My Year Abroad: Part 3

In TOMMY BAJOREK’s final column from Odessa, he reflects upon why Ukrainians drink, and gets sweaty with some boozy old men.

Alcohol british football mml odessa tommy bajorek ukraine vodka year abroad

A French woman once told me that a bow without an arrow is like a glass without champagne (I don’t have time for the context). And, just like a glass without champagne, a column about life in Ukraine without any mention of alcohol would be simply unthinkable.

Ukrainians like to drink. A lot. Last weekend, for example, I went to a football match and met up with a fellow Anglo-Saxon in the bar. We shared a couple of pints of 50p beer. It was all very English. But, when our local acquaintance turned up, he suggested we hit the pre-match voddie and went off to get some from the bar. I was looking forward to a shot or two. He came back with a bottle. You can do that here. For about £4.

And that’s not to mention the homemade spirit. Just one bottle of this stuff can inflict as much damage to your liver as a normal person would inflict upon theirs throughout their entire lifetime. Subject to many governmental crackdowns over the centuries, this ominous-looking, clear liquid is still passed around with great pride in recycled jam jars, ensuring that yet another generation of Ukrainian men will barely make 60 before croaking.

Running worryingly low on vodka…

Writing about drunk Ukrainians feels slightly hypocritical, considering Britain has become (and perhaps always has been) lash capital of the world. But, there is a difference. In the UK, people drink because they want to have fun. In Ukraine, people drink to come to terms with having lost everything they owned during the ’90s, and having a severely limited future. I won’t deny that I have a lot of fun here, but I can’t help thinking that things would be a lot less rosy if I knew I could never leave.

Ukraine has been ravaged by pretty much everything and everyone throughout its 1200-year history: from invading Mongols, to Stalin’s botched agricultural policies, which involved almost 12 million people dying in one year from the resulting famine. The Ukrainian relationship with booze is not one of lashminas and tactical chunders. Rather, booze in Ukraine is more of a substitute anti-depressant. The real pills would cost half a university lecturer’s salary.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. Despite their bleak history, and arguably even bleaker future, Ukrainians are a real hoot. They love nothing more than spending the morning-after-the-night-before at the banya, otherwise known as the ‘Russian sauna’, surrounded by naked, old men. The idea here is that you  sweat out the alcohol from your pores, whilst being offered a mustard rub by the attendant (also naked). Incidentally, I’ve never felt as ill as when I experienced my first banya.

Ukraine. Where on earth do you start? How on earth do you explain? Do you take the moral ground and slate the place for its corruption? Or, do you understand that police here get paid less than $200 a month, and are forced to take bribes in order to survive? Should you be optimistic about a prosperous, EU future for Ukraine? Or, should you see things as they are: a society riddled with almost irreversible levels of inequality, inefficiency, and malpractice? Impossible questions.

It takes a while to get used to Odessa and its unlit streets, but my God am I glad I chose to come here. Give me booze, beaches, and a genuinely interesting history any day over Le Louvre, croissants, and bourgeois profile pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. I simply love it here.