“Home Away From Home”

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LIUDMYLA HREBENICHENKO, THE SPOUSE OF THE UKRANIAN AMBASSADOR TO AZERBAIJAN, ENCHANTS US WITH TALES OF HER CHILDHOOD AND FAMILY HOME OF FASTIV, NEAR KYIV; SHARES HER FAMILY VALUES AND HOW HER POSITIVE OUTLOOK ON LIFE HAS REWARDED HER WITH A LIFE OF ADVENTURE COMBINED WITH THE DELIGHTFUL TWIST OF FATE THAT LED TO THE CHANCE ENCOUNTER OF MEETING HER HUSBAND. HER PASSION FOR TRAVEL, ALONG WITH HER LOVE FOR AZERBAIJAN, ALLOWS HER TO CALL BAKU HER ‘HOME AWAY FROM HOME’ AS SHE DISCUSSES THE PLEASING SIMILARITIES BETWEEN AZERBAIJAN AND UKRAINE.

BY NARMIN RZAYEVA

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Question: Please share with our readers about your life, family and professional background?

Answer: I grew up in a lovely suburban town called Fastiv, near Kyiv with a loving family compiled of my parents and my brother. I was raised to respect our traditional Ukrainian customs, but I also had an active and fun-filled childhood, some might say reckless!  The neighborhood children would wake with the sunrise, run around the fields, flying from one dacha to another, like a small flock of sparrows, eating ripe, sweet fruit. At nights we would gather around a bonfire, bake potatoes on sticks under the stars, listening to each other’s scary stories. 

After graduating from school, I started my medical studies; later continuing my education, simultaneously within the field of management of medical institutions and the Positive Psychology department of my university. I like to think I seek the positives in life, which is maybe why I always find it.

Q.: How did you meet your husband, the Ambassador?

A.: I believe our meeting was written in the stars. After finishing my studies, I moved to Warsaw in Poland, to work for a big British-Belgian corporation, serving the interests of both Poland and Ukraine.  One of my good friends asked me to help her with some documents and required assistance to the Embassy of Ukraine in Poland. As we were about to depart the Embassy, after conducting our business, I suddenly remembered that my company was organizing a concert, and if I could gift some spare tickets to the consul as a gesture of goodwill.  He gratefully accepted, asking, “May I also bring a co-worker?”

It turned out this mysterious co-worker, later became my husband and my partner in life. It was fate.

Q.: What is the role of an ambassador’s spouse in diplomacy? What is the primary mission of the spouse of a diplomat?

A.: My husband and I have spent years representing our culture and country abroad, all the while, working as a team. My primary goal here in Azerbaijan, is to show my country at its best. I have planned a couple of projects, the first of which – consider this a tiny sneak-peek! – is going to be a presentation of Ukrainian cuisine, the most delicious food in the world! It will be open for the women of the diplomatic community in Baku and for all Azerbaijani women!

Q.: What is the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of the life of a diplomat?

A.: My life motto is to always start with a positive state of mind! In my experience, the positives have always prevailed and devoured the negative ones! As a diplomatic family, we travel the world, sometimes changing the cities of residence within the same country, sometimes moving across continents. Each time we earn a chance to dive into another culture and start a new life. This feeling of home away from home completely recharges a person. Each new posting is a chance to start over – is that not what everyone wishes for?

Q.: Azerbaijan and Ukraine have a period of shared history. What similarities do you see between our countries?

A.: This March has become exceptionally symbolic, for the history of cooperation between our two countries.  Upon arrival in Azerbaijan, my husband presented President Ilham Aliyev with Lettres de créance – Letters of Credence. The first time this happened was exactly a hundred years ago, when the Special Representative of Ukraine People’s Republic gave to the leadership of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. Our common Soviet past has deepened our inter-cultural similarities and communication. Unfortunately, both our countries also share a common pain; parts of our territories were occupied and separated from us, forcing thousands of families to suffer. We hope and pray for a fortunate, imminent resolution to this conflict.

Amongst cultural similarities, I should mention the hospitality and friendliness of the Azerbaijani people.  I see the open smiles of people around me, and I feel it through my constant search for positiveness. Our traditions delicately match with your national cuisine, for example, our golubtsi with your cabbage dolma, our salo with your lamb quyruq. This list could go on, but I think that I capture the essence that our nations are very much similar to each other!

Q.: What is the biggest difference between Azerbaijan and Ukraine?

A.: Well, honestly right off the bat, it is difficult to answer. Ask me in a few years! (laughs)

Q.: Is Azerbaijan any different from your postings in other countries?

A.: Long years of our diplomatic lives were spent in Europe. When the time of re-posting approached, we made up our minds and chose Azerbaijan, which is quite different from the environment we were used to. Azerbaijan is different in the best possible way; I feel completely at home here. My friends back at home sometimes ask me if I miss Ukraine or my homes in other countries we were posted to. Undoubtedly, I miss Ukraine, but the familiar feeling of being homesick disappeared as soon as I moved to Azerbaijan.

I love the feeling of safety, when I roam around the streets of Baku.  This wonderful city brings back memories of that wild childhood I told you about. I love how I can ask for directions from a complete stranger, and he or she would take my hand and take me directly to that place. I love how people’s eyes here light up, when they hear that I am from Ukraine. I think this is my spiritual home! (laughs)

I fell in love with Baku! The weather suits me perfectly; the streets and architecture amaze me every day. I could visit Venice, Vienna, Prague and Dubai by just walking up and down the same street in Baku. And yet, all this contrast appears completely balanced. An amazing place, really!

Q.: Do you have children? How has the diplomatic life influenced them? If your husband had worked in another industry, would they be different?

A.: Our son, Ivan, is an adult already! He spent most of his life traveling with us, and we tried our best at raising him as an open-minded and responsible person. I see now that we succeeded; this year Ivan graduated from school and made my husband and I proud yet surprised that he chose to enroll to ADA University in Baku.

Q.: Do you have any hobbies? How do you pass your free time in Azerbaijan?

A.: I have a keen passion for traveling and my family fulfills this passion. It enriches a person and teaches us to notice beauty in everyday life. Our latest trip in Azerbaijan was in Sheki. We only spent two days in the region, but thanks to a tight traveling program, I was allowed to indulge in this magical town!

We also spent time traveling along the shore of the Caspian Sea, starting from Qusar in the Caucasus Mountains, ending in Lankaran, close to Iran’s border. We’ve also traveled to Nakhchivan and visited its most beautiful place – a picturesque mountain lake, surrounded with a vast field of lovely colorful flowers. I gathered the most fragrant ones and pressed them every morning in a cup of tea with mountain honey, also a delightful memory from Nakhchivan. I will never forget the crystal-clear air in the mountains, so dense and fresh.

Q.: Why is Ukraine such a must-see destination? Where should foreign tourists visit?

A.: Almost every type of recreation and tourism could be experienced in my beautiful Ukraine.  It is vast and diverse; you could rest at the shore of the Black sea, visit Kyiv, Lviv, Truskavets, Odessa and other popular tourist destinations. In my opinion, the best way to know Ukraine – and every other country as well – is to travel somewhere tourists haven’t yet reached. Visit small towns and villages; roam our forests, picnic in our fields. And if you are ever in Fastiv – say hi from me!

Q.: Finally, our signature question to conclude the interview. It is said that behind every successful man, there is a woman. How does that manifest itself in your life?

A.: I think, at some point in her life, every woman comes to realize a simple fact: a man is a creating, building force in this world. And after this realization, a lot can change. I don’t mean to claim that women are powerless because our power is different. It is more tender, kinder and softer, therefore, stronger. The love we share with a man and the world he creates, inspires him. Lots of decisions by my husband were made under my advice. He listens to me and I always have his best interests at heart.  Like I already said, we’re a team. I believe, that behind every successful man there is a woman who believes in him.