Posting July 22, 2017—After our quick tour through eastern Europe, I had thought I’d missed the opportunity to see where my grandpa on my mother’s side, had been born. I’d grown up thinking he was from Poland so when I first googled Bolechow, Poland, the pin’s landing point dropped somewhere random, unnamed and a few hundred kms out of our way so we didn’t pursue it. Although I’d had an interest in visiting Poland while on our trip, I hadn’t planned to search for my grandpa’s village, per say. He had passed away over 15 years ago and I was just happy to see any part of his country as we rode through.
But e-mails after further investigation from several family members found that Bolechow, also spelled Bolekhiv, or Болехів in the Cyrillic alphabet, is actually a village in Ukraine. It had originally been part of Poland pre-WWII but after 1945, Poland’s borders were redrawn during a territorial evolution. This was in fact the village where my grandpa, Jan Pawel Wolański, was born.
With this new information, I opened Google maps and found out we were within 100 km (60 mi) of Bolechow. No reason not to go! My grandpa’s history is remarkable. He was taken prisoner during the war and escaped. When he returned to Poland in 1972 to try and visit his family, he was not allowed to cross the border, which was heart wrenching for him. Thus he could not visit members of his family. My grandpa spoke every broken English, even after living in Canada for several decades. I remember him continually talking about the war when I was young. It sounded terrible so didn’t want to listen.
Now, so close to his birthplace, it became important for me to understand more and see the place he had survived having his family torn apart and losing his home during the terrible years of his young adult life before he was finally able to see some relief after the war ended, meet my grandma, whose parents were also Polish, though she was born in England, and start a new life in Canada.
When Dave and I arrived in Bolechow, we found it very rundown. Some of the main streets were full of potholes and broken pavement. Transport trucks passed through the small downtown area stirring up mini tornados of dust. The buildings needed care and churches seemed forgotten about. Still, it had no small amount of charm seeing as it was a place of my heritage. I knew my grandpa had grown up poor and so I wasn’t deterred. In fact, it added to the mystic of his history.
We found an old church I like to think my grandpa may have attended, and parked the bikes in the shade. Three girls, aged 11, approached us shyly at first then with growing excitement and in limited English began asking my name, where I was from, how old I was and if they could take photos of me on my bike. Dave didn’t get any attention at all 😉 They were adorable and added to my good feeling of the town’s people.
Dave stayed with the bikes while I enjoyed walking around for an hour or so taking photos and videos I later sent home to my family. In front of a statue commemorating heroism, I sent a silent message to my grandpa apologizing for not listening to him more. He had some amazing stories of survival and I wish I’d been more appreciative of what he went through to seek a more appealing life in Canada.
The Ukraine isn’t on many people’s travel list these days but after leaving my grandpa’s village, our good feeling about Ukrainian’s increased when a few days later we stayed with a couple near Kiev whom we’d found on couchsurfing.com
Ramon and Elvira were very welcoming and helpful. They made us a late lunch when we arrived, along with another traveller from Germany, who was hitchhiking to India over the course of a year. We had some delicious borscht, a sour soup popular in eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia, and later a huge meal of meat and veggies on the BBQ. Ramon and Elvira informed us Ukrainian vodka was much better than Russian, a theory we were only too happy to test out. (So far, we can’t tell the difference—it’s all good!)
During the evening, Ramon said reflectively while turning the meat over a flame: “I think there is a lot of stereotyping that Russians and Ukrainians drink a lot.” He paused long enough to give us all enough time to conclude this was an unfair assumption. But Ramon turned to us and with a completely straight face, said, “It’s true.”
We all laughed and toasted each other with more homemade vodka.
We love comments. The comment field is below but you need to click into the first ‘comment’ field, then TAB (don’t click) to the other fields. If you have a prob, use our contact form. We always reply. Check back under your comment post for our reply, it may take a week or so.
Subscribe to Riding Full Circle: head to our home page, look to the left menu…SUBSCRIBE! Be sure to follow through with the confirmation e-mail that will be sent your way, which you’ll likely find in your spam folder.
Wanna join us for a leg? Contact us for any part of the trip you’d like to ride along with us or to suggest a place we should ride.