Last summer, Lael and I traced footpaths across Europe by bicycle. We connected unpaved routes from Amsterdam, Netherlands to the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains near Lviv, Ukraine. With the exception of a train ride across Germany to shorten our schedule, we rode the whole way and were invested in the subtle changes between places. For example, glutenous dumplings– called spätzle, knedle, knedliky and varenyky— slowly changed from Alsace in France through Germany, Czech, Slovakia, Poland, and into Ukraine. At some point in France, we decided that visiting Ukraine was a priority. Thus, we pointed our tires east. There’s more to it than dumplings, but I’m glad we did it.
Trending towards the east, my mother decided to visit us and to visit our family in Ukraine. The last time she had been to Ukraine was in 1977. Things have changed. At the time, she was allowed to travel only with a tour operator, and only to the cities of Kyiv and Odessa, as well as to the Russian cities of Moscow and Leningrad. Several family members traveled great distance by train to meet her in those cities. Many others remained in the villages, unable to travel for a variety of reasons. This time, we would travel to meet them.
Lael and I make a plan to leave our bikes in Lviv, take a train to Vinnytsia and then a bus to Bershad to meet my grandfather’s family. Traveling through Kyiv from New York City, my mom and my brother arrive in Bershad on the same night on a crowded bus from the city. We spend three days in the small city of Bershad and the village of Romanivka, where my grandfather and his family lived. Most of this story is told in my post entitled “Romanivka, Ukraine”. On my birthday, we visit the site of my grandfather’s childhood home, on a farm in the village. Extended family greets us with a tour of the farm, three meals at three separate houses, and a visit to the cemetery and the church.
Soon, my brother must return to school in Philadelphia and my dad arrives in Kyiv from NYC for the second half of our trip, to visit my grandmother’s family. Our time in Kyiv coincides with the celebration of twenty-two years of Ukrainian independence, since the fall of the Soviet Union. We stay at a small B&B near the city center, a block away from the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or the Independence Square. This is the site of the fiery protests seen in the media only four months later.
For two nights, we enjoy a calm celebratory energy in Kyiv. Well-dressed families walk the streets and talk, purchasing food and drink from vendors. Daytime activities and nighttime performances attract many more people to the city center than usual. Two things are clear after a few nights in Kyiv: Ukrainians love the concept of an independent Ukrainian nation, and, Ukrainians are peaceable en masse.
A large stage is set at the far end of the square, across Khreshchatyk Street.
Street musicians share their craft.
All is calm and the air is cool for a summer night. Kyiv is the capital and the largest city in Ukraine. Near the center of the city is likely the most modern and cosmopolitain part of Ukraine.
My mom and brother are excited to be here.
My cousin Yaroslav and his girlfriend show us around. He is from Bershad, but is now a business student in Kyiv.
Walking towards the Drieper River, we encounter a collage of public art. This colorful arch rises above a prominent statue celebrating Soviet brotherhood between Ukrainians and Russians.
Empowering, even through my cynical historical lens.
Also, a more recent statue of notable Ukrainian figures is featured to the side. Among them are many writers and artists, and several historical military leaders.
None of us can figure out where or when or how the technicolor arch originated, but the scene is surreal and awesome.
Kyiv, like many great cities, is defined and divided by the Dnieper River. This is the largest river in Ukraine.
After nearly a week in rural Ukraine, Kyiv is full of surprises, including exquisite public places, ornate churches, and hundreds of sushi restaurants.
Khreshchatyk Street is closed to motor vehicles for the week.
On our second night in Kyiv, the party begins with musical performances in the afternoon, escalating with the country’s biggest pop stars in the evening.
Everyone is happy. Despite a crowd of thousands and a cultural reputation for alcoholism, the evening is as calm as several thousand people and the best fireworks show I’ve seen could possibly be. This doesn’t happen in America, at least not anymore. Next time you think that another country is failing based upon some scale of modernity or economy, remember the simple things they still appreciate, and all the things we’ve lost. In contrast to Poland, where the economy is growing rapidly, life in Ukraine is simple. Traditions remain strong. People grow food. Rural roads are quiet, relatively few people own cars, and families live together.
As at the end of a ball game, the crowd disperses immediately after the fireworks display. We go home for the night. The streets are quiet once again.