Regular readers will know — I hope — that a sentence starting “The thing about Ukrainian women…” is something you’re unlikely to find in these pages. I’m not prone to generalizing (at least about gender and national characteristics).
But, here’s the thing about Ukrainian women.
I’m just off an eight-day immersion in my newfound Ukrainian family: a day in the Kiev suburb of Brovary followed by a 9-hour drive across the country to my great-grandparents’ home villages of Serafintsy and Potochyshche and two days staying in the home my cousin Maria and her husband Roman. Followed by a 9-hour drive back to Brovary and two days spent touring Kiev.
So I’ve spent 8 days walking and driving the streets of cities and villages, and in the close company of Ukrainian women: my cousins Vasilina, Maria and Leisa, Leisa’s daughters Olga and Victoria, and Maria’s daughters-in-law Oxana and Victoria. We’ve gone touring together, talked (in a variety of translations) family history, everyday life and Ukrainian politics, and have shared innumerable seemingly-unending lovingly prepared meals of Ukrainian food.
And here’s the thing about Ukrainian women.
As I walked the streets of the country I was faced with women whose gaze, universally, seemed to reflect a stoic burden.
It’s a hard gaze to do justice to in words, but suffice to say it’s sort of the opposite of smiling. It’s perplexing to encounter coming from North America where, in my cousin Sergey’s pantomime, people are all bubbly and over-communicative (picture Sergey here looking all bubbly and over-communicative).
It’s hard to imagine, faced with this ever-present stoic gaze, that there would ever be a window to communicate beyond: it seems like an impenetrable emotional wall surrounds every woman in the country.
And, actually, the men too.
But here’s the thing about Ukrainian women (and men): once you’re around the supper table the stoicism gives way to an open-hearted smile, a warmth that reveals wit, candor, and a sort of all-compassing beauty that, when you first see it, seems completely improbable by contrast.
In eight days in the company of delightful Ukrainian women (and their men), I’ve seen — and bathed in the warmth and humour of — a welcoming spirit that’s equally hard to describe.
And that discloses the stoic gaze to be far more complex than I’d originally assumed: it’s not emotionlessness, but rather the front face of a fascinating and complex character.
Once you know what’s lurking beneath the surface, walking the streets of the cities and villages becomes a far more interesting experience, for you realize that in those eyes is, yes, the weight of the world, but also, with the inside face, a kind of deep engagement that makes our bubbly over-communicative North Americaness seem like a flimsy facade.
I will miss it.