Always full of drama

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

Monday, 23 January 2012

In the Bleak Mid Winter

So here we are, fast approaching February, fresh from the trials and tribulations of celebrating two Christmases and two New Years. Before going any further, I should explain. I celebrated the traditional western Christmas of over indulgence and cringe inducing adverts that start in August. Here they celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas, which happens on the 7th of January and seems to have introduced religion to the equation.

 Christmas Lights on Prymorski Boulevard

It was certainly odd thing going out the day after New Year and seeing people buying Christmas trees but thats another story. The New Year I am referring to is the new New Year, i.e. the one traditionally celebrated in major cities worldwide, by pumping obscenely large amounts of fireworks into the sky whilst spreading obscenely large amounts of vomit over public pavements. Here we celebrated with the mother in law and a bottle of Ukrainian Champagne, Chateaux Chernobyl, which oddly despite being the freezer for three weeks was still warm when poured.
Anyway as usual my mind is wandering, so back on subject; here we also have a second New Year, old New Year. Now if you aren’t entirely confused, old New Year is another religious festival, celebrating the baptism of the baby Jesus. Honestly as an agnostic, seeing all the partying going on I was wondering whether there maybe was a God after all.

The point is that we are now officially in the bleak mid winter, my first in Ukraine and guess what, its not bleak. Now I know as I write this these are probably famous (hopefully not) last words, but so far the winter has been benign and forgiving. One of my reasons for leaving the UK and returning to sea in 2005 was the British winter. In January 2005, I had just returned from a photographic shoot in Havana and the very next day, I remember sitting in a car on Londons North Circular on the way to shoot a property. I had not moved for about 40 minutes. The rain was not beating down on the roof; it was driving past the windows horizontally on the cold breath of a howling gale. The gently glowing dashboard of my car indicated it was 2 degrees but outside it felt more like the end of days. At this point, I said fuck it I cannot do this anymore and started on the odd and meandering path that has led to my first Ukrainian winter. Now I am sure many of you know that Ukrainian winters can be harsh. Hell if they stopped the Third Reich they can certainly put a crimp in the day of middle aged expat. But you see, here in Odessa we have a certain something that helps us. The Gulf of Odessa. The relatively warm waters of Gulf moderate the harshness of the Ukrainian winter and although it does snow here and can get cold its does not have the cruel bitterness that the rest of the country suffers. Nor does it have the rampaging Atlantic storms that wreak havoc and bring misery and darkness to the Sceptered Isle.

So overall and so far its manageable. A few days of rain, some snow, a little above freezing, a little below freezing but very little strong wind. In fact so little wind that as I look out of the window of our flat, the trees in the yard still cling desperately to their remaining leaves, and its nearly February. That said, I am still looking forward to spring in this beautiful and endlessly engaging city.