Always full of drama

Friday, 29 July 2011

All Estate Agents are Equal

Lying, cheating, swindling. These are all words that spring to mind when describing estate agents. In the UK they are renown for their high-pressure sales, ruthless behavior, pinstripe suits and BMWs. Its exactly the same in the Ukraine, with the exception that the pin stripe suit has been replaced by jeans and a leather jacket and the BMW is replaced by err, well nothing. Of the several agents we have met here in the last few weeks, the most striking feature has been the lack of wheels. Not a Lada between them, nary a Trabant in sight.
Fortunately, the money grabbing ruthlessness is still much in evidence.   One of the agents we were using continuously allowed Tania to pay his bus fare when travelling between properties. When we put in an offer on a flat, it turned out his fee would be in the region of $2000. And for that, we would be sorting out most of the documents on our own. To put that in perspective, $2000 will get you a very good Lada with low profile tires and an almost matching spoiler.
The Ukrainian property market is not unlike the Klondike gold rush. An unregulated and tangled madness, with everyone digging for gold but quite often getting stung when the mine collapses.
Let me explain a little. In Soviet times, life was pretty simple. You lived in a flat. The flat was owned by the state. You paid a little rent. Easy. When communism collapsed, in many cases ownership of the property went to the occupants, either for free, or for a stupidly small fee. Overnight a country of tenants became a country of owners. This was all very nice until some owners starting getting knocks at the door from complete strangers clutching fistfuls of documents. These documents, it turned out were the ownership papers from before 1917. They had been handed down generation-to-generation and now the pre-bolshevist ancestors were laying claim on their properties from beyond the grave. Except in many cases they weren’t. Sensing some easy money, some enterprising people set about forging papers and trying to evict people from their own homes on the basis of a 1917 document printed on an Epsom inkjet and aged with weak tea. It was a mess.
Adding further to this mess is the tax regime. If you sell a house within 3 years of buying, the seller has to pay 5% tax, the buyer 2%. Now, the wonderful estate agents, explain to the sellers that although the house will sell for say $40000, we will declare its value at only $10000. Wonderful, thinks the seller, I will save a huge tax bill. Whilst this is all very nice for the seller, the buyer moves in to his $40000 flat, and finds his insurance company will only insure it for $10000 and six months down the line, there is a knock at the door from the tax man trying to work our why your lovely home has devalued $30000 in the last 18 months and presenting you with the previous owners tax bill.
The estate agents know all of these problems but being silver tongued wankers, they manage to explain away all these problems with all the easy charm of a conman cheating his own grandmother. The problem is, most people fall for it and as such, the mess just gets bigger and bigger. We however are boxing clever. We are using a solicitor to advice us on these situations, and they are good solicitors. They must be, they drive BMWs

Monday, 25 July 2011

A Pint with Pushkin’s Brother

Last night, I was temporarily evicted from the flat as Tania, my gorgeous wife, awaited our landlady. The reason for the eviction was simple, I am foreign which means I am money. Tania did not want the rent to suddenly double when the landlady hears me speak pidgin Russian with a broad Surrey accent.

So I went for a beer. There is a little bar at the end of our block that sells a quite palatable Ukrainian beer called Avalon for 10 Grivna a pint, about 85p or $1.20. Seeing as my pidgin Russian does extend to Good evening one large beer please, I found myself with aforementioned beverage on a comfy seat in the Dolce Vita bar on Shevchenka Avenue.

I had barely put hops to tongue when a late mid aged guy came in, bought a pint, and carefully avoiding the thirty or so spare seats in the café, plonked himself down next to me. Very next to me. It didn’t take a rocket scientist, and I am not one incidentally, to work out that he was drunk, exceedingly drunk.

He started chatting to me in Russian despite my valiant efforts in Russian to tell him I was English. Eventually the penny dropped and he started to talk to me in pidgin English, the pidgin being the identical twin to its Russian Surrey counterpart. He was a writer, he told me, brother of Pushkin and Chekov he added. I was surprised at this, as although I would never win Mastermind using 19th Century Russian authors as my specialist subject, I did know that a. Pushkin and Chekov were not related and b. they died a long long time ago.

He continued, mainly in Russian swapping into English to say something derogatory about the lady owner of Dolce Vita before whipping out a book. It was his book he told me. He was going to write a dedication in it and give it to me, he declared. So he got out his pen, which oddly had no refill in it. Did I want the dedication in English or Russian he asked, I dodged the question fearing that this gift would require some for of payback, either monetary or alcoholic.

It took some moments for him to realize that despite his frenetic scribbles inside the book cover, nothing was happening. He looked over at the young waitress and asked her for a pen. Whether she saw the pain in my eyes, or whether she was just the world’s most inefficient waitress, I don know, but the fact was, she did not have one. I breathed a sigh of relief, gulped the last 200 mls of Avalon, made my excuses both in Russian and English and bolted for the door.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Babuski and the Nimbus 3000

For those of you that have never inhabited the Pottersphere, the Nimbus 3000 is Harry Potters, high end flying broomstick. It is the sort of broomstick that only exists in films about witches and wizards as well as a sort of mythical throwback to the golden days of general sanitization.

It is however standard issue to Ukrainian householders and more importantly to the Babushki that clean the streets here in Odessa. Babushka literally means grandmother, and if you are (un)lucky enough to be occupying the tree lined avenues of Odessa at 6 in the morning you will come across teams of Babushki, all armed with Nimbus 3000 replicas. Oddly enough, they are not flying up and down the Ulitsas practicing their Quidditch techniques; they are in fact sweeping the streets. In an age where Western Europe cleans its streets (if at all) by transformersque monster machines here in the Ukraine its done by an army of the elderly, a sort of mums army of broomstick wielding greytops.

Oddly for us in the west it is a system that works. Each person has their designated block and it seems to me each person has a pride in their work. The streets of this beautiful but dilapidated city are spotless, nary a MacDonald’s box or coke can to be seen. Be warned though, if you here a constant toot toot of a horn and see the Babushki stepping well back from the road, follow their lead. On more than one occasion, I have seen some poor unfortunate early riser, get and unexpected cold shower from the street washing truck as it sprays its load more or less indiscriminately along the avenues.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Anyone know the Russian for Ark?

 After several weeks of heat, humidity and sleepless nights, last night, the heavens opened up, over Odessa. I am not talking just the Christian heavens, this downpour was far more than biblical, the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist faiths all came along for moral support.

Shevchenka Avenue, the street where we live, had recently been taking on the appearance of a city bound Atacama, yet in the space of less than ten minutes it turned into the raging torrents of the Amazon headwaters. Being a man of leisure these days, I can more or less choose when I want to go out, except of course today, there was no choice, the customs broker we were using, called us 5 minutes before the downpour and asked us to meet her at the UPS office in town in 30 minutes.

So fully unprepared for the torrent, Tania and I waded into Shevchenka Avenue. Tanias initial idea had been to take the bus, which duly arrived after about 5 minutes. The bus idea was quickly abolished as we realized we needed a canoe to get from the curb to the point where the bus had stopped; and so we decided to walk down the street to find a point where the road and curb were not separated by a small lake.

The next obstacle was deceiving. A side road needed crossing and at first glance the waters gushing down it into Shevchenka Avenue were about an inch deep. Two girls standing on the side were not convinced, but with all the bravado of an Amazon explorer, I grabbed Tanias hand and stepped onto the road and right up to my ankles. My trainers, which had seen betters days, a long time ago had large holes in them and filled quicker than the Titanic. The water seemed just as frigid. The two girls, convinced by my bravado received a similar fate, although being young Ukrainians; it was only the front of their feet that got wet courtesy of 6-inch stilettos.

Eventually we found some dry land and proceeded to find a car to take us to town. By now, Odessas transport infrastructure had virtually collapsed, the sudden deluge of rain had turn the roads into the tarmac equivalent of pulped banana skins and the combination of wealthy locals in 4X4s going to fast and the less wealthy in Ladas with banana skins for brake pads had led to absolute carnage. There were accidents everywhere and any semblance of traffic flow had disappeared entirely.

Eventually we got to UPS, I picked up my Mac computer and we called for a taxi to take us home. Now anyone that has tried to get a taxi in London when one spot of rain falls serenely out of the sky, will have sympathy for our predicament and our requirement for a large car (Mac Pro computers are not small) restricted us even more. After several calls we found a company who said they would be there in ten minutes.

We waited, ten minutes came and went, lightning was now flying over our heads and thunder rumbling so long you wondered if God had stuck it in loop mode. Rain was beating not so gently on our heads and my trainers were still leaking the water from Shevchenka Avenue.

Twenty minutes and Tania walked to the main road and started to flag down passing cars. Thirty minutes and she had persuaded some poor sod on his way home to divert round the corner and pick up a drenched Englishman with two large boxes and aquatic trainers. As we pulled away, I snook a glance in the rear view mirror to see a large car pull up outside the UPS office. On the top it said taxi. Tradition dictates that I suggest the rest of the journey back was uneventful but it wasn’t. Amongst the increasing destruction was a three-way pile up on a busy corner, involving two cars and a trolley bus completely blocking the southbound direction. One enterprising bus driver had driven his entire vehicle and passengers onto the pavement to get past the accident. Pedestrians scattered everywhere and the looks on the passengers faces as the bus dropped off an usually high curbside suggest that Ukrainian bikes sales may be on the increase in the near future.

Today the sun is shining and not a cloud in the sky. Of course I dont have to go out!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A Strange Way to Arrive

It had been pretty uneventful, the flight from London to Kiev. The plane arrived early, immigration in Kievs Borispyl Airport were unusually efficient and my bag popped onto the carousel fairly quickly. I had been a little stressed, my turn around in Kiev was only 90 minutes and this being the former Soviet Union, nothing was ever easy. And so it proved.

I left Terminal B on a hot and humid evening and headed for the Domestic Terminal a short walk away. On entering, the thing that struck me the most, apart from the huge queue, was the air conditioning. There wasn’t any. A closer inspection of the queue revealed the vast majority of the passenger’s clothes were manufactured from a mixture of fabric and sweat, with associated smells.

I joined the line that seemed most associated with my destination, Odessa and spent the next 30 minutes slowly creeping towards the check-in desks, the boredom only briefly alleviated by the occasional trickle of sweat down my back. With all the charm of a female prison warden on her period, I was checked in and some 15 minutes later on a bus out to the plane.

The Kiev – Odessa route is normally a fairly quiet business commuter route but this being a busy summers Sunday evening, it was packed and inevitably, we left a little late. After a long taxi we eventually lined up on the runway, and waited. And waited. After about three minutes the captain announced there was a technical problem, we would have to return. This was done in Russian but you dont need to be a cunning linguist the work out what he had said, the reaction of the captive audience told the whole story.

And so we taxied back. The problem it seemed, was minor and could be fixed whilst we waited on the plane, which of course, now that the AC was switched off, made the domestic terminal seem like an eskimos pantry. We sat there for about an hour, the blue leather seats getting slipperier by the minute before the captain announced we were almost ready to go. Followed shortly by a further announcement that we were ready to go but had to wait for permission from the Ukrainian department of transport. Assuming they could find someone working at 10.30 in the evening on a Sunday.
Eventually they did and off we set, with a certain amount of trepidation concerning our newly repaired aircraft.

We arrived in Odessa about 2 hours late. The workers in the Odessa domestic terminal had given up waiting for us and gone home. We were bussed from the plane to the main gates of this international airport where a huge crowd of friends, family and lovers pressed against the wrought iron fence. Our baggage arrived a few minutes later, the entire contents of a Boeings belly on the top of a tractor driven cart, cueing a mad bun fight the find your own suitcase.

So it was an inglorious, and odd arrival to the country that will be my home. My wife was amongst those pressed up against the fence awaiting us eagerly. Fortunately unlike many westerners joining their Ukrainian wives, I had met her before. Quite a few times in fact.