William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

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leaving Odessa

This is the fifth entry in my Ukrainian Vacation Series.

So here I am leaving Odessa, Ukraine’s porto franco and its answer to Montréal. Odessa was nuts, one long, exhilarating, bewildering adventure – details to follow. Now we’re riding another night train to Rivne – the train goes all the way to the Hungarian border, so we’ll have to set our alarms and be ready to jump off. They don’t announce stations or anything, so you have to pay attention.

Odessa is written as “Odesa” («Одеса») in Ukrainian, but this is hardly a Ukrainian city – in fact, it’s nobody’s city, so there’s no need to force the use of less comfortable but diplomatically correct city names, such as “Kiev,” the pleasurable and popular transliteration of the Russian name for Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital – and yes, they are pronounced slightly differently, as the letters indicate. Picture people getting riled up over the difference between maunt-ree-aul and mont-ree-ale (the English and French pronunciations for Montreal), and you have the Ukrainian language conflict in a nutshell. As you’ll see in one of the later entries, there are some people who devote great portions of their energy to caring about the stupidest things, and I put transliteratory nitpicking in that category.

Odessa was a profound experience for me, and I have no idea how I’m going to get it all down on paper. So first I’ll have some tea – it must be said that the train attendants are among the more attentive and good-hearted professional employees in Ukraine.

* * *

That was good tea. No matter what stresses, uncertainties, and foul remembrances beset me, if I can count on a good cup of tea, I ought never to worry. Few things can being about a sense of contentment like a good cup of tea.

So, about Odessa.

We arrived bedraggled, lost, and uncertain. Unfortunately for us and other lost and uncertain foreigners, sketchy cab drivers and ancient but formidable babushkas (grandmother-types whom you fear as much as respect) have the uncanny ability to sense anyone who doesn’t know which way is up and to “offer” them, respectively, a ride or a room. Sometimes they follow or chase you down, and sometimes they don’t take no for an answer.

I found a pay toilet that was better left not, and seeing what amounted to a plumbed hole in the floor, I decided to grin and bear my digestive troubles until we found a hotel. In the meantime, I booked a ticket to Rivne (at that point Shelley still intended to go on to Kyiv), and it was a pleasant surprise to me that I could, since it wasn’t marked on the system map – or maybe it was, since it would have been in Russian and said something like “Rovno” – in fact, I had to point out Rivne on my Ukrainian road map for the ticket agent to understand. Further on this topic, in Odessa, if we say we’re working in “Ostroh” («Острог»), no one understands. If we say “Ostrog” («Остроґ»), everyone understands (which is surprising since it’s such a small town – but then again, so is Stratford-upon-Avon).

Did you see that difference? Between Г and Ґ? Wasn’t that trivial? Why the heck is it that we can name Ukrainian place names (no, not just place names, but capitals! Rivne is a regional freaking capital!!) … BUT PEOPLE WHO WERE ACTUALLY BORN AND BRED IN THIS _________ COUNTRY CANT OMG THIS IS DRIVING ME CRACKERS-

Hi, this is Brad from LiveJournal. We have to disconnect Will from the service temporarily, as he’s made the mistake of trying to analyze and rationalize Ukraine. We’ll give him a sedative and try reconnecting him later when he’s gone back to thinking about his next bowl of borsch.

Seriously, Shelley told me of a cab driver who didn’t understand a word of Ukrainian. You think I’m exaggerating. I mean he didn’t even understand «Так», the word for “yes.” She had a heck of a time getting to the bus station. (The flip side of all this is that we got to pick up some simple Russian words.)

Fellow Canadians, the issues between English and French Canada are nothing compared to the complex relationship between Ukraine, the Ukrainian language, and the Russian language. I’ll need a few pages to cover my limited understanding of it, and right now it would be good to talk about Odessa, the beautiful and bewildering port city on the Black Sea.

(Hey, I’ve just discovered these cars have little radio volume controls near the ceilings in the aisles and compartments!)

So we left our luggage at the counter and looked for a cheap way into the city. I eyed a bus that said “Sereden-” something, so I convinced Shelley that we should get on it. We did, and we went, riding for a long time and wondering at the length of the journey from the central train station to the centre of town. As the grocery stores got bigger and the traffic got lighter, I began to question where we were going. It turned out we took the right bus, but in the wrong direction. I saw signs indicating a Southern Bazaar, so I pointed this out to Shelley, and she said she saw mentioned in the guidebook.*

* - We’re travelling with the team’s dated (2001) Lonely Planet – Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guidebook. It’s quite good, and when I get home I’m going to buy the latest edition to see what’s changed.

We hopped off and explored a sea of booths – too many to count – that sold imitation-Western everything. I’m confident that hardly a single item in that market was genuine, which added to the fun of it. Shelley, looking for a Diesel jacket in her size and colour, found coats costing as little as 150 UAH (about $36) – in the downtown fashion stores, they cost nearly 1000 ($250, but possibly still cheaper than in Canada) – anyway, if that first one’s a genuine Diesel, I have a Rolex I can sell you for $20.

Pirated music and video games (get your “Dendy” controllers here!) were rife, and before I really thought much about it, I bought a Beatles 2-disc compilation entitled “Forever Gold” (with The Beatles written in Comic Sans MS), which was part of the “Forever Gold Series,” © 2005 “Diamond Records” (unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited!) and “Made Near EU.” I should have haggled down from the 30 UAH sticker, but I’m not sure if I have the linguistic prowess necessary to do that.

If the pirates (and phishers, and other scammers) had any sense, they’d hire someone like me to make their verbiage much more convincing. Really, who the heck would fall for stuff like, “We must have to verfiy your personal informaitons, for access to you’re account to be reestabblished. Sincerely, PayPal.” Unfortunately for the pirates, though, I have a conscience – and I’m not a perfect writer – I could go on, but my point is that the scammers are often very poor writers and should try harder.

So after an hour or so of wandering around we jumped on a marshutke and headed back up north to the downtown. Ah, now this was more like it… until this point, Odessa looked like pretty much any other Ukrainian city: drab and concrete-intensive, but now we were surrounded by clothing stores, baroque architecture, and tree-lined streets. The imitation-Western junk was nowhere to be seen – now there was the real stuff (and at real, or more than real, prices), and the cars being driven in this area reflected the local wealth.

Now we just needed to find a hotel, which involved a great deal of walking, backtracking, and picture-taking (at least for me). We walked into places that were shockingly groady as well as places that were shockingly expensive. But finally we took the guidebook’s advice and chose Hotel Tsentralna – clean and comfortable, helpful staff, cheap (95 UAH / $24 for double occupancy with shared bath), and well located, hence the name. We actually walked past it twice (before and after lunch at a cafeteria-style eatery where we made gluttons of ourselves for $3 apiece) – Tsentralna and some of the other hotels are very easy to miss if you’re not looking for them specifically, as they’re incorporated into the older buildings – kind of like NSCAD. Does your city have a university that half of your citizens can’t even name, let alone place? Halifax has two.

Now of course we had to marshutke back to the train station and then taxi back to the hotel, and then we went out for a bite to eat at O'Brien's Irish Pub, where we looked at the Western prices and ended up settling for beers. Still, the Guinness there was the best (and only) I’d tasted in a long, long while. It was worth the tremendous price. Shelley wanted to use the washroom there and offered to pay for it – we had a laugh about this, us forgetting that we’re in a Western establishment.

There were also some ex-pats there I could have talked to, but lately I’m starting to become afraid of ex-pats. They’re a totally different crowd than us cross-cultural volunteers, and they often have money or are simply made of it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t many I could be friends with, but I am saying that I no longer want to meet someone just because they speak English natively. We met some missionaries from Alabama in the lobby of our hotel, and they were polite and cordial, but for some reason we couldn’t get a healthy conversation running. They had some interesting things to say, though. Oh, speaking of which, their translator (Boy, it would be nice to have one of those…) was a Romanian lady who told me the reason so few ships navigate the Danube down to Izmayil (Ukraine’s “back door”) these days is not because of any real or perceived violence or unrest in the former Yugoslavia, but because large pieces of the bridges felled by the NATO air strikes in 1999 are still sitting in the river – a significant navigational hazard. The governments of the republics involved don’t necessarily want to clean up the mess, because then they’d lose the income generated by the new requirement for navigation aid. Regular boat services up and down the Danube from Ukraine, therefore, may never resume.

Back to the story – we finished our beers and went out again in search of reasonably-priced non-cafeteria, non-pizza food, and we found a lot of clothing stores. That’s not a run-on sentence. Somehow, hours later (well, I did get some good night shots!) we stumbled upon what looked like a hot-dog kiosk, and I resigned myself to eating hot dogs – and then Shelley discovered they were making falafel. The very kind Turkish proprietor, when we found out we were Canadian and that falafel was Shelley’s favourite food in the Universe, even gave us extra toppings on the ends and a few extra falafel balls.

At first I thought that we’d take them back to the hotel, but then, hungry, I took a bite. At the same moment, Shelley found benches, but they were largely unnecessary because I would have inhaled that falafel on the street corner in the cold night. As it was, I sat down to shiver and enjoy my precious treasure. I don’t know much about Turkish cuisine, but this was good, damn good. My eyes watered – not necessarily because of the spices, these were tears of joy. After three months of heavy, greasy everything, this wrap was a gift from Heaven. And it pretty well was – for all the taste and skill it took to make, the wrap was a paltry 6 UAH ($1.40) – to me, it was easily worth 50 UAH (and probably would be in Canada).

The funny thing is, in all the rest of our time in Odessa, we never went back there. I had intended to go by myself earlier today on the way to my train, but since Shelley was with me we ended up eating earlier. And I’m never anxious to repeat amazing experiences quickly, for the re-run can be disappointing under the pressure of high expectation.

(It’s surreal to hear train departures being announced over station loudspeakers in Ukrainian Mystery Towns after 1 in the morning.)

Shelley and I then went to a “Top Sandwich,” but just for drinks. (This would be like going into a Quizno’s or Subway for coffee and cognac (Shelley) or imported Dutch Tuborg beer (me), except that it’s possible here.) We got to talking about making good friends cross-culturally. You’ve heard me mention the difficulty of this before. Shelley went one step further and told me that I can’t expect anything of the sort. Not only is there a ticking time bomb (our imminent departure) to any deep relationship (platonic or otherwise), but all the little cues and communications of normal relationships – well, often aren’t cues and can’t be communicated. Even if you were to speak to someone who knew every word in the English language, you might still have this problem.

So, right then and there, I just accepted things the way they were and thought about how I could show and enhance my appreciation for the good acquaintances I do have. A lot of it relates to my advice to myself before (getting out and around more, asking questions, etc..), which I plan to re-read before Monday morning. Funny thing, I’m going back to work, but all the students are going on to Reading Week, so I may not see any of them for a while – for instance, between Dima’s trip to Poland and my own trip in Ukraine, and his week off, it will have been over a month since we’ve last seen each other, though I did call him from Yaremcha.

Shelley and I found a nice little discoette below street-level, but tired, I retired relatively early. Still, in my dreamy haze I noted the extravagant intricacy and precise programming of the lights, lasers, and music. All of these things concentrated on a tiny portion of the establishment – a small dance floor where no one was dancing - much like the opulence of Odessa and Kyiv amidst Ukraine as a whole. This club, too, was frequented by a small portion of the population – usually wealthy Turks in to enjoy some hookah.

And that’s it for my first day in Odessa. Here’s where I decided to blog about the next day, the next day. Oh, but I made a quick phone call earlier in that evening, and by some miracle I got a customer service agent who spoke native English, without even asking. (I was prepared to try it in Ukrainian and had a dialogue written down.) I asked her if the train I bought tickets for would travel through Moldova, because forgetting that it would be a different train route, I neglected to ask when I purchased the ticket. Some of the stations on our trip down from Lviv were barely a kilometre from the border.

She checked for me. She found someone who knew about the train routes and relayed to me his negative. “You know, Moldova’s off to the side of Ukraine, so you wouldn’t go through there.” Uh, no… it’s geographically between Odessa and practically every destination in Western Ukraine. Alaska is “off to the side.” Moldova is the Siamese twin sharing your kidneys.

I told her about the Ivano-Frankivsk train. “Oh. Well, your train doesn’t go through Moldova.”

Yes, as far as we know, it doesn’t. Our cabinmates, headed to Lutsk and Brest (Belarus) assented. So we’re safe.

As far as we know…
Tags: best of ukraine, cwy, language, odessa, travel, ukraine

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