My cousin Hryts in Pidkamin had been having a difficult couple of weeks when I called him the other day to catch up on things. Ukraine, like much of Europe, has been suffering a brutal heat wave, and that was playing havoc with Hryts’ extensive garden. The garden is Hryts’ pride and joy, and when it suffers, Hryts suffers with it.
I swear that his connection with the soil is more than just the cultural and historical attachment that most Ukrainians have with the proverbial “chornozem” or black earth for which this country is renowned. I truly believe that Hryts can somehow paranormally sense and communicate with the micro biosphere that is his patch of land along the Ikva River in the bucolic village of Pidkamin in Western Ukraine.
Hryts officially acquired his 10 “sotoks” of land when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukrainians were once again legally able to own private property, albeit with significant limitations. A “sotok” is 100 square metres, so his 10 “sotoks” amount to about a quarter of an acre of land according to our Canadian measures. That may not seem like very much, yet that tiny patch of land provides Hryts and his wife Yevdokia with most of the food they consume over the course of the year. Not only that, but Hryts is able to sell much of his locally prized garlic and horseradish at local “yarmaroks’ (farmers’ markets) to supplement the meagre pensions they receive from the government.
When I inquired how his garden was faring in the unusually high heat, Hryts was typically stoic.
“Well, so long as things don’t get worse, we’ll manage. The garlic, peas and beans are holding their own, but the corn, lettuce and cabbage are feeling the strain. It’s not so much the heat, you know, but the dry conditions that come with it. The Ikva River where I get the water for the garden is running very low, and as you may recall from your visits here, its not much of a river to begin with, just a creek with pretensions. But, ‘Nichoho’ (Never mind), we have what we have, and ‘Yakosh bude’ (We’ll cope)”.
“Anyways, don’t worry about Pidkamin. We’ve survived over eight hundred years and life goes on. Tell me what you are up to in Canada.”
“Well,” I answered, “the big thing is we are getting set to celebrate our national birthday, Canada Day, on July 1. It’s been 152 years since Canada became an independent state, and I think we have much to be proud of!”
“Indeed!” I heard Hryts exclaim. “152 years is small potatoes compared to most European states, yet you folks have managed in such a short time to create a country that leads the world in most respects when it comes to accomplishments and quality of life. You must be particularly pleased to be a Canadian.”
“No doubt about that Hrytsiu,” I replied, “I am immensely proud to be a Canadian. Yet I sometimes wonder whether I am Canadian, or Ukrainian, or some mish-mash of the two. I have never been totally comfortable with being a hyphenated ‘Ukrainian-Canadian’.”
“Peh!” retorted Hryts, “There you go again, proving your head is more turnip than brain cells. You have lived more than six decades, yet my garlic has a better sense of self identity than you do!”
“Let me ask you this” he continued. “Do you remember that famous picture back sometime in the 1970’s of our planet earth sent back by one of the Apollo spacecrafts? One of the astronauts wisely noted that you could not see any lines showing the boundaries of individual countries. Geographical entities and the nationalism that goes with them are artificial mental constructs. Like most mental constructs, they do not need to be mutually exclusive. I can be an equally strong Ukrainian, and Pidkaminite, and citizen of Europe, and Christian, and liberal thinker, and farmer, and philosopher, and anything that I choose to be. What I am does not depend on what is written on a birth certificate or passport, but what is in my mind and soul. Do you understand?’
I pondered that for a moment before replying – “I guess what you’re saying is that I can be both a Canadian and a Ukrainian, and one does not detract from the other.”
“Nareshti! (At last!)” he chortled. “There are some working cells in that brain of yours.”
As usual, Hryts’ Pidkamin perspective had once again shed some light on my uncertainties.