NPR Review of LOVE & VODKA by Zinta Aistars

“Worthy of Several Toasts”(***** out of 5)

by Zinta Aistars

Love, science reveals, is really just another form of madness. The brain undergoes similar changes, from the rational into the irrational, and the resulting pheromone chemical soup tastes like insanity.

Dearborn-native (Michigan) and author R.J. Fox would probably not debate any of that. It took all of twenty minutes for him to fall in love with a foreign exchange student he spotted in a line for an amusement park ride. When she returned to her native Ukraine, he followed her, engagement ring in his pocket. And more madness ensued.

In his memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine (Fish Out of Water Books, October 2015), Fox recounts that initial meeting with Katya and the trip he took to Ukraine a year later to bring her back to the States again—as his wife. His adventures on foreign soil as he works up the nerve toward a marriage proposal and earn the blessing of Katya’s family are both outrageous and hilarious.

Babushka-wearing old women curse him, snarl and chase him, threaten to splatter him with bleach. Well-meaning hosts force vodka on him in toast after toast that he finds he cannot deny, resulting in drunken stupors, cold outdoor showers, and barefoot walks across sharp-edged rocks in his underwear. And so the story unfolds as Fox learns about a culture and a world far different than his own. Within its traditions and people, he finds himself in comical situations, but he also learns lessons about himself, love, and home.

What has remained with him from that mad and maddening journey these many years later, Fox says, “is the immersive experience of being in a whole other world than the one I know. Out in general public, people had a distrust toward me because I was not from Ukraine. This was in 2001, so not too far removed from the Soviet years when Ukraine was the center of missile-building during the Cold War. The distrust—it was the closest to feeling discriminated against that I’d ever known in my lifetime.”

In inner circles of what would increasingly become family, however, Fox found warmth, love, and family connection, not unlike what one would find in any family anywhere, and all liberally christened with yet more vodka. Although the resulting marriage would last only eight years—Fox is now remarried and has two children—he holds his memories of his Ukraine adventure close to his heart.

The memoir is the first publication of a new Ann Arbor-based publisher, Fish Out of Water, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson.

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11/11/15: “Love & Vodka” BOOK LAUNCH!!!

Pleased to FINALLY announce that Love & Vodka will be officially launched on 11/11/15 at Literati Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor, MI at 7 p.m.

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I’ve waited for over 20 years for this exact moment. Hope to see you there!

Details below:

http://www.literatibookstore.com/event/rj-fox-reading

After party to follow. Location TBD.

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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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© 2015 by R.J. Fox. All rights reserved.
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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.

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Goats & Milk (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup1Before we went to get the milk, my finance Katya and her mother, Elena, decided that it was best for me to wait outside as they entered the small, village grocery shop outside of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. We were in search of edible meat and cheese. While I waited, I noticed a goat chained to a fence. I decided that I had to take its picture. As I began snapping, an elderly man with a long, white beard came waddling up, angrily waving his finger at me, shouting something in Russian.

“Nyet, Russkiy,” I said, pleading my case, but the man continued shouting at me. Moments later, Katya came running out of the shop, coming to my defense, while Elena finished up the grocery purchase.

“Is this your foreigner?” the man asked Katya in Russian.

Da,” Katya admitted nervously. “Did he do something wrong?”

“Get him the hell out of here! That cheap son of a bitch owes me!”

“What did you do?!” Katya asked me.

“No idea! All I did was take a picture of this goat,” I explained, gesturing toward the bearded animal. The man continued to yell.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“He said if you want to photograph his goat, then you have to pay the price.”

“As in literally pay money … or is he threatening me?” I asked, equally amused and bemused by the whole situation.

“He wants you to pay him money.”

“I’ll butcher you like a cow if you take another picture of my goat, you hear me you son of a bitch?” the man shouted.

Katya apologized, took me by the hand, as though I were a small child in trouble, and escorted me back toward the shop, leaving the old man grumbling to himself.

“Never do that again!” Katya scolded.

“Do what again?” I asked, exasperated.

“You can’t just take pictures of another man’s goat.”

“Why? What’s the big deal?” I said in disbelief.

“Stop asking ‘why’ Bobby! That’s just the way it is,” Katya said, clearly annoyed.

“That doesn’t really answer my question,” I replied, standing my ground.

“You’ll scare people, that’s why!” Katya shouted, as everyone within earshot watched the drama unfold.

I’ll scare people?!” I said, losing my cool. “Look! This country scares me! Nothing works right. Nothing’s logical. Nothing’s rational!”

“If you’re looking for rational,” Katya snapped back “you’re in the wrong country. It might not be perfect like America, but it’s my country. This is how it is. If you can’t handle it, no one’s forcing you to stay.”

“I’m sorry … but it’s becoming more and more obvious that I don’t belong here,” I said, struggling to hold back my frustration.

“Bobby! Stop it! Stop talking like that!” Katya begged. “I’m supposed to come with you, remember?”

That helped settle me down.

We survived our first squabble, just in time for Elena to come out of the shop. We walked down the road in silence until we saw a middle-aged woman selling milk on the side of the road, her face worn and haggard.

Vechernee moloko?” (“Evening milk”?) asked Elena.

Utrennee” (“Morning”), the vendor replied sullenly.

Elena frowned, then carried on walking. Katya and I followed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They don’t have evening milk.”

“What the hell’s evening milk?” I asked.

“Milk that’s milked in the evening,” Katya succinctly explained as we headed towards the dark and dingy apartment building, in search of the elusive “evening milk.” From the outside, one could easily assume that the building was not only abandoned, but inhabitable. Yet here we were, about to enter.

“So where are we going now? The black market?” I asked, as we crept around to the back of the building.

“Shh. Don’t ask questions,” Katya warned.

Of course not. Why would I question us entering what I was pretty sure was Ukraine’s own Amityville?

As we entered, the stairwell was completely dark, making the dimly-lit stairwell of the family apartment in Dnipropetrovsk look like a sunroom.

We made our way up several flights, trusting that each step was evenly spaced since they were impossible to see in the darkness. When we finally reached our destination, Katya reminded me again: “No English.” Clearly, we were on a top-secret reconnaissance mission.

Elena called out. Moments later, another haggard, middle-aged woman appeared through a bead curtain hanging from the doorframe.

Vechernee moloko?” Elena asked the woman. The woman nodded and took the jugs from Elena before disappearing through the curtain, leaving us waiting in the dark hallway. Everything about this felt like a drug deal.

Moments later, the woman reappeared with the two jugs filled with warm, fresh milk. Elena handed over some money and we very carefully began our descent into darkness—a feat far more frightening than the way up. Each step felt as though we were about to stumble off a cliff into an abyss.

“Did she just milk a cow in there?” I asked, assuming it was now safe to speak.

“Don’t speak!” Katya retorted. I guess we were still in danger after all. It wasn’t until we were back on the village road leading to the dacha that my speaking moratorium (moo-ratorium?) was lifted.

After we returned to the dacha, Elena took out some glasses and began pouring milk, as everyone eagerly awaited a straight-from-the-teat treat.

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A Day at the Circus (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup2-1Refreshed from a decent night’s sleep, Katya and I headed downtown. It didn’t take me long to become reacquainted with the city, which now felt like a second home, as opposed to my first trip when it felt like another planet. For the most part, everything was pretty much how I remembered it, however I did notice a couple of new residential skyscrapers taking shape not far from Katya’s apartment building. Unlike the drab, cinderblock style of Soviet-era apartments, these new buildings were both modern and very western-world glass and metal structures.

One of my regrets from my first trip was not visiting the Dnipropetrovsk State Circus. This time, I was determined to rectify the situation. I was especially intrigued by promotional posters and billboards throughout the city, advertising “The Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk.” I had to see this for myself. As on cue, a stray mutt passed by.

“I guess there’s no shortage of performers,” I remarked, half-serious.

“Hey, it’s definitely possible,” Katya said, fully-serious.

I had been to a few circuses in my lifetime, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of a Ukrainian one. Unlike circuses back in the U.S., which roll into town for a day or two, the circus in Dnipropetrovsk runs from early spring through early fall. As is turns out, Ukraine is a hotbed of circus talent. In fact, many circus performers in the U.S. hail from all across the remnants of the former Soviet Union.

After purchasing tickets for a matinee performance, we headed to a nearby market to purchase warm beer and peanuts. We then entered the circus building, which had been built in 1980. For some odd reason, the lobby included a pet store. Various souvenirs were offered for sale around the perimeter of the lobby concourse by vendors dressed as clowns. As somebody who has a complete and utter fear towards these sinister spawns of Satan, it’s a wonder I didn’t head for the closest exit. The fact that they spoke Russian somehow made them even more horrifying.

We headed to our seats in the back row of the 300–400 seat arena, which was probably about three-quarters full. This was quite impressive considering that the circus is pretty much always in town in Dnipropetrovsk.

As we waited for the show to begin, Katya used an armrest to pop the caps of our beer off just before the chimes of what sounded like a very depressed clock rang—a cue for the audience to be aware that the show would begin in ten minutes. We used that time to make out in our seats, because nothing says romance like a Ukrainian circus. Five minutes later, the clock chimed again. A buzz filled the air. Katya explained that the chimes were ringing out the melody of the Moscow Circus. It sounded more like a funeral dirge to me. Finally, the lights dimmed and a spotlight shined upon the house band, perched in a balcony overlooking the crowd, which was now going bananas in anticipation. The band provided accompaniment for the performers throughout the entire show, which included everything one would expect to see at a circus: tightrope walkers, gymnasts, lion tamers, monkeys, clowns and performers inside giant, glow-in-the-dark worm-like creatures that resembled Slinkys on acid.

Prior to the intermission, a woman was brought into the ring from the crowd. She looked understandably shocked and confused. Moments later, a man was rolled out by a gang of clowns. He was positioned inside a giant ring—his arms and legs spread out like da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” drawing. After the clowns released him from the wheel, he got down on one knee in front of the woman and proposed. She accepted. How could she not? The crowd went crazy. All I could think was, why didn’t I think of that?

During the intermission, children lined up for elephant rides. More impressive was an enormous swing that was lowered from the rafters. And when I say enormous swing, I mean a swing that almost spanned the entire circus ring. I watched in utter fascination as approximately twenty children were strapped in at a time before being swung back and forth by some sort of contraption made up of levers, whirligigs, and gizmos.

The second half of the show began innocently enough with a half-naked gymnast twirling up and down a rope like a stripper on a pole. The next act became the realization of my worst nightmare as a posse of clowns ran into the ring, then up and down the aisles, searching for some poor soul to include in their act. I made it a point not to make any eye contact with any of them whatsoever. In retrospect, I think this may have been the wrong tactic, because as it turned out, that poor, unsuspecting soul happened to be me. Next thing I knew, I was being pulled from my seat and dragged down the aisle and into the ring below. Katya, meanwhile, couldn’t stop laughing as I looked back at her in a desperate plea for help.

The procurer clowns brought me down into the dirt-floored ring, where I was instantly surrounded by at least a dozen more clowns. One clown in particular kept running around me in circles, making funny faces three inches from mine. This had to be—indubitably—what Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell is like.

The leader of the clowns commanded me to do something—in Russian.

“Nyet, Russiky,” I pleaded in desperation.

Apparently, he either couldn’t understand me, or chose not to. He continued barking at me in Russian, repeating the same command over and over—until it finally occurred to him that I couldn’t understand Russian. Once this understanding was finally established, he instead gestured for me to sit upon the raised feet of a clown who was laying on his back. A third clown was positioned in the same manner five feet away. I did as instructed—or at least I thought I did—but I was apparently not positioned the way they wanted me to be. Another clown helped adjust me into the proper position, at which point the clown that was holding me up began bouncing me up and down on his feet, as though they were spring-loaded. However, my position was still apparently not to his liking. The more they tried, the more it was becoming evident that it was no use. The poor clown holding me up was struggling to withstand my weight. Finally, his legs buckled and I fell right on top of his face. He rolled over, holding his nose in pain, as blood gushed out, soaking the front of his costume.

As the crowd booed, I was scolded by the clown leader, who pointed toward my seat. I trudged back toward Katya, head bowed, equally ashamed and traumatized. Just what it was that the clowns wanted me to do, I’ll never know. But I imagine it had something to do with being catapulted from one clown to the other. I couldn’t really imagine any good coming from that, so I am quite sure that it was for the best that it didn’t work out.

When I got back to my seat, Katya was laughing even harder.

“It’s not funny,” I said.

“It is hilarious,” Katya replied, cracking up.

Meanwhile, the clown whose face I fell on was being helped out of the ring, holding a bloody rag up to his possibly broken nose. One might assume that considering the way I felt about clowns, I would have claimed this moment as a victory. But instead, I felt sorry for the poor clown. I never thought it possible that a clown could elicit my sympathy. Then again, the more time I spent in Ukraine, the more I learned that anything was possible.

When the clowns finished up their act—which I had clearly curtailed—it was time for the grand finale: the Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk! I was dying to know how they would manage to make dogs fly. Would they be shot out of a cannon? Surely, they wouldn’t be that cruel.

Initially, this trick was accomplished by having dogs wearing little backpacks walk up a ladder practically to the roof—a height of at least one-hundred feet. When the dogs reached the top, they would walk across a diving-board-like platform and then jump. Half way down, a little parachute would open, allowing them to land safely in the arms of their trainers.

And then, they brought out the cannon, which was pointed straight up into the air. And—just as I imagined—dogs were shot out of it.

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