Wednesday 29 August 2018

First time in Ukraine

I don’t know why but for a long time Ukraine had fascinated me, I used to have an artist friend in Barcelona who exhibited on The Rambla and she was from Ukraine and for a really daft reason, I had a romantic idea about Kiev, based solely on the last movement of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, The Great Gate of Kiev which probably no longer exists. (Oh, it does but in a modern version).

And then, about a year ago I got to meet a young girl, Marina. We chatted by text and video online and got on well, and I discovered that she lived in Kharkiv which is to the east of Kiev, not far from the Russian border. Of course, Ukraine used to be part of the old Soviet Union and it achieved independence when the USSR became simply Russia.

And during 2015, I would often read about the fighting in the east of Ukraine, mainly around Donetsk. Rebels, supported by Russia want closer ties with Russia. But the government in Kiev looks west to closer ties with the European Union. And of course I read about the Malaysian Airlines aircraft which was shot down near to the Russian border. During 2015, Russia grabbed back Crimea and there is still sporadic fighting around Donetsk.

So to this day, it is not a happy or peaceful part of the world. Let’s not forget either that the notorious Chernobil is in Ukraine to the north of Kiev. I think that most of Ukraine escaped the subsequent radiation because the wind at the time carried it in a westerly direction.

But despite this turmoil, (or maybe because of it because it was a way of giving support to my new friend who actually lives there all the time), I decided to visit her. We chatted about dates and settled on the last week of the year – New Year in Ukraine, how exciting! I think some of my friends were a little nervous about this trip but where in the world is totally safe? Walk out of your front door and you take a risk. Stay indoors and maybe the roof will collapse! In any case, I know from experience that TV news always paints an exaggerated picture of troubles in a city for example. There were riots in Bangkok in 2014 which really hit the news but I bet there were many parts of the city where you would have been totally unaware of what was going on. I used to travel to Belfast in Northern Ireland on business at the time of “The Troubles” and again, it was peaceful except for one occasion when my client got lost in the area of The Falls Road. “Oops”, he said. The airport was ring-fenced with huge concrete blocks, I remember that.

So three days after Christmas 2015, I took a flight from Barcelona to Kiev. There is a connection to Kharkiv but I wanted to spend some time in Kiev. The flight was an hour late so I would probably have missed the connection anyway! Before leaving Barcelona I changed some euros into Ukrainian Hirvnias. This was a wise move based on previous experience because, on arriving in a new country the first move is to find an ATM but they always dish out large denomination notes which are far from idea for the first purchase one makes which is usually the airport bus. But the exchange rate was so awful that I “bought” an absolute minimum, just 100uah which cost me 6 euros – I knew that would cover the bus fare and nothing more.

It was dark by the time the bus arrived at the central station and for a short while I lost my sense of direction because it was the opposite side of the track to what I was expecting. But I had my trusty map which I had printed out from Google Maps before leaving home so I soon realised that I had to walk through to the other side. There are many platforms and departure lounges between the two sides of the station but I never saw any trains! I thought it would be like Woking! It is all rather unnerving to have absolutely no idea what the Ukrainian text was saying to me, of course it is in Cyrillic, same as Russian. I took a long cold walk up the hill to where I knew my hotel would be, The Ibis. I had forgotten my gloves, being rather complacent in the balmy temperatures in Spain, so I had to put each hand in my pocket alternately to keep them warm. I had no Ukrainian money but that didn’t matter, very soon I was in a warm international hotel and they accept Visa cards.

I had a couple of beers, a really nice meal in the restaurant and went to bed. I couldn’t make contact with Marina but I was confident she would be waiting for me at Kharkiv Airport next day. Which she was!

My short flight to Kharkiv was in the afternoon so I had time to take a walk around Kiev. It felt so exciting, so different! And the other peculiarity was that, having experienced Christmas in Spain on the 25th December, I was thrust into the anticipation of the Orthodox Christmas on 7th January.

I was a little nervous about the ATMs in the airport and the railway station; I could see no sign of a menu in English. A good job I bought those 100uah! But, on my walk, I was aiming to find a bank and there I gained a huge wad of Ukrainian notes. I asked for various denominations and they took me at my word, giving me a wonderful selection of notes, down to what would be coins in the EU. One euro is a coin of course, but in Ukraine, the equivalent - 25uah - is a note. Even 5uah is a note. So when I paid for anything I got out my wad of money and peeled off the required amount rather like a mafia boss!

I took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, checked out and walked back down to the railway station to pick up the airport bus. The rest was routine, very easy because I only had cabin baggage and the flight to Kharkiv was only one hour. And there to meet me at Meeters and Greeters was Marina who previously I had only seen on my computer screen. She looked younger than I had imagined and I joked later that maybe she had sent her younger sister instead. She carried two shopping bags and it was only later that she handed one to me as a gift which touched me enormously. Inside were a card, a coffee mug and a brilliant choice, a book of drawing paper which I used a lot during my stay in Kharkiv.

She rang for a taxi from a firm which she knew and it arrived quickly. The airport arrivals hall - also at Kiev - was full of men offering taxi rides but of course the prices are exorbitant. We found the hotel easily, Hotel19, absolutely beautiful! Marina stayed for a short while in the room and then went off to her English class.

I chose Hotel19 on the website and I wasn’t disappointed it was very stylish, they had obviously chosen a skillful designer because there was a very strong image; everything had the same corporate ID.

I won’t document the week in detail because it is a bit of a blur now anyway. Most days, Marina came from her home which was out near the airport and we either went out walking, visiting art galleries, travelling on the Underground but we also spent a lot of time chatting in the hotel room, usually for afternoon tea which I ordered on room service. I tried to draw her portrait in the book she gave me but it didn’t look anything like her. So I promised that I would get Antonina in Barcelona Rambla to draw a portrait and I would send it to her. At first she came by bus and train until I realised how long it took her so, from then on, I paid for a taxi. By Spanish standards it was very cheap, about 4 euros for a 30 minute drive. When I told her how cheap it was for me she accepted the money.

During my stay, I got chatting with one or two of my fellow guests in the hotel as well as the staff who were super-friendly and Marina was impressed at how gregarious I am, but I explained to her that I wasn’t always like that! In my previous life I was something of a recluse as I wrote in a previous chapter.

The strange thing for me was that, having celebrated Christmas in Spain, I was back into the preparations for the Orthodox Christmas with festive stalls selling food and drink and Christmassy music in the bar but their big celebration was the New Year and that of course we share that date! Marina spent New Year’s Eve with her family so wandered around town trying to find a bar that was open. By this time the whole town had shut down, the shops had closed, I expected that but all the bars were closed also. What happens is that there are private parties up to 1am and then the hoi-polloi are allowed in but I wasn’t going to wait that long for a beer so I went back to the hotel and raided the mini-bar. Then I went out for a meal with a Dutch guy I met at the hotel, we managed to find a small bar and restaurant. A meal and wine for 3 euros. He invited me to a party but it was due to start at 1am and he wasn’t sure how far it was from the hotel or when he would come back. I didn’t fancy being stranded in a town in the early hours of the morning where I don’t speak the language so I chose the easy option. I spent the rest of the evening in the hotel reception because they had laid on food and drink – what the English would call “bubbly”, not Champagne but a weak fizzy wine. Asti Spumante, I think is a popular brand in the UK. That was just as well because I drank quite a lot of it but I had no hangover the next morning.

I waited for Midnight and The President’s speech and then went to bed.

I had an interesting conversation with an American guy one evening in the bar, a lawyer so he said. He came to my table so he got what he deserved. I will explain! I guess lots of western guys come to Ukraine looking for a girlfriend and Ukrainian girls appear on websites either looking for an affair or something more permanent. But this man - he told me he was 48 - was bragging about two young Ukrainian girls that he knew and he couldn’t make up his mind which one to take out on a date (euphemism for screw) the following day. He was a body-builder and he showed me photos of him, bare-chested with a young girl draped over him (I thought maybe he had a wife back in the States). I asked him what was in it for them which I admit was a bit cheeky. He seemed quite happy to explain that obviously, what with his well-developed body, they found him attractive. But he was macho-man personified, I assume living in a world where people are either full-blooded male (or in his case, wide-bodied man) or curvy female. Anything else is a perversion because, when I mentioned that I had a ladyboy friend in Manila, he got rather agitated and left rapidly, steaming gently.

When I saw him two days later at breakfast, I went over to his table and used the apology which is a bit of as cop-out: “I am sorry if I upset you the other night”. He said it was fine but he didn’t look very happy with the world. Maybe the Ukrainian chick had stood him up (but he had a spare). When he left the restaurant passing my table, he didn’t even look at me.

Before he showed me his glamour pictures, we had been talking about web-design and in particular what is called SEO, search engine optimisation which means getting a high ranking on Google and appearing on the first page. The common notion is that no one bothers to look beyond the first two pages of a search result.

I was getting a little bit high, talking technology late at night so I was full of ideas for him. He showed me his website on his mobile. And he told me his name.

Next day I thought, OK I will have a look at his ranking in Google but when I entered his name and city in the USA, the first few results were all about his being banned from his professional association 10 years ago for a fairly serious misdemeanour. That’s SEO working! I forget the details now but there was a messy divorce and I think that he persuaded his new wife to impersonate his previous wife on the telephone in order to obtain confidential information. I don’t want to appear smug and I am not mentioning his name or even where he lives. And in any case it was a long time ago. We have all done stupid things in the past (maybe not breaking the law necessarily) and I am no exception. I just think it was an ironic reversal; there we were talking about how to get a high ranking in Google. I guess he managed that! More recently people have claimed the right to be “forgotten” but clearly he hadn’t achieved that; I am sure he would like that but maybe he would lose his website ranking also.

I met three guys at the hotel. The third, from London, was investing in property in Kharkiv because he had confidence in the future of the city. I hope he is right. It is very near the Russian border and I guess many people there are Russian sympathisers but most of the trouble seems to be further south in the region of Donetsk. Kharkiv is 500km directly east from Kiev. (I knew that because, when travelling to the airport at Kiev on my way to Kharkiv the airport bus was on the main road to Kharkiv with signs showing 500km. I was glad it took the turning off to the airport!)

When I returned to Barcelona, I did it in two stages again. I could have taken a very early flight from Kharkiv at 7am which connected with the daily Barcelona flight but that would have meant getting up at some unearthly hour. So I went the previous afternoon and spent a leisurely evening in a hotel close to Kiev Airport. The flight to Barcelona was at 9.40am and the hotel had a free shuttle bus to the airport which only took 20 minutes so that was easy.

I arrived back in Barcelona in warm sunshine, from -15 degrees C to +15, caught the airport train to Barcelona Sants and attempted to book my rail ticket to Girona on my iPad – I use the RENFE Ticket app to buy e-tickets (in other words, paperless tickets). Unfortunately (for my cholesterol also) I was in McDonalds and their wifi interfered with my wifi, so I lost my connection. So I had to take my half-eaten burger and Coke away from the range of McDonalds and buy my ticket in the main concourse. Ah yes, I remember now, to add to the confusion a friend was sending me messages on WhatsApp at the same time. I just made it to the train on time. But there were others of course!

During 2016, I travelled 3 times to see Marina. On the second time, when it was warmer, I offered to take her to Kiev. She had never been there - indeed she had never been on a plane. But I had to go back to the UK because a friend was visiting me so I arranged to go back a month later and take her. We were not very lucky with the weather, it rained a lot but it was an interesting couple of days. At the end of our time there, she went back alone to Kharkiv and I returned to Barcelona. Oh, I should add, that on the outward journey, I went to Kharkiv to pick her up before going to Kiev. I thought that it would be best to take care of her on her first flight.

And then in September, she came to visit me in Girona. That was wonderful! It was still warm enough to go to the beach and then I went back with her to Kharkiv for a few days. She wanted to come earlier but I needed to produce a letter of invitation in order for her to get a visa. And the office of the Policia National which handled that was closed for the whole of August. That was very frustrating!

From this point on, I wrote about my journeys on my blog so I won’t repeat them here. Anyway, this is a biography, not a blog!