It is a day of firsts. The first of July, the first time Ukraine has ever hosted a Euro Cup final, and the first of thirty nights in which I shall drink like a Ukrainian. I’ll admit, I’m initially at a loss as to where this drinking ought to commence. I decide it’d be best if it takes place outside of the local school in which I work teaching English so, upon finishing my last class at 7 pm, I make for the train station. The square in front is lavishly decorated for the Euro cup where this city has just hosted three games, all lost by the Netherlands. Just behind the fountain in the center of this square is a beer tent erected especially for the Euro. The woman at the counter inside fixes me with a look that just 6 months ago would have sent me scrambling for cover but which I now know is just a non-verbal Ukrainian hello. This is the type of communication I generally have with Ukrainian service people who usually just stand and stare at me as I stumble through my pathetically anemic Russian, mixed with the occasional Ukrainian, German, Czech, French or Spanish phrase, until they more or less decide to bring me whatever it is they decide to bring me. This time the task is easy though. I point to one of the draft beer levers and knowing literally nothing about beer, select the cheapest draft, something called “kvas.”
As I come to find out about 30 seconds later, kvas is revolting. The taste is a cross between your average beer and a moldy piece of black bread thrown in the mud and stomped on a few dozen times. It’s something I imagine most Westerners wouldn’t drink even in the midst of a severe cholera epidemic much less choose it for one of their national drinks, as the Ukrainians and Russians have. It’s so bad that I can only take solace in the fact that in being so it must surely contain a great amount of alcohol. Telling myself this, I finish the malty beverage, already cursing myself for accepting such a challenge. In the distance I see my friend, Maya, ascend the stairs leaving the metro and check the time on my phone. She’s 20 minutes late which, for her, is more or less normal. Something we have in common. I wave and she spots me, crossing the short distance to the tent as I stand to greet her.
“What are you drinking?” She asks me.
“An absolutely dreadful drink called kvas. Please tell me you don’t like this stuff.”
“Kvas? I used to drink it as a child.”
“As a child? You’re joking! You all give this to children?”
“Why not?” She asks, looking at me as if I were crazy. “My grandmother used to make it for my brother and I all the time.”
“Your grandmother would give you and your brother alcohol on a regular basis?? What, is that a Ukrainian thing?”
She stares at me oddly for a minute before bursting out in laughter. “There’s no alcohol in this. It’s kvas!”
“What? No alcohol in kvas? Are you kidding me? But it tastes like shit!”
“Hey!” She says, punching me in the arm. “That’s a very Ukrainian drink!”
“Right,” I groan, rubbing my arm. “I can tell.”
But let’s be honest with ourselves, a beverage that tastes like beer with some highway sludge thrown in? I mean… what’s the point? Does anybody actually like the taste of beer or isn’t it just the after effect they all desire? Unfortunately my argument falls on deaf ears. All the Ukrainians I have spoken to think the stuff is divine, and to try and say otherwise is tantamount to saying Russian ought to be the main spoken language in Ukraine. Actually… I take that back. At least here, in Kharkov as the locals call it, Russian is the main language spoken, the only language spoken as a matter of fact. Perhaps in Lviv or the Western part of Ukraine that would be a viable comparison to make, but here the battle over the honorable drink known as “kvas” reigns supreme.
I fill Maya in on my plan to drink for the next thirty days and the response I get is laughter.
“That’s crazy!” She says. “Why would you do that?”
It’s an interesting question, one which I suppose I haven’t fully addressed. I suppose the reason is two-fold. Primarily I am doing it in order to immerse myself into a culture which we, accurately I think, view as overly dependant on alcohol. I want to know exactly whether there is any truth to this but additionally meet those people who truly do embody the stereotype, those like Sasha who I wrote about yesterday, and find out why they drink, what drives them to drink. As for the second reason I could make up something elaborate here and say that I seek to uncover the nature and effects of alcoholism but in reality, I’m just looking for something to do. After six months in this formerly Soviet city that is, in many ways, struggling to adapt to the future, I suppose I really don’t know what else is out there that I haven’t really done or explored already. Enter the bottle.
“You’re going to turn into an alcoholic,” she continues, “look at Daniel.”
Ah, Daniel. A fellow I have known six months now and whom I wrote about in my very first Letter from Ukraine. It’s not a secret that he has a hard time with the stuff. For a while he was even taking pills that would cause him to throw up should he consume any of it, though he never really stopped.
“No, not like that.” I tell her. “I don’t have an addictive personality.”
She eyes me knowingly. “I’m sure that’s what they all think.”
I assure her I’ll be careful and we walk on for several kilometers, up Karl Marx street and then down Sumskaya until we near the fan zone set up in Freedom Square. They have one of these in every Euro Cup host city and I have enjoyed spending the occasional evening down here, although I imagine that following tonight’s final, the fan zone will be demolished and Europe’s largest square returned to its previous hallowed position as Europe’s largest parking lot.
My colleague Stephen is waiting near the fan zone entrance with his Ukrainian “girlfriend,” for lack of a better word, and with a scant farewell Maya is off to meet other friends, leaving me as the third wheel to these two lovebirds with only the faint promise of assisting me some evening in my pursuit of drunken enlightenment to provide me comfort.
Heartbroken and alone, I go off in search of my first real drink, keeping in mind that my first attempt ended in utter failure and to avoid “kvas” at all costs. After waiting an eternity in a queue at the nearest kiosk I get a Baltika 9, Russia’s number one exported beer and the one sold nationally with the highest alcohol content.
All of Kharkiv has seemingly turned out to see Italy play Spain on the big screen with most, judging by the groans that go up whenever Spain scores, in support of Italy. Most that is, aside from a small collective of Spanish standing just to the right of where the three of us stand. Spain is up 2-0 now with little time left to play so things look all but decided, leading the most forward, or just the drunkest, Spaniard to stumble over to us.
“Speak Spanish?” He asks in a very heavy accent to the two standing next to me. My colleague explains that he’s from Florida to which the Spaniard replies in terribly broken English that he lived in Cuba for many years. “Are you… err, Cuba?” He asks.
“No,” my colleague answers. He points at me. “But he lived in Cuba for a long time. Go talk to him.”
This is all the motivation the blissfully drunk Spaniard needs. He turns to me and exclaims something in Spanish to which I simply shake my head.
“No Hablo Español,” I tell him, getting into my second Baltika 9, not nearly down enough to be willing to spend time talking to this guy.
“Señor,” he tells me, before mumbling something off in Spanish.
“Right,” I say, “no comprendo señor.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and steps closer to me, until our faces are mere inches apart. His breath smells like something from a science fiction movie, just before it leaps out and eats you.
“Señor,” he speaks more urgently now, gripping my arm as if to prepare me for the carnage about to ensue. “Fidel Castro est mi amigo! Mi amigo!”
“Really?” I answer with mock enthusiasm. “That’s great. Congratulations.”
I look over at where my colleague and his girlfriend were standing a moment ago only to see in their place a heavyset Ukrainian woman of about 50 with a huge pot-bellied guy chewing on something that looks like a monstrous turkey leg.
Another earth shattering groan goes up from the crowd and frantic cheering from the group of Spaniards which causes Fidel Castro’s friend to turn and join the uproar resulting from Spain’s third goal of the night. This is my opportunity and I seize it, ducking off behind the Ukrainian tyrannosaurs and off into Shevchenko Park to beat the crowd now pouring out of the fan zone.
Spain has won their third straight championship and I decide that to celebrate I should find some sangria. A task easier said than done as it turns out, as I go from the nearby Mexican restaurant to bar after bar, only to come away disappointed each time. I should have stuck with the Spaniards who must surely be partying away now with the aforementioned beverage and feasting on paella. I take an alternate drink in the last couple of joints, downing two tequila shots and a Corona. Mexico isn’t all that different from Spain… I mean, they speak Spanish after all.
This thought consoles me as I shuffle noiselessly down the street, back in the general direction of my apartment where I awaken in the morning unharmed and unmolested by those rowdy Spanish fans.