A young man sets out for a strange land to find himself. Along the way, he faces challenges that teach him about his heritage, values, and capabilities.
No, this is not Homer’s “The Odyssey.’’
Instead of Cyclops and sirens, try Soviet Union soldiers and mobsters and you’ll get “Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser,” a self-published memoir by David A. Kalis relating his time in the Soviet Union from 1991 to the end of 1993.
Kalis, a 45-year-old Newton alderman, lived in the Soviet Union for 2½ years after graduating from Tufts University, where he focused on Soviet and East European studies. The Soviet Union he found confirmed much of what he studied, and also showed him things he never imagined. His real-life thriller was published in March.
“I was telling people about the experiences I had and every one of them said: ‘You’ve gotta get this down on paper. They’re so dramatic and unbelievable, and you don’t want to forget,’ ” Kalis said.
He originally traveled to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) for a 30-day tour, but ended up living and teaching English there for six months. He then moved to Moscow and worked in marketing for international real estate development. Along the way, he witnessed history unfold.
During an interview for a job in Moscow, the 1991 Soviet coup started outside of his window — literally.
“I saw that all of a sudden there were no cars in the street, but all of a sudden there were green tanks coming from the south,” Kalis said.
Being young and “a little bit crazy,” he followed the soldiers downtown and talked to demonstrators both for and against Communism, and even climbed on top of a tank.
“I didn’t realize then but I was really watching the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union,” Kalis said. “It was then that I decided I wanted to stay there.”
His marketing job unveiled widespread corruption. Businesses from nearby republics looking to trade in the glasnost-era Soviet Union came to him with $15,000 bribes and intimidating bodyguards. He had his own bodyguard and driver at one point because it was so dangerous.
His memories haven’t faded, even though the book took him almost seven years to write as he juggled work and family.
“People say, how did I remember them? I say the stories you are reading were adrenaline-inducing, and those are the stories I remembered best,” Kalis said.
This was his first time writing a book, and dealing with the criticisms that come with writing. Family members who read the work in progress wanted to know everything he thought and felt, which was challenging to reveal.
“There’s one situation where I’m hiding from the Mafia in a snowbank, and my dad says, ‘You know, you don’t look good in that chapter,’ and I said ‘I wanted to live!’ ” Kalis said.
After researching self-publishing options, Kalis decided to use Amazon’s CreateSpace and Ingram Content Group, a publishing industry services company. He also sought out advice from friends of friends who are self-published authors. He found that Amazon was best for widespread distribution, while libraries and bookstores typically order from Ingram. So far, sales from Ingram have been low.
He started looking for a professional editor three years ago, Kalis said, and learned “when you’re doing it yourself, there’s a measure of finding the right person” to collaborate. He ended up working with an editor who had also done a fair amount of traveling. He also hired a designer for the book cover.
Kalis enjoyed self-publishing even though the process seemed to go “on and on” because he had so many decisions to make, from the type’s font to pricing.
He did catch one big break: With the current conflict in Ukraine, people are more interested than ever in learning what life is like in Russia. Kalis noticed while he was living in the Soviet Union that people always wanted to speak to the person in charge, so he recommends that President Obama speak to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
“In living there, what I saw was that the Russians really respect top conversations,“ Kalis said. “They would always say, ‘Who’s the decision maker? Who’s the chief?’ ”
He doesn’t claim to be an expert on today’s issues in Ukraine — the last time he was in Russia was in 1996 — but he did consider being a diplomat after graduation. Part of the reason he wrote “Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser” was to inspire other college grads who don’t know what their future holds. He left Tufts with “a lot of anxiety.”
“I didn’t realize who I wanted to be, where I wanted to go,” Kalis said. “I think traveling that long as a young adult, you realize many different things. I discovered who I was and what my priorities were and who I wanted to be.”
One of those priorities is giving back, which inspired the Newton South High School grad to run for alderman in the city where he grew up and that he calls home today.
Another priority is culture. A turning point in the trip was a visit to the Ukrainian town his grandfather grew up in that he thought no longer existed. Kalis was able to bring back sugar packets for his grandfather from the factory where he had worked.
“All of a sudden it meant something,” Kalis said of his heritage. “It really impacted how I viewed my life.”
And his time in the Soviet Union keeps on giving. Kalis recently wrote an online article about the crisis in Ukraine, and was contacted by a reader who turned out to be a cousin.
Kalis said he enjoys speaking about his travels and the book in hopes of inspiring others to connect with their culture. Details on upcoming speaking engagements, including library talks next month in Newton and Wellesley, can be found on his website, www.davidakalis.com .
“Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser” can be bought at Brookline Booksmith, Newtonville Books, the New England Mobile Book Fair, and Back Pages Books in Waltham, as well as on Amazon.