Monday, September 10, 2007

Tustan Saga, Part 3: Our Hosts

Upon our arrival to Urich, we sought out the festival director. Not only was he a close friend of Myron's, but he was to have arranged overnight accommodations for us in a local house. Unfortunately, those plans fell through, but he had reserved a hotel room. Since the hotel was not within walking distance of the festival, and Zenik was returning to L'viv, we sought alternatives. Zenik found an elderly couple willing to take us in for the night.

Vasyl and Nadia spend their summers in the village, tending to their 30+ beehives. We approached their home, crossing a rickety wooden bridge over a small, gurgling river. We were met inside by a smiling grandparently duo who treated us like family. In fact, our unannounced visit displaced some family members who also planned to stay with them for the night, but more about that later. You can see Vasyl to the right. Unfortunately, the camera batteries died before Erik could take photos of the whole family and the house (and his replacement batteries were duds).

Their homestead consisted of a four-room house, a large shed, and an outhouse. Entering the house, we were immediately greeted with the sweet, floral scent of honey. Evidence of the beekeeper's trade was everywhere: honey on the stove, jars of honey on the counter, honeycombs stacked against a wall, and a couple of bees flitting about. The kitchen doubled as the entryway, and was dominated by a large, wood stove on which several pots were simmering. A small table and a hutch full of dishes completed the room. The house has no running water, so no sink, and of course, no dishwasher. Nadia washed dishes in pots of water that were scattered about the floor; similar pots and bowls were outside catching rainwater for indoor use.

Nadia quickly escorted us to the second room - the living room - where she had just finished lunch with Vasyl. We were invited to share a toast - actually four vodka toasts - along with some sausage, bread, and entire cups of honey. The conversation was in Ukrainian, with a little Russian sprinkled in for Erik's benefit. Our introductory celebration lasted for about 45 minutes, after which we stored our bags in the bedroom, and headed to the festival.

A word about the fourth room. We did not see this room until our second day, and it was a sight to behold. This room was a workshop for honey preparation. Hives, wax, jars, and various implements were all around. You could practically taste the rich, sticky liquid by just walking in the room. Their honey is indeed delicious, and quite unlike the sugary stuff that Americans squeeze out of plastic bears. It is a dark, amber substance that is a bit cloudy with small pieces of wax, and has a deep flavor that spreads across your tongue as you spoon it in your mouth. We took home a liter of it!

Over the course of several conversations, we learned a bit of Vasyl and Nadia's history. Vasyl's ruminations on various subjects are worthy of their own entry, and he will receive that treatment in the next posting. But, here is a summary.

Vasyl was born in Poland, though he does not remember the name of village. At the age of thirteen, during WWII, he witnessed his parents gunned down by Bandera's men. "I have seen such horror," he said, "If the Germans had killed them, I would have understood. It was war. But these men were 'ours.' That I cannot understand." Orphaned, he ended up in the Soviet Union. He eventually worked for the KGB in a prison, served in the Soviet tank corps, and became a "big party man, a big boss" responsible for distribution of products to over twenty regional stores. He is a honorable man, and proud of his service to the Soviet Union.

Nadia's family is from Urich. Her grandfather was a very successful farmer who was labeled a kulak during Stalin's collectivization program. Their land, buildings, livestock, and almost everything else was confiscated for the collective farm (the house we stayed in was left to the family). Her grandfather was sent to Siberia. Her father became the lead photographer for the region, and was also an artist. He helped local theater companies design sets, painted portraits, and was an all-around artist. She is the main beekeeper in the house, and was constantly tending to the bees and the hives at all hours.

They have four children and seven grandchildren, some of whom visited during our 36-hour stay. When we returned in the evening from the festival, the other guests were finishing dinner. They departed for a party and we sat down for an evening of conversation, food, and drink. Lots of drink.

We had countless toasts with Vasyl, draining the end of one vodka bottle, then consuming another. Nadia continually brought more food: tomatoes with mayonnaise, sausage, bread, boiled chicken, and encouraged us to eat. We continued to eat past the point of being hungry to honor her hospitality. On occasion, we were able to convince her to sit down with us and share a drink. She preferred wine and joined in a couple of toasts.

As Vasyl reached for another vodka bottle to open, we convinced him that it was time to sleep (it was around midnight). All four of us were led to the bedroom where we stayed in the single beds and on the floor. Our hosts shared the small couch in the living room. When their family returned later that night, they ended up staying in the shed and in their van. In total, 18 people shared the space overnight.

During our unannounced stay, we were treated to meals, drinks, and hospitality unimaginable to Americans. They would not take anything in return for hosting us. But we were able to slip them a little extra compensation for the honey.

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