In early 2010 I met my wife, Yuliya. She was living in England with her son James and her daughter Mariya following her immigration from Moscow, Russia, some 20 years earlier.
Yuliya is born and bred in Moscow. In the summers of her youth she spent a lot of time in Ukraine where she partied, as Russians are wont to do, on the shores of the Black Sea around Yalta and Sevastopol (Sebastopol).
It was on one of these summer sojourns that Yuliya’s sister, Ira, met her husband Eugene and in the years that followed they had three lovely children, Louisa, Gleb, and Lev. Sadly, Ira passed away in 2008 and this holiday was the first chance that Yuliya had had since that time to visit Kiev, and the Crimean region of Ukraine to see her extended family.
Yuliya and James had flown out a day or two ahead of me from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England to Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. I flew out on a Saturday morning, arriving just before lunchtime and was met at the airport by Eugene, Yuliya and James. My first impression of Kiev is that it was hot. In August this is to be expected but I don’t think I was prepared for the heat and the humidity.
There was not a lot that is memorable about the drive into Kiev from the airport. We stopped at a small shopping mall for lunch where Eugene introduced us to one of his businesses, a knife shop. James and I were also interested to see hand guns openly for sale in this mall.
We then had our first experience of Ukrainian food. We stopped at a restaurant where we selected from a range of foods and cold beers. Ukrainian food? Well similar in many ways to German food which may or may not enlighten you… There was potato prepared many different ways, beetroot salad, egg plant (aubergine), lots of meats, and plentiful cabbage. In a Ukrainian meal I found you are almost certain to come across mayonnaise in several dishes and sour cream is a must. Caviar and are almost always present and these may also be supplemented with white sauces of one variety or another. I generally enjoyed all the food in Ukraine but I missed my spices quite sorely.
Eugene was kind enough to let us stay at his house with his family and when we arrived I met Yuliya’s mother for the first time as well. She had arrived early to spend some of her summer holidays with her grand children and so I had the honour and pleasure to spend a week in a full and busy household.
Ukraine is a vibrant mix of the old and the new. Peasant farming culture meeting urban sophistication. In the streets you can buy dried fish, meat, fruit and vegetables imported from all over the world and from the surrounding countryside. There is a massive and beautiful river running through the city which, despite the heat, I was not allowed to swim in. Yuliya was concerned that I might get sick but I am still not sure of the rationale for this as the water appeared to be relatively clean (compared to some of the places I have swum) and clearly swimming was enjoyed by the locals.
We travelled around Kiev mainly by trains which ran pretty regularly fro the suburb we were staying in into the centre of town. These were usually standing room only and quite old, but they did the job. I was somewhat amused by the ticket barriers. The system dictates that you pay for your ticket by buying a token at the booth on the way in. You then approach a ticket barrier which does not appear to be a barrier at all. Unless you walk through it without putting your token in at which point two rounded plastic blades slam together in your path. If you are not careful these can inflict some fairly decent bruises, or perhaps break an anwary leg. Whatever, you don’t forget to put your token in again.
The underground railway stations are reminiscent of those in Moscow which others have described better than I can. Huge halls that are designed to impress and as the “peoples’ palaces”. I do recall that Kiev has some huge escalators. Angel tube station is a baby in comparison.
We spent several days walking in and around Kiev city itself. The things that stood out for me were the flower stalls with their masses upon masses of fresh cut blooms which brightened the underground walkways. The architecture of the buildings and the magnificence of some of these. The street markets were fun, with their soviet army souvenirs, wonderful handmade art and knock-off American tat. I also loved black humour that was reflected in the T-shirts and hats advertising the Hard Rock Café Chernobyl, and the T-shirts poking fun at the KGB and the Russian occupation during the cold war.
One building that particularly sticks in my memory is the Department of Foreign Affairs building with its massive and deliberately imposing archways.
One cannot visit Kiev without also visiting the catacombs and the memorial on the banks of the Dnieper River to as the Holodomor, the man-made famine caused by the communists that killed many millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933.
Shortly before the end of our week in Kiev, Eugene and his children travelled down to their holiday house in the Crimea to prepare for our visit down there. They drove the, approximately 680 kilometers. We were planning to travel by train.
During our stay in Kiev, it remained hot all week, no respite. The evenings were cooler but generally we enjoyed temperatures in the low 40’s. On our last day the skies were clear again and the temperature soared into the high 40’s and so it was with some trepidation that we packed our belongings, a bottle of Moldovan red wine, some cheese, meat, bread and water into Eugene’s brother’s car and headed off to the central train station to begin our overnight journey to Simferopol.
The Crimea is a region of Ukraine that has seen its fair share of conflicts over the centuries. The capital city is Simferopol and this is where out train was bound as we left Kiev.
We had booked a four berth cabin on the train which we had to ourselves. It had a sliding door for privacy, bunk bunk beds at the top and seats that converted to beds below. There was a guard in our carriage who would, on request, make cups of sweet black tea for us but there were no other refreshments on the train, nor the opportunity to buy any. There was also, for at least the first few hours of our journey, only sporadic air conditioning and the windows could not be opened so we sat, conserving energy and enjoying the occasional burst of cool air when someone saw fit to turn the air conditioning on.
I am still not wholly sure of why this strange issue with the air conditioning occurred but I think it must be something to do with the fitful stop-start nature of the first few hours of our journey. Once we got up to speed, the air-conditioning was pretty much constant through the night.
The train stopped several times at country stations where we were able to get out and amble around to stretch our legs. At some of these stops there were local women attempting to sell refreshments (including vodka) to the travellers but unfortunately the police were also active and put a stop to the exchanges very quickly. We made do with our warm Moldovan wine and cups of tea.
To be fair the trip was not altogether unpleasant, the view, and the company were good and, when the air-con worked, the train was comfortable. We arrived in Simferopol at about 7:30 am refreshed and excited to see more .
Eugene met us at the station and, because we all felt a little starved of Internet access we chose to eat at McDonalds (perhaps one of this company’s smartest marketing strategies is to provide free Internet access to its patrons – I have certainly been thankful for the service many a time).
After a nourishing McMuffin meal, we set off toward Eugene’s dacha, around 100 kilometers away on the south coast. We stopped on the way to stock up with
supplies for a few days and at various points Eugene pointed out the homes of Crimean Tartars who have started to return to the country after they were forcibly deported to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin’s government because they had, supposedly, collaborated with the occupying Nazis.
The Crimean Tartars were banned from legally returning to their homeland until the last days of the Soviet Union. They are now returning from exile in increasing numbers and resettling in Crimea. this return is, of course, creating challenges with regard to housing and accommodation.
Much of Crimea seems to be quite high above sea level and the land drops off steeply to the water along the shores of the Black Sea. So, as you approach the coast, your descend rapidly from mountainous hills to a craggy shoreline along which you will find hotels, dachas and sanitarium resorts. This region has long been a holiday destination for people from all over the former soviet union and the region.
We arrived at our dacha after climbing up a narrow track from the main road through a little village in the hills. The dacha is secluded at the very end of a dirt track, it is situated on about 1/3 acre of land on the side of the hill and is surrounded by a wire fence. There is a view to the top of the mountain behind and out over the sea to the south.
The next door neighbor’s properties have peach trees which are heavily fruiting and for th emost part the neighboring house are out of sight of our dacha which is surrounded by grape vines, wild rucola (rocket) and trees and shrubs.
The house itself comprises three bedrooms, a kitchen and a covered in porch. The toilet is an outhouse with long-drop, and running water is achieved through strategically placed tanks which are filled each day by a pump from a larger tank on the neighbors property. There is also a sort of “granny flat” which as two rooms and where Yuliya’s father was staying for the summer.
Behind the dacha there is a barbecue area with some steel cupboards which we used to store crockery and cooking equipment, a boon in the summer heat when cooking inside was not a pleasant experience. This barbecue area was furnished with outdoor table and chairs and sheltered by trees and shrubs which provided comfortable shade during the day. Yuliya’s father had set up hand-washing facilities and an outdoor sink so we could even wash dishes outside so all in all we had a -pleasant space for socializing, and relaxing in a very family oriented atmosphere.
Inside the house has wooden floors and fairly high ceilings, it is adequately furnished for a summer holiday home.
Our holiday in Crimea
Our time in Crimea was somewhat idyllic and we soon fell into a pattern that started with our rising with the sun (most days were in the low 40’s) and working together to prepare breakfast outside. Breakfast generally this comprised of cold meats, eggs, caviar, toast and so on for the adults and cereals and yoghurts for the kids. After washing the dishes and cleaning up we would go out to a market, or to visit something interesting in the local area. Over the few weeks we were there we visited Sevastopol (Pronounced: Se-va-stop-ol NOT See-bast-opol as we tend to say in the West) to see the diarama about the Crimean War.
We saw various palaces including the Livadia place (the Czar’s Nicholas II’s holiday home) where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill signed the Treaty of Paris which prought the second world war to an end; and the fabulous Vorontsov Palace with its spectacular views and gardens. We visited markets that were a riot of colors, fruits, vegetables and fish. And we spent a memorable day in Yalta, walking out along the waterside.
One day Eugene and I took our diving gear and swam out to an old weather station, about a kilometer off shore, while we were there we dived for black mussels and managed to collect enough for a great feed that evening. Each day we would also go to the beach nearby where we would relax on the pebbles, dive in the clear water and generally enjoy ourselves as people do on the beach. occasionally Yuliya and I enjoyed a beer or two and some olives at one of the restaurants overlooking the beach and we spent days exploring markets and some of the tourist towns along the coast.
Most evenings we would return home and as the sun cooled we would light a fire with sticks and branches collected from the surrounding area and over the hot coals we would roast the local yellow tomatoes, egg plant, peppers and red onions. These we would then skin and mash with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil to create a “vegetable caviar” which we ate with fish, or shashlick or other meats cooked over the same coals; accompanied with fresh rocket salad and bread from one of the local bakeries.
We also enjoyed the alcohol of the region, ice cold beers from all over the former USSR, and local fortified wines which are plentiful, good and cheap. To buy them you go into a shop which may have a dozen available for sampling and which you then buy by the half litre. BYO bottle!
We learned to keep away from unfortified wines with cyrillic labels, mainly because we had no idea what they were and no matter how many we tried we were unable to find any that could be described as “potable” (let alone “palatable”). I must mention that Yuliya’s father, Viktor, had made a concoction of vodka, sugar and some mountain herbs which we also found strangely palatable after a hot day, and we made big dent in the metre high bottle that he had ready to hand.
All good things must however come to an end, and eventually we had to return to Kiev and from there to the UK to resume our working lives.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed this brief interlude in the Ukraine with the people who were to become such an important part of my life. The evenings around the table, toasting our friends and relatives and the sheer joy of being together in such good company will never be forgotten, I hope that one day I might be able to share an experience in the Ukraine with my family from Australia and, regardless, We will be back.