When it comes to drinking vodka in Ukraine, there’s no such thing as “a little bit.”
Let me explain.
Even though you’re traveling, don’t assume that everyone is familiar with travelers, or foreigners. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It just means many things can get lost in translation, and not everyone will understand what you’re trying to say, even when you’re speaking the same language.
This was true for some of our hosts. I’ve discussed the ritual of drinking vodka in Ukrainian traditions before. But to fill you in, it’s customary at special occasions to start the meal with three shots of vodka.
To many outsiders, this sounds unbelievably intimidating. Especially for us, who weren’t drinkers at all back home, shots of anything are the hallmark of a sloppy, rowdy night and a painfully sobering morning. And we wouldn’t even be downing these shots at night and hitting the town, just sitting at the table with friends and family.
My first experience with this was heavy dose of culture shock. Luckily I was exhausted by 18 hours of traveling, and all the alcohol helped with the jet lag actually. Go figure. I didn’t think I was too drunk, but Nikita’s Mom told us no hanky panky before going to bed, and well… no matter how much I wanted to be a good guest that didn’t really work out. Thanks, vodka. Actually, thanks vodka, champagne and cognac.
After my first big Russian meal, I was scared of all the drinking and didn’t want to be losing it during a time when I should be making good memories. So I asked Nikita how you say, “a little bit,” in Russian.
“Chut chut,” he said.
We felt confident we could use this to our advantage- we could be good guests without getting wasted! Next time someone was about to pour us a shot we could just say, “chut chut.” Problem solved!
Problem is, chut-chut didn’t seem to apply to vodka. We asked for “chut chut” at our next big meal, and got a nod of understanding, with the same full shot of vodka. Not only that, but Nikita’s Dad overheard us and thought it was hilarious. To this day, he still shouts “Chut chut!” at us whenever we’re about to eat, which I’m assuming is his way of saying “pussies!”
This happened at every meal, where we asked for chut chut vodka. Just a little vodka doesn’t seem to be a concept that is within the realm of understanding. This isn’t meant to be condescending, just a meditation on the importance of drinking vodka in hospitality and social interactions, and what happens when you attempt to modify another culture’s customs for your own comfort.
No chut chut aside, when Ukrainian vodka traditions are properly observed, everyone should be having a good time but not be completely faced.
Ukrainian vodka is very pure, and is consumed straight, no mixer or chaser. Starchy potatoes, fresh fruits and vegetables, hearty bread with butter and meat, cheese or fatty fish help contain the alcohol in your stomach. If you’re thirsty, there’s usually water to sip on during your meal, or some wine if things are getting celebratory.
We definitely noticed the difference between drinking vodka this way, and the clear-headed buzz that came with, compared to the stupefying, sick-making method of consuming vodka back in the States.
Sometimes you just have to check your past experiences and assumptions at the door and trust the locals, especially when it comes to drinking vodka in Ukraine.