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Russell Frank: Can’t Speak Ukrainian But I’m Ready to Eat Well

by on July 13, 2012 7:49 AM

I may stumble around Ukraine in a state of utter bewilderment this fall, but at least I’m gonna eat well.

That’s the sense I get after spending my last couple of Ukrainian language lessons on food vocabulary.

Listening to the enraptured descriptions of my tutor, Svitlana, I can only conclude that she is deeply homesick for the cuisine of her native land. Even when she tells me the words for simple foods like pancakes (mlyntsi/млинці), sour cream (smetana/сметана – like the Czech composer) or cottage cheese (domashni syr/домашній сир), she raves about how much more delicious the Ukrainian versions are than their insipid American counterparts.

Even a friend who spent time in the Soviet Union and thinks I’m out of my mind for wanting to spend a season among the “Ukes,” as he calls them, concedes I’ve got some good eatin’ in my future.

“You’re gonna feel your arteries hardening,” he warns me.

Svitlana and I usually start our tutoring sessions at 3:30 – just after I’ve taught my class at Penn State and many hours after I’ve eaten breakfast. By the time we’re through, I’m ravenous.

Sometimes, Svitlana starts telling me about a food that she thinks I might not be familiar with, like cabbage rolls (holubtsi/голубці) or potato pancakes (platski/пляцки), but of course I not only have eaten those foods all my life but know the words or at least similar words, from my upbringing as the grandson of Eastern European Jews. Stuffed cabbage, as we call it, and latkes are staples of Jewish-American cuisine. You can order them in any good Jewish deli.

Like everyplace else, Ukraine, has a lot of foods that they’ve adopted from other cultures. These words always come as a funny surprise to me because I haven’t mastered the Cyrillic alphabet yet. I start sounding out the word – кре-кер, ма-ка-ро-ни, спа-ге-ті, брок-ко-лі, йо-гурт, грейп-фрут and realize part way through that I’m trying to say cracker, macaroni, spaghetti, broccoli, yogurt and grapefruit.

My favorite is the word for sandwich. It’s spelled, бутербод – butterbread, which makes sense, sort of.

Cyrillic would be a lot easier to learn if none of the letters looked anything like Latin letters. What throws you off is that their H is our N; their P is our R; their B is our V; their Y is our OO. After 50 years of associating those symbols with certain sounds, it’s awfully hard to link them with other sounds.

Also tricky: the letter that’s pronounced SHCH (щ), as in borshch/борщ (borscht).

And then there’s the weirdness factor: backwards Rs (я, pronounced YA), upside-down small h’s (ч, pronounced CH), 3s (their Z) and the letter that looks like a squashed bug (ж) and is pronounced like the S in vision.

Worst of all are the declensions, which have to do with the way the endings of words change depending on whether they’re male, female or neuter, singular or plural, which I’m used to from romance languages and – ulp! – whether they’re subjects, possessors, direct objects, indirect objects, and so on, which I’m not used to. I shoulda studied Latin.

Offsetting all the difficulties are some surprising cognates. The word for student sounds like student said with a Ukrainian accent. The word for school is pronounced shkola (школа). The word for lamp is pronounced lampa (лампа).

The word for orange, on the other hand (апельсин), sounds more like our apple than their apple (яблуко) does. That’s just not fair.

Thank goodness for the words that come from Greek that match our words that come from Greek: stadium, museum, telephone, photograph, and so on.

Guess what, though, the Ukrainian word for vodka isn’t vodka. It’s horilka (горілка). Vodka is Russian.

The linguistic situation is complicated, apparently. In southern and eastern Ukraine, most people’s first language is Russian. In western Ukraine, where I’m going, most people’s first language is Ukrainian. In the the capital, Kiev/Kyiv , which is in the middle of the country, it’s kind of half and half, as you might expect.

Ukrainian and Russian are similar. But they’re not the same.

But getting back to food: What Ukrainians, like their Eastern European brethren, seem to do particularly well is roll things up in dough. Svitlana’s list of pierogies (varenkyi/вареники in Ukrainian), for example, includes those made with meat, potato, cabbage, mushrooms, cheese, sour cherries and plums. All topped with their fabulous sour cream. (Is your mouth watering yet?)

Svitlana also tells me that Lviv, where I’m going, has excellent pastries and excellent coffee. (How about now?).

I hear the beer’s good also. And that you order vodka – uh, horilka -- and cognac by the gram.

Try everything, Svitlana tells me. Oh, I will, I will. Maybe I should fast now so the plane will be able to get off the ground when I fly back to the States in January.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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