So time for a catch up.
Sydney to Hong Kong. The first flight is always easy(ier). I was still high on the this is really it energy so I coped with the 9 hours quite well. We got dinner (though it was about 4 pm Sydney time). I watched two movies (aha, now for the imporant stuff).
Movie One: Burn After Reading. The Coen Brothers almost at their vintage Raising Arizona-best. Great hammy performances from the big name cast (I always love Frances McDermond (sp?) and Brad Pitt, George Clooney and John Malcovich all took to their OTT roles with great gusto). Funny little movie.
Movie Two: Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Hmmm, I was really looking forward to seeing this. I'm a big fan of the first Hellboy which was an unexpected pleasure for me. This one suffers from a poor script (don't they all?). Everyone seems to be trying hard but you just can't save a stinking script. Not worth the time investment I'm afraid.
Then we land in Hong Kong at about 1:00 am Sydney time. It is fairly quiet, some people wear face masks. Mum and I want to eat something and end up ordering a hot dog and cup of tea each. The hot dogs were quite nice, though served with slices of cucumber and tomato in the roll with the sausage. The tea is undrinkable, something very wrong with the water, not to mention a huge cup which I could barely lift to my face with both hands.
Back on the plane for the final hard yards - 13.5 hours to London. No doubt about it this was tough. The thought of those hours stretching out in front of me as we boarded again was a little overwhelming. We were offered dinner (?) though it was around 2:30 am Sydney time at this point. Mum and I declined (having recently eaten a hot dog) and settled in for some quiet time. I dozed on and off for some time, not sure how long. There were bits of excitement like the older lady sitting across the aisle from us passing out and the man sitting next to her (who turned out to be a doctor) asking mum to call for an attendant and mum waking me because she couldn't figure out which button to press. So we're all awake, the poor woman gets taken out the back and mum has her head cranked into the aisle giving me blow by blow details of what's happening. "They're giving her oxygen", "she's laying on the floor with her legs sticking out".
After deciding any real sleep wasn't going to be possible I went back to the movie selection.
Movie Three: Wow, it's awesome what you get when an amazing script meets a great director and an ensemble of actors at the top of their game. I saw the play a few years ago so I was familiar with Doubt but I wasn't sure how such a "small" story would come across on the screen. It was wonderful. A real example of the actor's craft. Strong feelings expressed so very beautifully, subtly, forcefully, perfectly. It was also visually a gorgoeus film, winter in New York so beautifully present as the background to each scene. I loved it.
Movie Four: Now for something completely different. Role Models. Not sure why I even watched this one, possibly I wanted something lighter after Doubt and I have a soft spot for Paul Rudd. This is one of the funniest movies I've seen in a while. I know, I'm a sad human. I really enjoyed it. Top points go for creative use of Kiss music in a movie, worth the price of admission on this point alone. However if you're not comfortable watching small children use mo-fo type language (which I do have to say makes me a tad uncomfortable) I wouldn't bother.
We didn't get offered another meal for NINE FUCKING HOURS so by the time breakfast came around mum and I were climbing the walls. Luckily I had bought a few snacks at Hong Kong airport so we were able to munch some delicious maple syrup flavoured cookies which looked somewhat like rolls of pork crackling. I was going to give them to J but we were too hungry and they were too delicious to save.
After another, unknown, medical emergency which resulted in a man being taken off the plane into a waiting ambulance at Heathrow, we landed safely in the land of fish and chips and Kate Moss. It wasn't even 5 am London time (2 pm Sydney time). Luckily the airport was very quiet and we got out very quickly. After finding our appropriate Hotel Hoppa and finding a working ticket machine we arrived at the Novotel about 6:30 am.
Because we were feeling up (adrenalin only at this point I suspect) we decided to freshen up and head into town for some aimless wandering around before meeting my siser at Soho for lunch. After another round of Hotel Hoppa and the tube we emerged at Covent Garden in time for a much needed coffee and pastry. It's at this moment I was able to go aaaahhhhh, Im in London... wow.
Mum and I wondered around for a few hours, checking out some shops (a few purchases waiting for me there upon our return), using the loos at Marks & Spencers in Oxford Street. Maybe there's a global financial crisis but we saw plenty of people shopping and eating out. Finally met with JB who ushered us through the crowds to her favourite lunch place, which happened to be closed for electrical repairs. Hmmm, bummer. There are so few places to eat in Soho (??!!) it took all of 20 seconds to decide where else to go. The French style bistro across the road beckoned. It was lovely and we all enjoyed our lunches very much, especially J's mussles and french fries, and the gorgeous creme brulee we shared for dessert.
Originally we had planed to stay in the city and wait for J to finish work and head back to the hotel with her but we were starting to hit the wall so we decided to go back to the hotel and she would get a cab back to meet us after work. It seemed to take hours to get back to the hotel but we finally arrived and collapsed into bed for a short time. It was impossible to really sleep. By the time J arrived and we headed down to (a very average hotel dinner) we were really falling apart. The thought of the 3 am wake up call loomed ahead and it was very scary.
Whenever I know I have to get up early I can't sleep fully. There's a part of me which stays awake thinking "don't fall asleep, you'll miss the alarm and everything will be ruined". So even though I was dead tired I kept opening an eye every hour or so and checking the clock. At 2:45 am I thought "bugger it" and got up for a shower. So there we were at 3:45 am in a cab heading to Heathrow. I was surprisingly awake and alert. Go figure.
The next two flights: Heathrow to Vienna, Vienna to Odessa were fine. Great really. After speculating that we would get fed almost nothing on each flight we had steadied ourselves with coffees and danishes at Heathrow. However, a yummy-ish breakfast was served on the first leg, followed by a very nice meal-sized snack on the Ukranian flight. The only memorable event was the stewerdess teling me off for painting my nails on the flight (what else was I supposed to do with the freebie nailpolish my sister got with her InStyle magazine?).
Back up a little. When we woke that morning, mum gave us both a lecture on how horrible it was flying into the Ukraine. Not only were the planes shit but so was the service; not only that but we were going to be potentially treated badly at the airport and that we were to pretend not to speak Russian and let mum deal with the crooks working at Customs. Having survived numerous airports around the world (including Guatemala and Colombia) I was reasonablly relaxed about the whole thing.
We didn't have a glimpse of a problem the whole way. The plane trip on Ukranian Airlines was fine. The airport experience was one of the easiest I've ever had. There was hardly anyone at Odessa airport (which was the size of a large shed with facilities probably not dissimilar to say a small regional Australian airport - in the 1960s). We were stamped, with luggage in tow and out the gates in less than 20 minutes.
Waiting for us on the other side was not only the nice young girl from the apartments we were staying at but a gaggle of mum's old school friends, yelling and waving flowers. It was wonderful. Odessa people are loud. That's an important point to make. They yell and talk over the top of each other and tell each other to shut up and laugh and do it all over again.
After deciding who was going where and with whom we went off with our nice young girl and a couple of mum's friends. Luckily we all fitted into our mini bus and headed off for the Odessa Executive Apartments. I wasn't sure what to expect. Odessa doesn't have nice, safe, homogonised hotel chains like we are used to. The Novotels, Radissons and Intercontinentals, the McDonalds of the hotel world. We had to look at various scary looking hotels and equally worrying looking apartments before we found this one. It's main selling point was the close proximity to the main part of the city (sort of like staying on George Street in Sydney) and that we could have a two bedroom apartment for the price of a small hotel room.
So we arrive. Our building is in a cul-de-sac and it has a courtyard at the front with a cafe of sorts. The building is old, they are all old. It looks nice, there are trees in the cobblestone courtyard and the sun shines down through the leaves onto the tables and chairs and umbrellas. It is a pretty scene. Our apartment is two flights up (no lift). It is quite big with a kitchen/dining/living room area and a large bathroom and two bedrooms. Plenty of room for us. Everything is in decent condition, not quite what we would expect but certainly very nice.
We freshen up and head out to explore. I think it is about 2 pm local time at that point. Our apartment is in a lane way which comes off one of the main streets of Odessa. We come out into the world. There is a McDonalds to one side and the street is full of restaurants and cafes. Also street sellers of various things; food, souvenirs. There is a tiny old woman begging. I realise I have no local currency. We walk around.
The buildings are mainly old and frankly falling apart, literally. I'll talk more later about how badly decrepid the city is. But some are being restored or have already been so (at least partially). For example, a restaurant on the ground floor may have been restored quite well, but the floors above are a bomb site. Many buildings are covered in scaffolding and have building works happening. Construction is not what we exepect. Men in casual clothes, wearing sneakers or sandals, manhandle construction supplies, climbing ladders with very long bits of timber tucked under their arm. What my sister would call amateur hour. WorkCover at home would lay an egg. I wouldn't be at all surprised to have a brick land on my head as we stroll around the city.
As I said the buildings are old and most of them are very beautiful, or at least they were. It is a very European style city. There are little courtyards in front of most buildings. There are little parks here and there. Many have pretty little cafes where people sit and have a coffee in the dappled sunlight. The pavements are in a terrible state. If you don't watch where you are going you could easily snap an ankle.
We walk a little bit and end up in a traditional Ukranian restaurant for a late lunch. This one I would guess is designed for tourists; the staff wear full Ukranian costumes (which are very pretty, especialy the girls with their big floral headpieces) and every part of the restaurant is heavily decorated with Ukranian nick-nacks. Mum and her friends start ordering from the huge menu and J and I laugh at the translations (I want to sneak a menu out but they are so huge I can't figure out how to do so and forget to ask if I could buy one to take home).
I wouldn't describe it as a figure-friendly diet. First come little balls of lard with garlic which you smear on the gorgeous black bread. Then some get borscht (I'm not a huge fan, though mum does make a good one) which comes with these puffy little bread things drenched in garlic butter. Then a plate of pork fat, yes it's like the fat on bacon but about an inch thick, cut into thin slices each with a slice of raw garlic on top. Yummy. Then these famous little dumplings (varenychki) some filled with veal and onions, potato and onions and my favourite, sour cherry. Then the fish which mum says you can only get in the Ukraine, similar to flounder. It's really good. I am struggling to breath at this point. Also to stay awake.
After lunch we walk. What feels like about 20 kms. We walk around the city, to the famous Odessa Opera House. It is pretty in the European style. Having grown up with the Sydeny Opera House it is a little difficult to get truly excited about it. We go into the box office to get tickets for tonight's performance of the ballet Giselle. Mum's friend is trying to tell her to buy the cheap tickets and then sneak into the good ones as there'll be hardly anyone there. Mum shoos her away. The really good tickets are about AUS$15 (tickets for Will's school production of The Lizard of Oz cost more that!). It is difficult for my mum's friends to grasp how easily we spend money. The lunch, for example, with drinks for 7 people cost less than AUS$150 - a bargain for us. Some of mum's friends have a pension of about US$90 per MONTH.
We buy our tickets and keep walking. We go down to the waterfront. It is strange. There are beautiful old buildings, falling down. There is a giant modern hotel built right out in front of the water, sort of on it's own little island. It is quite ugly as it blocks the view of the water. There are cranes and containers and industrial looking stuff on both sides of the small harbour. I wouldn't call it picturesque. There is a park running along the waterfront. It is pretty, with large trees creating a canopy on both sides. People walk, in couples, with their dogs, with babies in prams. There are lots of young, pretty girls pushing babies and toddlers in prams. Mum says walking around the city, along the waterfront, in parks, is a very Odessa thing to do. She points out places she walked with me as a baby.
It's funny, I don't feel anything about this city. I want to feel some connection, a tiny one, but I don't. It is interesting but nothing to do with me.
At some point I start to loose the will to live. I am so exhausted I could lay down in the filthy street and go to sleep. We say our goodbyes and head back. Showers and bed. Bliss. The end of our first day.
Yesterday, I woke up early, feeling good, rested. Try to get the internet to work but can't. We go down to breakfast in the little cafe downstairs (we get breakfast included, a bonus). There are almost no customers but a lot of staff. The young man waiting on us is very polite and very helpful, almost painfully so. All the service is like that here. You can almost feel how hard they are trying, hoping so badly for a good tip. We enjoy our breakfast. I almost murder my mother. A man comes in and sits near us. Mum makes "conversation". She asks where he's from. Canada he says. Where in Canada, mum asks. Near Calgary, he says. Are you here to get a girl? mum asks. You can here a pin drop. J and I look at mum in horror. We are too shocked to laugh. We laugh nervously. What? she says. I'm just asking, she says. Hmmmmm.
After breakfast we go to where my grandma Ada used to live. I struggle to find the words for this bit. I've been to third world countries but I've never seen anything like this. Until now we have seen buildings from the outside, yes they are old and in bad nick, but nothing, nothing prepares you for how people actually live. The building has gates with a coded security system (?) but the man sitting outside on a stool tells us a code and we get into the courtyard. We walk into the building and it is almost like something from a post-Apocolyptic movie. It is crumbling, there are wires (power, phone) literally dozens of them running along the ceiling and walls. We climb the stairs and the lump in my throat gets bigger and bigger.
We knock on what I think is the door to grandma's old apartment. Mum knocks and knocks. Finally a little woman, middle aged opens. Mum introduces herself and the woman says she knew grandma Ada well. She is glad to see us. She asks us in. We go in but this isn't an apartment it is a hallway of sorts from which other doors lead to rooms/apartments. It is awful, so awful here. My heart breaks. Everything is rotting, disintegrating. Everything is made of other things. The walls are bits of "stuff": wood, old doors, bits of old cupboards or other things I can't work out. They are sort of cobbled together to make a wall here, a partition. We walk through this dim gothic darkness to the woman's apartment. I am too scared to see. It's not too bad inside because the woman has made an effort to decore it somewhat, make it hers, make it cosy. But it is hard to disguise how bad it is. The floors sag and run in different directions, though they seem solid there is also a feeling the whole thing could just collapse at any moment. The walls are patched and ruined. [When I was a punk in my teens we would hang out in a derelict house in Fitzroy Street in Surry Hills and that house seemed like an architercural marvel compared to this place.]
There appear to be two rooms, a living room and a bedroom. A balcony comes out onto the sunny street. I can't see any sign of a bathroom or kitchen. Possibly I missed the kitchen, which may have been behind a curtain. The bathroom undoubtedly is a communal one in the hallway, later we see a young-ish man stumble out of a nearby door and head to another door with a key. I dread, dread, dread to think of what that bathroom may be like.
The woman is kind (though her eyes are hard) and talks to us about grandma. She remembers her fondly. It is sad and also wonderful. She takes us to the door next door. An old lady lives here who knew grandma. She is old and sick and apparently doesn't leave her room. Her room is more of the same awfulness. Whereas the other lady made an effort and her place was homey, this room is dirty and sad. Mum and the ladies exchange memories, J and I listen and try to hold it together. I want to cry but I'm scared if I start I won't stop. The sadness of this reality is too much to bear. We smile politely. I want to stop seeing what I am seeing; if I can block it from my mind I'll feel better. I feel bad about feeling this way. Shit.
Mum leaves the old lady 200 of the local currency. It is maybe AUS$30. The old woman cries and says no, no but this is a lot of money and mum tells her to use it to buy medecine which she can probably not afford. I want mum to give the other lady some money too (I want to give them all some money) but I can't communicate it to her quietly. On the street she says she wanted to but felt uncomfortable.
I walk on feeling totally shell shocked. I was so naive about this reality. It is so much worse than I expected. I don't know what to think, what to feel, how to reconcile my feelings. I feel sick about how I live. I feel so so grateful that I don't live here. I hate myself for feeling this because it could so very easily be me here. I turn that thought around in my head. I could be living here, I could be living in an apartment, in a building like that. It makes me feel dead inside. But obviously people do live here and they do live like this and they make the best of life.
We walk to a church up the road and meet up with some of mum's friends. Two sisters. They are wonderful people. They are funny and so happy to see us and be with us. We walk and they tell us about the city, about the buildings. It is fascinating. It is a beautiful day. I am enthralled but I can't get the thoughts of those apartments out of my head. I start to build up a fear inside. We are going to one of these's ladies' homes for a party tonight. What if her home is like the ones we've just seen? It's too horrible to think about.
We walk for miles and miles, feels like forever. Later in the afternoon we stop for lunch at another traditional Ukranian restaurant. J and I order Chicken Kiev. It is a famous Ukranian dish and one that mum makes very very well (but not very often because it is fidly and time consuming). It is nice but not as good as mums. We love the pickled vegetable plate we share. I could eat those gorgeous pickled cucumbers and tomatoes all day.
We come back to our apartment and collect the presents mum has brought. We get a taxi to her friend's house. She has an apartment with two bedrooms, a seperate kitchen and her own bathroom. It is grim but not as awful as what we've seen today. Again everything is terribly old and collapsing. The toilet cubicle is "self made", a tiny seperated bit of the kitchen. The bathroom with the bath and handbasin has exposed pipes and hoses. Despite all this the hospitality is wonderful, a million little dishes. Everyone who comes brings something and the table is groaning with food.
These people are wonderful. They are loud and funny. They make toasts every five minutes, toasting our arrival, life and a everything else. They are happy to be alive and they make the best of what they have. Their sense of commraderie is not something (or at least it's different to what) we have at home. I can sense a sadness there but also a determination to live life, enjoy. They seem to take care of each other. I don't know how you could get by without that mutual support in this harsh place.
We walk home close to midnight. I am so exhausted I collapse into bed. Luckily I am too tired to think about the day because I know if I start to dwell I will never get to sleep.
Now it's early morning on our third day. I woke early, feeling refreshed. I've been typing this for about two hours. I need to shower and get ready for the day. We are going to the cemetary today to see my granddad's grave. Tonight is the ballet. I'm sure we'll be able to squeeze in another delicious meal or two along the way.
I have been taking photos on my phone but of course I've forgotten my phone to pc cord so I can't download the pics until I get home. You'll have to wait for the pictures until I return home.
Hope all is well back home in the land down under. I was homesick at first but now I'm too emotionally busy here to miss home. I hope everyone at home is well and happy and enjoying the wonderful, beautiful life you are blessed with. Seriously, I plan to never complain about anything ever again. (Well, I'm going to try so hard...)