When it comes to desserts, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. That is to say, I like sweets a lot, too much even. One of my greatest fears growing up was the risk of contracting diabetes from one too many helpings of (insert random sweet here).
It may not be a stretch for you to imagine then that I, when it comes to evaluating people and culture, find it most apt to make the comparison to a pastry or dessert of some kind. The pastries that originate from a particular place are generally evocative of the people and culture that join to make up that place, though they can often contain all that this country lacks as well.
France is well-known for such treats as Creme Brulee and the Eclair, sweet confections that would seem to evoke a people that are generally outgoing and welcoming of others. Perhaps the croissant, another French invention, would better sum them up. A bit flaky and tough on the outside though warm once you’ve managed to find your way through the layers, if you manage to find your way through the layers that is.
Americans have the doughnut. A sweet, tubular invention that would suggest a people that are sweet on the outside but generally a bit hollow once you get past all the sweetness… and fat.
The Portuguese have the Belem. A custardy tart that doesn’t look all that appealing on the outside but that, if you allow yourself that first bite, will inundate you with a sweetness that threatens to kill you unless you marry it.
The English have the crumpet. A dry, bitter affair that’ll choke you unless you pair it with some tea, the crumpet is so quintessentially British it’s been declared a national treasure.
The Japanese have Mochi, Japanese ice cream made from rice. Ice cream from rice? I mean come on, that’s terrifying. So although frightening both in texture and taste, once a degree of understanding is rendered, one can start to enjoy it.
Ukraine has no national pastry or dessert, so far as I am aware, and most of what you’ll find when you go to the bakery here, few and far between as they are, is bread, and lots of it! Sometimes this bread is filled with something, the caramel like filling sgushenka perhaps, though most of the time it’s just bread. Ukrainians, like all the rest of us, eat cakes and other types of “borrowed” pastries, such as doughnuts. But I have never been to a place where I have met so many individuals who openly detest desserts. Why is this? In large part because unlike the Portuguese Belem these desserts look delicious to the eye but looks kill, as will likely whatever it is they put inside of these, ahem, “sweets.”
Let’s take the most uniquely Ukrainian of these, paska. Paska looks absolutely scrumptious, like an oversized cupcake with enough icing on top to put a rhinoceros into a coma. Especially popular during Easter (it could very well be Easter Bunny shit), paska is emblematic of the majority of Ukrainian pastries in that it is a forgery. It looks delicious but is nothing more than slightly stale bread that has all the personality of musky cologne worn by a pedophile pretending to be Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny in this case.
I write this all while sitting at a kitchen table in World War II era- Leningrad, errr, modern-day Sevastopol. Hungry as I am, the only thing I could find to eat in the kitchen was paska, the taste of which, even in the state of drunkenness I’m currently in, makes me want to bury myself in the dirt outside. It is this current state of drunk, paska induced frustration, which got me to venting about the pastries of the world. So please, if I offended anybody, be you French, English, Japanese or Ukrainian, I apologize. I’m drunk, and doesn’t that excuse usually serve to suffice? Whether or not it should, that’s another question for another blog. This pastry-fueled rant however has now come to a close, as I need to refill my glass.
As you’ve gathered by my sitting at a kitchen table, I’m no longer on a train. The sight of cracked, sore covered feet and $4.00 water is mercifully behind me. Not that the kitchen table is a vast upgrade. The first sign that you have a drinking problem may very well be when you are sitting on your own getting completely sloshed. I would have company, but she’s unfortunately a bit upset at me right now. My having drunk her uncle’s Czech liquor last night put her over the edge. An edge which she didn’t seek to cross again after garnering looks all day from passerby due to the stench of vodka emanating from her clothes. (in case you missed how this happened: https://mylifeintransit.com/closer-my-god-to-thee-how-30-days-of-drinking-like-a-ukrainian-made-me-a-more-spiritual-person/night-three-the-absent-revolution/)
The night started well enough. After drinking some bloody marys at a patio bar in the city center, I went for a walk down along the harbor and stopped for a while to watch the ducks. This provided an ample time for reflection about the days behind me and those uncertain days in the near future.
While I was meditating a Russian voice interrupted my thoughts. I turned to see a man who looked like the Ukrainian Ernest Hemingway gesturing for me to follow him to his boat. His short white beard, silver earring and a scar over his right eye all contributed to a remarkably grizzled appearance.
“Skolka?” I asked, using the little Russian I knew to inquire about the price. His price was 100 grivna, roughly 10 euros. As was the case in Morocco, bargaining is an art skill of sorts here, and that chaotic country helped me to refine this art.
50 grivna and 5 minutes later, I was on the weathered old man’s equally weathered old sailboat with 4 other passengers. I was already reasonably tipsy from the 3 bloody marys I’d had at the bar but Ernest, always looking to make an extra buck, had a cooler full of beer he was willing to sell off.
Being drunk on a boat is not altogether different from being drunk on a train, although the waves tonight were particularly choppy which already had started me feeling a little queasy.
The rain started up out of nowhere when we had made it out to sea a ways. Ernest scrambled to and fro on the deck, tilting the sails and guiding us back into port much too early for my liking, though my stomach thanked him.
Which brings us to where I am now, at the kitchen table eating moldy paska which promises to do as much harm to my body as the alcohol. My drunken state has more or less devolved into exhaustion and anyway, I promised tomorrow I’d be up early and I had better keep my word if I am to make amends. With thoughts of tomorrow’s opportunities in mind I push aside the old, toss the rest of the nasty paska, and see what bitter, alcohol fueled dreams await me.