Summer in the Ukraine

Before it was a war zone, the Crimean peninsula was one writer's idea of paradise

By / June 2015

Images of riot and revolution pour out of the Ukraine daily. Baby-faced troops clashing with Russian loyalists. Old women walking beside war tanks. Bicycles mangled by shelling. Whether from dark newspaper folds or glossy websites, the sobering photographs keep coming, making it difficult to recall what came before.

Still, the Ukraine that I remember was no such war zone. It was the summer of 2009. I was living with a Ukrainian family in Feodosia, a coastal city about three hours east of Sevastapol, on the coast of the Crimean peninsula. The Crimea was, in those days, a place of gaiety. Enchantment even. Vacationers and the party-hungry descended on her shores from all corners of Europe and Russia. Hot days meant beach parties, carnival rides, baklava, barbecues, ice cream.

Photograph by Kaela La Farge

There were no explosions, no riots. Afternoons meant jumping off a splinter-filled pier into the sea. At night, we gathered around the family dinner table to feast on fresh cherries, our fingernails dripping red. My host mother served homemade strawberry jam that could make a cake of stale bread.

I taught English to kids in the neighborhood. I taught them American songs. Some days we paraded through the market, past the easels of local artists, en route to the park. But it was at the seaside, under the blazing sun, that I preferred to while away the hours. On the Fourth of July, I walked through the swash then waded out into the Black Sea. Turning back to face the shore, I thought about how all seas are the same, how I could have just as easily been looking back at the California shoreline. “Place,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “is always and only place.”

That same summer, I visited what was once the Muslim capital of the Crimean region, the city of Bakhchisaray. The Crimean Khans, descendants of Genghis Khan, had reigned there for hundreds of years. The white-washed, shingle-roofed fortress contained a mosque and a harem. I wandered about the place with a baklava the size of my face and marveled at the history that lived on within the walls.

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Conquered land, fortresses and torture chambers intermingled with stunning architecture and intricate artwork.The Crimean peninsula was like a delicate old tapestry, woven with religion and culture and war and yet strangely beautiful in its conflicting strands.

Now, with every image I see of the Ukraine in the news, I wonder how much of the life and levity that I experienced in Feodosia still endures? How much of it was already in jeopardy before I arrived? After the dust settles, what will remain? How about the aging fortress and the beaches and the teenagers crashing through the waves? Even now I can close my eyes and reminisce my toes sandy and my shoulders wet.

From any shore I can see that place.


Kaela La Farge in an EthnoTraveler contributor.