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Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

June 25, 2012 12:08 pmComments are Disabled

The weekend started off with a disappointment. Although my brother and I had made the necessary reservations in advance, the Ukrainian authorities unceremoniously cancelled our planned trip to Chernobyl. The good news is, once we were over this initial letdown, the weekend could only get better.

I find that emerging economies are the most interesting places to visit, precisely because the rules of order (I would say over-order) we have become used to in the United States and Europe are nonexistant. The first sign of this unorderness for me was the “taxi” from the airport, which was a normal, unmarked car called up by the hostel to pick me up. Unmarked, and ready to drive me 30 minutes to downtown without a seatbelt.

After checking in at the hostel (Marshall is working there for the summer) it was already 11pm so we went across the street to a bar where we ordered beer, pizza and hookah, normal fare for that place. Then, before putting away the menus, I realized that there was an entire menu just for sushi. It seemed odd to me that a pizza, beer and hookah place would serve sushi, but Marshall told me that apparently, the Ukrainians are obsessed with sushi. I would soon find out that “obsessed” is an understatement. There is sushi on every menu in ever restaurant in the city.

While we were sitting outside eating pizza, we were fortunate to witness another incident. Across the street, a SUV was pulled over by a cop car. One cop got out and went to the window and started talking to the driver, a young woman in her 20’s. After a couple minutes of talking, the cop stepped away from the vehicle and looked back at the road, where he flagged down another car. The second car was not speeding–and we know, because we saw several speeders go by in the short time we were there–but it pulled over anyway and stopped a couple parking spaces in front of the first car. Meanwhile, the girl in the first car had gotten out and went to sit in the police car with the other officer. We could clearly see money changing hands from our vantage point. Then, she got out, went back to her car, and drove off. Evidently, the second car was in the process of bribing the cops as well.

Marshall tells me that cops taking bribes is about as normal as it gets in Ukraine. When he was in Odessa, he and his friend were stopped for drinking in public (in reality, for talking English in public) and had handcuffs dangled in front of them before one of the cops took him into an alley to negotiate a bribe of about $30. Such is how justice works in Ukraine.

On Saturday, we walked around the city, covering a good third of the city center. It’s a decently large city, with normal city things (shops, parks, the Dnieper, and churches, lots of churches). The day was largely uneventful, although we did visit the deepest metro station in the world, which took two escalators over at least seven minutes to get to the bottom of, and we met some heavily accented eastern Europeans who said they lived in Hartford, Connecticut.

For lunch, we got traditional Ukrainian food–sushi at Yellow Sea, a restaurant decked out like the Japan stall at Disney World. The exclusively white staff wore ninja headbands and kimonos. The walls were ornamented with Chinese characters. There was, of course, the obligatory water-wall. The waiter poured tea from a 15-inch spout. And when the sushi came, it was on a wooden boat in classic junk style. Surprisingly, the sushi was delicious, and to my delight, the yellow tail was actually fresh. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

We got back to the hostel late afternoon and we took a siesta. I powered through the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapágos, which was alright, and napped for a bit. Then we met up with a bunch of other hostel goers. There was a girl from California who was teaching English in Kiev. A Polish stoner from Krakow. The hsotel owner, whose name escapes me. An Irish guy and an English guy who just met while travelling over their love of football. And there was Kevin, a Northwestern student we had met the night before and with whom we had shared pizza, hookah and beer.

We started the evening by trying to get a “Taxi,” which I soon found out involved flagging down cars on the street and asking to pay for a ride somewhere. Apparently hitchhiking is not only common in Kiev, it’s the only way to get around reliably. We found that all “Taxis” were such glorified hitches. Our car was driven by an African immigrant who agreed to drive us to our destination for $4. On the way, he had Lady Gaga pumping through the sound system on repeat.

That destination was a bar, “Room 6,” which was in the basement of an old hospital or sanitarium. The bar is unmarked but evidentally enough know its reputation. We had steaks which went for $5 a pop–excellent meat–and had a beer while watching the pregame. (One of the reasons Marshall is there–and why I wanted to visit–was because the EuroCup is happening right now in Ukraine.) The bar is staffed by “nurses” and “doctor” bartenders. One of the specialty shots they do is called the “Straightjacket,” where they put you in a straightjacket and lie you in the lap of a large-breasted nurse who spoons you a drink.

Marshall tells Kevin and me that we will be spared the “Straightjacket,” but we have to do a “Flaming Head” shot instead. They take us to the bar and seat us, and strap a World War II helmet on our heads. They then dab lighter fluid on each helmet, light it on fire, and start blowing whistles. They take three shots–red, white and blue–and successively bang them on our heads to activate the latent carbon, then blow whistles as we shoot them. While one is going down empty, the next is being banged on our flaming heads. Then, when all three are empty, they take a beer keg and bang that on our heads, too. Then they extinguish the flames and the whole bar erupts in applause. The whole ordeal lasted maybe two minutes, but it was memorable…and somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a video. We then went to another bar to watch the game, but it was pretty empty, so we went to the FanZone instead.

There were no games held in Kiev this weekend, but the “FanZone” attempts to give you the game experience. It is in the center of town decked out with jumbotrons, and thousands of spectators gather in drunken tidal pools to cheer on the matches. Ukraine had long since been eliminated. Tonight was Spain vs. France, and it was a boring, boring game. About two hours later, Spain had won 2-0 and the night was still young. Much jubilation and reverie ensued–indeed, the Ukranians are well suited for their drunken reputation. I have never been so impressed by the amount of alcohol that can be dispensed of by a population. I think I ended up getting back to the hostel at 4am, although my phone and only timekeeper had long since died. Some point in the evening, we went to a run-of-the-mill coffee shop and had sushi. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

In all, it was a perfectly fine experience exploring a new city like Kiev. We could have gone to Chernobyl, which would have been amazing, but I guess it just leaves something for me to do when I go back. I also know now that if I want good sushi, Kiev’s only a short distance away.

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