Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

I suspect that Russian intelligence about the restaurant OB, located beneath Independence Square in Kyiv, never made it to Vladimir Putin's desk.

OB serves, exclusively, Ukrainian dishes and spirits, and its walls are covered with revolutionary paraphernalia. To get into the restaurant, one needs a password, a Ukrainian phrase meaning, "You fight, and you will win." (The transliteration: Boree'teesa ee-poboreteh.)

It has morphed from a secret password to a message of resistance that appears to be resonating far and wide throughout Ukraine.

Accompanying me to OB when I dined there in 2016 were Julia Kulyk and Aleksandr Skrypka, the young couple who owns JC Travel, aka Enjoy Ukraine, a receptive tour operator.

They had made arrangements for my visit to Ukraine that year, and we became fast friends. We ziplined across the Dnieper River, watched a professional soccer match and explored Kyiv's parks and cathedrals.

When they came to New York with their young daughter, Polina, the following year, we got together for dinner. A year later, when my family was changing planes in Kyiv, they came to the airport to join us for a meal.

•••

As Russian troops massed at the border in February, we exchanged emails. In case of an invasion, Julia told me then, their plan was to come to the U.S.

But as war broke out, they stayed in Ukraine, initially remaining in Kyiv but soon moving south to stay with friends in Vinnytsya.

When I had visited in 2016, Crimea had already been annexed by Russia, and Ukrainian forces were battling their powerful neighbor in the Donbass region. But the couple's upbeat outlook and cheery professionalism seemed a reflection of the hopeful energy I found everywhere I went in Ukraine.

I wrote at the time, "Despite challenges the country is facing and the looming presence of Russia, these young entrepreneurs see a way to marshal the country's identity and considerable cultural assets and resources to boost both tourism and national self-esteem."

The situation has, of course, changed dramatically. I was able to speak to Julia last Monday via WhatsApp, and she gave me a sober update.

"I'm OK, so far," she had said. There was an airbase a few kilometers from where she was staying in Vinnytsya, she said, close enough to send the family into bomb shelters when it would come under attack. But they were safe.

And they had a plan: She and Polina would cross the border near Moldova and Romania, and they would make their way to the Netherlands. Alex would escort her to the border but remain behind; men under 60 aren't allowed to leave the country.

"Of course, I don't actually want to leave Ukraine, either," she said. "I would stay here and protect my country if I didn't have a child. But I have a daughter, so her safety is the priority for me. And for Alex, as well. Right now, I'm not sure what will happen in an hour or tomorrow."

•••

On Tuesday morning, she sent me a text that they were approaching the border, and Wednesday morning she sent another one confirming that they had crossed over and were driving to the Netherlands.

On her Facebook page that day, she posted that leaving Ukraine "was the most difficult decision in our lives." Driving through Moldova toward Romania, she wrote, "I cried and thought how much I want to go home to Kyiv ... I was driving, crying, thinking that I have to start a new life again, for the third time. But this time is the hardest. It is different. It will be far from home. Where you are nobody. Where you are a refugee.

"Refugee. Even in my worst nightmare, I could not imagine this would happen to me and my family. That I would have to run away from my country to save my child. To give her a different future, at least temporarily. Yes, temporary because I want to go home as soon as possible, when it's safe.

"I felt guilty leaving my husband, my loved ones, my country ... I have to calm down, pull myself together, be strong and move forward."

•••

I was not the only person Julia had met in her professional capacity who had reached out to her since the crisis developed. "I've gotten hundreds of messages to WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram," she told me when we spoke last Monday. "Everybody's concerned. People have written from Canada, the U.S., Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, countries all over the world, offering help. Accommodations. Financial help."

But she responds to all offers with a redirection to a website to donate to the Ukrainian armed forces.

•••

The current crisis arrived after what had been a difficult couple of pandemic years for the couple's business. "In 2020, we had two tourists come, toward the end of the year: one brave American woman and one brave man from Pakistan," Julia had told me when we spoke a week ago.

"Business began to return last year toward the end of May; solo travelers, couples, very small groups, some who had rescheduled their visits after Covid," she continued. "Tourism was really recovering faster than I had expected. By December, we had several reservations for the 2022 season. It was like the breath of life. But in January, concern about what was going on between Russia and Ukraine increased. We started receiving cancellations, or people would say, OK, maybe we'll come in autumn. But, of course, after the invasion started, no one will come."

Julia does not believe the situation will resolve quickly, and even if the fighting were to end soon, there is already much damage to the country's infrastructure. 

"It will take many years to rebuild," she had told me. "If I have the opportunity to return to tourism, yes, I will do that because this is what I love. I love my country. I really enjoy my job. I love meeting people from all over the world. I'm proud to be Ukrainian. I'm proud to show my country, our culture."

•••

Just after the invasion had begun, I received an email that Julia sent to her long list of well-wishers. Toward the end, she wrote:

"Go to rallies and protests, spread information about what is really happening in Ukraine. People of the whole world should know the truth, and only all together can the world defeat this scum Putin. Ukraine is bravely and heroically defending not only itself but the whole of Europe."

From a call to arms to a wry restaurant password, and now again a call to arms: You fight, and you will win.

But for those of us abroad, Julia signed off from her email with not a call to arms, but a call to conscience:

"Don't be indifferent," she wrote. 

Follow Julia's journey on Facebook.  

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