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A nostalgic visit to a Carpathian village
Oleksandr Panasyev takes a trip down memory lane and invites the readers to hop aboard his time machine of reminiscences and travel to the village of Kryvorivnya, Western Ukraine, over thirty years into the past.
It seems that, paradoxically, in my younger years it was much more difficult for me “to get up and go” on a trip that promised good rewards in time well spent, in exciting sights enjoyed, in new friendships made.
A good friend of mine, who was a great enthusiast of Ukrainian culture (in fact, the soviets labeled him “Ukrainian nationalist” and because of that he had problems in landing jobs), had been trying to talk me into visiting “an absolutely stunning place in the Carpathians — the village of Kryvorivnya!” He put forward all kinds of very persuasive arguments, among them — “Do you know that it was in that village that Paradzhanov filmed his masterpiece Tini zabutykh predkiv? (Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors, arguably the best film of what is known as “the Ukrainian poetic cinema”).
I agreed that the film was surely a great masterpiece but still preferred a coach-potato style of spending my vacations — with a book in hand rather than being “exposed to the unknown of new places and all sorts of possible discomforts.”
It was my wife — young, good-looking, full of pep, a culture buff and art historian into the bargain, who was instrumental in tipping the scales of my indecisiveness in favor of the trip to Kryvorivnya (another push was given by my vacation time being moved from November to July — a great but not at all unpleasant surprise). I knew, from the stories and photographs, that this village was a highly picturesque place with a lot to recommend it from the cultural point of view as well — a number of famous Ukrainian literati and culture and public figures had paid visits to Kryvorivnya, or even lived there for some time.
Frankly, I did not care too much for either lure, be it scenic or cultural. I found that books, texts and illustrations in them were enough for me to provide sufficient stimulation and food both for emotions and for thought.
The year was 1975, the month of July. We were explained in detail how to get to Kryvorivnya — “Once you get to Kosiv, there, at the market place, there’s a bus terminal. Ask around for a bus that can take you to Kryvorivnya. Schedule? I’m afraid there’s no fixed schedule, but I’m sure luck will be on your side. A hotel? Well, there’s something that they call ‘a hotel’ in Kryvorivnya but I’m not at all sure you will appreciate their services. So I suggest you ask around and find someone in the village who’ll put you up or rent a room to you for a couple of weeks. And it will not be a problem to have someone cook for you.”
Such were the encouraging instructions provided by my friend, an ardent advocate of the Carpathian holiday. As a matter of fact, I found them quite discouraging, particularly that “ask-around” bit. But once decided, I hated to go back on my decision. The tickets — a plane to Ivano-Frankivsk, and then a short railroad ride to Kosiv — were purchased. I borrowed a photo camera, “not very sophisticated but with a good lens.” I was given instructions how to take “slide photos” — that is, to use a color film for slides, rather than a black and white film, the latter being the amateur standard at that time. I purchased a couple of color films and several black-and-white films of various sensitivity “to take care of varying conditions of lighting (the slides did turn out to be great, and a number of black-and-white photos were also good — or so my wife, I and our friends thought, but alas, alas, most of them have disappeared in the maelstrom of time, of moving from place to place and of crippling divorces; I’m particularly sorry about the total loss of the slides). I purchased, after spending a couple of hours in a line, what was called then “kedy” — sort of basketball shoes of Chinese make, closest thing you could get then to hiking boots (I was tipped which store would sell them and at what time). I felt ready for the trip. My wife reported that all the other necessary preparations and purchases had been made too.
The flight on board a decrepit small plane and then a ride in a tenth-class carriage deserve a separate story; the bus trip from Kosiv to Kryvorivnya seemed like a true-to-life re-enactment from a film about country life in Latin America, India or an Arab country of the nineteen-fifties, the only difference being that it was all for real — the bus was packed to bursting not only with human bodies but with their luggage mostly consisting of huge sacks and packs, with live animals liberally thrown in for good measure. I thought we would never make it — but we did, after innumerable stops, fording a shallow river and climbing impossible slopes. Was I sorry I let myself into all of that? There was no time for being sorry — every instant of the trip seemed to be close to my last moment on this earth.
When we arrived at a stop in Kryvorivnya, there were a couple of elderly women loitering in sight. We asked politely for directions to a hotel — the women began talking excitedly, both of them at once, — and I could not understand a word of what they were saying. I had been actually warned that the local dialect of Ukrainian could “be hard on your ear first but then you’ll get adjusted.” Eventually, I did but the first several days were hard indeed. The locals understood me all right though — but they seemed to have a condescending look in their eyes.
My wife fared better in communication, and she interpreted for me the gist of what had been said — yes, there is a hotel, but we would hardly like it, so better come to their place and see whether we’d like to stay at their home instead. It happened as predicted — the one-storied hotel was a minus five-star affair, even on the outside.
We trudged back to the place from which we started only to discover that the directions given to us of how to get to the private homes of those two ladies could not be followed — we felt entirely lost. The houses and vegetable gardens climbed the slopes on all sides without any plan, without anything that could be described as “streets.” We stood there quite lost — but not miserable. There was one thing that began to produce a redeeming effect — the air. I suddenly realized I was not just breathing it — I was drinking it and enjoying every gulp! Also, the sights around us began to grow on us too — the green hills, the green mountains, the green of stretches of flat land, the silver of the river, the blue of the sky with unhurried puffs of clouds sailing across its expanse — were in such an overwhelming contrast to what we were accustomed to back home that it was hard to concentrate on the problem at hand.
The problem was solved in less than an hour, long before the evening began to stalk in — a passer-by directed us to a house, “see, yonder there, with a dead tree by its side; Paraska told me the other day she could do with an extra ruble. She may take you in.”
Paraska at first said “no” but it was a hesitant “no,” and thanks to the negotiating skills of my wife this “no” was soon modified into an acquiescent “yes.” “But I really can’t cook for you — there’s hardly anything to cook from, you know. But you can use the kitchen all right”
We said we’d manage. Paraska’s face was all wrinkled, she was stooping low, and I thought she must be well over sixty. But she was very nimble and agile, and, later, in a conversation, she revealed she was forty seven. I was stunned, but most of the women we saw in that village did look much older than their actual age.
The next morning we took our first walk into the mountains. Talking about the mountains a bit of clarification is needed. The mountains that surround Kryvorivnya are of a very placid kind — no rock faces, no snow-clad summits; the slopes are overgrown with evergreens and tall grasses and did not present to us any particular mountain-climbing challenges. The slopes in some places were rather steep but there always seemed to be a way of finding a less arduous ascent.
We were fascinated, captivated, overwhelmed on that very first morning — in the grassy stretches, the grasses reached up to our waste or higher, and we actually felt sorry that we had to trample these wonderful herbs to move around. And there were zillions of wild flowers! In some places there seemed to be no green grass at all — just a solid carpet of most amazing wild flowers! Once in a while we would lie down on the bed of wild flowers to listen to the mountain silence filled with distant murmurs of the trees, buzzing of busy insects, whisper of the undulating grasses. We enjoyed the myriads of delicate fragrances floating in the air every inhaling of which was like tasting the most precious wine of the best ever vintage.
I’m afraid it would take a much better wordsmith than I could ever hope to be, to describe both our state of exaltation and the gorgeous nature that caused it. Smerekas — the Carpathian evergreens, have something in them that immediately made us feel as though they were friendly to us, offering protection against the unexpectedly hot sun, and a serene quiet that was conducive for contemplation. Also, they infused the air with their curative substances that made breathing a very special joy.
We took those long hikes in the mountains every day, from morning till late afternoon — and we never felt exhausted. Yes, we were a bit tired, ravenously hungry but never close to physical collapse even though there had been a whole day of climbing steeper grades and less strenuous strolling uphill and downhill. The joys of the spirit seemed to add a vital element to our physical endurance.
The colors, the smells, the quiet, the very spirit of the place were truly revelatory. It was then, sitting at my vantage point on a hill, I experienced, for the first time in my life, so deeply and truly, the great power of beauty in nature…
During one of our long walks we discovered a rock, in a damp and secretive part of the primordial forest, with in an inscription V pamÕyatÕ oblav 1944–1956 pp — In Memory of Raids of 1944-1956, that is the KGB raids against the detachments of the Ukrainian Insurrection Army that fought against the soviets! There were fresh flowers lying at the foot of the rock. The place was spooky and we seemed to hear the echoes of fierce fighting. When we told our hostess about our find, she warned us to be careful and not to talk about it to strangers. She said she had been of course aware of the armed resistance to the soviet regime and even helped UIA fighters with what she could — at least she so claimed.
Some other time, we came across a huge rock which was locally referred to as Dovbushivka — it was believed that Oleksa Dovbush (1700–1745), the leader of the opryshky (“people’s avengers”), a Ukrainian Robin Hood, had one of his hiding places in a cave near that rock. We saw the cave too but did not risk climbing in.
We talked to Did (old man) Kharuk who claimed he was the son of Paraska Kharuk, Ivan Franko’s lover, and actually insisted he had been sired by this remarkable Ukrainian poet and author himself. Did Kharuk also complained about “Paradzhan” (film director Paradzhanov) who had borrowed one of his “Austrian shtoffs (bottles) just for a day and never returned it! And it was my mother’s! She kept her special love potion in it for Ivan [Franko]. Oh, was she a beauty!” Did Kharuk was barefoot, had his last bath maybe in his childhood, his khata (house) was falling apart but his mind was clear — though definitely inventive and prone to verbal embroidery.
Almost every night we witnessed the most amazing natural show I had ever seen — thunderstorms in the mountains. The whole world seemed to have become a display of heavenly wrath with lightning bolts striking every half second, illuminating the distant hills and mountain ranges in eerie, transcendental light, and sending across the universe peals of deafening, frightening thunder that tore the skies apart. But not every time the rain came all the way to Kryvorivnya. In fact, I do not recollect a single rain during the daytime, but I do remember the river that a day before had looked a hardly more than a rivulet, turning, after a rain storm, into a violent muddy beast carrying huge trunks of trees, branches and bushes torn with their roots out of the banks. A day later it returned to its almost placid state.
We were amazed to find roadside stone images of Christ or Virgin Mary — and that in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union! I wonder whether they are still there, in the independent Ukraine that proclaims herself to be a tolerant but Orthodox state.
We lived on sweet milk, sour milk and afeny — local name for blackberries which we gathered during our walks, and which we used in making pyrohy — dumplings stuffed with these berries. These pyrohy, with home-made butter and thick sour-cream, liberally poured over them, were probably the most delicious dish I had ever tried. The sour milk was kept in a huge aluminum basin that stood on the floor in the kitchen and you could help yourself to it whenever you felt like it. The sour milk was so thick that you could literally cut it with a knife and then place the cut-out section on a plate, and eat it with a table spoon…
The local food store was closed most of the time. It did sell bread once in a while but we were never there at the right time. Our hostess had a cow and the cow produced more milk than could be consumed; our hostess complained that very little milk was bought from her by the local “collective farm” of which she was not a member anyway. She lived off her vegetable garden and her cow. Do you remember that the year was 1975? The year, say, of the joint soviet Soyuz-US Apollo space flight? Kryvorivnya seemed to live then in a different century.
The room we rented had a bed and what once had been a sofa. It was impossible to sleep in that bed for two people at once — the metal-net mattress sagged in the middle so much that almost reached the floor, and that meant that only one person could fit into that sag. Besides, the bed was infested with bed bugs, each one the size of a dime. So we alternated sleeping in the valley of the bugs and on the ruined sofa.
But these creature discomforts meant so little in the face of the wondrous natural beauty we were surrounded with.
One of the great blessings, greatly appreciated by us, was the absence of tourists. Green tourism was still a thing of the distant future, and the few people we did meet once in a while in the village or in the mountains were locals who politely greeted us (an amazing thing for city dwellers). The scarceness of human kind made us feel all the mountains were there for us, for our enjoyment.
Through the prism of memory and time, the place now seems to have been a fairy tale land, a Land of Ukrainian Oz, to which there is no return.
I’ve never been to Kryvorivnya since then. I know that now they have memorial plaques and museums that inform the visitors of the famous Ukrainians who lived in Kryvorivnya or visited the palace — Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrayinka, M. Kotsyubynsky, M. Hrushevsky, Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit (an amazing local villager who had various talents and whose life was turned into hell by the soviets). However, for some reason I prefer to keep my Kryvorivnya in the privacy of my memory as a source of nostalgic joy. And now, for quite different reasons, I felt I wanted to share some of my memories with others.
Photos by the author