Our Trip to Uman
By Phil Coleman, President
Uman/Davis Sister City Program
Posted October 2004
In Early October 2004, my wife, Kathy, and I made our first ever trip to Eastern Europe. The occasion was the annual “Day of the City” in our Sister City of Uman, Ukraine. The Day of the City is the anniversary of Uman’s founding and is the most festive community event of the year.
While driving the 200-mile journey from the capital city of Kiev, the similarities between Davis and Uman became obvious. Like Davis, Uman is surrounded by thousands of square miles of rich and flat farmland. The Ukraine soil is so fertile it is black. No wonder Ukraine was dubbed the “Soviet Union’s breadbasket.” In what seemed like hundreds of locations along the road, local farmers had roadside stands selling freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. I was told that even during the Soviet rule and the days of collective farming, these food sales outlets existed and prospered. Perhaps this was a precursor to the free enterprise system that Ukraine now has after 75 years of communism.
Uman is about a third larger than Davis, with over 90,000 population. It is also a college town, with two universities within its boundaries. As we drove through the city for the first time, the large numbers of young adults milling about caught our attention. These were students, of course, and they were walking because students owning cars is extremely rare. And, unlike most US college towns, there is no real geographic distinction between city and university. The two entities blend together almost without notice.
The architecture of Uman is varied and striking. Most of the buildings are old, very old. Reflecting perhaps, the invasion route that Ukraine has been throughout history, buildings took on a variety of appearances. Moorish, Gothic, Islamic, Medieval, and the least attractive, Soviet, were all represented in Uman’s buildings.
Ukrainian hospitality is unsurpassed. We were greeted by a contingent of university and city officials and immediately made to feel very important. We saw many friends from past exchange visits to Davis. The Mayor and the Police Chief and several other city officials greeted us. In a way, it was a “homecoming” for us, in a home that we had never seen before but had learned much about from its occupants who visited us in Davis. We were also introduced to other sister city delegations from Poland, Estonia, and Rumania.
I vastly underestimated the importance of the Day of the City. The city’s main square and street was closed off and numerous private and more commercial vendors set up their wares. A parade was the first featured event, which lasted well over an hour! In addition to floats, horses, and marching bands, there were representatives from the various departments of the two universities, youth sports teams, as well as the manufacturing industries.
The highlight of the parade was the ethnic attire worn by young men and women from Ukraine’s many regions. The brightly colored hand-made dresses, shirts, and cassock style pants were a treat to the eye. As each group of dancers and musicians would approach the mayor’s review stand, they would stop and perform a traditional dance indigenous to the region they represented. One group showed particular imagination and blended the old with the new. After performing their traditional dance, the band immediately transitioned to an American “Rap” song and the dancers followed suit. You have never seen culture clash until you witness traditional clad Ukrainian dancers “rapping.”
After the parade, the scene shifted to nearby a specially erected pavilion. The Mayor and his staff presented achievement and recognition awards to citizens and university officials for good deeds of the previous year. It started to rain, but the crowd remained unfazed. I was impressed with their fortitude until I realized that these were the friends and family who were present for the next event. Eleven brides and grooms, in full wedding dress, were paraded in front of the crowd and introduced. A bride’s white wedding gown is always spectacular. Imagine eleven of them in a row. We were told it was traditional here to have a “civil” ceremony for the bride and groom as part of the Day of the City. The religious ceremony would take place the following day. Each newly married couple received a microwave oven from the City.
The day followed with a Press Conference at City Hall, a recital by a local choir group-- that was simply the best I have ever heard-- and a formal banquet that evening. Perhaps now I should comment on the food in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s most productive output by far is food. Nowhere is this reflected than in the size and variety of the meals they serve to their guests. When Kathy and I sat down for our first Ukrainian meal, we saw a large table literally filled with plates of food. There were appetizers, vegetables, several types of meat and fish, and carbohydrates in every imaginable form. Naturally, we assumed this was the entire meal and we would serve and pass, buffet style.
Wrong. This was only the first course! As we waded through this avalanche of food, waiters kept bringing out more courses. There was no more room on the table to place a dish, so the waiters simply stacked dishes on top of the earlier course. Simply stated, Ukrainian meals consist of two or more main dishes, 8-12 side dishes, two kinds of bread, bottled water, wine, and lots and lots of vodka. After the meal, dessert coffee and tea was served for those who were still a little hungry or had not yet lapsed into unconsciousness.
The following day included a tour of the pedagogical university and several of its departments. We visited several classrooms and talked to the faculty and staff. When we entered a classroom, the students would jump from their seats and remain standing until the teacher told them to be seated. I don’t recall that ever happening in any American classroom that I have visited. Similarities with American schools were few. The facilities and equipment was vastly inferior in Uman, while the dedication and commitment to teaching and learning was vastly superior. We later had lunch with the Director of the University and his wife, who had visited Davis some two years earlier.
Uman’s proudest landmark is the magnificent Sofivka Park, analogous to New York’s Central Park or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This 200-year-old park has a long and interesting history that is essentially a love story with soap opera subplots. We were provided an English translation of a book describing the Park’s history and it is available to anybody reading this and is interested.
We were given an extensive tour of the grounds and were greeted by the Park Director and his wife. We had first met them when they visited Davis two years previous and had dinner at our house. They recounted with fondness details of that evening that Kathy and I had long forgot, so it must have been a memorable time for them. The peace and tranquility of the park was most welcome. By this time, we were a bit frazzled with the pace and intensity of our tour of Uman.
At my request, we were given a tour of the Uman Police Department and met the management team. I formed many impressions of the police from a professional view, but that is a topic for another time. The police in Ukraine are subjected to working conditions that would be unheard of in the US. For example, it is common practice for patrol officers to work a 24-hour shift if staffing levels are low. And there is no such thing as overtime pay. At no time did I see a police officer smile or initiate a casual conversation, probably for good reason.
We left the next morning for the long return drive to Kiev. Despite the early hour, no less than five persons took the trouble to come to our hotel, give us farewell gifts, and see us off. Our very capable translator, Oksana Zabolotna, accompanied us to Kiev to make sure we were safely arrived before our return flight. Oksana made our visit especially enjoyable and deserves a medal.
The visit to Uman reaffirmed our earlier impressions of many Ukrainian traits. Their love of music, their hardiness and resoluteness, their unmatched hospitality and graciousness so characterize the Ukrainian people. We saw a new free enterprise country still struggling to adopt a western style economy. Much progress has been made in past few years alone we were told. We saw construction efforts everywhere in Kiev and there is reason for optimism in Ukraine. Nobody deserves prosperity more than these incredible people.
Phil Coleman, President
Uman/Davis Sister City Program
Davis, CA 95616
e-mail: President 2004