A book about Ukraine’s history, culture and cuisine to be published this week has taken on unexpected significance after Russia invaded the country by offering a unique snapshot of the country on the eve of war.
What was meant to be a travel diary has become a story about what was at stake in the war, what was lost and what the Ukrainian people are fighting for: their rich history, their identity, but also a normal life.
It was written as a book that readers could toss in their bags before setting off on a journey through the beautiful country.
However, when Katarzyna Łoza, a Polish tour guide based in Lviv, put the finishing touches to Ukraine. Soroczka and kiszone arbuzy [Ukraine. Sorochka and Pickled Watermelons]Russian forces were already gathering on Ukraine’s borders and great uncertainty hung in the air.
Before going to print, and with the war already underway, the author wondered if the text should be changed.
After consulting with the publisher, she decided to leave the book as it was, turning it into an ode to the country she had come to love.
The title refers to two things that, according to Łoza, make the country particularly special. A sorochka is the traditional embroidered shirt of Ukraine, which dates back to the origins of the nation, the embroidery of which is different for each region with its own patterns and colors.
Marinated watermelons, meanwhile, highlight the diversity of the country’s cuisine. “Everything is pickled – from cabbage and cucumbers to tomatoes, garlic, peppers, eggplant, carrots, apples, watermelon and even bread,” writes Łoza.
Neither strictly a report nor a guide, the book is a story about the country from the point of view of a person who fell in love with it and linked his life to it.
“When I first visited Ukraine in 1997, we were both still young and inexperienced. I was a first-year ethnology student and it was my first time abroad; [Ukraine] had just declared its independence six years earlier and was finding its way into the post-Soviet reality.
“It would soon turn out that as a result of a spontaneous decision, my life would be linked to this country for many years and I would not only watch it mature, but also participate in this process.”
Living in Lviv with her husband and three children, Łoza works as a tourist guide and runs the lwow.info website and blog.
Unlike many, she and her family decided to stay in Ukraine when Russia invaded on February 24 this year.
“A lot of people have left Lviv and of course we respect that, everyone’s situation is different. We decided to stay with our children in our apartment. If there is shelling, a direct threat to the civilian population, we will also leave,” she said.
Łoza’s book takes readers on a journey across the country from east to west and north to south.
Traveling through the mountains of Transcarpathia, the Black Sea coast and the post-communist towers of Kharkiv, she discovers the ups and downs of contemporary Ukraine.
Readers can learn that Ukraine is a country full of contrasts based on the myth of the Cossacks where national identity is not always tied to the Ukrainian language.
Although Poles and Ukrainians have shared the same land for more than six centuries, Ukraine remains an unknown and unknown land for many contemporary Poles.
Łoza’s descriptions of the country as it was until the outbreak of the war may therefore come as a surprise to many.
“Ukrainians created six unicorns (companies valued at less than a billion dollars), built space rockets, invented WhatsApp and Grammarly, won the Eurovision Song Contest and even danced in a Madonna video,” she wrote. , adding: “You can pay for a ticket on a Lviv tram by scanning the QR code, and life in kyiv has become more expensive than in Moscow.
The cities she describes – kyiv, Odessa, Kherson and Kharkiv – have been attacked and even occupied by Russia.
Kherson, in the south of the country, which Łoza visited in 2020, has been under Russian occupation since March 2.
Founded during the Russian colonization of southern Ukraine by Catherine the Great, the area was once part of the Crimean Khanate under Turkey. When Russian colonization began, Catherine ordered the relocation of the Cossacks.
Łoza calls it the Watermelon Republic after the region’s most prolific culture, noting that locals even have watermelon tattoos.
“Wine, watermelon, sea and sun… what more could you ask for in life. In the end, nothing,” she wrote.
Kharkiv in the north, meanwhile, is described by Łoza as a Soviet Chicago. “I was enchanted by the bolder Art Nouveau in Kharkiv than in Lviv, and wanted to see the famous Soviet skyscrapers of the 1920s.”
While there in 2014, she witnessed events that were precursors to today’s war.
“It was while we were in Kharkiv that Russian troops invaded Crimea and there was an attempted separatist coup in the city. Some members of our group were terrified and wanted to return to Lviv immediately “It was likely that the Crimea or Donbass scenarios would be repeated here, or even that Russian tanks would enter Kharkiv, some 40 kilometers from the border. However, things turned out differently,” she wrote. .
Much of Łoza’s attention in the book is devoted to food. “For a long time, I thought Ukrainian cuisine wasn’t particularly interesting or original. This was, of course, before I knew the taste of pickled watermelons, fish borscht and cold sourdough bread,” she writes.
The dish most often associated with Ukrainian cuisine is borscht, and Łoza is keen to point out how different it is from the variety she was used to in Poland.
“Its preparation is based on fresh beets, beef, cabbage and garlic, and often, but not necessarily, meat broth, tomatoes and beans. In some regions, paprika, apples, beet sourdough, mushrooms, plums, strawberries, squash, eggplant, pork fat and even fish, crayfish and honey are added. There is no single traditional recipe and at the same time everyone is right.
With the war in Ukraine nearing its seventh week and millions of refugees in Poland, publisher Wydawnictwo Poznańskie has decided that all profits from the sale of the book will be donated to Polish humanitarian action SOS UKRAINA .
“We believe that the country described in Katarzyna Łoza’s book will be reborn and that peace will return to Ukraine. As distant as that vision may seem, when we are plunged into the darkness of war, we must believe it,” the editor said.