Over river, through woods to Babushkas house we go

Trip Start Sep 27, 2005
Trip End Oct 26, 2005

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Flag of Ukraine  ,
Thursday, September 29, 2005

After meeting Mama for an early lunch at the Munich airport (and getting my first taste of the European customer service motto "The customer always has a right to wait 10 minutes until I acknowledge him"), we grabbed a flight to Kiev.
There we met Papa and my sister Jenny and about 10,000 Hassidic Jews. I felt underdressed.
After the customs official insisted that I gift him my digital camera and me- probably inappropriately and dangerously- laughing, we finally got out and met Sergei, who helps Babushka with groceries and the like, and my Dyadya (Uncle) Lonya, who I'd only met once before at Jenny's Bat Mitzvah.
After happy greetings, we hopped in Sergei's car for the drive out to Kiev's 'burbs. The scenery along the way became very typical Soviet-style apartment complexes: big, monolithic, drab hunks of concrete housing laid out in no discernable order, like a table full of dominos up on end set out by my fraternity brothers. Probably on a keg.
Finally we reached our giant domino and we sprang up the stairs to Babushka's place. Now this was to be the first time either Jenny or myself had met our grandmother. We are very familiar with Papa's side of the family who all came to America within a few years of my folks, but Mama's brother we'd only seen the once before and Mama's mother was a mystery to us, having hardly even spoken with her on the phone. Mama hadn't seen her since 1998 and Papa, though most guys would probably love this, hadn't seen his mother-in-law for 26 years!
We knocked. Knocked again. Called for her.
Finally, she yelled back (in Russian, as would be everything she would say) "I'm coming!" and we waited as we heard her shuffling over to the door. Giving her a few more moments to wrestle with the several locks on the inside, finally the door swung open, and there was ... where was she? Where did she go?!
Finally looking down, I saw that my babushka could comfortably beat any of us in a limbo contest, even at age 87. Quite short and smiling while frowning as only Eastern Europeans can, she welcomed us in and predictably her first words to the group of us were, "So? Who wants to eat?"
While Mama and Lonya prepared some vittles, Babushka kept exclaiming, "Everyone is hungry, we've got to eat!" Lonya would counter, "Mama, no one is hungry, stop worrying!" This would repeat several times. Once as a joke I said, "I'm always hungry." Babushka became very distressed.
When we finally sat down, Jenny was talking when Babushka blurted out "I thought Jenny was supposed to be chubby." Jenny joked, "Babushka I haven't gone running for weeks, I am chubby!" Babushka quite gravely replied, "Well, not enough." My grandmother loves fat people. Mama was a big disappointment.
Babushka had several funny moments during our meal, giving me a glimpse of where Mama's stern-funny personality comes from. She was very tickled by the instant review that a digital camera provides. When we showed her a picture I'd just taken of her and Mama, she asked Mama while pointing to the screen, "Who are these people?" Mama replied, "That's you and me, we just took this picture!" Babushka hit right back, "Well you I recognized."
Papa also sensitively brought chocolates, not remembering that Babushka has a touch of the diabetes. No matter, when they were on the table, she snatched one and was in deep concentration for a few moments unwrapping it. When reminded that she can't eat any, she shot us the don't-mess-with-me look, challenging that she'd eat one anyway so be quiet why don't you.
After dinner, including my first handle of Ukrainian vodka flavored and colored with honey and red pepper, we visited Babushka's other helping family. My family went to sleep right away but I stayed up for a bit drinking tea and listening to the boy's Russian pop. They lived in an apartment nicer than Babushka's but by American standards very small. 1 room contained a computer, the parents, and the son. 1 room with a small bed, 2 armchairs, and a few footstools for my family. And one room with the kitchen, dining room, and bathroom in a small closet right off of it.
Not able to sleep much, I got up at 4AM and sat alone in the kitchen room until Vlad and Natasha, the parents, joined me because he works early at the factory. We had a very nice discussion for a few hours over liver pate, tomatoes, and coffee about American and Ukrainian life and politics. Though interesting, I will say that it's difficult to have such a discussion when the only related words in Russian that I knew were "love", "nightmare", "woman", "think", and "president". And "president" doesn't count because all you do it say the same word with a Russian accent.
When morning broke, we went back to Babushka's for more food then to Kiev proper. Taking the subways, it was clear we were the Americans because we were smiling. We visited many cool sights, the best for me being Mama's first home.
Figuring this would be the perfect place to buy souvenirs, I decided to try to act Ukrainian to get the best deals. I approached a man selling flasks and said in my best, angry Russian and sternest face, "How much?" Taking one glance at me, he replied, in English, "67 Greevna" (that's the Ukrainian currency). My uncle, badass that he is, stepped out from behind me, and- more authentically menacingly- asked in Russian, "How much really?" The man, fearfully glancing at him, replied (back in Russian), "55 Greevna". Lonya, again: "How much?!" The man (head sunken): "40."
Back at Babushkas later, there were more people, more food, more vodka, more toasts, some armwrestling ... more great family and friends time.
The next morning Papa and Jenny had an early flight to catch, Mama and I stayed to hear Babushka tell family stories about signing the defeated Reichstag as a Russian medic at the end of WWII, about old neighbors good and bad, about her birthing Lonya over nearly 2 days because the gynos were on a major vodka bender, and more.
After a brief trip downtown again, it was time to say goodbye. Everyone was moved and sad. Badass uncle Lonya teared up, I did, even Mama did for only the second time that I've ever seen.
Before coming to Kiev, I wasn't sure what to make of close family that I'd never met. How do they fit in my life? Do they know me? Do I love them?
I feel like I probably love my Babushka and Dyadya. If not, I'm at least well on my way.

Moral of the story: Family is always a good place to be.
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