Been spending a bit of time in Eastern Europe, no, not doing what you might expect an American might do in deep Eastern Europe, please get your head out of the gutter. I’m looking for a bride to bring back with me, or at the very least a bit of cheap sex. Just kidding. I’ve been visiting my brother and his family, who are doing a tour of duty as diplomats in one of the weirder places on earth, Kiev, Ukraine. Where all the You-CRAY-zians live.
The first week I had my 3 year-old daughter with me and we had a grand time, except when we didn’t. Like when she fought with her equally alpha cousin about who was taller or older (AT is a year younger and 6 inches shorter, but continued to start losing fights about these subjects constantly) — or when we got run down by that car in Odessa.
Odessa is a glorious beach town that was Queen Catherine the Great’s favorite place on earth. Stalin also really liked it and it’s run into a bit of recent controversy as the town decides whether or not to erect a giant monument to him. It was probably pretty nice in 1938 (post-famine, pre-WWII), but now it has let itself go considerably. It’s on the Black Sea, which i believe got its name from all the pollution and cigarette butts that reside in it. It’s about a 5,5 hour drive from Kiev.
The drive is a bit like a sprint on the autobahn if the autobahn had random speed checks that required going from 120 KPH to 30 KPH in a matter of metres (see how euro I’m getting with all this metric system stuff!) and large sections of road made up of more potholes than pavement. Actually the only thing about the drive that was reminiscent of the autobahn were the plethora of sleek German automobiles driving 200 KPH.
My naturally positive nature has stopped me from mentioning the general dickish demeanor of the Ukrainian people to this point, but my first experience behind the wheel pretty well illustrates what’s wrong with the culture. They are aggressively dickish.
I had just taken over for my brother on the drive down to Odessa, and was adjusting my mirrors in the fast lane of a 2 lane highway when a black Audi came bearing down on me at a ridiculous clip. I pride myself on my driving ability and am confident that had I just been born a foot shorter, I’d be the reincarnation of Jeff Gordon. He’s from California as well and I hope he makes a speedy recovery.
The Audi appeared from nowhere and was going at least 200 KPH. As I tried to turn on my signal and look to my right to get over, the Audi sped around me and into the sliver of space left open by the car just barely behind me in the right lane and then back into my lane in front of me. Cool enough move I guess, and I’m sure he felt like quite a macho big-man, but then the Audi-driver decided to teach me a lesson by slamming on the brakes! Going 200 K! That’s 120 miles per fucking hour. Great people, these You-CRAY-zians.
I can go into the awesomeness that is being a pedestrian in Kiev shortly, but suffice it to say that drivers in Ukraine tend to flaunt the law (though I’m not certain there are actual traffic laws).
That early driving experience rattled my cage and as much as I hate to admit it, it immediately changed the way I drove. I adjusted the rearview to fix my hair, I didn’t like the incredibly handsome man I saw in the mirror — because immediately after this event, I WAS DRIVING LIKE A You-CRAY-zian!!! Cutting people off, throwing garbage out the windows, listening to bad techno music, wearing a faux-hawk and Ed Hardy t-shirt with heavily embroidered pockets on my acid-washed jeans — it was all too much. The kids in the backseat definitely would have started crying if not for their blank stares at the mini-DVD screens situated mere inches from their darling faces.
This incident, while indicative of the culture, was by no means a big deal. I was over it quite quickly and able to give up being a You-CRAY-zian, but what happened once we arrived in Odessa was raw, and has truthfully effected me more deeply. I was literally hit by a car and almost saw my child and niece run down in the process. Seriously scary.
I’ll set the scene a bit, while trying not to sensationalize it too much.
Gunned down by a You-CRAY-zian…
We’d been at the beach the second day in Odessa at what can only be described as a bizarre amusement park-dance-club with blaring house music and a play area with a jungle gym. It should be noted that this was one of the few “attractions” in Ukraine that didn’t require any additional payments. You can visit this beach/club for free. The cigarette-to-sand ratio was actually quite acceptable too, especially in comparison to a beach we visited in Kiev, Hidropark, measuring only around 1 BPM (butt per 1,000 grains of sand). And if you get out from the “protected” coves of the beach we visited, swimming in the Black Sea is actually quite nice too. So all in all, we had our best beach day of the trip and headed back to our lovely Soviet-era accommodations in downtown OD (what I lovingly call Odessa).
After freshening up and washing the cigarette butts and algae off, the 5 of us (Me, my sister Al, my brother Goob, my daughter AT, and niece Bet-san) headed out to wander over to Odessa’s most famous attraction, the Potemkin Steps, before indulging in some fine You-CRAY-zian cuisine. More on the food later.
The Potemkin steps were immortalized in one of the most famous films of all time, Sergeiy Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic, Battleship Potemkin, and it’s a must see for people that have never seen stairs before. For those of us that have, it’s really not that thrilling. I guess if you’re a film buff that’s already in Odessa for some sex tourism and have never seen stairs before, you might as well go see it – you will be blown away!
Downtown Odessa is very walkable, with giant squares, parks and surprisingly little litter. It’s not bad and despite the fact that no one in Ukraine speaks english, pretty navigable. As an aside for anyone visiting, most maps are in Russian, but all street signs (which are hard to find on their own) are in Ukrainian… and the written versions of these languages look nothing alike. So other than the fact that you can’t match up signs to where you are, it’s pretty navigable because there are large landmarks to guide you.
We had just bought the little ones balloons at a one of the myriad of balloon-sellers and they were merrily (and very slowly) walking behind me, with my brother and sister walking up ahead of us. We approached the Mont Blanc store and my brother made a snide comment about how out of place the fancy Swiss pen store seemed – but also not, as the You-CRAY-zians with money do tend to get a bit ostentatious. So it was a pretty contradictory statement that I was in the process of calling him on, when…
…100 feet or so away a little red car appeared to be crossing an intersection and heading towards the parking space in front of the Mont Blanc store. Out of nowhere the car hit the gas and started barreling towards me as I approached the store. It was a scenario I’ve never been in before, as I looked behind me and all 3 of us appeared to be in the oncoming path. I thought we would all die.
Things happened quickly and the car luckily figured out the brake at the last moment — skidding right at/on me. I jumped a bit, but the car hit my hip and knocked me to the ground. I am not certain if the car hadn’t stopped that the girls would have been crushed against the stone luxury goods facade, but it sure seemed like it.
I wasn’t really hurt and adrenaline was rushing through me. I grabbed AT, who was bawling, and we started walking away after I dusted myself off. The woman/girl that was driving the car had obviously mistakenly hit the gas when trying to brake into the parking spot and she was visibly pretty upset. She appeared to be between 16 and 22, pretty, and blonde. The a$$hole that was in the passenger seat (and who I suspect owned the car) was around 30-40 and didn’t act like her dad. He jumped out and rubbed my arm to “make sure I was ok” – but I ripped my arm away and we got out of there.
Down the street my brother said, “did you notice how when he jumped out he checked to see how his car was before how you were?” I did not. If I had, I really think I would have drove a knee into his hood to ensure damage. At the time, I wanted to get my child out of the crowd that was forming. It was all pretty scary for all of us.
As we walked away people were staring and talking about the situation in hushed tones and I was dazed and muttering “F*cking girl” and I was tightly clutching AT in my arms. Once AT stopped crying she too started saying “F*cking girl” and I nervously chuckled a little bit, because who doesn’t love a preschooler with a potty mouth. It was both funny and alarming. I try not to curse around her unless I’m driving.
That night my brother and sister and I (over beers) argued about what my recourse would have been. I said that if the same thing had happened in America, that I would have waited until the police arrived. In Ukraine, you could just as easily get hustled by the police for money who respond to that, versus any punishment being imposed on the driver. They thought that it was a “no-fault” situation and even though it was reckless and dangerous, she would have gotten off. I was pissed and emotional because it was closer than I’d ever come to seeing my child hurt and as close to a “near death experience” as I’d ever had.
My hip hurt for a couple of days and it’s kind of a good story, but one I wouldn’t want to experience again. Kinda like Ukraine.
Here are my other observations of Kiev, The Carpathians (my brother and I hiked and experienced the “Ukrainian Alps”), and Odessa that I may expand upon later.
Shopping in markets:
Around 75% of the milk on the stand is past its stated expiration date. People working the register are regularly sitting down and won’t make eye contact with you – it may or may not be an important job.
In Ivano Frankisvk we came upon giant youth Anti-drug rally. There were a ton of teenagers with a take-back-the-night vibe and event included: an elaborately choreographed dance routine, singing, feats of strength (cross-fit would be huge in Ukraine if people could afford it), and a large military and police presence (many of whom appeared to be youth’s themselves). This anti-drug rally appeared to be sponsored by a beer company and youths were slugging brews while dancing to modern music and lifting boulders. Some of the kids look like they enjoyed steroids too. Good to see that drugs are not a problem with the “youths.”
On a happy note; we met 2 really nice baristas in this town on two different occasions at what I believe is called the Art Cafe at Ryok Square. There are good people here. They drink good coffee too.
Frequently you have to physically go get your server to actually serve you, as they are generally quite busy watching youtube clips or talking to some friend of theirs that just stopped by for an hour. When my bro and I stayed in the Carpathians the hotel in Yaremche (Krasna Sabyda) had a basement restaurant that we appeared to be the only patrons of… perhaps all month. We could not get the server to come back to us to take an order to save our life even after demonstrating ourselves to be paying customers that actually tipped.
The hotel included a pretty good breakfast, actually, with the traditional breakfast salad as a starter. If they had eased up on the mayo it would have been a really good breakfast. Speaking of which, they LOVE mayo in Ukraine. Too much so for even someone like me (Siracha and mayo is my perfect condiment combo). Their infatuation and orgasmic-consumption of the aioli is a bit disgusting (though perhaps not quite as much as that description).
It seemed that our server harbored some sort of grudge against us almost the entire 3 days, but the last morning he brought us a free breakfast dessert and even gave us a slight smile. The fact that it was a breakfast desert and slightly frozen is irrelevant; it was a nice gesture.
Ukrainian servers generally seem aloof and standoffish and I think that primarily stems from insecurity at not being able to communicate. But unlike other cultures that can’t speak to each other where one culture is paying the other culture money, not even a modicum of effort is made. Here is an exchange that happened one breakfast before a hike that illustrates my point:
Goob: “Uh, yes, uh, that’d be great.”
Server: “Why???” “uh…Why juice?” Pffghthshphhhhhhhh (shakes head)
Then he walked away and returned with two fresh OJs.
Food in general:
They actually eat pretty well in Ukraine, better than some other places I’ve been (I’m looking at your Portuguese blood sausage regions particularly). We took an overnight train to go hiking in the Carpathians and the train experience was really pleasant. When we arrived at Ivano Frankvisk to connect to a bus to the “mountains” I was starving and saw quite a few people eating sandwiches and falafel from nearby bus-depot food trucks. The resulting sandwich (of which, I consumed the whole thing, almost) was comprised of layer after layer of mayo, ketchup, raw white onion, and shaved-meat-bits that I believe came from some poor animal made up completely of gristle. It was disgusting. As stated, they love their mayo and one time I was asked, “would you like mayo on your Greek salad?”
Like anyone, I love the idea of lard on my food as long as there is plausible deniability. I certainly don’t want to see the unrendered lard on my food. But in Ukraine, that’s actually a garnish and I had the displeasure of eating fries with lard once because I needed to know for sure.
Everything is smokey, cigs, meats, car exhaust, industrial waste. But you can have pretty decent food and cheap beers and if you like to smoke cigarettes, well, this place is Shangri-la. Only $1.25 US buys you a pack of Marlboros (I may have bought one for research purposes and to combat all the 2nd hand smoke I was inhaling).
This is going to sound harsh and untrue, but everyone has B.O. On the bus back to Ivano-Frankisvk from Yaremche I sat next to a nattily dressed middle-aged woman who seemed relatively nice. Everything was fine until the first time she had to put her arms out to brace herself, then it stunk. I actually can’t say it’s a traditional BO caused by poor hygiene, I think it’s more the stench of mayo and raw white onions.
Tanning and the beach:
Everyone is so tanned it is hard to believe that Ukraine is not situated somewhere on or near the equator. The good news is that many younger people do not have leathery uber-tan skin, they appear to even apply the occasional sun block. But the older generation, look out. They also should be much more ashamed of their bodies. It’s not uncommon to see a 75 year old woman wearing a skimpy string bikini or a 65 year old man wearing a butt thong and actually moving some of the fabric out of the way to tan the pubic area. Barf! That’s actually not gross compared to all the wringing out of cod pieces.
Yes, many men wear bikini briefs with padding in them. Then after a quick dip, they need to wring that water out (and probably remove a couple of residual cigarette butts) before gently balling up the bikini bottom to maximize sun-exposure.
Waiting in lines:
Whether you’re at the super market or waiting to get on a bus, in every line, it’s imperative that you get as close to the person in front of you as possible. Stand crotch to butt or someone WILL take that wasted space and cut in front of you.
Crossing the street:
I’ve already touched on this, but know that if you are crossing the street and a car is anywhere near you, it will speed up. I saw someone honk at an old lady that had the right of way to try and hurry her out of the way as well. He was California-roll-stopping through a red light.
When driving towards someone, speed up so they can’t get past and drive in the middle of the road. If not, someone will get somewhere faster than you.
I never once felt threatened in Ukraine (removing of course the vehicular assault). Never once gripped my wallet in fear that someone might steal it. The only things you need to be worried about really are all the wild dogs. They are everywhere.
All in all, if you don’t have family residing there, I probably wouldn’t put Ukraine at the top of my travel list. But we did have fun reconnecting, the people who feel confident in speaking in hand-gestures or Ukraingish can be nice, and the food is pretty deece. Put it ahead of Baghdad, but maybe not Turkmenistan.
Tagged: backpacking, black sea, bukovel, carpathians, family trips, ivano frankvisk, kiev, kyiv, odessa, phraseology, potemkin steps, travel, traveling with kids, ukraine, ukrainian, yaremche, you-cray-zians