A vodka story in Crimea

Many advised me against drinking with clients. But nobody ever warned me about drinking vodka with a Ukrainian. This story is among those you probably shouldn’t be posting online but one day, my mind might not be clear enough to remember this.

At the end of winter in 2013, my colleague and I travelled to Crimea to convince a client to sign a contract.

Crimea for me was something bigger than Ukraine. It was a place I haven’t heard of, a place so far and mysterious that my heart throbbed faster when our trip was confirmed. Crimea was the playground of the Russian elite, from Catherine the Great to Stalin, from Chekhov to Tolstoy, the home of Tsarina Anastasia and the Russian Black Sea Fleet. I was mystified by it.

shallows nest

We landed at Simferol airport, flown here by a rickety, old plane that probably won’t be allowed to fly in European skies for safety reasons. But we arrived in one piece and went through immigration in a breeze. After a rather long and exciting drive from the airport to Sevastopol, we checked in late in the evening at Best Western, a grand hotel that has obviously seen the best of times. We had an early appointment the next day.

We presented our business offer to a group of 10 men, including The Boss and the in-house doctor. My Russian gave up on me in the first three minutes but I was saved by an interpreter. The meeting ended after two hours and The Boss invited us for lunch. It was about 12 noon. He took us to Sevastopol’s best secret, Glechik, deeply hidden in a residential village. You won’t easily find it in travel guides nor would you stumble on it by accident.

waiter

At Glechik, we were treated to a Ukrainian hospitality not available to most Westerners. The people were very friendly because The Boss is apparently a regular. They even assigned a very handsome young man to attend to my (our) table. The young man brought several appetizers and with it came a very good bottle of vodka. I particularly liked the white petals served with a whole piece of chili. It looked so dainty and delicious so I dove right in. It was too late when I realized that I just ate a mouthful of raw pork fat. Have you ever heard of salo?

But there was vodka and you can pretty well drown every peculiar taste with a shot of good vodka. There were also short speeches – for the host, for the guests, for the lady, for the old people, for the dead, etc. Russians and Ukrainians are apparently fond of these little pre-shot speeches. A speech is mandatory for every toast, so we toast and toast until the last drop from the first bottle was consumed.

salo

Then the soup and the sausage came. A bottle of vodka would appear with each course. And the whole process of speeches and toasting is repeated. When the bottle was about half emptied (or fully emptied), I excused myself and went to the toilet. I didn’t know I was drunk until I got up. Inside the ladies room, I felt a tsunami forming in my stomach, ending in a mess on the toilet’s floor. When I did not come out after 20 minutes, the lady servers opened the door (I didn’t lock it, I was still thinking) and found me half dead on the floor.

Two hours later, I found myself laid out on a tiny bench at the back of the restaurant. It was early March and it was 10 degree Celsius outside! I had a fleece cover but still, I was wearing a skirt. When they heard me moaning, they waved some sort of liquid under my nose which I later found out was ammonia. I quickly regained consciousness and asked for my colleague.

To my surprise, my colleague was also half dead, sleeping on the table, wouldn’t move and wouldn’t wake up either. How we were able to move him to the car was a miracle, thanks to the driver of The Boss, who was also merrily drunk at this point. I saw three empty bottles on our dining table. It took the strength of one driver, two hotel guards and thousands of prayer before we could carry him to his room. We were back at the hotel at 5PM. My colleague swears, up to this day, that he could not remember those 10 hours after he passed out.

bestwestern

It took me 10 liters of water, two hours soaking bath and a huge bowl of soup before I was finally able to think straight. I spent the whole evening wondering if my colleague would wake up for our 10:30am flight the next day. Thankfully he did.

We were dazed the next day but we didn’t have a headache. That was a good bottle. We left the hotel at 7am, confident that we would make it on time to catch our flight back. Crimea is a beautiful place, if you look past its ugly history marred with the blood of war. My colleague said it reminded him of Bergen, Norway while I compared it to Algarve, Portugal. It is also a sad place where people’s hearts are torn between being a Russian and being themselves.

About 30 minutes away from the airport we were waved down by a group of traffic police. When I saw their car, I knew we’re going to be in trouble. Two months before our trip, I was in Saint Petersburg and I’ve read how strict Russian and Ukranian police are with alcohol. They don’t tolerate even a single drop in your system. You could end up in jail with a hefty fine.

They asked my colleague why he was driving 100km/hr on a 60 zone. He reasoned out that he didn’t know. They told him he should the law of the country he is visiting. My colleague insisted that he didn’t see any signs. They could smell the alcohol in his breath but their alcohol tester wasn’t working. My colleague had the nerve to tell him that he cannot be fined for bad breath and all I could think was the flight we were definitely missing.

We called The Boss who talked to the police officers and promised us that he’ll hold the flight for us. We weren’t very hopeful but thankfully we didn’t end up in jail that day. How we got out of that sticky situation, I will leave it to your imagination.

In the end we missed our flight. We also didn’t get the contract. But we have one hell of a story to tell!

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