For years, I would tell people that SOMEDAY I would visit the ancestral homeland of my family. SOMEDAY, I would visit the relatives still living in the very village my grandparents immigrated to Canada from.
SOMEDAY I WOULD GO TO UKRAINE!
You see, my parents have visited this village not once, but twice… as has my older brother Mark. I wanted that same connection, that same experience, that same feeling of getting back to my ROOTS. But, as the years dragged on, the prospect of me actually following through on this grand plan seemed to fade as it never seemed to be the right time.
That all changed when my sister Angie told us several months ago she would be touring Ukraine this summer as part of her daughter’s Ukrainian dancing group. And, as luck would have it, the trip would take them to Ternopil, a city in the western part of the country just 45 km from the “ancestral village”. When my younger brother David caught wind of this, he immediately jumped on board and made Ukraine a part of his summer European vacation. Now the ball was in my court!
We had already planned and booked a spring break vacation to Italy, so I was a tad concerned about the cost of TWO overseas family vacations within a few months of each other. I had that sinking feeling that yet again, maybe it just wasn’t the right time. I was humming and hawing about it for weeks, but it was actually my wife Lianne who finally sealed the deal on the decision. She asked me very bluntly:
“Do you really want to be the only one in your entire family who hasn’t been to this village?”
NO. No I did not. It was now or never. We chose NOW and made Ukraine part of a twenty-day, three country Eastern European tour… with stops in neighboring Poland and beautiful Croatia. Once again, my wife donned her trip-planning hat and we set off for Lviv, Ukraine from Calgary on August 9th. After 22.5 hours of frustrating air travel, major difficulties securing a cab at the Lviv airport at 2:45 AM, and some minor difficulties checking in, WE HAD FINALLY ARRIVED IN THE HOMELAND!
My brother David and his wife Gaeil, along with my sister Angie and her daughter Erika had already arrived a few hours before us, so the next day we all hooked up to begin exploring this beautiful city and to watch my niece perform with her Ukrainian dancing troupe in the city’s main square.
We spent three days in Lviv, and really enjoyed it. This city was bustling with crowds, the weather was great and my God was it CHEAP! Hotels, meals, and the BOOZE! We were living like kings and queens in the motherland. While we were there we hit up several churches, the Italian Gardens, visited the ruins of the Golden Rose Synagogue, ate perogies every chance we got, had lunch at a cute but very unsanitary cat cafe, stopped for flaming coffees not once but twice and then hiked up to the best lookout spot in the city: High Castle.
While my niece’s dancing group left Lviv for another city on their whirlwind Ukrainian tour, we rented a car and followed David and Gaeil to the Carpathian Mountains for a couple of days. We stayed in the resort town of Bukovel, which boasts the best skiing in Ukraine in the winter and a fun lakeside pool, spa and waterpark in the summer.
After our two-night stay in the mountains, we headed to the city of Ternopil, where we would reunite with my sister and make our way to the small village Bobulyntsi, the place where my grandparents lived. The place they got married in. The place they left in the late 1920’s to begin a new life in Canada. We hired a driver and an interpreter, and we hit the very bumpy back roads. We didn’t have an address, just the name of the village. We actually had to stop several strangers on the road and ask them if they knew our relatives, or how to find them. We finally found someone who knew them, and we arrived late in the afternoon. They were anxiously awaiting our arrival and I was actually a bit nervous to meet everyone!
You see, this village visit was the MAIN REASON we made this Eastern European trip! This was a very big deal for me! This was the visit I had wanted to make happen for over thirty years. I know that’s a lot of pressure to put on a single moment, but you know what? It did not disappoint. From the second we walked through the door we were showered with love and hospitality. We were hugged, kissed and squeezed ever so tightly and I felt an immediate connection with family members who lived a half a world away.
We ate, we drank… we then ate and drank some more. We then toured the church where my Baba and Dido were married in and visited the cemetery where our ancestors were laid to rest. I remember my older brother Mark tell me he felt a bit emotional when visiting the village and I must admit I did as well. It’s a very special day when you can connect with your past and make new memories at the exact same time.
My siblings and I all spoke fluent Ukrainian as children, but we have since lost most of the language. That’s why we brought Roman, the interpreter. However, I tried to communicate as much as I could in the mother tongue, as I wanted to make the most of our time with the relatives. I even downloaded a Ukrainian language app on my iPad and completed 25 language lessons before we left. Despite my efforts, I found that Angie was far and away the best at communicating, while I was a distant second place. However, I did have better language skills than David, so I guess there’s that.
In the end, it was a wonderful visit, but it was vastly different than I my expectations. My parents visited in the mid 1980’s and then in the late 1990’s. They described life in the village as quite backward, with no indoor plumbing, little electricity and very few luxuries. My parents still communicated via snail mail, waiting weeks for delivery of their letters.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived was that everyone had a smart phone. They had email addresses, they were all on Instagram and Facebook, they had a satellite dish and oh yeah… they had made some renovations and now had a very nice INDOOR bathroom. This wasn’t exactly metropolitan city living, but it certainly wasn’t the backwater life I had imagined. I guess we can now ditch the letter writing in favour of modern technology!
We stayed later than we planned, but eventually we hugged our way out of their yard and back to the bumpy back roads. The next day my sister and niece were heading back to Calgary, and my brother and his wife had one more day in Ukraine before heading home to Toronto. Visiting Ukraine, the village, our relatives… it was all wonderful. And, sharing the experience with my brother and sister made it that much better. I’m also very happy my wife and children had the chance to learn more about my heritage and I truly appreciated Lianne’s prodding to make the trip happen. With all of that being said, it was now time for the next chapter of our Eastern European tour: POLAND!
Dad@Poland: Connecting With a Lost Heritage
When we planned this summer vacation, we wanted to add a couple of other eastern European stops, and neighbouring Poland seemed like a no-brainer. We had heard a lot of great things about Krakow, so we hopped on a train from Lviv and spent the next five nights in this very cool city.
Over the next several days, we would see A LOT. We ventured into the city’s massive main market square, where we toured the beautiful St. Mary’s Basilica, the Town Hall Tower and the Cloth Hall. We then took in the Market Square Underground museum, the Barbican, and walked the City Walls. We also explored our “neighbourhood”, as our hotel was in the Jewish Kazimierz district. We viewed several murals and visited the oldest synagogue in Poland. We then crossed the river to see where the Jewish ghetto was situated in WWII, visiting the monument at Plac Bohaterow Getta, which honours the 70,000 Jews deported from the ghetto to the concentration camps. We viewed the remnants of the ghetto walls before we toured Schindler’s Factory, which has been transformed into a very impressive museum that chronicles the Nazi occupation. Our next stop was the very cool Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow.
Our third day in Krakow was an emotional one. We visited the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Birkenau death camp. To stand in the very spots where human beings inflicted unthinkable atrocities against other human beings with such malice and indifference completely crushed our sprit. However, we felt it was very important that we visit them and we were thankful to have the chance to spend a day there.
Our final full day in Krakow we visited the Wawel Royal Castle, where we checked out the beautiful Cathedral, the underground ruins and the DRAGON’S CAVE. Spoiler alert: there was no dragon. We then took part in an excellent food tour of our Kazimierz district, where we ate way too much traditional Polish cuisine!
As prepared to leave Poland, it really got me thinking about my Polish roots and how little I know about them. I must say I’m very pleased to have spent five nights in a country that plays such a prominent role in my family tree. People have often asked me if I’m Polish when they hear my last name, and I’ve always corrected them: “YES, I have a Polish last name but NO, I’m actually Ukrainian!” And for the most part, this statement is accurate.
When my great-grandfather Tysowski and a whole whack of his brothers and cousins immigrated to Saskatchewan from Poland around the turn of the 1900’s, they settled in an area where there was an established Ukrainian community. They all married nice Ukrainian women and basically became culturally UKE! Polish customs, language and cuisine made way for Ukrainian, and hence… I’ve never felt very Polish. However, it turns out the village my great-grandfather hailed from is actually very close to Krakow. Spending time in my “other homeland”, and being immersed in the language, customs and seeing that they also eat PLENTY of perogies, borscht and sausage… I have to say, I’ve never felt so POLISH in my entire life! And that’s a good thing.
Dad@Croatia: Time to RELAX
Our recent summer holidays have usually featured a built-in “vacation within the vacation”. This year was no different. After two weeks of go-go-go and plenty of sightseeing, it was now time to CHILL. The coastal Sun Gardens Resort near Dubrovnik, Croatia was just the ticket.
After a gloriously hot, gloriously lazy first day on the coast of Croatia, we decided to leave our very pleasant resort on day two. We took a boat ride to Dubrovnik’s beautiful OLD TOWN! We walked on top of the wall, strolled through the skinny side streets, visited the fort and enjoyed the spectacular views! Side note: we visited so many Game of Thrones locations the famous strings of the theme song were on a constant loop in my brain all damn day.
The next morning, we hopped on the very same boat, but ended up at a much more relaxing destination: the nearby island of Lopud. There, we did something close to nothing at Sunj Beach… all damn day.
Our last day of soaking up the sun in beautiful Croatia saw us back on our ROCKY beach at Sun Gardens… and me ROCKING my bangin’ beach bod. The next day we were off, but not home quite yet. We had a one day layover in…
Dad@London: The Epic One Day Layover
Lianne and I have both been to London more than once, but our kids had never spent any time in this world class city, so we extended our layover to allow for one epic sightseeing day. We hopped on our hop-on-hop-off bus first thing and headed straight for the soaring heights of the London Eye. Then, we toured beautiful Westminster Abbey and followed that up with a very interesting tour of Buckingham Palace. That was a first for us and was actually better than expected! (Sorry, no Queen sightings) After that, we cruised the muddy waters of the Thames and hopped off our boat at the Tower Bridge. From there, we took in the many sights of the Tower of London, with a viewing of the Crown Jewels being the highlight. Fortunately, our hotel was just minutes from the Tower so it was an easy walk “home“, where we ate one final vacation meal at a nearby Indian restaurant.
It was a fabulous trip! Absolutely fabulous.
And if you’re still reading this uber-long blog post, then thank you for hanging in there! Thanks for not bailing out during Poland!