Christmas Eve in Ukraine, 1995

The Most Difficult Christmas Ever

I spent a year in Odesa, Ukraine as part of my undergraduate degree in Russian language and literature at the University of St Andrews. I rented a room in the city centre with a host family and was honestly pretty miserable the whole time. My self esteem was at its lowest ebb.

When I got there, I’d been studying Russian for 7 years and thought I was doing pretty well, but for some reason I had no confidence and would spend as much time as I could in the books, rather than actually USING the language with actual people.

Russkaya Vodka

That confidence that was not available to me in sobriety would magically appear when I took a drink. This photo shows a bottle of Russkaya Vodka bought from the kiosk on the street outside my apartment. I was a regular down there for my vodka and my L&M cigarettes. It cost about £1 for 20 fags and a half litre. Then I would find myself getting chatty with my landlady and her son, or I would have a great afternoon with my Russian teacher down at the 13th Station after class.

This photo shows my Christmas eve in 1995, my Russian grammar book and notes and a cassette player playing through tiny speakers with a half litre of Russkaya vodka. I deliberately didn’t go home to Scotland because I knew it would be even worse to go back again.

Looking back

It was and remains one of the most intense years of my life, but I now look back on it with fondness and with some self admiration that I stuck it out and had the courage to go in the first place. Yes, it was probably the year that tipped me over into hard blown alcoholism, but to be honest that was on the cards anyway and nothing would have stopped it.

I became friends with one amazing family in particular and learned about the Russian soul. I studied Eugene Onegin with a wonderful teacher, and discovered my favourite band, Akvarium during after-lesson drinks with my Russian teacher and her husband on Saturday afternoons. I also found the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and fell head over heels in love with ballet. I attended the opera and ballet almost every week, as well as the Philharmonia. Oh, and I discovered the music of Shostakovich. I adore his music to this day.

And when I got back to St Andrews for my junior honours year, it soon became apparent that my Russian had actually become quite good.

I look back on that year as being one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life and I would do it over again. I still visit Odesa often in my dreams, no doubt because of the intensity of that year.

And the drinking alone would have happened anyway. In fact if I’m honest it was already happening before I went to Odesa. What can I say? It’s a progressive illness.