One does not have to live in Ukraine for many years to gain a sufficient understanding specific things that make up the nation’s unique culture. One does not need to read multiple volumes of history books or to spend years traveling around it to understand the country better (though doing so would of course help!)
The key to learning as much as possible about the culture in a condensed time frame is to pursue the right sources of information. Information is now infinite as we all know, and managing and curating it is much more important than finding it. As the internet and the rise of personal smart phones have essentially made the traditional guidebook obsolete, in Ukraine as elsewhere the guidebook needs to transform itself into something else in order to retain its relevancy.
The Awesome Ukraine book series is a step away from the traditional Lonely Planet style guidebook. Though like the traditional guidebooks that we grew up dragging with us to hostels, it has both country and specific city models. The fourth volume, “Awesome Odessa” joins specialized volumes dedicated to Lviv and Kyiv. One can learn a great deal about Ukraine with the help of only the main book, which is dedicated to Ukraine in general. Just as the sleek and shiny volumes dedicated to Kyiv and Lviv, the Odessa volume will teach you about the distinguished features of the city’s history, the local cultural context and unique local phenomenon in cuisine, art and social life. The books open up nuance and and diverse views on both the essential historical events and little known local traditions.
Every book is divided into 7 categories, which include history, culture, food, places, nature, sports and technologies. With every category you get a short explanation about how it originated and what impact it had on the culture. For example, in the history section you’ll read about the Vyshyvanka, Kozak Mamay, Chumaky, Independence Day, the Euromaidan song contest and so on. In the culture section you will learn about wooden churches, the artist Ivan Fedorovych, Petrykivka Painting and the incredible talent of the Renaissance painter Ioann Pinzel.
After perusing the guides you will better understand the importance of horilka and salo in Ukrainian culture and also comprehend why varenyky can bring good fortune and help in fortune-telling. You will know what makes places like Baturyn, Potemkin Stairs, Bakhchysaray and Donbas so special. You will find out where the Kalyna, Carpathian Mountains and Przewalski’s Horse are located and will be able to impress your Ukrainian friends with your knowledge of the history of the transformation of the hopak dance into a martial art. The entries are brisk and there is no unnecessary information to weigh you down. The design is crisp and the selection of restaurants shows that the authors keep up with the newest trends. Crucially, the magazines are edited and produced by local Ukrainians and not foreingners in the country for a brief visit. The Awesome Ukraine book series simply looks great and will help you understand Ukraine from the perspective of a well informed and worldly local.
Masha Sotskaya is an Assistant Editor at The Odessa Review.