ukraine: 32 posts

Lilac Chronicles

When Asya, my great-grandmother, traveled, she always came back with a sapling wrapped in damp newspapers. Asya’s doctor prescribed for her mineral water treatments for her chronic kidney ailment, and she often went away to take cure. But I rather think that she was on a mission to collect as many flowering plants as possible. Once back, her suitcases thrown on the bench in the yard, she went into the garden–still in her heels and hat–and planted the drooping seedlings. Some wilted, but many took root, filling the air with their fragrance–roses, carnations, lilies, jasmine.

Asya’s favorite plant was lilac. She brought them from every trip, from every visit to a greenhouse or a flower market. When I can’t fall asleep at night, I often imagine the path into Asya’s garden flanked by two tall lilac trees that bend towards each other. I count the lilac varieties and try to remember their scent, but usually slumber overtakes me before I get past the tenth bush.

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Pysanka Easter Egg Museum in Kolomyia, Ukraine

Decorating eggs is an ancient tradition, still alive in many countries, from Iran to Greece, but in Ukraine it becomes an art form–and a national obsession. Pysanka, as the decorated egg is called, from the word “pysaty”, “to write,” is  one of the most important traditional arts in Ukraine. Today pysanka (plural is pysanky) is prepared around Easter, although decorated eggs were also used to be given as birthday gifts and wedding presents. Each region has its own set of symbols, colors and patterns, while each master adds their own signature touch.

It’s not surprising then that Ukraine should have a museum dedicated to the pysanky. The Pysanka Museum in the western Ukrainian city of Kolomyia is one of the most fascinating museums I’ve visited. The museum was a labor of love of the local community that collected the best examples of its pysanka masters and preserved them in the Kolomyia church of the Annunciation. In 2000, the museum was formally opened, allowing for preservation of the fragile masterpieces, as well as for hosting workshops and lectures. Walking through its halls filled with more than 1000 pysanky is a mind-blowing experience. It’s hard to believe that such intricate designs are made by human hands.

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Easter Eggs Colored With Onion Skins

I see the Easter color palette as yellow, violet, green, and sienna. Yellow is from the saffron tinted paska, a vanilla scented brioche we traditionally make for Easter Sunday. Violet is from the candied flowers we use to decorate it. Green is from the dill and cucumber salad that must accompany the roast pork. Sienna, on the other hand, is from the color of Easter eggs. It’s a rich hue, between the reds of Sienna frescoes and the brown of sandalwood. This color is completely natural and making it is very easy. All you need is a few handfuls of onion skins.

My grandmother starts collecting onion skins a few months before Easter, but she colors dozens of eggs. Most of us need no more than a few onions, although the more skins you have, the darker the color will be. It also follows that the darker the onion skins, the more intense the shade of sienna.

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Cucumbers and Honey

Have you ever tasted a slice of cucumber dipped in honey? The combination reveals that at its heart, cucumber is  a fruit.

While the pairing of cucumber and honey may sound like an invention of young Danish chefs, it’s a classical Ukrainian duo and the ultimate taste of summer. By the time my great-grandmother was ready to harvest the first batch of cucumbers from the vines, the mild acacia honey would become available at the market, and the two went perfectly together, an earthy green and floral fragrance and the taste of sea and violet leaves in one mouthful. I couldn’t even unravel which nuance was of the cucumber and which of the honey.

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Petrykivka and Gogol : Colors and Scents

The colors and images of Petrykivka, one of the traditional Ukrainian arts, are vivid and joyous. Fire birds take flight among branches laden with fruit and fantasy blossoms. The artists believed that such colorful images protect people from evil spirits, and looking at the complex and happy ornaments of Petrykivka I can’t help thinking that there is something to the idea of art as talisman.

Petrykivka is considered as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the village of Petrykivka in the Dnipropetrovsk region still boasts many artists. I wrote about my visit two years ago, and anyone can tour the art studios, take a class or simply admire the paintings. Those of you in New York, however, have a unique chance to experience this art in person as The Ukrainian Institute of America hosts the exhibit Petrykivka: A Ukrainian Folk Phenomenon and Living Tradition from April 8 to April 30. The collection presented is based on discoveries by Natalie Pawlenko and Yuri Mischenko and features 47 paintings by some of the most renowned Petrykivka artists.

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