It’s that time of year again: quarantine in Ukraine. Of course, this is no ordinary closure of schools. Generally, there are isolated outbreaks of the seasonal flu in January or February, causing individual regions and towns to shut down for a week or two. In addition to arriving in fall, this round of quarantine is nationwide for three weeks and affects all schools, universities, and public gatherings.
Filling 21 days is a daunting task, but I’ve been doing my best to stay entertained. The reopening of the best wireless café in town has helped exponentially. While this is far from a holiday for many people, for those of us who are still healthy, it oscillates from feeling like prison to one big party. With 25 national holidays, Ukrainians rarely need to invent reasons for celebration. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve raised my glass to the quarantine in the past 14 days. It’s never meant to be offensive. We are genuinely thankful for another day of health, another day of rest, and of course another excuse to crack open a spirited beverage.
I’ve never written a post about a Ukrainian holiday. This is not for a lack of them. It’s exactly the opposite. There are so many and the celebrations are so elaborate and exhausting that I don’t think writing about it can do them justice. But with another unscheduled week on my docket, I thought I’d give it a shot (pun intended).
Should you find yourself with about eight to 12 hours to kill and at least ten of your closest friends, then you would have the beginnings of a Ukrainian party. The entire party takes place around the table, guests seated and dishes rotating. The host spends the morning/day/night shuffling back and forth from the kitchen to the dinning area. The number of dishes served is generally seen more important than the quantity of any one dish. For example, your serving size of each salad is only a few spoonfuls because there are four or five of them. The host will rotate around, rinsing off plates between courses. The table is blanketed in salads, soups, and bread items first, then meat dishes, more salads, and other vegetables and fruits. Finally, after about six hours of this, you are ready for dessert, which will be several cakes, ice cream and chocolate, served with tea or coffee.
During all of this, you will be toasting the holiday, your host, your country, your favorite soccer team, etc with shots of liquor, preferably vodka or cognac. This must promptly be washed down with a choice of items including homemade juice, carbonated water, pickles, brown bread, or, a crowd favorite, pig’s fat, salted, peppered and sliced, called “salo.” Everyone is allowed and encouraged to make toasts, but only one person can pour the drinks all night. It is custom for it to be the man of the house, but any old Y chromosome will do. There are a few breaks throughout the party for which you are permitted to leave the table: dancing is always encouraged, and answering your cell phone is not considered rude. The men take several smoke breaks throughout the party, and the women often rearrange the plates or help in the kitchen when this happens. The rare man who doesn’t smoke becomes the darling of the night, getting more attention and time with the women than any of the others.
One of my more memorable Ukrainian party experiences was on New Year’s Eve 2008. In my experience, NYE is pretty overrated. The excitement builds until midnight and about half an hour later people start heading for the door. I think Ukraine is possibly the only place NYE celebrations are bigger than the hype. I was wholly unprepared for this level of festivity. At about 2 a.m. I noticed everyone getting coats and shoes on. I had been dosing in my seat and was thankful for the exit opening. I gathered my things and headed outside with all the other guests. But to my surprise instead of leaving, we were grilling shish kabobs in the snow. Nothing like a nice marinated stick of meat before you hit the hay. Had I known the party would continue until 2 p.m. the next day, I probably wouldn’t have considered it a bedtime snack.
While all other parties pale in comparison to an 18-hour bash, the last night in my training village where the owner of the local bar opened a case of champagne and turned on a strobe light as we were trying to exit certainly makes my list, as do all the in-school celebrations that still shock my western sensibilities. My favorite quarantine bash had a four-course dessert that I will not soon forget. With my vacation to America coming up next month, I wonder how our celebrations will stack up. For one thing, I know I’ll be shocked when the meal ends after only an hour or two.