On April 1st 2010 I arrived in Kiev to begin my 27-month service as a US Peace Corps volunteer. Eager to learn about the culture of my new home, I dove right in, starting with the food and the booze. Their importance in Ukrainian culture is unparalleled.
Meat jello feast

It’s the first night in my temporary Ukrainian home and my host mother, Tanya, has prepared a feast to welcome me. Rye and white bread with horseradish spread; a salad of cucumber, onion, and radish; hard-boiled eggs; beans with ragu sauce; sausage, salami, and salo; a whole chicken and traditional holodets – meat jello – which I eat with the bread so as not to activate my gag reflex.

When offered food in Ukraine, you eat until what’s in front of you is finished. Nearly two hours after I begin, with Tanya watching over me the entire time, I finish my dinner, washing it all down with her homemade apricot compote. I thank her, and she tells me she’ll cook more next time – that she didn’t know I’d be so hungry.

Mystery meat and moonshine

It’s a two-hour bus ride from my home in Artemovsk and then a 40-minute walk to Alla’s father’s village. I’d met Alla months earlier while living in a suburb of Kiev. Her six-year-old daughter Liza shows me around. We walk past rabbit huts, a chicken coop, a large garden with tall green corn stalks and sunflowers, and then she leads me to a steel drum where a large rodent – an all-white nutria with an orange overbite – is frantically trying to escape.

Alla didn’t mention we’d be swimming in a nearby lake, so I wear my blue Hanes boxer briefs into the water. We drink Ukrainian beer and eat smetana-flavored sukhariki (crouton-like snacks) on the grass below a sweltering sun. Alla’s pregnant sister smokes half a pack of Chesterfield lights.

Back at the house that evening I help Alla’s father, Viktor, skin and butcher a rabbit by hanging its feet from the clothesline. At dinner Viktor tells me he has a couple of surprises.
“First,” he says, “my samigon!” Samigon is like Ukrainian moonshine. Unless infused with something – I once had a bottle infused with walnuts – the smell and taste resembles rubbing alcohol. He pours a shot for each of us, and we drink a toast to new acquaintances.

“And now, something else,” Viktor says, reaching across the table. He plucks a piece of meat from a plate with his fork and drops it onto mine. Alla is furrowing her brows and shaking her head at him, and I’m not sure why. Viktor ignores her.

With all eyes on me, I cut a piece of the barbecued meat and put it in my mouth. It’s stringy, and tastes a bit gamey.
“Tasty rat, huh?” Viktor says.
“Rat?” I recognize the word because it’s said just like my name, but with an “a” at the end.
“Yes,” he says, using the middle and index finger of his right hand to simulate two large teeth, making a lapping sound like Hannibal Lecter. “Nutria.”

Toasting the buterbrod

I’ve come to the baby hospital in an official capacity, as translator for two American women who’ve adopted children from Artemovsk and would like to meet the doctor that delivered them. Today is the doc’s birthday, so I’ve brought her flowers and chocolate.

The doc’s set up a light lunch of buterbrod – Ukraine’s sandwich equivalent, the difference being no slice of bread on top – with sausage, cheese, green onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We eat and drink cognac together in her office while discussing the women’s adopted children. She tells us about delivering two babies not long before we’d arrived.

Over the course of an hour we each drink six toasts. To The Birthday! To New Acquaintances! To Friendship! To Love! To Women! To Our Health! The doctor then glances at her watch, thanks us for our company, and excuses herself. I’ve drunk six shots of cognac, we’ve all drunk six shots of cognac, and it takes me a moment to understand what she says to us – “More babies to deliver today.”

White Russians with white Ukrainians

It’s a particularly cold January night in Artemovsk. Glancing outside I can see the smoke billowing upward from village chimneys, the light of the moon reflecting off the icy streets. Few dare to walk outside past sunset. But having been cooped up all week, I agree to meet my friend Igor for a beer at a nearby café. Our pal Anton is joining us. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other, and we have lots of catching up to do.

One beer begets another, which begets another, which begets an idea. Anton says to me, “What do you think about buying some booze here and going back to your place?”
I turn to Igor, who grins and shrugs. I ask Anton what he thinks we should drink.
He says, “I think maybe White Russians.”

Twenty minutes later we’re sitting cross-legged on the floor of my modest apartment, playing durak and tossing back White Russians. While smoking cigarettes on the balcony, one of us grabs an icicle that’s hanging from the ledge, and then we all three have them. In the middle of the living room a sword fight breaks out. Igor and Anton face off against each other, swords flailing… and then shattering into daggers with the first clash. The duel wages on for another few moments, before the daggers melt away.

In the morning I don’t recall showing the guys out, or turning in to bed. My head’s throbbing when I wake, and I step out of bed into a puddle of cold water.

Fried fish for breakfast

My host mother Tanya insists on making me breakfast each morning, despite already having a number of other tasks on her plate. I wish I could prepare my own. I’m usually served leftovers from dinner the previous night, perhaps with a 200 gram block of syrok sweet cheese, smetana, and jam.

On this particular morning it’s buckwheat kasha and a chicken wing from the night before, along with a basket of stuffed rolls called bulochki. Just as I’m digging in, Tanya remembers something.
“Opa! Krees!” she says. From the refrigerator she pulls out a plastic bag filled with small fish. “Viktor caught these yesterday! I’ll fry some for you!”

On top of what is already in front of me now sits a plate of fried carp – the heads, fins and innards still intact. Thinking about this bottom-feeder, and the sewage that probably runs off into the local pond where the fish were caught, my stomach churns.
“Priyatnovo Apetita!” Tanya says.

Shooting spirits

We’re drinking vodka and eating shashlik at a table in the back corner of an outdoor café that doubles as a disco at night. I’m with Sarah, an American who’s doing some research on Ukrainian orphanages or something, her husband, who’s visiting from the States, and our Ukrainian pal Sasha and his wife. I can never remember everyone’s name. A disco ball and colored lights illuminate the dance floor. Thin women teeter atop six-inch stilettos in an attempt to get down to a remixed “We Speak No Americano”, this summer’s unofficial anthem.

I’ve never met anyone that can sink shots like Sasha. He throws them back easy, letting out a little “ah” each time, seeming completely unfazed. It’s a mistake to try to keep up with him, but Sarah’s husband and I try to do just that. A liter bottle in, flush-faced and stammering, we realize our mistake. Sasha, however, is ready for more.

I don’t know how it happens, but the three of us end up in Sasha’s car, and he’s driving us to the liquor store. When we arrive, Sarah’s husband and I wait in the car as Sasha heads inside.
“Tequila!” he announces when he returns, climbing back into the driver’s seat. “Let’s drink tequila!” Before we have a chance to respond, the car is again in motion. But we’re not going in the direction of the café.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Let’s shoot my gun!” Sasha says. “Very quickly, and then we’ll go, OK?”

We know this isn’t a good idea, but here we are, stopped now on the edge of town with the car headlights pointed at the trunk of a large birch tree. Sasha shoots first and nails the center of the tree trunk. Swaggering around the side of the car, he passes the pistol to Sarah’s husband, who fires once and misses the tree. Sasha encourages him to take another shot, which drills the far right of the trunk, sending a small piece of bark flying off to the side. He passes the gun to me, and we fumble it and nearly drop the thing. I have no idea what it is, other than a snub-nosed revolver. Silver, with a black handle.

I’ve never fired a gun before, always been dead against them. But tonight, with a belly full of liquid courage, I like the feel of the heavy, cold steel in my hands.

I’m careful with my first shot. My back to the headlights, I square myself to the tree, take aim and a deep breath, let the breath out slowly and fire, hitting the right side of my target. The jolt sends a wave of adrenaline through my body, and suddenly I’m all too aware of what is happening. Despite that, I take aim again. This time I loosen up a bit, drop my left foot back, raise my right arm up from my side and when I get it to where I want it I pull back on the trigger. The bullet lands just a little left of where I’m aiming. A possible kill.

Back at the café, the girls ask where we’ve been.
“Oh,” Sasha says. “We just went on a quick tequila run.”