We speak different languages and have lived different lives, but from the moment I met him, I sensed that we would become friends, but I had no idea how we would be thrown together
Mikhael is 70 years old and the father of Oksanna, my good friend. He's visiting from the southern part of Russia. In Konotop, it is common for some relatives to live in Russia and others in Ukraine. The border is a geopolitical construct, but for families it makes little difference. These days they can move freely.
Today is Oksanna's son's birthday party. We will go to the river for a celebration. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and myself are honored to be included in the "family."
Maxsim is 16 and in the last year of school. In Ukraine, there are 11 years of school though many young people then attend an institute. It's like an American junior college.
Ukrainians value education although their methodologies are often more geared to memorization and repetition. The educational reforms that happened in America post World War II are just beginning to seep into Ukrainian schools. Peace Corps is helping by assigning our largest group of volunteers to Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).
I am introduced to Mikhael. We shake hands as is customary among men here, but not with women. While Americans might wave a quick hello to a friend, I have seen Ukrainians take a detour to the other person, make physical contact by briskly shaking hands and then move on, sometimes, without speaking a word. It's a ubiquitous greeting even three year old boys do it.
After introductions, we pack stuff into the Soviet era utility van that Tolleg (Oxanna's husband) uses for work. There is the front seat and one passenger bench behind. The rest is open space.
A big pot of shashlick is set down. It is a special treat reserved for special occasions like this one. Chunks of pork are marinating in a creamy mixture of onions, garlic and spices.
A pit will be dug and a wood fire made. Hardwoods, like cherry, are often used since they make for the best shashlick. The meat will be skewered and cooked over the glowing coals. The men are the ones in charge here - just like an American barbecue.
Oksanna has made an eggplant relish. This blend of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, peppers and of course lots of garlic is a favorite of mine. She smiles noticing that I have spied it. She promises to show me how to make it . I will pass the recipe along.
What's a birthday without a cake? Actually, a cake is not so traditional in Ukraine, but I decide to Americanize this birthday by using my spring-form cake pan again. I make a yellow cake dotted with several handfuls of blueberries. It gets a chorus of "ahhhs" as I carefully lay it on top of the mound of stuff filling the van.
There are more traditional foods too. A pile of river fish have been breaded in a light batter and fried. Another pot holds boiled potatoes simply sprinkled with parsley and butter. Of course no Ukrainian meal would be complete without lots of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions along with bread and cheese.
Oh, don't forget the vodka. Now I think we are ready to go.
Mikhael and I are directed to the passenger bench where we both easily fill all available space. Neither of us are small men.
The drive is an adventure. The van's shock absorbers are long gone. The road is a washboard of pot holes and asphalt patches. There is no avoiding bumps and what feels like leaps into the air. Mikhael and I collide squashing our bodies together. We start holding on to one another for stability...as if that will help.
The road goes from asphalt to gravel to dirt. The last several kilometers are simply a cow path curving across an open field from a small village towards the river. I savor a Ukrainian sun drenched day as the the bumps and leaps become ever more intense. I look off to the horizon imaging that I am at an amusement park and riding the Dare-Devil-Twister.
Suddenly with no warning, the seat we are sitting on gives way. Both Michael and I flip backwards with a thud. The big American and the big Russian lay side by side on their backs with legs flailing in the air.
After a moment of silence, we look at one another and begin to laugh. Others want to help us get up, but we just lay there laughing and laughing. I cannot remember laughing so hard.
Eventually we unscramble our bodies. No one is hurt. My cake is the only victim. The spring-form pan has a big dent and the cake is partially smashed. We laugh again. It will still taste good.
Later in the day, we walked by the river and talk. The conversation recalls our shared Cold War history. I wonder what he thinks about the Cuban Missile Crisis. "Americans were afraid of nuclear war," I say "As a school student I use to practice hiding under my desk or cowering in the hallways as if it would protect me from a blast."
That's when I learn that Mikhael worked on rocket engines - maybe the same ones we feared.
He tells me he has no recollection of this Cuban Missile Crisis. He says, "Most Russians did not worry about nuclear attacks." I'm astonished since during the Cold War, Americans were so preoccupied with the fear of nuclear weapons. I wish my Russian was better to deepen our conversation. He says, "but life is better now - Da?" I agree.
Ukrainian picnics and dinners go on for hours, but eventually they end. As the sun sets, we drive home. The seat has been turned and leans against the inside of the van. Mickael and I are again smashed together again holding on to one another for security and now in friendship.