June 30, 2019 @ 1:15 AM
By Katie Carmer
Returning to a familiar place is a special delight—especially when that place feels like home.
When Cisco and the Racecars arrived in Kiev for our second Bluegrass in Ukraine tour, we were exhausted from 30 hours of travel. Unlike last year, though, when exhaustion mingled with trepidation as we tried to navigate the airport signs written in Cyrillic, our tiredness gave way to giddiness. Even if most of us couldn’t pronounce Вхід, we knew it meant exit. Those letters were no longer alien symbols. We knew exactly where to find our instruments in the oversized luggage section of baggage claim. Best of all, the faces that met us on the other side of customs were dear ones.
If our first tour of Ukraine was infatuation, our second was the steady love of a more mature relationship. We were not surprised by the beauty of the onion domes or the bite of Samahon (Ukrainian moonshine); rather, we found that returning after a long absence is even sweeter than experiencing for the first time.
I think, too, that for the Ukrainians we interacted with, we struck a balance of familiar and new. Many of our listeners heard us perform last year, but many more had not. We learned a new set list, which we played alongside old favorites, including the unofficial Ukrainian anthem, Несе Галя воду. Our stay this year was longer, and we were able to travel further into Ukraine and embed ourselves into the culture more deeply. I hope our performances allowed our audiences to see a new, perhaps unexpected side of American culture — one that is as rustic and beautiful as Ukrainian folk art, if not quite as old.
Rather than share each day of our trip chronologically, I will highlight a few special moments that best represent the spirit and mission of the trip—to promote understanding and friendship between two young nations that value democracy and opportunity. Once again, we are indebted to the generosity of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the American Embassy in Ukraine, our Peace Corps friends in Ukraine, and our translator, Vanya. Without their support, this sequel would not have been possible.
I. Old Village
Stara Sinyava gave us the most generous and surprising welcome on our trip last year, and we were ecstatic to return again this summer. The village is small in population, but rich in music, food, and hospitality. This year, some of our friends from the local music school hosted us at a picnic on the bank of a verdant river. The table groaned under plates of fresh cheese, sausage, to
teach himself guitar by watching YouTube videos. As a result, he could play and sing “House of the Rising Sun” with excellent pronunciation, even though he couldn’t speak English. He was small for his age, unassuming in glasses and a crew cut. When we invited him up on stage, he was clearly nervous, but he took a deep breath and launched into that famous arpeggiated guitar solo. Before long, he was shredding. We backed him up, but he was the featured musician. When he was finished, the crowd erupted and he smiled shyly.
Artem started to walk off stage, but we called him back. He looked puzzled. Mark, our guitarist, is a banjo maker by profession, and he had made an instrument to give to someone in Ukraine. When he heard about Artem, he knew he had found his recipient. Mark pulled out the banjo and started explaining his intent in English. Artem, not understanding, stood in confusion as the English speakers in the crowd started to murmur. Then Vanya started to translate Mark’s speech. When Artem understood what was going on, his arms flew up into the air and he covered his face. He took the banjo and slung it over his shoulder. It overwhelmed his small frame. He was beaming. Given the rate at which he learned guitar, we have no doubt that by this time next year, the hills around Nadvirna will echo with the twang of banjo.
If any city is our home away from home in Ukraine, it’s Khmelnytskyi. This city of 300,000 is home to our Peace Corps host, our translator, and many of the friends we made last year. The town organized a two-day American picnic in our honor, which we were to headline. They pulled out all the stops to create an authentic 4th of July barbecue atmosphere, including a hamburger grilling masterclass, a game of pickup football, and a photo booth designed to look like an American backyard.
On the first night of the festival, we sat back and enjoyed being part of the audience. We listened to a rock band sing a mixture of English and Ukrainian tunes; for me, the highlight was a beautiful cover of “Take me Home, Country Roads.” A blues band and a punk band also performed, both exuding energy and virtuosity. As I sat in the audience and watched the gold and azure of the Ukrainian flag wave next to the Star Spangled Banner, I thought of Alan’s words in Stara Sinyava—this was an intimate mixing of cultures that few have the privilege to experience.
The next day, we were set to headline the evening concert, which would culminate in a collaboration with the folk choir that we had played with the previous year. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes into our set, the rain began—light enough at first to pretend it wasn’t happening, but growing heavy enough that we started to worry. And then, suddenly, the rain stopped—but how was that possible? The audience was saturated and the drops continued to fall feet in front of me. I looked up and saw an umbrella. One of the choir members was standing directly behind me, holding an umbrella over my head as she got drenched in the downpour. I looked to my right; five more choir members stood behind my bandmates, protecting them with umbrellas. Over the music, I tried to shout, “D’yakoo yoo! Thank you!” My savior smiled and nodded.
Eventually, the rain became so heavy that the sound equipment was in danger, and we were forced to pause the show. The concert was not over, though. We reassembled under the tree, and the audience gathered around us in the grass. The sodden choir joined us, and we got to join voices after all. It was not the event that had been planned, but for those who remained to brave the weather, it was even more special.
IV. The Mayors
As I reflect on what I have learned from two intense trips, the facet of Ukrainian culture that stands out most is the passion and energy behind local government. Back home in Phoenix, I know who the mayor is, but I have never seen her in person. I don’t know the name of a single person on city council, and I don’t really know what that body does. In contrast, in all of the Ukrainian cities and villages we visited, the mayor was visible and known. In Donaivtsi, she was a dignified woman in a pink blazer who honored us with a ceremonial loaf of bread. In Nadvirna, he was a man in shirt sleeves who threw us a post-concert dinner party and became enraptured by Mrs. Beach’s description of her motor home. In Khmelnytskyi, he was a progressive man, forward-thinking yet traditionally patriotic, who honored our Peace Corps sponsor with the hero award, the city’s highest honor, at our last concert. Everywhere we went, people looked to the future of their town and their country. They participated in their local government and took pride in doing so. They were eager to improve their infrastructure—their roads and their waste management systems—even as they honored old traditions. As an American jaded with the state of affairs in her own country, it was invigorating to be surrounded by people who sincerely believe in the idea of America and the promises of democracy. It was not naive idealism; it was optimistic determination to create a better life for everyone. Nothing is more real than that.
On the one hand, the impact of our trips was small. A handful of Americans met a few hundred Ukrainians. None of them were famous and none particularly powerful. The trip is over, and nothing substantial has changed.
Or has it?
Seven Americans now follow the Ukrainian news cycle with interest. We care about their elections, about their economy, about their foreign conflicts. A few hundred Ukrainians now possess a CD with recordings of our music, our voices. Hundreds more have a postcard emblazoned with our faces and our names written in Ukrainian. These are small things—so small they might seem insignificant. But to each of us as individuals, these experiences were life changing. Social media allows us all to stay connected, to continue glimpsing the intimate, often mundane moments of daily life. And if this fledgling century has taught us anything, it’s that a handful of people connected through technology can swell into a torrent. Friendships spanning oceans will not die easily. We are forever connected, and our lives are better because of it. Strangers have become friends, and as a result we are all a little less likely to pass judgment, a little more likely to reach out in welcome. That is diplomacy: many small gestures, rooted in kindness, that help us to see ourselves in one another.