She knew I was giving up a lunch date to continue my Ukrainian lessons with her. I had given her and her family a pumpkin bread the day before and she was repaying my hospitality. She placed a plastic mat in front of me and told me that she had already eaten with her granddaughter; I would be eating alone.
The bowl of borshch came out of the microwave and she set it down on the mat, followed by a plate with two pieces of buttered bread sitting next to two cloves of garlic. I had been reading about this slavic tradition and took a bite of the bread, then a small nibble from the raw garlic. Eating raw garlic is an acquired taste. The soup was good, not great. The peas and green beans threw me. The sour cream and dill added a nice touch, but I was excepting more beets and maybe a chunk or two of beef. I’m thinking there are probably hundreds of ways to prepare this traditional soup and there likely isn’t a bad borshch among them.
The first week upon learning where I’d be spending my two years in the Peace Corps, I visited the fall festival of the St. Nicholas’ Ukrainian Catholic Church a few miles from Albany and I asked around about the possibility of finding someone to teach me Ukrainian. I was told Maria might be able to help and within a week we were scheduling times to meet. When I first contacted her about learning the language, she assumed I was a spy, a government operative. Why else would someone want to learn Ukrainian? I was not offended. Maria is about my age, living temporarily with her daughter, son-in-law and a couple of grandkids before she moves back to Ukraine.
My history of Russia and Ukraine and the other Baltic States is weak, but I intrinsically understood the ingrained skepticism of assuming I was a spy, a nationalistic distrust. My father’s ancestors are from Poland, or Russia, depending on the period of history. When people ask I tell them I’m Prussian. It saves trying to pinpoint exactly where my grandmother’s family emigrated from.
During our first hour sitting down together Maria had probed deeply enough to ascertain my heritage and marital status and whether or not I liked women. I understood immediately I was in the company of a babushka, albeit a younger, Westernized version, and I knew I had better get used to it. These are women who will want to know everything about me so they can find the best woman to marry me off to. Best to prepare for it now.
One definition of babushka refers to a Polish or Russian grandmother and typically conjures up images of a tiny woman dressed in black, bundled with a shawl over her head. The other definition of babushka is the actual head scarf. Maria is simply a grandmother, not in black, without a head scarf. However she possesses those grandmotherly traits of a babushka: questioning and advising, coercing and caring.
During our time together, during my struggles through the proper pronunciations of Ukrainian letters and words and sentences, we break up the monotony and frustration with talk of Ukrainian customs and foods and current affairs. We talk about the familiar staples of Polish foods I grew up with and how they are similar to Ukrainian standards : kielbasa/kovbasa, pierogi/varenyky, and the like, and Maria speaks about how my upbringing, my manners and my willingness to learn will suit me well during my two years in Ukraine.
I may not even need to know a lot of Ukrainian. Instead I may be assigned to live and work in a part of the country where Russian is the predominate language. But I do not view my time spent with Maria as a potentially wasted exercise. I am gaining a bit of experience, along with a touch of self-confidence, in being able to relate to and get close to a Ukrainian; being able to laugh and understand my own idiosyncracies and how I will ultimately adapt and co-habitate with these warm people.
My language lessons are about more than just learning the language, they are about connecting and understanding this culture I’ll be participating in for 27 months. Despite my poor performance through lesson four, lesson five, lesson six…I feel good after leaving the warm, comforting home in suburban Albany filled with piles of children’s toys and colorful picture books in different languages. My frustrations are tempered by my feeling better able to relate to my new babushka and her culture.