ukraine: 43 posts

Asya’s Secret

Happy Nowruz! Happy Persian New Year! Happy Spring! Two days ago I recorded a short film for my Instagram stories about something I learned from my great-grandmother, Asya, but some of you asked me to put it into text format to be able to re-read it. Since Asya’s message is inspiring and uplifting, I thought that today would be ideal for sharing it here. You can watch the film in my Instagram highlights.

My great-grandmother Asya was born in 1915. She was a beautiful woman, with wavy dark hair, almond-shaped eyes and a Rubenesque figure. A rose-scented red lipstick was always in her purse as was a bottle of perfume. I don’t recall her using them, but she loved these items as she did her carved tortoise combs and lace collars. She was the most vivacious person I knew, always ready to crack a joke or make light of things. That trait of hers might have served her well, because being born in 1915, she lived through the dawn and dusk of the Soviet Union, with the Bolshevik Revolution, several famines and two wars in between.

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Lindens, Ukrainian Weaving, and Nataliya’s Other Favorite Things

I like meeting people who pursue their dreams. My friend and partner on our Ukrainian Scent and Taste Adventure, Nataliya Cummings, studied theater in Ukraine, lived in an anarchist community, researched traditional weaving and created an art festival. She now lives in the UK, but she spends most of her year traveling in Ukraine and helping other people fall in love with this fascinating and yet unknown country. Today I want to introduce Nataliya to you.

Nataliya started her travel company Experience Ukraine shortly after moving to Hereford in the UK about 10 years ago, but the genesis of the idea came earlier. After completing her theater studies degree at the university, she started to create art events for children in collaboration with the Longo Maï community. Since children couldn’t travel to cities to see plays and performances, Nataliya decided to bring theater to them. Her experience was so exhilarating that she moved to the village of Nyzhnie Selyshche in the Transcarpathia, a region in western Ukraine. (It’s the same village where we will be staying during our Ukrainian Scent and Taste Adventure this summer.)

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Green Perfumes : Spring Inside You

I grew up in the city, but every summer I traveled to Poltava to spend several months with my great-grandparents. In the Soviet Union, grandparents functioned almost like a second pair of parents and such an arrangement was normal. My great-grandparents, Asya and Sergiy, lived in a village near Poltava, and their parenting was down-to-earth, literally. From an early age I knew how to prune tomatoes, plant beans and trim rose bushes to grow one perfect blossom. Asya and Sergiy are no longer alive, but we still have their garden. When I return to their village, I find myself remembering how to do things I haven’t done for ages–planting, weeding, or pruning.

February is still a month when one can only talk about new planting projects, but I like to walk around the garden and see how it’s wintering. Lately, I’ve been reminded of a scent I always associate with spring–that of fresh buds. Cut a few branches and place them in warm water. A couple of days later, the buds start to burst and their scent of green leaves, bitter sap and sweet woods is the embodiment of spring.

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Postcard from Ukraine : Kalyna Berries

Guelder rose berries, called kalyna in Ukrainian, taste like cranberries and have a bitter-sour scent reminiscent of almonds and lingonberries. After the frost hits them, they lose their tannic pungency and become sweeter. They’re known to be a panacea for colds and sore throats, but we leave ours for the birds. The truth is that we prefer their red glimmer among the bare branches. No other sight is more quintessentially Ukrainian. No other plant has richer symbolic meaning.

In Ukrainian folklore, kalyna represents female beauty–the effervescence of youth with its delicate white flowers and mature sensuality with its red berries. Red stands for passion, and so the crimson hue of the berries represents love. If you look closer at Ukrainian embroideries, you can see kalyna berries and flowers telling their story of life coming a full circle.

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Postcard from Ukraine : Lavra and Cornflowers

One of my first rituals on returning to Kyiv is to visit the Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra, the 11th century Monastery of the Caves, to see the painting of Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur (1900-1961) in The Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art. At a time when the only acceptable art style was socialist realist, her paintings of flowers were subversive. She was refused admittance to art school or even a transfer out of her village, although her paintings were exhibited abroad as a showcase for the success of Communism–“see, even our peasants can create art.” Pablo Picasso once said of her work, “If we had an artist of this level of skill, we would make the whole world talking about her!”

Those of you who shall be joining me on the Ukrainian Scent and Taste Adventure this year will be discovering more about Ukrainian art as part of the trip. And those who are planning a trip to Kyiv shouldn’t miss a visit to the Lavra complex. I recommend setting aside a whole day for it, because besides The Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art and the stunning churches (each with different wall paintings), you can descend into the caves bearing the remnants of the saints who came to this hill above the Dnieper River as early as 1057.

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