Leaving our hearts in Eastern Europe
We’ve been to many places in the world. And there are quite a few countries or regions we would like to visit. Scott’s family background is Ukrainian. His great, great grandparents emigrated to Canada from some small village somewhere in Ukraine at the beginning of the twentieth century. But he knows nothing beyond that. His grandfather even changed the family’s original Ukrainian name – Perchaluk – to a more Anglicized Perchall. Despite having Ukrainian heritage, Ukraine has never been on any list of travel priorities for him. Eastern Europe in general has never had much appeal to either of us except for visiting a friend in Montenegro and our dear friends’ homeland of Poland.
Well that’s changed. We now have a really keen appreciation for Ukraine in particular, but our curiosity about all of the countries of the former Soviet bloc has been awakened. Kiev is nothing like we imagined and we thought that write a quick post to highlight some of the things we loved.
We’ve spent just a few days exploring this city, and the more we explore, the more we want to see. Kiev is an ancient city, dating from the sixth century, and once was the very heart of Slavic civilization that has since become Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. This city has achieved the heights of greatness and prosperity, and also been witness to some of modern history’s heart-wrenching calamities. Monument’s to the country’s great cultural achievements are everywhere in the city. And there are many memorials to the sacrifices made in some of its most tragic experiences, from several invasions of Mongols and the Golden Horde in the middle ages, to the great famine and mass executions of the 1930s under Stalinization, to the Nazi occupation and mass murder of Jews during the Second World War, and the Chernobyl disaster of the 1980s. Ukraine – and Kiev in particular – has witnessed much in its long history.
It has a deep intellectual and artistic cultural history as well as decades of sophisticated military and civilian technological development. There is a lot for Ukrainians to be proud of here.
Obviously, we’ve spent most of our time in Ukraine on activities related to meditation, for which there is a huge demand. But in the relatively short time we had to enjoy Kiev, we got the chance to do some interesting things. And we’ve been lucky to spend the majority of our time with local people.
One of the biggest surprises for us is the food. It’s incredibly delicious and the cuisine is fresh and hearty. Ukrainians take pride in good food. As one of the local meditators here said to us, Ukrainians will tolerate a lot but the food must be good. To compliment them on the meal they offered or prepared is more important than anything else to Ukrainians. Good food is very important and it shows. Throw away any of the notions you have about Ukrainian food – bland cabbage rolls, varenyky (pierogi), or borscht – and replace them with unique combinations of flavours. I should say that borscht is a national favourite for good reason, but borscht here is nothing like what we’ve had at home. We had it several times at the meditation retreats, along with another national obsession, Kompot, a hot drink made from a blend of cooked fruit and spices.
One of our favourite finds is a freshly made cheese, reminiscent of Mozzarella, blended with fresh dill and peppers. We found it in an impromptu street market. We were chatting to the woman selling the cheese out of a little van. She gave Scott a small piece of it to try and he immediately told her we’d take the 1kg block she was selling! We also grabbed some of our favourite Georgian string cheese, both the salted and smoky varieties. It’s basically the same as Armenian string cheese and it’s very easy to become obsessed with.
Georgian food is very popular here. We had a wonderful lunch at a fancy Georgian restaurant with two of the local Vipassana Trust members. If you ever get the chance to try authentic Georgian cuisine, don’t miss it.
Planning a visit to Kiev? You don’t want to skip a place called Puzata Hata – a sort of Ukrainian fast food restaurant. There are several locations in the city and the food is local, fresh and authentic. These are rather large restaurants, some several stories high, and it will be packed to the rafters at lunch. It’s cheap and worth the wait.
Coffee is also on every street corner and we’ve never had a bad espresso or Americano anywhere here. We’re talking Italian quality. Scott and I have an instant connection with any country that appreciates good coffee.
Kiev also has some of the most interesting architecture from the Soviet period. The Soviets were accomplished at creating emotionally moving public architecture. One of the more spectacular examples is the Motherland Monument. At ninety-one meters tall, this mother figure stands as a tribute to the country’s victory over Nazi Germany. At the base of the steel statue is public art that depicts the monumental sacrifices made by ordinary citizens in defense of their country. A perfect example of socialist realist art from the period. Nearby to the museums and the monument there are currently a few military vehicles on display. Among them are recently captured examples of modern Russian weaponry seized in the current war. They belie the claims that violence is being waged without the support of Russia militias. These are modern Russian weapons, including vehicle-mounted BUK rocket launchers and tanks. Yet another reminder of the constant threat that overhangs this great country in the present.
Among the most treasured places to visit is the Pechersky Lavra. This is a sprawling Orthodox monastic complex famous for it’s labyrinth of sandstone caves carved into the hill on which the complex stands. These caves served as cells for devout monks who walled themselves in for years with just a slot for food and air. Today, pilgrims walk through the cave complex, lit with only hand held candles, to pay respect and pray over the holy remains of the monks whose preserved corpses still lay within the sandstone vaults. As with all of the religious sites in Kiev, photography is prohibited, so unfortunately we can’t show you the photos of the spectacular interiors of the caves or any of the churches here. But they are among some of the most beautiful religious structures we’ve ever seen.
After spending a month in Ukraine, our time here is coming to an end. Tomorrow we fly to Germany. We’ll be visiting Scott’s cousin and her family for a couple of weeks and we will post again very soon with an update from Berlin.
Ukraine and the meditators here will always have a special place in our hearts; there is no doubt we will try to be back.