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Growing Up in Ukraine Growing Up in Ukraine
April 9, 2019
by Olena

Growing Up in Ukraine

by Olena

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I said so many times in my recipes “growing up in Ukraine” in the last 4 years, I feel like I have to demystify what we actually did growing up in Ukraine. I also hope this story will let you to get to know me better since you serve my food in your homes. And you gotta know where your food comes from.

I do not think anyone here knows me really well or at all. Blogging is very weird. It makes you vulnerable. This post is really outside of my comfort zone because it is personal. Very personal. I edited the post about 673 times. I share a personal view and so many times it is misunderstood. Internet is a place where some people suddenly feel “brave” and it is very easy to be mean. Similar to someone showing you a middle finger on a road, you approach them on a parking lot and they are ready to pee their pants. People don’t own it! I know my opinion is quite different from the masses simply because I am from a different part of the world. But we are all different with different life experiences which shape us into who we are.

It was impossible to collect photos without people in them because camera and film were scarce. Nobody took photos of food or rooms. So, that is why people everywhere but you might have a good chuckle looking at them because I surely did, even though they are my family. A family I never had…

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Well at some point I did. My parents divorced when I was 6 or 7. But things have never been going well in that department. Mom always says she should have never married my dad as she never loved him. Grandma suggested to marry him since he seemed like a great guy. Mom was a single mom which was viewed as “a disease”. So, mom did. Long story short, the only good thing that came out of it was a child – me. My half sister hated my dad and was never crazy about me, mom hated my dad, they got divorced. I saw him maybe 10 times after that.

That divorce left a huge scar on me. It was so ugly, I was so lost between all their fights and hate talk in my ears from both sides. I had nobody to talk to about it, everyone around was mad and my life went downhill since then until I met Alex pretty much. I would never feel normal because I never got to experience what family is as a kid. That is why I would never get a divorce. I know they say “never say never” but I am going to be confident and say it out loud – “I would never divorce my husband”. I would always make my marriage work because I have a great guy, Alex, and we have little things we bicker about but they are little. I ended up with Alex not by accident but by a careful choice I made as a result of my childhood experience. Of course, I dated jerks. Who didn’t, right?! But I always knew I would never marry any of them and when I met Alex I knew right away this is THE guy. 15 years later and I still feel the same although he drives me nuts sometimes! But I never feel like I want to kill him, so means the choice was right.

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Ukrainian strollers of the 80’s were Cadillacs. I have to say that everything you see here was made in limited quantities in former USSR. It was communism.  All republics – Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia, Moldova, Georgia etc. were supplied by the same manufacturers. Like everything from toilet paper (btw which we stopped buying after divorce and used newspaper) to winter coats was made by same manufacturer. No imports were allowed. You go to your friend’s house and drink tea from exactly the same cups you drink at home. At school 5 girls could show up with same backpacks and in fact it was considered cool. All professors carried exactly the same suitcases.

So, it was hard to find anything, even if you had money, stores carried limited amount of everything. This phenomenon was called “deficit”. People were paid very little but they didn’t know anything better and everyone was equal. There was no keeping up with Joneses. Life was much easier, in a way. Less stress – no mortgage payments, no leased cars, no bazillion closets of stuff, no avocado peelers and no avocados by the way.

That is why I think Charmin toilet paper is too much, wash Ziplock bags and use same patio set for 12 years. I hate waste!

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Meet Ukrainian cereal – oatmeal, rice pudding or cream of wheat (that is what is all over my face). Then we also made kind of runny cereal – cooked hot buckwheat or noodles with milk, sugar and butter. Another breakfast option were eggs, pan fried potatoes in bacon’s fat (Ukrainian salo – very tasty). Some people ate leftover borscht. Some with a shot of vodka, at 6 am, before work. Yep. All food was reheated on a gas stove, no microwaves. That is how I operate now too.

I was wearing this one and only bib I had for years passed onto me from someone else I bet – plastic with little duckies. My cousin had the same. Mom would wash it every time.

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In the evenings and on weekends, me and my cousin were the main entertainment. No TV, iPads or magazines. Are you kidding?! Newspaper in the morning had a lineup of readers and God forbid to misplace it. My grandma would be losing it on my uncle if he did. We would put on a show dancing in cotton tights. Our 60’s TV offered 3 channels and you had to use pliers to switch between channels. Not to mention it was 8 of us per one TV.

That is my great grandma and aunt in the background. I love looking at these old photos examining the furnishings, people, clothes, faces and comparing to today. How times change, right?! Rugs on walls, everything real wood, silk and wool.

Today, I can’t stand TV on every night. I fight about it with Alex all the time. There are so many other things to do in life besides TV. I also take iPads away for months after kids abuse my kindness.

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I occasionally went to daycare. It was a huge building like school size subsidized by the government with 30 kids and 2 caregivers per group. I hated it. No wonder. Who would wanna go there?! I was the shortest, food was disgusting (think liver patties with mashed split peas) and nobody cared about you, really.

The only good part were New Year’s concerts. Every year there was a different theme and mom had to make me a costume. Hand made from scratch. There was no China or Walmart. Isn’t it amazing what she made?! My costumes were always the best. No wonder I do not enjoy my kids’ concerts – I think they show barely any creativity.

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We also got our one and only yearly supply of candies and chocolates from Santa. Like that was it, people. You get occasional candy throughout the year if there was a birthday party in the family or someone came to visit. Candies were either non-existent in stores or expensive. No wonder kids were healthy!!! There was no obesity!

If you got a sudden sugar craving a staple Soviet treat was a slice of fresh baguette, with butter and sugar. Considering you had a baguette on hand because we had to buy bread daily. Bread was real so it wouldn’t keep fresh long and we ate a lot of bread. Usually it was kids’ job to go buy bread delivered by the bread truck. You had to time it and get your spot in line because bread was gone fast (similar to Xbox release lineup). That smell OMG. I swear 50% of the time by the time me and my friends got home bread was missing its ends. It made my grandma livid LOL. Or if I was sent to get butter, which was sold in bulk, placed in your plastic bag which grandma washed at home without any soap, and I got a bit sidetracked on the way home catching butterflies with friends, OMG grandma’s forehead vein was throbbing. I’m telling you, the discipline we had. I have no issues making my kids liking my food.

My mom also made a concoction of whipped egg yolks with sugar. Add those 2 in a tall mug and whip with a spoon until smooth and fluffy. Salmonella? Mixer? What are they?!

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Then was school. Entire USSR wore the same school uniform as you see on me. Girls were wearing nylon hair bow ties. School uniform was brown or navy, with these white trims that had to be hand washed and sewn on with a needle and thread a few times a week. And there was no washers or dryers. By hand and out in the air. Can you imagine?! Crazy.

I missed 1st grade for a reason mom can’t remember. I think it was the divorce. I started school in grade 2 and turned out more than fine academically. We had no kindergarten, pre-K or preschool BUT our curriculum and education system was very strong. Math skills I had by age 9 compared to my son’s are day and night. And he is always an A student although there are no grades anymore here…

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Now these are funny vacation photos. Every summer all parents tried to go on vacation “to the seas” as they said. All trips were subsidized by the government and lasted 2-3 weeks. Resorts were far away from fancy, most with a common area bathroom and just OK food. But they were almost free.

Nobody owned a camera back then, like very few better off folks. Probably professors and engineers. So, there were photographers on a beach taking photos…with various animals. I guess that was cool.

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Alex is still laughing about me sitting on a donkey. He is 12 years older than me, so he was serving in the Russian army while I was riding donkeys and camels on the beach. Well, somebody had to do that too.

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This is the photo from my 10th birthday party. The only birthday party I had, for many reasons. Money, living conditions, our family situation, my mom’s health…I still remember grandma cooking for me, sewing the dress and inviting all neighbours kids.

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This is the house I lived in majority of my childhood. A 4 bedroom apartment we shared  between 3 families. We lost our apartment in divorce so had to move in with grandma and 2 other families. I know it is hard to understand how you could share apartment but people did. By law, the communist law. Shared kitchen and bathroom, and then bedrooms. The building was built in 1920s with huge ceilings and even a small backyard.

First window on the left from the entrance door was my mom’s, grandma’s and my room. We would leave window open at night and sometimes street cats would jump in at night. More often than not running away from hungry street dogs…Living conditions were rough though. 10 people rubbing shoulders in same space for years…Since then I like to be home alone.

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Many Ukrainian schools were old architectural buildings. Something very uncommon for North America, right?! There is so much history in Europe which I still miss dearly. I don’t miss fox fur coats though. The girl in the fur coat is one of my best friends I now talk to on Facebook.The girl next to her ended up marrying my first boyfriend from that school.

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As rich our architecture was, as poor and bare the classrooms were. We really had nothing. Desks, bookshelves, plants and curtains. And the most hard working and devoted teachers I have ever seen. When my son’s teachers went on strike a few years ago claiming they buy school’s supplies with their own money I couldn’t understand…I still don’t. To me education is not about things but rather passing on knowledge. And you do not need more than a pen, some paper, a few good textbooks and a passionate teacher for that.

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While my mom’s family was living in a big city, Kiev, and everyone was a professor or a doctor, my dad was from a remote area in Moldova. Mom met him while he was studying in Kiev. This is my grandma’s house we visited occasionally in summer. There was a gravel road in front and this water well with the most delicious water ever. There was no running water or bathroom in the house in villages back then. I think people still live that way.

This was also the house we escaped to from the Chernobyl disaster (as bad as only Fukushima) back in 1986. I was 4 but distantly remember the chaos in Kiev. People were running away like crazy, mostly women with kids. Jumping onto already moving trains who cares going where, just to run away. It was like a war situation. You couldn’t get train tickets anywhere but my dad managed to. Connections was everything back then. Back doors. We stuffed ourselves on a train full of sweaty people and suitcases, sitting up all night running away from radiation to Moldova. It was a nightmare. And we showed up on grandma’s doorstep unannounced because there was no phone in that village of course.

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I also found this house in my dad’s pictures. I bet he lived in it at some point.

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Don’t you just love old pictures?! I love looking at details – clothes, hair, jewelry. My grandma holding a handkerchief, her sister holding a tree branch. Look at the floor with hay.

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This is some of my family in Siberia. I can tell judging by the ceiling and my dad’s stories. It reads in Russian “For my family to remember”, something like that. It is so hard to translate things like that.

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And this is my great grandpa visiting Canada back in late 1800’s or early 1900’s. That is what my dad told me. I wonder how did he get to Canada back then? I guess Canada was meant to be for me.

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I don’t think I miss much about life back then except the social life. I love how people were out there outside, talking and visiting each other, getting together, helping. This is a photo from a traditional wedding in Moldova. Eating, dancing and drinking of course. A lot of wine was made in Moldova because of its warm climate. And a lot of moonshine too. The very right man the closest in the picture is my grandpa, obviously having fun.

I find life in North America very secluded and socially poor. People avoid communication and everyone is on their own. Yes, there are a lot of charities (many useless by the way) but you are on your own on a day to day basis. However, if big disaster strikes people are willing to help, I admit. But daily nobody honestly cares what is happening in a neighbour’s house. On a very surface level.

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I love this photo of my uncle! Life was so simple. People were so pure. Something between naive and innocent. Like I can’t imagine Alex holding to a tree branch posing for a photo right now. You know what I mean?!

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100 years later those moustaches are baaaaaack LOL.

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This is a photo of my dad in the army (second right). Somewhere in Russia. Alex has a bunch of same photos. Soviet Union army was a nightmare Alex says. Up at 6 AM, push ups as punishment, catching doves for meat. No wonder there is no food waste in my house.

Again I love the architecture. Those fountains…I can’t wait to travel all around Europe!!!

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When I said we used to pick mushrooms, I meant it.QScan04122016_153426

And we celebrated birthdays. OMG my hair. I think I did that haircut myself because I had no money. I love this photo – again table loads of Ukrainian food, wine, weird wall paper.

 

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And this is the last and most dearest photo to me – me and all my girlfriends saying good byes 2 days before we left to Canada. October 16th, 2000 me and mom flew to Edmonton via Amsterdam and Vancouver. I will never forget my first flight at 19. $10 MacDonald’s burger in Amsterdam’s airport which me and mom shared – $100 was all she had. Me nervously having a smoke in Vancouver’s airport thinking “OMG what has happened to me”. My immigration story is for another day.
I found so much happiness, peace and comfort in North America for which I will be grateful forever. I feel like I have won the lottery because very few people get to escape Ukraine and many wish they could. But I can’t deny there is me “before” and “after”, I will never feel Canadian and make friends easily. Can’t have everything in life, can’t you?! But at same time you can take the best out of it and be happy every single day you are healthy and alive.

This is my story and I am grateful I have one, no matter which turn it took. Did you make it till the end LOL?!

Have a great weekend, my friends! Life is beautiful!

59 comments on “Growing Up in Ukraine

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  1. Oh, Olena… Just came across your story… What a walk down memory lane!…. I almost choked up while reading it… Because I am from Kiev as well and can relate so much (!) to everything you say. Even though I am much older than you… but then, again, time stood still in USSR, didn’t it? :)… Yes, I could totally relate, and I agree with you in every little bit of detail… We are lucky, yes, and yet – we, immigrants, will never feel totally at home anywhere… That said, I do share your optimism in the last lines of your story! It’s really great to know you! You and Alex look awesome on the videos! 🙂 Love your recipes and your insights! 🙂

    1. You are sweet. Thank you!
      20 years later and my biggest struggle still is to be able to read locals and to make friends. I can’t always understand the body language. And for friends, I feel stuck between immigrants and locals. A balance of somewhere in between would work but that’s impossible lol. But life is good anyways, so I’m willing to suck it up.

  2. Just came across your post. Really enjoyed reading it! I did the opposite. I left Canada at 30 and moved to Ireland where my parents immigrated from. I never felt “in my own skin” in Canada. Never quite fit in. You are right about a lot of the West.. .lacks community. Sometimes a good thing as I’m a private person. But would be nice to know the neighbours a bit more and have people look out for the elderly. Keep posting!

    1. No place is perfect, just like nothing or nobody.:) As years go by and my kids are growing, I get more settled and gain life experience to accept the differences. I feel pretty comfortable with myself now and Canada is home. I love it. However, some things will never be the same for me as for someone born here BUT it’s OK. I’m fine with it.
      Your move is an interesting one and looks like it worked for you.:)

  3. Hi Olena,
    I came for the zucchini pad thai recipe the other day, but stayed for your stories. I love your blog and your perspective on life! And much to my surprise, the first time I went to Puerto Rico (layover to Venezuela got cancelled), my coworker’s family came and picked my group up from the airport with beers to cheer us up and welcome us to the island, so there is at least one place in North America where the airport beer tradition exists! Also, in New Orleans, passengers in cars are allowed to have alcohol. There are even drive-thru bars for just this purpose. Anyways, I need to get back to lurking on the rest of your blog now. Cheers!

    1. Third world countries have main thing in common – rules are way more relaxed and often non-existent. We are in Mexico right now and sure thing on this morning’s run in a prestige gated community that is spotless and gorgeous, we see a truck loaded with 10 Mexican workers sitting in the open back coming in and throwing empty 2L Coke bottle in the middle of the road and keep driving. There you go, and it is like this everywhere! That is why these countries remain undeveloped countries. I do think Canada has way too many rules and is super cautious but it is because of them Canada is Canada. So, I will take it.:) Enjoy the rest of my blog.:) xxx

  4. Olena, I am new to your blog and I don’t even read blogs but I am hooked. Your words touch me. I am from Trinidad & Tobago, been in the USA since the age of 5, yet I will always be Trinidadian, it is hard to explain to my US born friends who are very patriotic. Thank you for your openess (is that even a word?), I feel like I know you.
    All the best.

    Salina

    1. 🙂 Right?! I envy with all my heart North American’s patriotism and faith in God that fills big parts of their heart. Nothing like that I grew up with. I feed my heart and soul with my love for my little family, friends, outdoors and life. I am genuinely envious of American/Canadian flags proudly displayed on many buildings which shows how proud people are of their homeland. I’m a proud Canadian but you have to be born here and grow up here to feel 100% like home. Which is fine, I’m happy and all good, but I agree with you – how can you explain to people whose country gave them everything about your country that robbed you of so much that you had to run away to avoid feeding on coconuts and bananas for the rest of your life, or being afraid to leave your tiny shack after dark so your ears won’t be ripped off along with jewellery?! As much as I do not like North American system of education, I have to agree that I would rather have been born here than in “a smarter” Ukraine. Sorry not sorry. America and Canada cares about its people’s mental health, their children without families and abused women. We are truly lucky for our new HOME. Yes, this is home and it is wonderful! Growing up in a communist regime truly had deep damaging effect on me as a child with which I’m still dealing today and will be till the end of my life. Ukraine has robbed me of home, father, family, basic necessities and any money whatsoever. So no, thank you! Ukraine is over there and I will stay here. No patriotism in me whatsoever. I am proud to be Canadian!!!

  5. Your story is so beautifully written, the photos filling in what our imagination could not. Thank you for sharing your past, your home of origin and your heart. I was sorry to come to the end.
    I am thoroughly enjoying your blogs, recipes and advice. You feel like the neighbor friend I always wanted. Thanks again. I look forward to learning more from you. Peace to you and your family.

    1. Hi Cheryl. Thank you so much for your kind wishes and words. I am working on an immigration story now.:) If only there were enough hours in a day. Summer seems so busy. Haha about neighbours. I know what you mean. My neighbour like that just moved and it is sad. I wish I had more neighbours like her and me too. Crazy neighbours we say.:)

  6. I love this post! It’s so interesting to know someone’s “story.” You have a lot of good observations and opinions of life that I agree with and respect. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much, Katie. Me too – I always love to hear people’s life stories. I think everybody does as humans are noisy, in a good way I mean (mostly:)).

  7. Thanks for sharing! I was born in Luxembourg and immigrated with my family in the 90’s, and although Luxembourg is different from the Ukraine, I can definitely relate to some of the things you said!

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