Obligatory Ukraine

  • Obligatory Ukraine
Issue 47, June 2012.

10 essential experiences all visiting Euro 2012 fans must try before they leave Ukraine

1. Sample salo
Many - if not most – visiting fans will quickly acquaint themselves with Ukraine’s vodka-drinking culture, but in order to sample the genuine local vodka experience you will need to try a few chilled shots chased down by slithers of authentic Ukrainian salo on brown bread. Basically a big lump of lard, salo is considered Ukraine’s national delicacy and as such is treated with appropriate reverence as a central element of the country’s vodka rituals.

2. Beer bottle etiquette 
You will no doubt notice down-and-out figures hovering in the fringes of Ukraine’s Euro 2012 fans zones and downtown areas in a bid to collect empty beer bottles which they then exchange for a few kopeks. If you are drinking in a public area, it is considered polite to place your empty beer bottle on the ground next to the bin for their convenience – or to hand it to the nearest collector, first making sure it is drained dry for courtesy’s sake.

3. Cooh with a babushka
You will find that many of the kiosks, stalls and booths that dot Ukraine’s city centre underpasses are manned by hearty pensioner ladies. These are the famously indestructible Slavic Babushkas, but they are actually far more lighthearted than their tough image may suggest. Try and engage them in basic communication and you will be surprised at the ease with which many babushkas can slip into baby-cooh mode.

4. Enjoy the spectacle 
of a Ukrainian bridal wave
When Ukrainians get married they traditionally drive around their home town taking pictures in
front of all the local landmarks. As a result, on most summer Saturdays the country’s most iconic landmarks play host to an endless stream of wedding parties in all their kitsch glory. Don’t forget to take a bottle of Sovietski champagne along with you!

5. Drink kvas
Kvas is a non-alcoholic fermented bread drink rooted in the Slavic Orthodox monastic orders and which modern Ukrainians continue to regard as the ultimate summer thirst quencher. It may look like a murkily unappetizing proposition but nevertheless kvas can have a markedly rejuvenating effect during the traditional summer high season. You will find kvas on sale from special points on street corners, or – if you’re lucky – from mobile, industrial-sized mounted casks which resemble fuel tanks.

6. Explore the Kyiv metro
Like Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, and Constantinople before it, Kyiv is a city built on seven hills. As well as providing the Ukrainian capital with considerable mythical kudos, these seven hills also necessitated the construction of what is one of the globe’s deepest metro systems. With two giant escalators, Kyiv’s Arsenalna Metro Station is said to offer the deepest metro descent in the world.

7. Honour the victims of 20th century totalitarianism
As the epicenter of both Stalin’s 1930s terror and Hitler’s 1940s war of annihilation, Ukraine suffered more than any other country during the 20th century’s totalitarian era. Although still subject to much historical dispute, the final Ukrainian death toll for the period was almost certainly over ten million and perhaps far higher. This relatively unknown apocalypse has played a necessarily definitive role in shaping modern Ukraine and continues to cast a shadow over the country. Pay your respects by laying some flowers at one of the many monuments to the victims which dot every Ukrainian city.

8. Ride an overnight train
Traces of the Soviet past are to be found everywhere in modern Ukrainian life, but the one place  where you really feel as if you are stepping back into the old empire is when travelling on one of  Ukraine’s overnight sleeper trains. The railway station announcer usually sets the mood, reading out exotic-sounding Soviet destinations like Volgograd, Omsk, Minsk and Murmansk in a wonderfully understated monotone. Once inside your wagon, you will find yourself in a world of well-worn ritual: formal greetings are exchanged, tickets collected, bed sheets issued and places prepared. This usually takes place in relative silence as accidental bunkmates (a standard compartment sleeps four) size each other up. Once beds are made the process of getting changed begins. Most people have an established form of overnight trainwear which falls somewhere between pajamas and tracksuit. Ladies change first, then the men. Slippers are obligatory. At this point Ukrainian travelers will do one of two things – go straight to sleep without another word or produce a boozy banquet from thin air. This usually depends on the time of night and the identity of the fellow travelers. Such feasts generally consist of cold meats, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs, vodka and wine. All are invited to partake and the discussion will range across the broad horizons of history, politics and philosophy until either the drink runs out or the wagon stewardess intervenes. These stewardesses achieved iconic status in Soviet times and remain a commanding presence on today’s Ukrainian overnight trains, setting the tone in a manner somewhat akin to that of an English pub landlord. 
Once a ubiquitous part of everyday Ukrainian life, these overnight services are gradually being cut back as part of the Europeanization of the country’s transport system. Luckily, there will still be plenty of night trains running during Euro 2012 and visiting fans opting to travel overnight by rail during the tournament should still be able to enjoy a window onto a bygone Soviet age.

9. Make a toast
Ukrainians love to make long and heartfelt toasts. Indeed, these toasts are arguably the most important element of the country’s intricate drinking rituals. Fans who find themselves sharing a Euro 2012 drink with locals will quickly become used to the toast-making protocol involved and the thoughtful, sincere tone adopted by each successive toast maker. It is considered polite to respond to one toast with another, and so visiting Euro 2012 fans should be ready with a toast of their own. The ideal toast should involve some general pleasantries and something specifically related to your audience. Toasts to women are common place, as are toasts to friendship between nations or between groups of football fans. You may wish to go for a safe bet such as a toast wishing your new friends wealth, health and happiness. What ever you do choose to say, it will likely be warmly received as long as it is not too brief or obviously insincere.

10. Leave the city centre
Ukraine’s city centres are gradually becoming more and more European but a different world
awaits Euro 2012 fans who dare to venture beyond the city limits. Much of rural Ukraine has be-
come depopulated and mired in poverty since the Soviet collapse, but despite this somewhat bleak outlook the vast and fertile Ukrainian country-side remains the best place to go in order to get a sense of the soul of this ancient agrarian nation. Most Ukrainian cities have a number of lakes and beauty spots within easy reach of the downtown area – simply ask a taxi driver to take you out for a day trip and venture off into the timeless Ukrainian countryside in all its summertime glory. To avoid disappointment remember to travel well stocked with a full selection of food and drink – shopping options in rural Ukraine tend to be modest at best.

Don’t forget your Cossack dolls: kitsch is often the word when it comes to Ukrainian souvenirs – a trend which reflects an agrarian folklore tradition dominated by bright colours, free spirits and ancient fertility symbolism