When I was 10, I went to a summer camp in Ukraine.
I don’t mean that my parents shipped me off and told me to have fun with macrame and Ukrainians and that they’d see me in a few weeks. My whole family had been living in Latvia (the home of my mother’s predecessors) for the previous year, and after the school year and the Jāņi (Midsummer) celebrations were done, we hopped an overnight train to Ukraine, my parents rented a “microbus” van (complete with driver) and we drove into the Carpathians to visit the homeland (on my father’s side–where did you think “Kresowaty” came from?).
I didn’t quite realize this at the time, but by the end of our year in Latvia, we weren’t exactly rolling in money with which to tour another Eastern European country. This, I imagine, is why it seemed like a good idea to spend a few days staying in a cabin in a children’s summer camp, sleeping on the cheap and eating camp dinners with the kids. And for all intents and purposes, it was a good idea, since it worked out just fine.
The camp was pretty and the woman who ran it was very accommodating. After realizing that we spoke English, the children staying there treated us like celebrities, crowding around us to get a look (which was a bit scary for my sisters and me at first but wasn’t mean). Our cabin was large and bright compared to some of the hotels we had recently stayed in (or the hay-covered floor we had slept on after the Jāņi festivities).
As for the camp’s facilities, I remember only that I had to eat mashed potatoes (even though I hated them) because that was what was being served, and that the “bathrooms” at the camp were cement cubicles with small holes in the floor. My aim (as a child of 10 who was used to sit-down toilets) was not so great, so whenever I could I took advantage of the WC provided by the Great Outdoors. I can’t remember if we were ever able to shower while we were there, or whether we bathed in a river or something instead (there was a beautiful little waterfall nearby where we could jump off the rock into the pool below).
But no matter. My parents revealed to me this year that they’re pretty sure that a lot of the kids at the camp were from the Chernobyl contamination zone, spending a summer away from the ever-present danger of radiation (the disaster had only occurred about a decade ago at that point). That freaked me out a bit because I’ve read that to spend time living with a Chernobylite is essentially to spend time with a nuclear reactor (human bodies hold radiation just like everything else), but it also made their kindness all the more touching.
Despite my sisters and my shyness, the other kids (girls especially) were friendly and inclusive and those who could speak a bit of English seemed excited to try it out on us. An older girl took charge of us at the camp’s “Disco” night, asking us what music we liked (I told her Ace of Base) and making sure the teasing boys behaved themselves. On our last day at the camp, some of the girls presented us with little gifts they had bought from the ladies who sometimes set up little booths there.
I want to point out that these kids had nothing. Ukraine was a very poor country following the collapse of the USSR only five or so years before (running water only available some parts of the day, hot water hardly at all) and I think these girls were even poorer than that. I can’t remember how my sisters and I reacted to receiving the plastic earrings, bottle of perfume, and the small bottle of “Venus” deodorant we were given (I don’t think it was a slight, this seemed to be one of the prized items for sale). I think even as (comparatively) privileged Canadian kids we realized how nice this was. I don’t remember any of the girls’ names, but the memory of their generosity only becomes more amazing to me as I grow older. I don’t know many children, poor or otherwise, who would ever think to buy presents out of pocket for complete strangers.
On our last night, my sisters and I were roused from sleep. The lady who ran the camp was there, to feed us some type of corn porridge and sell my parents a heavy wool blanket (the “Ukrainian blanket” is the warmest blanket my family owns, popular on the couch in Saskatchewan winters or when camping). There was a lot of eating with strangers in Ukraine. Wherever we went, it seems people wanted to feed us. That’s just how it was.
Most of that trip through Ukraine feels like a dream to me now. Not because I was young (I have vivid memories of being much younger than 10), but because it was all so unusual to me. My memories of the country are just little snatches now: Fanta in sugar-rimmed glasses. The gilded opera house in Lviv where gorgeous women in stilettos went clack clack clack up marble staircases. Paying 1000 “kupons” (5 USD) for a carved wooden jewellery box. The cherries that looked good but had worms in them. The family we found who may or may not have been related to my grandmother (no way of telling since the village church records were destroyed by the Soviets) but who invited us for lunch anyways. Spending the night in a hotel that wasn’t open to the public yet (and didn’t have toilet seats). My mom celebrating her birthday on the train somewhere in Belarus and blowing out matchsticks stuck into a bun. Dill on everything.
On one of our last nights in Ukraine, we stayed in the apartment of relatives of our travel agent (for free, I think). They had a great big book of Ukrainian folktales in English. The folk art illustrations were stunning. The owners of the apartment gave the book to us, maybe just because they didn’t have use for an English book, maybe because they wanted to give us something. I have it on my shelf now and it is one of the possessions I am most careful with (especially because it belongs to my sisters too, not just to me).
I don’t know why I am thinking of Ukraine today. Maybe because my friend Aliya (who is also half-Ukrainian) mentioned that she would like to go. Maybe because the warm sunny weather and my recent trip to the Prairies has me dreaming of blue skies and yellow fields. Maybe because I encountered some of the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life there. Maybe because there’s a tiny part in me, however small, that cries for the home of my blood.
Or maybe because today I just wanted to tell you, in case you didn’t know, about the time I went to summer camp in Ukraine.