Always full of drama

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.