Always full of drama

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Little Green Men

In my last post, I alluded to the Little Green Men, the name Ukrainians give to the suspiciously well armed pro Russian rebels that popped up both in Crimea and the east of Ukraine. They are so called because despite being a supposedly rag, tag spontaneous group of freedom fighters, they all wear perfectly matching green uniforms, carry high tech weaponry and are completely devoid of any insignia on their fatigues. Either there had been a closing down sale at the local Millets or they were in fact Russian special forces. 

At the height of the tensions, with little green men sprouting up everywhere, there was a solid, business like knock at our door. Often I avoid opening the door when Tania is out, not so much through any particular fear, more the worry that despite studying Russian for a year, I might end being sold double glazing or a conservatory. The latter would be a nightmare because we live on the second floor. 
Anyway I am rambling, back to the point, the knock at the door. I cautiously open the heavy Soviet portal to our apartment to be confronted by two, not so little but defiantly green men, Ukrainian military to be precise. They barked a name at me in Russian. I replied that that wasn’t me. The gist of the conversation was that this person was registered in our apartment and had been called up to fight the little green men. Fortunately my Russian in a thickly laced south London accent managed to persuade them that it wasn't me and that I had lived here for three years and they realised that a portly Englishman with a gamy knee was probably not going to make great inroads into rebel held territory. And so a long trip in the back of a truck holding a Kalashnikov was avoided, it was supplanted with a very shot trip to the toilet with a rapid bowl movement.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Times have Changed

The other day, I received a comment on this blog. It simply said “More!” Of course my first assumption was that it was a dyslexic calling me a moron, but delving deeper I realised that I have not posted here in over a year. If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is a eternity in Ukraine. Things have changed and changed a lot. Some of the huge things that have happened over this past year include my parents coming to visit, the price of beer going up oh and Dobbie the House Elf “not” sending little green men into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. There have been times when I have been close to throwing everything into the back of the X-Trail and running for the border. When the little green men started taking their extended vacation in Crimea things got pretty tense here. The car was fueled to the brim, plans were made with fellow ex-pats on which way to exit, cash was drawn from ATM’s. Eventually things calmed down in Crimea, obviously we would not be going there without a visa anytime soon but it seemed, Dobbie was happy with is new Black Sea real estate in particular, securing a place to moor the rust buckets he calls the Black Sea Fleet.
  The Odessa Files: Dad's Pictures from Ukraine &emdash; Dad-Ukraine-87
Huge events such as our parents finally meeting. The Odessa Files: Maidan - Kiev &emdash; 2014-02-01 Odessa-005-10
Oh and a revolution.

Then, a few weeks later, little green men started popping up in the East. A bunch of idiots, nobody had ever heard of declared they would hold a referendum on independence from Ukraine. The ballot, much like the one in Crimea was a bastion of democracy, armed guards at polling stations, loaded questions, the ability to vote at any polling station you wanted, even if you had already voted somewhere else, in fact 100,000 ballots had thoughtfully been pre marked “yes” the night before the referendum. These minor issues did not deter the idiots from proclaiming an independent state with a 95% majority. When Ukraine sent troops into the east, these supposedly local dissidents suddenly found the ability to shoot down helicopters and ambush military vehicles with ruthless efficiency, not bad for a bunch of disillusioned businessmen. Of course no little green men were used in the making of this new independent state. Stress levels here in Odessa remained low. One of the arguments of the East was that Russian speakers were being discriminated against, yet Odessa in the South remained a difficult barb in that argument. Here was a Russian speaking city, quite obviously wanting to stay Ukrainian. Time to mix it up a bit and on May 2nd they did. A peaceful Pro Ukraine march was ambushed by Pro Russians. As in all other places this has happened, the Pro Russian were, presumably, very ugly, judging by the fact that they always had masks over their faces. They also had guns and randomly shot Pro Ukrainian marchers. The one thing they hadn’t considered though was the Ultras. In most countries, Ultras would be considered football thugs and indeed in Ukraine they have a fearsome if not entirely deserved reputation for violence. However in these troubled times, the Ultras had become passionate defenders of Ukraine’s liberty. Shooting at them upset them a little bit, in fact enough for them to retaliate against the little green men. The end result as most of you are aware was the bloodbath in which over 40 people died mainly in a government building that burnt down. Needless to say, during this time my passport, important possessions and money were ready to go, my sphincter had already gone. However as bloody and violent as that day was, it seemed to send a message, this peaceful, beach loving, sun worshiping city in the south did not want this shit and would fight for it’s right to remain Ukrainian. The trouble may not be over here, but I still love this city and it’s people. I love the way Odessa takes everything in it’s stride then returns to what it does best, having fun Unless the little green men come knocking on my door, here is where I will stay. Incidentally little green men did come knocking on my door but that’s a story for another day.

  The Odessa Files: Home Town Odessa &emdash; 2008-06-29 Odesaa-046

Odessa will always be a peaceful city of culture and beach life

Now I realize as I reach the end of this post that it may not have quite the same humour as some of my previous ramblings. I am sure you will understand this but be aware that I am re-inspired to write again (actually I write all the time but about photography not life in the former Soviet Union) Future posts shall return to my banal and odd sense of humour. So to my dyslexic admirer, the moron has spoken again, however, if you are not dyslexic, you have your more!

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"

Sunday, 27 January 2013

How to Make a Drama and a Crisis out of a Few Inches of Snow

There has been several inches of snow overnight. This is what the weather forecasters in the UK often say. What they actually mean is that if the wind blows the snow up against a wall, it might, after several hours, be several inches deep. As I made myself an expresso in order to write this post, I looked out of our kitchen window and could not help notice that here is several inches of snow outside. Of course what I mean by several inches is, by now about 15 inches and when I say outside, I mean everywhere, not piled up against walls. As I speak those inches are increasing. 

Snow, Roads, Odessa, 4x4, Cold, Frozen, Ukraine http://www.theodessafiles.co.u

Now here is the thing, and humour me if it gets boring, as I have mentioned this before, but Ukraine copes with it. People don't necessarily enjoy it, apart from the kids being dragged to school on sleds, by their parents  or more often grandparents, but they get on with things. The snow has been so heavy that even Odessa's well equipped roads department did not manage to keep up with clearing the main roads, yet yesterday when we drove to the mall, buses, trollies and trains were running, people were going to work or shopping despite the roads and pavements having the appearance of a vertically challenged alpine ski slope. Which brings me to the UK. It seems to me that when there is several inches of snow in the UK, everything grinds to a halt. Schools are closed, offices are empty, shops sell out of the basics. Why? Firstly schools, I remember snow when I was a kid. I am pretty sure it was the same stuff the UK get's today, and yes, the buses were often very very late, because a. the council run out of grit or b. the council ignored the weather forecasts and didn't grit. As kids, we had this quite amazing solution to the problem, we walked. My school was just under three miles from my house even in the deepest snow, several inches against a wall, it took about an hour. If we were late, the teacher's understood and forgave us. Does any one recognize something odd about that statement, no not teachers forgiving, teachers went to school in the snow too. Not once, ever, in my entire school life do I remember having a day off because of snow. Here in Odessa, we live next to a Kindergarten, and every day, despite the snow, we see the kids coming to school, sometimes walking, sometimes on sled but always well wrapped up and having fun. 

So lets look at the work and offices. OK, if you live in the deep in the country and work in the city you may be excused this one. But, what if you live in the suburbs? Well, even if the buses don't run the trains usually do, at least the suburban services. If there is no train service you could also walk. I remember one particularly snowy week in the early ninety where I walked to and from work three consecutive days. It must have been close I hear you cry, yes it was, I lived in Cheam, Surrey and my work was in Fulham, London, a mere eight and half miles or seventeen miles a day round trip. But here is the irony, it took about just over two hours, which was about the same time it took by public transport on a bad day, if you factored in the walk to the bus stops and trains station. Ukrainians, go to work every day, despite the weather. This is not only because most Ukrainians have a very strong work ethic but also because if they don't go they won't get paid. For some people here thats the difference between food on the table or not. 

For the life of me, I will never understand how supermarkets run out of essentials. Firstly it seems odd that all these people that cannot manage to get to work or school can still manage to get to Tesco's. Secondly that once they are at Tesco's they fill their shopping bags to the brim with bread milk and Tetley tea just in case they need to hunker down for several weeks. Now, my memory of UK winters may be fading, but I cannot remember a time when the snow lasted much more than three days. Usually by the third day its just a slushy horrible mess that is easily passable by trucks bearing bread, milk and Tetleys. We went to the shopping mall yesterday, despite the one foot of snow, on the ground not against the walls. When we got there, half the car park was unusable, but only because the giant snow plough the mall had hired, had not finished the second half yet. People came, parked in the first half, bought normal amounts of bread and milk, none bought Teltly's because Silpo doesn't sell it but the point is nobody was panic buying. This is for two reasons, firstly they knew the authorities in Odessa a. did have enough grit to cover the city and b. did watch the weather forecast. And of course the delivery drivers knew they could get into the shopping mall because there was a big fuck off snow plough clearing the car par.

Snow, Roads, Odessa, 4x4, Cold, Frozen, Ukraine http://www.theodessafiles.co.uk, snow plough, shopping mall,

There was an advert for Commercial Union in the 80's that had the tagline "We won't make a drama out of a crisis" These days some people can make a drama and a crisis out of a few inches of snow but most of them live in the UK

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