Always full of drama

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Nation of Animal Lovers

It seems to me that Ukraine gets a bad press when it comes to animal welfare and whilst undoubtedly there is an excessive amount of stray cats and dogs on the streets and that some of them will be abused, the majority of Ukrainians I have seen, care a lot about animals, both pets and feral.

When I first came here, I was struck not be the sheer number of feral cats there were but by the fact that a very high proportion of them seemed well fed and healthy. After a while, I began to notice that everywhere that the cats would congregate, there were little trays of left over food and water. One July morning whilst on our endless search for the perfect flat, Tania and I sat down in one of the suburbs to have a drink before continuing our Odyssey. There were a few stray cats around, not particularly friendly but not nervous either. Eventually an old Babushka arrived with a veritable sack full of food and systematically started dividing it into small plastic cartons and putting it down for the cats. More arrived from all over, adults, kittens, all, for the most part healthy. The Babushka spent about 25 minutes making sure the cats were fed before wandering over to a point about 25m away where three stray dogs were waiting, looking simultaneously jealous and expectant. The Babushka brought out some left overs for the dogs too, stuff more suitable for the canine genus such as bones and junks of meat. Tania and I watched this little show for about 45 minutes. It was obviously a daily occurrence yet the Babushka wanted nothing from the animals, she neither expected or wanted any friendship from them, she was just making sure that these animals had enough food to survive. Dont think that this is an isolated incident, either, it happens in virtually every street in the city.

Another pointer towards Ukrainians love of animals is the number of pets and pet stores there are. Every morning I look out of our kitchen window I see a parade of dogs walking their owners. I am not talking about the latest nouveau rich accessory poodle that you see on the streets of central Odessa, I am talking everything from pedigree Labradors to nutty mongrels, all well looked after and obviously loved. As the dogs parade past, the local pet cats all sit half a meter from a dogs leads length away with an expression of pure scorn. Everywhere you go in Odessa there are well stock pet stores with knowledgeable staff, hell there are even pet pharmacies.

Beautiful, healthy and homeless. 

So when I hear or read about animal cruelty in Ukraine, I think about the UK and other western countries, where if an animal is not owned it is euthanized to use that pretentious, politically correct term that simply means killed. So now tell me whose animals are better off?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Looking for the Summer

So, its been a few weeks since I last wrote a post. It is of course not because I have nothing to say, its because I have been almost busy. Although its only a short time, the difference, here in Odessa is immense. Summer held a tenacious grip on the city way into late September and despite a couple of feeble attempts by autumn to gain control, the sunny skies and warm weather continued. Until two weeks ago. With all the zest of an ADHD case on cocaine, Madame autumn ripped the reins of summer from Mother Natures hands and charged Odessa headlong into the season of golden leaves, frost and condensation on the windows.

The Leaves are Falling
Whilst the weather is fine and clear, beautiful in fact, the balmy temperatures of late September have dived into single digits. Gone is the al fresco street dining, the beach goers and the tourists. The beautiful women of Odessa no longer parade in mini skirts, and crop tops, now the fashion of the day is fake fur coats and tight jeans. The six-inch stilettos fortunately are still very much in vogue, although I am not sure how their handling characteristics will cope with the uneven, often dangerous pavements, especially when they are covered in a thin veneer of ice.

Our rented flat, which was an airless sweatbox in the summer, is still, oddly warm. And this is strange because the heating has not been switched on here. You see unlike most of the non-former Soviet Union, here one of the lasting legacies of communism, along with cheap transport and dodgy electricity, is that the heating is communal. Every block has a big boiler room and tall chimney somewhere near the middle. Officially October 15th is the switch on day, when big old Soviet boilers are fired up, and steaming hot water starts coursing through the antiquated pipe systems into old radiators. The best way to describe the radiators is to imagine a school built in the 1920s. Visualize the classrooms. See the big old wrought iron monsters underneath the windows. Exactly like that. Only smaller, much much smaller.

Now a quick check of the date reveals that it is, in fact, October 18th. The tan painted (at least I assume its paint) radiator beside me, is colder than an eskimos nose, a silent, heatless monolith. Checking this with Tania, it seems that although October 15th is the official switch on day, the unofficial switch on day is twenty-four hours after the number of complaints from the residents, consumes more time that actually firing up the boilers and if our flat is typical example, that may be some time yet.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

A Few Things

Moving away from my trip to Moldova, I thought I might dwell on some of the subtle and not so subtle differences I have found between the UK and Ukraine. By the way, always refer to it as Ukraine. The Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union and is a term most Ukrainians are trying move away from.

1.     Going to the supermarket for a bag of milk. The first time I stayed in Ukraine, Tania and I rented a flat in the city center. I arrived late so went straight to bed. The next morning, fully refreshed, I was of course, being English, gagging for a cup of tea. Problem was no tea, no milk. So off we went to Tavreya, the Ukrainian version of Tescos, to stock up. The tea was simple; it was Liptons (expensive and tasteless) or an unknown brand Ahmed English Tea. Now I am not sure who Ahmed was and how long he had been in England but his tea was pretty good. The milk however was a bit of an eye opener. Sure there were plenty of brands, different types, skimmed, full fat etc, the shocking part was 90% of them were sold in bags not bottles. Tania bought a half-liter, in a cardboard bag and off we went home. These days I have worked out the milk in a bag trick, but in the early days, just getting it to stand up in the fridge was like trying to get a duvet to lean against a wall. So I poured it into a little jug and lo and behold a few hours later it had turned to cheese. Today we still buy milk in a bag but we keep it in the bag, snip a small corner off the top and lean it precariously against the fridge. Never open the fridge door quickly; you will get a milk foot bath.

A Soviet Bread Truck. Nearly as old as the bread
     2. Finding decent bread. For a country that lived on bread under Soviet rule, it’s really difficult to find nice bread. In the UK there are sections of the supermarkets the size of football pitches devoted to the manufacture of yeast-based products. Here they dont even add the yeast from what I can see. The bread is tasteless, it’s flat and un-risen and there is extraordinary lack of variety. Some of it has also been on the shelves since Lenin was thinking I wonder what will happen if I fire that canon

3.     Another shocking thing is the Internet. Its shocking how much better it is than the UK. In the UK it can takes weeks to install, cost a small fortune, never attain the speeds advertised and if you download anything more than a dozen emails you exceed your cap limit. In Odessa, we have had internet installed in three flats. Each time it has been within two days of calling, its cheap, unlimited and best of all fast. Blinding fast both up and downloading. It is nearly always bang on the speed you paid for and sometimes even faster and nobody seems to mind what you download or look at. Its the Internet how it should be.
4.     Ring Tones. Obviously in the UK people have ringtones but as a generalization they mirror the British character, subtle, refined and conservative. I wouldn’t say that ringtones here mirror the Ukrainian character; I would just say they are bloody annoying. It would seem that despite being apparently ubiquitous, the mobile phone is used to make a statement. A loud statement. Its most noticeable on the bus when all of a sudden the sound of Fiddly Sense or Booncey soundly erupts into the atmosphere. The fact that it comes from a speaker the size of my little finger nail and is played at a volume that would make even The Who cover their aging ears makes you want to stuff it up a certain part of the owners anatomy. Its awful in the extreme as well as bloody annoying, especially when the phones owner cannot remember which part of their anatomy the phone is currently occupying.

So that will do for today, there a many more differences, none of which justify a full article but which together might make a single one. In particular I am still debating with my conscience on writing about Soviet toilet paper. Perhaps if I give you advanced warning on that, the squeamish and those with vivid imaginations can skip it.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

How the mighty have fallen

When I was a kid, I went on a CND march in my town. Not as a protester you understand, but as a young teenager trying to piss the protesters off. “Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out” they would chant. “Maggie, Maggie Maggie, In, In, In” was our repost. That was until a barrage of extremely well aimed eggs burst all over our stay-press trousers.
The reason I mention this is because it reminds me of an era, the Cold War, the palatable fear of an unknown foe with unlimited power to destroy civilization, books with names like “The Third World War, A Future History” and films like “War Games”. Even Midge Ure and Ultravox invaded our psyche with Vienna, a song devoted to nuclear holocaust. Looking back the fears were no different than todays, when the cold war ended AID’s conveniently arrived on the scene, as AIDS faded from our conscience, a group of Islamic terrorists slammed aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In our Cold War minds, the closed and highly secretive city of Sevastopol in the southern Soviet Union was the epicenter of fear. Home to the mighty Black Sea Fleet and a few miles to the south at Balaclava, in vast man made caverns carved into a mountain, the hidden menace of the Soviet Ballistic Submarine Missile Fleet lay protected from Western eyes.
A couple of years ago Tania and I disembarked a cruise ship in this once ultra secretive city. We walked past an unoccupied customs booth with nine months worth of luggage, through the main port security gate, manned by one very bored looking soldier, and into a square littered with monuments of Soviet Glory. By the side of the headquarters (still) of the Russian Black Sea Fleet we took a taxi to the central railway station and 30 minutes later boarded a utilitarian ex-Soviet train. No softly padded seats for the comrades, highly polished wooden benches were the order of the day, uncomfortable in the extreme. Doors that you opened yourself, and a train so high above the platform that I though I would require a Sherpa to get into the carriage. As the rusting locomotive slowly pulled us along the banks of the port of Sevastopol, we could see the remaining ships of the Black Sea fleet. It was May Day, one of the most important days in the Eastern European calendar, one that is still celebrated as workers day Because of this, most of the Black Sea fleet ships were in port, their bright colorful flags breaking the monotony of drab dark grey hulls.
The most striking aspect, was that there were not many ships at all, and those that were there were not in a great state of repair. Rust, and neglect had worn down these symbols of Soviet Power into nothing more than untended museum piece. Their shapes were the same from the Janes warfare books I had read as a young teenager in my local library, but that was the point. The current ships of the western navies looked nothing like my memories, technology had marched on, old tonnage replaced and updated. The once mighty Black Sea fleet, pride of the Soviet navy and harbinger of our teenage fears was still the same, only older, unkempt and well worn. It reminded me of myself!
An old rust bucket along side a Russian warship

As a footnote, the submarine base at Balaclava, the epicenter of nuclear paranoia, is now a major Ukrainian tourist destination. You can find it on any map. Just look for top-secret base. If you had predicted that 25 years ago they would have locked you up and thrown away the key, or at the very least thrown a barrage of eggs at you.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Slow Bus to Moldova – The Road to Chisinau

So there we were, trundling along in a 30 year old German bus along the smoothest road in Eastern Europe. The black tarmac, so svelte and un-rutted, that despite the buss suspension being made from wooden blocks, our ride was comfortable.
Vineyards either side of the road made the scene like an idlic French painting, our progress was now swift and smooth. For at least 7 minutes. Then the tarmac ran out.
It seems the road to from the border was being re-laid, four kilometers done, one hundred and twenty six to go! We crashed into the first pothole with such ferocity, that its a wonder we were not supplied with parachutes. I suspect the driver, who did this route every day did it on purpose, to wake him from the boredom. I looked at the road ahead, with some trepidation, it was like the tarmac had gingivitis, it had more or less eroded from the sides inwards. This was even more unnerving because the traffic in both directions competed for the badly diseased blacktop. On several occasions, our large and solid bus was forced into the deeper recesses of the gravel pavements to avoid an oncoming truck. Scary was not the word, and the bus did not have a toilet!

We endured two and a half hours of this, before we eventually pulled into the frenetic chaos that was Chisinau north bus station. I stepped of the bus feeling like I had had an Indonesian massage, the Indonesian being a 400lb Orangutan with a bipolar disorder. Seven hours, of wooden suspension, third world roads, inefficient immigration and air conditioning that would make the Kalahari look cool had done little for my mood.

Our next challenge was to find a taxi. No I rephrase that; the next challenge was for Tania to find the cheapest taxi amongst the 3500 sitting outside the station. Sensing I was about to explode she found a deal for $2.50 and of we set for the Cosmos hotel.

I wont go into details about the hotel, it was a huge ex Soviet monolith that more than made up for in service what it lacked in looks. It was also cheap. We wandered around Chisinau for an hour or two before deciding our room was infinitely more interesting.

Moldova - Its everything you expect
We checked out early the next morning and headed for the Ukrainian Embassy. When we arrived at about 8.15 we found we were, despite the early start, not alone. In fact, there was a queue of about 10 people. A rather loud Babushka was orchestrating proceedings, she told us to put our names down on a piece of paper, where it turned out, in fact, we were actually number 21.

More and more people arrived, the babushka explaining to everyone who arrived to put their names on the list. At this point, I should make it clear that she was not embassy staff, just a busybody who was also waiting for the 9.00am opening.

At around 8.55 she began marshaling people into line, Tania, always a sucker for a fight, had decided to help. The babushka, at this stage, had positioned herself about number 7. Tania asked what her name was, and it turned out she was actually number 15 on the list, a verbal sparring match ensued, with the Babushka slagging down Ukrainian and Ukrainians. Tania retorted, if she hated Ukraine so much why was she trying to get a visa to go there. In the ensuing mêlée, nobody noticed the security guard unlocking the gate. He called the first 10 people and one by one the people on the list walked in. So did the babushka. Tania was standing for none of this. She literally grabbed her by the arms and dragged her back through the gates telling the guard not to let her in until it was her turn. The other people applauded and a certain amount of civility returned. Ironically we actually managed to jump the queue by virtue of the fact we were paying extra to have my visa processed in one day. I wont bore you with the details other than to say the embassy were quick and efficient. When we left after about 45 minutes, the Babushka was still waiting. Tania gave her a wry smile.

So we returned to the concrete expanse of chaos called Chisinau North Bus Station, where, not without a certain amount of irony, we boarded the same bus, with the same driver. I would like to tell you the journey was the same hell on the way back, only it really wasnt. It was much worse.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Slow Bus to Moldova – Stuck in No Man’s Land

The bus ground to a squeaking, jolting halt just outside the Ukrainian border. The engine was switched off, as was the faux aircon removing any semblance of air circulation. It was 11am, hot, humid and getting hotter. We waited and waited Eventually after about 45 minutes, a Ukrainian immigration official stepped onto the bus. A palatable sense of anticipation began to melt into the heady atmosphere of BO and humidity. He then stepped off again.

It was another 15 minutes before there was any further activity. Then without warning, the engine switched on, there was a light puff of air suggesting the blower was back on too and we lurched forward through the first barrier, into a big open shed. Then stopped again. Engine off.. well you know the drill. Again we sat. Tania was fidgety; worried about making sure immigration put an exit stamp in my passport.

I will check when they come on she said.

Then he did come on. A young man so authoritative that Tanias voice completely dried up, in itself an event so rare, it should be broadcast live. He took her passport then mine, checking the picture with my face, he had the look that only an immigration officer can achieve. The one that says, I have control over your destiny and if you piss me off its 10 years in the salt mine for you. Passports collected, he departed. Tania found her voice again.

I hope he gives you an exit stamp!

He did, it was another hour before I knew this, because this was how long it takes Ukrainian immigration to stamp 40 passports. One every 90 seconds or so. By now, it was midday, hot as hell and people were getting agitated. Because we were in a secure border zone, no one was allowed off the bus.

The official returned, gave all the passports to the driver who then proceeded to give them out, one by one, checking and calling each name. With a certain amount of inevitability, he started with the people at the back, who then had to fight past all the other passengers, standing in the aisles gasping for extra air or trying to coax blood back into their numbed buttocks. Eventually Tania took control, grabbed the passports from his hand and started her own distribution service.

The driver fired up the mighty German engine, vaguely engaged some cogs together with an alarming crunch and off we set. We must have travelled at least another 2 minutes before the bus ground to a halt again and our oxygen supply was cut off once more. We had arrived at the Moldavian border. It was a much more modern border post than the Ukrainian side and within minutes an impeccably dressed young immigration officer stepped on the bus and explained that he would collect passports for stamping. This was all too much for a Russian babushka sat behind me, she virtually erupted in a tirade of anger aimed directly at the Moldovan. Now, I dont speak Russian but Tania translated his very calm and considered reply for me.

Lady, if you do not calm down, I will turn this bus around and send you all back to the Ukrainian border. You will wait there until you are calm enough to return

The babushkas lips had just begun to formulate a reply when with all the synchronicity of a well rehearsed orchestra, 20 other passengers yelled Shut up woman She did, the immigration officer collected the passports and a brief 20 minutes later we were off, rolling into Moldova on the smoothest road I have yet experienced in the former Soviet Union.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Slow Bus to Moldova – Getting to the Border

I have had very good experiences on Ukrainian buses. Granted I have only used one company on one route but I have travelled that route several times. The company in question is Autolux and they run a luxury service from Kiev to Odessa, in sleek modern buses with only 25 seats, all business class standard. Its fair to say they are excellent.
It was with this in mind that I was looking forward to our trip to Moldova. Wait, I hear you scream, why Moldova? Well, its simple really, the Ukrainian immigration service bears not even a passing resemblance to Ukrainian immigration law, and so all the information we had received in Tanias home town of Izmail, was completely wrong in here in Odessa. Therefore, I needed to depart the country, or apply for political asylum, which to be honest, despite the lawlessness of the British streets, I was unlikely to get.

So on yet another beautiful sunny Odessan morning, we found ourselves at the bus station looking for the 8.20 to Chisinau. This was not difficult, it was by far the oldest, most decrepit vehicle in the station. My sharp observational skills deducted that it was formerly a German bus, based mainly on the fact that it still wore its original livery. I suspect that this particular style of livery had been long outdated at the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is appropriate because it felt like the seats had been made from bits of the wall. The advertised air conditioning was in fact a blower system so feeble that it would struggle to ripple a feather and the windscreen was not so much glass as a varied collection of dead bugs.

So with uncannily German time keeping, at exactly 8.20 we left the bus station and headed onto the Odessa – Kiev motorway. This man made marvel of three lane perfection lasted all of ten minutes before we turned off, onto the road to Moldova. Here the true state of the Ukrainian roads soon became apparent. Single carriageway, rutted, potted, and quite frankly fuck-ed. Rural Ukraine passed us by at an agonizingly slow pace, made more agonizing by the buses shock absorbers or shall I just call them shocks because they certainly did little absorbing. At one stage we passed a convoy of Ukrainian military vehicles, which ironically made me feel better. This was due mainly to the fact that the bus was actually a lot younger than the army trucks and also because we had not broken down. In fact of the convoy of around 15 trucks, 4 of them were on the roadside with the bonnets up. The invasion of Moldova on hold until someone could find the right sized Soviet spanner.

The sunny morning had predictably turned into a humid august day, the vent above my head was a little strange in that instead of a big hole blowing air, there was a big hole with loads of cardboard stuffed in it. Curiosity did not get the better of me, and while Tania wasn’t looking I directed her nozzle at my head. It made no difference at all. At this stage and with a certain amount of inevitability, the rather large Babuska in front of me decided to recline her seat. Now I am tall, and if I were female and blonde, I would be called leggy and these legs were now wedged dangerously close to one of my chins. Her husband tried to do the same in front of Tania but with all the authority of a sergeant major who had just found his wife in bed with the general, she shouted Niet The man in front froze for a second, before his seat slowly almost imperceptibly moved back upright. I swung my legs in front of Tanias and a modicum of comfort was restored, at least for a while. After around 90 minutes, the bus started to slow down from its already sedate pace. We were approaching the border.


Sunday, 14 August 2011

Times are a changing!

In 1993 I visited the Black Sea port of Odessa for the first time. It was not only a new country for me but a new country period. Ukraine had re-formed from the dissolution of the USSR only three years previous, it was to all intents and purposes still a Soviet ghost state. It was autumn when I arrived, the trees had already shed their leaves and a gloomy mist added to the general air of neglect that prevailed. I walked up the long Potemkin steps made famous by the Eisenstein film battleship Potemkin onto a small square. On the sides of the steps were hawkers selling old Soviet medals, military uniforms, Russian dolls, religious icons and whatever else they could find. Walking through the faded elegance of the streets I came to the main center of the town on Deribasovskaya Street. Imposing yet uninviting Victorian buildings lined both sides of the cobble-stoned thoroughfare. There were no shops as such, kiosks here and there sold cigarettes and vodka, and old soviet style restaurants that seemed as inviting as a dose of swine flu on a jumbo jet.
Down a set of steps I spied some old cameras in a window. I ventured into what was an Aladdin’s cave of religious icons, soviet history and old Russian cameras. I fell in love and bought a 1920′s Russian medium format camera from the young guy in shop. After handing over $20, I hurried back to the ship with my new purchase. Fifteen minutes later, chilly but pleased with myself, I was at the port entrance. I was stopped by a Ukrainian customs officer in an unfeasible large hat, who informed me he needed to search my bag. No problem I thought, it wasn’t as if I was smuggling out any important Soviet historical items. Only apparently I was! According to Comrade Hat, the barely working 70-year-old camera was a vital connection with Ukraines communist history and as such had to be confiscated. Of course being young(er) naive(er) and above all stupid, I handed the camera to him, instead of the $5 he really wanted.
What would have Pushkin made of it all?
Fast-forward 18 years to Odessa today. Deribasovskaya Street is still the center of the city, but today its where the Ukrainian nouveau riche go to exhibit their faux leopard skin stilettos with 8 inch heels, Armani suits and latest accessory dog.  The less wealthy (the vast majority) are chomping on almost beef-burgers in McDonalds or swigging half-liter beers at 40p a bottle. The streets from Potemkin to the center have been lavishly but tastefully refurbished. Designer shops, attractive restaurants and bars fill the Victorian buildings, the cars are BMW’s and Porches nearly always the 4 wheel drive variety, although this is mainly because although huge money has been spent on the buildings, the roads still exhibit some startling Soviet tendencies, such as three foot pot holes.
Overall the misty faded post Soviet old city has developed into a beautiful, wealthy metropolis, albeit with poor roads. I have to say, I like it, I like it a lot. But then I live here.