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Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine

It’s finals week here at Georgetown.  Holed up in a Healy conference room, I’m happy to say I’ve finished my first paper.  Reflecting my interest in religion and politics, my chosen topic of “Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine” piqued my curiosity.  If you’re interested too, here’s a link to my paper.

It covers the role of religion in inspiring the ongoing Euromaidan protests and influencing Russia’s aggressive response.  I conclude with some policy recommendations for the U.S. and Europe.

Baba would be proud

I grew up watching my babas bake pierogies and roll holobsti on the kitchen table.  Even today they still do it – but I’m not always there to see them.  Being away at college means I miss out on all of these little things that I usually take for granted.  Part of it is those delicious home-cooked meals, my dad’s grilled steaks that we eat every Saturday, the Sunday night snacks and the deep velvet-colored borscht.  But there’s another part that you can’t eat or touch or see.  You can feel it, but not in a physical way.

Being abroad accentuates these emotions.  It’s not home-sickness – it’s just called “missing home.”  (see another blogger’s wise words of advice here.)  As I’m walking around Europe, I can’t help but compare everything I experience with the grand ‘ole USA.  What would I be doing at this exact moment if I were in D.C. or Rochester?  It feels so strange to see all of your friends’ pictures on Facebook, hosting parties and going crazy at basketball games.  It feels so strange to celebrate Easter in Vienna with a friend from Jersey, eating brunch at a cellar bar instead of sitting around the dining room table with my parents, grandparents, and cousins.  It feels so strange celebrating my 21st at an Alphabeats concert in Aarhus, instead of getting my forehead stamped at the Tombs.  There’s plenty of things to remind me of life across the pond – Facebook stalking, Skype conversations, my “I Bleed Hoya Blue” t-shirt that I wear to the gym, and my country music playlist on Spotify that gives me visions of burgers, Samuel Adams, and my giant gas-guzzling SUV in my Rochester garage.

Sometimes I wonder if being here for only one short semester makes it more difficult to attain full cultural immersion.  Even after living here for 4 months, I still feel more like a visitor than a Dane.  I have my peculiarities that set me apart from the Scandanavians – walking fast in between classes, my long black Nike socks, going to Church when I can, constantly overeating, often smiling and talking loudly on the bus.

At the same time, being “un-Danish” makes me cherish all the things that I have back home.  You only know what you got when it’s gone.  Truer words have never been spoken.  I have a lot of amazing things here in Europe that I will sorely miss – just flip through my pictures and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about.  But there’s also things that I don’t have here – my family, my Hoyas, and my country that I feel so lucky to return to in one week’s time.  It’s a marvelous life on both sides of the Atlantic.

Somehow I’ve got to tie this whole thing back to holobsti – after all, my babas will probably cry tears of joy to hear that their Ukrainian culinary skills are in my blood, too. (thanks to Olga from Moscow for sharing the recipe – don’t worry Baba, she’s half Ukrainian!)  I think those delicious little cabbage rolls symbolize the wonder of multiculturalism.  I’m from America, living in Denmark, and cooking Ukrainian.

with the finished product!

I’m hundreds of miles away, but I think I’ve taken a little bit of my family and friends here with me.  It’s not easy practicing Ukrainian, finding time to Skype, or blogging about my reflections and emotions with all of the commotion going on.  But whether it’s in the kitchen, in church, or riding on the bus to class, I miraculously found a way to tie it all together.

No, it doesn’t always come out Danish.  But with a few different competing identities, it’s all about compromise.

…and here’s a home-made video that documents my trip!

Family and Country: at last, my trek to the motherland

It’s a wonderful feeling to be welcomed with open arms by people whom you’ve never met nor spoken to.  That’s the amazing thing about family – a few drops of shared blood are enough to make them treat you like their first-born son.  After spending an entire week in Ukraine going to family parties, eating home-cooked food, strolling down winding cobblestone streets, and practicing my first language, I’m already beginning to dearly miss everything about Ukraine.

By no means is Ukraine a perfect country.  There’s a lot of things wrong with it.  There’s plenty of political apathy – those who are fed up with all of the corruption and “selective justice” in Kiev are so frustrated that they have stopped trying to do anything about it.  Infrastructure is suffering, and the awful condition of the roads is a running joke.  There’s a marked East-West divide, and I could barely understand all of those who spoke Russian in Ukraine’s capital.

But the very fact that I am Ukrainian means that none of these problems really matter.  I love Ukraine not because it is powerful and respected in the international community (it’s not, as recent GDP, democracy, and corruption indexes indicate).  I love it because of its colorful identity – which I have happily embraced as my own.  It’s about the beautiful language and the unique sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet.  It’s about the painted Easter eggs and ornate woven shirts.  It’s about all of those pierogies, kobasa, and kapusta that wallow in my stomach as I fall to sleep.  It’s about the Ukrainian folk dancing and brightly decorated costumes.  It’s about the sung Ukrainian Catholic liturgy, and the golden icons that adorn the walls of our churches and homes.  And yes, people here actually go to church!

It’s about the fact that I’m not just an American, but a Ukrainian American.  As the third generation living in America, it is quite a miracle how my family has been able to hold all of it together.  Being Ukrainian defines how we celebrate our holidays, when we come together as a family, how we speak to each other, and how we practice our faith.  It’s always been a part of my identity, but being abroad has helped me value it so much more.

As one of my cousins told me (after tearfully playing his accordion), there’s two things that you cannot choose in life: Family and Country.  On one side of the Atlantic I’ve got America, and on the other I’ve got Ukraine – with an amazing family awaiting me at both ends.  Indeed, I am truly blessed.

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Easter in Vienna

Who knew traveling could be such hard work?  I quickly found that out yesterday, as I arrived back in Copenhagen after 9 days in Sarajevo and Vienna.  When there is so much to do, you want to do it all!

It would be remiss not to start where my trip ended: Easter.  It was unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  I went to two services on Sunday – first, in my Ukrainian Catholic style (this is filmed at the end of the liturgy, when the priest sings Христос Воскрес!…meaning “Christ is Risen”):

After this was over, we walked over to the University Church (Jesuit!) a few minutes away. It was probably the most beautiful church I have ever seen, filled with the most beautiful music I have ever heard.  The pews were so packed that I had to stand in the aisle.   It felt like I was no longer on earth, caught in a sort of other-worldy limbo.  It was so spectacular that I had to fight back tears.  

Here is the closing song; maybe you’ll get a sense of what I mean:

Special thanks to Daniel (who woke up early to come with me to Mass) and Fr. Fields at Georgetown (who recommended the Jesuit church)!

Pirates, birthday, a really old man, and rainbows: my short study tour in review

Forget those 6-page philosophy papers where you spend 2 hours just thinking about how to write the first sentence.  Or all of those organic chemistry exams that my roommates always complained about last year.  Or pouring through chapters of Plato’s Republic.  Think that’s hard?

Try writing a journal about the past few days in Denmark, when I visited 3 different cities, met 20-some new students and 2 professors, sampled new plates of Danish food, listened to “happy birthday” at 7:15 on Thursday morning, cooked Danish meatballs with curry sauce from Morocco, applied for a Russian visa, almost pummeled my head on the iron ceiling of a German bunker, and heard my professor’s personal account of waterboarding, which he tried just to see what it was like.

My biggest worry – and what makes it so hard – is that I’ll forget to write something down and share it with you.  But I guess its impossible to not do that.  Why don’t you book a flight to Copenhagen so I don’t have to worry so much?

It’s a lot easier doing this with pictures, so here’s a montage of some highlights from my short study tour to Western Denmark.

Forget the swords, these pirates are going heavy-duty

Forget the swords, these pirates are going heavy-duty

At the Danish military police HQ, looking at a Somali pirate boat with weapons/supplies inside

At the Danish military police HQ, looking at a Somali pirate boat with weapons/supplies inside

"Boy" with some boys

“Boy” with some boys

In the Rainbow tunnel overlooking Arhus

In the Rainbow tunnel overlooking Arhus

Celebrating the big 21 - Arhus style!

Celebrating the big 21 – Arhus style!

At the highest point in Denmark - which means I'm officially the highest human being in Denmark

At the highest point in Denmark – which means I’m officially the highest human being in Denmark

This guy was buried in a bog over 2000 years ago - now that's what I call a senior citizen.

This guy was buried in a bog over 2000 years ago – now that’s what I call a senior citizen.

our tour guide at the "Western Wall" - German fortifications during WWII

our tour guide at the “Western Wall” – German fortifications during WWII

Jelling Stone

Depiction of Jesus

Jelling Stone

A lion – to symbolize the strength of the Danish kingdom

Harold Bluetooth, the second King of Denmark, erected the Jelling Stone in the mid-900s.  It says that 1)he is honoring his deceased parents 2)Denmark is united 3)Denmark has converted to Christianity

Harold Bluetooth, the second King of Denmark, erected the Jelling Stone in the mid-900s. It says that 1)he is honoring his deceased parents 2)Denmark is united 3)Denmark has converted to Christianity

The short study tour is one of the things I love most about DIS.  Professor and students don’t just show up to class a few times per week and read through books and powerpoint slides.  They get on a bus with you and will go on an adventure.  They’ll take you to bunkers, naval frigates, mosques, embassies, and breweries.  They’ll know its your birthday and bring you a croissant and a few Danish flags on the bus to celebrate.  At the same time, you get to know your classmates a whole lot better.  Can’t wait for the week-long trip to Bosnia!

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In other news, I found a Ukrainian Catholic church this afternoon and met some of the nicest people at Mass.  They invited me to their parish reception afterwards, and all of us gathered to have some lunch.  They were so curious about my experiences in America and Ukrainian background, and were impressed by my Ukrainian speaking!  I was put on the spot – they asked about my family heritage, why I valued my Ukrainian background, how my parents and grandparents adjusted after immigrating to the States (some of them were recent immigrants to Denmark and wanted advice!).  I’m happy to find this little Ukrainian community in Copenhagen, and I will most definitely be back to the parish!

Time to eat, go to the gym and dive into some homework!  I’ve got 2 presentations and an awesome essay about the legality of the US Navy Seals’ raid on bin Laden’s compound due this week.  Yep, it’s actually called “study” abroad, don’t you know?  Time to focus on the “study” part.  Wish me luck!

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