Lived Through This
Three Ukrainians sat around my table last Friday: a grandmother, a mother, and a two-year old child. We were celebrating.
The little group of refugees had travelled across Ukraine from Zaporizhzhya, where a huge nuclear power plant was the location of some heavy fighting in the early days of the ongoing conflict. The three left in haste on packed standing-room-only trains and reached Poland after a few days’ journey. In Krakow, volunteers gave them food and shelter, and helped them organize their next move. Apparently, a sister-in-law’s-cousin’s-friend in a town near Milan was willing to help them, so Italy became their destination. At my church, a friend of a friend asked if I could put them up for a week while they got settled, and I gladly agreed. I have sometimes felt like a refugee, and owe a great deal to the people who helped me in my times of need. I am always happy to be in a position to pay it forward. On Monday night, their plane landed and the exhausted little crew moved into my apartment.
On Friday, courtesy of the church, the family found an apartment where they could have their own space and begin their life anew. So I opened a bottle of Italian wine to toast their new beginning, and we sat down to a salmon dinner. Communication was difficult, since their knowledge of Italian begins and ends with “ciao”, and my Ukrainian is limited to a few words I know from the church songs (“Lord have mercy”, and the like). At least the young mother did know a few English phrases from the multilingual baby videos her daughter likes to watch, but there is only so much one can say with a vocabulary derived from Baby Shark and Peppa Pig.
Midway through the meal, the grandmother, whom I will call Mariia, had finished her piece of fish and was glancing longingly at the tray where one last piece sat uneaten. I picked it up and offered it to her, saying “Mariia, ribyonka?” I thought I remembered the word for “fish”, and was trying my best to be a good host. But she burst out laughing, and with many gestures it was explained: the word for fish is “riba”; “ribyonka” means child. I had asked Mariia if she wanted another child…! We had a hearty laugh together as we finished the meal.