Here’s a Story About Ukraine That’s Actually Fun to Read

Sara Davidson
Courtesy Sara Davidson

In July, when I told friends I was taking a tour of Ukraine and Moldova, they were baffled. “Why?” they asked. It sounded like vacationing in Lower Slobbovia.

We did not know—at that exact time in July—that President Donald Trump was pressuring Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt about former Vice President Joe Biden, nor that in a short time, Ukraine would be leading the world news. 

So why, indeed, was I going? Well, my father’s parents came from Odessa, which was then part of Russia though now it’s in Ukraine. I was curious to see the Jewish quarter where they’d lived, taste the dishes they’d eaten, like gefilte chicken neck, and look out at the Black Sea. 

But the real reason was that a friend from my days at U.C. Berkeley, Tracy Johnston, had invited me to come. At Berkeley in the ’60s, Tracy was a much-admired beauty, smart, funny, and adventurous. She taught me how to backpack in the Sierras, when no one else I knew had ever backpacked. I remember we staged a water fight in a pristine mountain lake, because we’d seen guys engaging in hijinks and… why not us too?

Inside the Oligarch Ghost Town of Kiev

After graduating, I moved to New York, later to Los Angeles, then Boulder, but Tracy stayed in Berkeley. We’d hardly seen each other for decades, but in a rare call, she said she was going to Ukraine with a company she likes traveling with, Wild Frontiers, based in London. “Want to come?”

She said they specialize in trips to places where tourists rarely go. She’d gone with them to Pakistan and Madagascar, where they’d met a family of hunter-gatherers who didn’t own a cooking pot. 

“The people who take these tours are good travelers,” she said. “They’re adaptable and don’t complain.”

“I’m a master at complaints,” I told her. Laughing, Tracy said she was excited to see the street art of Kyiv, the fairytale-like city of Lviv, and the Carpathian mountains. None of that was calling me, but I did want to see Odessa, so I told Tracy that if I could get flights at a reasonable price, I’d go. I was pretty sure at this late date—weeks before departure—costs would be prohibitive. 

They weren’t (which should have told me something), and on July 28, I was in Kyiv, meeting Tracy and her friend from a previous trip, Betty from Cincinnati. We were the only Yanks among Brits, and everyone but me had traveled with Wild Frontiers before. All but one were of retirement age, which is when people seem to be taken by the urge to see more of the world. Betty had just been to Poland, and, days after the Ukraine trip, was flying to Papua New Guinea. She took more photos than anyone and catalogued them religiously, “so when I’m no longer able to travel, I can re-visit each trip,” she said. Tracy said she likes “going to the most inaccessible places on the globe. You see how primitive people live and it’s real, not set up for tourists.”

I knew that landing in a foreign country fires your senses, heightening your awareness of the life around you. The flood of new stimulation wakes you from the slumber of the familiar—the world to which you’re so accustomed that you no longer notice details.

But I’d never been a fan of group tours. I don’t like set schedules, staying at a different place almost every night, and having to make conversation with people I might have little in common with. Those on the tour, though, said it saved them hours of research, booking hotels, flights and trains, and finding places not to miss. It freed them to just pack and go.

On our first day, the group drove to Chernobyl, which has been overrun with tourists since HBO aired its series on the disaster. I wasn’t convinced Chernobyl was safe. Visitors were instructed to wear closed shoes and not touch the ground, since it could be radioactive. What if I tripped and fell? I have crummy balance.

Instead, I hired a young woman guide to show me around Kyiv, which my grandfather had often visited. I asked her where we could find the best borscht in the city. She took me to the restaurant Kanapa, on the steep, curvy street called St. Andrew’s Walk, and the soup was delectable. No other bowl of soup we would eat on this tour would come close. It contained the juice of fresh summer fruits along with beets, carrots, pork, finely-sliced cabbage, onions, and dill, but it was the plum and cherry juices that made it sing.  

The tour did not stay long in Kyiv but moved out to the promised frontiers: towns and villages whose names I couldn’t pronounce then and can’t remember now without consulting my notes. 

The first to stand out was Kolomyia, the painted Easter egg capital of Ukraine. The Easter egg museum had a giant concrete Easter egg perched by the front door. We were given a master class by one of the acclaimed local painters. She told us they use fresh eggs, “because there’s life inside.  Before we start, we look inside us,” she said. If you’re peaceful and have positive thoughts, she explained, the inner egg will dry up and form a ball, which you can feel if you shake it. If you have negative thoughts, she said, “the inner egg will rot, smell, and have to be destroyed.” 

Our group would not be taking that risk—our eggs had already been drained through a pinhole. We began by heating a beeswax-covered egg over a Bunsen burner, drawing designs with a stylus, then dipping it in red dye.  The lines that had been drawn would come out white while the rest of the egg would be red. Then we’d draw more lines and dip into two different colored dyes.

Drawing on a curved egg was humbling. I tried drawing flowers and stars but it was a mess. Others were drawing abstract patterns that looked better, so I trashed my egg and started over. After we’d dipped our eggs in 3 dyes, they looked jolly and festive, and we were pleased to take them home.

The next day, according to our itinerary, we were supposed to take “some easy walks” in the Carpathian mountains. It had been raining for days, and the trail was steep, slippery, and covered with mud and jagged rocks. Luckily, our guide had ordered two ATV’s driven by Ukrainian soldiers for myself and another who preferred to ride than take the “easy walk.” We sped straight up the mountain, using modern machines to ride back in time. 

There were no signs of civilization as we climbed and dipped, passing chartreuse-colored meadows covered with wildflowers. This was the land of the Hutsuls, a tribe who’ve preserved their traditional ways over centuries.  Our guide, Igor, said the Hutsuls live in the valleys and in summer, take their cows to the grass-covered mountains where shepherds milk and care for them so the farmers can tend their crops.

Suddenly we came to a rustic cabin, where shepherds were making their traditional Brynza cheese in a giant iron pot, hanging over a wood fire. “The Hutsuls are very superstitious,” Igor said. “They keep the fire going all summer, and if it goes out, they take the cows somewhere else.” Betty asked why, and Igor said, “If something has been done the same way for centuries, that’s the reason to do it.”

Lunch was spread on a long wooden table outside. There was the fresh Brynza in three different stages of fermentation, one mixed with cornmeal like polenta. We passed trays of tomatoes and cucumbers picked nearby, fresh baked bread, and bowls of creamy beige honey the consistency of mashed potatoes. There were two homemade wines, purple and gold; it was one of the best meals we had.

Meals were the most challenging part of the tour for me. Both lunch and dinner began with multiple platters of cheeses, cold meats, fish, bread, and salads passed around. I never knew how much to eat and how much room to leave, because after the platters were cleared away, out came hot dishes, though we never knew how many: roasted meats, grilled fish, noodles, dumplings, and potatoes. Then dessert. We all agreed it was TMF—too much food. My stomach started to bloat, and I tried to eat less, but we sat at the table for hours and willpower has never been my long suit. Igor said, only half-joking, “The idea is, they keep bringing food until you say uncle.”

After lunch, we visited a traditional Hutsul home built of thick logs. It was dark and claustrophobic, but it kept out the cold or heat. Inside were looms so they could weave and sew their clothing, a fireplace for cooking, primitive tools, and musical instruments. On the wall I saw a photo of a Hutsul wedding. The bride and groom were blindfolded and bound at the neck by a wooden yoke like those used for working cattle. It was a shock to see, but later seemed an appropriate metaphor: love is blind, and, as John Cleese once joked, he and his wife had been “manacled together.”

Coming down from the Carpathians, we crossed the border into Moldova, a land that’s been fought over since the beginning of history. Our new guide, Natalia, said the land in Moldova is desirable because it has a sunny climate, fertile soil, fresh water from underground springs, and natural barriers of limestone cliffs. In one lifetime, she said, a person may have experienced seven changes of nationality, as Moldova was conquered by Romania, Poland, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. “With each change, there was a different language, different government, and different papers required,” she said.

In Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, Jews made up 46 percent of the population before World War II. The Romanians, allied with Germany, invaded the country and marched all the Jews—half the population—to camps, forcing them to wear nothing but thin clothes in the depths of winter.  Those who made it to the camps were shot or burned.

Natalia said, “I think every Moldovan has some Jewish blood, because Jews were here at the time of the Romans, in 200 AD.” Today, however, the majority of Moldovans are blonde with light eyes. After a week in the country, I must say that Moldova has the most beautiful women I’ve seen in one nation. Most have bright blonde hair, fair skin, beautifully chiseled features, slim legs and tall bodies. On a dirt street in a remote village, I saw a girl, probably in her twenties, talking on her cellphone, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, whose natural beauty was so astonishing I had to stop and take it in. If she’d been standing on Sunset Blvd., she would have been recruited to be a model or actress.

Men come from all over the world, especially from Italy and France, to meet Moldovan women and bring them home to marry. In a guesthouse where we stayed, there was a group of 10 Italian men who’d come for that purpose.

Natalia, who had a long-term relationship with a man from Australia, explained, “The men come first as a tourist, then come back to Kishinev where there are lots of single women who don’t want to live in the villages where they were raised.”

In one such village, Trebujeni, there were just a few dirt roads, a small general store, and houses that had thatched roofs and a sky blue water well. There were no pipelines for water or gas, so people drew their water and filled their gas cans at the store. Every house had an abundant vegetable garden and livestock—ducks, chickens, cows, and sheep. (It was true farm-to-table.) The main social event of the day seemed to occur at 5 p.m. by the river, when people gathered to gossip, play cards, and watch men bring in the cows and goats from surrounding pastures. Yet this village in the middle of nowhere has a number of Airbnbs, where visitors come to unwind among the fields of wheat, sunflowers, and lavender. 

Crossing back to Ukraine, we at last reached Odessa, where it seemed as if a dark screen had been drawn over our sight. The blondes of Moldova gave way to people who, almost universally, had dark hair and dark skin. Their ancestors had been Turks, Greeks, and Italians who’d settled the land along the Black Sea. The city of Odessa, however, was not founded until 1794, by Catherine the Great, who wanted to create a warm-water seaport that could export grain all year. She offered free land to people who would settle and build houses there. Jews poured in, having been banned from living in Moscow or St. Petersburg. It was like the Wild West; young men came to make their fortunes. Parts of the city were controlled by a Jewish mafia as treacherous as the Sicilian. To survive, people had to have a sense of humor and tough skin.

You can still feel that spirit of humor, daring, and creativity. Every night, strings of bright, colored lights twinkle above the streets, and cars and motorbikes screech by at high speed, honking at pedestrians. Good restaurants feature seafood and a fusion of Turkish, Italian, and Jewish specialties. (Prices are cheap by Western standards.) Odessans have long had a passion for music and books, and scattered through the city are statues of authors who’ve lived there: Gogol, Isaac Babel, and Pushkin.

Odessa was a hotbed of socialism, communism, and Zionism. Trotsky was born there, as were Golda Meir and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a founder of the state of Israel. But in Odessa, Jabotinsky is revered for writing what’s considered “the great Odessan novel”—The Five. Odessa was the only city in Russia where Jews strived to assimilate, and in The Five, Jabotinsky follows a family for whom the early 1900s “were like spring.” Feeling optimistic and free, they built grand homes, made vast sums in the grain industry, and frequented the finest cafes, theaters, and opera. They gave their children secular educations, but only 10 percent could be accepted for advanced degrees because the government did not want too many doctors, lawyers and professionals to be Jews. Kids who couldn’t make the top 10 percent went to celebrated music academies. It was said that if you saw a Jewish boy on the street who was not carrying a violin case, “he played piano.”

After pogroms in 1903 and ’05, Jabotinsky urged Jews to arm themselves, but masses, including my grandparents, left for America. The dream of assimilation was utterly destroyed by World War II. Jews had made up 35 percent of Odessa’s population, and today they’re fewer than 5 percent. 

Do I wish, during our tour, that we’d known what was going on between Trump and the Ukrainian government, so we could have heard local responses? Sure. But in our ignorance, we had a merciful vacation from the toxic, round-the-clock news bulletins screaming “Ukraine,” which would begin soon after our return.

Before leaving Odessa, Tracy and I had massages at the Ark Spa, which was the largest and most luxurious spa I’ve been to in the world. No kidding. Spotless and multicultural, it featured elements from different countries:  six Scandinavian saunas with different temperatures and splash pools, an American-style Jacuzzi, a Turkish hammam steam room, a Japanese bath suite with three soaking tubs at different temperatures, a darkened sleep room, an aromatherapy chamber, a tea house with Buddhist decor, and an Olympic-size pool with water so fresh and buoyant it was a delight to swim in.

Both men and women walked around the facilities, wearing skimpy black bathing suits and robes supplied by Ark. As for our massages, I know this sounds hyperbolic, but mine was the best I’ve had. The masseuse used long, deep, nurturing strokes, so rejuvenating that I came back for another on the morning before my flight home. Alas, the same woman wasn’t working that day. The new masseuse was as terrible as the first had been marvelous. She worked on me like she was scrubbing laundry and used suction cups that hurt and left rings on my back. But by that point, I’d learned to take everything with equanimity—the tedious days along with the exhilarating ones. I guess I’d become a good traveler? I did not complain.

Sara Davidson is The New York Times bestselling author of Loose Change, Leap! and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion

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