A couple of Easters ago, I spent a blustery Ontario afternoon trying to track down the equipment necessary to make Ukrainian Easter eggs. I used to do it yearly while I lived in Vancouver and my sons were little. I had the most fun doing it with my ex-wife Nancy, who is of Swedish and British descent and a very good visual artist. It was complicated work, but the results were beautiful—hers, anyway—and the boys loved the eggs, sort of.
Toronto is filled with Eastern Europeans, so I assumed that finding the equipment—dyes, beeswax, and a special stylus with which the beeswax is heated over a candle and applied to the eggs—would be a simple matter. I dropped into several delicatessens and variety stores in my College street neighbourhood, and drew blank stares or suggestions that I try Shoppers Drug Mart, who were selling those silly dye-the-eggs-a-washed-out-pastel kits that contain a few stickers representing what manufacturers in China think the Easter Bunny looks like. Undeterred, I drove over to Roncesvales Avenue, the heart of Toronto’s Polish district. Same result, except the Polish shopkeepers were even less helpful. One curtly pointed out that Ukrainians decorate Easter eggs, not Poles, and implied that I bloody well ought to know the difference.
It happens that I do know the difference between Poles and Ukrainians, since my wife is half Polish and half Ukrainian, and her Polish mother is always reminding me of what terrible things the Ukrainians did to the Poles in World War II while her Ukrainian father rolls his eyes in the background. When I asked my wife about doing eggs, she had a vague notion of what they were and that some Ukrainians did make eggs, but she thought that it might be easier to buy the authentic wooden ones imported from the Old Country. No one on either side of her family had ever decorated eggs the way I was suggesting, and didn’t people just dye them and apply the stickers?
The next day, I drove a mile further north and west to Bloor West Village, where there are a half-dozen Ukrainian and Hungarian delicatessens. I was treated, rather surprisingly, to “No one does that anymore” and even deeper scowls than I got from the Poles. I gave up, noting wryly that while the Roncesvalles Poles treated me as if I was a Ukrainian, the Bloor West Village Ukrainians seemed to think I was German, and possibly making fun of them.
A week later on Good Friday, I flew out west to my hometown of Prince George, B.C. for an event at the University of Northern British Columbia, which holds my literary archive. Within an hour of arriving, I found myself at a potluck dinner talking to a remuda of local college English instructors who were, as is universally the case these days, under threat of losing their jobs. I’m not sure if this is a hapless aspect of the professional development most institutions of higher education are obsessed with or deliberate bureaucratic terror, but these days, faculty cutbacks are regularly announced in the last month of classes. It more or less ruins the summers of the younger instructors, who spend the months that follow frantically applying for jobs and worrying that they’ll be forced to spend the winter hunting beer bottles along the side of the highway. Almost all seem to get rehired in the fall, usually feeling slightly grateful even though they haven’t gotten a pay increase, so this is likely what it’s all about.
But it ruins a lot of potluck dinners, and it wasn’t doing much for this one, until one of the threatened instructors, a tall Croatian-Canadian woman in her early 30s who had been shepherding her highly entertaining 2 year old son through the maze of weepy drunks instead of getting drunk and bewailing her outcast fate like the others, broke the pall of pedagogic gloom by wondering aloud if anyone wanted to decorate Easter eggs the next morning.
I did, and so did several others. None of them, I noticed the next morning when I showed up, were of Eastern European descent. One woman was of Scottish and Danish heritage, and another was so Canadian he didn’t believe he had any ancestors. I’d assumed, without asking, that we were going to be dipping the eggs in watery dye and planting Shoppers Drug stickers on them, but I was wrong. My host not only had beeswax, several kinds of wax applicators and authentic Ukrainian dye in six deep, rich colours, she’d blown the contents from a dozen eggs before we got there.
We made our Easter eggs, and everyone had a fine time. The eggs I decorated were predictably horrible, but several that others concocted were genuinely beautiful. All were, well, Canadian. As I was leaving, I asked where my host had gotten the equipment. She wrote the name of a shop and its address on a piece of paper for me, and when I arrived back in Toronto, I had everything needed to decorate real Easter eggs, just like I had when I was living in Vancouver. When I bring the equipment out each spring so I can decorate eggs with my daughter and whoever else is interested, I simply call them “Easter Eggs.” They’re a Canadian thing.
867 w. May 5, 2008