Ukrainian Extremes

May 3, 2018

cover photo: Yuri Garmash

cover photo: Yuri Garmash

There are few things as honest as ice-cold water to the face.

So, when my Ukrainian buddies asked me to join them on a cold-water adventure a few months ago, I jumped at the opportunity to break through the ice and submerge myself in the frigid, black waters of the Dnipro River.

I’ve always been a fan of cold-water swims; I did them every Monday morning when I lived in San Francisco. But I could hardly sell this concept to anyone except for one friend.

But Ukraine is different; it is not a comfort-driven place. In fact, there are holidays and activities in Ukraine that push a person into extreme discomfort—traditions that most Western cultures wouldn’t participate in. The Feast of Epiphany’s cold-water plunge, for instance.

I enjoy these types of experiences, which is a big reason why I like Ukraine and its people. The culture can handle—and sometimes seek out—extremes. There’s discomfort in this, along with reward.

Experiencing discomfort helps one put things in perspective. For instance, the Banya: for someone to truly enjoy the sweltering heat, they must come from the frigid cold, and for one to find calm relaxation in the cold, they must come from extreme heat.

Exposure to extremes also seems to have made Ukrainians very resilient; it’s like there’s a bubbling cauldron of strength they can dip into. And I feel like most people here—even a sophisticated, high-heeled beauty queen—could flip a switch, go to the countryside, dig up potatoes, and survive off the land if necessary.

I feel the soul dies when one only seeks comfort. I’m not suggesting that everybody jump into cold water; like skydiving, nothing in one’s brain says it’s a good idea. There are many other ways to experience extremes. Perhaps children drive parents out of their comfort zones daily, or one could start a new career that feels very uncomfortable at first.

Peter Santenello and his Ukrainian friend

Even when I lived in the USA, I made a point of breaking free from my comfort-driven cultural norms because I had become immune to them.   My weekly cold-water swims in Ocean Beach in the Pacific Ocean—though not nearly as cold as the Dnipro in the winter—recalibrated my comfort meter and recharged my soul.

So, when I find myself in a country culture that has a holiday that traditionally requires one to get out of their comfort zone, I know I’ve found my place.

I admire a people who weave discomfort into their traditions in search of greater meaning. A culture that isn’t afraid to feel, even if what it feels isn’t great. A culture that understands that hot tea only tastes like utopia after you’ve emerged from the icy water. A place with simple traditions that bring out belly laughter and establish deep connections with friends….

Ukraine’s soul, enriched by extremes, is nothing if not honest. And there are few things as honest as ice-cold water to the face.

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