Last night I had a dream. I was on one of those old ships, a maritime vessel like that out of a pirate movie, and was caught in a great storm. The waves tossed my ship about and I, seemingly alone on the vessel, was thrown from bow to stern and back again. A great wave surged towards me and before I knew it I was falling…
As luck would have it, I was on the bottom rather than the top bunk, so the fall had only been a couple of feet instead of five. I realized what had happened as soon as I opened my eyes and heard the babushka in the bed across from me laughing. As soon as I stood I felt the pounding in my head, though I was unsure whether it was due to the fall or the night that had preceded it.
Less than an hour later my train pulled to a stop in Odessa and I, joined by my lovely travel companion Victoriia, made for Puzata Hata, a Ukrainian style cafeteria. This was located in a six-story mall, the lowest level of which contained a market with a moderately sized liquor store. I tell Victoriia we have to head there afterwards.
“You drink?” Victoriia asks, a bewildered expression on her face.
“For the next 30 days I do.”
“What? But… why?”
I sum it up in 5 minutes and watch as she processes the information. For the record, Victoriia doesn’t drink and has in fact never been drunk before. I’ve known her for quite some time, nearly since I arrived in Ukraine, so I believe her when she tells me this. I decide then that this is almost certainly due to the fact that she is only half Ukrainian, as her mother hails from Azerbaijan. Clearly the Azeri side has won. In any case, it’ll make for a particularly interesting contrast over the next few days. Myself, on a kind of “drink your way to enlightenment” alcoholic self-help tour, and Victoriia, who will watch me with doubtless amusement whilst I waste myself. She will also, I hope, keep me from getting locked up in a foreign city. I would rather not be on the next episode of “Locked Up Abroad,” though perhaps I might wind up in a Ukrainian jail cell next to imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. One never knows.
“Why would you do that to yourself?” Victoriia says at last, breaking the silence. She’ll repeat this question about half a dozen times today but my answers will always fail to satisfy her. In her eyes I have gone completely insane. She seems a bit put off by the transformation but I assure her that things will be fine.
“Just don’t expect me to get involved,” she says, her voice still registering annoyance. “You’re on your own with this.”
I’m not convinced, but with those words behind us, we head to the liquor store. Victoriia decides that while we are there we may as well buy a bottle of something for her uncle who lives in Sevastopol. Even though from what Victoriia tells me he doesn’t speak any English nor does he quite understand who I am, he has agreed to host us for the following evening or three, depending on how things all work out. I suggest a bottle of wine thinking that, being Ukrainian, he surely must have plenty of liquor on hand. Victoriia decides ultimately on Becherovka, a Czech liquor I’ve never tried… yet.
As it’s the cheapest liquor not to mention the Ukrainian favorite, I once again settle on vodka, choosing some local variant from the shelf. Being the environmentally conscious consumers we are, we decline to purchase a bag at check out and instead stuff the liquor into our backpacks. I have room for only the Becherovka, so I ask Victoriia whether she’d mind holding onto the vodka for me. She gives me a look but stuffs it inside her bag anyway.
We spend the rest of the evening walking through Odessa. We go along the coast, down some famously nice street in the city center, visit a couple of cafes so I can update my blog, until at last 11:15 pm comes and we find ourselves back at the train station to board yet another overnight train, this time to Crimea. I am holding out hope for Crimea, which I already idealize as some kind of Ukrainian Mediterranean, complete with clean white streets and ice cream parlors. As for Odessa, well, I found it to be halfway to someplace really good. It just never quite got there for me. It was though, certainly an upgrade over Sochi, which is the only other place I’ve visited with a sea and a shitload of Russians.
Sitting in our compartment on the train (yes, I have upgraded and have an actual compartment now, albeit a shared compartment but still, it beats platz car) Victoriia and I watch as our compartment mate, a ten-year old boy, waves goodbye to his uncle and cousin on the other side of the glass. It’s an especially touching goodbye, the little boy putting his hand against the glass and his cousin on the other side repeating the gesture. The little cousin even runs down the platform after the train pulls away. It’s all particularly cinematic, especially because I’ve just recently watched a very good Greek film, “Touch of Spice” which features a very similar scene… as does about a dozen other movies, but really all that doesn’t matter as none of this has got anything to do with drinking, but don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Just before he’d been left on the platform, the boy’s uncle asks us whether we wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on the boy and making sure he makes it safely to our mutual stop so he can reunite with his father. The whole thing interests me quite a lot. First of all, that this young boy is traveling all by himself and yet, judging by his expression, is completely unfazed by it all. I’ve noticed it throughout the day actually, how seemingly independent all the children are here and at such young ages. I find it nothing short of astonishing. I say all this to Victoriia as the boy sits there watching us with a blank expression on his face.
I’ve learned that the young lad doesn’t speak English so, as will surely be the case the next few days, Victoriia will be the one communicating. I ask her to tell him that I grew up in Arizona, and point to his hat which reads “Arizona: Grand Canyon State.” The boy seems unfazed by this new information, and just stares back at me. I give him a smile, which doesn’t alter his expression and likely just serves to make me look insane, as such facial features lead people to believe here.
Before leaving Odessa I’d visited ‘Lviv Handmade Chocolate’ where I had two different chocolate drinks mixed with liquor. I was counting on the vodka in Victoriia’s bag to put me over the edge but when I tell her this she shoots me a disapproving look.
“You can’t drink in front of him!” She says, tilting her head in the boy’s direction.
“Why not? Sharing vodka shots with a ten-year old? That sounds like an epic story!”
She frowns though in truth, I knew already that I had quite the problem. My bloody sensitive conscience would protest were I to drink in front of this no doubt impressionable youngster, just the way he sits staring at us both makes me think he’d be liable to replicate my actions, maybe not now but one day he’ll be somewhere, someplace where the opportunity to commence a life of drinking will hit him, as it does every young Ukrainian, and faced with that life or death situation he’ll surely think back to this moment; “I remember the night when that cool guy from Arizona got completely knackered in front of me and gee whiz, did he look cool doing it!” See, Ukrainian children aren’t all that different from American children growing up in the 1950’s. Probably because Ukraine has only recently gotten “Leave it to Beaver.” I jest, they likely have no idea what that is (google it).
As I sit there contemplating this dilemma, Victoriia announces that she is going to the bathroom to change clothes because hers are “disgusting” after a day spent under the hot sun. She opens her backpack to extract her pajamas and the potent stench of vodka reaches our nostrils. The boy wrinkles his nose and brings his shirt up to cover his face. I am tempted to do the same.
“The bottle of vodka broke!” She cries, pulling her vodka-drenched clothes out one by one. She pulls a huge shard of glass from inside and replaces it again, zipping the backpack up to deal with later. “This is your fault!”
“My fault?” I pull the bottle of Becherovka from my backpack. “My bottle didn’t break.”
“Don’t you even think about drinking that!” She says, trying to snatch the bottle from my fingertips. “That’s for my uncle!”
“I think I’ll hold onto it,” I tell her, pulling it from her grasp. “To make sure it stays in one piece.”
I look over at the Arizona kid, who is working hard to suppress his laughter. If there is one thing that can make all the people of the world, no matter how typically grim, smile, it’s the sight of an American behaving like an idiot.
Now the waiting game begins. I lie in bed feigning sleep and after what feels like an eternity I hear snoring. I am at last on my own, the bottle of Becherovka staring at me from the table, daring me to do something.
After some deliberation, I pick it up and exit the compartment stealthily. I look back and forth along the train but seeing no one I walk along the hall and move into the next train car, removing the label on the Becherovka as I do. I take a swig of the Czech made stuff and grimace. It’s certainly different, a bit like ground-up plants mixed with a doctor prescribed liquid anti-septic. I continue down the train, moving from car to car and spotting only the occasional sign of life. A person leaning out the window to smoke a cigarette, a little further down a person huddled in the corner speaking softly into a cell phone.
I enter the first class car and after some steps I pause, hearing muffled sounds coming from a compartment. Whether already drunk enough to behave foolishly or just on a bit of an adrenaline kick from running through the cars, I’m uncertain, but the sounds from behind the door arouse my attention. I put my head against the thin wood and hear them more clearly; the twin moaning and shaking indicative of two people making love… or killing one another. I take another swig of the herbal mixture, my head still against the door, but just as I do a sharp voice rings out in Russian. I look up and see a hefty, middle-aged porter barreling down the train car towards me like a lynx with bangs. I stumble backwards but stay on my feet, the Becherovka splashing onto the fraying carpet. I debate making a run for it, but decide playing the dumb American card will give me better chances. I brace as the lynx arrives at her quivering victim.
Angry Russian, more angry Russian, “Nyet!” Angrier Russian. VERY red face.
“Ummm, I’m really sorry, you see,” I produce my most innocent face. “I forgot where my cabin was. I think maybe I know now though,” here I gesture behind me. “I will, umm, go sleep now.”
Angrier Russian, furious smacking of lips, gesturing toward the bottle in my hands.
“Oh, yes, I just wanted a… uh, what’s the word… a nightcap?”
Lynx digs in and extracts three partial English phrases, the second of which makes me shudder.
“We have big problem, you go off train, no drink!”
It never can be You have a problem, but always We have a problem. Where exactly this problem exists for her, I don’t know, except if it is used to try and console me with the notion that I am somehow inconveniencing her as well as myself, in which case I consider myself… not consoled!
“Listen,” I say, “can’t we resolve this somehow?” She eyes me suspiciously and, I fear, already evaluating when best to go for the jugular.
“I’m sorry,” I produce my wallet and pull two one hundred grivna notes out. “Really terribly sorry.”
She glares at me, looking down at the bottle in my one hand and the money in my other. When I return to my compartment minutes later, my hands are empty. I imagine her with all of her porter friends in their little party room somewhere on the good side of the train, whichever side that might be, laughing it up over the stupid American while sipping Czech liquor. There was to be no Velvet Revolution for me… at least not tonight.