A Short History of Cucumbers in Ukrainian

Which part of a tree is the most important – the roots, trunk, branches, twigs or leaves? The fastest way from the roots to the top of the tree is directly upwards via the trunk, but does that make the trunk the most important part?

Is there a most important note in a musical symphony? If we play the piece faster, we’ll get to the final note quicker, but is the point of the music to get to the end in the most efficient manner possible?

In both cases, there is no single component more important than any other, and enjoyment of the journey is just as important as arriving at the destination.

It is the same with education. Education is not a means to an end. It is something we should commit to for a lifetime, for the pleasure of the journey, even though the destination may be uncertain, changeable or never reached.

My mouth is dry today, which is something I always experience when I’ve eaten a lot of garlic. I made and enjoyed a punchy cucumber pickle yesterday, spiked with raw garlic and chilli, and the effects of the garlic are noticeable. It’s not unpleasant for me, but I cannot vouch for the opinion of others, especially those in the nearby vicinity.

Here’s a brief story about how I came to make that weekend pickle:

I was in a Waterstone’s bookshop in 2003 (I know, Waterstone’s, but at least it was a bookshop). They have a ‘3 for 2’ deal that seems to run permanently. It was for this reason that I picked up Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. I had never heard of him, but the curious title was enough to pique an interest.

I loved the book – typically Soviet in its (black) humour, with nods to Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov plus some absurdity worthy of Kafka thrown in. I gathered up and read Kurkov’s other translated works of fiction, and gained a better idea of the man, his life and also his love for his native Ukraine.

Inspired by Kurkov, I went to Kiev in 2007, and put names to places whilst also gaining an idea of the architecture, history and complex politics of the region. I was initially keen to visit Chernobyl, but found that once in the country it didn’t feel quite right to use it as a tourist destination. I visited Babi Yar and learned about the massacre of over 30,000 people during two days in 1941. I went deep into the caves with only a small candle for company to meet the mummified monks.

I heard Kurkov in conversation at Daunt books in Marylebone in 2010. It was a very intimate gathering, and a thoughtful gift bought for me by my wife. He was just as charming in real-life as in print, with an amazing back-story. It’s said that we write about what we know, and his experiences shape his writing, his humour at least partially developed to deal with the harsh realities of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

I am currently reading The Ukraine Diaries, his first work of pure non-fiction I have read. His latest book, The Bickford Fuse, is his most ambitious to date, and it’s always interesting to see a writer develop in complexity, message and purpose.

The food I ate in Ukraine in 2007 was cheap, hearty and variable – think beetroot soups, boletus mushrooms and lots of dumplings. I find that food is the greatest stirrer of memories, and have recently purchased a cook-book called Mamushka, by Olia Hercules. Having spent more time leafing the pages than cooking the recipes, I was minded after a few heavy meat-filled days to make the spiky cucumber pickle. It would be untrue to say I was transported back to Kiev (I didn’t eat any cucumbers during my stay there, something to do with a fear of radioactive dust), but as the waves of raw garlic washed over me, I felt a little connection with the hero of ‘Death and the Penguin’, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov.

Those people who believe education is a means to an end, knowledge acquisition is something determined only by syllabus and eschew all interesting things around the corona, miss out on the real spice of life, which is available to all who open their eyes wide. And by spice, I don’t mean just the chilli in the cucumbers.

Eliot put it better than anyone, when he wrote the following lines:

 We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.