The Sobering Method

Mockup1Following yet another vodka-soaked, Ukrainian feast, I sat at the table and stared blankly ahead at the kitchen wall in Uncle Vladimir’s farmhouse. I was grinning like the village idiot, which was fitting since we were in a village.

Katya tried to get me to drink from a glass of water, to no avail.

“Bobby, drink this!” she commanded, putting the glass of mineral water up to my lips. I refused.

“Drink it!” she said, sternly.

“I have to go to sleep,” I said.

“No sleep. Drink.”

“I already drank too much.”

“This is water!”

I finally gave in and took a sip, dribbling most of it onto my chin and down the front of my shirt.

“This is all your fault!” Katya said, angrily pointing to her uncle and father.

“It’s not our fault that he can’t drink,” Uncle Vladimir retorted.

“We’d better get him to bed,” Elena said, concerned.

Katya’s worry deepened as I continued to stare at the wall, grinning.

“Maybe we should we take him to the hospital?” Katya suggested.

“No. I have a better idea,” Sergei said. “Remove his shoes.”

Katya knew immediately what Sergei was going to do next, and began removing my shoes.

“What are you doing?” I mumbled incoherently.

“We’re helping you,” Katya replied, as Sergei and Uncle Vladimir lifted me out of my seat.

“Where are we going?” I asked, as we headed for the door.

“For a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes, a walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

“Outside?”

“Yes, outside.”

“For what?”

“For your own good.”

As we headed down the porch steps, I lost my balance, almost taking Uncle Vladimir and Sergei down with me.

“Yeah … I’m floating,” I said, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei struggled to help me regain my balance.

“That was fun,” I said “But where are my shoes? I can’t go for a walk without my shoes!”

“You’ll get your shoes back later,” Katya promised.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, a small amount of concern and apprehension now starting to register in my vodka-addled brain.

“Siberia,” Katya replied.

“I don’t want to go to Siberia. What are you going to do to me?”

“Sober you up,” Katya said.

“Am I drunk?”

Elena, Aunt Nina, and Karina followed us outside into the chilly night, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei dragged me by the heels to the outdoor shower stall.

“Is that a gas chamber?” I asked in terror.

“Yes. Now take off your clothes,” Katya commanded.

Sergei opened the door and turned the shower on.

“I don’t want anyone to see me naked,” I pleaded. ”Too skinny,” I added, echoing Babushka’s earlier refrain.

“Then at least take off your shirt,” Katya demanded.

“Nyet!” I said, like a petulant little schoolboy.

“Fine,” Katya said, before helping Sergei shove me inside the stall, and slamming the door shut.

I screamed as the frigid water pierced through my clothing. So much for waiting until we returned to the apartment to shower.

I tried to escape, but Sergei and Uncle Vladimir held the door closed. This was waterboarding, Ukrainian-style. I pounded on the door, begging to be let out, but it was no use. I was completely at their mercy.

“Katya! Please! Let me out!” I pleaded, but to no avail.

After a few minutes, Sergei opened the door. I stumbled out, shivering like a wet dog, already starting to feel more sober. Aunt Nina handed me a towel.

And just when I assumed that the worst was over, little did I know that the worst was actually about to begin.

Still dripping wet from my arctic shower, Sergei and Katya proceeded to frogmarch me, barefoot, along the rocky, pothole-laden gravel driveway— beginning my own personal Bataan death march, Gulag-style, as the rest of the family watched along the sidelines.

Sergei counted in broken English: “One! Two! One! Two!” keeping me in step, as we marched back and forth along the broken path.

Hearing all of the commotion, a nosy neighbor approached, muttering: “Ah, to be young again.”

“One! Two! One! Two!” commanded Sergei, trying to keep my drunken march in rhythm. “One! Two! One! Two!” he barked, leaving me yearning for an occasional “Three! Four!”

As I struggled to keep tempo, Katya joined in on the count. Before long, even I joined in, in a desperate attempt to distract myself from my sore, sure-to-be bleeding feet.

Fifteen minutes into this drunken parade, I demanded to know how much longer I would have to endure this.

“Until you’re sober,” Katya responded.

“I am sober. I’m fine,” I said.

“You wouldn’t be going through this if you were fine.”

“I want my shoes back.”

“When we’re done,” Katya replied.

“Why?”

“Just trust us. We’re professionals”

“I don’t understand why I can’t wear my shoes.”

“Because a little pain will help sober you up.”

“But I’m not drunk, any more” I pleaded.

Katya proceeded to kick off her own shoes in a show of solidarity.

“Look, now we’re in this together.”

“Put your shoes back on!”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Just do as we say … or else,” Katya said, in a thick, exaggerated accent.

Minutes later, Sergei brought us to a halt. My feet were throbbing.

“Are we done?” I asked, hopeful that my torture was now at an end.

“Not quite,” Katya replied.

And before Katya had finished answering, Sergei pushed down on my shoulders from behind.

“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei commanded.

Previous to that night, I may have done squats once in my lifetime. And certainly not drunk.

“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei continued.

Up and down I went. This went on for quite a while.

The worst was yet to come.

Sergei demonstrated the next step in his patented Ukrainian style sobering program, by pretending to stick his fingers down his throat.

I looked at Katya in desperation, who was now standing over by Elena.

“You gotta vomit now, Bobby,” Katya stated, ever so matter-of-factly.

“What?! No way!” I exclaimed.

You have to! If you don’t, you’re going to waste our last few days together with the worst hangover of your life.”

Realizing that Katya was probably right, I attempted to stick a finger down my throat. All I produced was a dry heave. Sergei grabbed my hand and proceeded to “help” me stick two of my fingers further down my throat. Still nothing.

“This is inhumane,” I pleaded, almost in tears. “Nobody should have to endure this.”

“You’ll thank us later,” Katya said. “Trust me.”

Sergei decided that he needed to lead me up and down the driveway of destruction one more time.

“One! Two! One! Two!”

“I gotta pee!” I said, grasping for any excuse to end this torture.

At Katya’s request, Sergei led me behind a tree and held me up so I could pee. When I was done, Sergei forced me to do more squats. When my knees felt like they were about to burst open, Sergei held up three fingers and aimed them towards his mouth. I shook my head in protest. My refusal prompted him to grab me by the wrist, prying open three of my fingers from my fist. As he began to cram them down my throat, I shouted for Katya.

“I’m over here, Bobby” Katya yelled back. “You’re doing great!”

“Your dad is trying to kill me!” I exclaimed.

“No, he’s not trying to kill you. He’s trying to help you.”

I was no longer convinced. No longer able to resist, Sergei finally succeeded in shoving my fingers down my throat. You have not truly lived until you have had a grown man jam your own fingers down your throat in an attempt to sober you up.

I dry-heaved a couple more times before spitting up a tiny bit of vomit.

“There! I threw up!” I proudly proclaimed.

“That wasn’t throw up!” Katya exclaimed.

“What do you mean it wasn’t throw up? Something was thrown up. Didn’t you see it?” I argued.

“Keep trying,” Katya demanded.

“No! I refuse to be tortured any longer.”

But my pleas went ignored, as Sergei once again began to march me back and forth.

“Be thankful you’re drunk. And remember; you’re in good hands,” Katya continued.

I wasn’t convinced.

“This is torture!” I exclaimed.

“It’s not torture,” Katya replied.

“Sometimes!” Sergei blurted out.

“I’m walking barefoot on this stone driveway and your dad is forcing my fingers down my throat. How is that not torture?”

“Okay, okay,” Katya said, heading inside.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“One! Two! One! Two!”

“Katya! … Katya!!!” I shouted.

Moments later, Katya returned—with my shoes.

“I’m here. And so are your shoes,” she said, bringing them over.

“My shoes!”

I reached for them, but Katya pulled back.

“Not until you vomit,” she insisted.

And so I did.

The Fish are Swimming! (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup2-1Uncle Vladimir poured three shots—one for me, one for Sergei, and one for himself. He raised his glass for a toast: “Here’s to food. May we eat to live, not live to eat.”

After clinking our glasses, Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots, then immediately sniffed their sleeves.

“What’s that all about?” I asked, confused.

“Just a tradition,” Katya replied, “to help soften the harshness. Sometimes, people choose to eat a pickle instead.” Sure … why not?!

I took a baby sip from my shot glass. Uncle Vladimir noticed this and laughed, saying something in Russian to Sergei.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Katya replied. “Don’t worry about it. He’s an alcoholic.”

“You not finish?” Uncle Vladimir asked, pointing to my glass.

“Da! Of course!” I replied, forcing myself to finish it off in two more sips, in a feeble attempt to impress. Involuntary gagging, however, ruined any chance for redemption. Uncle Vladimir immediately attempted to pour me another shot.

Nyet! Spasibo!” I begged. But judging from the look on his face—not to mention Sergei’s—something told me this was going to be a long night.

“A man who drinks too much, he has nothing to say,” Uncle Vladimir proclaimed. “But a man who drinks too little, he also has nothing to say. So … I say chut-chut!

I played along, flicking my neck.

“Bobby … please don’t,” Katya warned as Uncle Vladimir eagerly filled up my glass. She tried to stop him at half, but it was no use.

Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for another toast.

“To Bobby! Control toast!”

We clinked glasses.

“What’s a control toast?” I asked.

“It means to the bottom in one go,” Katya replied.

“No … I can’t,” I said, nervously.

“Time to prove that you are a man,” Sergei said.

With all eyes on me, I realized that it was now or never. It was time to take off the training wheels and knock back my first full shot of vodka. I looked over at Sergei, who saluted me in encouragement with his own glass, and slowly raised the glass to my lips.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Katya said.

I took a deep breath, tilted my head back and let the vodka slide down my throat, before sniffing my sleeve. It went down surprisingly smooth. I was becoming accustomed to vodka consumption, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing—but not necessarily a bad thing, either—especially if I were to marry into this family.

Everyone applauded. I pumped my fist in triumph. Sergei and Uncle Vladimir issued congratulatory handshakes. Even Katya applauded, despite her growing concern for my well-being.

I was surprised at how quickly I became buzzed. Uncle Vladimir poured another round of shots, finishing off the bottle.

Aunt Nina tried to stop him, but Uncle Vladimir barked at her in Russian. How dare a woman interfere with this manly ritual!

“I think I’ve had enough vodka for now,” I said, holding my ground. But it was already too late. I stared down at the full shot glass in front of me on the table. “How about some wine instead?” I suggested, eyeing an unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table.

“Normally, wine is saved for women,” Uncle Vladimir said, handing me the wine bottle and corkscrew. “But let’s see how well you can handle a cork.”

Never having used a traditional corkscrew before, I might as well have been handed the controls of a Soviet space shuttle.

I struggled mightily, causing several fragments of cork to fall into the bottle. When he could bare it no longer, Uncle Vladimir grabbed the bottle out of my hand and effortlessly removed the cork, before pouring a glass of wine for Elena, Katya, Aunt Nina … and lastly, me.

“Bobby, you should eat,” Elena wisely suggested.

“Here. Have some chicken,” Katya said, putting a roasted leg down on my plate. As I filled my plate with chicken and took a large helping of borscht, I could feel the effects of the vodka going to work on my system; my vision became a little blurry and my motor functions became slightly impaired. I started to feel detached.

I took a few bites of food, noticing how the rest of the family ravenously devoured their chicken legs until there was nothing left but bone, which they then gnawed on down to the nub. First lemons; now chicken bones.

Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for yet another toast.

“Here we go again,” Katya said.

This time, both Uncle Vladimir and Sergei stood up.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“The third toast always goes to the women,” Katya explained.

Sergei tipped his glass toward me.

“For women,” Uncle Vladimir said in his thick Russian accent, tipping his glass toward me , winking, and chuckling. Was he calling me a woman? I quickly stood up with my glass of wine to join my fellow comrades.

“To women. And all their beauty. Like vodka, may it never run out,” proclaimed Uncle Vladimir with great gusto.

Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots. Uncle Vladimir then reached over and took my shot glass, poured my vodka into his empty glass, and downed it in the blink of an eye.

“To women,” I said, with not quite as much gusto as Uncle Vladimir, before taking a sip of wine.

After we had continued eating dinner for a while longer, Uncle Vladimir pulled a brand new bottle of vodka out from underneath the table, and passed it over for me to examine.

Ukrains’ka Horilka z pertsem,” Vladimir said in Russian, referring to the popular Nemiroff honey and pepper-flavored vodka—which is made by steeping hot red peppers in vodka.

No way, I thought to myself. I smiled, and passed the bottle back to Uncle Vladimir, trying to look enthusiastic..

“Bobby … I love honey!” Sergei added, as Uncle Vladimir quickly opened the bottle and began pouring a new round.

“No Bobby … don’t,” Katya said with dread in her eyes.

Aunt Nina and Elena both shook their heads in disapproval, but said nothing. Uncle Vladimir and Sergei were firmly in control of the proceedings at this point.

“I’ll just try a sip,” I said, realizing that I had no choice if I wanted to prove myself to be a real man. “I ate a lot of chicken. It’s fine.”

Katya glanced down at the three discarded chicken bones on my plate.

“You only ate half the meat off of them,” she observed. “And you didn’t touch the bone.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Bobby! You are now ready to give a toast of your own, yes?” Sergei said, raising the stakes.

“Compared to your toasts, I’ll only embarrass myself,” I replied, echoing my response from my first evening in Ukraine.

“Not if you drink this,” Uncle Vladimir said, raising his glass.

“To vodka!” I proclaimed. “Control toast.”

I raised the glass to my lips, determined to down my shot in one gulp, thanks to the liquid courage I had already consumed.

“Always remember,” Uncle Vladimir added. “A good, warmed vodka makes a carnation bloom inside your stomach.”

Uncle Vladimir and Sergei downed their shots. I tried … but my body said no. And without warning, I immediately, involuntarily spat my pepper vodka out, all over the spread of food. No carnation for me.

“Ach! It tastes like varnish!” I exclaimed, quickly grabbing my wine and taking a big gulp in an effort to wash the burning sensation off my tongue.

Uncle Vladimir shook his head and once again poured the remainder of my shot into his glass.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let good vodka go to waste,” he said, slamming the empty glass back down in front of me.

Katya pushed it away. “No more, Uncle” she warned.

I grabbed it back. I hadn’t quite given up on being a real man just yet.

I could sense Uncle Vladimir staring at me, but didn’t look at him. And then, form out of nowhere, he asked me: “So, Bobby… how do you like Ukraine?”

“I’ve never been here before,” I replied. I was kind of aware that my answer didn’t make much sense. However, at this point, I was beginning to feel beyond buzzed … and beyond caring.

Everyone waited for Katya’s translation. Katya simply shrugged.

Uncle Vladimir looked puzzled.

“And … I am very happy that I don’t live here,” I continued, slurring my words.

I felt Katya kick my shin under the table.

All eyes were on Katya, awaiting her translation.

“Bobby said that he loves Ukraine and that he loves the food,” Katya said in Russian. “Especially the chicken.”

“Spasibo!” Aunt Nina said, smiling.

“Bobby … let me tell you what I think of America,” Uncle Vladimir began. “America’s imperialist days are numbered. It’s time for a new superpower to emerge in its place.”

“Vladimir! Enough!” Aunt Nina demanded.

Uncle Vladimir actually seemed to take notice of Aunt Nina this time. We continued eating, in silence.

And that’s when I noticed the plate of pickled herring, swimming in their own juice.

It is important at this juncture to point out that the course of events that transpired over the remainder of the evening are foggy and fragmented in my mind. I am simply piecing everything together based on descriptions given by eyewitness accounts and from my own brief flashbacks.

As I continued to stare transfixed at the herring, I began to grin from ear-to-ear like a fool, before mumbling to Katya:

“Look, the fish are swimming.”

“No, Bobby. They’re not.”

“Yes! Look! They’re swimming in their own fish juice,” I insisted, poking at the fish.

Katya—realizing that she had no other choice, given that everyone wanted to know what I was saying—translated.

Sergei and Uncle Vladimir burst out in uncontrolled laughter.

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The First Supper

Mockup1Katya and I were seated on the couch side of the table. At first glance, the couch appeared comfortable, but in reality, it was far from it. It wasn’t the couch itself, which was rather stiff, but rather, its low height and overall proximity to the table. This put an enormous strain on my back. I couldn’t help but feel like a child in desperate need of a booster seat. No matter how I shifted my position, I could never get comfortable. Not wanting to come across as a weakling, I didn’t make an issue of it. I simply chose to eat uncomfortably for the duration of my trip. When my back began to ache too much, I would sit all the way back on the couch for a few moments until I had finished chewing. I learned to take full advantage of this back-and-forth strategy by taking a big bite of the slightly stale, dry bread, which afforded me more time to rest my back before I needed to reach for my plate again.

Seated with us at the table was Katya’s Babushka, her grandmother on her mother’s side. To describe Babushka succinctly, she was a brawnier version of the apple-offering witch from Snow White … only less pleasant. Her once strong, stocky frame had been diminished through illness, but her inner strength overshadowed everything. From the moment we met, Babushka didn’t take too kindly to me. Being that I was a foreigner didn’t help matters. She stared at me with suspicion as though I were a spy sent to report on her every move.

As Babushka watched me fill up my plate with what I carefully considered to be helpings that were neither too little, nor too large, she shook her head, saying something in Russian that I was pretty sure translated into “asshole.”

“What did she say?” I asked.

“Let’s eat,” Katya interpreted.

I wasn’t convinced.

Katya advised me not to take anything she said to heart. It was “her illness talking.” But I couldn’t help but feel judged; despised; inferior.

Sergei lined up the glasses and poured out hearty shots of vodka. Considering my low tolerance to alcohol—especially straight shots—I initially considered politely refusing it. But in another effort not to appear weak or ungrateful, I decided to “give it a shot.” This was my first mistake.

I noticed that everyone had a shot glass except for Elena. “Your mom doesn’t drink?” I asked.

“Somebody has to stay sane,” Elena replied after Katya’s translation.

I sniffed my drink, as though I expected it to smell like something other than alcohol. Sergei stood up, regally holding his glass aloft. His presence, even his most jovial moments, filled the room with shadows, demanding to be listened to.

Everyone else followed suit by raising their glasses, with me being the last to join in.

“This might take a while,” Katya sighed.

Sergei began his toast, with Katya translating:

“Today, we celebrate the arrival of a visitor from the United States—our former enemy—into our home. Fifteen years ago, this occasion wouldn’t have been possible. But if there’s one thing life promises more than anything, it is change. Bobby, if you need anything at all, please let me know and your wish will be our command.”

“Thank you,” I said gratefully.

“Say ‘Spasibo,’” Katya said.

“Placebo?” I asked, confused.

“Spasibo! Thank you.”

Pozhaluysta,” Sergei replied.

“My dad says ‘You’re welcome,’” said Katya.

Sergei continued his toast in Russian as Katya rolled her eyes, signaling with her hands for her father to hurry up, seemingly already tired of having to translate, or, rather, knowing from past experience how long-winded he could be.

“Bobby, I wish you a great trip, great health, great memories and a great learning experience.”

“Sergei! Let the poor boy eat,” Elena retorted.

Sergei gave in, offering his glass for me to clink.

Za vashe zdorovie,” he said (“to your health”).

Everyone joined in, then downed their shot.

I held the glass up to my mouth. I wasn’t quite ready.

In an instant, however, all eyes turned toward me. I had no choice. With the pressure building, I lifted the glass up to my mouth, downing less than half the shot, trying to remain calm and collected, but making a face like a baby taking medicine. Babushka rolled her eyes in disgust, helping herself to another shot as though trying to show me up. My eyes immediately watered as the vodka burned my throat, then my chest. My face turned as red as the borscht in my bowl.

Babushka glared, presumably putting a curse on me. Sergei tried his best to hide what I was pretty convinced was disapproval for the shame I had caused, as I sat back down, wiping the tears away from my eyes.

“Are you okay?” Katya asked, concerned.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, barely able to get the words out.

Katya poured me a glass of mineral water. I raised it to my mouth, choking on the effervescence. At this point, I was struggling to down even a glass of water.

“I’m just not used to drinking it straight,” I said.

“Cock?” Sergei asked, staring directly into my eyes.

I froze. Perhaps, I heard it wrong. I hoped I had heard it wrong.

“Why did your dad just look into my eyes and say ‘cock’?” I asked.

“Not ‘cock,’” Katya said, laughing. “‘Kak’. It’s Russian for ‘why.’”

“Oh!” I said. Now it made sense. Sergei was equally confused by my odd reaction to his innocent question. I finally answered “Well, in the U.S., most people mix their vodka with something else. Like juice.”

“Like for child?” Sergei asked.

I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.

“Well … the more practice you get, the better you become,” Sergei added.

“At what … being an alcoholic?!”

“A Ukrainian!” Katya said. “Can you handle it?”

“Bobby, you don’t have to finish it,” said a concerned Elena.

“No, that’s okay,” I replied “I have to finish what I started.”

Feeling the full weight of Ukrainian expectation and honor firmly on my shoulder, I grabbed the remainder of my shot … and took a baby sip. Then another. And another. And finally it was all gone. My first shot! Everyone—with the exception of Babushka who simply rolled her eyes—applauded as though I were a toddler who had just used the toilet for the first time. I took a bow. With everyone else’s attention directed at me, I noticed Babushka eagerly helping herself to yet another shot, for good measure.

Sergei promptly held the bottle up to my glass, simultaneously flicking his neck with his forefinger, adding, “Bobby, chut-chut?”

“Papa, no,” said Katya.

“What’s a chut-chut?” I asked.

“He’s asking if you want more,” Katya replied.

Wanting to redeem myself and restore what was left of my manhood on the heels of my shower, I flicked my neck in return, proudly proclaiming, “chut-chut!”

I then lifted up my shot glass for Sergei to pour more vodka into it, but he rather forcefully demanded that I put the glass down.

“You’re supposed to keep the glass down when pouring a shot,” Katya explained. “And you’re also not supposed to pour a shot for just yourself. It indicates you’re an alcoholic,” Katya explained to me.

“That’s too many rules for something involving alcohol.”

“It’s our culture,” Katya further explained.

Smiling with pride, Sergei poured another shot for him and me both. Not wanting to be left out, Babushka thrust her shot glass in front of her son-in-law.

“Papa!” begged Katya, who turned to me and pleaded: “Bobby, please don’t.”

Boastfully, I replied, “When in Rome …,” defiantly flicking my neck.

“This isn’t Rome. This is Ukraine,” reminded Katya.

“One more can’t hurt,” I said.

“Don’t do it. You’re not Ukrainian.”

As wise as it would have been to follow Katya’s advice, I knew there was no turning back. I may have already won Katya over, but I knew my greater mission was to win over her parents—especially her father, who held the keys to my possible future with his daughter. So rather than helping my cause by demonstrating the ability to stand by my convictions—I gave in, staring into my shot glass as though preparing to dive off the edge of a cliff.

“I’m warning you,” Katya said. “This stuff has a way of taking over you when you least expect it. And trust me, you don’t want to know what my father would do to sober you up.”

I looked at Katya, then at Sergei, who raised his glass in my honor, proclaiming, “To Bobby!”

Realizing there was no turning back, I raised my glass to his, before managing to down at least two-thirds of the shot this time around. Once the burning subsided and my tears were dried, I polished off the remainder of my shot, a mini-buzz already taking hold of me.

“I’m going to need a new liver if this keeps up,” I said.

“I’m not translating that,” Katya said, one of many times she felt the need to censor me—a key advantage when translation is necessary, albeit against the code of translator ethics.

Sergei then said something excitedly to Katya and turned toward me, nodding and smiling, gesturing toward the now half-empty vodka bottle. Katya turned to me and in an exasperated tone, said “he says perhaps you would like to give a toast’?”

“Sergei Andreovich, compared to your toasts, it would only be a disappointment,” I said, hoping to dodge a bullet.

“Well, a man must first know how to drink a toast before he gives a toast,” Sergei joked in reply. Bullet dodged.

“Bobby! Eat!” commanded Elena. “We’re not expecting any more guests.”

As I began to eat, I could feel Babushka’s eyes watching over me. She bluntly declared in Russian and with great disgust: “Too skinny.” She then slammed another shot for good measure. Surely this had to be an illusion, or some sort of parlor trick.

The thing was, she was right. I had lost a lot of weight in the months leading up to my trip as a result of the combination of my hefty class load and the anticipation of this trip.

Although I was already full, I filled my plate back up with seconds, carefully avoiding the pickled herring at all costs.

Elena offered me what looked like a giant cube of fatty bacon.

“It looks like a big chunk of fat,” I said.

“That’s why it’s called “fatback” or salo,” Katya said.

That sounds healthy, I thought to myself.

“Eat!” Elena said. “Tastes good!”

I reluctantly gave in, then reached for another helping of potatoes for good measure.

Katya pointed to a plate of what looked like sliced pieces of ham.

“What is it?” I asked hesitantly.

“Cow tongue,” Katya replied.

“Oh … no thanks.”

“I’m joking, Bobby. It’s ham.”

I grabbed a slice with my fork and immediately took a bite.

“Good?”

I nodded.

“Moo!” Katya said with a sly grin.

“Are you serious?!” I exclaimed, my mouth still full of the sinewy meat.

“You said you like it, right?”

I spit it out into my napkin. Babushka rolled her eyes.

“You eat steak, don’t you?” Katya asked.

“Yeah.”

“You have no problem eating cow’s butt?”

Katya had me there.

She reached over with her fork and stabbed a slice of tongue before dipping it into the salt bowl, flipping it this way and that until it was completely covered in salt. Unlike a relatively sanitary salt shaker, Katya’s family preferred a communal salt dipping dish, similar to a large sugar bowl. Double and triple dipping was apparently no cause for concern. And, apparently, neither was high blood pressure.

Sergei offered me more vodka. This time, I politely refused, to the relief of both Katya and Elena. I took a bite of bread and leaned back against the couch to relieve my aching back.

After presenting the family with the gifts that I brought from Michigan and sharing family photos, it was time for dessert, adding at least another hour to our total couch time. In Ukrainian culture, meals are not intended to be eaten quickly. They are to be savored. And at the centerpiece of every dessert is tea. An average Ukrainian consumes five cups of tea a day.

As Sergei poured honey into his tea, he looked me squarely in the eyes and proudly—and loudly—proclaimed, in broken English:

“Bobby, I love honey!

I nodded, smiling awkwardly, trying to make sense of what he was telling me. I turned to Katya, “Did he just say he loves honey?”

“Sure! He might not know English very well, but he definitely knows how to say his favorite treat,” Katya replied.

“Honey is his favorite treat?” I asked.

I love honey, Bobby! Sometimes! Yesterday! Today and tomorrow! I love honey! I love the United States! I love Ukraine!” confirmed Sergei in a heavy Russian accent.

“My dad just demonstrated the full extent of his English vocabulary,” Katya said, laughing.

“Very good!” I said, as Sergei popped an entire lemon wedge into his mouth, which he proceeded to suck dry before swallowing it whole. Nothing about the process seemed to faze him.

“Did he just eat a lemon?” I asked Katya.

Katya responded by eating her own lemon wedge just as Sergei had. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

“We have a saying in Ukraine. Only when you eat a lemon do you appreciate what sugar is,” Katya said. “Try one.”

“Oh, no thanks,” I said, adding “So how do I say ‘I love honey’ in Russian?” I asked.

Ya lyublyu—I love—myod–honey. Ya lyublyu myod,” Katya explained.

I decided to give it a shot, totally butchering it. “Ya lyublyu myod! Ya lyublyu Ukraine! Ya lyublyu Dnipropetrovsk!

Everyone burst out laughing at my Russian hatchet job, particularly the way I pronounced—or rather mispronounced—Dnipropetrovsk.

Katya corrected me. “Knee-prop-e-trovsk, remember? Knee…prop…e…trovsk!”

I repeated it after her, improving slightly. Katya kept coaching me through it, along with Sergei and Elena’s assistance. Sergei moved his hands like a conductor— “Knee…prop…e…trovsk! Knee…prop…e…trovsk!”—until I proudly exclaimed, in a strong Russian accent, “Dnipropetrovsk!”

Sergei, Elena, and Katya burst out in applause. Babushka gave me what I quickly surmised to be her patented glare.

“There you go!” said Katya. “Easy! Now you have truly arrived!”

Molodetz, Bobby!” Sergei proclaimed (“Well done!”).

“Dnipropetrovsk! Dnipropetrovsk!” I chanted over and over again like a delirious fool.

Published in Hackwriters:

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