Something I learned in Ukraine is that no train journey is complete without one ingredient – vodka.
Dmitri and I were taking the same train from Lviv to Kyiv, but were in different cabins. While he got a bit of sleep and I didn’t I think it’s safe to say that I had the better time. The journey started off in an uneventful fashion, with me making up my top bunk, snacking on some delicious sandwiches I slapped together at the hostel and catching up on some reading. A few hours into the journey, the peace in my cabin was shattered by three thirty-something Ukrainians carrying a couple of bottles of vodka along with some bread, ham and far too many pickles.
They said something to me and were very excited when I tried to explain to them that I didn’t understand Ukrainian. They were inviting me to join them and I figured why not – it wasn’t like I was going to get any sleep with them partying away and it might be a bit of fun. It was.
As I’d previously discovered in Lviv, Ukrainians don’t drink vodka mixed or in standard shots but by the glass. I was handed a glass with about 150mls of pure vodka and apparently this was meant to be consumed as one would a shot. After big smiles and a loud ‘za zdorovye!’ [to good health – the equivalent of ‘cheers’ in English-speaking countries] the vodka went down the hatch. I’ll admit to failing to completely keep a twisted grimace from crossing my face. It was not the most delicious vodka I’d ever had – it was cheap and tasted of toxic burn. It certainly warmed me up though.
It’s not possible to leave it at one glass and quit while you’re ahead in Ukraine. One turns into two, two turns into five, and soon enough the vodka’s destroyed all your taste buds and it goes down smoothly. In between, they were making sandwiches with fresh brown bread, too-thick slices of ham and fat, disgusting whole pickles lumped on top. As I couldn’t refuse the second and third and fourth and so on glasses of vodka, I couldn’t refuse the horrible sandwiches either. And I really, really hate pickles. I find them just horrible – everything about them from the taste to the texture revolts me. They handed me the open sandwich in a piece of foil and I did my best to furtively hide as much of the pickle as possible in the foil and thus avoid poisoning my poor stomach. I did, thankfully, manage to refuse a second sandwich. I had, after all, eaten a huge baguette for dinner only a couple of hours earlier – one not infected by pickles – and eventually managed to plead that there was no room left. I wasn’t making room in the Desert Stomach for anything involving pickles. That appears only for tasty things like chocolate and cheesecake.
The vodka ran out and I did eventually manage to catch a few hours of sleep. It was still a rather sleep-deprived person who met the wide awake Dmitri at the train station in Kyiv and had to navigate the metro system to find the hostel. Thankfully I’d translated the names of the metro stations that we needed to change lines at and then get off at into Cyrillic – I knew the alphabet pretty well by that point – and was able to follow the signs.
Dmitri might have been awake, but he’d had a boring sleep-filled trip with a cabin full of silent oldies while I got to enjoy the local train-travel experience. So, as exhausted as I was, I still felt that I’d been the lucky one. After all, I could catch a few hours sleep in the hostel if need be!