When people look at me they see a Ukrainian man. I can walk down the street and no one would know the difference between me and their father or brother. I have perfected the casual phrases such as “Добрий день” and “дякую” which helps me blend into my community. However, my differences are easy to see when I begin to speak full sentences or attend a traditional Ukrainian event.
I first found out about my opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps after my internship ended at the US State Department. Shortly after the cherries blossomed I traveled home to Fresno, California to spend time with family before I departed to Ukraine. This is where my language, geopolitical, and culture learning began. I will never forget sneaking away to study the cyrillic alphabet while on break at my summer job.
My first second language, Ukrainian. Ohh, how I wish it was simpler. But, my hard work has given me the opportunity to learn about Ukrainian Culture and form new bonds and friendships which would be impossible without it.
For instance, we just celebrated Orthodox Easter (which last three days). Although Easter started on Sunday the preparations began the Saturday beforehand. My host family and I worked all day long in order to prepare for the next day.
Paint half a tree white was the strangest activity of the day. For months I have watch hundreds of people paint the bottom of trees white. I was able to participate in this tradition on the eve of Easter. I am not sure if it is tradition to paint the trees before Easter. My better judgement thinks it is, because my host mother made my host brothers and I go out in the rain the day before Easter. Whatever the reason for this, my host mama wanted it done. So, we did it.
Earlier that week my host family told me that we would begin Easter celebration at 3 am Sunday morning. I thought okay, that is fine. I want to do all I can in order to learn their culture. However, I did not realize what that entailed until I sat outside a church for 3 hours in order to get aggressively splashed in the face with water by our local priest.
After which, we headed home with close friends. For the next three hours my host parents celebrated the end of lent while scarfing down nearly 5 kilograms of meat and 300 milliliters of vodka. I did not want to be rude so I participated in the festivities as well. The celebration lasted until 6 am in the morning.
Next, I was fortunate enough to join my host sister and her friends at a local cottage. I was very intimidated because I haven’t made many friends in my community and I liked this group of young people. After about 3 hours we had overcome all the barriers of communication and began to bond as new friends should.
One of the most interesting Ukrainian traditions I learned throughout this process was the “egg game.” This involves everyone at the table. It begins by one person holding a hardboiled egg in their hand exposing the top of the egg. The other person takes their egg and hits the top of the other egg. The person whose egg does not break is the winner. This continues around the table until a champion is crowned, and he or she will possess the luckiest egg in the room.
Eating a lot of cake is the most enjoyable tradition I encountered. And, we did not eat just any cake. It was special Easter cake called “Paska.” Which tasted like cornbread with vanilla frosting and was decorated like a sprinkled donut on steroids. I was told that if I ate 12 different cakes my wish will come true. Not the worst way to get what you desire.
I was happy to try 12 different cakes over a 3 day period. But, I must look to my summer adventures and try losing the 10 kilograms I have gained over the past week. Although it will be tough to lose the weight I have gained by eating meat, cake and eggs. It was worth it.
*These are the ideas and thoughts of Richard J. Roman and do not reflect those of the Peace Corps or its affiliates.