Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Insane in the Ukraine

Thinking of going to Euro 2012? Chris Mills was in one of the host countries this week - The Ukraine. His relatively simple plan of action was to buy a train ticket and watch a bit of the old World Cup on the telly box. Simple right? Read on....

So I have half a can of OБoлoнь (Obolon) to finish and rather than let it go flat and warm by tomorrow morning, here is my World Cup blog…

There’s a comedy internet T-shirt site that I like that has one shirt with a map on it and the words “The Ukraine is weak”. The Ukraine is not weak – it is annoying and grumpy. And this makes it extremely difficult to see the Ghana-Uruguay quarter-final of the 2010 World Cup in Vuvuzela (Venezuela? Ed.).

I have purchased train tickets in places far more crazy than this (Azerbaijan, for instance… or Fulton, California) with no problems at all. But here it’s too crazy, too fast.

I meet Alexis in the line for “International” (and I only knew this was international because the woman behind the word that kind of looked like “Information” in Cyrillic had stuck two fingers up at me when I said clearly to her: “Iaşi [Ee-ash], Romania?”)

Over to Window 2 I go, whereat Alexis – who is a kind of French Indian Jones character who lives in yurts in Mongolia while digging for God knows what – confirms that this indeed “International”. The poker-faced girl with 80s hair behind the plexiglass and microphone relay here at Львів (L’Viv) railway station, south-west Ukraine, even seems to have a smattering of English.

Alexis – who speaks Russian, which the Ukrainians don’t like but grudgingly understand – agrees with me that this is one of those countries where people just push to the front of the line. This is happening now; little men, people in uniform, loud women – all butting in. This, however, is not our biggest problem. Big-hair Girl behind the counter has got the whole glacial Communism thing down straight, despite the fact she probably only five when the wall came down. She’s not doing this shit in triplicate, it’s apparently quintuplicate.

“They don’t have a computer?” I ask in disbelief on seeing cash-only payment ahead of us. “Yes, they have it,” says the Frenchman, who knows this place well. But they also have two different stamps, piles of maybe-meaningless forms and carbon paper, which I haven’t seen in years.
Alexis is impressed to learn that the train I just rolled in on from Kraków, Poland, was a brand-new (albeit cramped) sleeper which has adjustable wheels to cope with the change of railroad gauge between Europe and the former Soviet Union, cutting the journey time by around five hours.

This time saved was being cancelled out waiting here in this solidly imposing, polished wood and marble station – a building belying the broken sidewalks, pollution and railcar buildings in the 30C heat of the avenue outside. It’s actually pretty hot here in the concourse too and I am sure I can feel air-con coming out of the cash hole in Big-hair Girl’s plexiglass.

Arggh… I don wanna wait twice,” says Alexis with Gallic directness. “I’m getting some cash.” He makes off and on his return laughs at the fact that the little lady in red, the only person who had been left in front of us (we’re hunting as a pair now) is still there, still deep in conversation with Big Hair Girl.

“How much needs to be said?” I ask rhetorically. “She’s buying three tickets to one destination. It’s been about 20 minutes…”

“More,” sighs Alexis.

“In UK, she could’ve organised a round-the-world trip by now. God, when she actually takes the cash off her, the price will have gone up.”

I have it in my head that today I would like to find someplace to watch the Holland-Brazil quarter final and later the Ghana-Uruguay game. This dream is fading fast as I decide too that I need to get hold of some Ukrainian money, a currency I now know to be called the ривня (hryvnia or UAH).

The station is packed with “bankomats” but it takes me three goes (and some paranoia that I’ve been debited without getting the cash) to find one that likes my British debit card. This machine, of course, has a line of six people, strangely queuing at a right-angle to it, directly across a busy doorway. Some unshaven guy in a shiny suit siddles up and I stare at him angrily, channelling: “Don’t even think about it Mr Butinski!” He looks a little scared by me and leaves with a face-saving dismissive motion of his hand. Later I feel sorry for him. He was probably just standing there.

This ATM is clearly around three times slower than a western one and by the time I get my money I’m drumming my fingers on it and swearing in English to the slight bemusement of the resigned Ukranians now behind me.
I think I’ve lost my new ally but he finds me and he’s seeing the funny side of the fact that as soon as he’d gotten his ticket to Budapest, Big-hair Girl had gone on her break. I suggest getting the hell out of this nuthouse but as I say this, a schedule is slapped up on the inside of Window 2. It seems they re-open, bizarrely, in just five minutes’ time and, sure enough, at 8am Big-hair Girl is replaced by Porno-cashier Girl.

Alexis starts banging on at her in Russian and I coufuse things by periodically saying the word “Romania”. We’re only about 40km from the Romanian border but all we’re getting from this super-blonde whose uniform appears to be about to give up the fight with her breasts is:“No train. No train.”

Ominously, Alexis tells me as an aside that in the former Soviet Union they sometimes won’t let foreigners have a ticket just for the hell of it. He drills Porno-cashier girl further and she tells us the border is closed all weekend (it’s Friday today) and the weather is to blame.

(Much later I piece together that this is, amazingly, pretty-much true. A Ukranian train boss tells me through a Russian-Canadian couple I meet the next day that there was a landslide which blocked the line. And in Romania I hear that, despite the baking heat elsewhere, there were rainstorms causing terrible floods in that area, killing 23 people…)

Alexis quickly discrens that my best bet is to go to the border and that means the city of Чернівці (Chernivtsi), where there’ll probably be a bus into Romania (and, indeed, there is – the replacement bus for the landslide train, which I eventually get on for free). We make for a local window and within four minutes I have my ticket. For the six-hour journey, it costs me 40 UAH (about 4 euros). I’ve just withdrawn 500 UAH of one of the world’s least wanted currencies, in a country where a 500ml beer or a bowl of borsch costs 50 euro cents)…

So I wander L’Viv with Alexis for about an hour or so getting heat-stroke, share some poppy-seed bread with him after which he shows me the tram to ride back on. His train is tonight so I say goodbye and “spasiba” (“thanks”).
I find my platform by remembering my destination begins “4ep” as (in “Чер”) and, in good time, the battered communal sleeper rolls in from Moscow. I stagger with my luggage through the sun feeling like Woody Allen as each carriage boss in turn points me at the next car. Mine is two from the end. The cleaning lady takes my ticket and checks it. She gives it to a guy in uniform who keeps it all, despite my puzzled look. So I’m hoping that they remember me and that I remember that my stop begins “4ep”.

The carriage is dozens of vinyl bed-shelves, and complicated tables that fold into beds and thick bedrolls with people lolling, standing, sitting and laying all over the place. Many of the men have their shirts off. But it’s relatively fresh in there, if a little stuffy. There are water bottles everywhere and few beer bottles.

There’s a guy reading the paper next to me and a babushka laid out on the table-bed across the aisle. I use my wire-lock to secure my safety bag (which holds my two other bags) to a stanchion. A comely young woman arrives and sits on the “bed” opposite me.

Then, as the train is pulling away, as always, a respectable-looking couple shuffles in and squeezes to sit on the bed next to the comely girl. There always has to be a talker and this guy is today’s. Don’t get me wrong. This can be good or bad. You never know. He talks to everyone and immediately and it’s clear he’s taken a good quart of vodka. I have to admit, of course, that I am “Anglia” and to him, this is hitting the jackpot.

The discussion mostly revolves around the standard of his English, or at least it keeps coming back to that. “I made residential for English,” he boasts.

“A course?” I put in.

“Yes. Course,” he agrees, and goes on to ask me what sort of job he could get in England, while taking my water bottle for a “little sip for me” and not giving it back. But he really wants to know what he can do in Anglia and looks at me expectantly. “Um. You could have a restaurant,” I suggest for some reason. It turns out he wants to be a security guard. He is at least 60.
“Chris! Chris! How much you weigh?” I tell him in kilogrammes. He tells me proudly he is 86kg. He tells me he will die when he is 96. But only God can know this really, he adds, after some thought. “God and the insurance man,” I say. There is a glimmer of agreement in his eyes at this suggestion.

His mortified wife is periodically cornering him and literally wagging her finger at him while berating him in high-speed Ukrainian. During one of this respites I make the international drinky-drinky gesture to the comely girl and she says to me “oh yes” in English.

“My wife do not understand,” says the talker, after extricating himself from her fury.

“Oh, I understand,” she mutters in English, never looking at anyone but her husband.

The talker, who has told me his name but I’ve already forgotten the pronunciation, says a few things in Ukrainian that make the others smile, even laugh; especially the babushka and her shirtless husband. I’m sure these are about me but I feel no resentment. He’s a tedious but genial, even though he’s trying to wind me up about my water bottle.

“Chris! Chris!” he gestures to the comely girl. “She is your wife?”

Da,” I say and the comely girl giggles shyly (then denies this vociferously).

Five or six times the talker has said to me: “Chris, do you have little glass, little glass?” I obviously do not, but eventually it occurs to me that he is offering to share with me the remains of his vodka. Every woman who walks past is also asked for a “little glass” for me, usually with the pre-amble, in English: “Waitress! Waitress!” I find this re-assuring but our vodka party does not come to pass.

A short time later, he totters off to make a pipi or to smoke (oddly, only one woman is smoking in the carriage itself) and this gives me a chance to climb into a middle bunk and sleep a bit, propped against one of the huge bedrolls. On his return he wants my juice and the remains of my poppy-seed bread.
“Chris! Chris! You want me die?” I give him just a twist off the bread and everyone laughs as he holds on to it quizzically.

Then he sings a loud song and falls asleep. I get my water back.

Of course, like all good generalizations, not everyone in Ukraine is grumpy, just a lot of them; and it’s that Communist grumpiness which is just a way of dealing with life rather than from the soul. In Chernivtsi I eat something in the station “restaurant” – a place, like so many in the former Soveit Union, which has these fancy net curtains, apparently from Stalin’s office, circa 1945.

I have to tell the woman who served me three times the 2 UAH I left is her tip (a man helps me explain; she just keeps saying in Ukranian: “It’s yours. It’s yours.” But she smiles when she realises what I’m going on about.) A stray dog comes in when I’ve finished all my food. But the woman gives the dog a bone and I watch the dog crack it and lick the bits up off the floor.
There is even some English on the “Tickets for Foreign Destinations” window and the woman there is like a blonde Bella Emberg, the wobbly comedy woman from 70s UK television. When my turn comes she explaines things with the help of five Ukranian Hannah Montanas behind me. With the exact mannerisms of American teenage girls they tell me about the landslide and that I must come back at 6 tomorrow and get on a bus into Romania at 7.

Bella’s gaggle have directed me next-door to the station hotel, wherein a cleaning lady sits on a sofa outside the reception desk.

“You?” I sign, and receive an unsmiling “niet”. I pick up an ancient plastic phone receiver at the deserted desk and listened to it, dumbly. As if by magic – but entirely by coincidence, I’m sure – a nearly identical cleaning lady arrives from the street and goes behind the counter. I know she’s a cleaning lady because, like the other woman, she’s wearing the generic, global cleaning lady tabard. I stupidly begin signing to her that I will get a bus at 7 the next day. I now realise she probably thought I was in a party of seven.

She isn’t happy from the start, and after some minutes of awkwardness and grumpiness (on her part) and pointless scribbling and sniggering (by the other cleaning lady) – and me inexplicably asking: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” (inexplicably because I don’t) – she grabs a key and begins to show me upstairs.

Spasiba!” I blurt. Relieved, I’ve used my only Russian (“thank you”) apart from “da” and “niet”. She starts jabbering at me and it’s immediately clear to me that she’s saying something like: “No! Not thank-you! Not thank-you! You ain’t in yet, buddy!”

At the open door of the room she stares at me. I stare back (I’ve understood already I have to pay for a twin – about 14 euro) and then I say “Da! Da!” and move to sling my bags inside. She’s OK with this so that’s it – I can finally use some of this Ukranian cash (later I am waved away from eight different currency exchange places in Romania).

I want to look at Chernivtsi, but darkness has descended before I venture out of the room. This hotel is spotlessly clean (after all, cleaning ability appears to be the main pre-requisite for employment here) but there is only one seat-less toilet and a wobbly sink for the whole 10-room floor. I’m thinking about this as a finally re-enter the reception area and it hits me: the jabbering black-and-white TV on the wall is showing Ghana-Uruguay.
Four men are watching the match, apparently intently (until I realise that one of them is sound asleep). I stare at the screen. I can’t really tell the difference between the two teams at first. There is no score or time showing.
I turn to the men and make a “nil-nil” with my fingers. One makes “1-1” back, cheerily. There’s an update on the screen. I’ve missed Holland-Brazil and slept through 63 minutes of this.

There’s vinyl armchair for me but I’ve gotta eat and Grumpy Woman sure ain’t gonna solve this problem for me. She even gives me some grief when it becomes clear I’m heading out into the town. I give her my key and she writes down something I understand to be “Check-out is at 12, idiot”. I take the pen, indicate myself and write down “06”. She seems to get it.

I cross the wide, cobbled and tram-lined street to a “Бар” festooned with fairy lights and people hanging out in front. My spirits are raised: inside, in the corner, is a colour TV and the footy is already on. I sit and begin to watch. Within seconds it’s clear to me that this is some kind of weird Eastern European chat show/football game with a long sofa of opinionated men, a couple of pretty girls and a black guy who, it turns out, barely gets a word in. They appear to be talking about the game which, infuriatingly, plays live on a fuzzy screen behind them or on a strangely angled “coffee table” screen at their knees. Only occasionally does it actually cut to the match itself and a lot of screen-time is taken up with the main man’s head just gassing away.
I sigh and steel myself to approach the counter. I grab a beer from a fridge and make the international eaty-eaty gesture. I am encouraged: the woman is smiley and laughs when I make the befuddled “Anglia” disclaimer.

“Chicken?” she asks.

Me: “Da! Da!”

Her: “Brot? Salat?”

Me: …you get the idea. It comes pretty quick and I’m just about being able to read the game and – as I’m the only person who seems to be watching – I’m working myself up for a sly channel-change. After all, I know from the hotel there is a conventional screening of the game being broadcast in these parts. But then some woman comes and sits behind me, facing the TV. She’s alternating between the match and reading her beer can.

Then the whole issue becomes academic: the screen suddenly becomes just static, like someone has ripped off the TV aerial/satellite dish. Like the good football survivalist I am, I instantly decide to eat and run, back to the monochrome squinting of the hotel lobby.

At this point a cop – or he could be a security guard or some kind of paramilitary – clicks past me and starts fiddling with the juke box screen. After a moment he looks at the TV, struts over to it and turns it off. Whatever he is, I’m not arguing with him. As I leave, I think I hear Michael Bolton.

I manage to install myself in the vacant armchair back at the hotel with too much of a farting noise. It’s not clear what’s going on in the game. But I’m sure the “1-1” guy would’ve updated me if necessary. After some time I realize I’d returned just before the end of the first period of extra time.
It’s not clear who my fellow hotel guests are supporting. Two of the three men who are actually awake seem to be looking for ideas to the “1-1” guy – who is resplendent in a John Belushi Hawaiian shirt. Come the late penalty, and its subsequent miss by Asamoah Gyan, it seems they like the Uruguayans.

I restrain myself. I would love to see Ghana get into the semi. I even have my Ghana shirt in my bag upstairs in my room. Soon I feel like I am projecting the England World Cup jinx on to the brave Black Stars. And, lo, it comes to pass.

There’s a Ghanaian Stuart Pearce. There’s a Ghanaian Chris Waddle.
When it’s all over, the others make straight for their rooms. Grumpy Woman is asleep across two chairs behind the reception desk. I try to sneak back there and get my key from the rack but I move the door with my shoulder bag and she wakes. She clearly feels a little silly. But she’s still grumpy. She wakes the guy who’s slept through the whole match.

Much later I see pictures on Facebook of my Ghanaian friend (whose name, bizarrely, is Deric Mills). He is draped in a huge Ghana flag and has on a curly Ghana wig. He looks happy. The picture album is called “happy day”. It’s not clear which match this is, but it’s just occurred to me that it would be a very Ghanaian thing to still call it “happy day” even if it was the Uruguay game.

Sorry, Deric. It was all my fault.


Michael said...

Never go to the normal window in a Ukrainian railway station. The Service Centre, where you don't get much service but the queue is much shorter, is always the place to be.
"Western Ukraine is strange," as my (Oddesit) students always tell me.

1860er said...

The joy of travelling - and the hardship of finding a place to watch the match...
Thanks for sharing, Chris!

Chris Mills said...

This thing came out much longer than I expected (as always)... also Danny typeset it from Derbyshire by proxy through a pal at The Ball is Round, I believe (who did a nice job)... there are a few errors in it (my bad) but a clean copy will be uploaded Sunday (for what it's worth)... thanks for blogging it, Danny... and spasiba to anyone who managed to plough though it :P

Chris Mills said...

Also Danny... kudos for the strong angle in the standfirst... soemthing I completely missed :S ...I should know this stuff :P

Antony said...

sounds like one of those strange experiences one has when they are in transit in a small country! at least you eventually actually got to watch the game?

Chaz33xxx said...

Hilarious piece…
I’ve just cancelled my plans to attend Euro 2012!

I’m intrigue by this British idiom for “flirting”
“…Alexis starts BANGING on at her (Porno-cashier Girl) in Russian...”

Any insights in Poland, the football or the cashier girls?

Great read.

Chris Mills said...

@chaz: lol - actually this "banging" idiom here meant "talking fast and without pause" but it can also mean making sex ;) as can "drilling" which also means "questioning ruthlessly" (its use here) :)

Ya, in Poland I saw many lovely women, many lovely beers and a bar fight. Also great art museum in Krakow :)

Thanks for reading ;P