UKRAINE: Varenyky and pyrizhky

I stopped by Ottawa Pierogies, a little gem of a Ukrainian deli, for some lunch to go. While I was there, I got a bit of a language lesson – while pierogies is the term used in Canada, that’s actually the Polish name. The Ukrainian name is varenyky. Likewise, when I ordered some pyrizhkhy to go, they were sold under the name perojki – possibly a Polish name as well (Canada has almost as big a Polish population as Ukrainian). So while this restaurant is Ukrainian, like many other places in Canada, it uses the Polish names for Ukrainian foods.

I picked up their “Baba’s Visit” platter – pierogies and cabbage roll of my choice, with sour cream and a vinegret salad (beet, potato, and sauerkraut). I went for the potato and cheddar pierogies, boiled and then lightly pan-fried, with a pork and meat cabbage roll. They were really really good, tender and hot pierogies, and the vinegret satisfied my beet cravings. (I made a related salad, rosolli, when I covered Finland).

I also took home two pyrizhky – hand rolls stuffed with fillings, eaten hot. I got a nice but not exciting pork and rice one, and a really good tangy potato and mushroom one. They also had frozen pierogies in less common fillings, plus other treats, so I took some home for later – but that’s for another day, I’m carb’d out!

This month: UKRAINE

This month is the first month I’m choosing the country deliberately, instead of at random. This month, I’ll be learning more about Ukraine. With the Russian invasion in February and the war still ongoing, Ukraine is already very much in the news. I’m hoping to get beyond the headlines and learn more about the country’s culture and history this month.

So, what do I already know about Ukraine?

Of course, with Russian invasion, we’ve all had a major crash course in Ukraine’s relationships with Russia, Europe, and NATO. We’ve seen the awful bombing, fighting, and war crimes in cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, the rise of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a war leader, the bravery and resistance of Ukrainians, and the larger geopolitical ramifications of Russia becoming an international pariah. Here’s a really good primer from early March:

Here in Canada, we are a deeply pro-Ukrainian country, and have been for decades across the political spectrum. Canada actually has the largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of Ukraine itself and Russia (at least before the displacement of millions of Ukrainian refugees into Europe this year).

The Ukrainian connection is most deeply felt in the Canadian prairies, with Ukrainian-Canadians making up 10% of Alberta, 13% of Saskatchewan, and 15% of Manitoba’s population. I grew up in Alberta, and Ukrainian culture is so ingrained there that pierogies are a basic staple food, as common in grocery stores as pasta or sandwiches, and my family in Saskatchewan learned Ukrainian because it helps with work and with community events.

We also have a giant pierogi! – Source

Canada is also one of the few countries that recognize the Holodomor as an official genocide, and our Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is Ukrainian. She was banned from both the Soviet Union and Russia for her pro-democracy work in Ukraine in the 80s and 90s and her investigations as a journalist into Russian oligarchs after the fall of the USSR. When Russia invaded Ukraine, sentiment ran high here – Canada has supplied weapons, funds, helped gather allies, and …changed the street sign in front of the Russian embassy.

That’ll show Putin!

However, while I’m not going to put the current war or Canada’s connection with Ukraine totally aside this month, I really want to focus on Ukraine as a country itself – I’m planning to lean more into art and culture from Ukraine, including popular culture, film, music, and literature. Pierogies, borscht, and cabbage rolls are already familiar staples, but I also really want to dig deeper into Ukrainian cuisine. And I know Easter has already passed, but I want to take a crack at making pysanky – I’ve always wanted to try.

My current knowledge of Ukrainian history is mainly about the tragedies of the 20th century – dekulakization and Stalin’s Holodomor, the Eastern Front and the Holocaust, and Chernobyl. This month I really want to learn more about the larger story of Ukraine as a nation and the rise of the concept of “Ukrainian” – something that is clearly still contested today.

Addendum: A note on spelling. I’m following the linguistic shift that has happened recently in the West. We now use the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation for names, rather than the Russian. This is shift started around 2019 with a campaign by the Ukrainian government, but really solidified with the Russian invasion this year. While it is definitely political, it also reflects a larger shift of respecting what countries wish to be called – Czechia instead of Czech Republic, Eswatini instead of Swaziland, and Côte d’Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast.

So Kiev is now Kyiv, Lvov is now Lviv, and Zelenskyy is spelled with two Ys (though one Y is also common, but not the Russian ending of “-ski”). There’s a few names that I’m keeping the old Russian spelling, specifically Chernobyl (instead of Chornobyl), since it’s so well known by that name.

GABON: Podcasts

Kongou Falls, one of the fastest flowing waterfalls in the world – Source

A good mix of podcasts from and about Gabon, both in English and French.

WNYC Studios Radiolab: Breaking Bongo (En) – Probably one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a while, because it really got me thinking about a serious ethical grey area in politics and media. New York-based journalists interview democracy activists and political opponents of the Bongo regime in the Gabonese diaspora. The podcast gives a great background to the contested 2016 election, where Bongo almost lost to opponent Jean Ping were it not for one province’s rigged vote, the violence and crackdown following the election, Bongo’s health crisis in 2019 and the New Year’s greeting video, the attempted coup, and how the activists try to oppose the government from afar. However, where it gets very very interesting, is that the activists are increasingly turning to dubious methods – starting unfounded rumours of Bongo’s death, doctoring reports, creating “Fake News” – in order to create further confusion and undermine Bongo’s rule. The journalists ask some of the really hard questions here – this was a movement that started out providing truthful reporting and pushing for openness and democracy; is it not threatening its own reliability and legitimacy by resorting to these methods? But at the same time, when the regime is willing to use the same tools, as well as violence, wrongful detention, and censorship to crush you, do you not do everything in your power to fight them?

Institut Français Gabon: Le podcast du Mardi (Fr) – Short podcasts by the local Institut Français (a French organization that supports French culture and language study around the world) interviewing Gabonese personalities and thinkers. I listened to Toutes les opinions sont-elles tolérables? (Are all opinions tolerable?) about Spinoza, and the limits of opinions, facts, and the truth. I also listened to an interview with Chérine from Chey Libreville, a Gabonese influencer (I shared her post about traditional weddings here). Chey speaks about social media, sharing Gabon with the wider world, developing online shopping in Gabon, and the challenges she’s faced with being a full-time blogger, especially since she is a one-woman operation.

Africa in my Kitchen: Gabon – Odika (En) – I probably should have listened to this podcast before my disastrous attempt at odika chicken. The podcast covers Gabonese cuisine, and gets into cooking with odika. The hosts, Ijeoma and Yemi (who are both of Nigerian origin) are split on cooking with odika/ogbono – it’s apparently a very “acquired taste” and texture, even when fresh.

Le Grand RDV: Gabon: Et de trois pour Ali Bongo? Que peut l’opposition? (Fr) – A recent episode from Africa Radio’s podcast series on current events on the continent. Gabonese civil society leaders from various sides of the political spectrum debate if Ali Bongo could or should run for a third time in the upcoming 2023 presidential election. There’s a mix of supporters and critics, and they touch on his capacity after his stroke, why his ministers are trial ballooning him running right now, who would run instead if he could not, and the (weak) state of Gabonese democracy.

Ckilsenpensent : les réactions à la future adhésion du Gabon au Commonwealth (Fr) – Gabon announced that it plans to join the Commonwealth this year. It wouldn’t be the first country with no connections to the British Empire to join – I looked at why Mozambique joined, and Rwanda and Cameroon have also come on board (former Portuguese, Belgian, and French colonies, respectively). However, there’s been debate on if this is just a way to gain distance from France, and if this is just switching one former-colonial relationship for another. This podcast from Info241 is vox-pops from the Gabonese public, with many people framing this as a language question – does this signal a larger turn to the Anglosphere and will it involve dropping French in favour of English to take advantage of business opportunities?

NEW ZEALAND: The kia ora incident / Is “Pakeha” racist?

In 1984, Naida Glavish, a telephone operator at a post office in Auckland, was ordered to stop answering the phone with “kia ora”, a Maori greeting, after a complaint. The story hit the press, and eventually the post office backed down once the Prime Minister took her side. The incident spurred a national discussion on the use of te reo Maori, and became part of a larger movement to revitalize the language. Here’s a brief history:

Te reo seems to be really widespread nowadays – it’s really a success story for the revitalization of Indigenous languages. There’s a lot of media out there in te reo, it’s an official language of New Zealand (though there isn’t official bilingualism), and it’s taught in schools – though not compulsory. Maori names and words pop up in English (like Aotearoa) and kia ora seems to have become a default greeting for anyone.

However, not everyone is happy about the increasing presence of te reo – not only have people filed official complaints about the use of the language on air, the number of complaints has increased to the point where the Broadcasting Standards Authority had to issue a blanket statement last year that it would not investigate complaints of this type.

There also have been complaints about the use of the term Pakeha to describe non-Maori New Zealanders, especially those of European descent – there are misconceptions about what the term means, including myths that it means “pig skin” or that it’s intended to be a slur.


Aoraki / Mt Cook – Source

There’s a huge number of New Zealand podcasts to choose from – I’m overwhelmed just by the offerings from RNZ, Aotearoa’s public broadcaster. Much like the CBC here in Canada, they’ve really dedicated themselves to supporting podcasts, and there’s everything from standard radio shows and news to mini-series to really experimental stuff. The following are all RNZ podcasts, I’ll see if I can get to other podcasts as well this month!

The Aotearoa History Show – A 14-part podcast (with a video version on Youtube) covering the entire history of New Zealand – Maori settlement of the islands, the arrival of Europeans, the Musket Wars, the Treaty of Waitangi (and how it was subsequently ignored), the New Zealand Wars, the arrival of refrigeration and how it saved the New Zealand economy, how land and sovereignty was taken from the Maori, the World Wars, the post-war period, and a drunken Prime Minister calling a snap election. Just a generally excellent overview of the whole sweep in 20 minute bites; I really recommend listening to the whole thing.

Great Ideas – A series of podcasts that brings in experts from universities across New Zealand to talk about “big ideas”. I listened to “Every Language is a World” about linguistics, translation, and linguistic determinism – what does it mean when you have a specific word in your language for a concept?

This Way Up: seismic stories – The final episode of a long-running RNZ show, this podcast stitches together archival audio from three different post-earthquake bike trips by the presenter. The first was through Christchurch shortly after the 2011 earthquake, the second from a year later, and the third through a town called Kaikoura after a 2016 earthquake. The presenter also lives in the region and has been affected by the quakes, and gives the people he meets a chance to speak as they try to put their lives and livelihoods back together.

Fight for the Wild – A four-part series looking at the Predator Free 2050 plan and the losses to biodiversity New Zealand has faced since the introduction of rats, possums, and stoats to the islands. The first episode looks at the unique biology of New Zealand wildlife, which evolved without land predators or mammals (apart from some bats), and how it was devastated by the arrival of humans and their animals. The following episodes look at attempts at pest control, Maori perspectives, and the economic effects of the plan. It would be interesting to compare with my home province of Alberta: the only place in the world to successfully eradicate rats completely.

Widows of Shuhada – A short series following four women, all of whom were widowed in the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. They talk about the grieving process, their lives before and after, how the Muslim community in Christchurch responded to the murders, and how they continue with their lives and their faith. The host of the podcast is also a Muslim woman from Christchurch – she herself had grown up attending the mosque, and knew many of the victims. It’s a deeply personal and sensitive series.

NEW ZEALAND: Chatham Islands and Moriori

The Chatham Islands – Source

When we think about New Zealand, we mainly just think about the North and South Islands, but there are others, including inhabited ones. Here’s a long-form slice of life documentary about life on the Chatham Islands – a series of small, extremely remote islands. They’re so remote that, while they are an integral part of Aotearoa, residents refer to the main islands as “New Zealand”. The way they build community and live with the isolation really reminds me of Newfoundland outports or the Arctic, though comparatively more temperate in weather!

(If you like this format and want another slice of life documentary from the opposite side of the world, I recommend Shqipëria – Notes from Albania.)

What really caught my eye was the statue of Tame Horomona Rehe (Tommy Solomon), believed to be the last Moriori person of unmixed ancestry. The Moriori are the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands, who diverged from the Maori on the main islands around 1500. After initial inter-tribal wars, the Moriori came to a commitment to pacifism under Nunuku’s Law. Unfortunately, this peace and relative isolation was shattered in the 1800s, when Maori began arriving following the Musket Wars – brutal inter-iwi wars fuelled by English weapons. The Maori seized much of the Moriori land and the combination of massacres and enslavement is known as the Moriori genocide – only about 100 Moriori survived. Most Maori later returned to New Zealand, and were replaced by white settlers.

Moriori culture has undergone a revival, especially in asserting culture, connections to the land, and debunking the very myth that they had been fully wiped out, which was taught for decades in New Zealand schools. Trips are organized to bring those with Moriori ancestry together to build on their cultural practices and knowledge, as well as protecting the traditionally carved living trees on the island:

While the Moriori language no longer has native speakers, there are efforts to revive and use the language – including this beautiful lullaby, E PōPō Tchimiriki (lyrics and translation in the vid’s description).

In 2020 a treaty settlement was signed between the Moriori and the New Zealand government, which both aimed to redress historical wrongs caused by both Pakeha and Maori, and give formal recognition to the Moriori. Here’s an interesting news clip from New Zealand’s Maori-language public broadcaster (with English subtitles) – it’s notable what is not mentioned:

NEW ZEALAND: Alien Weaponry – Kai Tangata

Alien Weaponry is a heavy metal band who sing in te reo Maori, focusing on Maori history and culture. Kai Tangata follows the bloodbath of the Musket Wars, a series of brutal inter-tribal wars in the early 1800s kicked off by the great Maori chief Hongi Hika bringing muskets back from England. Unfortunately, the Musket Wars were so bloody that, alongside encroaching Europeans and their diseases, they destabilized Maori control of Aotearoa. This eventually resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, with the British asserting claims of sovereignty over New Zealand (followed by the New Zealand Wars and land confiscations).

The members of Alien Weaponry are a pair of young brothers and their friend, who all started playing metal at a young age. They’re all of Maori background, and have been singing in te reo to connect to their culture, assert their whakapapa, promote the language, and express deeper ideas and emotions that English can’t articulate. There’s a great little doc below from 2018 following the teens as they prepare to go on tour. Since then, the band has toured Europe and are speaking out about the racism that Maori still face in New Zealand.

NEW ZEALAND: Changing its flag and name / Silver fern and Aotearoa

In 2015/2016, New Zealand held two referendums on changing its flag, seen by some as too colonial and not sufficiently distinct from Australia’s. The first referendum was to pick an alternate design, settling on keeping the Southern Cross and swapping the Union Jack for a silver fern. The second referendum was then a vote between the old and the proposed flag – the below video is from after the first vote, and gives a good explanation of the reasons and process:

The second referendum failed, with 57% of New Zealanders voted to keep their current flag. The referendum was criticized over both the process and that changing the flag became politicized between the government and opposition, with critics calling it Prime Minister Key’s “vanity project“.

While the flag is staying at the status quo for now, the name of the country is currently up for discussion. In 2021, the Maori Party introduced a petition with 60,000 signatures calling to change the name of New Zealand to Aotearoa, the Maori name for the country. Here’s an interesting interview with Australian media with the co-leader of the Maori Party, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, on the petition and name, Maori health and social outcomes, the effects of the pandemic on Maori communities, and asserting Maori cultural integrity.

Aotearoa is increasingly being used interchangeably with the name New Zealand, however, there does not seem to be a push to fully change the name. PM Ardern has taken a bit of a cautious middle ground, not supporting a full legal change, but accepting and herself using Aotearoa at times.

Like the flag debate, there seems to be a risk of this becoming politicized. Last year, the right-wing National Party supported an immediate referendum on the name change – likely as they knew it would lose, since polls show most Kiwis currently prefer the status quo or using the names interchangeably, instead of eliminating the old name. A decisive referendum result could then be used by parties like the National Party to push back against the general use of the Maori name or changing other names inside the country to their original Maori names. A National MP even went as far last year as saying that Aotearoa should be banned from all official documents.

Maori leaders on the South Island have also expressed some concern that Aotearoa as a name historically only refers to the North Island. So while a formal name change isn’t on the table just yet, the use of Aotearoa seems to be growing – several businesses have either switched or use it in te reo (the Maori language), most notably Vodafone changing its network name in 2020 from “Vodafone NZ” to “VF Aotearoa” on customers’ phones. (Though I’m not sure if it’s permanent – they seem to have switched to “Vodafone – Stay Safe” as the pandemic worsened in early 2021.)

SAN MARINO: Sammarinese / Romagnol

The official language of San Marino is standard Italian, but there’s also a distinct dialect called Sammarinese. I’ve seen it referred to as it’s own language, a variation of Romagnol, and as a seperate dialect – this seems to be both because of San Marino’s sovereignty and the difficulty in drawing a line between dialects and different languages (especially in Italy). That being said, Sammarinese is considered an endangered language, as it’s increasingly not being passed on to younger generations.

Italian dialects can be very distinct from standard Italian to the point that some are really considered their own languages – there’s not a lot of mutual intelligibility between say, Lombard and Sicilian. Here’s a good look at Italian dialects as a whole:

As for Sammarinese, most sources I found describe it as a type of Romagnol, though one of the best studies on Sammarinese describes it as a “borderline Romagnol variety”, adding:

However, the findings also reveal a language that stands apart from neighboring varieties due to complex historical and geographical factors, including a Celtic substratum from the pre-Roman and Roman times, a Byzantine Greek heritage and Lombard/ Germanic influence from the second half of the first millennium, and a geographic position that resulted in linguistic isolation from the vernaculars spoken in the Central Romagnol plain.

Simona Montanari, “Sammarinese, the Endangered Language of the Republic of San Marino: A Preliminary Study of Documentation and Description

There’s not a lot of comparative examples of Sammarinese that I could find, but the Flag and Anthem Guy on Youtube is from San Marino and gives a little sample of the language:

UZBEKISTAN: How do you write Uzbek?

Quick, which one of the languages on this sign is Uzbek?

All of them are in Uzbek – at least according to Wikipedia (so correct me if I’m wrong). Uzbek has been through multiple changes of writing systems of the past century. Up until the 1920s, Uzbek (a Turkic language) was written in an Arabic-derived script (an example is here). That all changed when the Soviets moved in – they altered the classical script around 1920 into Yaña imlâ – a way to represent the sounds of Turkic languages better in Arabic script. Okay, that’s good, right? I guess we’re done.

Well, no. Not even a decade had passed, and in 1928 the old Arabic scripts were replaced with a Latin-based script called Yañalif. This was inspired by the latinization of Turkish in Turkey, and for about a decade, the Soviets were creating Latin scripts for non-Slavic languages … and even looking at latinizing Russian.

Well, that’s it, then? Nope! Only 12 years later, in 1940, the official decree was that Uzbek and other languages were now to be written in Cyrillic. That lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union, and in 1992, Uzbekistan decided it would transition back to a Latin alphabet – however it is a gradual process, and formal documents are often still written in Cyrillic, and with newspapers often mixing one script for headlines and text in the other. The government has set 2023 to be the final date of the full changeover to Latin, with added tweaks to the current writing system.

Again, all Uzbek – Source

Uzbek is not the only language spoken in Uzbekistan either – Russian remains important as a lingua franca and, while an official language, is often used in government or technical documents. Karakalpak, also a Turkic language but closer to Kazakh is spoken in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is the western end of Uzbekistan (I definitely want to learn more about that region!) Other Central Asian languages are also spoken around Uzbekistan.

Tajik is widely spoken in Samarkand and Bukhara. It’s a Persian language – see my post about Bukharian, a dialect of Tajik, spoken by Uzbekistan’s Jewish community and understandable to Afghans and Iranians. There’s no intelligibility, or even same sounds, between Uzbek and Tajik:

Interestingly, Uzbek is most closely related to the Uyghur language in China, and they are both understandable to speakers of Turkish: