A lost world? Polish tour guide publishes heartfelt homage to Ukraine
A book about the history, culture and cuisine of Ukraine to be published this week has taken on unintended significance after Russia's invasion of the country by offering a unique snapshot of the country on the eve of war.
What was meant to be a travel book has now become a story about what's at stake in the war, what has been lost and what the Ukrainian people are fighting for – their rich history, identity, but also a normal life.
It was written as a book that readers could throw in their bags before setting off on a journey through the beautiful country.
However, when Lviv-based Polish tourist guide Katarzyna Łoza was putting the finishing touches to Ukraina. Soroczka i 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 whether to change the text.
After consulting with the publisher, she decided to leave the book exactly as it was, thereby turning it into an ode to the country she had grown to love.
The title refers to two things that, in Łoza’s view, make the country particularly special. A sorochka is the traditional embroidered shirt of Ukraine, which goes back to the origins of the nation, the embroidery of which is different for each region with their own particular patterns and colours.
Pickled watermelons, meanwhile, underline the country’s diverse cuisine. “Everything is pickled - from cabbage and cucumbers to tomatoes, garlic, peppers, aubergines, carrots, apples, watermelons and even bread,” Łoza writes.
Neither strictly reportage nor a guidebook, the work is a story about the country from the perspective of a person who fell in love with it and tied her life to it.
“When I first visited Ukraine in 1997, we were both still young and inexperienced. I was a first-year student of ethnology and it was my first time abroad; [Ukraine] had just declared independence six years earlier and was finding her way in the post-Soviet reality.
“It would soon turn out that as a result of one spontaneous decision, my life would be bound to this country for many years and I would not only watch it mature, but also participate in that process.”
Living in Lviv with her husband and three children, Łoza works as a tour guide, running the website and blog lwow.info.
Unlike many, she and her family decided to remain in Ukraine when Russia invaded on 24 February this year.
“Many people have left Lviv and of course we respect that, everyone's situation is different. We decided to stay with our children in our flat. 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 through the country from east to west and north to south.
Travelling through the mountains of Transcarpathia, the Black Sea coast and the post-communist tower blocks of Kharkiv, she discovers the highs and lows of contemporary Ukraine.
Readers can learn that Ukraine is a country full of contrasts founded on the myth of the Cossacks where national identity is not always linked to speaking Ukrainian.
Although Poles and Ukrainians shared the same land for over six centuries, Ukraine remains an undiscovered and unknown land for many contemporary Poles.
Łoza’s descriptions of the country as it was up to the outbreak of war may come as a surprise for many, therefore.
“Ukrainians have created six unicorns (companies with a valuation of least a billion dollars), built space rockets, invented WhatsApp and Grammarly, won the Eurovision contest, and even danced in a Madonna video,” she writes, adding, “You can pay for a ticket on a Lviv tram by scanning the QR code, and life in Kiev has become more expensive than in Moscow.”
The cities she describes – Kiev, 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 2 March.
Founded during the Russian colonisation of southern Ukraine by Catherine the Great, the area was formerly part of the Crimean Khanate under Turkey. When the Russian colonisation began, Catherine ordered the displacement of the Cossacks.
Łoza calls it the watermelon republic after the region’s most prolific crop, noting that locals even have watermelon tattoos.
“Wine, watermelon, sea and sun, … what more could you want from life. As it turns out, nothing,” she writes.
Kharkiv in the north, meanwhile, is described by Łoza as a Soviet Chicago. “I was enchanted by Kharkiv's Art Nouveau, bolder than that of Lviv, and I wanted to see the famous Soviet skyscrapers of the 1920s.”
While she was there in 2014, she witnessed events that were the precursor to the war today.
“It was while we were in Kharkiv that Russian troops invaded Crimea and there was an attempted separatist coup in the city. Some of our group were scared out of their wits and wanted to return to Lviv immediately. It was likely that the Crimean or Donbass scenarios would be repeated here, or even that Russian tanks would enter Kharkiv, located some 40 kilometres from the border. However, things turned out differently,” she wrote.
Much of Łoza’s attention in the book is taken up by food. “For a long time, I thought that Ukrainian cuisine was not particularly interesting or original. This was, of course, before I got to know 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 beetroot, beef, cabbage and garlic, and often, but not necessarily, on meat stock, tomatoes and beans. In particular regions paprika, apples, beetroot sourdough, mushrooms, plums, strawberries, squash, aubergines, pork fat, and even fish, crayfish and honey are added. There is no single traditional recipe and at the same time everyone is correct.”
With the war in Ukraine now in almost its seventh week and millions of refugees in Poland, the publisher Wydawnictwo Poznańskie has decided that all proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Polish Humanitarian Action SOS UKRAINA.
“We believe that the country described in Katarzyna Łoza's book will be reborn and peace will return to Ukraine. However distant this vision seems, when we are enveloped in the darkness of war, we must believe in it,” the publisher said.