On May 1st, I am up early for language class. Every day we study from about 8:30 am to 12:30 pm. Then there is some homework and always the challenge of adding vocabulary. I have not studied so consistently for years. Mostly, it feels good to stretch this old brain.
Today, Andre and Natasha celebrate their wedding with a special dinner and family gathering. Andre is my host's oldest son. They were married yesterday at the state office. Afterwards, they visited a park and took many photos. Interestingly, they also visit the Memorial of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame in Chernihiv. I am told that because so many died in the past and because every family has deceased relatives whose bodies have never been found, a visit on a wedding day connects and honors family – known and unknown.
I hurry back from language class. Luda and I will take a taxi to the wedding party to be held at the bride's family home. Along the way, we pick up Andre and Babushka. The weather is still overcast, but Andre explains that the party has been moved inside.
As we arrive, Vitaliy, the bride's grandfather, snaps photos. He is 74 and spent many years in the Soviet military. I use my best Russian to introduce myself and to say “it is nice to meet you.” I ask Vitaliy if I may take his picture too. He nods...Da. It's a beginning.
We are ushered into a room where tables have been set in a “U” shape for dinner. It looks like an American Thanksgiving without the turkey. I am struck by the variety and presentation of so many dishes. All has been prepared by Natasha's mother. I ask Andre and Natasha, “How long has Mama been cooking?” They say, “Only two days.” (WOW!!).
The meal is wonderful. Ukrainians nibble on the dishes rather than load down huge servings. In fact the table is set with plates about the size of a coffee saucer. Just when I think the eating is over more hot dishes are brought in from the kitchen. It's a relaxing time as the two families eat a little and become acquainted. I am mindful that I stand out – not in a bad way, just unusual.
I use a trick to engage Vataliy (grandfather). With vocabulary cards in hand, I ask for help. It's a great ice breaker. He tells me the Russian words and corrects me when I stumble. We are able to connect and smile and laugh a lot.
Then Valarie, Natasha's papa, invites everyone outside for bar-b-que. Skewers of pork have been roasting on cherry wood coals. The smell and taste is fantastic. I find myself at a table with all the men and young boys of the gathering. Voldka is shared. All want to try on my big black felt hat. It is quite an unusual sight. I take lots of pictures. Some of the younger boys are able to translate a little and I just jump in with my elementary Russian. I am having a great time.
In the midst of all the fun, Vataliy grabs me in a big bear hug cheek to cheek and says something about Peace and the need for more Peace in the world. I agree wholeheartedly and he tells me we will be friends and then adds a word. A young boy tells me, “He says forever.” Before I can react, he turns to the others and says, “He is OUR American.”
Later, Valarie (the papa) gives a little speech. “I was worried about having an American in my home. I did not know how it would be. But now I see the good feeling. You are always desirable guest in my house,” he says. My eyes swell a little and with hand on heart, I say “Thank you....Thank you very much. My honor to be here.”