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Vol 2, No 22
5 June 2000
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Eastern Europe through the bottom of a glass Borders Up!: Eastern Europe through the bottom of a glass
Vitali Vitaliev
Scribner UK, London, 1999
ISBN: 0684818108
Mel Huang

Though sceptical at first, when I picked it up at Gatwick Airport en route back to Tallinn, Border's Up! by renowned Russian/British journalist Vitali Vitaliev quickly became one of my favourites. Within a few short pages, the humour of Vitaliev's anecdotes and the brilliant use of the English language in conveying them will have any reader on the floor laughing - and longing for a drink. For those with a background in Central and Eastern Europe, the book is even more hilarious, because it presents a truth that is often confined only to insiders' jokes.

True, Vitali Vitaliev takes a "Russian" look at some of his target countries, such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and others, which inevitably leads to the inclusion of some old hang-ups and preconceptions. However, his exploration of the nations in the region, albeit in search of alcohol, is remarkably perceptive and deep. Although at times his perceptions of the countries are heavily influenced by his opinions of his travel companions and guides, they are nevertheless rich and bone-chillingly revealing:

And although the Communists, who used to call themselves 'Communists,' now call themselves democrats and champions of the free market, their mentality remains unaltered. If you stick a wine label on to a bottle of vodka, it won't affect the contents. The only way to bring about a real change is to pour the vodka out and to pour the wine in.

Vitaliev belongs to a rare group of people who can write with brilliance and style in a second language. His language turns crude when the inebriating experience deems it but rises to high levels of expressiveness on occasions that would in less adept hands elude description. Vitaliev has a genius for conveying humour derived from anecdotes and general perceptions and, of course, alcohol. Sometimes strange twists come about that leave one laughing uncontrollably, including his escapades while growing up in Russia:

One morning, I was recovering after an interview with the director of one of the two hotels whom I had started interviewing over a bottle of vodka at 6 pm and finished - at four the following morning - over a canister of pure alcohol, chased with sauerkraut, at his flat. My head was splitting, and my mouth felt as if it was full of cats' poo. There was only one thing that would cure me and allow me to face the director of the second hotel - a job that promised to be as wearisome as the first, and possibly even more so, for the second director was a Georgian (and Georgians are notorious for their heavy drinking).

Vitaliev, despite travelling for the sake of alcohol, also presents some fascinating side-views: attempting to speak to then Slovak Premier Vladimír Mečiar, forcing his way into the Czech factory producing the infamous Semtex
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explosive, going off on verbal tirades about Ceauşescu's palace of excesses, and nearly being smothered by teenage girls fighting over Michael Jackson memorabilia. The dialogues with his travelling companions in each of the countries opens up fascinating areas of thought, ranging from the endless search for more and stronger alcohol, to sobering exchanges about post-Communist transition:

Zdenka was a serious young woman. She spoke in curt, abrupt sentences and never smiled.
'I hate beer,' she told me, staring at the map of Paris, which she had spread on the table in front of her.
'But most Czech men seem to like it,' I said pointing at U Bronku's beer-swilling patrons.
'I hate Czech men.'
'You obviously prefer French men,' I noted wryly.
'Any men, but not Czechs.'
'What's so awful about them?' 'They are just...I don't know...'
Zdenka didn't know, but I thought that I could guess. It was hard not to notice a patronising and somewhat disdainful attitude of Czech men towards women, who, to my mind, were among the most attractive and good-natured in Europe. This attitude manifested itself not just in pubs but also in the streets, at parties and on public transport.

Throughout the book Vitaliev chronicles hilarious adventures, ranging from a coach ride from Earl's Court to Munich for Oktoberfest with a pack of drunken Australians and a vain search for drinks at the Great British Beer Festival to an attempt to shut down a liquor store operating on the premises of the main Moscow clinic for alcoholics. He also condemns the Western practice of consuming vodka, especially the mixing of vodka cocktails and the hype about flavoured vodkas; he asserts that the real mentality of vodka consumption is the ever-desired state of "oblivion."

Vitaliev manages to travel through most of the region's countries and encounters most of the lethal brews of the region. He divides the book
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into three sections: beer, spirits and wine. If you're curious about Hungarian Tokaji wines or Polish Złota woda, it's all here, including more obscure treasures from the bad old days in the Soviet Union that the modern-day traveller will never encounter. The flashbacks to Vitaliev's days in the USSR throughout the book are among its most fascinating features, as they open up a glimpse of everyday life under the Soviet oppression and the panacea offered by alcohol - any alcohol.

It was under Evgeny's [Vitaliev's old vodka drinking partner, ed] tutorial influence that for the first and last time in my life I drank perfume. It was called Russian Forest. We diluted it with water, and the opaque liquid in the glass was immediately covered with soapy foam. The taste was disgusting, and for the rest of the evening we stank like two walking barber's shops.

I must say I have re-read this book several times, and have fallen off my chair laughing at the same passages time and time again. The book is one of the funniest I have ever read; yet it is as informative and revealing as any serious study of the people of Central and Eastern Europe. It simply shows that alcohol is a basic and essential part of the societies of these countries.

An essential read; just don't drink while reading it!

Mel Huang, 5 June 2000

Moving on:


Pat FitzPatrick
To Be Biljana

Bernd Baumgartl
More Than Racism

Tom Liška
Working Alone Together

Jan Čulík
The Czech Enmity

Focus: Alcohol
Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Drinks for the Nation

Brian J Požun
Brew Wars

Mel Huang
Boozing in
the Baltics

Václav Bělohradský

Student Essay:
Darja Zajícová
Media Demythtified

Elke de Wit
Virgin Mary
Meets Porn Star

Mel Huang
Borders Up! Reviewed

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