Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty

Friday, 7:45 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Young Cleo had grudgingly poured herself a cup of coffee. Hannah had laughed at her attempt to pull a more substantial breakfast out of the refrigerator. Apparently, her cooking skills did not include heating Ukrainian leftovers.

As Hannah sipped the last of her second cup of wonderful tea – was it birch? – the swinging door swung and in plunged Anton.

“We go to Chernihiv,” he said, clapped his hands once and nodded his head.

Then he stood aside the open door as if Hannah and Cleo would march out at his command, ready for anything.

“What?” asked Cleo, poised near the refrigerator with a coffee mug in hand and a sideways look of concern.

“Chernihiv. We go to Chernihiv.”

“Where is that?”

Cleo asked the question, and seemed suspicious at the proposed change. Hannah, though, was ready to play out this next part of the adventure. She had been reluctant to change her train travel plans, and would not have ventured here without the promise of language. But now, she was pain-free for the first time in her memory. This next adventure might deliver on even more.

“North,” said Anton. “We drive. Is nice ride. To Chernihiv.”

“Where I will hear more delightful Ukrainian spoken?” asked Hannah.

Nyet. Of course, not Ukrainian,” said Anton.

“This is where Hannah will do the work you’ve asked her to perform?” asked Cleo.

Dah, dah, dah,” said Anton.

“Not Ukrainian?” asked Hannah. “So, it must be that interesting mixture of languages. Surgic, I believe it is called?”

“Of course not,” said Anton. “Why speak Surgic in Chernihiv?”

“The city is in Ukraine, isn’t it?” asked Cleo.

“Of course is Ukraine. Chernihiv, Ukraine. Where we speak Russian.”

The double wood doors flew open. Olga, buttoning up her duster and still in worn-down slippers, burst into the room. Her look of fear and fury gave Hannah a moment of sympathy. Olga would be running hard all day to catch up for one morning of sleeping in. She made flicking motions with her hands to shoo them out of the kitchen.

Hannah placed her tea cup on the table and rose. She was eager to hear a new language – the third in Ukraine. Fluency in Russian, she had always wanted that. From what she had learned about the Ukrainian language, there were many and significant differences between the two. 

But as far as work was concerned, Hannah knew there would be none. She mentally cautioned herself. She reminded herself how she had doubted her abilities the day before. But Hannah had been listening carefully to Anton’s enunciation. She was certain his ‘yes, yes, yes’, even in Ukrainian, had been all lies.

Cleo Thirty

Friday, 9:45 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

The same car and driver met them on the sidewalk in front of the rooming house. Cleo practiced the name over and over as they began the drive. Chernihiv. Chernihiv.

There had been some confounding alternate pronunciation that Hannah and Anton discussed extensively. How could they be so concerned about sounds in speech when they were leaving the gorgeous sophistication of Kyiv and heading off into forests with tall thin pine trees that covered everything as far as Cleo could see?

And when would the conversation get around to specifics, the real reason for Hannah coming to this part of the world? Cleo had felt purposeful, in control and safe in the large, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kyiv. But now, heading into never-ending countryside, she was ready for a schedule and something more than ‘dah, dah, dah.’

Anton seemed to be growing more excited and less understandable. Cleo could hardly distinguish his English from his Ukrainian as he spoke. Or had he already switched to speaking Russian? This back-and-forth with languages was so complicated. In Kyiv, many people had spoken English. It had softened the blow of a new culture for Cleo.

When they reached Chernihiv, driving finally out of interminable forest and into a lovely small city alongside a broad river, Cleo was ready to get on with her work. Carlos’ presence at the rooming house, though immediately annoying, at least gave her encouragement that her agency’s interest was still current. She was still following along for work.

And since Cleo had developed a taste for taking this job and running with it, she felt up to the task. Now, she needed to bring it home, figuratively and literally. Certainly, she owed Sandra a phone call, but she no longer felt a need for Sandra’s step-by-step approval. If she could find out what Hannah needed to do and help her get it done, then she could go home with success. That was Cleo’s self-appointed to-do list.

The car stopped. They had reached a small parking lot inside a large park-like enclosure. Ahead of them was a long one-story building with rough log siding and an over-hanging roof. Pathways reached out in several directions. Various groups of people seemed to be heading into the building. Anton spoke.

“We eat. Is lunchtime.”

“This is a restaurant?” asked Cleo.

“Ukrainian restaurant. Very old style. Food vkusno.”

“I take it that is a good thing,” said Cleo. “Is it a good thing, Hannah?”

Hannah seemed to be mouthing the same word Anton had spoken, a troubled expression on her face.

“Is wonderful,” said Anton. “Authentic.”

“You seem to have perfect timing to bring distractions, Anton. You probably know I won’t complain about Ukrainian food. But during lunch, you and I will discuss the work Hannah needs to accomplish.”

Dah, dah, dah.”

Cleo noticed Hannah’s look of abstraction. She no longer had the foggy look of jet-lag, but something was taking away her attention. Cleo thought she might not be able to count on Hannah for any help with her fact-finding conversation. Fine. She’d already proven she could accomplish that on her own.

Perched along the river, the restaurant sprawled under a forest of leaves. As they walked from the car, Cleo noticed the wood-smoke smell and wondered what typical Ukrainian meal would be offered. The menu looked promising, posted outside the restaurant on a large wooden scroll with helpful pictures. There was an enormous wood-burning fireplace in the middle of the dining room. Wall-sized windows had been opened onto a view of the river.

A charming and apparently historic setting, Cleo tried to concentrate on the adventure of exploring a new culture, but she longed for the tall buildings and busy sidewalks of Kyiv. That was much more like home, much more what she was used to. Here, everything seemed like elaborate camping: wood fences and buildings, trees everywhere, with hearty fireside conversation she did not understand. Cleo relied on Anton to order lunch.

She was surprised to think she might be tiring of this new experience. Perhaps Kyiv had been truly a place like no other, a place that made her feel immediately at ease. Now in a countryside city, even a classically charming one, she felt ready to get back to familiar things. The sooner, the better.

One Reply to “Vowels, Vodka and Voices”

  1. Susan, your descriptions of the Ukrainian food are bringing back so many fond memories. Especially the Cherry Varenyky – I fell in love with that stuff! I just got back from my camping trip and I’ve been racing to catch up. It’s a marvelous read. 🙂 ~Terri


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