Drohobich, Ukraine, August 2016
The Ukrainian language is not easy to master but I have decided to learn its basics, at least. In western and northern Ukraine this is the most widely spoken language while, in the eastern parts, mainly Russian is spoken. The Russian language is still lingua franca since the Soviet regime made a conscious effort to eradicate Ukrainian language during its rule. This went even as far as prohibiting certain typically Ukrainian characters from use in order to make the language visually more similar to Russian. The eastern part has been under the Russian rule since 1709. The western regions have been more independent under the liberal Austro-Hungarian and Polish rule. At that time, the Ukrainian language was the main language in those parts.
Maryanna teaches English and Ukrainian languages via Skype. I took some of her lessons online, but now I get to meet her in person. Her rates are, at least for me, quite low and her work hours are extremely flexible. After a difficult start, I can now read Cyrillic and know how to pronounce it correctly. She does get me out of my comfort zone. She works really hard since her income from teaching is badly needed.
Her husband runs a building materials shop, but it only brings a small profit. Without her income, they would not be able to provide for the needs of their household of four. Her daughters are 12 and 6. The younger child caught them by surprise since the tight economic situation hardly allowed for a second planned child. Of course, they are so happy to have her now.
A guest in a Ukrainian family
I am invited to their home in Drohobich, south of Lviv. Once, this was a prosperous town with salt and oil pushing the economy. However, today there is little economic activity left. The marshrutka (a small bus) brought me to their address in roughly 2,5 hours over bumpy roads, while the Ukrainian national music was being played loud all the way. The countryside is green and mostly cultivated, in a rough manner, though. We passed a number of small villages, most of them with unpaved roads. The newer houses are often half-finished – building will continue when more money is secured. Frequent stops were made at unexpected places, although everyone seemed well aware of this routine.
Their family shares a 2 room apartment with a small kitchen in a typical high-rise block. During daytime, the “master bedroom” is converted into a living room. Maryanna’s computer is located in one corner of the room, and that’s where her teaching takes place. Her clients are from around the globe which allows her to be well aware of the world outside her own country.
Maryanna’s living room
I remove my shoes at the entrance, which is a vital courtesy to be shown almost everywhere in Ukraine. Home is the inside world – it’s the place where everything is safe. The outside world is largely mistrusted. The kitchen is the ultimate free area where almost anything can be discussed in an informal manner. Kovbasa krovianka (a homemade blood sausage, her father’s speciality) and farsherovanie perec (peppers stuffed with rice, tomato and minced meat) are served, both of which are very tasty. I am welcomed wholeheartedly.
Veronika, Maryanna’s younger daughter, speaks to me in Ukrainian, but can also understand English. She presents a perfect way for me to learn the local language. Could any teacher have been better or more patient?
Naturally, I have brought some sweets as a present from another “Veronika” – the most famous bakery in Lviv. Maryanna’s daughter Veronika is very excited about the macaroni sweets I brought. Macaron is huge among teenagers – it is considered “cool” to have them with coffee in a coffee shop. They are also cool because they are expensive. Fitting dress code for the youngsters these days would be round sunglasses and a tattoo. Maryanna blames this on the marketing and advertising indoctrination.
We go for a stroll around Maryanna’s hometown of Drohobich. She keeps warning me to walk on the far right side of the pavement, and not near the road. Traffic is hectic and the drivers cannot be trusted upon pedestrian safety. Drohobich was once an industrial centre backed by oil and salt industry, but that is all gone now. What is left is, actually a pleasant, quiet urban Ukrainian style conglomerate. A lot of green areas, many apartment blocks and a Soviet centre, all of which are somewhat rundown but not as dramatically as the similar urban areas I have witnessed in Bulgaria, Latvia and Czech Republic.
A youth hangs around and makes fun. In the summertime, temperatures rise up to 30°C and higher. The local kvass (a drink made of fermented rye bread) feels cold and refreshing.
Remnants from the Austro-Hungarian times include a university building that was once used as a prison both by Nazis and Soviets alike. A modest and tasteful memorial place displays the names of those who died there during the Stalin and Hitler regimes. It is there that Bruno Shulz, the writer, was liquidated. The grand synagogue is now undergoing renovation after it had been used as a storage facility for a number of years. As is the case in most parts of Ukraine, there isn’t almost anything that serves as a reminder of the large Jewish community which was annihilated by the Nazis.
Around 8 pm I took the regional train, elektritsia back to Lviv. It is very basic and represents the cheapest means of transport, but it will get you where you need to be if you have time to spare.
As it usually goes, upon my return to the Netherlands, we got to talk via Skype. Maryanna’s family had to move, as their landlord found someone else willing to pay a higher rent, so her family had to go. There was nothing that could be done about that since her family didn’t have a proper tenants’ contract and no rent protection existed, so the whole family now moved in with Maryanna’s parents. Boxes are cluttering every corner of their new “home” now inhabited by 4 adults and 2 children in 3 rooms. Rents have gone up quite a lot in Drohobich, since there are a lot of refugees pouring in from Donjetsk (commonly referred to as Moskals)and the devaluation or of the hrivna. Buying a flat is almost impossible since banks charge over 20% interests and there is no way to obtain a mortgage.