The one-room house — zemlianka — is built into the side of a hill. Other walls are of logs and sod. It is a simple house. A woman is just outside, dressed for the old country and tending to something. She looks up and takes tentative steps toward us.
“My name is Maria,” she says in an accent as thick and pure as sour cream for borscht. “I don’t speak English.”
A visitor asks: “When did you come to Canada?”
Maria answers: “I am here one year.” Then she speaks, more confidently, in Ukrainian ... and then, in just enough English: “You want look in my house? Please ... “
This is the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, about 30 minutes east of Edmonton. It’s wonderful.
It’s here because, of 4 million Albertans, 345,000 are of Ukrainian descent. No city in Canada has a higher concentration of people of Ukrainian descent than Edmonton.
Some, like Maria (real name: Nadia Kuts), work as interpreters in this village every bit as convincing as she is. She, and her dugout house, represent the life experience of Ukrainians who, as peasant farmers, came to Canada before 1900 from western Ukraine. They were lured by promises of free land offered by a nation eager to populate and cultivate prairie newly traversed by transcontinental railroads.
Other buildings among the village’s 40 or so, almost all genuine and moved here from other places in Canada, represent different waves of settlers, some earlier and some later.
We learn many things, including that Maria, were she a student in Mr. Buk’s one-room schoolhouse (also on site) around 1930, would be called “Mary.”
“My children,” says Mr. Buk, without a trace of accent, “once they come into class, they know it has to be English.”
Why? We get answers here. And from Hryhorii, the young farmer. And Mr. Knysh, at the hardware store. It is Colonial Williamsburg with pyrohy.
With what? That answer, too, can be found here. Deliciously.
Alan Solomon is a freelance writer.