Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala, image from Wikicommons.

Poltava, Ukraine Part 1: Language Learning and Water Nymphs

Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala, image from Wikicommons.
Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala, image from Wikicommons.

I had heard about Poltava from a few folks. It was the site of an important Ukrainian battle (the Battle of Poltava) and that it was one of the few remaining cities that still spoke and preserved the Ukrainian language and heritage. Not only that, the age-old pagan festival of Ivana Kupala would be held the night of July 7th which I was interested in seeing. Since I arrived early in the morning of Ivana Kupala and my train to Lviv wouldn’t be until the next night, I effectively had two days in Poltava.

My first day in Poltava was spent wandering the city on my own, seeing some of the monuments they have erected to the fallen soldiers, but the highlight of my day would be my conversation with a Poltava man… in Ukrainian and Russian. As luck would have it, I took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere behind one of the universities in Poltava. I needed assistance in locating the main road again and, thinking that the next man walking down the street would be a professor, I decided to him for directions. The first question, naturally, was “Do you speak English?” When he said “No,” I did my best to practice the Ukrainian I knew.

As I’ve written before, I studied Ukrainian in Winnipeg during dreaded Saturday morning classes (the morning after my Ukrainian dancing classes), so reading and writing Ukrainian (and Russian for that matter) aren’t so difficult, listening isn’t hard either. But thinking and then speaking in Ukrainian? That’s a little more difficult. Up until this point, I’d been studying Ukrainian and Russian in Kharkiv both on my own and with a very nice Ukrainian lady who acted as tutor and cook.

Now, in case you’re thinking that learning any language is hard, let me tell you a little secret: most folks who know multiple languages know the most common words, some verb conjugation, and the majority of the “100 most important words in any language.” The list consists of simple words, e.g. “A/an,” “after,” “much,” “please,” “thank you,” and a few common verbs like “find,” “go,” “love,” etc. You can find the full list and more language learning techniques on the Mind Tools website, written and maintained by Tony Buzan.

They say if you can learn those words all you gotta do next is add verbs and more nouns. Tim Ferris lays out a method of learning a language in three months on his website, a method that includes learning how to conjugate the past, present, and future tenses of verbs. It’s a neat method to learn. Learning a language sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s not that easy, but those methods do help. I’ve only ever had moderate success with the 100-word list and Tim Ferriss’s suggestions, but I can’t blame anybody but myself for not being fluent in any other language except English. I used the above techniques in Korea and Thailand when I went to those countries and, of course, Ukraine. The techniques won’t make you fluent, but they will help you become at least conversational. Of course, Louis L’Amour gives the best advice for learning a foreign language:

“When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her she will certainly feed you.”

He was impressed by my Ukrainian and said I sounded like I was from Western Ukraine, kinda Polish. I told him my grandparents came from there. I wanted to practice my Ukrainian so I followed him back to the main road. And so as we walked along Lenin Street in Poltava, me and my interlocutor, Gregory, talked about our families, work, what I was doing in Poltava and where I was going. Lots of present and future tense, many adjectives and a lot of “yes’s”. The conversation was kinda probably much more awkward than I’d like to think, but somehow we walked and talked for 15 minutes. Mission accomplished: conversation conducted in Ukrainian.

Later that night, around 10 pm, I headed down to the banks of the Voskla River on which I was told the Ivana Kupala celebrations would take place. Ivana Kupala is an old pagan fertility festival, celebrated on the evening of July 7th. I was interested to see whether or not the Poltavians – Poltavans? – would host a traditional celebration or if it would be a little more modern, as in, a drinking festival.

Well, the drink was on and it really looked like any other modern celebration, “Liquor Fest.” There were groups of youths all over the beach, some in bikinis or speedos, some holding guitars, others playing volleyball and all of them were drinking. Some even threw vinoks (Ukrainian head pieces made of flowers) into the river and went skinny dipping. At the end of the beach one group had made a fire and were playing some Ukrainian songs that I didn’t recognize.

But I wanted more. Part of the legend of Ivana Kupala is that there is a special, magical fern that grows only on that night. If you find it, untold wealth and prosperity comes your way. Deciding that I needed some wealth and prosperity, I trudged off into the bush in search of treasure.

But you have to be careful, there’s another side to that search for treasure. Rusalky, or water nymphs, drowned girls from time’s past bearing a grudge against the living. They will call your name and try to convince you that life is better under water. You’re not supposed to listen to their voices, the equivalent of the Siren calls, nor look in their direction. I did hear one such voice but, heeding to my survival instincts and advice from my friend in Kharkiv, I pointed my camera in the direction of the voice and snapped a picture. This is what I saw.

Ukrainian Inside
Rusalka wearing "Ukrainian inside" T-shirt.

Wow, I thought. How bad could it be to strike up a conversation with a ghost? Well, I guess the flash scared her away since, by the time I looked, she was gone. There goes practicing my Ukrainian again, I guess.

I headed back to the beach where all the normal, drinking folks were. The fire at the end of the beach was even larger now and folks were jumping over it. Crazy Ukrainians, I thought. The idea is that you have to jump over the fire for good luck. If you have a girl/boyfriend you’re supposed to hold hands while jumping over the fire. If you land still hand-in-hand, you future will be good together. If you don’t, you may as well break it off there because it ain’t gonna get any better. Lacking a partner, I jumped over the fire by myself.

Ivana Kupala fire jumping.
Ivana Kupala fire jumping.

With that, I had one more day in Poltava to discover more about its history and a famous Ukrainian writer.