My best Christmas present of 2021 was a subscription to Storyworth from my son & daughter. It required me to write a prescribed essay weekly for one year, at the end of which they will be published in book form. This is the second essay.
In the 1960s, I spent four years in Kharkov in Eastern Ukraine, studying at the medical faculty. One summer’s day, Sasha, my Ukrainian room mate, invited me to spend a weekend with his family in their village.
At the end of a long bus journey through the flat Ukrainian countryside with endless wheat fields, we arrived at Sasha’s tiny village with wooden houses with tiny gardens at the edge of a forest. Sasha’s parents had never seen anybody of my skin colour before but their welcome was warm. The house was neat and cosy, decorated with red and white embroidered Ukrainian fabric. The traditional white-washed, wood burning large bric oven (печьka) sat in the middle of the large room. Sasha’s grandmother made her bed on top of it.
That evening we drank neat samogon – grain spirit distilled in the garden shed by Sasha’s father, ate Borscht with large chunks of chicken in it, golubtsi – Cabbage stuffed with rice and Vareniki – dumplings with black cherries from the garden laced with honey.
Before we went to bed, Sasha’s mother placed a large basin of warm water in the middle of the room, and as was the custom, everybody washed their feet in it. Being the house guest, I was invited to have the first go!
Next morning we ate buckwheat Kasha and Kefir for breakfast and drank black tea, packed sandwiches for lunch and went fishing in the river that ran through the forest. “Let’s dive for crayfish” Sasha suggested. We stood in the river, found the crayfish holes in the vertical parts of the riverbank and stuck our fingers in them. The crayfish clamped their claws on the fingers and we dragged them out and threw them ashore. Soon we had a small pile of them. We sat round the fire we lit, roasted the crayfish and had them with bottles of beer we had in the river to keep cool. We did not catch any fish though.
Back home, they showed me the pit with a trap door in the back garden where they store meat in the winter. “Sometimes, bears would come from the forest and try get in to the pit for a free meal” Sasha’s father said.
That evening, I cooked the rice and lentils I brought with me from Kharkov for supper. Sasha’s mother grilled lamb and made a salad. We drank more samogon. Sasha’s mother played the Bandura (банду́ра – Ukrainian guitar) and we sang folk songs.
The next morning I said goodbye to the family and I took the bus back to Kharkov. Sasha’s parents walked with me to the edge of the village and before I got in the bus, gave me a little bag with a jar of honey and a bottle of samogon.
That was my first weekend in a village in the Ukraine.