Always full of drama

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.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Someone’s blown a fuse again

In 1974, in the London suburb of Carshalton, there was a power cut. I was quite young at the time but remember it being about some blokes striking because they wanted to keep their jobs digging out dirty black rocks deep underground. I think it was the same reason my mum had to queue for an hour to get a bag of sugar. Anyway the power was off several hours. The same thing happened in 1987, but was only off for about two hours. Apparently the cause this time was that some storm had annihilated most of Southern England causing hundreds of millions of pounds of damage.

The weather is pretty good here, hot sunny, barely breeze above a mouse’s fart yet so far in the last three weeks we have lost power three times. The last time was last week, whilst I was sat at my computer typing some inane and boring blog that I do to fill my days. All of a sudden the screen went blank, Duran Duran disappeared from my headphones and the fan suddenly circulated even less air than normal.

Fortunately my laptop was charged so I concluded my inane scribing on that, then watched a couple of TV programs I had downloaded (dont mention that to anyone). 

Odessa with electricity

That took a couple of hours and the end of which the power was still down, as of course was the internet. Boredom drove me back to the laptop to watch some more TV until the battery ran down on that. Ever resourceful I picked up my iPad and started to read some books on the Kindle app. For me, time disappears when I am reading, unless of course its this blog, and when the fan suddenly started to push tiny puffs of air in my direction again, six hours had passed. An entire six hours without electricity and not for the first time.

The following day with copious amounts of electricity coursing through our Soviet wiring loom, the internet went down. This happens anywhere so at first I was not concerned. After an hour of incommunicado I had look at what was going on. No Ethernet connection. This was unusual because if it was the internet service provider, the Ethernet would generally still be connected. Tania called them and they said that the line must have been disconnected somewhere. They would send someone out to check. They didnt say when.

So without my cyber lifeblood I decided to take a cooling bath cleanse away the sticky humidity. Relishing the cool refreshing water I turned on the tap to the sound of echoic gurgles and very little else. The tap was notable by its absence of activity at either extent of its rotation.

Better in the old days?

So in the space of two days we had lost three services, two of them essential and the water. The water was down for about two hours but it took until the following day for the internet to return.

Fortunately, its all up and running now, until the next time somebody trips a fuse, digs up a water main or cuts our internet cable. Still I wouldn’t have it any other way, its the unpredictability that makes living in this country so interesting.  So if this article suddenly stops you will understand exa


Friday, 5 August 2011

Getting Around Soviet Style

Back in June, I made a short visit to the UK, to tie up some odds and ends in preparation for my life in Ukraine. I flew into Gatwick, took a train to Croydon, where, as I was travelling light, I decided to save money and get the bus. It was a short walk to the stop and the bus was already waiting. I hopped on the gleaming 2 year old vehicle and marveled at its airiness, cleanness and at how modern it was.

Single to Sutton please I politely asked
Sure, thats £2.20 please an equally polite driver replied
Sorry, thats Sutton in Surrey not Sutton Coldfield

I nearly dropped the pound coin I had prepared and suddenly realized where all the £2.20s had been spent. Buying the bloody bus.

Now you can call me Mr. Cynical, and you would be right, but to me, the bus is supposed to be transport for the masses, a cheap economical way to get about for those on low incomes or those in some rash misjudgment, feel that today, they will save the planet by not driving. The longest I am going to spend on the bus, traffic permitting is about 45 minutes. I dont need comfy seats, air conditioning or spacious modern surroundings. I want cheap.

Air conditioning Ukrainian style

Here in Ukraine, they have got it right. The transport system had probably seen better days under Khrushchev, by Brezhnev it was antiquated and under Gorbachov it was derelict. Gorbachov gently handed the reins of the stampeding horse of communism over to democracy some 20 years ago, but still the same transport system exists. But that is not a bad thing. Yesterday, I got on one of the multitude of trolley routes that pass our flat. It was ancient; in fact I am sure somebody had carved druid runes into the paintwork. The seats were made of solid Bakelite, the disabled access bore startling similarities to the abled access and as this was a bendy trolley it had a big rubber bellows in the middle. This had a hole in it that you could, erm, drive a bus through. The pun was intended. Being a trolley, it was electric so you would expect whisper quiet. Not a word of it, in fact you couldn’t hear any words, there was the screech of metal upon metal, bumps, crashes and of course the sound of car horns beeping because the driver just cut them up.

Granted, the seats are uncomfortable
I had the misfortune of sitting behind an elderly gentleman whose personal aroma could only be described as a subtle infusion of garlic with b.o. The passengers were a cross section of Ukrainian life, Babushka’s, students, mothers and children, in fact exactly the same as on any bus in the UK. Except it wasn’t the same, sure the journey took exactly the same time for the same distance but it cost me 10p. No not a misprint, 10p. Yes it was old, uncomfortable and had I been in a wheel chair, impossible, but I wasnt and so it suited me perfectly. I had to make a relatively short journey across town, the trolley stopped outside my flat and it cost next to nothing.

Of course there wasnt much choice, I dont have a car so it was the trolley or Shankys pony, but if I did have a car, I feel confident I would still use public transport. Now, where did I put my Ukrainian AutoTrader?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The State of Soviet Housing Stock

Unlike the UK, where most towns and cities display an infinite variety of housing styles, the Ukraine is stuck predominantly with two. Soviet Social and Russian Renaissance. The latter, is generally a 15 stories plus, modern jerry built structure, often with rounded corners and topped out with orthodox inspired domes.
The Soviet stock seems to have been inspired by Lego; both the shape and building materials. There seems to be about 3 basic designs, 5 story, 9 story and 12 story all of which are rectangular and utterly uniform. We are house hunting for Soviet stock based on two factors, firstly it’s cheaper and secondly its less likely to fall down.
When I first started to look at flats with Tania, it was somewhat of a culture shock. Many of the buildings look like prison blocks, some of them after a riot. From grey breezeblock to cheap and unevenly laid bricks, the exteriors are beyond depressing.
Usually it doesn’t get any better when you enter, the impression of a prison continues at the entrance doors. Heavy, steel and windowless they look as inviting as a cup of tea with Dr Crippen. The more upmarket ones are locked and have either a code to enter or a little magnetic key. In the down-market versions, the doors are open wider than jaws of a nun in a sex shop.
A Once Grand Staircase
It doesnt even get better with the lobbies. Because nobody owns or generally cares about the lobby areas, they are dark, unkempt, musty and dirty. Some owners have installed nice lights outside the doors to their flats but many haven’t. Negotiating the lobby stairs at night is best done with a Labrador in tow and without touching the handrails. Buildings over 5 stories will usually have lifts. These generally look like the lobbies only a lot smaller. They are dark dank and small, with the ability to turn a career Agoraphobe, Claustrophobic. Rather than rise smoothly up inside the building, they clang and clank, bashing into god knows what jutting into the lifts shaft. I am not sure if the buttons inside represent the floor you require or your chances of survival.

As dark and depressing as this sounds, its not all bad. When you go through the doors to a Ukrainian apartment its like crossing some sort of mythical border between the third world and the first. Most apartments are well decorated, often double glazed with high ceilings and thick walls. In fact better than most new builds in the UK. The Soviet touches are still there; the central heating will be communal and switched on only outside the summer, a modern boiler is need if you want hot water in July. Unless renovated the pipework will have been fitted with all the finesse of surgeon wearing boxing gloves and the electrical circuits may require you to earth yourself before switching on a light. In general though the apartments are nice. We haven’t really seen a very bad one, apart from the one we are renting at the moment and there have been a few which have been interested in buying. It’s just a shame about the estate agents!