HELPING OUT Ala Chushenko, who has family in the Ukraine, is pictured recently helping to put together a consignment of humanitarian aid which was sent to the war-torn region. Pic: Karen Cox
Name: Ala Chushenko
From: Riga, Latvia
Lives: Caisleán an Bharraigh
Occupation: Nurse to be
I often say I’m a citizen of the world but after 14 great years in Castlebar, Mayo will always be home. Of course I love Latvia and go back there often, but after experiencing many different cultures I can honestly say there are no people quite like Mayo people.
My mum is Latvian and my dad is from Ukraine. I have a sister and a brother. He lives in Galway and she lives in Latvia. I grew up in the city of Riga and had a wonderful childhood. I started learning English in pre-school and the locals thought I was mad because I was always walking around singing ‘January, February, March, April, May, June July…..’ and people would be looking at me as if I was crazy.
I spent all my summers at my grandparents – sometimes in Ukraine but mostly in Latvia, out in the country where we would do everything on the farm, and I mean everything. We’d be up at six in the morning mushroom picking, berry picking, working on the farm or helping my granny to make butter. It was wonderful, an amazing learning experience.
I had my son Verner when I was 19, which was the greatest thing ever to happen me, but I remained in college and studied three different courses – Marketing, Translation and another one Graphic Design, Interior Design and Environmental Design. I graduated in the last one, but I wanted to get on with life very quickly so I got two jobs, one with The Baltic Times newspaper and the other in an office – two good jobs.
I had a good life and whenever I got the opportunity I would travel and experience other cultures. On one holiday I travelled around Morocco on the buses and trains and loved that.
Then the economic crash came in Latvia, the newspaper closed down and I decided it was time to go. Verner was seven at the time, so I took him out of school and we went backpacking in Asia for three months. We went to Malaysia, Philippines and Burma. We did everything we could and saw everything we could. Then, when it was time to think about the next phase of life, a friend of mine phoned and said she had moved to a place in Ireland called Castlebar. I came to visit for a week and never left.
I absolutely loved it, but after living in Riga the pace of life in Castlebar was slower and took a little getting used to, but that was okay. I also found it strange how everyone said ‘hello’ and ‘how are you.’ It took me a little while to realise that they didn’t really want me to answer that question.
I quickly got a job in a restaurant. It took me a while to get used to the Irish accent and just when I had figured it out I had to take an order from a table of guys from the north of Ireland - and I thought they were actually singing because their accent was so different.
I began to love the fact that life was lived at a different pace here and it gave us the chance to explore and enjoy things more. I made a point of getting in the car at least once a week and going to a different part of Mayo – to sit in a coffee shop and experience the place or go and walk and see what I could see.
This is a special place. I’ve been to many parts of the world but Mayo is different. It reminds me of parts of Syria where locals just embrace you and accept you into their community.
I love Mayo people and I honestly think you don’t realise how great it is to live here. I hear people discuss the weather all the time and complain but forget about that and enjoy all the other brilliant things. I love the humour and the way people joke with one another. I have found many people in Mayo who inspire me, who light up life and you all should realise that. Embrace your wonderful traditions, your places, your way of life.
I honestly feel so much part of Mayo society that I sometimes feel I should have been born here. I came here for a week and I don’t think I’ll ever leave.
In conversation with Michael Gallagher
Just briefly. . .
What one thing brought you to Mayo?
I came to visit my friend who moved here during the time I was backpacking in Asia and never left.
Hardest thing about leaving home?
Leaving my sister and the rest of the family, I am a family person and I cherish every moment spent with my people.
What’s the best thing about living in Mayo?
People, nature, community and mighty craic.
One thing you’d like to export from home to Mayo?
Certain foods that I used to love as a child, like mushrooms and berries that grow in forest in Latvia that I would pick and then cook with my granny.
One thing you’d like to export from Mayo to home?
Warmth and friendliness of people, everyone saying hello to each other. I love that about Mayo.
Favourite place to visit in Mayo?
I love exploring, so every little new place I find in a small towns is a victory. Discovering little cafes where people are serving home made foods, cooked with love and using Irish grown produce is my kind of place.
Who’s the most famous Mayo person you’ve met?
I have to say Enda Kenny, but really what is famous? Known to all? I think there are so many famous people in Mayo who are real characters and you couldn’t imagine this town or county without them but they might not be famous anywhere else.
What’s your most prized possession in the world?
My sons Verner and Romeo
What’s your favourite pastime?
Quality time with my partner and with the people I love. A Wild Atlantic swim, picnics, sauna and taking the scenic route back home is my ideal pastime.
Where is your ‘happy place’ where you live now?
Anywhere along the Atlantic Ocean or home in my bed. It’s all or nothing.
What’s your favourite guilty pleasure?
Hands down, Loch Measc gin with my friends or a cold glass of Mescan blond
Phrase/saying you hear most in Mayo?
Mayo for Sam or ‘Not too bad’!
Will Mayo win the All-Ireland this year?
You couldn’t know but I hope they do!
Sum up living in Mayo in three words?
One word - Class!