Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Olga and Tonya

Tonya and Olga, at Tonya's Farm
Lunch with friends at Olga's, after I broke my arm. 

Whenever I saw Olga and Tonya, best friends, riding their bikes up the road, around Lenin Park, through the University, I fairly jumped for joy.  I knew we would have good conversations, updates on what's happening, happy times. We shared news and ideas, made project plans, visited friends at the Cultural Center, the craft fairs, the market.

These kids were fantastic.  Really, kids are the same everywhere.  
Olga and Tonya were French teachers. Olga was doing private tutoring, after several years teaching in France and in Starobelsk, her hometown. She's a community activist and I met her through her work with the human rights NGO Victoria. Tonya, born outside of Kyiv, taught at Korychevka school, on the outskirts of Starobelsk. She also farms and sells her produce in town. One day, she invited me to school to meet her kids; Olga got me a ride there. We were greeted at the door with Ukrainian welcome bread (Korovai, I think it's transliterated), and the kids, some in native dress, performed traditional songs.
Dr. Tonya, who played piano; Elena the voice teacher;
Alosha , her student who was also learning guitar. Incredible talent.
Olga and Tonya introduced me to lots of people, took me to lots of places, taught me about Ukrainian
culture, holidays and traditions. I accompanied Olga to a Krishenia dunk in the icy Aydar river in the dead of winter.  She introduced me to Marfa, a master embroiderer.  We had wonderful meals with many friends like Elena, voice teacher, and Dr. Natalia and her gifted son Alosha (who brought his guitar and sang at English club meetings). Olga helped connect me to Camp Sosnovy, where the kids' curiosity came through.  Olga and Tonya were big supporters of the English Club,  along with Natalia Dohadailo's English students at the university.

Olga was my tour guide on many walks through Starobelsk neighborhoods, able to tell me about the architecture and history of buildings, hidden treasures and hidden terrors, community schools and churches, stories about the Holodomor and WWII.

The idea of a Starobelsk calendar featuring the best of Starobelsk's built and natural environment was born on one of these walks.  I made sure it happened, with the help of Nikolay Molozhon, graphic designer, and others, because I wanted to leave behind a momento of the "sense of place" I had developed in Starobelsk, a booster for the town that everyone who lived there took for granted. Often they saw only the ugliness, but I also saw the beauty.

A highlight of our time together was a train trip to the Carpathian mountains and western Ukraine.  We went to places like Slavsky, Skole, Sokal, and Mookacheva, and since we were nearby, toured Lviv and environs. Glorious! We were quite the quartet: Olga and Tonya, me and Olga's niece Julia, a young woman from Russia who lived with her husband in a small town in the Ural mountains. I was the first American Julia had met.

Our common humanity bound us together as if we had known each other forever.  It transcended every barrier. The four of us became absorbed in a beautiful part of Ukraine, touring pretty towns and meeting the most amazing people, all through Olga's incredible connections across Ukraine--cultural ambassadors, a survivor of the gulags, the head of a modern dairy and seed farm, the mayor of Sokol, the directors of a cultural center, artists. musicians, and a famous sculptor, Ivan Brondi, who we just happened to bump into in the lovely town of Mookacheva.

Stefa and Olga with Ukrainian wreath
In Lviv we stayed with Olga's friends Stefa and Bogdan, who shared fantastic meals and regaled us with Ukrainian songs. They belonged to a chorus and knew them all.  Stefa was a member of Women of Ukraine, as was Olga, and I joined them at a special meeting to which they had invited a well-known bandura player. After that we went on a walking tour of Lviv, a fabulous city, ending the day at the Opera House. My heart swelled with gratitude. Stefa still lives in Vinnetsia, a Lviv suburb, but dear Bogdan has died. I think of them all the time.

Olga was also my tour guide on a trip to Prague and surrounding
towns.  It was a long trip by train and bus from Starobelsk, including a six-hour wait at the border. But stunning Prague was worth every effort. Olga was an expert, connected us to a small tour with a terrific guide, and  took me all around the town, up and down the hills, over the bridge, into the city center. She knew how to travel on a budget, and I did the same.  I think the only thing I bought was a little magnet!

Closer to home, I remember a bike trip to Tonya's farm.  I think it was about 5 miles from town, and I told Olga I wasn't sure I could bike it. You can do it; short trip! Ах, да, вы можете сделать это. Это в нескольких минутах езды велосипед. It was certainly the best way to see the countryside, which made the bike ride seem shorter.  At Tonya's, we walked about the farm, enjoyed a delicious lunch, got to know her chickens and pigs. Yes, those cute little pigs, who became our dinner a few months later. When Tonya and her husband came into town with the fresh meat, the neighbors of Natalia on Kyrova, where I was then staying, lined up, apparently an annual tradition. Natalia is a beautiful, generous and kind person who made me feel at home on Kyrova, right in the center of town. She now lives in Kyiv, closer to her 4 grown kids and her grandkids.

Olga and Tonya made me feel special in sharing their love of country on so many different levels.   They made Ukraine come alive.  They infused the journey with purpose and meaning. They embody everything that is wonderful and good about Ukraine. I will always remember.  Я всегда буду помнить.

A poem for Olga and Tonya, and for Stefa and Bogdan  
Bogdan died not long after I left Ukraine. Such a fabulous, talented man, whose spirit Stefa shared, and keeps alive. Stefa has a daughter and grandkids in NYC but can't get a visa to visit them.  They were among the many people I met, from the east to the west, who embody the essence of Ukrainian history, culture and traditions.   

Може, і пісня з вітром ходитиме, 
дійде до серця, серце палатиме;
може й бандуру ще хто учує,
й серце заниє і затоскує...
І бандуру і мене 
козаченько спом'яне...


Perhaps my song will dance with the wind,
and touch someone's heart, and set it afire;
perhaps someone will still hear the bandura,
and his heart will ache, and yearn...
And a young cossack will remember
both me and my bandura...

Ambrosij Metlynskiy (1814-1870)

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