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Why I’m returning to Ukraine, my favourite place


Tomorrow, I’ll board a flight to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Yes, I’m aware that the entire Western world is expecting Putin’s forces to invade any day. But Ukraine is my favourite place, and it’s where I’ve called home for the past six months.

Three weeks ago, my partner and I decided to do what so few Ukrainians can do – we left. We went to Montenegro, experiencing a winter so similar to that of my hometown of Sydney, it was almost as if we’d arrived back into Kingsford Smith.

Sydneysider Pixie Shmigel has been living in Ukraine since September.

Sydneysider Pixie Shmigel has been living in Ukraine since September.

But we missed Ukraine, and we’ve decided to return, something my grandparents never got to do after they were forced to flee their homeland after World War II. Suddenly, the stories my grandparents had told me of their homeland are not just some faraway fiction, they are real and now, they mirror my life.

I grew up in the harbourside suburb of Birchgrove. I attended an expensive private girls school. My comfortable, safe world felt a million miles from what I had been told about my family history.

My grandparents’ house in Sydney, like that of many immigrants, is a living and breathing shrine to the homeland with religious icons lining the walls, the smell of cabbage (an educated guess) wafting from the kitchen, the flag of Ukraine proudly displayed and Ukrainian folk songs emanating from the stereo.

After meeting my grandparents, my partner became preoccupied with the idea of travelling to Ukraine. Last year, after the long, arduous process of getting out of Australia at the height of the pandemic, we flew to Kyiv.

Pixie Shmigel’s grandmother Nadia Gladyshowsky (left), great-aunt Olya (centre) and great-grandfather Oleksandr on the family farm in Ukraine, circa 1943.

Pixie Shmigel’s grandmother Nadia Gladyshowsky (left), great-aunt Olya (centre) and great-grandfather Oleksandr on the family farm in Ukraine, circa 1943.

Ukraine is a truly vibrant place and as Millennials, we felt we’d arrived somewhere alive and thriving. We set up our lives, my partner learnt how to read Cyrillic, we found our favourite restaurant in the city, we became locals.

Life felt remarkably normal, even until the moment we left. Despite the drums of war, people kept going about their business; planning birthday parties and raves, enjoying their morning coffees, continuing life. The panicked headlines from around the world did not square with our daily lives. That’s not to say Ukrainians aren’t aware of what’s happening – they just know firmly what they want, and they know they’ll fight for it if they have to. They already are.



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