The Gift of a Fairy Godmother

I never publish my stories when they are fresh, I like to cork them and wait for them to mature, but this one is a young wine. I felt that Sonya’s voice needed to be heard. I hope it will have a happy ending. I need to put a trigger warning on this story as some readers may find the theme of losing home and being separated from loved ones upsetting.  

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‘Babushka, make me some holubtsi!’ the seven-year-old Sonya was playfully instructing Bobby, who was sitting in front of her. He was focused on the dog biscuits hidden in the pocket of her dungarees.

‘What’s a holubtsi?’ I asked.

We were standing on the hill behind the house under the protective arms of an oak tree. In the distance, I could see the snowy caps of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The olive hills around us were now lush green, crisp, and fresh. New leaves were sprouting with the irresistible energy of Spring in full swing. 

‘It’s very tasty,’ Sonya assumed a teacher’s pose and began her lecture.

She was a good little actor and didn’t need to be asked twice to perform an entertaining dialogue or pretend character. If I mentioned a wolf in a conversation, she’d kneel down, stick her arms before her, stretch out her neck and commence howling like a baby wolverine calling her mum for help.

Whenever I asked her to recount a recipe, a topic which was one of her favourites, she’d use her index finger to point at things in the air and pause dramatically as she pretended to be thinking about what other fantastic ingredients were necessary to make the dish. It was always quite the performance.

‘My grannie makes this. You need this thing. It’s green, you know…umm… kapusta,’ she looked at me inquiring.

‘Ah, cabbage,’ I guessed. Between my primary school Russian, which I had been forced to learn in the 1980s, and my Polish, I was able to understand quite a lot of Ukrainian. 

‘OK, a cabbage,’ she hesitated while pronouncing the new word having no other option but to concede to my translation.

‘So, you take this green thing,’ it was still an unfamiliar word, so she kept on calling cabbage ‘a green thing’. ‘And some meat, and you cook it. It’s so delicious. I want to eat some holubtsi now. Babushka! Where is my holubtsi?’ She turned to Bobby demanding her favourite dish.

An entertaining vagueness was a typical feature of Sonya’s recipes, but I would love to read a whole book of them and watch TikTok foodies try to make sense of her culinary creations.

‘Sonya, how do we make a chocolate cake?’

‘You need some flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and chocolate….and some milk, a lot of milk and a lot of chocolate.’  

‘Sonya, how do we make blueberry muffins?’

‘You need some flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and blueberries.’  

‘How do we make pancakes?’

The cake recipes all had the same key ingredients, and there was never any mention of quantities or cooking times. She was a great little sous chef.

‘I think we can make holubtsi tastier?’

She looked at me curiously.

‘Babushka, put Sonya’s socks into the holubtsi,’ I instructed Bobby, who was still eagerly waiting for his dog biscuit.

‘OK. Soooo tasty,’ she agreed. ‘And Robert’s trousers.’

‘And some rabbits and sausages.’

‘And frog eggs,’ I imagined holubtsi to be some kind of a cabbage stew with different meats and bits and pieces inside, not unlike Polish bigos. Only later, when I actually investigated this dish that Sonya kept on talking about, I realised that it was cabbage leaves stuffed with meat, a dish my generation grew up on and which in Polish is called goląbki

But my misinterpretation of holubtsi did not stop Sonya from adding more ridiculous ingredients to our imaginary cauldron. She looked around the ground and added more new items to our holubtsi: sticks, stones, some blue flowers, and a handful of dried olives.

‘Mummy, I want to eat some holubtsi,’ she knelt next to Blacky, our black lab, who was busy grazing on the fermenting olives that had fallen to the ground. She pretended to speak in his voice. ‘It’s so tasty with daddy’s socks.’

While ‘Babushka Bobby’ had a good rhyme and rhythm to it, ‘Dedushka Blacky’ did roll off the tongue. Partly because it sounded too Russian. We settled on Spaghetti Blacky; he was always getting his lead tangled between his long legs and with Bobby’s lead.

‘Does Matviy like holubtsi?’ I asked about Sonya’s companion, a seven-year-old boy who had been living with us since the autumn. 

‘I don’t know, but he loves hrechka.’

This time, I knew what she was talking about. It was in the first week after their arrival in November that Alina, Matviy’s mother, asked me if there was a place in Alcalá to buy hrechka.

‘Maybe Lidl,’ I suggested.

It was a wild guess, but I had often seen many unusual products in that supermarket, so why not Ukrainian buckwheat. 

As it turned out, even Lidl did not sell hrechka, which, in all honesty, made me breathe a sigh of relief. The smell of boiling kasha, as we call it in Polish, is not one of my top ten most-missed memories from childhood. The fondness that most Eastern Europeans have for kasha has eluded me for most of my life. By now, most of my Polish friends had travelled outside the country, and they must have tried basmati rice, Jasmine rice, or even cuscus. All these are better than kasha.

But the allure of buckwheat is irresistible to many. A classy friend of mine, who worked for top restaurants in London, would insist on boiling kasha in her Lewisham apartment for no other reason than to recall nostalgic childhood memories. She’d pair the kasha with a Bengalese takeaway and a Portuguese wine. But the miasma of boiling buckwheat would hang in the air throughout the dinner.

‘Every day Matviy says to his mom. Mommy, mommy, let’s cook some hrechka,’ Sonya was telling me while re-enacting the scene by changing facial expressions and characters. ‘But Matviy, there is no hrechka in Spain. But Mommy! Mommy! I want some hrechka.’ Then Sonya would pretend-cry like a character from an anime cartoon with an exaggerated mouth and eye expressions.

While the pretend crying was performed frequently by Sonya on her walks, either as the character of Bobby Babushka crying for his sausages or Blacky Spaghetti crying for daddy’s socks, real tears were shed behind closed doors. Every night she cried herself to sleep, dreaming of her own bed, her own Jack Russell sleeping next to her, and her precious daddy getting ready for work in the morning. In life, we miss simple things. Sonya missed making a Nutella breakfast for her parents on Saturday morning and walking to school with her grandma.

‘What’s your best day?’ Sonya asked.

‘My best day is going to the beach and reading a book all day,’ I replied with a cliché. I didn’t mention drinking cava out of a plastic cup on the beach.   

‘Hmmm…’ she was processing it. I could see she was not impressed with my idea of my best day.

‘What’s your best day?’ I could see she had thought about this answer for a long time and wanted to tell me.

‘OK. I tell you. First, I fly to Ukraine in five minutes.’ She lifted her hands in the air and pretended to be an aeroplane in the sky. She knew where the direction where Ukraine was because we had discussed this magical journey many times: first to Malaga, along the Mediterranean coast, a pitstop in Italy for a pizza and then north to Poland, past the storks’ nests until she reached home. 

 ‘I go home and give my daddy one thousand kisses. Then I give Milla one thousand kisses. Then we walk from school together.’ Time and space were easily subverted in this fantasy of a child who had only been to school for a few months in her whole life and dreamed about a routine.

‘Then we go ice skating, mummy, daddy, and me. And Milla can watch and eat sausages.’

I didn’t raise the fact that it was already springtime and the ice on the outdoor rink in Kyiv had melted. It was clearly a dream that she had played out in her mind many times before.

‘Then we go to my grandpa in the countryside, and we eat strawberries from his garden. It’s so tasty. My grandma makes delicious borsch, and we eat it together. My grandad tells us jokes. Then mommy, daddy, Milla, and I go home to watch a film together. And we eat sushi and popcorn. And it’s very funny.’

  It made me so sad to hear her words as we walked towards the house. The country lane was framed by blossoming almonds tended to by wild bees and other busy insects. The white and pink petals contrasted against a pristine blue sky. The air smelled of honey.

‘I hope this comes true,’ I told her. I wished I were a fairy godmother who could bestow good fortune with the whisk of my magic wound. As Sonya ran off in front of me on the blossom confetti that covered the track, I mentally cast my magic spell on her flaxen plaits. I hoped it would work.

Reflecting on her trauma after being freed from a Nazi concentration camp, Edith Eger observed that we grieve not what happened but what didn’t happen. I was sure that, one day, Sonya would forget the never-ending wail of the city’s air raid sirens. The frightening details of her family’s long march out of Kyiv in February 2022 will fade with time. She will forget the uncomfortable and interminable bus journey to Spain and the many times she saw her mummy break down in tears of frustration and loss. And even if she does not forget those moments of fear and angst, they will make her stronger. But I know that if one day she returns home to Kyiv and her daddy isn’t there to shower her with a thousand kisses, if her dog isn’t there to sleep next to her at night, if her precious grandaddy can no longer pick fresh strawberries from his garden and her dear granny cannot make her favourite dishes — that would be the end of her world. 

Ukrainian people need us more than ever. In Ukraine alone, millions of families have lost their homes and live in temporary accommodations in cities where they are complete strangers, with no community ties and hence no means of making a living. In Europe, millions of moms and their children wander from country to country in search of safe haven. If you want to help, why not visit your local Ukrainian centre and ask them what they need. Donating money is great, but donating your time by spending it with these families is precious.

Below are two links which you can use to help Ukrainian people win this war.

United 24

Red Cross for Ukraine


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