In 2000 when I visited Ukraine, flying into Kyiv and stopping at a number of cities on the way to Lviv, I learned a little about this vast country.
• In eastern regions of the country, many Ukrainians speak Russian as a first language. The reason may be that under the Soviet Union, young people in Ukraine could attend university in Russia, tuition-free, if they remained in Russia for a number of years after graduation. Russian students could study in Ukraine under similar conditions. This resulted in a "melting pot" of people because many students settled in Ukraine.
• The most impressive structures in the eastern regions of Ukraine are the golden domed churches. Village dwellings, meanwhile, are picturesque and may have been built in the 16th Century for serfs.
• The national soup is borszcz. Its main ingredient is beets but each region adds its own choice of other ingredients. All versions are delicious, especially accompanied by black bread.
• Checkpoint officials are poker-faced but the rest of the population are friendly. My tour group was often invited to join in a local celebration, even a wedding.
• The Ukranian flag symbolizes the land—yellow for fields of wheat or sunflowers, and blue for the open sky. To me, it represents peace and love of the natural world.
• Place names and public information notices are in Cyrillic script only. Perhaps in the past 21 years, the country has added Latin lettering for the sake of tourists who are not familiar with Cyrillic lettering. St. Cyril's script, in my opinion, has impeded Ukraine's entry into Western Europe's enterprises.
• What impressed me on more than one occasion was seeing young, happy people with bouquets of freshly picked flowers walking to some event. I was told by our guide that the flowers would likely be placed at the foot of a statue of Ukrainian poet and nationalist Taras Shevchenko.
I have many unforgettable memories of that visit in 2000, when hopes were high that Ukraine would at last be a sovereign state, after centuries of invasions by foreign powers. As far as I know, Ukrainians have never tried to colonize another country's lands.
Today, as Russia's 100,000 troops and tanks sit on the border of Eastern Ukraine, I feel sad that a people who have so loved their land and whose national hero is a poet, will once again have to defend themselves against a ruthless invader ready to snatch their freedom and trample their gentle flag.
Helen Schiele, Kelowna