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The Ukrainian Village Great Grandma Walked, Over 100 Years Ago


This summer Jan and I spent two and a half months in Europe.  We visited daughter Catherine in Germany,  made it to Turkey again,  a month in Italy, and 5 weeks in Lviv, Ukraine.  One of the highlights was exploring the village my Great Grandma Polly (born Paraska Chytyck) Mykytiuk.   Great Grandma left Ukraine in 1908 when she was ten.  As a kid I remember many things about her and her husband,  my great grandfather Stefan

Polly Mykytiuk's Handwriting, Babin etc

Aunt Kerry had Great Grandma write her village name (Babin) and her nearby main centre.

Mykytiuk.   But did I ever ask “Why did you come to Canada?  How?”  Of course not.  All we knew was from records that said they were from the “Bokuwina” region, now no longer in existence.  Many years ago my Aunt Kerry had Great Grandma write down a few words about her home town and her maiden name.  Using Google Map was a challenge.  Were Polly’s words in Ukrainian?  English?  Russian?  At times the land was part of Austria and Poland!  Did the village exist today?  We knew we had to look for (we think) Hredenko and Babin, not far from Chernivsti, Ukraine.  We thankfully hired a couple who would drive and interpret.  We drove for 3 hours of rough roads to Hredenko first.  Our interpreter suggested we visit a nearby church for some community info and it was a good move.  There we met a Catholic priest who knew everyone and everything about this town of 9000.  Yes he

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Notice the spelling – same as what Polly hand wrote top left in her handwriting above. Me and my Mom.

recognized the Mykytiuk name, and he offered to take us to a family with that name.  We ended up spending half a day with this fellow.  He drove with us to a local family business that shared the name, where we spent some time.  We had lunch,  he told us some history.  Fascinating.   Was there a certain link to the family?  It’s not certain, but – in a village of 9000 I suspect there was a relationship.  We heard of war times and current Crimean / Russian challenges, an amazing day with this fellow.    We spent the evening in Chernivsti and hoped to find a village – if it existed still – of Babin – the next day.

Next morning we continued to search on Google Maps for Babin. This was the village where Polly lived until she was 10.  It was difficult to find on the map due to changing borders, languages and the fact the village may not even exist any longer.  We almost gave it up, but the evening before at supper our interpretor came across the village on his map.   Babin was not far from Hredenko,  and we would drive the hour to this village.

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The bus stop at Babin with Jan, mom and me. We think the language is Russian.

Babin was about 30 minutes of pavement and 30 minutes of gravel away.  The plains were similar to Saskatchewan.  No wonder the Ukrainians were comfortable on the Canadian Prairies.   Babin was a village of maybe 800, and looked like it hasn’t changed much to this day.  Again we went to a church, where a lady I referred to as “The Town Mayor” took us to a local family who may knew more.    The Mayor ended up spending about 4 hours with us,  taking us from family to family to homes where “I think they may know the Chytyk family” or “They are related to the Mykytiuks”.    (We felt Polly and her future husband came from the same region)   Here local families told us of recent “Soviet times” pre-freedom 1996.  I asked one farmer where his farm land was.  In Ukrainian he told us “I don’t know.  They divided up all the farm land after Soviet times.  I rent it out.  I do not know where my land is”.  Many times we heard “We are poor,  but we are not hungry”.    These are people who to this day, in my estimation,  survive by filling their cellars with food all summer and get through the next winter till spring,  and that’s it.   We met about five families.    All had time for us.  All knew the

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Lower left, the village elder. Our interpreters and a few locals. Right, the “Town Mayor”. Upon hearing it was my Mom’s birthday in this back yard they broke into a Ukrainian version of a birthday song.

names we spoke of.  Again, too many years had passed to connect the family 100% for sure,  but a village of 800 with the Chytyk name everywhere –  I am certain they were related.   One highlight was in the village elder’s back yard.  When they heard it was my mom’s birthday,  they broke out into a birthday song traditional in Ukraine.  It was very difficult to keep the eyes dry.

We spent the entire day in Babin.  It was amazing to think “This is the village where my Great Grandma would have walked, over 100 years ago.  She would have taken the train to nearby Hredenko to shop with her family.   What was amazing was – to this day –  the locals are living month to month,  year to year.  A bit of food grown in their backyard or a plot of land.  Apparently a bit of income off farmland rented out.  Young people these days

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One of the local “Babas” gives mom a hug.   Left in the background – the “Mayor”. Soviet times. Freedom. “We are not rich, but we are not hungry”. It was amazing.

prefer to live in the big city.  The population stays much the same..

In nearby Chernivsti we went to a museum that specialized in the three waves of emigration of Ukrainians.  He answered a LOT of questions for us.   Many of the Ukrainians left because the habit of splitting farmland with the next generation meant smaller and smaller farms.  These Ukrainians were really peasants, with changing borders and difficult times politically.   Then the Canadians advertised free farmland – if you cleared it first and proved yourself for a few years.  An offer too hard to resist for the brave.  It is probable that Polly, then 10,  took the train from Chernivsti to Lviv,  then onward to Germany and onto a boat.   There was a fast boat (3-4 days) or the slow boat.  They probably took the slow boat of 21 days as it was far, far cheaper for these poor Ukrainians.  Often the deal was the boats were livestock ships returning to North America.  They were cheaper fares – if the passengers cleaned the ships during the trip.  Wow.

Jan, mom and I stayed a few nights in Chernivsti.  We thought we would take the train home, a 4 hour trip to Lviv.  The dollar is very low so it was easy to afford a sleep car, a private car for 4 people with beds.    We left around 4 PM and rumbled though the

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I like this picture because Mom is looking out the train window and pondering. The same window Polly would have also looked out. Except Polly knew in all likelihood she would never return to her village again.

villages and towns toward Lviv.  This was an experience in itself.   The scenery could have been Saskatchewan.

As our train rolled though the prairies and the sky turned to dark, we sipped on some vodka, made it to the diner car for a snack and a beer and enjoyed the scenery.   I said to mom “Hard to believe these are the same tracks your grandma would have been on in 1908, onward to a new land.”    Imagine what was going through this 10 year old’s mind?  She would have gazed out the same window.  She would have seen the same prairie sky as we watched.  Polly would be just as quiet as we were at times, I bet.  Quietly thinking about where her life would go.   Her train trip down these same tracks was similar to ours in some ways,  and yet her thoughts would be realizing she would probably never return to her home.   And she never did.    A friend said “How fortunate we are that these people left their homes for a better land. For a better life.”.  How true.  And how lucky were we to experience a taste of the journey over 100 years later with Polly’s granddaughter,  Nici, my mom, and Jan.

Map showing the route between Babyn and Horodenka (English spellings I believe).

 

 

 

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20 Questions


lg_forpaper_01abOur local newspaper Daily Herald Tribune did a “20 Questions” interview with me.  It was fun to do and it gave me  an opportunity to think about a few things in life.   I paste the story below.

20 Questions with Kevin Hilgers

Jan and I have lived in Grande Prairie for 25 years, arriving to work at what was then CFGP radio (now Rock 97 FM.) I left broadcasting 20 years ago and have since been solely an entrepreneur. GP has allowed us to positively raise a family that includes Jasper and Catherine. I have a marketing firm called Wave Media that assists business with their marketing and operates various projects. One of my larger projects is professionally managing the Rotary Dream Home Lottery, now 7 years. I handle the Gaming application aspect, sales, marketing, sponsorships, operations, ticket processing, floor mopping, all of it. It’s a year-round job. Watching it grow in success has been very gratifying. Twenty years ago I joined the Rotary Club of Grande Prairie, and it’s a big part of my life. I was President and went on to be District Governor in 2012/13. Rotary has taught me a lot. It’s given us the gifts of travel, friendships and fun. It has enhanced my leadership skills and helped me grow my business.

1. It’s Sunday morning, what are you having for breakfast?

I have porridge with berries almost every day for breakfast. Fast, healthy, easy.

2. If you didn’t do what you do for a living, what would you be?

I admire those who work at funeral homes. These are people who assist when people need it most. Some may think that business may be depressing – but you are a vital part of people’s lives when they desperately need you. They lean on you for support and guidance and expertise.That must be immensely rewarding.

3. What person has influenced your life the most?

I can’t think of any one person however I would have to say that collectively – “Rotarians” have had the most impact on my life. When you join an organization like Rotary International – you surround yourself with successful people. Often they are outside your generation and your regular circle of associates. Rotarians locally and internationally have provided invaluable guidance and inspiration and yes, “constructive criticism” when needed.

4. What is the reason you first became involved with Rotary?

Lawyer Lyle Carlstrom asked me and at the time I wasn’t sure what it was all about. I liked the idea of community service and networking. Maybe networking my young business was #1 priority at the time. But the longer I stayed the more I realized I received far more than just networking. And for that I stay.

5. Favourite movie of all time?

Naked Gun. Second fav: Naked Gun 2 ½. Guess what my third fav movie is?

6. Pet peeve?

Cigarette butt litter and profanity in inappropriate settings.

7. What’s your most embarrassing moment?

I always felt life is too short to be embarrassed, so nothing stands out. Giving it some thought though, I have had plenty of instances where my personal actions have created “learning experiences”. Like most of us, I try and learn from these lessons and not repeat them.

8. What’s your favourite TV show?

Since the kids were born we haven’t bothered with commercial television at home. We did get Netflix though and have watched The 70’s Show and really enjoyed The Crown.

9. Best thing about this year’s Rotary Dream Home?

That’s a loaded question as there are so many aspects that make it special. The staircase, the loft, the master bedroom. I would say the best thing about the 2017 Dream Home is the fact it’s built by an extraordinary builder who makes it seem easy to pull off a stunning home on time and on budget – Stonebuilt Homes and team. The sponsors are a huge help in that regard. I have a lot of pride in managing this project but the community, including Rotary members – is what makes it what it is today. OK, if I had to pick one thing – I love technology that enhances our lives. The thumb print pad to unlock the door, the garage doors that open via the cell phone, the security system I can watch on my Blackberry.

10. What’s the one thing you haven’t done that you would love to do?

I have been fortunate to travel a lot. You know those vacation ads of people swimming in crystal clear, warm ocean waters? I have yet to do that. It’s been a dream of mine to snorkel or scuba dive in a place like that.

11. Last book you couldn’t put down?

After watching The Crown I enjoyed a book on Queen Elizabeth II. My entire life I have lived in a country with one consistent leader. Amazing. And she is an inspiration. Someday soon we will lose her. And that will be very, very sad.

12. If we’re buying, you’re having…?

Well, Jan and I do not eat a lot of meat, but every now and then you just can’t beat a great steak. If you’re buying I’d ask to meet at The Keg.

13. Who was your childhood celebrity crush?

Nobody really jumps out at me to be honest.

14. Who would you love to dine with, dead or alive?

Johnny Carson. In my early days of broadcasting I studied him intensely. Not only was he an entertainer but also an astute business person, at one time responsible for 20% of the income of the NBC network. I admire how he handled his guests young and old, famous and “next door neighbour”. He understood the science of comedy and made it work for him and his audience. When he left the Tonight Show he did it “his way”, while he was still at the top. He faded out of the limelight and lived quietly in his retirement until his passing.

15. What is the best thing about the Grande Prairie area?

It’s certainly not the climate but GP has many attributes that make up for that. I think the business community is open to new ideas. It’s a nice size to raise a family. It takes minutes to cross town. After 25 years I also enjoy the connections I’ve made. If I need assistance or advice or direction I know where to turn.Rotary has been a big part of that.

16. What are you currently listening to on your iPod?

I power walk every day at Eastlink Centre and love it. I listen to Spotify on my Android Blackberry to be exact. ’70s and ’80s pop music.

17. What is your favourite sports team?

I don’t have much interest in team sports.

18. What do you do to relax?

Kindle. Coffee shops.

19. If you could go anywhere in the world on a holiday, where would you go?

I just went with Jan and my Ma to Ukraine – her heritage, that was very special. One place I’ve never been is Greece. See above for my dream of “crystal clear, warm waters”.

20. What are your words to live by?

I recently did a Ted Talk and included a quote from Ghandi. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. By serving others you learn much about yourself. When you go to bed at night the knowledge you helped others, even after a bad day – allows you to close your eyes and smile.

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Go Find Yourself. Doing a TED Talk


I was invited to do a TED Talk in my home town.  TED Talks are devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.  My topic was community engagement and the surprising results.   It was an exciting challenge not to mention an honour.  In the talk I discuss a fair bit about Rotary International and what it has meant to me.  TED Talks are 18 minutes max,  so if you have that sort of time,  have a look and tell me what you think this journey in my life.

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Selling Our Home of 20+ Years. Sellers Remorse?


sold-jason-scott-picSeptember 1, 2016 it was official.  Our home of over 20 years was sold and gone.  Jan and I moved into a rental apartment.   When it comes up in conversation we get a lot of interesting comments, looks and questions.  Now that it’s a few months we can look back and think “Wow,  did we just make one heck of a mistake?”  Most of the comments are of the nature of “OMG how could you sell your home? ” or “How did you go from  a two level home to an apartment?”  or “Do you miss your home? ”   Some are stunned.  Some slightly envious.  Some think we’re nuts.    Fact of the matter is our long-term plans include spending more time away, and some day relocating.  We also know it’s doubtful the daughters will ever be back here to live,  and we don’t have further family in this region.    While the market is soft,  we thought we would list and sell  and move forward.    Do we regret the sell of the home we built 23 years ago?  The only home our two daughters lived in within their memory?  Do we miss the comforts that ownership brings?  The privacy?  The “prestige” home ownership gives compared to renting in some people’s minds?    I’m quite surprised at how both Jan and I feel.   We don’t!  It’s been far easier than anticipated.   We don’t yearn for our old home. We do not have sellers remorse. We’re excited to move forward with our life.   And there are positives aplenty.   We feel good we are living with a smaller environmental footprint.  We sold/gave away so much stuff we definitely feel lighter in many ways.    Moving from 2400 square feet to 1050 has simplified our lives immensely.    We’re excited to look forward.  And when we look forward we see a simpler life somewhere a bit warmer.  This was a huge step.   Of course there are negatives.   We don’t have covered parking.  We take stairs up 3 flights as the elevator is slow.  But we have a top floor suite that gives us privacy and comfort.  The slow economy here means renting is affordable, in fact by the time we add up utilities, insurance, property taxes and a few hundred bucks a  month we budgeted or maintenance at the old home,  we are breaking even renting.     Do we have sellers remorse?  Not a chance.  Onward!

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Ukraine. The Motherland


All my life I have been influenced by Ukraine.  My mom’s side is all Ukrainian,  half my dad’s side.  I was quite close to people with names like Stasiuk and Mykitiuk (Grandparents and Great-Grandparents).  Jan and I decided to travel with my mom to Ukraine.  We booked 10 days and went in September, 2016.  Mom has never been (let alone overseas), nor Jan and I.

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Jan, Catie and Mom!  Kiev.

It was a fantastic ten days.  Bonus:  Daughter Catherine and beau Henning joined us for a few days in Kiev.

Some take aways:  We were all surprised how little English there was.    We were also surprised how inexpensive it was.  Supper out for three could be $30 CDN with cocktails.    No one knew what perogies were.  One told us “Oh – my Grandma used to call it that.  We call it verenecki! ”  So we stopped asking for perogies.  We asked for “verenecki”.

We visited Kiev,  Lviv and Odessa.  They were all very unique.  In Odessa (by the Black Sea) Russian was the spoken and read word.  It seemed a city of less income than the earlier two cities but we enjoyed.  Lviv is a university city. Alive with young people and

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$3.50 CDN for a nice bottle of vodka.  We’re in!

fascinating history.  Kiev was beautiful as well.  We did Air BnB or hotels and all were fine.

We ate very well in Ukraine.  I for one insisted on perogies (sorry – “verenecki”).  We had sausage and other Ukrainian foods,  many familiar some new to us.   It did though taste 100% like home cooked food we know and love.  And dining was so inexpensive.   A cab ride across the city was $5 CDN.    We used nothing but local currency or credit cards easily.  We did a cooking class at a local couple’s apartment and that was fun.  We brought back a few recipes including borscht.

It was fascinating to be in a country where the borders have changed so much.  Russia,  Hungary,  Poland, Romania and I am sure a few others I forget all have made an impression here.   Ask, and the Ukrainians are pretty grumpy about the Russians and the current political climate and Crimean dispute.  Don’t blame them.

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Which one isn’t the “local” Ukrainian?”

It was fun to be among  a culture  I felt so familiar with.  I felt they had a unique personality that may explain why Ukrainians (and all my relatives) are as they are.  That was interesting.   It’s hard to explain.  For one, they don’t seem to be too stressed out impressing others.  There’s no “I’m Suzy and I’ll be your waitress, today” attitude.  Sometimes they even seem gruff.   A few waitresses told us what we would be eating!

Maybe the most memorable part of the experience was being there with my mom.  She spoke mostly Ukrainian at home until she was age five.   She was intrigued by the culture for sure.    It was a pleasure traveling with her.   Jan and I noticed she sure “fit in”.  If you put her with 10 ladies at the market you would not guess she was from out of country.   See pic above.  All the ladies there seemed to have the same stature, fair, same height.  Mom’s on the left.

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In Odessa we often bought fruit, vegetables and nuts from this lady I always called “Baba”.  Of course not a word of English.  She spent part of her day cracking nuts as you see here.

Ukraine is a very safe, affordable place to visit.  While we didn’t have any “family” to visit we really felt at home and at ease.  In fact I would say to a young family considering a European experience – consider Ukraine.  The history you want to explore but at literally a fraction of the price of say, Austria or France or Germany.

To travel to one’s “homeland” is something quite special.  To take someone like my mom,  one generation closer to that home,  made it even better.

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Lviv.  History.  Great food.  Lively town center.  Fun, albeit dated street cars.

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Food That Moves And Other Discoveries


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Seoul.

Jan and I spent 2 weeks in Korea spring, 2016.  We attended a Rotary International Convention. The first week was in Busan, in southern Korea, an ocean front city.    We enjoyed the Asian culture for sure.  Some of the difference we noticed (and there were many!) include:

The ladies definitely enjoy displaying more femininity.
Less alcohol.
More smoking.
More air pollution.
Adventurous foods (for us anyhow!).
The Koreans are not in the habit of smiling and acknowledging.  Even during an early morning power walk or in an elevator.
Less space.
More people.

Everywhere we travel we look for differences.  It’s easy to forget what makes home –

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Vendor at a market.  Recognize these creatures?  Neither did we.

home.  We love the wide open spaces of Canada,  the blue skies,  fresh air.   The familiar, changing seasons.   They wonder how we can tolerate the cold.  How we put up with the distances.

More than anything the food was a fascinating experience.  The markets were brimming with unrecognizable creatures and plants.  Eels and octopus,  fish of wildly different colors and appearances.  Our first night was a stop over near Seoul.   We stayed at a hotel by the airport.  It was along water.  We stopped at a beach restaurant.   Not a word of English.  We wanted a little meal.  He pointed to the menu on the wall.  We pointed to shrimp as it was the only food we recognized.   What we received was a large heaping meal of assorted sea foods, including the first late that was wiggling and squirming.   It was fresh raw octopus  – we think!   We didn’t want to be rude  – but it was a long flight.  We passed.  IMG_20160520_1517375.jpg

The Koreans avoid the sun.  Pale is hip.  Tans are definitely not. Gloves and umbrellas are common.  Airline stewardesses were similar looking to each other, polite and pale (compared to North Americans).  But a joy to speak with.

I quite like the Asian culture.  It’s fun to be in a country so unlike ours.  We absorbed a lot.  We toured,  we hiked.  We ate a bit,  we had very little wine.  Everyone looks for something different when they travel.  This was a new experience we are glad we had the opportunity to take.

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Iceland With My Daughters


IMG_20150705_150205Time slips by and I figured I’d like to do a trip with the daughters.  This after Momma and the daughters went to Portugal.  I suggested to the girls northern Canada,  then came up with the idea of Iceland.  There are direct flights from Edmonton now.  Once mentioned everyone was pretty excited.  We went early July, 2015.  It was very special for several reasons.  First,  time with the two daughters.  Very nice.  With Karly in Calgary and Catherine Montreal and soon to be Holland it was an opportunity.  Iceland and it’s near 24 hour day time meant a very unique experience.  Iceland was fantastic.  I would highly recommend it.  We did Air BnB (Good work, Karly!) so stayed in homes similar to B and B.  The capital was very walkable.  We enjoyed learning the history of this unique land.  The weather was around 20 degrees.  The coffee shops we loved.   It was very expensive, but we cooked a lot of meals  at home (great job, Catherine).  Highlights or memorable moments include the beautiful pools.  They take their aquatic experiences seriously.  Multiple pools that vary in temperature.  Coffee shops.  Wonderful food.  We loved Reykyavik, the capital.  The geysers,  the landscape,  the midnight sun.   For me my highlight was a hike up a mountain.  Not much English for signage so we didn’t know it was an hour hike one way,  up hill!    I was paranoid after my heart attack 8 months earlier.  We almost turned around.   Then an old couple strolled by and we thought “heck with IMG_20150711_183957it” and carried on.  The destination:  a mountain stream that was the temperature of bath water.   Was it worth it.  They had a little board walk and privacy walls where we put on a bathing suit.  Semi private.  We laid in that rolling river for almost an hour.   Wow.

Time with the daughters was the goal.   We laughed, we blabbed, we caught up.  We coffee’d a lot.  We strolled.   We experienced something very unique, together.

I would highly recommend Iceland.   The people are terrific.  The landscape fascinating.   Rich in history.  Easy to get around.  Credit cards used everywhere.  Just remember to save up a bit more cash.  It’s pricey.  But I guess the best things is life usually are.

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