By Jared Morgan
It’s a word with a lot of promise.
For me it’s a promise of fun…or a night that, next morning, is completely forgotten.
When vodka and I were introduced our meetings were fleeting – confined to a Bloody Mary or two, no commitment or bonds were formed.
In Kyiv, vodka and I have intensified our relationship.
It’s a tempestuous affair, born not from mutual attraction, but from social necessity.
Here, drinking vodka, or horilka as more patriotic Ukrainians call it, is a ritual.
It’s an appealing ritual.
As a foreigner drinking with Ukrainians allows you to experience them away from the serious demeanour they adapt on the street and see they have a well-developed sense of fun. Great hosts, the food flows as freely as the drink.
But the drink….
Vodka and I were reacquainted on my second day at work.
“Jared, tonight we are having a party,” my colleague informed me mid-afternoon.
“Oh…OK,” I replied. “But it’s only Tuesday.”
The response was laced with surprise.
“In New Zealand we don’t drink on a Tuesday,” I said.
“Today, we must drink…Yura has new car.”
I didn’t have time to rationalise the reason, I was distracted by a gesture I had never seen before.
It was a tap to his neck that could have been mistaken for scratching an itch, if another colleague hadn’t repeated the gesture five minutes later.
Establishing this as a non-verbal cue for drinking – my affair with vodka began.
Coming from a culture where, when drinking, food is an afterthought, it was a baptism of fire.
“You must eat,” I was told after several shots.
It was already too late..
On this night, at a party to celebrate a car, with people I didn’t really know, I set a precedent.
I burst into song, serenading my workmates with an eclectic assortment of songs from my homeland, through to a reasonably accurate (by all accounts) rendition of Ya Stanu Morem by Ukrainian songstress Ani Lorak.
My command of Russian is that of an infant, I understand less Ukrainian and I had heard this song maybe three times.
However, vodka tends to melt social and cultural barriers and maybe language barriers thaw along with them.
Unfortunately this effect is temporary; any great leaps forward in my understanding of Russian were gone the next day along with any memory of the party beyond the first hour.
I did learn one lesson – the statement “you must eat” is very true.
I put this into practice when my colleagues discovered my birthday falls on Ukraine’s Independence Day.
The amount of vodka was considerably larger, but “you must eat” became my mantra.
As day turned to night, I again became a human jukebox, but I’d paced myself, eaten, and this time it was not a solo performance as others too became prone to musical outbursts.
Singing now accompanies any meeting I have with vodka, but these are not regular.
The pitfalls for foreigners who get too caught in this culture are obvious.
A friend explained it bluntly…
“A lot of foreigners become alcoholic, because we (Ukrainians) like foreigners – everyone wants to drink with them.”
While “you must eat” is an essential pointer – this warning is food for thought.