Always full of drama

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Has Anyone Seen our Electricity?

This afternoon, I am writing to you from a power cut. I am able to do this because, my electronic typewriter was designed in California, built in China and has a small internal power plant made up from rare earth metals, which apparently are very common in Canada. 
The power has been off now for about an hour, fairly unusually for our neck of the woods but a frequent occurrence for those inhabiting the more central parts of the city. Of course the people we can blame for this are the Soviets, it is a soviet built electricity sub station that is causing central Odessa to have rolling blackouts, unfortunately nobody knows which way they are rolling, but usually you can time it down to ten seconds after I have ordered a double Latte with cinnamon topping in Kompot. 
Today however I am at home, so my Krupps expresso machine is currently lacking the electrons to even gently pressurize some ground Arabica, our air conditioner is sealed up tighter than a nun’s fanny and our flat screen TV resembles and oversized, black kitchen tile with about as much function. 
This of course is the problem, whilst the Soviets, were quite brilliant at producing 5 year plans for everything, crop production, Lada manufacturering and indeed electricity output, they were somewhere below useless at predicting the actual future. Two things that spring readily to mind that the Soviets failed to predict were the end of the Soviet Union and the ability of the comrades, freed from the need to queue for a bowl of cabbage soup, to buy, en mass, consumer electronics.
Here in Ukraine there are more stores selling white goods, black goods and touchscreen goods than there are working streetlights. That’s before you go online, where anything with a .com.ua prefix is likely to be hawking Samsung, LG, or Apple. The Ukrainians love consumer electronics and when they are flush they buy them. Look along the outside of any Soviet apartment block and 30-40% of the apartments will be air conditioned.  Scan for wifi and everyone has it, take a trip on a trolly or tram and everyone is listening to Ukrainian pop on a touchscreen phone. 
In Soviet times, the planners at the United Socialist Union of Electricity Supply Engineers, would sit down once every five years and work out how many extra 20 watt bulbs the proletariat would be using over the next 72 months, how many radio’s would be allocated to the party members and what time to switch off the street lights once everybody is at home listening to radios underneath their 20 watt bulbs. They would add this all up, build a nuclear power station out of Bakelite and bubblegum then crack open a bottle of vodka to celebrate completion of the five year plan. It is, of course this Soviet electrical infrastructure that powers, or not, Ukraine, with the notable exception of one nuclear power station in the north where the bubble gum dramatically burst in 1986. 
Now when the temperature rises above 30C, which is basically everyday from late April until early October, the people of Odessa switch their air-con on and pop to the kitchen to make an iced latte with their Krupps. This in turn causes the local sub station to have a hissy fit and shut down in disgust. 
Fortunately the rare earth minerals and lithium inside my designed in California aluminum box still have 86% power left, which means for the next five or so hours, I am will still be living in the 21st Century. After that, if engineers have not managed to placate big Betha and persuaded her to distribute electrons again, I will be sitting in a warm, dark room dreaming of a nice iced cappuccino whilst contemplating making a cabbage soup. On the gas cooker of course. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Brief Definition of Roads in Ukraine

The most amusing road signs in Ukraine are the ones suggesting an uneven road for x number of kilometres. We have them in the UK of course, although they are generally ignored. This is because an uneven road in the UK is usually just a series of gentle undulations that might send you off to slumber only to wake up embedded in a tree. In Ukraine, the best way to describe an uneven road is "road". You see the only smooth roads here are in places that the president has visited since the previous winter. You can practically follow his route through the town because suddenly the bowling green smoothness will disappear up a side street and the main road will deteriorate back to "road" 
For those of you not familiar with Ukraine, let me describe "road" for you a little more explicitly. Perhaps the best way to start is to imagine a normal, newly made road. Now imagine a battalion of epileptics with jack hammers have held a conference on it, followed by a gaggle of paranoid schizophrenics with aversion to white paint, who have systematically rubbed the road markings off with their elbows. Now we are getting close. To finish your visualisation of a Ukrainian road, pop it in the deep freeze at minus 20c for four months, defrost and freeze again several times. You may now be getting close to seeing it now. However this is nothing compared to driving on them, recently on a trip out of Odessa we took a minor back road as a shortcut. Now bear in mind I have a fairly decent 4 wheel drive car that has chunky all weather tyres and good ground clearance, five miles took us thirty minutes. The road was so scarred, that in places the only way to continue was to drive into the potholes and back out the other side, stopping for a cup of tea midway. 
Ukrainians have found a kind of communal solution to this problem. They don't drive on the roads anymore, the drive to the side of the roads. Here you will see entire new dirt tracks have appeared where drivers have hit one crater too many and decide, enough is enough and gone off roading.   Gradually, more and more people take to the dirt, virtually cutting a new road alongside. Indeed the road that we got stuck on had an entire dirt track for five miles running on the other side of a treeline. On our return we decided to use it, following a bus up it. Actually it took us about ten seconds to realise following the bus directly was not too good an idea. This is because five meters onto the dirt and the rapidly accelerating Mercedes mini bus had disappeared into a maelstrom of dust, stones and road kill. Our decision to back off was aided by the emergence of a double articulated truck from the sand storm, the front of the truck doing around 50 miles per hour, with the rear trailer going faster and sideways directly towards us. In a remarkable feat of driving skill Anton Sennaski managed to right the entire truck without slowing down. As we reversed out of the hedge and continued on our way, the Mercedes WRC minibus was now just a rising cloud of dust on the horizon and the entire dirt track was our own. I have to say it was fun to drive, the X-Trail a sure footed companion that dispatched the five or so miles in ten minutes or so. The same could not be said for the driver of a Bulgarian 40 ton articulated lorry who had had the misfortune to be using the official road beside us. I suspect he may still be there as I write.
The irony of this story is, that if you ask people, many roads have been allocated as repaired. The problem is, that the contractors are paid to relay a road, yet in the best case scenario they merely pad a bit of loosely packed asphalt into the existing potholes and in the worse case they don't bother at all preferring to pay a percentage of the fees to the guy that inspects the roads instead.
It's a shame, because where the roads are in good condition, they are wonderful to drive on, wide enough to overtake, with   enough bends to keep you alert and  little traffic. Unlike the UK which has a town every three miles, in south western Ukraine you can drive thirty miles without passing a village. There are no speed cameras hidden in the sunflower fields, no traffic calming measures, no variable speed limits and fixed speed traffic cameras, in fact none of the soul destroying, over regulated and pure evil, hidden tax measures that the UK's roads are increasingly laden with. In fact to clumsily paraphrase a former Soviet leader. "remove the potholes, remove the problem"

Sunday, 27 January 2013

How to Make a Drama and a Crisis out of a Few Inches of Snow

There has been several inches of snow overnight. This is what the weather forecasters in the UK often say. What they actually mean is that if the wind blows the snow up against a wall, it might, after several hours, be several inches deep. As I made myself an expresso in order to write this post, I looked out of our kitchen window and could not help notice that here is several inches of snow outside. Of course what I mean by several inches is, by now about 15 inches and when I say outside, I mean everywhere, not piled up against walls. As I speak those inches are increasing. 

Snow, Roads, Odessa, 4x4, Cold, Frozen, Ukraine http://www.theodessafiles.co.u

Now here is the thing, and humour me if it gets boring, as I have mentioned this before, but Ukraine copes with it. People don't necessarily enjoy it, apart from the kids being dragged to school on sleds, by their parents  or more often grandparents, but they get on with things. The snow has been so heavy that even Odessa's well equipped roads department did not manage to keep up with clearing the main roads, yet yesterday when we drove to the mall, buses, trollies and trains were running, people were going to work or shopping despite the roads and pavements having the appearance of a vertically challenged alpine ski slope. Which brings me to the UK. It seems to me that when there is several inches of snow in the UK, everything grinds to a halt. Schools are closed, offices are empty, shops sell out of the basics. Why? Firstly schools, I remember snow when I was a kid. I am pretty sure it was the same stuff the UK get's today, and yes, the buses were often very very late, because a. the council run out of grit or b. the council ignored the weather forecasts and didn't grit. As kids, we had this quite amazing solution to the problem, we walked. My school was just under three miles from my house even in the deepest snow, several inches against a wall, it took about an hour. If we were late, the teacher's understood and forgave us. Does any one recognize something odd about that statement, no not teachers forgiving, teachers went to school in the snow too. Not once, ever, in my entire school life do I remember having a day off because of snow. Here in Odessa, we live next to a Kindergarten, and every day, despite the snow, we see the kids coming to school, sometimes walking, sometimes on sled but always well wrapped up and having fun. 

So lets look at the work and offices. OK, if you live in the deep in the country and work in the city you may be excused this one. But, what if you live in the suburbs? Well, even if the buses don't run the trains usually do, at least the suburban services. If there is no train service you could also walk. I remember one particularly snowy week in the early ninety where I walked to and from work three consecutive days. It must have been close I hear you cry, yes it was, I lived in Cheam, Surrey and my work was in Fulham, London, a mere eight and half miles or seventeen miles a day round trip. But here is the irony, it took about just over two hours, which was about the same time it took by public transport on a bad day, if you factored in the walk to the bus stops and trains station. Ukrainians, go to work every day, despite the weather. This is not only because most Ukrainians have a very strong work ethic but also because if they don't go they won't get paid. For some people here thats the difference between food on the table or not. 

For the life of me, I will never understand how supermarkets run out of essentials. Firstly it seems odd that all these people that cannot manage to get to work or school can still manage to get to Tesco's. Secondly that once they are at Tesco's they fill their shopping bags to the brim with bread milk and Tetley tea just in case they need to hunker down for several weeks. Now, my memory of UK winters may be fading, but I cannot remember a time when the snow lasted much more than three days. Usually by the third day its just a slushy horrible mess that is easily passable by trucks bearing bread, milk and Tetleys. We went to the shopping mall yesterday, despite the one foot of snow, on the ground not against the walls. When we got there, half the car park was unusable, but only because the giant snow plough the mall had hired, had not finished the second half yet. People came, parked in the first half, bought normal amounts of bread and milk, none bought Teltly's because Silpo doesn't sell it but the point is nobody was panic buying. This is for two reasons, firstly they knew the authorities in Odessa a. did have enough grit to cover the city and b. did watch the weather forecast. And of course the delivery drivers knew they could get into the shopping mall because there was a big fuck off snow plough clearing the car par.

Snow, Roads, Odessa, 4x4, Cold, Frozen, Ukraine http://www.theodessafiles.co.uk, snow plough, shopping mall,

There was an advert for Commercial Union in the 80's that had the tagline "We won't make a drama out of a crisis" These days some people can make a drama and a crisis out of a few inches of snow but most of them live in the UK

Monday, 17 September 2012

No Really - Back in the USSR

My first experience of departing from Kiev's Boryspil airport was not positive. Like much of the former Soviet Union, communist security measures were much in evidence, typically you would have to pass a x-ray security check before checking in then again after checking in and before going through passport control. All in all it was an exercise in how not to run a modern airport. That was 2008. Last year I had to pass though Boryspil international terminal once again. The difference was incredible, despite being housed in the same Soviet era building designed by a man that didn't do curves, the interior had been improved immeasurable, brighter, clearer more space, more seats. Today I am flying back to London using the new terminal F. My expectations were high, a new terminal, European security procedures, and Costa coffee.
Unfortunately it seems terminal F has been designed by the blind brother of Terminal B's architect. The layout of the check in area beggars belief, the departure boards, of which there are only one set, are positioned right above the main and only thoroughfare. In the grand tradition of most airports, people who have arrived six hours early, congregate in front of the departure boards to see which check in desk they need, despite knowing full well the information will not come up for another four hours. Trying to get past these people was like parting the Red Sea. If there had been a Ken Livingston around I am sure he would have charged for congestion, or at least clamped those blocking the way. 
The reason I wanted to get through was to find a seat. When eventually the Red Sea did part, I saw the seats, all ten of them, and all complete with entire families camping on them. They appeared not so much to be waiting for flight and more to be homeless. Eventually I managed to park my bum on a narrow window ledge for a pile inducing three hours. Still at least they had free Wifi.

To be honest, the staff are very good, check in was extremely efficient, security was good and done with a smile, even immigration was painless. Things seemed to improve once into the departure lounge, it was bright and airy with plenty of seating and a Costa coffee. Of course having been on an overnight bus trip, I was by now, dying for a pee, the act of which brought the illusion crashing back to ground. There were three urinals, for the entire lounge, yes, that’s three urinals, not toilets. Fortunately us men can whip it out and do the business quickly and efficiently. The Ladies however who take longer over their ablutions, had bigger problems. The queue was out the door and around the corner. Some of the more Mediterranean looking women had grown beards whilst waiting.

Once relieved, I took it upon myself to refill at Costa, where another shock awaited me. £4 for a small coffee. As it was the only place to get liquid refreshment, and as I had had nothing in 12 hours, I bite the bullet, slightly breaking one tooth, and paid the price.

I would like to say things got better, and for once they did. The flight was uneventful and on-time but arrival in Heathrow’s terminal five was like landing on another planet. I have been through Heathrow many times and although not fantastic it’s functional. Terminal 5 however is something else. It made the Germans look like bumbling slackers. From the moment I set foot off the plane, to stepping outside the terminal was less than 10 minutes. Immigration was both courteous and rapid. When I arrived in the baggage hall, my bag was already there, a breeze through customs and into the light airy and well laid out space that is land side. Of course I had arrived in the middle of the Paralympics, I am sure once the summer’s spectacle of sport is over, terminal 5 just like most of the rest of the UK will slip back into it’s old ways. Hopefully by then though I will be driving through Germany where things are a little more predictable.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Racing to the Village of the Damned

Ukraine, to the best of my knowledge, does not have a Formula One driver. If, however, they were considering an attempt on driving’s most famous championship, they could do no worse than interview the driver of the 14.25 Odessa to Kilya bus. Granted he may be a little older than the average F1 driver, and certainly many kilos heavier, but his ability to overtake on blind bends, tailgate 5cm from the rear of the car in front and to drive his vehicle to the edge of it’s envelope, would strike fear in to all of his opponents. In much the same way that it did to all of his passengers. You see the 14:25 is an 18 seat Mercedes minibus, not a 1000hp Maclaren. 
Tania and I had boarded the bus in order to journey out to a remote part of south western Ukraine to photograph a friends wedding. By the time we were half way into the journey, the birth of a baby girl by another friend at the beginning of the week, combined with the impending nuptials happening the following day, were conspiring to make my mind work overtime. It seemed the grim reaper was lurking around every bend of the not so smooth road to the west. 
To be fair, the main Odessa-Ismail road is not bad by Ukrainian standards, it’s fairly wide, has almost decipherable white lines and not overly busy. Unfortunately the last hour of the journey was not on this road. After a brief stop for absorbing and expelling fluids, we hit the road again. Literally. The road to Kilya is not so much a road as a moon simulator with free roaming cattle on it. There were craters and potholes so big that the previous users of this thoroughfare had given up with the tarmac and cut a gravel track to the side of the road along 50% of it’s length. Of course this did nothing to deter Ayrton Sennaski, who had now made the subtle change from Formula 1 to World Rally Championship. The Mercedes, unfortunately was still a mini bus and a two wheel drive one at that, its contents were now being shaken to death as well as scared to death. 
Eventually we arrived at our destination, Shevchenkovoe, a small town of 5000 inhabitants, none of whom were visible as we debarked the bus. What was visible was a strange, dusty town square and several million mosquitos. Our friend, the groom, lived in another village, even more remote than this, and was on his way to pick us up, but the news of strange, new people in town, especially one that spoke in a strange foreign tongue had reached the villagers. One by one, they began to appear, I was half expecting to hear the banjo tune from Deliverance or at least be able to order a pint in the Slaughtered Lamb. Intense, mildly threatening looks were thrown our way, before, eventually, and inevitably, we were approached by an obviously drunk old man. I looked at Tania who threw a look my way as if to say keep quiet, I will handle this. Then her phone rang. The man approached me instead, his eyes fixated on one point very close to his nose. Through his slurred words and my limited Russian, I realized he had obviously been drunk since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was asking me for one Ruble, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gorbachev was no longer in power and that he no longer had to queue for six hours for a cabbage sandwich. Tania, who by now had finished her call, gave him one Ruble, or at least that’s what the old man thought as he walked away with ten Grivnas in his hand. 
As the old drunk retreated we saw a middle age man, on the other side of the road, trying to mount a bike. I say trying, because if you have ever seen those comedy sketches where a drunk tries to mount a bike, this is what we were seeing. Several times he threw his leg over the cross bar only for it to return to him like a boomerang. Dazed by the fact his right leg was still next to his left he would have another go, with the same results. It took him a good five minutes before he was astride the machine and another five minutes for his feet to find the pedals. When they did, he of course, headed our way. When he reached the kerb where we were standing he promptly fell off the bike, staggered around the side of a building and had a loud and somewhat smelly piss. Fortunately as this was happening our friend arrived. We loaded up our gear into his truck and set off for his village. As I looked around, the drunk was now lying, motionless, in the middle of the road, alongside his bike, forcing cars to drive through a large pothole to get around him. And this was just the start to the weekend. 

Take a look at my professional photography site, The Odessa Files

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Krups - Wake up and smell the coffee

Today I am going to go a little off topic and talk about some dreadful customer service. It has it’s roots in a purchase in Ukraine but responsibility lies solely with the parent company, which is German.
In November I bought a Krups XP5220 pump expresso machine. Several things swayed my decision, it was a pump machine at reasonable price, it was a very well respected brand and most reviews said it made excellent coffee. Many of the reviews also mentioned a flaw with the machine in that the steam wand was made of very cheap plastic and prone to breaking. Indeed Amazon’s customer reviews were full of this issue but some also said that Krups had redesigned the wand and it was fine. I weighed up the arguments and decided to to purchase. 
When the machine arrived, it looked very good, sleek, stylish and it made superb coffee. There was a separate little leaflet explaining how to remove and clean the steam wand, and I took this to mean that the problem had been acknowledged and dealt with.
Fast forward and after three months of daily capuchinos, the steam wand broke. Not as many people had experienced, at the retaining tabs but actually the steam tube had snapped completely in half. Some super glue and careful position repaired the tube which worked for another three days, then one of the retaining tabs broke. So here I am, and Englishman who cannot put steamed milk in his expresso. 

I am steaming over a broken steam wand

A quick bit of research tracked down the Ukraine/Russia service center and Tania made a call to them. The resultant conversation was shocking but not entirely unexpected. They claimed that the steam wand is not covered by the guarantee and they would not replace it for free. They did however give us the number of a supplier in Ukraine who would sell us a replacement. When Tania tried to get them to accept that there was a problem with the steam wand design by talking about the many reviews, there answer was perhaps, typically Russian. “If you knew, why did you buy it!” 
So resigned to having to pay for a new steam wand Tania called the number. It did not exist. Getting a little pissed of with this situation, I decided to write to Krups head office in Germany. Germans I thought, understood quality design and good customer care. Germans, efficient helpful people, they will understand. So I fired of a polite mail explaining the issue and asking for help. That was two weeks ago, until now I have not received the courtesy of an acknowledgment of my email, let alone a reply. 
Feeling even more upset by the lack of a reply, I fired off an email to the UK office. I explained I was an expat and I understood that it was not their problem but could they at least nudge me in the direction of someone that could. As you have probably guessed from this blog, they did not reply either. 
All of us have met with bad customer service in our lives, some things get sorted some don’t, but for me when a company produces a machine that obviously has a design fault, and then tells you if you knew why did you buy, its time for a little adverse publicity.
So in recognition of the effect of social networking on world affairs, I am attempting to start a “German Dawn” Not to bring down the government of the Federal Republic of course but  to stir a large German corporation into treating it’s customers with a little dignity and respect. I have set up a facebook here and I ask anyone who has suffered at the hands of bad service to like it. Lets see if people power can change corporations like it can governments.

As a footnote to this, its now three weeks since I emailed head office yet no reply. Yes I have checked the spam folder as well. Here are some of the comments I should have listened to on Amazon Reviews

Friday, 10 February 2012

Famous Last Words, Frozen for Prosperity

In my last article just a couple of weeks back I wrote about the benign and forgiving winter we were having, also noting that they may be famous last words. Well they were! That very evening the mercury in the thermometer dropped quicker than the draws of a Tijuana hooker at the sight of a $100 bill. From a balmy -1C in the afternoon, to a face numbing -18C the following morning. Snow covered the grass and walkways of our block yet the roads and pavements remained clear. The antique Soviet transport system worked flawlessly, cars travelled relatively easily to and from the city, people got to work.

Black Sea Babushka

In contrast, this week the UK has suffered one of its very rare, annual, snowfalls. Roads are shut, trains are not running and Heathrow cut half its schedule before a flake had hit a runway. The usual litany of excuses were trotted out, exceptional weather, wrong type of snow etc., but what always gets me, is when someone asks an official why the Eastern Europeans can keep going, the answer is nearly always Well they are used to it.

So what they are saying, is countries like Ukraine and Russia who have heavy snow for weeks per year and manage to keep everything running with no money and a decrepit transport system, are doing better than the UK, which has light snow, for literally hours per year and has the worlds 7th richest economy and an advanced transport system? Doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, the freezing weather, it hasnt risen above -5 since the last article, has brought with it a spectacular kind of beauty to this wonderful city. Non more so, than the relatively rare event of the Black Sea freezing over. So on Sunday with the mercury at a positively balmy -5C Tania and I donned our shorts and t-shirts, then our leggings, trousers, more t-shirts jumpers, most of our socks, hats, coats and gloves and set of to Arkadia, our nearby beach resort. It was indeed spectacular; the sea had frozen out beyond the horizon. The only tell tale sign that water was present were large container ships leaving the Port of Odessa, miles out in the distance.

See! There is sea!

Odessans walked the ice covered beaches and piers, took pictures and generally just admired this wonder of nature. Tania and I took our own pictures, strolling along listening to the occasional cracks of ice and watching the ice pack gently rise and fall as hidden waves tried to make themselves known. It was enchanting, exhilarating and beautiful and yet another reminder of why I love this city both in summer and the depths of winter.

The White, Black Sea
Eventually the cold started to penetrate our onionskin of clothing and so we turned for home and a nice cup of tea. Feet up and watching the BBC news, where, in the UK it was so cold, the sea had frozen over in Poole. They showed pictures, and it had. For nearly two feet out! Of course nobody went to see it, because the entire transport system was in a state of collapse and the Met Office had advised against all but essential travel.
Antarctica Sur Odessa
To see more of these images and many more, visit my photography site at The Odessa Files, or take a look at my book of the week about Odessa here
Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams