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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sweet Enticements From the Heart of Ukraine

In the gathering autumn dusk, two old Volgas race each other out into the Ukrainian heartland. Neither of them knows the way.


At the destination of this journey, the tiny village of Yaroslavka, a huge bowl of fat cherry vareniki -- sticky fruit dumplings -- waits. A family waits too, watching the vareniki slowly spoil. As the evening lengthens, a shadow of disappointment creeps up and throws itself over them like a grey veil.


The Volgas race on, carving a wide circle around the village before settling uncertainly on the right road at nightfall. The family waits still, quelling hopes regretfully, accepting at last that their guests are not coming and the promise will be broken after all.


The promise is mine. It was extracted on my last visit to the home of Misha and Anna Yarmolenko in Yaroslavka, two hours drive east of Kiev -- if the driver knows the way. "When your parents come to Russia," said my self-appointed second father Misha, "bring them here to meet us." And I said yes.


The promise which is the easiest to make and the easiest to break is the one answering all those invitations to come back again: "Of course I'll be back." At the time it seems unthinkable that the traveler might not cross this place again, might never look into those friendly eyes, grasp those same rough hands again.


But back in Moscow that friendship becomes just the last story. You already wrote it. If you want to cover the vast expanse of the former Soviet Union in a few short years, the rule for sensible journalists surely must be never to go back to the same place twice. No point in being sentimental about it.


The first time I came to Yaroslavka the landscape of silvery mud and bare grey trees unrolled like an old monochrome poster, lit by the red sparks of the fires of peasants warming themselves on the roadside. There were no cars except our own -- just babushkas riding their bicycles with the steady knowledge of the distance ahead, fluffy horses drawing carts with rugged-up families, and rose-cheeked people walking with even pace all the long distance home.


The first time, I stayed in Yaroslavka just long enough to prove my head for the local samogon, or moonshine, and to promise to return in summer to taste the strawberries. After a few hours it was time to pull free of the Ukrainian bear-hugs and traipse back along the muddy lane to the car.


But Misha had gotten there first. He was waiting there grinning with a big bucket of water beside the car. And there he squatted in the road and took my boots one by one. A few hours ago we had been strangers. But he bent and carefully washed the mud from my shoes and put them on my feet. The mud splashed away onto the wet road but something of Ukraine stuck to me.


When Yaroslavka pulled me back a second time, the garden was full of the bounty of summer and butter yellow chickens were running around our ankles. "I knew in my heart you would come," said Misha.


Next thing, I was whisked off into the cottage, and behind the embroidered linen curtain in the window I found myself following the clucked orders to peel off my Western layers. The costume of another time and place -- my blue silk shirt and my red jeans -- lay in a crumpled heap on the bed. When they hunted out babushka's old Ukrainian costume from the back shed, I did not suspect that this was what they had in mind.


Standing awkwardly for that moment between one set of clothes and another, I felt like some soft-bodied creature whose shell had been taken away. Some part of me was being torn gently away and I was not sure whether I was going to need it again or not. But there was nothing to do but plunge in. The entire family was lined up outside the door waiting for me to emerge all dressed up as a ukrainka, a devushka from Ukraine.


There was a white cotton shirt with gay flowers embroidered on the shoulder; a petticoat that fell just below the level of a shiny purple skirt to show off the pretty lace hem; a little apron over the skirt and a grey vest with pearl buttons and black velvet sewn in a zigzag pattern on the pockets. And last of all was the red satin hair-ribbon. There was a final effort to smooth the ribbon tightly on my forehead and tie my hair back from my face, just so.


I emerged and expelled the sheepish feeling by whirling around so the skirt flared out like a great parasol. There was much parading around to be done, and of course I did not get to stop being a ukrainka until hours later when I finally crawled into bed after a long night and many toasts.


And now, when the two Volgas chug to the end of their extended journey, it is my third arrival at this gate in Yaroslavka. There are introductions to be made -- the first father meets the self-appointed stand-in. My mother is kissed on both cheeks many times. The neighbors are summoned. Babushka Nina and Babushka Tonya, both of whom gave up waiting at nightfall and went to bed, are roused. The fire is lit. Meat is skewered. A long table is set. The samogon appears, disguised in a Smirnoff bottle. A giant earthenware pot laden with potatoes melting in the juices of soft meat emerges from the wood stove.


We do our feasting under the stars to celebrate a promise kept. The words are a little cumbersome for such a reunion -- my Russian unfamiliar and hopelessly ungrammatical; theirs disguised in a thick Ukrainian lilt. But most of the communication goes on in some realm beyond language. It happens somewhere in the gusto of raised glasses and in the way we -- all of us -- hang onto the long high notes of the Ukrainian folk songs that drift upon the night.


By the time we retreat to bed, none of us is steady on our feet. In the glow of coals, Misha grasps my father by both his cheeks and smacks a kiss upon his forehead. My father, a shortish man and not the kissing sort, sweeps Misha off his feet, and holds him there a second before dropping him lightly back to earth.


No one stops to wonder how far we have traveled together. It is beyond the distant edge required of a journalist's research to visit the same place not just twice but thrice -- and the third time with parents in tow. But this is not journalism; it is something else.


There is vodka and dried fish for breakfast. Baskets and bags are piled with apples, grapes, sunflowers and jars of preserved fruit for us to take home. But somehow even that is not enough. As we are about to leave, Anna dashes into the cottage. Inside, she looks here, looks there, and her eyes fall upon the beautifully embroidered white linen drape at the window, edged with handmade lace. She yanks it down, races back out and pushes it into my mother's hands.





Robyn Dixon is the Moscow bureau chief for The Melbourne Age. She contributed this article to The Moscow Times.