Always full of drama

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Has Anyone Seen our Electricity?

This afternoon, I am writing to you from a power cut. I am able to do this because, my electronic typewriter was designed in California, built in China and has a small internal power plant made up from rare earth metals, which apparently are very common in Canada. 
The power has been off now for about an hour, fairly unusually for our neck of the woods but a frequent occurrence for those inhabiting the more central parts of the city. Of course the people we can blame for this are the Soviets, it is a soviet built electricity sub station that is causing central Odessa to have rolling blackouts, unfortunately nobody knows which way they are rolling, but usually you can time it down to ten seconds after I have ordered a double Latte with cinnamon topping in Kompot. 
Today however I am at home, so my Krupps expresso machine is currently lacking the electrons to even gently pressurize some ground Arabica, our air conditioner is sealed up tighter than a nun’s fanny and our flat screen TV resembles and oversized, black kitchen tile with about as much function. 
This of course is the problem, whilst the Soviets, were quite brilliant at producing 5 year plans for everything, crop production, Lada manufacturering and indeed electricity output, they were somewhere below useless at predicting the actual future. Two things that spring readily to mind that the Soviets failed to predict were the end of the Soviet Union and the ability of the comrades, freed from the need to queue for a bowl of cabbage soup, to buy, en mass, consumer electronics.
Here in Ukraine there are more stores selling white goods, black goods and touchscreen goods than there are working streetlights. That’s before you go online, where anything with a .com.ua prefix is likely to be hawking Samsung, LG, or Apple. The Ukrainians love consumer electronics and when they are flush they buy them. Look along the outside of any Soviet apartment block and 30-40% of the apartments will be air conditioned.  Scan for wifi and everyone has it, take a trip on a trolly or tram and everyone is listening to Ukrainian pop on a touchscreen phone. 
In Soviet times, the planners at the United Socialist Union of Electricity Supply Engineers, would sit down once every five years and work out how many extra 20 watt bulbs the proletariat would be using over the next 72 months, how many radio’s would be allocated to the party members and what time to switch off the street lights once everybody is at home listening to radios underneath their 20 watt bulbs. They would add this all up, build a nuclear power station out of Bakelite and bubblegum then crack open a bottle of vodka to celebrate completion of the five year plan. It is, of course this Soviet electrical infrastructure that powers, or not, Ukraine, with the notable exception of one nuclear power station in the north where the bubble gum dramatically burst in 1986. 
Now when the temperature rises above 30C, which is basically everyday from late April until early October, the people of Odessa switch their air-con on and pop to the kitchen to make an iced latte with their Krupps. This in turn causes the local sub station to have a hissy fit and shut down in disgust. 
Fortunately the rare earth minerals and lithium inside my designed in California aluminum box still have 86% power left, which means for the next five or so hours, I am will still be living in the 21st Century. After that, if engineers have not managed to placate big Betha and persuaded her to distribute electrons again, I will be sitting in a warm, dark room dreaming of a nice iced cappuccino whilst contemplating making a cabbage soup. On the gas cooker of course. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Brief Definition of Roads in Ukraine

The most amusing road signs in Ukraine are the ones suggesting an uneven road for x number of kilometres. We have them in the UK of course, although they are generally ignored. This is because an uneven road in the UK is usually just a series of gentle undulations that might send you off to slumber only to wake up embedded in a tree. In Ukraine, the best way to describe an uneven road is "road". You see the only smooth roads here are in places that the president has visited since the previous winter. You can practically follow his route through the town because suddenly the bowling green smoothness will disappear up a side street and the main road will deteriorate back to "road" 
For those of you not familiar with Ukraine, let me describe "road" for you a little more explicitly. Perhaps the best way to start is to imagine a normal, newly made road. Now imagine a battalion of epileptics with jack hammers have held a conference on it, followed by a gaggle of paranoid schizophrenics with aversion to white paint, who have systematically rubbed the road markings off with their elbows. Now we are getting close. To finish your visualisation of a Ukrainian road, pop it in the deep freeze at minus 20c for four months, defrost and freeze again several times. You may now be getting close to seeing it now. However this is nothing compared to driving on them, recently on a trip out of Odessa we took a minor back road as a shortcut. Now bear in mind I have a fairly decent 4 wheel drive car that has chunky all weather tyres and good ground clearance, five miles took us thirty minutes. The road was so scarred, that in places the only way to continue was to drive into the potholes and back out the other side, stopping for a cup of tea midway. 
Ukrainians have found a kind of communal solution to this problem. They don't drive on the roads anymore, the drive to the side of the roads. Here you will see entire new dirt tracks have appeared where drivers have hit one crater too many and decide, enough is enough and gone off roading.   Gradually, more and more people take to the dirt, virtually cutting a new road alongside. Indeed the road that we got stuck on had an entire dirt track for five miles running on the other side of a treeline. On our return we decided to use it, following a bus up it. Actually it took us about ten seconds to realise following the bus directly was not too good an idea. This is because five meters onto the dirt and the rapidly accelerating Mercedes mini bus had disappeared into a maelstrom of dust, stones and road kill. Our decision to back off was aided by the emergence of a double articulated truck from the sand storm, the front of the truck doing around 50 miles per hour, with the rear trailer going faster and sideways directly towards us. In a remarkable feat of driving skill Anton Sennaski managed to right the entire truck without slowing down. As we reversed out of the hedge and continued on our way, the Mercedes WRC minibus was now just a rising cloud of dust on the horizon and the entire dirt track was our own. I have to say it was fun to drive, the X-Trail a sure footed companion that dispatched the five or so miles in ten minutes or so. The same could not be said for the driver of a Bulgarian 40 ton articulated lorry who had had the misfortune to be using the official road beside us. I suspect he may still be there as I write.
The irony of this story is, that if you ask people, many roads have been allocated as repaired. The problem is, that the contractors are paid to relay a road, yet in the best case scenario they merely pad a bit of loosely packed asphalt into the existing potholes and in the worse case they don't bother at all preferring to pay a percentage of the fees to the guy that inspects the roads instead.
It's a shame, because where the roads are in good condition, they are wonderful to drive on, wide enough to overtake, with   enough bends to keep you alert and  little traffic. Unlike the UK which has a town every three miles, in south western Ukraine you can drive thirty miles without passing a village. There are no speed cameras hidden in the sunflower fields, no traffic calming measures, no variable speed limits and fixed speed traffic cameras, in fact none of the soul destroying, over regulated and pure evil, hidden tax measures that the UK's roads are increasingly laden with. In fact to clumsily paraphrase a former Soviet leader. "remove the potholes, remove the problem"