Today's guest post is by Sarah Whelan, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer to Ukraine. Sarah and another PCV have founded Eastword, an oral history project devoted to collecting and sharing of oral histories in the former Soviet States. You can read more about their work--and hear first-hand accounts here.
Gray. It’s the only word that comes to mind when I recall my first winter in Ukraine. I had arrived in October, to a glimpse of fall color that drifted away, yielding to gray and white woolen blankets of sky set above bare branches rooted in frost and frozen ground. The world seemed muffled, as silent people, bundled like nesting dolls walked from store to home, pressed cold hands against warm mouths while waiting for the marshrutka. Dogs wandered the street desperate for scraps and made the acres of dachas that stood behind my apartment building unsafe by their hunger.
“Is this it?” I wondered. “Is Ukraine this silent, cold, gray place? Growling dogs around each bend?” Survival, I concluded, would require preparation. I would be cold, silent, vigilant. I would be tough, silent, totally self-reliant. I would stand against this place solid as a statue, and as soon as I shaped my new, hardened countenance—There was Spring, bursting forth like a new world.
An entirely different country began to bloom, budding with new curiosities.
Once silent neighbors crowded the streets, planting flowers, cleaning away winter’s debris. They flooded into the dacha gardens, hands working furiously in the dark soil to plant the seeds of summer.
Then—a legend arrived: a large yellow barrel rolled out in to the park with one of the only words in Russian or Ukrainian I had known before arriving, Kvass. This was the drink mentioned by Tolstoy in War in Peace. The drink that the French turned down, saying “This is what you serve to the peasants.” The slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented bread. There it stood in its yellow barrel like a cylinder of sunshine people young and old gathered around it, and I felt like I was on the verge of discovery. I took my first sip, and… was it cola, beer, sweet or yeasty, sour? It was all of the above and my tongue didn’t know what to make of it.
Several days later a teacher at school asked me if I tried the drink. Yes, I confirmed.
“Did you like it?”
I shrugged. “It was okay.”
“Where did you have it?”
“Oh well, that’s not the right place to have it. You come over. I make good kvass.”
In her small kitchen the following day, she took great care and pride in explaining how to choose the right dark rye bread, how to create the croutons (or suhari), the right amount of sugar and the all important fermentation starter, zakvaska. Her eyes sparkled as she placed the jar delicately in the refrigerator, as if delivering a newborn to its mother for the first time. “And then you wait,” she said smiling. “It must turn a nice color.” She turned to face me, this time with a finished jar. “Like this.” Twinkle. Twinkle.
I sipped…. Sour, sweet, cola, beer? Again the confusion of flavors. A doubtful and weak, “Mmm,” emerged from my closed lips.
“It’s good, yes?” she twinkled on.
“Very,” I said, not knowing if I was lying or not. After all, how would I have any idea of what was good kvass and what was bad? I took another sip. Still hadn’t a clue.
“My husband,” she shared, “does not like it very sweet.”
I nodded unaware of how sweet it could be. As the season developed, warming through to blooming flowers, the kvass developed as well. As the gardens began to produce, the kvass shared the bounty--mint and berry lifted on the soft bubbles of carbonation, delivering the harvest, a growing spectrum of flavor as spring turned to Summer…. And then, as magically as it appeared, it disappeared. As a new academic year began and autumn began to threaten cold, the bright yellow barrel retreated. Gone.
Years later I can say that I miss kvass. Not its slightly sour, sometimes sweet, mildly alcoholic variations, but I miss that big yellow barrel in the park. I miss this Norman Rockwell scene of neighbors gathered around in the ultimate declaration of spring. Winter is over and young and old alike would raise a plastic cup in celebration, the signal to leave the cold behind.