Finding the Wrong Family in Rural Western Ukraine
Story and photos by Michelle Lawson



In an attempt to get to know the place her late father spent his first 27 years, an English traveler returns to his remote village in rural Ukraine to stay with a distant relative.


Ukraine travel story

Yakov flings himself as far as his chain allows, shattering the Ukrainian countryside calm with his snarling and yapping. Yulia yells at him, then turns back to me. "He doesn't like the cow." The demented barking continues until Yulia picks up a stone and flings it in his direction. Meanwhile, the cow ignores everything and continues to crunch through the pyramid of apples on a metal plate.

I've come to Western Ukraine to spend some time in the village of my late father, a Soviet-deported Pole who'd ended up an exile in post-war Britain. I'd made a brief visit last year, when my partner and I had arrived in a gleaming Skoda driven by Andriy, a young Ukrainian interpreter in dark sunglasses. I'd hired Andriy to locate my father's family for me, knowing only that the family had lived in this remote village south of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Death Valley dunesIn a happy blunder, Andriy had located the wrong family. Unknown to me, my father had former in-laws, the family of his young Ukrainian wife who'd died in 1937. Despite my father being little more than a legend to these people, Yulia, the now-elderly niece of the dead girl, welcomed me like a long-lost relative. She'd sat us at the dining table whilst she ran back and forth in a blue housecoat, shouting Tak! (Yes!) as she brought beetroot, mushrooms, beans, and a bottle of red liquid infused with strawberries that Andriy introduced as moonshine. Every few minutes we drank a toast. A toast to that day's festival, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A toast to family, who traditionally gather to eat on this day. A toast to happiness and a toast to the glory of Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!

Yulia invited me to come back and stay with her. "Tak! Don't pay for a hotel, we have plenty of room here," she said, her hands flapping as she walked to fetch more food, her legs crooked from an elevator that collapsed in her sister's Soviet apartment block. The women had entered the elevator to ride down to the wedding of Yulia's niece but instead had plunged fourteen floors down the lift shaft.

Excited at the prospect of a foreign visitor, Yulia shouted out a string of relatives that I should bring with me: my sister, her husband, my daughter and her boyfriend. I imagined their puzzled response to the invitation; Why would we visit Ukrainians we didn't even know existed? I, however, was determined to return, but I'd come back alone, to experience the village from the inside. I didn't want my perceptions to bounce off a fellow traveler.

A Spot Beside the Dead Relatives

Before we left, Yulia handed me gifts of honey, preserved mushrooms, and moonshine. I placed them in my bag, next to a little box of gritty powder that reminded me I had an outstanding task. "I have some of my father's ashes with me," I whispered to Andriy. "Is it possible for me to leave them somewhere?"

Ukrainan village

Yulia's sister-in-law Daryna then walked me up to where the village dead lay in neat rows across the hillside, their weathered expressions captured in photographs imposed onto oval frames or etched into shiny granite. She stopped before an older unpolished headstone. "My father-in-law," said Daryna. She bent down and scrabbled among the dry heather, then pointed at the little hole she'd dug and the box of ashes. I hesitated. I'd envisaged throwing the ashes over the hillside, giving him a view of his homeland. Instead, I obeyed Daryna and poured my father's remains into the earth above his Ukrainian brother-in-law. Daryna bent in prayer and I did the same, silently reciting what I could remember of The Lord's Prayer.

Daryna kept walking, looking for something or someone, until she stopped at an elaborate headstone of an elderly head-scarved woman with an enigmatic, Mona Lisa smile. "Justyna," she said. "Your cousin." My father's in-laws had shaken their heads each time I mentioned my actual blood relatives, referring to them as other people, the biological family who were proving hard to track down. Now I was face to face with my father's niece. Justyna had had fifteen children. Trouble was, no one knew where any of these cousins were. I suppressed an urge to go back and scoop out my father's ashes and bed him down with an actual blood relative.

A Journey Back to Ukraine

Now it's a year later. I leave my seat on the pothole-dodging bus with its swaying blue curtains, damp with condensation. Over the year I've learned enough Ukrainian to start up conversations among the back roads and bus stations. People take an interest in my journey, shouting out the same questions: Zvidky? (Where are you from?), then following up my response with Why are you here?

Fellow bus passengers swap phone numbers with me and nip off the bus to buy me bananas. I recycle the words and phrases I've learned, accepting that I often misunderstand, but grateful for what I manage to comprehend. I'm more worried about finding Yulia's house, for which I have no written address. All I remember from last year's visit is that it stands alone on the edge of the village, with a hill behind it.

The road into the village is a rocky track that's more like a dried-up-riverbed. The bleached stones reflect the heat of the sun as I lumber along, weighed down by my backpack. The roads have no names and the houses have no numbers. The dome of the church, gleaming in the far distance, is the only landmark I recognize.

Ukrainan village scene

After half an hour of ankle-wrenching steps, I see the turning that I think might lead to Yulia's house. People sit in a nearby garden and look bemused when I say I'm looking for Yulia. A woman comes through the gate. "Where in Poland are you from?" she asks.

"No, I'm from England."

She shakes her head, exasperated at my inability to understand myself. "No," she insists, pointing to the ground, "Here is Ukraine. We"—she points back between herself and me—"you and I are in Ukraine. But you have come from Poland."

"No, I'm English." I repeat who I'm looking for, but as I say it, I realize I've been calling Yulia by her original family surname, not her married name, which I never wrote down. A young woman walks past, overhears the conversation, and points up the lane. "She wants our Yulia!" She makes a call and tells me to walk. "Yulia will come down and meet you."

I continue walking and soon a tiny figure appears with a familiar lopsided gait. We wave and our smiles grow wider as the distance between us dwindles. I hug Yulia, conscious that I'm soaked through and it hasn't been raining.

ukraine guest houseYulia serves a clear noodle soup with dark brown rye bread, and I shuffle the plates around to find room for sliced kielbasa sausage, beetroot and two jugs of home-made kompot juice. One is recognizably cherry, but the other, a pale yellow with colorless fruit, puzzles me.

"Kapusta," says Yulia.

The fruit is smoother than any fruit I know, but the juice itself reminds me of pear. I draw a rough pear shape in my notebook and Yulia nods as I chew through a few more pieces of unusually slippery pear. A week later I discover that the pear is cabbage.

I hand Yulia a pack of 'West Country Tea' and out comes a bottle of moonshine. We toast each other. My instinct has brought me to the right house. We will understand each other. Yulia's patience and a little moonshine will go a long way. The plates go back into the fridge and reappear three times a day over the week. Food waste is separated into two buckets, one for the pig and a smaller one for Yakov, the guard dog chained outside.

Yulia's phone rings constantly and she tells whoever is calling that Michelle is here and she's speaking Ukrainian now. To every caller she recounts the stages of my journey, ending with the information that I'd walked into the village with a big backpack.

"Yulia?"

"Tak?"

"While I'm here, I want to help." I move as if to rise. "Can I wash the dishes?"

Yulia flaps me back down. "Not necessary! Sit and eat and drink!"

An Awkward House Guest

That evening I sit in the living room to write, while Yulia moves into her mother's room, where they lie on single beds and watch political programs. "You can go to bed when you like!" she reassures me as she converts the living room sofa into a bed. She knows without asking that my backpack contains nothing as useful as a nightdress and hands me a white and pink flowery cotton gown, along with the blue housecoat she'd run around in last year.

When I do get into bed, I lie wide awake, disturbed by the unfamiliar sensation of sleeping in a room where the hall light beams through in case someone needs the bathroom. Yulia's bed is visible through a propped-open door from the living room into her bedroom. I'd assumed she would close it, but she hasn't, and I'm nervous of breaking whatever protocol keeps it open.

I nestle into the musty pillow, pull the thick blanket over my head and drift off into a fitful sleep, my mind telling me I'm still twisting my ankles on the track into the village. Before long, a frenzy of barking shatters the silence. Yakov's hysteria rises at something out there in the dark. He stops and starts at intervals, but there's no movement from Yulia. How does she discern between barks that need investigating and those that she can ignore? I resign myself to a night of disturbance and then wake up to blanched light filtering through the net curtains at 8.30am.

Life in a Ukranian Village

"Michelle, today we are going walking in the forest!"

We carry bottles of milk from the cow along a path through the woods and out onto the main track, where we hand over the milk to a woman in her garden. Yulia introduces me as her English relative. "Her father was married to our Varvara." She lists the stages I've taken to get here, followed by the onward destinations. "She's going on to Rakhiv, in the Carpathians, then to Chernivtsi, then Kamianets-Podilskyi, then Ternopil, then back to L'viv!"

Ukrainan village haystacks

On our return we cross a field with a row of pear-shaped haystacks, and I stop to photograph them. "Selfie!" cries Yulia, running over to stand in front of one of them. When I recover from hearing Yulia's first and only English word, I capture our faces beaming against the hay.

A dog follows us. My memory tells me the word for dog has something to do with Star Wars. I point at the dog, sniffing the edge of the road, "Chewbacca?"

"Chewbacca?" Yulia frowns. "Ni, Sobaka," she says. I try to repeat it, stumbling over the word, and she shouts it back at me. "Tak, Sobaka! Sobaka! Tse sobaka." It's a dog.

"Why are you shouting about a dog, Yulia?" A woman, her face creased with suppressed laughter, stares at us from her garden. We go through the usual rigmarole of who I am, how I got here and my onward journey. By now I'm word perfect, not just nodding and smiling like a halfwit, but instead completing Yulia's sentences as if we're an old couple.

Before dinner I sit outside with the cow to gain a signal for the phone. But scrolling through the political mayhem in England is nowhere near as engaging as watching Yulia, followed by the cat, stroll with crooked-swaying steps to free the cow's chain from its tether. She trails behind the beast, its shackle slithering through the grass, until Yakov announces their arrival at the milking shed.

Ukrainan cow

That night after dinner, Yulia and I sit at the table and I pull out the Lonely Planet, thinking we could manage a conversation around the photographs. I point to Kyiv, knowing she's been there. But she hasn't been to many other places. "How could I?" she asks. She launches into the obstacles: work, bringing up children, being widowed in her 40s, and now looking after her mother, the pig, and the cow.

My cheeks burn in shame that I, immensely privileged in comparison, have been so insensitive to ask Yulia about travel. All those times she'd recited my itinerary to people, I'd nodded along, slightly embarrassed at having my relative wealth articulated, although Yulia had seemed proud. But pride in recounting a visitor's exploits to others isn't the same as having your face rubbed in something out of your reach.

She worries about my impending trip to Rakhiv, in the Carpathians. Would I like to take some of her socks? No, OK, but what about this fleece jumper? And Rakhiv has a reputation. I must be careful of the dirty men and thieving children.

An Image From the Past

I reassure Yulia and ask to see her family photographs. As yet I've seen little tangible evidence that this village had been my father's home for the first 27 years of his life; apart from photographs of the elusive family, I have only the name of the village written in his 70-year-old spidery handwriting. Curious villagers, asking Yulia who I am, have recounted a few passed-down anecdotes about him, but I was hoping for something more concrete; something to root myself in the village.

Yulia brings out a box and we sit at the big table, passing around images of the children, the grandchildren, Yulia at school, Yulia busy with her work colleagues, Yulia with her husband at weddings. Yulia's husband lying in his casket, a withered version of the smiling family man. He'd driven a vehicle transporting goods to or from Chernobyl in the spring of 1986 during the nuclear power station meltdown. Ten years later he'd died of a lymphatic disease.

At the bottom of the pile is a faded color photograph of a woman and a child standing in front of familiar green hills. At the time of the photograph I'd been on holiday in North Devon, although nowadays I live there. "Who's that?" asks Yulia. She catches sight of my face. "Is it you?"

Ukraine cemetery crosses

I nod, speechless. Last year, Yulia's mother had told us that my father had sent them photographs of his English family. Now they're on the table before me, a visual record in rural Ukraine of my English childhood. And although the box contains no old photographs of my father here in the village, Yulia has plenty of him sent from England. I wonder whether my mother had had any idea that some of my father's correspondence to the USSR had gone to a second family, of in-laws.

Yulia puts away the box of photographs and I walk out into the twilight. From the top of the field the village has melted into dusk's deepening violet, all apart from a single square of golden light from Yulia's window. The house merges into the sky and a silhouette fractures the blaze of gold as the cow moves across the window.

A week later, the Soviet blocks opposite my hotel balcony in Rakhiv similarly dissolve into the inky Carpathians. Yulia had been right about this place. The air is different tonight, and it's not just the approach of autumn. Sharp and acerbic, the air stings my lungs as I breathe deeply on the balcony. Swamped in daytime by warmth and traffic fumes, at night the valley casts off its cloud and embraces the descending mountain air.

Tonight I'll sleep in a room with a closed door. There'll be no need to put my head beneath a blanket to cut out the light of the hallway, and I won't worry about my restlessness disturbing Yulia a few feet away. All I have is darkness and the silence of a mountain town at sleep. A silence I'd happily exchange for a minute or two of Yakov's demented barking.


When Michelle Lawson isn't writing or teaching Applied Linguistics, she likes to be halfway up a Pyrenean mountain or peering through a Ukrainian bus window. Her study of English settlers in the French Pyrenees became a travel memoir: A House at the End of the Track: Travels Among the English in the Ari├Ęge Pyrenees. She's written for TripFiction literary wanderlust site, French-property.com, and Idle Ink magazine. Michelle also writes fiction with a sense of place: her debut novel, The Wicked Game, was published in 2019. Learn more about Michelle's books and travels at: www.michelle-lawson.com or follow on Twitter @MichelleL_Dr.




Related Features:
Kishka and Kasha in the Ukranian Countryside - Judith Fein
The Cradle of Russia: Frozen in the Golden Ring - Antonia Malchik
A Russian Life - James Michael Dorsey
A Gun for Bears and Russians on Georgia's Ossetian Military Road - Stephen M. Bland


See other Europe travel stories from the archives


Read this article online at: https://perceptivetravel.com/issues/1020/ukraine.html

Copyright © Perceptive Travel 2020. All rights reserved.


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Books from the Author:

A House at the End of the Track: Travels among the English in the Ariège Pyrenees

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The Wicked Game

Buy The Wicked Game at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Kobo Canada






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