My Ukrainian village experience in Zalavye, Ternopil
I’ve tried starting this post about five different ways.
My idea was to start with the most exciting and most interesting part, mid-story, then go back to the start. Except the thing was, there were many “most exciting” parts — me, sitting on the bus, full of anticipation and curiosity and wonder and mild confusion, on my way out to my family’s village; the car ride to my family’s house when the guy next to me, a friend of my cousin, kept sniffing my armpit; driving (OK, speeding) into town with my cousin and his friends when all of a sudden one of them pulls a bottle of horilka (vodka) from under the seat and passes it around for a shot; the bathroom experience at the gas station (the punchline: there was no toilet); having a final (couple) drink(s) in the car outside my family’s home at who-knows-what-time AM.
Instead, why don’t I just start at the beginning?
I first visited Zalavye, the village my family is from and where relatives currently live, in 2014 with my mom and her cousin. We were there for only a few hours but ate enough food to keep us full for days. We visited the church and the cemetery — the highlights of the village.
The next time I was there was in November 2017 when my sister Rayna came to visit. Again, we ate until we thought we couldn’t go on. We looked at photos. Exchanged stories. And my aunt shared with us her beloved handwritten mushroom recipe book.
I told them I hoped I would be back before I leave for Canada. And I did hope that. But when the end of my time in Ukraine approached, more and more it looked like I may not make it.
My mom had talked to my aunt on the phone, telling her I may try to come out. But I had kind of ruled it out. To be honest, I was scared — not of my family, but scared of going out of my comfort zone. This whole year put me in many situations outside my comfort zone, but a lot of the time I had my friends for backup. This time I would be by myself.
Then one Sunday morning as I sat in my apartment in Lviv, I planned out the upcoming week — my final one in Ukraine. And though there’s always something to keep you busy in Lviv, I had a couple extra days when perhaps I could go to the village. I messaged Taras from Cobblestone Freeway Tours about taking a bus out there — he was the translator when my sister and I went to the village, and again when my parents went — so he was familiar with not only the area but also my family.
So I asked him straight up. “Do you honestly think I can do this trip on my own?” I was worried about getting a bus ticket. Worried about catching the right bus and getting off at the right stop. Worried about arranging my family to pick me up.
He said I could for sure handle it. And so right then and there I said to myself, OK, let’s do this.
I had trouble booking a ticket online, but Taras said he could pick me up and drive me to the bus station (the Cobblestone crew is actually the best, always going above and beyond what’s expected of their jobs — my first tour with the company was in 2014, and right from then they felt like family).
So I packed up my backpack, stuffing it full with jars that once contained beets and honey and tomatoes and mushrooms that my aunt sent home with me the last visit. I bought some chocolates to put in the jars, because as tradition goes, you shouldn’t return an empty container to someone. I also brought along a bottle of vermouth that I bought in Odesa — was feeling a bit too eager after the wine tasting there and overestimated how much alcohol I’d go through in my time left in Ukraine.
Once at the bus station, a short drive or bus/tram ride from the city centre, I bought my ticket, equivalent to about $7.50 CAD. As we waited for the bus to pull up, Taras called my aunt to tell her when I’d be there. She told him that it was День Теребовля (Terebolvya Day), a day celebrating the birthday of the town. “Ohhhh, get ready to party party,” Taras said to me.
That made me only slightly concerned, but mostly excited.
My aunt, Hanna, said her son, Ivan, would meet me in town to take me to the village where they live.
Finally, my bus arrived, and I took my seat. Taras told the driver where I was heading and told him to tell me when my stop was. The driver probably thought Taras was talking about some 12 year old who was travelling for her first time. Nope, sorry sir, he means me.
So off I went.
My rural bus experience was quite positive, though I’ve heard that’s not always the case. I had lots of room, the bus was clean and comfy — no complaints. We stopped in Ternopil for about 45 minutes, just long enough to have a stretch and grab a snack if needed. The bus ride took about three hours total.
Since I barely travelled in a vehicle anymore, I got carsick pretty easily, so I closed my eyes for the most part. But when they were open, in front of me was the beautiful Ukrainian countryside — and to think this was my third time heading down this route.
We stopped along the way, sometimes at random places along the highway, and others times at a parking lot in town, people coming and going.
I couldn’t help but think about how special this was, heading to the village all by myself, the place my baba’s mother lived, the place my family got its start, and the place that essentially is responsible for my current life, including my love for Ukraine.
I finally saw a sign for Terebovlya. Soon enough, we were in the parking lot where my cousin was supposed to meet me. Would he actually be there? Would I remember what he looked like? Would he remember what I looked like?
The answers to those last two questions didn’t really matter, seeing as I was the only one to get off at the stop (yes, the driver yelled out to me, even though I realized this was my stop) and seeing as he was waiting right by the door of the bus.
We said hello, we hugged, and off we went in a car with a few of his friends. I slid into the back. We didn’t speak much, because it seemed they didn’t know English and I knew little Ukrainian. But they mostly talked to each other anyways.
The guy beside me started talking to me. I understood most, but not all, of what he was saying — different villages have different dialects.
Then this guy leaned over and appeared to sniff me. Hmm, an interesting way to get to know someone. Then again. “You smell like you’re from France!” he said. “Thanks…?” I couldn’t remember if French people are known to smell nice or smell not nice, but later it became clear to me he meant it as a compliment.
After a few more awkward interactions, we finally got to our destination: my family’s home.
Oh, also, so after all that broken Ukrainian I spoke in the car, turns out the driver, my cousin’s friend, did indeed speak perfect English but for whatever reason didn’t feel the need to do so. Oh well, it was probably more interesting that way.
My aunt and uncle greeted us (I say aunt and uncle but my mom and my “uncle” are actually distant cousins). Their home and yard was just as I remembered it the first time I visited in 2014, though they have had some upgrades — for example, they now have a toilet and running water in the bathroom, compared to before when they had only an outhouse.
After a few happy welcome tears, we sat down for dinner to a table covered in food. There was varenyky (perogies), kubasa, bread, cheeses, vegetables, and one of my all-time favourites — a piece of bread with some delicious Ukrainian mayonnaise (the deliciousness isn’t even comparable to the stuff here), with a piece of meat, a piece of cucumber, and a sprinkle of cheese on top. Sounds simple, but oh the flavours.
During dinner, we talked quite a bit, about my year in Ukraine and about family in Canada. My aunt was so patient. If I didn’t understand something, she’d say it again slower. If I still didn’t get it, she’d say it in a different way, that likely made no sense grammatically but I understood.
After about helping number five, my uncle asked me why I was eating so little. “What, are you Russian? Eat, eat!” He was quite concerned about my eating habits, actually — believe me though, I was eating plenty, because how could you not. He even asked my aunt if my parents knew what I looked like these days. He pointed to a photo of me from my visit in 2014. “You were so much bigger before!” Thanks, Mykhailo.
He did have a point. Obviously, dancing every day, I was going to look a bit different, but also, that was four years ago, so of course I’m going to look different.
After my aunt assured him I was healthy, and that my parents indeed did know what I looked like seeing as they visited a couple months before, we got onto the topic of the celebrations in town. I agreed that I’d go. My cousin started making phone call after phone call, trying to find us a ride.
Next thing you know, it was time to go. He had some leads on getting us to town, so I followed. We walked to the village store, where our ride was to meet us.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed.
Then some local teens who were walking around the village came to talk to Ivan. I could tell they were curious about who I was — it was a small village where everyone knew everyone and everything about everyone.
Ivan introduced me, his “sister” (the Ukrainian word for cousin has the word brother/sister in it, which is something that often confused us before because people would talk about their brother or sister, when we knew they didn’t have one, but only later realized they meant cousin).
The boys didn’t realize I understood some of what they were saying, so that was entertaining.
So by this point, those ten minutes I mentioned turned into 30, 40, and then probably an hour. I was about to tell my cousin I was OK with going home. First of all, it was quite chilly for a summer night and I was not prepared. Second of all, my night already seemed like it was out of a movie.
Allow me to explain.
At that exact moment, I was in a tiny little village in Ukraine with people I couldn’t fully communicate with. A group of boys, aged 12 to 16, were gathered around a 25-year-old fellow villager, who they seemed to look up to, and his “sister,” who they were talking about but didn’t realize she understood they were talking about her. A couple of the boys were smoking cigarettes, squatting on the ground, while another even younger looking boy pulled up on a bicycle, also smoking, to join the fun. From time to time, my cousin, or sorry, my brother, stepped aside to make another phone call, asking about where the heck our ride is, leaving me standing there awkwardly, shivering, but also enjoying every moment.
Seems like out of a movie to me.
Before I could tell my cousin I was fine with going home, he started leading me through the village. We got to one house, he went inside to talk to someone, then a car came rumbling down the road. “Is Ivan here?!” “Yes. There.” They eventually both came out, without a third person, which left me confused as to why we were at this house, but off we went into the car, with Slavko and his girlfriend (I cannot remember her name — it was something I was not familiar with and had difficulty saying all night, so it’s no wonder it didn’t stick with me.)
She drove us to Terebovlya for the festivities, going what felt like 120 km/h down what appeared to be (and felt like) a road that couldn’t handle more than 70 km/h. But we arrived safely. Then someone got a phone call, and off we were again, back the same way, to pick up another friend, who we met on some side road.
Back into town we drove. Again, the scene was like that out of a movie.
Slavko is the most animated person I’ve ever met. He was sitting in the front, but his entire body was turned to us in the back, using his hands/arms/entire body to tell some elaborate story about a recent event. He and his girlfriend — the driver — would yell (raise their voices?) at each other sometimes — she in the highest, most beautiful voice, and he in a loud, bellowing one. At one point, he reached behind and underneath the driver’s seat, feeling around until he could find what he was looking for: a bottle of horilka. He took off the lid, smelled it, made a half smile and gave a shrug, then took a swig.
Again, like out of a movie.
Finally we got to town, for the second time. We walked around — there was a merry-go-round and festival games. We walked a bit farther into town. All along the way, each one of my cousin’s friends were stopped by someone passing by on the sidewalk, multiple times. They didn’t just wave hello to a familiar face — they took time out of their evening to ask how the other was, how their families were, and so on.
We got to what appeared to be festival site number two. There was a giant — I mean GIANT — bonfire and an outdoor dance floor packed with people playing the best tunes (Ukraine has top-notch club songs). But our final destination was the town клуб (club), which was just a little bar. Before heading in, Slavko passed around the rest of the bottle of horilka, giving me, the guest, an extra shot (and an extra big one at that).
We grabbed a table outside, and though the damp air made me chilled to the bone, thankfully we had two bottles of vermouth — one red, one white — in front of us to keep us warm. Slavko offered me a piece of chocolate to “chase” the drink. I said I was fine, because, well, I was — vermouth goes down easy enough.
“I thought you said you were Ukrainian!” he said. So I took a bite. He poured another drink, this time peeling the skin and bones off cured fish then handing it to me. Though each pour was right to the top of the glass, it was expected that you drink the whole thing in one go. I learned this early on in our night — Slavko’s glares and mild shouting of “aren’t you drinking?!” after I would take only a sip set me straight pretty quickly.
Even with the language barrier, we managed to learn enough about each other. I explained a bit about why I was even in Ukraine, and they told me about their jobs.
There’s sometimes a joke that when you’re speaking a language that is not your native tongue, and you don’t understand what someone says, you ask them to repeat it more slowly, but they instead just shout it back to you, perhaps even faster. (Note: louder does not necessarily equal more understandable.)
This is exactly what Slavko did, raising his voice ever so loudly. Sometimes I just had to laugh in his face, because yet again, my life was a movie — this animated character of a Ukrainian man shouting at some Canadian, not only basic questions but also demands of “Eat more! Drink more!” while at some pub in some town.
A couple of their friends would take a seat for a bit, catch up on life, then move on. I was happy to sit back and listen and observe, trying to understand some of the conversations but also happy to just take in the moment.
Finally we decided to go, but one of the people we drove there was staying, and some other person was catching a ride with us.
We dropped him off at his house, which seemed like it was on the way to my family’s home, but apparently not because we were then back in town at a gas station.
Judging by how the night was going — never really knowing what to expect — I figured I better use the washroom in case we didn’t make it to my cousin’s village for a few more hours. I started to go into the gas station, but my cousin shouted out at me, pointing that the bathroom is actually out back.
Let me just say, I’ve had my share of interesting bathrooms in Ukraine. The first time you encounter a squatter — just a hole in the ground with a little platform to put your feet on — you may be taken by surprise. There’s nothing wrong with it, by any means, but it just takes some adjusting to.
Sometimes the squatter-style ones even have a flusher. Or maybe you’ll find yourself a somewhat “regular” toilet, only to realize it doesn’t have a seat or that the bathroom stall door covers you only from the waist down (which is fine in most cases, except when you’re in a dance bodysuit so everything has to come down, and someone else enters the bathroom and decides to use the stall directly across from you).
My 10-month journey becoming adjusted to toilets in Ukraine thankfully prepared me for this night on the town with my cousin and his friends.
So I went through some garage-type area next to the gas station. It had a wooden floor, and I figured it led to maybe an outhouse. But then I realized that was not the case. When my cousin pointed to where I thought the bathroom would be located, he actually just meant go do my business anywhere in that general direction.
So there I was, squatting out of eyesight (I hoped) of my new friends, thinking back to the night of what got me here in the first place. Movie moment number I-lost-count.
Back in the car, I saw my cousin bought more drinks — oyyyyy — plus some fruit, a favourite drinking snack among Ukrainians.
We got to my family’s house, but the night didn’t end quite yet. We sat in the car on the village road. On the armrest between the front and the back seats there was a bag of nectarines and a bag of grapes. I had a drink in hand (a Granny’s anti-Compote), as did the others (besides the driver, of course).
We just kept talking, laughing, cheers-ing, and spending what for them may have just seemed like a night on the town, but for me was one of the most memorable nights of not only my time in Ukraine, but of my life.
Eventually we said our goodbyes, and I went into the house to have one of the coziest sleeps ever (next to only when I stayed in Tulova at Easter).
Of course, the roosters woke me up fairly early, which was fine, because I didn’t want to sleep in, seeing as I was there for such a short time. I found my aunt and uncle in their summer kitchen, of course with breakfast ready for me.
There was a giant stack of potatoes and some sausage on a plate, which I figured was for everyone to share. It was only after I ate all that I could, barely even leaving a dent in the pile, that my aunt informed me the entire plate was for me.
As I finished my coffee, my aunt and I chatted a bit.
She sells milk, homemade cheese, and homemade sour cream. From what I remember, 50 UAH ($2.50 CAD) will get you a litre of sour cream or a kilogram of cheese.
While sitting at the table, she made call after call to her regular customers — milk wasn’t such a hot sell this day, but the sour cream and cheese was. Besides her regulars, she also sells her products at a weekly local bazaar (market) in the village over.
Eventually, my cousin woke up. The plan for today: picking berries. My aunt lent me some garden shoes (my sparkly sneakers just didn’t cut it), and we headed out to some shrubs near their house. We picked pink raspberries, white raspberries, and black raspberries. I was not aware there were so many kinds!
As we were picking, Ivan made phone call after phone call to his friends.
“Hi. How’s it going? My sister is here. We’re just picking berries. What did you do yesterday? We went into town yesterday. Did you see [insert Ukrainian name]? Oh yeah. I didn’t. How’s [insert Ukrainian name]? I didn’t see him. My sister leaves at 1 today. Oh yeah, OK, talk to you later.”
He made call after call, checking in on his friends, including Slavko, who we were with the night before.
“Katya, the phone is for you,” my cousin said.
So I grabbed it. “Hello?” Slavko asked if my head hurt. He asked what I was doing. He asked what kind of berries there were, how many I picked, what time I was leaving, how I was getting into town.
I love that about Ukrainians, always checking up on you the next day. They don’t wait until the next time they see you. They don’t send a text. They phone you until you pick up, making sure all is OK.
We finished picking the raspberries, and then it was on to sour cherries. We moved areas, walking by a barn. My cousin said he had to grab something, a trimmer. I figured he meant some kind of pruning shears or something. Oh, how I was wrong.
Out he walks, chainsaw in hand.
And here I thought we were picking cherries.
I’m not exactly sure why, but instead of just picking the cherries off the tree, he would cut entire branches off, until there was barely a stump left. Then I’d pick the fruit off, and toss the branch into the used pile.
Nonetheless, we got the job done. Then it was time to eat, again — holubtsi and varenyky — even though I was still full from breakfast. My aunt also offered to give me some food to take with me, which I politely declined since I had only a few days left in Ukraine, plus my apartment didn’t have a stove.
Well, no stove, no problem. She fried up some pork for me, in my favourite way, no less — that super simple flour, egg, pepper, and salt batter that you have at everyone’s home in Ukraine and is out of this world. She gave me a bottle of wine, baking, vegetables, berries, and chocolate. “Give it to Taras if you don’t want it!” she said, talking about the beloved Cobblestone tour guide as if he were part of her family.
She jam packed my bag full of goods, then it was off to town to catch the bus. Her son’s daughter (I think that was the connection) drove us. Once in town, Ivan and I walked to the station while Hanna made a couple business deals, dropping off sour cream and cheese to people in town. When she met up with us at the bus depot, she gave me gifts to bring home to my family and for myself, as if hosting me wasn’t a big enough gift itself.
It seemed I didn’t need to pre-buy a ticket, so I paid the driver when I got on the bus — equivalent to $5.50 CAD this time, a $2 saving! It was the same driver who drove me out, but he somehow didn’t remember me, or at least said he didn’t remember me.
The bus was full, but Hanna got on to stake out a seat for me. She plopped my bag full of food on the ground under a seat right at the front of the bus, sat me down, and starting chatting, loudly, to the lady beside me.
“She’s from Canada. She is a relative, a distant one. She’s going to Lviv.” And on and on and on.
Then she got off the bus for a bit, telling the driver the same story, pointing at me to be clear who she was talking about.
It became time to say goodbye. I hugged my family goodbye, not sure when I’d see them next. Ivan said we can stay connected through Facebook. And then off my bus went, my family waving to me, tears in their eyes (and tears in mine), wishing me well in Ukraine and in Canada.
I needed that time in the country air. Though I love cities and their convenience, I need to escape once in awhile, to go where the berry-picking is and where the village parties are.
Throughout my time in Ukraine, I tried to never take any of my experiences for granted. And there have been instances along the way reminding me to cherish my time. Since I’ve been back in Canada, my uncle has had some health problems. He’s doing a lot better now. I do hope I can visit him and my family again soon. But you never know what will come your way, never mind someone else’s way.
You know how I had trouble starting this story, how so many moments stood out to me for their own reason? That’s how my entire year was.
People often ask what my favourite part was, or at least what a memorable part was. There are the dance memories, the coffeeshop memories, the nights on the town memories, the holiday memories, the wandering and exploring memories, and of course, the village memories.
My entire year was memorable. And so, if it’s OK with you, I’m just going to keep sharing these memories.