My Ukraine : On Storytelling and Family

In 2014 I returned to Ukraine, the country where I was born, to spend time with my grandmother Valentina and rediscover the place that shaped me. The result was several long trips that I made sometimes more than once a year. I have lived for most of my life outside of Ukraine, and reconnecting with it inspired me. I discovered its rich culture, beautiful nature, and delicious food. Its scents, sounds, and colors filled me. 
One of my most moving experiences was visiting the town of Reshetylivka and learning about the white-on-white embroideries, an intricate technique that looks like lace. Nadia Vakulenko, the master in charge of the embroidery program at the local college, taught me the basics and became a close friend. And I ended up absorbed by Ukraine completely.

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was the realization of my worst nightmares. I lived through a terrible period of my life during those early months, but I continued writing. As Ukraine remains occupied, I continue to write. I will share stories here and on my Instagram accountIn my writing, I want to capture Ukraine as I found it, complex, baffling, unique.
I’ve been volunteering here in the Brussels region to help refugee families, but my main way to cope is by writing. I hope that my writing about Ukraine shows its vibrant side. War reporting, important though it is, flattens out places and removes their humanity. I want to make my contribution by adding another dimension.
This brings me to another important point. Preserve the stories of your families. Capture them. Record them. Memories are fleeting and elusive, and every time we remember something, we recall it in a new way. The stories of our ancestors connect us to the earlier generations and give us a sense of who we are and what we can become. In my journeys around Ukraine, I have sought to write down as many stories as I could, and the result is a large archive with narratives as intricate as the finest tapestry.
If you have a particular topic about Ukraine that you would like me to cover please let me know.

My great-grandmother Asya and her “Good Morning” embroideries.

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45 Comments

  • Camille: Thank you so much for sharing this. I have been to Ukraine many times for work, I love it very much and hope to be able to go back soon. Praying for the safety and victory of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. July 22, 2022 at 9:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Camille. Which cities have you visited in Ukraine? July 22, 2022 at 11:17am Reply

  • Nikos: There are so many things I want to say and trying very hard not to be political, thought I’ve heard somewhere that everything we do, even the way we live is indeed a political action. I’ll just say that I am wholeheartedly here for whatever you feel like sharing about Ukraine. July 22, 2022 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: I know what you mean. Politics is just unavoidable. One lives with their consequences. All in all, I appreciate your kind words. July 22, 2022 at 11:18am Reply

  • Marilyn Stanonis: It’s SO good to have you back, Victoria! July 22, 2022 at 10:29am Reply

  • Andrew: I am heartbroken about Ukraine, the suffering, the killing, the needless and barbaric war. I hope this will end soon.

    On another completely different topic, my favorite fragrance of this year is Coriander by DS&Durga. The company describes the inspiration as the hills above “Odessa” (Odesa). It was created, I believe, in 2014, so there is an overlap of Russian/Ukranian credits. July 22, 2022 at 10:37am Reply

    • Victoria: How interesting about that perfume. Ukraine, btw, is a big producer of coriander oil. July 22, 2022 at 11:19am Reply

  • Notturno7: Dear Victoria, thank you for your blog and caring presence. It’s wonderful to have you back here. We missed you. ❤️
    I hope you, your family and dear ones are all ok.
    Please, keep writing and sharing, and whatever topics are right for you at the moment, we appreciate it all. July 22, 2022 at 10:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I will share more. I’m glad that these topics are interesting. July 22, 2022 at 11:19am Reply

  • Joan Rosasco: These are beautiful evocations of people and places dear to your heart. The white embroidery is exquisite! July 22, 2022 at 10:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it so exquisite! July 22, 2022 at 11:20am Reply

  • Shelly: Thank you Victoria so special to hear the stories. I really appreciate the embroidery. It is important to hold onto our family memories. Thinking of you and your family and friends ❣️ July 22, 2022 at 10:59am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s what I learned. Recording family stories is essential. July 22, 2022 at 11:20am Reply

  • José Saraiva: Good afternoon Victoria.
    I begin by regretting this senseless war, both for the suffering of the Ukrainian people and also for the suffering of the Russian people who are not to blame, after all they are fraternal peoples.
    Unfortunately, it is the result of the world arms industry, which sees its source of income in wars, despising the suffering they cause.
    As for embroidery, here in Portugal it is also customary to make a similar type of embroidery, it is called “Ponto Cruz”, I don’t know what it’s called in your country.
    Congratulations and my sincere wishes that this drama in Ukraine ends quickly..
    Hugs July 22, 2022 at 11:01am Reply

    • Victoria: I just looked up Portuguese embroidery and it looks so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it. July 22, 2022 at 11:21am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Beautiful post; every word full of love for your country and your family. When I think of Ukraine, great artists come to my mind. Malevich, Gogol, David Oistrach. July 22, 2022 at 11:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Those names are my own associations too. I will add Maria Primachenko and Kateryna Bilokur to the list. July 22, 2022 at 11:22am Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: And, of course Emil Gilels. July 22, 2022 at 11:47am Reply

  • Fazal: I hope your grandmother Asya and your other relatives are safe!
    I realize its a struggle to find joy in life during these times but you have found a great solution in helping refugees in Brussels and in writing. July 22, 2022 at 11:29am Reply

  • Dorothee: Thank you for sharing Victoria! I so much appreciate your warm, considered stories. You’re right that they help bring some humanity back to what seems like a terrible inhuman situation. Poignant and bittersweet. July 22, 2022 at 11:55am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: I love your explanations and descriptions of Ukrainian arts like the embroidery! So glad you’re posting here again, despite the horrors on 2022. July 22, 2022 at 12:19pm Reply

  • Alityke: I look forward to reading further your stories of Ukraine & your family.
    This war is so pointless. The greed of one man, propped up by a very small group, can bring such chaos & loss of life of all nationalities is almost beyond comprehension.
    I’m grateful BdJ is live again & my thoughts are with the Ukrainian nation July 22, 2022 at 12:29pm Reply

  • a.: dear victoria, thank you for sharing you love and memories of ukraine with us, and please do continue to do so! i’m utterly devastated about this cruel, senseless, needless war. i can get really worked up about it, and i’m not even from there, so i can’t even imagine what it must be like for you.

    as far as topics — i’d happily read about any topic you chose to cover. 🙂 i will say though, for myself, i first developed a real interest in ukraine several years ago now when i was watching, of all things, turkish historical dramas and learned about crimea. i developed a fascination for this region and did a deep-dive on it, and ended up learning a lot more about ukraine in the process. (and as a result, was devastated and so angry back in 2014 when russia “annexed” — ie. stole! — it! i couldn’t believe the int’l community just let it happen and moved on as if it was no big deal. but, i digress…apologies…)

    in any case, all that is to say, i would love in particularly to learn more about crimea and its culture, if that’s a topic you’d be interested in covering. July 22, 2022 at 12:30pm Reply

  • Amalia: Hi Victoria! I understand, I feel and I hurt. I hope your family is safe. We have also experienced war and suffering in Greek history. Part of Cyprus is still under Turkish occupation. The policy has so far failed. Preserving memory and history is in our hands. July 22, 2022 at 1:02pm Reply

  • Nina Z: Victoria, I’m so glad you’re back to blogging. I missed hearing from you, whether about perfume, other sensory delights, or your family history. I’ve been thinking about you ever since the war started–can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.

    I have been looking more into my ancestry just recently for various reasons, and it turns out that the town where my father’s mother and her family were from, Kovel, is now part of Ukraine.

    She and her parents immigrated to the US in the early twentieth century, and I know nothing about any family members they might have left behind (and, if there were any, whether they survived the Holocaust). So right now I have no idea whether or not I actually have family in Ukraine or not. It’s so sad to think about…. July 22, 2022 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Rachel: I’m so glad to see you back, Victoria. When your site went down, I didn’t know why and feared the worst. I looked up the town of your family’s home to see where the fighting was. As I read the news everyday, I thought about you and your family. Seeing your site back up is a little like seeing the snow on the mountains into summer-though, it’s a false sense of well being; the world is not well. Thank you for sharing your stories of Ukraine, and all of the stories that you share about the unique artisans of beauty. July 22, 2022 at 2:10pm Reply

  • Hamamelis: It is important to read about Ukraine, its people and rich traditions. I love to read about the bravery of your great grandmothers. Those German boots! Also I love to read about Ukrainian music, your post with the Silver Bells choir is one of my favourites. And (vegetable) gardening! Thank you Victoria, stay strong. July 22, 2022 at 3:53pm Reply

  • Michele O. Brown: Michele: Please continue to tell us stories of Ukrainian and your family. Also, it’s traditions and history. Just very happy you are back and giving us wonderful writing.
    I am presently reading “The Scent Trail” by Celia Lyttelton. She writes about visiting all the places where the oils and essences came from when she had a perfume made for her. Wonderful read. 🦋 July 22, 2022 at 7:25pm Reply

  • Michele O. Brown: Michele: Please continue to tell us stories of Ukrainian and your family. Also, it’s traditions and history. Just very happy you are back and giving us wonderful writing.
    I am presently reading “The Scent Trail” by Celia Lyttelton. She writes about visiting all the places where the oils and essences came from when she had a perfume made for her. Wonderful read. 🦋 July 22, 2022 at 7:26pm Reply

  • katherine x: Hi Victoria, Thank you for your stories of Ukraine and her people – including your family. If you have any information, interest and inspiration to tell it, I am interested in hearing about Podwloczyska and the region surrounding it. It is where my father and his family lived for a year before sailing to Colombia (via Gdynia and Boulougne) in June 1939 where they lived for several years awaiting visas to the U.S. They had already fled from Hamburg (where my grandfather was imprisoned in the mid 30s by the Nazis) to Vienna, and left there after Anschluss. Podwloczyska was where my grandmother grew up and my great grandfather had an his oil and gas business there – Gazyziemny or something like that – I think the office was in Ternopil. I have photos of him, his partner and workers in the oil fields. He was a geologist who found oil and gas on horseback and established the company with a partner. The family would go often to Lvov (Lviv) and I have photos stamped with studios in that city. My father and grandmother talked about forests in or near Podwloczyska. I have photos of Dad as a young boy surrounded by tall trees – though I’m not sure where they were taken.

    And your advice for us to record our stories and memories is spot on! We recently lost my wonderful father who always said he was lucky to be alive and lived life with more passion and courage than anyone I know. I feel terribly lucky that he put some of his stories to paper because they are hard to recall on my own. And now I his stories – in his voice – first hand – that I am printing in a photo book (with relevant photos of course). It is a great way to capture the essence of his life (kind of) in an accessible way – and for all of us to enjoy from time to time. And thank you for the reminder for me to do the same! July 23, 2022 at 12:01am Reply

  • Christine M: Dear Victoria
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. We’ve never met but your beautiful writing affects all of us, and hopefully you feel some comfort knowing we think of you and pray for your Ukrainian family and connections. July 23, 2022 at 1:33am Reply

  • Aurora: A very moving post about your birth country, so glad that writing helps you in the troubled times.

    Would you consider evoking the Jewish culture in Ukraine? I would be so grateful. July 23, 2022 at 6:39am Reply

  • My1stGradeTeacher: 💘 July 23, 2022 at 10:33am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Victoria, I always love hearing stories about Ukraine. Any topic that inspires you to write is good. A favourite would be anything about local artisans and their work (embroidery, jewellery, carving, etc etc). Also, artists and their contributions to cultural richness. Thanks! July 23, 2022 at 1:59pm Reply

  • Anastasia: Dear Victoria, beauty and art can uplift us and inspire us for the best. Please continue seeing the beauty, setting aside the petty side of humanity. Thank you for your writing! July 24, 2022 at 6:19am Reply

  • Cathy Wong: Hello Victoria,
    Thank You for such a beautiful and heart warming post. July 24, 2022 at 10:37am Reply

  • Maggiecat: I look forward to hearing more about beautiful Ukraine and its people. July 24, 2022 at 2:44pm Reply

  • denise: I just discovered that you are back and am so happy. Thank you for your always thoughtful and inspiring posts. I can’t wait to read your book July 24, 2022 at 5:57pm Reply

  • Karen A: So glad you are able to help refugees. Keep writing whatever feels right! Family stories, textiles, food, books, fragrances of course – it’s all wonderful! July 24, 2022 at 7:33pm Reply

  • Bernadette: Dear Victoria,
    Please keep the stories coming. Through your storytelling (as well as the comments from your wonderful readers) we are able to connect to something larger than ourselves; live vicariously, seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing about the lives of others and increasing our understanding and compassion. This work you do is noticed and appreciated. It reminded me of this poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox; thank you to everyone.
    Lifting & Leaning
    There are two kinds of people on earth today;
    Just two kinds of people, no more, I say.
    Not the sinner and saint, for it’s well understood,
    The good are half bad, and the bad are half good.
    Not the rich and the poor, for to rate a man’s wealth,
    You must first know the state of his conscience and health.
    Not the humble and proud, for in life’s little span,
    Who puts. on vain airs, is not counted a man.
    Not the happy and sad, for the swift flying of years,
    Bring each man his laughter and each man his tears.
    No; the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
    Are the people who lift, and the people who lean.
    Wherever you go, you will find the earth’s masses
    Are always divided in just these two classes.
    And oddly enough, you will find too, I ween,
    There’s only one lifter to twenty who lean.
    In which class are you? Are you easing the load
    Of overtaxed lifters, who toil down the road?
    Or are you a leaner, who lets others share
    Your portion of labor, and worry and care? July 25, 2022 at 5:33pm Reply

  • nozknoz: Dear Victoria, immense thanks for all you’ve given us over the years through this blog. I never thought that my chance to give back would take the form of donating to refugee assistance, but I accept.
    Also, I completely agree with you re writing about family. I’ve been researching my genealogy and learning about the amazing historical events and times my ancestors were part of, but I have no letters or journals from them, and never thought to ask those I knew when they were living. So much is lost with the passing of each generation.
    Please take good care and know how inspiring and deeply touching your work and writing are. July 26, 2022 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Annag: So good to see more of your writings. I read most blogs first on Feedly and I have looked for you there, daily. My daughter and I love the range of your travels and the overlap of our geography, since my FIL was from a village close of Poltava and my daughter’s husband is from India. I visited Jaipur this year and really enjoyed my trip. Blessings to you and yours. July 27, 2022 at 2:01pm Reply

  • Bregje: Dear Victoria,
    I am so glad that you are able to put these memories and observations into words. It really captures a soul and the beauty of a country where i have never been. I am lost for words most of the time. I don’t know what to think or feel anymore. I don’t understand the need for war and destruction, i just don’t.I guess i am a dreamer.
    On your advice: i have recently noticed how different people in my family have different memories. Some really unexpected ones.It seems like each of us has a part of a puzzle of who a person is or was but even if you put all those pieces together, it would not be that soul. It’s like we can point to it but not catch it.
    Sending you lots of strength and love July 31, 2022 at 11:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your kind words! August 1, 2022 at 10:56am Reply

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