Details were hard to come by. All I really knew was that I was headed to the town of Zolotonosha to give a workshop for the teachers there. I looked it up on Google and saw that it was across the river, on the way towards Kyiv. I was excited to see a new place, a smaller town, since I’ve really only spent time in cities here in Ukraine.
I was told to meet in front of the university library at 8:30 am, where there would be a driver to take me and a professor visiting from Germany. The Director of the foreign languages department would be accompanying us, and I was asked if I needed someone else from our department as well. I decided I would attempt the journey without a person flanking both sides of me. We were to return at around 3:00 or 3:30; what, I wondered, could possibly take that long?
When we met, I discovered that another school official would accompany us as well. The four of us met the driver and climbed in the car. We were an interesting bunch, linguistically: the driver spoke Ukrainian and English (he was actually one of the English teachers from Zolotonosha), Lienhard spoke German and English (he is a retired professor of English from Münster, but teaching German in Cherkasy), Ludmila the Director spoke Ukrainian and German (she was a German professor before becoming an administrator), Larissa the Other Administrator spoke Ukrainian, and then there was me, who besides English can get by in German. With no one common language, the day contained healthy portions of all three. My German is mighty rusty, but it is the language that the Director and I have used to communicate since I arrived.
It was a gorgeous spring day, and the ride there was glorious. We were passing through what appeared to be a tiny village, with a few buildings along the winding country road, when there was much talk in Ukrainian and the car pulled over to the side. Was there car trouble? Were we letting Lienhard get out to take pictures of the beautiful church? When you are in a foreign country, especially one in which you don’t speak the language, you are so often in the dark, just watching others for cues and clues. As it turned out, after we had walked around the church and taken pictures, we headed across the street to the school where the workshops would be held. Here? Not in Zolotonosha? I was hesitant to let go of the scrap I thought I knew. This was actually the village of Boguslavets, in the Zolotonosha region, and teachers were coming from all around the region to attend the workshops.
We headed for the door, and I could see that we were in for quite a welcome. There were children and teachers manning the doors, all dressed in their vyshyvankas (traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts). Once inside, I was directed into an entryway. Girls holding rushnyks – embroidered cloths – began to dance, and each in turn recited a piece in Ukrainian.
Then came one girl with a korovai – a traditional large round loaf of bread with decorative shapes on the top. There was salt in a hollow on the top. I had seen this type of bread once before but didn’t really know the significance of it. Here is what Wikipedia has to say: When important, respected, or admired guests arrive, they are presented with a loaf of bread placed on a rushnik (embroidered towel). A salt holder or a salt cellar is placed on top of the bread loaf or secured in a hole on the top of the loaf. In modern Russia, on official occasions, the “bread and salt” is presented by young women dressed in national costumes. There is also a picture of Joe Biden being presented a korovai, but I don’t think he got this amount of fanfare.
One of the women suddenly addressed me: “Take the bread! Take the bread!” I saw that everyone was watching me. What did she mean – was I to tear a piece of bread off, or take the whole loaf? And do what? “Take it how?” I asked, but got no answer. Lienhard went up to the girl, placed his arms under the loaf, and stood for a minute, displaying it. Ah, bless you for going first, Lienhard! I took the loaf from him and did the same, feeling thankful that I had not tried to dig into it. I returned the loaf to the girl and followed the entourage into a recessed area off of the hallway. Here I had a front-row view of the teachers of this school singing for us, followed by girls dancing,
and then official welcomes and presentation of gifts. Some young girls gave us little sacks they had embroidered, filled with dried leaves and flowers from a special tree. This school is named after Mykhaylo Maksymovych, a Ukrainian professor and writer, who was born near this school, and these leaves and flowers come from a tree that he used to climb. It is an understatement to say that Ukraine takes its historical figures, especially writers and poets, very seriously. Very. Seriously.
Then came Lienhard’s lecture and my workshop, with very cooperative participants.
We were presented with gifts here as well: I received a domovychok, a house troll that in proper Ukrainian fashion is supposed to bring good luck.
Now we had a chance to look around the school. We went into one of the classrooms, where I was very interested in the vocabulary charts and shelf displays featuring traditional Ukrainian scenes.
In the modern globalization I have grown accustomed to, I am struck by places that hold to their traditional ways in look, feel, and practice. These are experiences I am grateful for – the chance to observe a lifestyle different from what I am used to.
There was still more to come…an extensive tour of the one-room Maksymovych museum, with long recitations of information delivered by some of the schoolkids. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken one young boy in particular to memorize all that he told us. Our poor unsuspecting teacher-driver was pressed into action to translate all of it for us. Then a trip to the church across the way, to go inside.
Finally, a lunch spread of borshch, pampushky (garlic rolls), rolls stuffed with cooked cabbage, mashed potatoes, meat cutlets, and more. We ate with the director and an administrator of the school. Again, it was a time to watch and follow. My mother likes to say that when you travel to a foreign place, all of your senses are heightened. The fact is, they have to be! Foreign travel is one big exercise in paying attention. Do I start eating? (Nope – someone is going to offer a toast. And then another.) Do we pass the food around? (Don’t wait for it – you’d better ask or reach across the table. Or be satisfied with what is within reach.) Behaving in a culturally-appropriate way should not be taken lightly. It’s all fine and well to “be yourself” in some ways, but I believe it’s almost impossible to shift our deep-set ideas on what is right or wrong, polite or rude. We teach each other about our norms and gain an understanding on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t transform the way we feel deep down when we see those behaviors.
A ways into the meal, Ludmila informed Lienhard and me that guests are expected to say a few words of appreciation. Once again, Lienhard dove in first and gave a glowing tribute to the reception we had received, and the institutions involved. We toasted. My turn. This was my first time, I said, giving a toast; I explained that this was not our tradition in the U.S., but that I would do my best to follow Lienhard. Then I told them how my niece had visited me last month, and how we had talked about all of the new experiences we were having. I had told her that every experience we have in our lives changes us, makes us slightly different people than we were before. Some interactions and events alter us in just tiny ways, and others much more. This, I told them, was one of those experiences that would alter me appreciably – and I was indebted to them for that.