ukrainian tales: 7 posts

Asya’s Idea of Paradise

The word paradise comes from the ancient Persian word pairidaēza, “an enclosed garden,” and for a Ukrainian, a cherry orchard is an idea of Eden. It has the same potent connotations as a white picketed fence house in the context of the American dream. It doesn’t mean that all Ukrainians dream of retreating to the village and tending to cherries—no more so than all Americans want to live in the suburbs and obsess over greens lawns—but the image has force beyond its mere components.

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In many folk songs, the cherry orchard is where friends meet, families gather for supper and beloved yearn for each other. It is a place of safety and beauty. It evokes all of the things that matter—family, love, friendship, bounty. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most popular works in Ukrainian literature is a short poem by the national bard Taras Shevchenko. Recite the opening lines to any Ukrainian—“A cherry orchard by the house. Above the cherries beetles hum”–and you will see his face light up and his mind travel to his own fantasy garden. “And nightingale their vigil keep,” he murmurs the poem’s romantic coda*.

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Stepfather’s Library

When our house in Kyiv was finally sold, the arrangements promised to be uncomplicated–sign some papers, make a few visits to the notary and townhall and arrange for a moving truck. Unexpectedly, the latter turned into a source of some discord, because while my mother was of the opinion that whatever the house held should either be sold or discarded, my grandmother was adamant that every last chair and plate must be salvaged. “Think of the fine dinner sets we bought for your wedding,” she pleaded with mom over the phone. “I always disliked those zaftig Madonnas–and we did get divorced.” “But what about your lovely lacquered desk?” “Soviet satellites sure made some clunky furniture in their day.” And on and on it went scrambling the telephone lines over the Atlantic. But one thing they agreed upon was to collect my stepfather’s library and store it at my grandmother’s.

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At her house, the books stayed in boxes, because for all of my grandmother’s good intentions, the lack of available space in a house already full to the brim with books made it impossible to find another solution. Every time I visited, I would flip open the lid and glance inside, and one day I couldn’t resist and before long all the boxes were unpacked with books arranged in towering piles on the floor around me.

Of the many things that make us–people, places, experiences–some leave the deepest marks. We’re a mosaic of it all, bits and shards of influences shaping our desires, yearnings and dreams. When I think of my stepfather’s library, I’m conscious of a magnetic pull that the eclectic collection of books had on me, taking me far beyond the intentions of its collector.

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Scented Saints, Written Images, Endangered Heritage

Beautiful sillage is a sign of sainthood in the Orthodox tradition. The fragrance, or mirro (holy myrrh), can be emitted by real life saints, saint’s relics or even icons, painted images of saints. It’s common even today to hear stories of icons shedding myrrh and filling the whole church with the heavenly scent. Such events are called thaumata, a Greek word for wonders. They’re not miracles in the supernatural sense like walking on water or feeding 4,000 with seven loaves of bread. Thaumata are everyday marvels, brief glimpses of the divine through the veil covering us. The same kind of wonder is held responsible for icons, because to paint a saint it’s not enough simply to have artistic skills. One has to be inspired.

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“I didn’t mean to become an icon painter. It was never my goal as an art student. I can’t explain it, but in the end, that’s just what happened,” says Natalya Gladovska, an icon painter at the Lavra Art Studios. My mental image of an icon painter owes much to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev–a somber bearded monk in black robes. Gladovska laughs when I tell her so. She’s warm and bubbly, and everything about her, down to her tendrils of abundant red hair escaping from a loose bun, is filled with energy and verve.

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An Evening of Bounty

If you’ve ever sung or listened to “Carol of the Bells”, you’ve indirectly partaken in one of the oldest Ukrainian traditions of shchedrivky. The old style New Year’s Eve on January 13th is called Shchedriy Vechir, which means Bountiful or Generous Evening, and part of the celebration includes young women and men visiting their neighbors and singing shchedrivky, couplets wishing good fortune, health and much of bounty in the new year. The most famous song associated with Shchedriy Vechir is “Schedryk” (Щедрик), which was arranged by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1916 and later adapted by Peter Wilhousky as an English Christmas carol, “Carol of the Bells”.

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Old traditions are closely intertwined with the customs. Shchedriy Vechir also has the alternative name of Malanka in honor of Saint Melania the Younger whose feast is celebrated on the same day. But the old, pre-Christian customs color the festivities.

Different from carols, which are performed starting on Christmas Eve on January 6th and until the Epiphany on January 19th (the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar still follows the one established by Julius Cesar), shchedrivky focuses on the bounty of nature. The original Ukrainian lyrics for “Carol of the Bells,” for instance, tell the story of a swallow visiting a household and describing all of the rich gifts the family is to see in the spring.

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Where Jasmine Forest Blooms

Like bits of colored glass inside a kaleidoscope, the scent constellations shift constantly around you. You can go about your day without much thought to anything but the affairs at hand, when suddenly the right combination of talcum powder, hot asphalt and cut grass whisks you out of your routine and into the scene years ago, when you grazed your knee running too fast after an ice-cream truck and were soothed by an extra portion of chocolate sauce. Some scents mark you indelibly; they form the core of your memories, and time and again they return to haunt, delight or move you.

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Much of my scent vocabulary comes from Poltava, a town in central Ukraine where I spent all summers for the first 15 years of my life. I was born in the capital city of Kyiv, but Poltava, or rather a small hamlet in the town’s suburbs, is our family nest. My mother’s line can trace its roots to this region as far back as the 17th century, and although in its complex and tumultuous history four centuries are hardly ancient, this land exhorts an inexorable pull on me.  I can describe without much effort how many trees are in the orchard and which of the peeling grey shutters has a difficult to use hook, but I also can recall the exact scent inside the water tank, the damp warmth of the tool shed, and the bitter, raspy odor of dandelion flowers on the compost pile.

You, my readers, have breathed in these scents along with me, because this is the place, where Bois de Jasmin, my jasmine forest, got its first tender shoots. When describing the fragrance of carnations, roses or antique wood, I thought not of the fantasy blooms that inspired Caron’s Bellodgia or Guerlain’s Nahéma, but my great-grandmother’s carnation patch, rose garden, and termite marked chests of drawers. It’s about time I took you to very place that inspired Bois de Jasmin, to my great-grandparents’ house in Poltava. My grandmother still lives there, and she loves guests.

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