A Ukrainian Family Reunion - and Food!
After exploring Istanbul - and learning a little about the travel/work balance on the road - we headed off to Zaporizhzhia (a.k.a. “Zap”), Ukraine for a long-overdue visit with Jenna’s folks - and a gluttonous amount of delicious, home-cooked Ukrainian food.
The Turkey “Holding Period”
Taking a step back, we initially planned on heading directly to Ukraine from the States. But, well, COVID…
Shortly before pulling the trigger on our initial tickets overseas, Ukraine closed its borders. Fortunately for us, it wasn’t an open-ended lockdown - would just last through the end of September. Rolling with the punches, we decided to catch a flight anyway, but we’d just stop off in Istanbul for a while en route to Ukraine.
Win-win: spend time exploring an awesome Turkish city and take one step closer to Ukraine. In retrospect, having a couple weeks in a non-US spot also “greased the skids” for our eventual entry to Ukraine.
A Travel Insurance “Mic Drop”
As with most of the world, Ukraine’s COVID-related actions often seemed contradictory. A politician would announce something, and a government website would say something else. Or, border agents would enforce an old policy, while a new policy supposedly had been implemented.
Bottom line, while we believed we’d be fine entering Ukraine at the conclusion of its lockdown period, we didn’t know for sure whether we’d be allowed through customs upon arrival in Zap - even with Jenna’s dad making a trip out to the airport to ask a bunch of people about the current rules (more conflicting answers).
We decided to roll the dice, buying a Pegasus Airlines flight - great discount Turkish carrier - directly into Zap. Worst case scenario, if customs turned us back upon entry, we’d only be out a 90-minute, direct flight - far better than going for it on a flight all the way from the States. Especially since American COVID counts qualified it as a “red zone” country for Ukraine’s purposes - further complicating entry for US passport holders.
One solid piece of information we did have involved insurance. Specifically, we knew for certain that in order to enter the country as non-Ukrainians, we’d need Ukrainian travel insurance that explicitly covered COVID treatment. Crushing some stress/maximizing-research, Jenna figured out exactly what sort of policy we needed - helps having a native speaker to navigate Ukrainian state websites.
Turkish gate agent upon seeing our US passports: “I’m sorry, but you aren’t authorized to fly to Ukraine.”
Jenna without skipping a beat: “Yes, we absolutely are. We just need COVID insurance policies, which we have.”
Gate agent, slightly less confident: “Okay… Can I see your policies.”
Jenna: “Here you go. These are our names, and this is where the policy explicitly states that it covers COVID-related treatment.”
Gate agent: “Go ahead.”
BOOM! Step one - accomplished. Now we just needed the Ukrainians to let us through, too.
Breezing through Ukrainian Border Control
After an easy flight from Sabiha Gokcen - Istanbul’s secondary airport - into Zap, we disembarked out on the tarmac and walked into the airport’s entry-control area, keeping our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t be hopping on a return flight to Turkey shortly.
With three lines - two for Ukrainians and one for foreigners - we got into the end of the last line and waited our turn.
Next up to talk with the border agent, Jenna moved forward with Chipp following, that is, until a guard stopped him. Mustering his I’m-linguistically-about-three-years-old Russian skills, Chipp pointed to Jenna and said “we’re together” (while thinking, “yep, this is how I end up in a Ukrainian holding cell somewhere”).
Fortunately, this far-from-Tolstoy use of his language skills passed muster, and the guard indicated for Chipp to continue.
Standing together, with our passports handed over to the customs agent, we watched a mildly confused look come over her face. For context, Zap’s like the Buffalo of Ukraine - awesome city if you know it, but definitely not a tourist destination for foreigners. As such, there aren’t many US passports going through there.
After flipping through the visas in our passport, the agent settled on the entry/exit dates from our time in Turkey (a country not currently on Ukraine’s COVID red list), deemed them acceptable, stamped our passports, and waved us on.
Still not quite sure whether we were actually allowed in or pushed along due to some policy confusion, but, step two accomplished - we were in Ukraine!
A Wonderful (and Slightly Tear-filled) Family Reunion
Need to provide some background for this one, too. Jenna moved to the States from Ukraine after college, and California to Zap isn’t exactly a pop-over-for-the-weekend trip, making family reunions a challenging endeavor.
And, to compound the problem, after meeting Chipp in 2013, an unfortunate combination of personal, military, and geopolitical (Russia annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine) events led to a five-year gap between visits - far too long a period to go without seeing your parents.
Fortunately, with Chipp leaving the military in 2018 - and no longer restricted by Department of Defense travel policies - we were able to spend a solid month with Jenna’s folks in the fall of that year. Jenna made it home a couple times in 2019, too - but, bottom line, we had some serious catching up to do.
With that as context, tears were naturally shed (mostly Jenna and her mom, but there were some other “damp” eyes in the group) when we walked out the airport doors to Jenna’s waiting folks. Big hugs all around, and the - what we without children can only imagine - relief/joy/excitement of having your only child home after years living on the other side of the world.
Home-cooked Ukrainian Deliciousness… and Some Celebratory Shots
Back home, following some more hugs and tears, we turned to what would remain a focal point of our time in Zap - delicious, home-cooked Ukrainian food.
Anticipating our visit, Jenna’s mom saved up - and took - a month of vacation from her work as the chief nurse of the local hospital’s surgery department (much needed following a few weeks of 24-hour shifts in the COVID ward leading up to our trip). So, we tried telling her that she needed to relax, but she insisted that cooking at home for us was relaxing. No complaints here.
Anyway, it seemed like she’d been cooking for about a month when we saw the massive, near-vertically-piled spread of traditional Ukrainian food waiting for us on the kitchen table.
For the next couple hours, we ate, chatted (Chipp understanding more than he could speak in Russian, with Jenna playing interpreter to fill in the gaps), and ate some more, relishing just being together.
And oh yeah, what would a visit with your Ukrainian father-in-law be without some shots, too? Another recurring theme of our time in Zap, we absolutely took some celebratory shots for good measure. Pretty convenient excuse when mom/wife question the need for mid-day shots: well, we haven’t seen each other for two years!
Can’t argue that one.