I called my cousin Hryts last week in Ukraine’s self-proclaimed garlic capital of Pidkamin, a modest little village in Western Ukraine, whose inhabitants are anything but modest. As I have learned over the years, they firmly believe they are living in the most wonderful place in the world.
Having spent some time there, I must confess they do have a strong argument to make, particularly after you have had a fine country meal prepared by Hryts’ wife Yevdokia and a few glasses of her homemade tipple. In particular, I am enamoured of her berry liqueur. It starts every spring with a batch of Hryts’ infamous moonshine made from the remnants of the winter’s store of sugar beets. Those grown in the rich valley soil around Pidkamin boast of an unusually high content of all those organic ingredients that make for some particularly potent and tasty spirits.
Hryts’ still is an amazing contraption devised of metal pots and tubing that would do any engineer proud. In any case, Yevdokia starts with a large 40 litre crock pot half filled with a fresh batch of Hryts’ fine hootch. Throughout the spring and summer, as various berries ripen, she throws them into the crockpot. By the end of the summer, it is filled with a delightful bounty of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, and assorted other wild berries that grow locally that I don’t even know the names of. By fall, the contents of the crockpot have transformed into a most incredibly aromatic and decadent concoction that would delight Volodymyr the Great himself. This is filtered through a cheesecloth and poured into an eclectic collection of bottles and jars for consumption through the long and lazy evenings of the winter.
After the first time I sampled this enchanting liqueur, I asked Yevdokia what it was called. She answered “Paradise”. I was not one to argue. But I digress.
I had called Hryts to convey my best wished for Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. In the process, we could not help but reminisce about the tribulations of the year just past. For Ukraine it had been a memorable year, though for all the wrong reasons.
I asked Hryts about how the on-going war with our northern “big brothers” had affected the daily life of Pidkamin.
“It has been very trying!” he opined wistfully. “Even the very soil is depressed.”
“I am not sure I understand…” I replied quizzically.
“Of course not!” he shot back. “You’ve become a ‘Pan z mista’ (city man). Your hands haven’t touched or worked real earth for years if not decades. If you’d have been here at harvest time, you would have noticed that this year’s crops were as lacking as Putin’s soul.”
“But how could that be?” I asked with some amazement. “You’ve always told me that the soil around Pidkamin is the best in Ukraine, and the villagers are amongst the hardest working that I’ve ever seen. Plus, I know that the weather has been excellent this year.”
“All true!” he exclaimed wistfully. “But there was one vital ingredient missing.”
“And what is that?” I enquired with some trepidation.
“Oh my dear turnip head!” he continued with a sigh. “You have so much to learn. We Ukrainians have always had a strong bond with our mother earth. She gives us life and in return we give it our love, our respect, and our honest toil. We share in the life energy that permeates the universe and enables our very existence. That relationship is very strong and sensitive to what is happening around us. Tell me, do you not sense when your wife is troubled or upset?”
“But of course!” I replied. “I can feel the vibes even when there are no words spoken.”
“The earth is the same.” Hryts continued. “The events of the past year have caused great psychological and emotional distress to the people of Pidkamin. The earth has sensed that, and has become distressed too. It feels our pain. When people that tend it are unhappy, the earth too is unhappy and cannot produce the way it does when everything is in harmony. Such is the way of nature.”
“Hrytsiu,” I replied after a long pause, “I am as usual rendered speechless by your wisdom.”
“So what can we do, Hrytsiu?” I asked.
“As always, continue to try and make the world a better place!” he said quietly. “In the meantime, I think I will have another glass of Paradise.”