I took the opportunity over the holidays to call my cousin Hryts in the eponymous little village of Pidkamin in Western Ukraine, a burg renowned to the locals and to myself not only for the famous “Devil’s Rock” which ominously overhangs the village from the adjoining heights, but also for the quality of the garlic and horseradish that is cultivated locally. Hryts, who is now well into his nineties, has lived here most of his life and is revered by the locals as Hetman Hryts of Pidkamin.
Despite his age, his mind is sharp, and this carries through to his tongue as well. I have learned over the years that he does not suffer fools gladly, and I have often been on the receiving end of his caustic assessments that my brain “brakuye trokhy klepok” (is missing a few rivets). On the whole though, he is a pretty generous and kind old soul, whose patience with my shortcomings is deserving of a halo or two. Further, his mind is a remarkable repository of Ukrainian folk history and traditions, and much of my own knowledge of Ukrainian lore comes from the many enjoyable times I have spent in his company.
In any case, he was in a jovial mood as I reached him on a cold winter night as he was relaxing by the “pich” (stove/oven) in his little house on the outskirts of Pidkamin.
“Nu, Hrytsiu,” I began, “Yak tam kolo vas?” (How are things with you?)
“Well, my young turnip,” he replied slowly, “I can’t complain. Any day where I am still tending to my ‘hospodarstvo’ (farm) from this side of the ground, rather than fertilizing it from below, is a good day! Besides, it is holiday time, when one can relax without guilt and enjoy the fruits of one’s annual labours.”
“Glad to hear that!” I exclaimed. “I gather that you had a good harvest and are well set for the winter.”
“That I am” he replied. “The root cellar is full of potatoes, beets, cabbage, carrots and onions. My good wife Yevdokia has ensured that we are well stocked with a plentiful array of jars of preserved fruit, jams and juices. The Hryts distillery has been busy and my stash of ‘horilka’ (moonshine) and ‘nalyvky’ (fruit liqueurs) has been adequately replenished for the winter. The rafters in the barn are nicely adorned with braids of garlic and dried ‘hryby’ (mushrooms). I must note that this was a particularly good year for ‘hryby’. I have never seen the woods so full of them. They were as plentiful as sinners waiting in line for confession after a drunken feast.”
I smiled as I tried to visualize Hryts’ colourful metaphor, something he had a particular talent for.
“What about this COVID pandemic, though? When I talked to you last, the virus hadn’t yet made an appearance in Pidkamin. Is that still the case?” I queried.
“Meh!” he exclaimed derisively. “That ‘zaraza’ (pestilence) has for the most part continued to avoid Pidkamin. And that is no surprise. As you know, historically, Pidkamin has been last in line to get such things as good roads, electricity, gas, telephone and other urban services. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the more noxious by-products of your modern world? In any case, we have some potent weapons to deal with it if it comes. I have found that there are few microbes of any kind that can withstand the assault of Yevdokia’s horseradish and garlic concoctions. Further, I would hazard a guess that my horilka is as good a disinfectant as you can find anywhere.”
Having had a chance to sample all those aforementioned products during my visits to Pidkamin, I had to grudgingly admit he had a point.
“Nonetheless, Hrytsiu,” I continued, “you are not immune to viruses like this, especially at your age. You could easily die from it!”
“Ny, ne rvy sertse!” (Don’t fret about that), he replied. “I have lived my fair share of years on this earth. If God decides that he needs a good garlic farmer in his domain, then I am ready to join his crew. Seeing as I am already in my nineties, I figure every year now is like an encore on the stage of life! I would be more concerned about you. I hear you recently turned seventy. I must say that you certainly don’t appear to be seventy!”
“Why thank you!” I replied, presuming that he had paid me a compliment.
“Oy Bozhe!” (Oh God!) he shot back. “What I meant was that for someone that has lived for seventy years, you seem to have missed acquiring the amount of wisdom and common sense one would have expected of someone your age…”
Hryts doesn’t seem to have missed a beat!