As Russian forces made their hasty retreat to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, they destroyed as much of Kherson’s infrastructure as they could: power lines, the water system, cell phone towers, bridges, parts of the grid. So those left behind – the liberated Ukrainians of Kherson – were no longer living in abject terror, but they were very much still living in darkness.
When we pulled into a village near the city limits, we asked a kindly old man if he knew of a guesthouse who might be able to host our team. We travelled with our own generator and snacks, we said, and just needed a roof over our heads.
“Why, my house of course!” he exclaimed, gesturing to a small concrete hut surrounded by snarling dogs and vehicles on cinder blocks. “Our house is warm, my wife will cook, and we make both strong wine and soft lady wine for the lady here!”
Well, sir, you had me at lady wine.
As our team of seven settled into the one room, bedecked with blankets and pillows and warmed by a heat lamp plugged into a generator, our lovely hosts proceeded to set the table with everything they had to hand. It wasn’t much, but it was everything. For them, it was celebration, it was camraderie, it was freedom… it was an excuse to break out the moonshine.
The small table groaned with bowls and pots of all sizes, cobbled-together utensils and jars and jars of preserves made over the previous months.
We feasted on boiled macaroni tossed with butter and topped with a slightly spicy red pepper relish. We loaded thick slices of homemade bread with sausage, pickled tomatoes, and tinned pate.
We mixed our pasta with sour forkfuls of cabbage and carrot coleslaw; we ate olives out of cans with our fingers.
And amid the feast, our hosts poured strong “man wine”, soft “lady wine”, and vodka – all made in their garage and stored up for just this opportunity. Because one big component of the occupation was the severing of communication: Russia controlled their access to cell service and internet. They were largely without outside information and barely able to call family members.
So for our hosts, the opportunity to sit around a table and unload their stories of the last 9 months was as epic for them as the opporunity for us to have a warm, safe place to stay in the region. It was win-win all around.
The next day, after a prolonged goodbye full of hugs and kisses and a shopping bag full of pickles, we moved into the city… and into someone else’s home.
There, again, we were enveloped in Ukrainian hospitality that was capped off with… wait for it… steaming bowls of borshch… topped with homemade garlic aioli and served with raw dill, garlic and green onion to munch alongside.
We brought out the remains of our lady wine to share with our new hosts, and they brought out their most precious possession: a 15 year old bottle of brandy, made at the local, ancient distillery that had been destroyed by invading Russian forces. This bottle had cost them $200… now it was priceless. There will be no more produced for a long time, if ever.
But, they figured, one only gets liberated ONCE, right? No time better than the present to appreciate the best things in life.