This is Liuba. She has big glasses and a tired, but kind face. She sits in this nook in the school's main hall, selling boulytchky, sweet buns, from morning til noon. They are delicious, and for me, an essential morning ritual. As I sink my teeth into the soft white interior, I feel myself gaining strength for the coming battle against the seventh grade.
You can get your boulytchky filled with apple jam, cinnamon, or poppy seeds. I used to favor cinnamon, but over the past few months have switched to poppy seeds “mak” - a scrumptious dusting of sweet black grains.
I love the way the order rolls of the tongue, “Odyn boulytchky, z makom.”
“Zmakom?” Liuba inquires.
“Zmakom,” I affirm.
Sometimes you can see some kid standing in front of the table, his face scrunched up in pathetic supplication. He doesn't have the two hrevens today, but he'll bring it tomorrow- he promises. But he already owes two hrevens and fifty kopecks, Liuba reminds him. No, no, he already paid that- yesterday, remember? Liuba shakes her head. Lies.
Every school I have visited in Ukraine has a boulytchky lady. Other government institutions also employ one, patiently sitting at a table with a cardboard box, day after day.
I talked to some of my school's workmen about boulytchky and they said that today's boulytchky can't compare with those from the Soviet Union days. There used to be a big centralized factory in my area, that manufactured bread and buns for a large part of the country. These factories had good ingredients, equipment, and know-how, and the result was very high quality product. Ivan, a workman with the lovably wrinkly face of a Shar Pei, used to work transporting the bread from factory to town to town.
After Perestroika, the big factory lost its prominence, Ivan lost his job, and the responsibility of bread production went to many smaller factories, spread out across the region. There was less money and organization, hence the inferior quality of the bread.
It is hard for me to know if this is accurate, or distorted by old mens' nostalgia. We would need to do a blind taste-test, which is not possible. But Ivan, Igor, and Roman, admittedly a little drunk, reminisced about the bread and boulytchky of yesterday for almost half an hour, with passion and pathos that took me completely by surprise.