapons, the products, the hopes, dreams and aspirations of my near and far ancestors.  Finding a quiet spot to tend for one's life, to live in peace and comfort, to provide for family has been the most important thing a person could do.  This could be my life, but for the adventurous streak in my ancestors.  The jobs,  groceries, children, homes, and survival were all part of living here.  It all speaks of industrious, resilient, ambitious people wanting to thrive, spending a lifetime in the pursuit.  But the winds here are powerful, so swaying and bending is part of living here.

Nobody here is passive, even though it may look like it on the surface. Paraphrasing an poster hanging in the Balaklava Museum, "don't say everything you know, nor know enough to say".  Tour guides and lecturers continue to be constantly aware of their audience, remembering to stay "on the script", concerned for the security of their jobs. History is everywhere, and people sometimes choose not to see what is right in front of them, for a good reason.  I feel like a detective on the trail of a treasure, finding bits of it here and there, excited for the parts I understand and puzzled by much.  But I get the feeling that some people living here feel the exact same way.  For answers to some of the puzzles, a serious treasure hunt, they might enjoy a "stay-cation" excursion to the intriguing museums here, too.  For that matter, maybe the Ukrainian museums here in Canada and the US might be an interesting start!  Fascinating stuff.

Check The Ukrainian Museum of Canada for more

Wednesday, 7 August 2013


The native/foreigner moniker is really not such a good description for the complexity this visit to the Black Sea has presented.  So much history, so many stories, such interesting interpretation.  So when a tour guide says to you, this city recently celebrated its 200th anniversary, and before it there was "nothing here", you begin to take it with a huge grain of salt.  A clever listener however begins to see the multiple layers of civilization on these shores.  Visiting archeological sites gives but a glimpse - and you begin to question the sometimes incomprehensible routes that avoid strategic aspects of historical significance. and read the tiny hints embedded in the artifacts themselves. 

People in positions of power may interpret as they please but the fact that publications about the archeology of this place are now accessible to a wider public means the individual artifacts themselves draw attention.  Each ancient artifact speaks volumes about the times, the place, the ideas and dreams of the people. From ancient temples, to agricultural tools, to the study of ancient man and the development of strategic technologies, this area has it all.  Undoubtedly the early people were nomads, but nomads with wealth, connected to the wider world with its trends in thought and technology.  This meant prosperity, prosperity that other envied and coveted.  Peaceful trade, possibly, but policed by fierce warriors and leaders making negotiated treaties on all sides.  Neighboring empires with their need for trade goods, tribute, and services of all sorts have infused the people with a type of resilience that is hard to describe. 

I have so many questions about this place.  Though there may have been "nothing" here, why do authorities allow children to climb into the remains of a centuries old stone fortress just meters away from the Potemkin Steps, taking the walls apart stone by stone.  What to say about the young man climbing onto a monument encouraging his reluctant companion with something to the effect 'you know we've been told we own this place'?  What to say about the bandura player on the boulevard who played a song about Marusia for me?  Or the woman in the Armenian church who quietly and perfectly clearly spoke Ukrainian as she handed me a candle?  Or why tour guides spend an inordinate amount of time on people who "lived in this place" for 3 years, perhaps 4, and then rush through thousands of years of historical artifacts hidden in deep corners, dimly lit and supervised? 

A place of contraditions, a place of deep history, complexity and mystery.