The Homecoming

Up the hill we plodded, deep into Ukraine’s Carpathian mountains. I knew neither the end point nor purpose of our ramble, but on this occasion I didn’t care. I had not seen much of the outside world over the past few days on account of the countless offers of hospitality that kept me glued to a table until I either drank myself into a stupor, sang till my lungs collapsed or finally fell into a food induced coma.

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An hour later, and drenched in sweat from the summer sun, we arrived at our destination. Beneath the blue skies the rich and fertile land shone in the sun, adorned with lush fauna and flora. There was barely a house in sight. I had not expected Ukraine to be so beautiful. Out of the distance two cows came sauntering towards us and an old man and his son gave a bag of feed to them. All this way to feed these cows, I thought? Perhaps they needed an excuse to escape all that drinking for a while? I had spoken too soon. No sooner were the cows fed than out of the bag emerged a bottle of homemade vodka, three little shot glasses and a few rations of cured pork fat. A toast was made to the beautiful morning…and another…and another. Soon the bottle was empty. It was barely 10.30 in the morning. I had somehow imagined this farming job would pan out differently. But then again, this one was like none of my previous 51 food jobs; I wasn’t working for an employer, but with my very own family. Only a week before I hadn’t even known of their existence.

My grandfather, Wasyl Nazaruk, was a farmer in Ukraine. Or at least he was supposed to be. At the age of 18, he was snatched in the night from his bed and family and ordered to fight for the Russians in the Second World War. He never spoke of the atrocities that he, like many of the Ukrainian people, witnessed during those years over the course of a war that concluded for him with his liberation from a POW camp in Italy. He could not go home. Instead, he managed to get a one-way ticket to England. Slaving away 14 hours a day, 6 days a week in a British factory, his former life farming his land in the village Stari Kryvotuly in Western Ukraine must have seemed like a distant dream. It was only in 1992 when Ukraine became independent that he first returned home, then an old man worn down by the hardships of his adult life.

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My Grandparents on their wedding day.

Wasyl died when I was young and I have nothing more than vague memories of him. If only I had had the chance to know him better. I never got to hear the stories of his homeland, or learn our family recipes with him in the kitchen. How I would have loved to throw my arms around him and belt out an old folk song or carry one another to bed after one too many vodkas. You might assume his legacy lived on through my father and his siblings, but the Ukrainian community in the UK had become increasingly fragmented and the death of my grandfather hit the family hard. To this day my dad finds it difficult to talk about his father. Despite my family’s best efforts, our heritage became increasingly obscure and distant. Sure, we carried on meeting once a year at Ukrainian Christmas to celebrate like the ‘good old days,’ but this always felt to me more like an occasion to commemorate, or maybe even mourn of the past.

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The Nazaruks. Back left was my grandfather.

Understandably, my alienation from my Ukrainian roots brought with it a sense of guilt. I never learned the language nor any Ukrainian cultural activities, unlike my father who spent the best part of his 20s as a professional Cossack dancer (and met and charmed my mother in the process). When I met fellow Ukrainians I sometimes felt like an imposter. But there was always hope in my heart. I knew that my grandfather’s house still stood in his village in Ukraine, and that somewhere in the Ukraine my lost family still existed.

6 months ago, I sat in Buenos Aires’s San Telmo market, sipping coffee, watching the traders set up their antique stalls, and planning the conclusion of my project. One question remained unanswered. After all the experiences from my year around the world what could I possibly do for my last job? And then came the Eureka moment. How had it not dawned on me earlier? I picked up the phone to call my father: “Dad, before I come home, we have to go home.” Confused, I reformulated my sentence: “Dad, we are going to Ukraine.”

I knew from that moment that it would not be an easy trip. First we had to find our family, and even then our Ukrainian was not good enough to communicate properly. But above all, this was going to be an emotionally challenging journey, especially for my father who had likewise never visited ‘the village’. But whatever challenges we faced, we would do it together. I would be there for him just as he and my mother had been there for me with their unconditional love and support over all these years.

In the following months, we did our best to find our family against the odds. We had little luck until, with just weeks to spare, a local tour guide managed to track down a third-cousin who now lived an hour away from my grandfather’s village. Though I hadn’t seen my father for 11 months, we soon found ourselves with little time to catch up as we sat nervously in a café in the town of Ivano-Frankivsk waiting for our cousin Rostik to arrive.

Family found!

Family found!

Whatever nerves we had soon vanished when Rostik arrived to greet us with a bone-breaking bear hug. With the help of a translator we set about piecing together our family history, until to our great surprise, Rostik announced we would soon travel to my grandfather’s village where our relatives were waiting for us. We could barely contain our excitement.

Driving down the dirt tracks of Western Ukraine, surrounded by beautiful pastures, we approached a tiny village, where a golden domed church glittered in the distance. This was the church in which my grandfather was christened, and now it served as a spectacular backdrop for the scene of our family reunion. When you’ve waited all your life to visit somewhere, nothing compares to the moment when you arrive. It was made all the more emotional by the warm embrace of our family, who held us close crying tears of happiness. I will never forget the look in my father’s eyes, his sense of pride at finally making the journey ‘home’.

As we explored the church and its grounds spread over the fields and the surrounding farmland, we finally arrived at my ancestral home. It was only then that my father began to open up and share the tales told to him by his father about village life. Hearing these stories while walking through the village pastures, I struggled to imagine having to leave all this behind for a life in a British factory.

Our pilgrimage continued toward the village graveyard, where one of the first tombstones we reached bore the name ‘Nazaruk’. Slowly we ambled around, visiting the final resting place of past Nazaruks while our translator recounted tales of their lives. With each step the distant past became more a part of our lives.

The trip to the graveyard had induced a certain sense of melancholy, but as we left it became clear that with this rite of passage now over, it was time for some sort of celebratation. And that meant celebrating in true Ukrainian fashion – eating and drinking (and a spot of wrestling for good measure). From that moment on, we rarely found ourselves somewhere other than at a table. It is no exaggeration when I say that we sat down for lunch most days at noon, and left the table 14 hours later in the middle of the night.

Most people would have been disgusted with the amount we ate during our time in Ukraine (Dad couldn’t help but worry about the crash diet mother would enforce upon his return home). But not in Ukraine; the more you ate the happier they were and who was I to disappoint them? Growing up, I only got to sample Ukrainian food on rare occasions. Now back in the homeland I was determined to make up for lost time. The food was gastronomic gluttony: salo, the artery-clogging dish of cured chunks of pork fat; holobchi, stuffed cabbage leaves with rice and wild mushroom; varenyky, little dumplings filled with cream cheese and topped with fried onions in yet more pork fat; and studenetz – a jelly made from pig trotters, with various flakes of undesirable cuts of pork and heaps of garlic, normally spread on bread. You should have seen the look of delight on my cousins’s faces when I slurped a mound of the stuff straight off the plate.

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All of these dishes were served with plates of cured meats, home made sausages, cheeses, fresh-baked bread and a range of various pickled veg preserved from the previous year’s harvest. At one stage a jar of pickled juice was forced upon me as a ‘hangover prevention tool.’ Take note! If you’re drunk enough to drink a jar of pickled juice your hangover is already beyond redemption.

The pickle cupboard!

The pickle cupboard!

After a particularly large night, we endured a journey from hell, shaken up for four hours in the pouring rain on a bumpy dirt track in the back of a van with no suspension. When we emerged from the back of the van, Dad and I were close to death. But as we stepped into the little farm hut we had travelled so far to visit, we found a steaming bowl of soup which I shall remember as long as I live. White beetroot with sautéed onions and garlic in a rich pork broth with smetana (a type of sour cream) and odd-looking mountain herbs akin in taste to dill. But the killer part, was the huge chunks of slow cooked smoked pork ribs floating around the bowl. At that moment in time, it felt like I had travelled the world for a year to get to this meal.

Everything we ate during our time had been grown on the land of my ancestors. It was farm to table in its truest sense, food at its most humble. Nothing was wasted and everything served a purpose, whether to endure the cold winters, offer enough calories to satisfy the farmer’s hunger after a long day in the fields, or  help soak up excesses of homemade vodka.

My cousin pours Dad a rather large glass of mysterious booze.

My cousin pours Dad a rather large glass of mysterious booze.

Our newfound family treated us like royalty throughout and despite their reluctance, I was able to spend some time each day farming as my grandfather would have done as a young lad. Whether I was milking the cows, working the land or harvesting crops, few jobs this year gave me more satisfaction. I even persuaded the women to let me help them cook, learning our family recipes passed down through the generations.

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After embedding myself in so many cultures over the 51 weeks before, I could not ignore my own. To farm my grandfather’s land, just as he had done 50 years back, was an experience without compare. Boarding the plane in Ukraine to return home, triumphant at the completion of my project, I was unable to synthesise everything I had come to know over the past year. I was returning home with a lifetime of memories and the crowning glory of having found my family.

1 year, 5 continents, 52 food jobs, done.

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