Little Language and Big Bees

In Ukraine, there are three local holidays associated with fall harvest: Honey Spas, Apple Spas and Bread (or Nut) Spas. The most important of these is Apple Spas, which happened this past weekend.

I’m still trying to get my arms around what the local traditions and holidays are here, but what I’ve been able to gather based on some internet research (good info on Honey Spas and Apple Spas, if you’re interested) is that these holidays are a mix of folk tradition and religious observance. And they’re celebrated with food, which I like.

With end-of-summer weather reaching its peak, it was also a wonderful time to be outside.

Cory and I were more than happy to join in.

082216 - HoneyAt the Lavra, a massive monastery in Kyiv, vendors set up booths to sell fresh honey over the course of this past week as part of the Honey Spas celebration. We’ve been told we needed to take a trip to the Lavra anyway, but it turns out the grounds are absolutely massive. Instead of trying to tour anything while hordes of folks were paying their respect in the cathedrals, we decided just to go to the area reserved for the honey festival this time around.

Several folks had tables set up on a single street under the trees. I was memorized as we wandered past them, eyeing the tubs of fresh honey being sold by the half liter, liter and more. I never realized there were so many variations of the color gold.

It was beautiful – plain and simple.

082216 - Honey2Also eye-catching, however, were the hundreds of bees that swarmed around the booths.

I’m not scared of bees, but the sheer number of them was enough to elicit just a bit of anxiety, and I felt a little uncomfortable walking too close to the tables. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have approached in order to taste test and buy, but that brought to light one of the struggles we’ve encountered with living in Kyiv: the language barrier.

The jury is still out on whether Ukrainians speak primarily Ukrainian or Russian.

Everyone we ask seems to have a different opinion. Regardless, they both use the Cyrillic alphabet, which appears to be a bunch of numbers and backward letters without context. Signs throughout the city are printed in a mix of the two languages, and that doesn’t help simplify matters.

Cory and I have decided to try learning Russian, since we’ll be able to use it in more places, but it’s been a frustrating effort. I admit it: There have been tears.

After four days of Rosetta Stone, we boxed the program up and put it back on the shelf. Yes, the experience was that bad. Then we ventured forth with digital flashcards of the alphabet and an app called Duolingo. That seems to be a better route for us.

Nonetheless, the struggle is real.

082216 - Rosetta StoneDespite what people say about being able to get around the world with just English, the truth is very few people speak much English here. At dinner with friends the other night, we speculated about why this is the case. Our assumption is that, as a former Soviet republic, there was no encouragement to learn English as there was in Western Europe. I’m assuming it wasn’t taught in schools, and people simply weren’t exposed to it.

Few people over the age of 30 know more than a few words in a casual setting. Even in the city center, where there are more English-language menus and signs, spoken English is uncommon.

As a result, we’ve been using a lot of Google Translate on our phones to communicate our needs and writing numbers with paper and pen when we shop at the market.

Is it working? Yes.

But it frequently feels insufficient.

We may be able to communicate about what kind of honey we want to taste. We might even be able to buy what we want with a bit of gesturing and probably a fair amount of confusion. But we can’t ask questions about the details and intricacies tied up in this festival – how the honey is made, where, under what conditions, etc.

And so, this year at least, we were content just to look. Perhaps next year we’ll buy.

At the very least, I’ll be prepared for the bees.

4 Responses to “Little Language and Big Bees”

  1. Jill

    Thank heavens for Google Translate! I’m betting some words will start showing up frequently, and you can get a start that way. ?

  2. Lena

    I hope you’ve changed your opinion regarding “little English” in Kyiv. I’m just wondering how you managed to live in the city for several weeks without encountering thousands of people who speak English fluently (other foreign languages as well) and millions of those who know the basics. By the way, English was taught at school as the first foreign language (German and French more rarely) in the USSR, however, it wasn’t in use in everyday life due to isolation of the Soviet people from the “outer” world (so your speculation was quite right :). Today it’s mostly the young generation you can depend on in this matter (adults 18-35 years old). I kindly advise you not to be afraid of approaching Ukrainians with questions, you never know who speaks English and who doesn’t.

    • JoAnna

      Hi Lena ~

      Thanks for your comment. We’ve been living in the city for several months now, and I am still surprised by how few people speak English. I actually haven’t run into the “thousands of people who speak English fluently,” as you say. You’re right, it is the younger generation is more likely to speak English, and primarily in the city center, though some often seem inconvenienced by doing so. Luckily, my husband has been able to pick up Russian much, much faster than I have, so he’s able to speak to some people in the native tongue. As for me, Google Translate tends to be my best friend when I’m out and about! I get by okay with my translate app and a bit of gesturing. 🙂


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