Before telling the story of how I first met my Ukrainian family, it’s probably better to first tell my (Ukrainian) granddad’s story. From what others have told me, it’s a horribly familiar one.
Surviving Hard Times
My granddad grew up in a village called Tulukiv, near Kolomiya, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. He grew up poor, and once told of his embarrassment at having to queue for state milk at school, when most of his class-mates could afford their own.
His family worked the land at a time when Stalin was starving the country into accepting the Soviet collective, by stealing the harvest and the following years’ seed. He joined the Ukrainian resistance, who fought from their mountain base, but who were wildly out-gunned. He was captured together with his brother and taken to a Siberian camp, where typically 70% died soon after arrival.
He survived, despite being only young at the time (16 or 17), and was given the same choice as the others: stay in the camp, or fight Nazi Germany on the front-line. He knew the Soviets were just throwing bodies at German machine-guns (soldiers were cheaper than armour), but later explained that it wasn’t a choice at all, because Siberia was tantamount to a death sentence if he’d have stayed.
So it was that the brothers went to fight on behalf of their enemy. My grandad was thrown into a battle near Poland, in which 60,000 died. He was separated from his brother, and found himself manning a machine-gun with his best friend. The Germans were in front, shooting at them, and the Soviets were behind, also shooting at them, because Red Army soldiers were deserting their posts or turning their guns on the Soviet ranks. His friend was shot and he was captured by the Nazis. He was forced to leave his friend behind and was marched the length of Europe, ending up in Italy when the war finally ended.
Unbeknownst to each, both brothers survived, but they found themselves on different sides of the divide. Whilst his brother returned home to Tulukiv, my grandad lined up in a queue that eventually led him to England. He went from being refused accommodation to becoming a director at an international textiles company, retiring in peace and comfort, both of which were well-earned.
He doesn’t talk much about his life before England; we understand why and respect that. He couldn’t correspond with his family after the war to let them know he was okay, and most of his family died thinking he’d been killed, with the exception of his youngest sister (who was still alive when word finally trickled through) and of his mother, who died still believing her son may have survived.
Dead Man Walking
She was in a minority. He was assumed dead, and his name was added to the village war memorial, which stood unchanged until 1993, when he visited. The village turned out to see this ‘dead man’ from England, and subsequently replaced the plaque, removing his name. It was thoroughly inconvenient of him!
He still writes to the Ukrainian family, and makes decisions on family matters. But he hasn’t returned since this first visit, in part because of health reasons.
We took the original Ukrainian surname when we got married last year, reverting from the English surname he’d adopted as part of an integration programme. He’d been pleased that we did that, and was even more delighted that we’d be going in person.
Paying a Visit
We came by train from Lviv on a Tuesday night. On the platform waiting to greet us was my Ukrainian family. It turns out they’d all decided to come to the station to welcome us, and had arranged to come back with us to the B&B where we were planning to stay.
Bubski (my wife) got off the train first, all smiles and nervous tension. A little girl stepped forward with an enormous bunch of flowers, presented them to her, and in perfectly-rehearsed English said, “I am Natalia. Niced to meet you. [That's actually what she said!] Welcome to Ukraine.” Bubski is even worse with kids than I am, but did herself proud. She beamed back, looking as beautiful as ever, accepted the flowers, shook hands with the little girl, thanked her for them and introduced herself.
Then I stepped off. I was wearing creased clothes and an old cap, stained and greasy from a night of sweating after being sick in hte toilet following a drastic bout of food poisoning. My face was a nice shade of yellow/green. I was carrying our giant rucksack on my back, which was taking all my energy to hold (I’m old-fashioned, and believe Bubski shouldn’t lift a finger, unless absolutely necessary, or unless she’s really annoying me). I’d had about two hours sleep and my legs were shaky, so the rucksack lurched from side to side, dragging me around as if I was drunk, knocking women and children over as I went. The family kept smiling, but their eyes betrayed them; they looked like the creature from the black lagoon had just stepped off the train.
Halia was the first to greet me. She’s my father’s cousin and would later be our host. She bounded up, all smiles and out-stretched arms, gave me the hug of a life-time, and held my hand tightly in hers, not letting go. She introduced me to Juliana (her daughter), Ivan (Juliana’s husband) and Natalia (their little girl) with her other hand. We held hands all the way out of the station and up to the cars, even though I had to speak to Vitaliy (the English speaking B&B owner) for most of it.
Studied Whilst Speaking
Arriving at the B&B in which we were staying, we got round the table and stared at each other. There was an awkward moment or two, whilst Vitaliy was out getting us coffee and when we tried (unsuccessfully) to communicate with one another. When he came back it was still a little awkward. What do you say to the family you’ve never met?
They welcomed us to Ukraine three or four times. Each time we thanked them and said how pleased we were to be here. I explained that I was ill, and that I wasn’t usually green (the little girl seemed genuinely relieved at that). I don’t think they believed me. I think they thought you could only truly claim illness if it had just killed you.
Whilst I was talking I could see them studying everything about us: eyes, hair, teeth, clothes, rings, body language. I didn’t mind, and probably did likewise, but every bone in my body was screaming at me to get to bed. I kept smiling.
Like me, Halia had a thousand questions, but unlike me, she wanted to ask most of them then and there. I answered as well as possible, with the odd joke thrown in. Occasionally the jokes didn’t translate, resulting in horrified looks, from which Vitaliy had to rescue me.
An hour had passed, and I was fading. I was also conscious that it was only them asking the questions, and I didn’t want to appear disinterested. Then I remembered that they still didn’t know we’d changed our name back to the original Ukrainian surname. Bubski showed them the passports. They were bowled over. Halia explained that we were now the only ones still to carry the family name, everyone else having either died, got married or kept the English name my grandad took
60 years ago. She was visibly touched by this, and even Ivan (silent until now) seemed to respect it as well.
Finally we arranged to meet them on Friday. Ten minutes later, after another three welcomes to Ukraine, they left. We slid off to bed, promising to analyse and discuss in the morning. Usually I’d have lain in bed for hours thinking about something as significant as that, but I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.
The Big Day
Friday came, and they were waiting to meet us in the car park. We were told that Myroslav and Volodymyr (my grandad’s two other living cousins) would be joining us later, and after some photos outside, we were ushered in. Halia lives in a small flat at the top of an old multi-storey apartment block just outside Tulukiv, where she teaches Ukrainian. There’s no lift and a lot of stairs. She’s not young any more, but age clearly hadn’t caught up yet, and she bounded up at a rate of knots.
Once inside, we were shown into the front room. It was cosy, decorated with religious objects and local crafts, among them a giant woven rug hanging from the far wall. A large table filled the room, and it was already laid out with food: cheese, meats, salad, pickles, quiche, crisps, bread and fruit. There seemed to be a seating plan: I was put in the middle of the table, with Bubski to my right. Everyone else then filed in behind.
We were quite quiet at first, partly because there was so much talk anyway, partly because we were so overwhelmed by the gesture of it all. A lot of effort had gone into the preparation and presentation. It couldn’t have been cheap, and they seemed far from well-off. There would only be so many thank yous we could say, so we did our best to just enjoy ourselves and visibly appreciate it.
Everyone could have had three courses and still not cleared half. Each time we took some food, someone would reach for the same bowl and scoop more of the same onto our plates. We never seemed to make any progress towards finishing, and well after we were full, our plates remained mountains of food. It was an exercise in stomach extension.
Just as 'full' was becoming 'painful', Halia brought out the next course: Ukrainian borshch. We’d had no idea there would be more, and carefully avoided looking at each other, concentrating instead on maintaining our smiles and our digestion. The borshch was delicious, the best we’ve had. It was the same for the next course Halia brought out, which again had been a surprise. There’d been no room on the table even before these additional courses, but Halia had wanted to leave everything out, just in case we wanted more. The plates were now stacking on top of each other, like a sort of nutritional Jenga. It looked how my stomach felt.
Myroslav and Volodymyr arrived mid-way through and joined us in eating. They’re retired farmers. Both were dark and weathered, with faces etched by the outdoors. They beamed smiles full of gold teeth that blinded us in the sun that was streaming through the window. Amidst all the talk and chatter, they stared at me. They were looking for my grandad.
The drinks choice was cognac or vodka. We were asked to choose. Wary of what vodka does to unsuspecting English visitors, I opted for cognac, but was out-voted, and we all had a glass of vodka poured by Ivan.
I hatched a plan: Project Sip. It wasn’t complicated, and consisted of me sipping the vodka so they wouldn’t keep topping me up. The plan began to unravel almost immediately. Bubski decided to use her Irish heritage to best effect by knocking the first one back and going for a top-up. The plan officially ended minutes later when my slow progress was spotted by Myroslav who wanted to know why I was sipping it as it didn’t taste of anything. They all burst out laughing. I’d been rumbled. Halia said Bubski could pass for a Ukrainian, while I got a finger-wag. Even the little girl looked disappointed.
Raise Your Glass
Then came the toast. Halia stood up, and all went quiet. She bowed her head slightly, looked at me over her glasses, and started speaking. Vitaliy translated:
It is difficult for us to express how pleased we are that you've come. How much it means. Not only the visit but because you have taken the name. And that you'll be carrying it on. We'd waited 20 years for this. Since my grandad had last visited. We couldn’t come to England because we couldn’t afford it. Even tough we had desperately wanted to visit. We wanted to get to know you all. To build relationships. To rebuild the family. We hope you will enjoy your time here in Ukraine. And that you will come back and see us again soon.
It was one of those moments when time should just pause and everyone should freeze, except you, so you can take it all in. It had only just dawned on me how much I/we/this meant to them. Not for them was this a curious foray into a distant family history, or a nice visit to see relatives in between a bit of hiking. This was a homecoming. Where had we been? Why hadn’t we visited? Where were the others? They’d been waiting.
When the Soviets closed the country to the outside world for half a century, families lost contact, with no way of knowing how those across the border were doing, or even whether they were still alive. This had happened to them. Their family had been torn apart by circumstance. Most of the family had died not knowing, with no communication, no link. But this was 2011: an age of easy visas, cheap flights and holiday entitlement. Yet still, only my grandad had visited, and only once, and that was 20 years ago. They felt abandoned, but were too gracious to say, and too classy to make us feel bad about it.
Time didn’t freeze. Instead, everyone turned to me. The room was waiting for my response.
How do you respond to that? I had no messages to give, no explanation, no announcements and no news that would cheer them or sate their appetite for a re-unified family. My family weren’t planning to fly out, and I was due to return in August. And whilst I can usually think on my feet, Halia’s speech had knocked me sideways.
I spluttered some words out that basically echoed hers. I expressed our gratitude, our happiness to be here, how pleased we were, etc. I wasn’t putting my feelings across. I wasn’t being anything other than polite. I wasn’t even showing that I understood what this meant for them. I explained that we’d changed the name back to the original Ukrainian family surname because we recognised that that’s what it should be, that it represented my heritage, and that we saw the Ukrainian family as our own. But that was it. That was all I had to offer.
They were gracious about it. Volodymyr in particular seemed impressed that we’d changed our name, and I could hear Ivan confirming it to him afterwards, because I caught Volodymyr’s raised eyebrows and the word 'passport'. Seconds later he invited us to his son’s wedding in July. We were honoured and gladly accepted.
We then went back to talking, joking and asking questions. Halia wanted to know about the family in England. Myroslav wanted to know about Manchester United. Volodymyr wanted to know how to say Bubski’s (Irish) name. We all discovered things we hadn’t known. I hadn’t known for example that my grandad’s family had run a village store on the site of his old house.
After the meal, Halia presented us with four bags of presents, for us and our families. Once again, the generosity left us speechless.
We then went to visit the graves. They were all brightly coloured blue, and were well-tended with flowers and candles. I was shown the head-stones of my great grandparents, my grandad’s brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. They were all buried close to each other. Some had died young, whilst others had lived into old age. I wondered what they’d make of our visit, and of us taking the name.
We were then shuttled over to Juliana’s house, which was built on the same site where my grandad grew up. It was in a nice plot, with vast flat fields behind, where Ivan was growing crops. There was a temporary house to one side of the plot, whilst a new property was taking shape to the other. My grandad’s old house had long since been demolished.
We posed outside for photos, initially with the family, then with all their cats, dogs and rabbits. More food had been prepared by Juliana. I think they’d assumed that because we hadn’t eaten for almost two hours, we must be hungry. I’ve no idea how much they think we eat in the UK. It was homemade varenyky, and I surprised myself by eating all mine and some of Bubski’s too. It made her look bad, which was payback for the vodka trick.
After that we were then shuttled off to Myroslav’s family, where there were just too many people to take in. Myroslav’s wife was deaf, and roared when she spoke; when she told us to sit down, all the dogs and half the village did so too. Again, there was food and drink laid out for us, and this time we ate whilst being shown hundreds of photos and a video of the village flood. The flood was interesting, the photos less so. I’ve no idea who the ugly baby was, or why they’d decided to take 17 shots of it from the same angle.
It was 23.30. We’d been there since 13.00, and were all exhausted, especially Vitaliy, who’d come straight from work and who’d been translating for over 10 hours. We explained to Halia that we’d have to go soon, but she said we still had to go to Volodymyr’s house. We thought she was joking, but Vitaliy assured us that she wasn’t. We arrived at Volodymyr’s at about midnight.
It was pitch black, and no lights were on. Halia was unfazed by this, and started banging at the door, shouting for Volodymyr to wake up. She then started shouting at the dogs to stop barking. Neighbours’ lights were coming on. Vitaliy looked like he was about to kill himself. Even Bubski’s bright little star was waning. I hoped and prayed that Volodymyr would take the moral high ground and stay in bed. He did. Halia worried that she’d get in trouble for missing him out. Vitaliy thankfully refused to take that as a cue to think of other ways to wake Volodymyr up, and off we went.
At the End of the Day
Halia grabbed my hand again and held it all the way back to her house. Once there, she said her goodbyes, again welcoming us to Ukraine, telling us how we’d been the best guests she’d ever had, and beckoning us back soon. Finally she let go of my hand, gave me and Bubski a big kiss on the cheek, and left. We grabbed a cold beer each on the way back and reflected on an amazing day.
Bubski asked me at the time how I felt, and at the time I didn’t know. But I’ve had a few weeks now to digest it (both literally and metaphorically).
The Ukrainian family are my grandad’s family, so I’m only third generation. But although the line has stretched and time has passed, that didn’t matter to them. I’d shown an interest, come over to visit, taken the name and wanted to know the history. Because of that they’d rolled out the red carpet and welcomed us with open arms. And because of Bubski’s vodka drinking, we were now basically Ukrainian (well, she was anyway – I’ve got a bit of practicing to do).