Today we were leaving Kiev for the Ukraine countryside again, this time by bus. A week earlier, in the same uncomfortable July heat, we had journeyed by electric train to visit my cousin’s dacha (cottage). During the train ride, varied characters sold their wares, indifferent to the sweaty passengers. It was a dilapidated parade of sagging faces and coarse voices, offering everything from newspapers and ice cream to hot piroshki and clothespins to paintbrushes and shoes.
Ukraine CountrysideEven a bit of entertainment came along in the form of several musical parties. One consisted of an old, bespectacled woman pushing along her blind, stumbling husband who played the accordion not too unpleasantly. The couple pushed up their strong and pleasant voices in sad harmony with the music. A second group of clamoring conspicuousness also included a man (fine of sight) with an accordion, a young man with a shockingly long trombone that had outworn its shine, and a third younger fellow who carried a small violin case containing a few lonely coins. As he passed my mother, she nonchalantly placed a wrinkled paper bill into his curled fingers.
The heat had followed us all the way to Piyi, this little village of about 500 where my aunt had made her home after tiring of city life. My aunt now led my mother and me down the grassy path from her cozy dacha where we had left our belongings. Here and there emerged bits of trodden and dried earth, attempting to resemble a road. Tall weeds rose up on either side. But they were very pretty weeds; lots of bold purple, white, and yellow petals armored by rich, green, and jagged-edged leaves. Small white butterflies swam silently by my nose, and I thought that these looked exactly like the ones back home. We were going to the post office and the grocery stores in the village, a half hour’s walk.
To carry our purchases, my aunt brought along a bag on wheels, now empty, that she dragged along the bumpy path, reminding me of an olden-days version of the carry-on luggage we had brought with us on the trip. My aunt was telling my mother that since the selling of products on the street had been legalized by President Kravchuk, this little bag-on-wheels had been named in his honor; therefore, we would be toting our purchases on a “kravchuk.”
The unpaved roadSoon we reached a paved road, but instead of seeing vehicles of any kind, we spotted a large brown cow, chewing, blinking, swatting its tail. It stood lazily on the edge of a field adjacent to a bright blue cottage. Also near the house was a small river where ten or twelve paddling ducks with feathers of the purest white squawked noisily through their hard, orange beaks.
Once we had overcome the hill in the road, there were a few more houses enclosed by quaint wooden fences, painted white or green or brown. Then there was a building on our left that my aunt told me was the “village club”, a discotheque. The grim white columns that graced the front of the building gave it an air of a colonial mansion from the American Civil War era. I tried, without success, imagining flashing strobe lights, pounding music, and sweaty, dancing village people in kerchiefs and garden-stained clothes. Our hike continued, with wild flowers framing the sidewalk that had appeared suddenly, and splotches of dried cow dung adorning the road. A mother hen and her fluffy grey babies scurried out of our path as we approached them.
My aunt, steadily pulling her brown kravchuk, talked about the recent changes in the village. As we passed a rundown building she pointed with her forehead and said, “That is the church. It used to be a bar.” We finally reached a small, whitewashed building with light blue shutters and my aunt slowed her pace for the first time. The sign read “apteka”,or drugstore. But as we entered, my mother was already shaking her head at me and saying, “It’s a post office.” And it turned out to be a post office. The two women behind the counter acted as if they had never seen a parcel before. At least a half hour’s worth of fiddling with ridiculous paperwork passed until our box was finally wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, and sealed with something that looked like hot fudge syrup.
I asked my mother what it was and she had to ask my aunt. When one of the employees, a plump girl who had apparently served herself a heaping plate of blue eye shadow that morning, overheard my aunt’s explanation of the wrapping and sealing process to two ignorant Americans, she laughed and said, “You don’t have this in America?” She smiled widely. It was the first thing I’d actually seen her do or say since we had been in the post office, this laughing and smirking. While our parcel was being finished off by a slim, wispy-haired girl, the haughty plump girl pretended to look busy again with some paperwork that she seemed to turn over and over. Finally, the exhausted slim girl looked up at my aunt who had been holding the money ready in her hand. With my legs aching to sit down, we left the post office, but I was glad to be outdoors again.
We walked on, encountering a few women in the typical kerchief and flower print dress. They each carried some sort of bag, weighed down probably by recent purchases of bread and potatoes, perhaps some butter. We passed several little boys on the sidewalk spinning the wheel of an upturned bicycle as they talked loudly to one another.
The road to town We then approached a store with a bench waiting before it. Several people sat and waited in the shaded heat. My aunt led us into the cool, quiet store that she informed us was one of the latest additions to the chain of privately owned stores in the village. All the stores had been government owned during the Soviet days. Only three people were within the dimly lit store: an older woman sat at one of the small white tables with a little blonde-haired girl. They were chewing silently, together. The one employee working in the store was a weary-looking lady who reluctantly detached herself from her book and stood up as we entered. She waited with an expression of utter boredom as my aunt scanned the scantily clad shelves for what we needed to buy. After discussing with my mother in her breathless rush of a voice, she asked the lady for two beers, a loaf of bread, a carbonated drink, and an ice cream for me.
We gathered the purchases and piled them into the kravchuk. At long last it was filled. My mother and aunt sat down, busying themselves with the ‘sports drink’ that they had purchased, as I discovered a whole new version of ice cream. With each hesitant bite, it tasted more and more like butter–Ukrainian butter. My aunt had to finish it for me, under my mother’s disappointed gaze. As we stood to leave the store, I noticed the two girls from the post office enter the store and begin conversing with the bored store lady. I looked at my watch, barely 11 o’clock. The post office, as I recalled from the sign, closed at noon. I looked questioningly at my mother who turned to me and told me nonchalantly that they had closed early to do their grocery shopping.
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