The Ukrainian?

By Rob Packer

A Romanian-influenced push

Yesterday it happened for the first time in ten years. We’d been in Tokmok (for lunch), Kemin (to visit a Kiva borrower) and Kochkor (for training) and the aim was to get back to Bishkek in the day. I realised how unlikely that everything would go to plan when we were making our way through a snowstorm over the pass back into northern Kyrgyzstan. This was after an impromptu invitation in Kochkor for plov, the Central Asian pilaf dish, which may actually have been exported from Central Asia and exported to the Middle East, Iran and India, although the jury is out. Plans changed and we stopped off in Tokmok to stay the night and see what the nightlife is like in the kolkhoz-filled countryside. And then it happened.

We walked into a bar just before 11, which is closing time in a country where the electricity is turned off at midnight, and sat down by the bar and started talking to the girls working there. She found out I was British and then said “When you came in I thought you were Ukrainian”. The last time I’d heard this was in the summer of 1998 when I spent about a month in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev and the Pripyat Marshes on the Polish and Belarusian border. It seemed that half of the people I met there said “Oh, he looks Ukrainian” and would then get the babushka in the next room to come in and have a look. She confirmed that, yes, indeed, he does look Ukrainian, and the matter was settled. I was never clear what exactly a “Ukrainian” looks like as I was continually told they looked like me, but never saw one in Ukraine that really did. I suppose it means dark hair, a more southern European complexion and blue eyes. Other than that, the only other thing that people could tell me was that they, and I, do not look like Russians.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot, especially in London (my hometown), where I’ve been asked if I was Persian or Mexican, and in Berlin where the general consensus was Czech or Hungarian when I first moved there. The Germans and Ukrainians are closest to the truth, but it seems a bit far-fetched to put down my entire appearance to a great-grandfather from Galaţi, a town in Romania now on the Moldovan and Ukrainian border.

In terms of genetics, it’s not much, but as I was walking home in Bishkek today, I started to think of how this otherwise insignificant fact has given my life the odd shove from time to time. I first found out about my great-grandfather when I was about 6. This fact combined with my feelings of being different and the first buds of sexuality and began to fascinate me. And as soon as I worked out that the Iron Curtain and Ceauşescu’s regime would make it almost impossible to visit this place, it obsessed me. Change came to Eastern Europe soon after that in 1989 and my seven-year-old joy at the idea of lost family reunions quickly turned to horror like everyone else when the news footage of starving orphans came out of Romania. The thought that these could be my imagined distant cousins was devastating. To this day, I still don’t know.

Anniversaries are always seen as the time to put things in perspective. As I grew older and visited Romania in 2006, I realised that for all I fell in love with the country, the “Romania” I was looking for was actually something called “Me”. But for all its triviality, I know that it was this infant longing to know myself that has me sitting on a settee in an apartment in Bishkek today. It was what made me start learning Russian at the age of 13 in 1995 and it was my six-year relationship with that language that caught someone’s eye at Kiva and decided that I was needed in the former Soviet Union rather that Latin America. And I know that one day I will go back to Romania.

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One Response to The Ukrainian?

  1. utetlessy says:

    Good blogpost, good looking blog, added it to my favorites.

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