I’ve been hiding in my bedroom for about five minutes, standing over my bed with my head out the open window, and I’m inhaling and exhaling deeply, doing everything I can not to get sick from all the vodka I’ve drank during the past hour.
Then, from the other room, a heavily accented voice beckons. “Kree-ees,” it says, drawing it out in the middle.
I take one last deep breath, give myself a light slap to the face and then walk to the other room.
It’s Ira’s 23rd birthday, and her entire family has come over to the apartment I share with her and her boyfriend, my very good friend Igor, to celebrate.
Birthdays in Ukrainian culture are a very big deal. It’s typical to host a large dinner for family and close friends on the day of your birthday. And it’s important not to have empty space on the table during those dinners.
So for the past three days Ira and her friends, Ira, Ira and Tanya, have been baking, cooking, preparing elaborate mayonnaise salads and decorating the living room. They’ve also accumulated a table’s worth of booze. Every sort, from champagne to cognac, is represented.
The birthday dinner itself follows a strict formula. First, the dinner must be held on the actual day, or after, but never before. Once at the dinner, no one dishes up before everything is laid out, and no one drinks until everyone is present and ready to begin. A toast to the person whose birthday it is sets everything in motion.
On Monday night it’s Ira’s uncle Oleg who starts.
“Let’s drink,” he says, standing and raising his shot glass. The rest of us follow accordingly. “To Ira, my beautiful and wonderful niece on her birthday! May you have a long and prosperous life.”
Everyone throws back their glass of vodka, and we’re off to the races.
Plates are passed around, with the women scooping enormous helpings of everything onto them for the men. Discussions begin, with topics running the gamut from gossip to politics. The latter is one that I try to tread lightly on, because it has the power to ignite a firestorm amongst Ukrainians. And over the course of the next hour there are more than a dozen toasts, to the honored guest and just about everything else.
“I would like to make a toast to love!” Ira’s aunt cries out. So we all stand, clink our glasses and toss one back.
A few minutes later Ira’s father announces, “To the lovely couple – Ira and Igor!” Another shot down the hatch.
Not long after someone else shouts, “To women!” And everyone drinks again.
There’s a toast for men, another for Ukraine, one for friendship between Ukraine and America. There’s even one for me, for making it through the past two years. “It must have been difficult for you living with all of us,” someone jokes. All the while Oleg is watching my glass to be sure I’m drinking the shots in full. When I try to get away with just drinking half he calls me out.
“It’s bad luck to drink only half after a toast,” he explains. “Finish that now and let’s get you another.”
It’s after that next one that I escape to the toilet and then to my room. I need some air, and I need to stand up. I need to focus myself, because this thing’s not close to over.
But what I really need is to purge all this booze, drink some water and sleep. It’s a Monday night, and I have English lessons at 8 a.m. the next morning. Oleg, though, won’t let that happen. He’s made it his personal mission to fuck me up.
Somehow, sometime during my five minutes away, he’s acquired a new bottle of vodka. How the wretched thing materialized is beyond me
“Chris, you see?” he says, flicking his finger against the raised bottle of Nemiroff, his wedding ring clinking the glass. “This is just for you and me. For new friends!”
“Oleg,” I say, slowly shaking my head. “I don’t know. I just– ”
“No excuses. Only drinking,” he tells me, with a flick to his neck. “C’mon!”
Now I have no choice but to continue. His father, Ira’s grandfather, has sat me down on the sofa and is now holding my shot glass in front of my face, waiting for me to take it from him.
“You’re young and strong,” he tells me. “Everything will be OK.”
But after more than a dozen shots, I’m not sure if I believe him.
I finally get Oleg to let me take a break, but only after Ira’s aunt goes to bat for me, explaining to her husband in a rather patronizing manner that I’m American and I shouldn’t be held to Ukrainian standards.
“They can’t drink like us in America,” she says.
For the next several minutes I consume as much mashed potatoes, salad and bread as I can, in order to soak up some of the alcohol, careful not to overindulge for fear of becoming ill.
Living here for more than two years, you’d think I’d have learned all the tricks to surviving the Ukrainian birthday dinner. During Peace Corps training we’re even warned about it and taught ways to say no to alcohol. They tell us we’ll need to say “no” forcefully and at least three times for people to comprehend that we really don’t want or need anymore, or that we should think of a medical excuse.
But that’s just stupid. And the latter only works if you’ve not been drinking from the start. The former, well, sometimes you do want to partake, have fun and be lively. It’s not that I can’t take more than three shots, it’s that I don’t fare so well taking more than that in a span of just 10 or 15 minutes.
Three shots into the new bottle, I cut myself off, informing Oleg that it is now impossible for me to drink anymore without paying dearly for doing so. When he asks me what that means exactly, I make a vomiting gesture.
Tossing his head back in laughter while simultaneously patting me on the back, he finally gets it.
Thirty minutes and two pieces of cake later, Oleg and everyone else are gone. Igor and Ira do their best to convince me that going to a nightclub called Fresh is a great idea, but I make it no further than the courtyard in front of our building before I feel nauseous. Forget dancing, the simple act of watching someone dance might incite vomiting.
So I make my way back inside, stumble on my pants as I take them off to climb in bed, and hit the sack.
The next morning Igor and I bump into each other in the hallway. We leave for work at the same time.
“How are you feeling?” He asks.
“Terrible,” I say. “How about you?”
“Like a Brontosaurus Rex,” he tells me. “I think we drank a lot of vodka.”