The day– all shades of sand
Adornments– rusted beads
So as not to haggle with a beggar
about a pail from Thebes or the Mount of Kadam
you need to become a barbarian
This is the beginning of the poem by a wonderful Ukrainian poet, Olenka Huseinova. I include it in this blog post because of the sad, amazing, and brave events that are painting themselves into the image of Ukraine. On one level, the poem is a beautiful description of how the day begins in a city, any city in the world. On another level, it brings me, and I hope you too, closer to the Ukrainian culture and society. Let me explain.
I love to travel to new countries and get to know new cultures and the inhabitants of the universe we share. But until I get to know the people of a given country, it remains vague in my mind, as if it were drawn with delicate pastels and its sea of language whispered a mystery of sounds. But as soon as my mind is populated with a single person who inhabits the foreign culture and can communicate with me, the country’s outlines become sharper and its colors more vibrant. It’s as if the country would spring up to live in front of my very eyes because of a single kind soul who takes the time to unravel the mysterious ways of living in their native land.
I was fortunate that Ukraine is one of the countries whose outlines have become more pronounced over time and my understanding of the culture became more nuanced–I began to understand the shades of meaning and ways of knowing. And in the wake of the events that are shaping its present and future right now–the struggle for Ukraine’s political independence from Russia–I’d like to describe a composite portrait of the Ukrainian people I met, so you too can get beyond the vague outlines, drawn with almost imperceptible strokes, and let your mind conjure the images of real people who happen to live there (often not their choice but their fate’s–we could have been one of them–just a thought) .
Imagine the people who are traditional meat-eaters but who’d go out of their way to cook the most delicious vegan and gluten-free dishes for me. Mmmm, can you see how a woman is chopping the cooked cauliflower, mixing it with sliced pickles, adding olive oil, salt, pepper, and voila, a delicious salad graces the table. And do you see the older gentleman who’s telling us stories about the past, about the hard life during the time when Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union? His voice is not tinged with anger or bitterness; he’s only trying to make sense of what twists and turns his young life had taken, thirty years ago, due to the circumstances he had to accept and live in. Oh, and we’re now hidden from view, as a group of people hugs us and wishes us well (we’ve spent a couple of hours together, at a lecture and at dinner, and they are so genuinely sweet and loving). No one knows when we’ll see each other again. And the poet, the poet! She takes my hand and we walk in the streets of Kiev where in two weeks the struggle will begin. We feel like long-lost friends who do not need many words to understand each other’s plight (as poets, as lovers of language, etc, etc, etc). As we walk, she reminds me shyly, “But what about the rest of my poem?”
“With pleasure,” I say, and paste the second verse, as the night embraces the cities everywhere, at some point.
The evening. People gather.
They sit where they please
It’s no longer necessary to look for shade.
Companions keep switching between
semi sweet red
and semi sweet white
Their wrinkles flowing,
“Soon it’ll begin.”
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