Saturday, June 27, 2009

I can't believe I've already been home for almost two weeks. To be more precise I can't believe I was actually ever away. Real life has a way of sucking you back in that's truly awesome. Luckily I have photos (which I'll soon be sharing with you, dear reader) and my blog entries to remind me that the big trip did really happen; that I didn't just dream the whole thing.

So what's been happening these past two weeks. Well, the Swans have been loosing, they are getting quite good at it now. It's OK, we have a trip to Melbourne planned for August so we wouldn't want to be going again in September. This week was sad with Michael O'Loughlin announcing his retirement at the end of this season. I feel like I've watched him grow up these last 14 years, as he's grown from an 18 year old rookie to a senior player. He's been such an integral part of our team for all these years that even though I know at 32 he is getting past his AFL prime it will be hard to see him go.

Work has been busy, what with catching up on the work I missed while away and finishing up the end of financial year stuff. As always I am grateful to have a job which pays me more than I deserve to do work I can mainly do in my sleep and which allows me to do all my motherly duties without guilt or penalty. At the moment I am just grateful to have a job.

Jay got a car this week; a cute little Hyundai i30 hatch, Vivid Blue. We've always managed to do nicely as a one car family but it has become increasingly difficult to manage lately. So we bit the bullet and now we're a two car family.

Michael Jackson died and my intial reaction was "one less freak in the world". But then I just felt sort of relieved, like he's been put out of his misery. He was such a Gollum-like creature these last 10 years or so. Tortured, suffering, it was awful to watch. His music will be his legacy and whatever else he was nothing can take the music away from him. I choose to remember the beautiful young man singing Blame It On The Boogie and the sweet young boy dancing in front of The Jackson Five. I hope that the memory of the wretched creature he had become will die with him.

This week Marianna has been at her whining, whinging, tantruming best. It's been one meltdown after another. But in between these emotional train wrecks another side has been emerging. She has become a singing and dancing little dynamo, practicing the songs and moves she has learnt from watching the DVD of Will's school performance of The Lizard of Oz at any given moment. It is too cute to see her earnestly singing A Girls Gotta Dream, doing all the steps and the big arms perfectly.

Well, I'm tired now and my brain has suddenly stopped working. I can't think of a single other thing to write. So goodnight, check back soon for the photos.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Well, as you may have guessed I'm back home. Landed back in Sydney at 6:30 am on Monday morning. The flight home was quite good, I dozed on and off for a great deal of the trip. Managed to sleep through most of all three hours of Watchmen (which was fairly good from what I remember). Watched an episode of Flight of the Conchords (which is a show I could easily love very deeply) and an episode of a great show called Being Human; a British drama/black comedy about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a house in Bristol (starts on ABC2 this Friday night).

It's been a tough couple of days from the point of view that I want to sleep early in the evening and then I wake up very early, perpetuating my sleeping problems. Monday I was asleep at 5 pm; I then woke at 4 am absolutely starving and got up for an early breakfast and to watch the final two episodes of True Blood. Yesterday I managed to stay up until 8 pm but then woke at 2 am and tossed and turned until I fell asleep again at 4:30 am.

Anyway, enough about my sleeping problems. Better finish this entry while I'm still awake. Let's catch up on the end of the trip.

I think we were off to Gordon Ramsey's Boxwood Cafe the last time I wrote. This is located in The Berkeley Hotel (where we had already enjoyed Afternoon Tea a few days before) in Knightsbridge. This restaurant has a Michellin star and is therefore a rung up on the ladder from Maze Grill where we had eaten previously. However we all agreed that Maze provided us with a superior experience. I think the problem with Boxwood was the service, it was odd. For example, we ordered a scallop entree to share and the waitress barely had time to get to the kitchen with our order before she re-appeared with the dish. It was a "what the...?" moment. The food was alright, my native lobster main being the standout dish.

After dinner we had a walk around the area, which was full of lovely little streets and Mews, studded with tiny local pubs. Then we came upon Sloane Street which is home to all things Big Name Designer. Shop after shop of the labels you see on the catwalks. Not that I'm a designer girl (unless you call Target a designer label) but thank goodness the shops were all shut. I'm sure that I would have found a pair of gorgeous shoes which would have equated to a couple of months' worth of mortgage payments.

The next day was our last in London. We packed and checked out, storing our bags at the hotel. The morning was spent at the amazing Burough Market. This is a foodie's heaven. Every type of gourmet food you can imagine is all here: cheeses from all over Europe, smoked meats, fruits and vegetables of every variety, gorgeous fresh seafood (including some of the most wonderful freshly opened oysters I've ever tasted), breads, pastries, you name it. Bliss.

Next stop, The National Gallery, for a last dose of culture. Then a taxi trip to the burbs to check out J's little flat in Hammersmith. As luck would have it Hammersmith happens to be not only home to my beautiful sister but also to the brand spanking new Westfield. Of course we needed to inspect this spectacle and after a quick stop in the iconic Fred Perry store we ended with a less than satisfying dinner at the Italian eatery.

Then it was time for the moment we had all been dreading, our goodbyes. I'm a pragmatist, I don't like to wallow too much in potentially painful emotions but it was so hard to say goodbye to my sister. It goes without saying that I love her but above that I just like hanging out with her so much, it so easy to be with her, it's the thing I miss most about her living overseas. So knowing that I wouldn't be able to do that again for quite some time was difficult to face. But we did say our goodbyes and after a short lived drama with the mini cab driver we were off to Heathrow.

Before I finish my entries about this amazing drip a few more tidbits about Odessa. One of the things which kept J and I endlessly amused were the menu translations. Every menu provided opportunities for sniggering and outright hilarity. Here is one of my favourite entries: Sliced Frozen Meats with Soaked Vegetables. Mmmm, doesn't that sound tempting?

You know you're living in a post-modern, globalised world when you are driving through Odessa and seeing posters for the forthcoming tour by Chris Norman from the 70s mega group Smokie. Sing with me now "Oh, I don't know why she's leaving or where she's going to go, I guess she's got her reasons but I just don't want to know 'cos for twenty four years I've been living next door to Alice...".

So on that note I'll put a full stop on my Odessa Adventure. Normal transmission will resume shortly.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A quick update, probably the last, before we run out for our dinner at The Boxwood Cafe in Chelsea. Yes, another Gordon Ramsey restaurant. J took me very seriously when I said I wanted to eat at one of his eateries. If yesterday's lunch at Maze Grill is anything to go by we're in for a treat.

Today started with breakfast at Patisserie Valerie, another chain common around these here parts. It was average, let's put it that way. Then we caught the tube to the East End to start our walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. The tour was lead by a fascinating lady called Jean who had a wonderful way of telling us about the history of this area.

We spent time in the oldest synagogue in London and learnt a great deal about Sir Moses Montefiore and about Prime Minister Disraeli. We finished at the front of Liverpool Street Station at the memorial to the children brought to England from Germany to be saved during WWII.

Lunch was enjoyed at St John Bread and Wine, which is the casual offshoot of St Johns, famous for its snout to tail cuisine. This place is something else, definitely for the serious foodie. We shared small dishes of yummy goodness like beautiful fresh asparagus, just cooked and served with a tiny pot of clarified butter and sea salt flakes, a plate of gorgeous monkfish liver served with something called samphire (a sort of weed) and a plate simply called Tomato which provided a sample of the various in-season tomatoes served with a light pickled walnut dressing. We finished with a bowl of burnt cream ice cream, which was unbelievable. Not for everyone but I enjoyed every morsel.

We needed to head back to J's offiice near Oxford Street to pick up a parcel to bring back home and took the opportunity to drop back into M&S. Mum couldn't find the pants/trousers she wanted but we did get some great control top pantyhose (which I'm sure you're all totally fascinated to hear all about).

Tomorrow J is taking us to explore the Burrough Markets which she loves. I am dying to taste the oysters which I have heard so much about. Sadly I won't be able to bring any home for my oyster loving baby girl to sample. We will then take our bags over to J's house in Hammersmith and squeeze in a quick explore of the new Westfield recently opened up the road from her.

Then it's time for our sad goodbyes and then to head to the airport and come home.

I need to say that I really really love London. I think living here may kill me, if it's possible to die from sensory overload. London is everything I love in life squared or even cubed, distilled to its purest form. Culture, theatre, history, people, food, fashion; everything is here in so much abundance it's hard to contemplate. Sure there is plenty of crap but the multitude of fabulous more than makes up for it. I would surely spontaneously combust if I had to spend a great deal of time here; short visits are much better for my health.

I am so glad and grateful for this wonderful adventure which I have been lucky enough to share with my mum and my sister. It has come with it's share of frustrations but for the most part it has been amazing and eye opening. I will never forget Odessa and the glimpse of what my life may have been; I hope I can carry that lesson with me for the rest of my days. I will never forget these few days of indulgence in London.

Sydney, here I come.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Good evening discerning readers. All is well here in London town. Finally have a minute to catch my breath and update on the last few days (also I have just found where the Business Centre at the hotel is).

Tuesday was our travelling day, so there isn't all that much to report. We spent the morning packing than spent a little time with a couple of mum's friends. At the airport a few more people turned up and it was quite a big farewell.

Odessa airport is not what you'd call the latest in aeronautical facilities. In fact it's little more than a shed. When we lined up to get into the main part of the airport it became obvious that a little door opened and a couple of people at at ime were invited to proceed. So we lined up and waited our turn. Just when we were thinking the Odessa authorities had let us off easy, without any bastardisation to speak of, a special little moment happened.

The door opened and the man in charge told us to come through. J and I went through but mum stopped in the doorway to say her final goodbyes. The fat slob on door duty looked at her and said "well, if you're not going to come in..." and slammed the door on her, literally, as she was standing half way in. Luckily for her (and all involved really) she didn't notice and simply pushed the door and came through. I wanted to belt the moron over the head but I was worried about what may have happend if we caused a stink.

Anyway, the flight to Vienna was uneventful, as was the flight to London. We arrived in London in the early evening and proceeded to sit in traffic for what seemed like four days on our way to Charring Cross and the Charring Cross Hotel where were to be staying.

After dropping off our gear we decided a quick walk was in order as well as a quick bit of dinner. One thing London is not short of is places to eat. There are at least 487 different types of franchised eating establishments and most of them are represented around our immediate area. My darling sister J, being a foodie and all, knows the best places and we were quickly ensconsed in what some say is the best fish and chip eatery in London. It's not flash but it is good.

Having eaten our fill of haddock and hand cut chips, not to mention a bowl of mushy peas (which I have to say are not my favourite thing in the world) we moisied on home, with a gelato in hand for dessert.

Yesterday we started with breakfast at nearby Leon's (a quick, healthy institution around here) and then spent some time in the National Portrait Gallery which is just up the road. How nice to absorb some top notch culture before proceeding to my favourite passtime, shopping. My requested first stop of the Dr Martens shop proved futile. Not only are the shoes no longer my cup of tea but the staff were too cool for school and not very helpful, I guess all those piercings must make it difficult to look like you may be interested in serving your customers.

Good old Marks & Spencers were more receptive to our custom and soon I was happily purchasing two new pairs of pants, I mean trousers (if you say "pants" here people apparently think you're talking about underwear). Being horizontally challenged I do love a shop which provides pants/trousers in short lengths, meaning I don't need to have a foot of fabric taken off the bottom.

Then it was time to sit in heavy traffic on the way to our "surprise", afternoon tea at The Berkley Hotel in Knightsbridge. This place is famous for its Pret-A-Portea Afternoon Tea which is changed seasonally to reflect the fashion on the catwalk. We started with delectable little finger sandwiches and proceeded to a three tiered stand of gorgeous morsels, each made to look like some fashion item, including a green marzipan handbag filled with chocolate cake. It was outrageous but stunning, both visually and gastronomically. Not to mention the beautiful Paul Smith crockery...

After some window shopping along Knightsbridge we took a taxi home for a tiny bit of rest before our next event: Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. This production starred Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. Let's put it this way, as entertainment this play is really hard work. It was 2 and a half hours of intellectually hard slog. For those familiar with it there is very little action as such, just a lot of dialogue. There were many nodding heads and droopy eyes in the stuffy theatre.

But the acting, oh the acting was wonderful. I can't begin to tell you how good those stalwarts of the stage were. Yes we may know Stewart and McKellen from the X-Men movies and from their various other film work, but this is altogether different. Their power on stage is awesome and Simon Callow, who is one of those people whose name you wouldn't remember but who you would all know from his many films, including Amadeus, is stunning. It was a very special treat to experience them live on stage.

Of course it was now after 10 pm and we were hungry. What better way to finish off a day of London culture and exquisite food then with a late night supper of McDonalds?

This morning we again breakfasted at Leon's because it's just a great little place for an easy, cheap breakfast. Then we set off for The Courtauld Gallery which is just down the road from us in Somerset House. This is a beautiful place in itself and the exhibition we viewed was just an extra bonus. I'm not that much into art but I know what I like, and I liked a great deal of what I saw today.

Then it was back into a taxi for another highlight, lunch at Maze Grill (a Gordon Ramsey restaurant). We were dropped off in Grosvenor Square and enjoyed a meander around the lovely little park before lunch. I especially loved the memorial to 11 September which is located in that park, presumably because the US Embassy, in all its glory, is across the road.

Now I am aware that Mr Ramsey is in all sorts of hot water for insulting Princess Tracey Grimshaw in the land of Oz but as far as I am concerned all is forgiven. Lunch at Maze Grill was a wonderful experience. For £18 each we enjoyed a beautiful three course meal and you just can't argue with that for good value. The service was perfect, the restaurant decor just right and the food was really superb. 9.5/10 my dear Gordie.

Nothing like a bit of exercise after a big meal and we got ours by doing a few hours of Olympic standard shopping. All the big department stores are there in Oxford Street but we made the biggest impressions at Boots and at John Lewis. Oh, how I love a department store.

We returned home exhausted but soon found the strength to pop out for a quick bit of pizza and risotto at Zizzi (another London food institution). The food was OK but the noise level was brain splitting so I won't be rushing back there (the fact that I live in Sydney notwithstanding). A nice long walk around the Embankment Station area and over the Golden Jubilee Bridge rounded off our evening very nicely, thank you very much.

Now it's 11 pm. Mum and J are upstairs, probably in bed asleep. I am very tired and looking forward to another big day tomorrow. It's getting very close to the end of this big adventure and I am almost ready to come home. I miss my babies very much, all three of them.

Hope all is well in the land Down Under. See you all very soon.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

I'm a little dazed and confused by other news this morning so I'll try and cobble something together about yesterday. Luckily it wasn't a big day, well not too big.

We had a quiet start to the day and then had a wander around. Coming across the college where mum studied to be a theatrical lighting technician we came across a man who had also studied there, graduating the year before mum. He is now teaching there and was happy to chat with her as we all strolled along to the local market (a smaller version of the prevoz we had been to a few days before). It was strange to see a ginormous Ostrich egg sitting quietly amongst the normal sized hen eggs at one stall. The lady was glad to tell us all about it, how it equates to 25 average eggs; you learn something new every day.

Walking the old streets something which washes over us time and time again is the smell. The smell of decay, the smell of old, the smell of dirty. It is a particular smell and one I can truly say I have never come across before in the same way. Another thing I have noticed is how things are "maintained" here. The doors and windows, even on the buildings which are being restored or which have previously been "cleaned up", are thick with paint, it is caked on, all the finer details of the woodwork covered up. No-one bothers to sand the old paint on the woodwork back, take a little care, before applying the new coat, so that the effect is slapshod and tends to ruin the look of buildings which by other standards may look nice after their renovation.

We return to our apartment for a little rest before being collected by the husband of one of mum's friends (well he's a friend too, as they all went to school together). This the group of people who didn't want to join our previous get together, not wanting to be taken out by the "rich foreigners". They want to take us out and we get taken to an Armenian restaurant in a park near Arcadia Beach. The restaurant itself is nice, outdoor tables under canopies, obviously a party restaurant where people come for large family celebrations.

Our table is already laden with smoked fish, pickles, slow cooked peppers, flat bread, all delicious. Later a large platter arrives with grilled chunks of lamb and pork with marinated mushrooms, country style. It is nice but very rustic, the meat chewy.

Between courses we take a walk in the adjoining park which houses a large cage with some peacocks. The park itself surrounds what they call a Sanitorium, a health retreat of sorts. I can not begin to describe how depressing both the building and surrounds are. If this is where they go to relax I'd much rather stay stressed. The building is plain, old and peeling, dirty, half hanging curtains block the tall windows. I ask if it is still being used because I can not see a living soul in the place and it looks deserted to me. Of course it is still being used, I am told, as if I'm stupid and/or blind. The park through which we are walking is alright, there are tall beautiful trees and we see a single squirrel rushing from tree to tree, but it is unkempt.

After our meal it is decided to go to another cafe for coffee and cake as this restaurant isn't good on desserts. The cafe isn't far and most of our group walk there but we get driven there; you haven't lived until you've driven down a cobblestoned road doing 80km/h with a tummy full of roasted pork and pickles.

I have to say they know how to do a cafe here. There are many cafes and they are all interesting in their own ways. The one we went to, Cafe Fontoni, is mainly set outside and we sit at a very comfortable outdoor lounge setting in our own little pavillion. We order from a waiter called Boris and the exchange is worth filming. The carry on was diabolical and I said to mum most Sydney waiters would have curled up in the foetal position in the corner and cried for their mummy. It was funny but in a worrying sort of way.

As the evening gets darker the lights are turned on. There are fairy lights around the tall trees in the garden we are sitting in, the effect is beautiful. The place fills up with gorgeous young things, long legged girls on the arms of shady types arriving in fancy cars. It was a public holiday here yesterday and people are out and about.

Even though it isn't very late yet the three of us are tired and ready to go home. A few of our group are super loud, even by Odessa standards, and as my dear husband would say "they'd give a Bex a headache". Everything is shouted, everyone talks over the top of everyone else, it is almost impossible to have a proper conversation, every question and decision is argued about. We seem like quiet little mice amidst this bedlam. My Russian is not up to participating properly, I can answer questions when asked directly, I can understand a great deal of what is being said but often I don't get the real gist of the conversation because so much is jokes and word play. It is exhausting and my head starts to thud from the craziness of it all.

It is a blessed relief to come home to the peace of our apartment. I am tired but we don't go to sleep for a while and even when I get into bed I can't settle, tossing and turning for ages. It is our last night and so much has happened, we have seen so many things. My brain struggles to put everything in order, to find a safe compartment for each image.

It's life Captain, but not as we know it. That's how I would sum up my visit to Odessa. My city of birth is an amazing place, like in many third world countries it stretches to the extremes of poverty and wealth. It is beautiful and ugly, joyous and beyond sad, full of hope for the future and carrying the heavy weight of a difficult past. I can not truly imagine living here but I know that it could very well have been my fate and that would have just been the way it was. You don't know what you don't know.

I am so glad and grateful for this experience and for being able to share it with you all. I hope you have enjoyed sharing this journey with me. This is a record I will always treasure. Later today we'll be back in London for the second part of our adventure. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Yesterday we barely started our day before midday. The late nights equate to sluggish mornings. Our plan was to head to Lanzheron Beach and walk along to Otrada Beach. We collected Lara and her sister Milla on the way and caught the bus from their place which they assured us was clean, spacious and that it was a quick trip. It wasn't. When the bus arrived it was already bursting at the seems. My natural reaction would have been to wait for the next one (or better still get a taxi, I am a princess after all). Their natural reaction was to squeeze onto this bus. Seriously, I know I'm totally spoiled but I don't like this sort of shit; some cultural experiences I can do without. We were jammed onto this bus like the proverbial sardines. It was a 30C degree day and I can tell you the heat in there was awful and the smell was even more so.

To back up just a little, another Odessa scene. As we wait for the bus a car with two men pulls up. There is a young girl standing near us, also waiting for the bus. She is skimpily dressed but obviously more for the beach than for a nightclub or a pick up. The men are obviously very drunk though it is lunchtime on Sunday and one of them is driving. We can't hear what they are saying but they are obviously trying to talk the girl into something she'd rather not be doing. She ignores them, shakes her head, steps further away from the curb. The leering dickhead in the passenger seat continues shouting at her, waving his beer bottle for effect. She steps even further away and tries to ignore him. Please, just drive away, I'm pleading telepathetically. But no, the driver gets out and walks over to convince the girl of his romantic prowess in person. You can feel everyone at the bus stop tense up; will there be a confrontation? I am ready to belt this idiot over the head. Their target looks young and she is tiny, a skinny little waif of a thing. This man is short too, not much taller than me. I'm not very scared of him but I do wish my 6'3" husband was there to at least menace him if not outright throw him onto the road in front of the oncoming traffic. Suddenly our bus is there and we, and the girl, hustle on.

We disembark at the start of Lanzheron Beach and walk down the wide boulevard towards yet another large monument; they love a monument here in Odessa. I imagine that the beach is beyond the low wall but there are only some disused factories crumbling into the vines and bushes. The sea is beyond. We walk along the path, stalls selling drinks, ice cream, blow up children's beach toys and salted fish on both sides. A proper beach starts to unfold on our left. It is a busy summer's day at the beach; young people, old people, families are enjoying themselves on the sand, in the water and sunning themselves in the dirty scrub on the right hand side of the path. The water looks clean and inviting, though it is a very windy day and the surf is choppy.

After a while we stop and have a rest in what may have once been a restaurant, though now it is just a large canopy with some tables and chairs. Mum goes in search of piroshki (the Ukranian equivalent of an Aussie meat pie) but comes back with hotdogs which mysteriously have pickled carrot and mayonaise on them. We walk back on the path higher up, between the trees. We pass a private country club where people can relax by the pool, have a meal, maybe play tennis. Up above us on the hill we can see apartment blocks, tall ones, but I can't tell whether they are new ones coming up or old ones coming down. To me they look like maybe someone started building them ten or twenty years ago and gave up half way through, the gray concrete shells looking sad amidst the encroaching weeds and vines.

Some more friends arrive, friends of friends, and the nine of us head off for a very late lunch or a very early dinner, it is around 4 pm. I see yet another Dacshund dog, the large size, smooth hair variety. I have probably seen twenty of them since we've been here. They must be a popular breed since I would be lucky to see 2 or 3 all year in Sydney. Also I've seen at least three Chinese Crested dogs (you know the small hairless black and white ones with the fluffy heads) which are rare.

We settle into a restaurant not far from the beach and order crab bisque which comes with tiny little profiteroles rather than croutons, chicken cutletki (which is a minced meat pattie which mum is famous for, at least amongst my sister and I), something called chicken fingers (which turns out to be a sweet and sour chicken dish not unlike that which may have been served in a Sydney Chinese restaurant in 1985), pelmeni dumplings with fish and sour cream and yet another variation on Napoleon cake and another cake called Kiev. As an aside on the Napoleon cake, it has become a bit of a running joke. Because I mentioned liking it as a child when we were at the food market a few days ago, now I can't turn around without someone offering me some. Like when I used to collect pigs many years ago and everyone would get me a pig decoration of some sort for birthdays and Christmases until I was thoroughly sick of all things pig related.

Anyway, during the meal mum mentions having met a woman here in Odessa when she last visited five years ago. This woman owns a building company and does many of the restaurant fitouts in this city, not to mention building private homes and doing the interior fitouts in many of the new apartment blocks. No sooner had she started talking than the friends of friends who had joined us said they knew her and were on the phone inviting her to join us. Half an hour later there she was.

Regina is a tough lady, so Odessa she may as well have it tattooed on her forehead. She was very glad to see mum and after lunch/dinner came to a close she offered to drive us around and show us some of the beach areas which are hard to access. This is probably a good time to talk about driving around Odessa. Everything about it is bad: chaos and anarchy I whisper to J as we drive, or even walk, around. The roads are atrocious and the drivers are worse. Much like in Colombia I am in constant fear of imminent death or permanent disfigurement. Our new friend Regina takes it up to a new level. Zooming around in her red Rav 4 I'm quite confident I won't survive the evening. One way streets, tram lines, red traffic lights, nothing seems a deterrant for this lady; worse still she strongly insists we don't wear our seatbelts because you just don't do that in Odessa. Whenever I try to quietly sneak my seatbelt on she catches me in the rearview mirror and yells not to.

We drive around some very strange looking beachside suburbs. There are some huge new money homes being built, big fancy homes, some nice, some awful, just like you'd find at home. But they are surrounded by streets which look like they have just been bombed. Broken pavements, overgrown weeds, junk. We want to drive down to a restaurant by the water so I can use the bathroom and there a young man, with his entourage of hangabouts, asks Regina for a "parking" payment. After a typically Odessa-ish exchange we drive down without payment and I use the loo in a very posh looking seafood restaurant.

Driving back Regina wants to take us to a reasonably new restaurant for coffee. Alexandrovsky Restaurant is a jewel in a sea of poo. It was a wealthy merchant's residence before the revolution and was then turned to crap during the Communist era. About a year ago it was restored and is in now an absolute showpiece, stunning in every detail. Even the cutlery rests on little pewter cutlery stands decorated with tiny gargoyles, the crockery is creamy Villeroy & Boch just like they use in my favourite cafe in Peter's of Kensington. We have tea and share yummy little profiteroles filled with nutty ice cream and topped with vanilla custard.

We head back to Milla's house for a final goodbye with Lara who is heading back to Latvia where she lives. She went there 40 plus years ago to work after finishing her studies and, despite living in various parts of the world, has ended up there far from her family. She says she likes Latvia, apart from all the bloody Latvians (who are famously anti-Semitic and anti-Russian). Everyone is laughing and telling stories and having fun but there is still sadness underneath. Who knows when they'll all see each other again.

Regina tells us about the little boy she almost adopted. The son of a white prostitute and a black student he was "rescued" at the age of 3 and put in an orphanage where she met him around the age of 9. They bonded and became great friends, Regina taking him home for weekends and buying him all he needed, treating him much like a son. She said she wanted to adopt him but a black Jewish boy in Odessa wouldn't have much of a life and being a busy single businesswoman she knew she couldn't be a good mother to him. Eventually he was sent to a summer program in the US and found a family who wanted to adopt him. Last week she returned from visiting him at his high school graduation. Samir is now around 2 metres tall and 18 years old; she is very proud of him and he loves her like a mother. It was a wonderful story and quite strange coming from this tough little nugget of a woman.

Eventually we said our goodbyes and arrived home well after midnight. These late nights are going to kill me.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Last night was magic. It was meant to be the big reunion dinner for mum and her found schoolfriends but it didn't quite work out like that. People are proud, people are complicated, people didn't turn up. So it was the usual suspects, the three of us, Lara, Milla, Zosa and a male friend who keeps popping up whose name I cannot remember.

On Zosa's advice we had booked a table at Klarabara; I chose it from Zosa's comprehensive review of local good restaurants just on the name, don't you love it. Also it is almost on our doorstep, just across the little park from our apartment.

Just before 7 pm we walked across and got transfixed by the park. An orchestra was playing in the large rotunda in the middle. People were dancing in front of the rotunda, mainly older people, mostly couples made up of two ladies. Can you try to picture it? A warm summer evening, a pretty park with a fountain, people walking around in their Saturday night best, the sweet music drifting through the air and these heart-breakingly nostalgic couples dancing.

The restaurant itself is actually within the park, on one side. We sat in the outdoor area where we could see the orchestra and the people. Klarabara is supposed to be modelled on an old style communal Odessa apartment (which had me a little worried to be honest, going by what I'd seen so far). But it was nothing like that. It's more like the eclecticly furnished apartment of your old gay uncle. Gorgeous mis-matched bits of furniture, lovely fabrics, thick curtains I could have killed for (and I'm not even a curtain type of girl) and funny little nick-nacks in the funny little nooks and crannys. A warm ambience I really loved.

A couple of special things about this restaurant. Pretty much all the paintings are large Botero reproductions. What are the chances of finding a restaurant in Odessa, Ukraine decorated with paintings by my favourite Colombian artist? Can you calculate the odds? It gave me an extra little thrill, I have to say. Secondly the restaurant is overrun by cats. One slept on my feet for about half an hour during dinner. Not sure how that would work with the Australian health authorities but I though it was a quaint touch.

Dinner was the usual array of cold starters: chicken liver pate (this version, like my mum's, not like the version you'd buy in the supermarket) which was soft, fluffy and not too rich, eggplant dip and an assortment of toasted breads and pickles, oh (almost forgot) and a gorgeous fried mushroom dish. Oh (and another thing I almost forgot) a dish of fried potatoes; when these were ordered J and I thought they'd be old style fried potatoes like mum used to make us, but when they arrived they were a small plate of french fries, McDonalds style, which everyone fell upon much to our bemusement.

Then we took a walk to the fountain. The orchestra had packed up and left. Now there was just music playing and lights on the fountain. There were lots of young families there, with little kids dancing around the fountain, a joyous sight.

We returned for our hot dishes. Shashlicks (marinated pieces of meat: chicken, beef, lamb) grilled and served with salad and flat bread, pork ribs with a cherry sauce. I loved it all. After another long break we argued over dessert finally settling on a slice of Napoleon cake, a poppyseed roulande and a sour cherry strudle. I have to say the poppyseed roulande was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted and this morning I wish someone would hand me a giant plate of it right now.

There were seven of us, there was plenty of food, some of us had a mojito, some had wine, some had a liquor with dessert, we all had tea or coffee at the end. Zosa even bought a packet of cigarettes and the bill, with a tip, was less than AUS$200 (mind you we did benefit from Zosa's loyalty discount, which seems to be a popular thing here).

We had a little walk around the park which by now (after 11 pm) was getting a little less family friendly. There were many groups of drunk young men staggering around, looking a tad dangerous to my conservative eye. There were groups of young girls being eyed off by the dangerous looking boys. There were many couples kissing on bench seats (which seems to be an overriding theme here). The rotunda was now occupied by about half a dozen couples practicing tango, young people dancing beautifully, passionately.

Back at our apartment we sat around talking and laughing, planning for today. Finally our friends set off for home at midnight and I staggered to bed. I am reluctantly becoming such a night owl. Who knows how I'll return to my early to bed, early to rise routine back at home...

Let's recap the earlier part of yesterday. After (an increasingly late) breakfast we set off to the little souvenir market in the big park a block or two away. As much as I wanted to I couldn't bring myself to buy the tins of Odessa Fresh Air. But rest assured I am now stocked up on appropriately Ukranian souvenirs for all my nearest and dearest. You have been warned. One of the sweet little things I noticed was the older couple walking amongst the stall holders, selling home made food from containers in their laden plastic bags. "Freshly made at home this morning" they would say and the stallholders would eagerly ask what they had.

We dropped off our purchases and after a little rest headed off for the waterfront. We had decided to stop for coffee and cake at the cafe in the little park near the Opera House. Having passed it a few times in the previous days we had been charmed by the comfortable lounges sitting in the soft sunlight under the gorgeous trees. We had to walk past the marriage registry (where incidentally mum and dad had been married) which is across the little street from the Opera House. Saturday is obviously Wedding Day. There was a line of extra long wedding limos parked along the street and in the cul de sac, all with blinking lights and white ribbons.

As we approached an awful scene was unfolding at the front of the registry. An old man, a double amputee with no legs, possibly a discarded veteran from the Afghan war, who was obviously homeless and drunk had positioned himself in front of the registry doors and was shouting obscenities at the wedding couple trying to enter and the various people milling around. I felt so sick, but what to do. I guess the only thing buttoned down people like us can do, keep walking.

Trying, and failing, to put this awful scene from my mind we settle at one of the few tables left at the cafe. The place is overrun by wedding parties. I guess not everyone can afford (or even wants to have) an elaborate wedding reception, so many couples are joined by a small group of family and/or friends for a snack and a drink here. It is so beautiful, after all; a very suitabl place for such a thing.

Soaking in all the atmosphere we ponder the menu. I wish I could take the time to write down all the funny menu translations we have found here; I could write a book, or at the very least send out a tedious chain email you could all bore your friends and colleagues with. We settle on pancakes (crepes really) with red caviar, but only after mum asks the waiter if the caviar is "good" (only here could such a question be taken seriously and the young waiter and mum discuss this question for a few minutes while I roll my eyes at the absurdity) and chicken liver pate. I get an iced tea with granadine which seems to be the in thing; I am becoming addicted to these and will crave them upon my return home.

We people watch and scoff down our delicious afternoon tea; the caviar is good, very good (which surprises me since I have had a love/hate relationship with it ever since I've had two, possibly coincidental, bouts of severe food poisoning the previous times I have had it), the pate light and morish. My tea gorgeous, served with big chunks of orange and lemon amongst the ice. It needs to be said the newly married couples don't look too happy, generally speaking. One particular bride, who reminds me of a cranky, anorexic drag queen, would terrify the be-jesus out of me should I be the unlucky groom.

We continue down towards the waterfront as we want to go down the famous stairs and checkout the ship terminal. A man is holding a small alligator and a fluffy round rat-like creature is sitting on his shoulder. The alligator's mouth is taped together. Mum asks him about it and he says he is illegally brought from Egypt and that he doesn't feed him properly so he doesn't grow too big. This sounds disgusting and is probably a lie. He wants us to pay to have a photo taken with this unfortunate creature but we walk away. My sister wants to report him to somebody (but who on earth cares about anything here); she loves all animals more than most people and such cruelty breaks her heart.

All along the wide path families walk with their little children and babushkas sit on the benches with babies in prams, a watchful eye over playing toddlers. It's Saturday and everyone seems dressed up, especially the children. I've noticed that children are always well dressed here, the children I've seen seem cherished and coddled. On the other hand there are posters all over the city showing a beautiful young mother kissing a baby's head. I thought these may have been advertising Johnsons' Baby Shampoo or some brand of nappies but mum tells me they are ads asking women not to abandon their babies in the hospital. Oh!

On the famous steps leading down to the waterfront we see a man with a monkey in a stripped jumper and another man with another alligator and a green lizard. An older lady sits on the side with a tame owl, asking a small fee to have your photo taken with it. Later on, when we are returning up the stairs, I see what strikes me as a typically Odessa-ish moment. A couple are coming down the stairs with their son, he is around 6 or 8 years old. The woman with the owl calls out "boys and girls, come and see my owl". The boy turns and heads towards her, curious. The mother coming up behind him shouts "EEDY SUDA" (come here) but it's the harsh way she yells these words, the tone, which makes me think Odessa!

At the waterfront we have our photo taken with the statue of the woman and child looking out to sea. Here is the famous Odessa lighthouse, now dwarfed by the container terminals on either side, the giant hotel and the Russian Orthodox church with its shiny domed roofs which was strangely built right at the tip of this wharf.

It is hot and very humid. We head back to our apartment to shower, rest and get ready for our evening out. It is 4:30 already. The days fly by here.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

I'm up early though we had a late night. Some men have been yelling downstairs from the courtyard since about 5 am. I don't know what they've been yelling about - most people speak Russian here but many also speak Ukranian which is similar but different; the words sound like I should be able to understand them but I don't.

We had a slow start to the day yesterday but made up for it later. It was raining yesterday morning. We didn't get down to breakfast until almost 10 am. We had arranged to meet mum's friends and had decided to walk there but the rain was quite heavy. We got as far as the construction awning at the end of our lane way and stopped, waiting for the rain to ease. It didn't, so we decided to run for it into the shopping area half a block away to find some umbrellas. Armed with our brand new, compact, Austrian made umbrellas we soldiered on.

It was fun walking through the city in the rain, jumping puddles, listening to mum curse as her light blue pants got splatered with dirty rain water. There is no drainage in the roads and lots of potholes and just general holes from damage to the roads and pavements where water puddles. We stopped to exchange some US dollars; there are little money exchange booths everywhere with signs outside advertising their exchange rate. So far mum had only exchanged her money, wanting to pay for everything while we were here in Odessa. This was fine until she told me "you don't need that" one too many times at the privoz the other day. I felt on top of the world with a wad of local currency burning a hole in my pocket.

We arrived at my mum's friends place and again found the table laden with the leftovers from the other day. After the late breakfast it was a little hard to cope with but we managed to put away a bit of this and that. The rain had stopped and our next stop was their old school - Number 26.

Though it's school holidays here the school was open for a vacation care type program (though the poor kids were doing something very boring looking in the classrooms rather than the fun activities they may have been doing at a vacation care at home). A funny moment was when the kids ran out of their classroom for a break and one of the boys, aged about 8 or 10, immediately got out his mobile phone. Some things maybe very different here but some things are very much the same. We were allowed to have a look around and the place brought back lots of memories for mum and her friends, who went from place to place and door to door saying "do you remember this room?", "do you remember that teacher?". It was great to see.

The school itself is bleak. It is large, with high ceilings and huge doors. But as with almost everything here it is badly maintained. The paint is either peeling or layered on thickly, without any sign of care or workmanship. Outside is all concrete, not a blade of grass in sight, with rusty basketball hoops and a huge hole in the ground which mum said was there when they were - over 40 years ago. To me it doesn't seem like a happy place but it brought back lots of happy memories for mum and her friends.

We kept walking and saw the hospital where I was born. Or should I say the mother's home because these are seperate here. Poor mum wasn't allowed to have anyone with her when she gave birth to me and the staff were horrible to her. I don't think there were too many happy memories there.

Our next stop was another friend's place at Arcadia beach so we called our friendly private taxi driver and eventually he turned up to drive us there. This friend - Zosa (as they affectionately call her) or Zoya - is wealthy by most people's standards. She was not in mum's class but two years below them at their school. I'm not clear as to how she became part of their group. She is a lovely lady, one of those people you want to be with, something warm and charming and welcoming about her personality. I was looking forward to visiting her and her apartment, which had been heralded as something special.

She lives in the penthouse of a seven storey apartment building at the start of the Arcadia beach area, far from the water but overlooking it. The large apartment block she lives in is 12 years old, it's modern and there are gardens around it. It is a million times better than just about anything else I've seen here but still it's somewhat bleak. I'm not sure how to put my finger on it.

Her housekeeper is coming down in the lift to walk their gorgeous chocolate labrador as we are going up. We are shown the apartment, which is over three storeys. It is huge, there is no doubt about it. I've never seen anything like it. Big rooms and lots of them. Their bedroom is probably half the size of my own apartment - she says her husband calls it the Sex-o-drome - which is funny but a little unsettling. On the top floor is a large rumpus room with a giant empty spa and a huge outdoor area which overlooks all the surrounding parklands and new apartment buildings and a smudge of the sea. It is an impressive place.

I think Zosa's husband is a jeweller and a businessman (though he was a journalist and she a pre-school director at the start of their marriage, and thus very poor). Her son is a well known actor, now living in Moscow. He is no Brad Pitt but he did buy his mum a nice little brand new Toyota Corolla for her 60th birthday.

She really is the host with the most and great fun to be with. We eat some more as by now it's late afternoon, her housekeeper eating with us (which is lovely and tells us about the sort of person Zosa is). Then we go upstairs and she reads us some of the very funny, very witty poems and songs their friends wrote for them for the 120th birthday (when she and her husband turned 60). We laugh a lot, people here love to laugh, every conversation is filled with jokes and banter; the slightest exchange with friends or shopkeepers or strangers in the street has a joke or a play on words built in.

Finally, around 7 pm, we decide to take a walk down to the beach itself. Mum has fond memories of coming down here in her youth. We walk along the main road leading to the beach, it's quite a long walk from here. We pass a shopping mall and decide to have a quick look. As we were told it's like a museum. It's brand new and gleaming, inside the shops are filled with overpriced designer items only Donald Trump can afford. Shop after shop filled with shoes, clothes, bags, homewares, all staffed by well dressed gorgeous young things. All devoid of a single customer. It's like a ghost town. It's a total mystery to me how a place like that would make money.

Further along they are building a large number of new apartment blocks, great big towers. To be frank I'd be worried about living in them; the city is built on catacombs which apparently accounts for why so many buildings are collapsing slowly. Would you want to live on the 15th floor of a building built on catacombs? Zosa says that they obviously have some sort of building/engineering technology which makes them safe but I'm not so sure. I've seen building sites here and I'm not filled with confidence. I think as with a lot of "new" money they are going for style over substance.

The beach area itself starts with a park or a wide walking path surrounded by park. There are stands on both sides selling food, drinks and souvenirs, even a little old day offering a weighing service for about 7 cents (personally I'd pay a lot more than that not to know my weight, especially after a few days of Ukranian eating). At the end of this path, where previously you would have walked down to the sand itself, they have built a giant nightclub/restaurant. This is one of many giant nightclub/restaurants they have built along the foreshore here. The beach itself is very much secondary, which is probably good because it's awful. The sand is grey, apparently naturally, and littered with rubbish. There is a narrow concrete walkway of sorts but it is crumbling and dangerous looking; you have to climb through a rusting metal structure, possibly an old rotunda or something, to step onto this path. There is an area of the beach with white plastic sun lounges but mum says this is a private beach area for which you have to pay. Though the water is calm and looks clean from where we were standing it is not the most inviting beach I've ever been to.

We walk around and the commercialised awfulness is astounding. The nightclubs all trying to outdo each other in terms of decorations and size. We see young girls arriving for a big night out, quite possibly they are prostitutes, they certainly dress that way. I think long legs and a pretty face are a meal ticket out of the poverty here (and lots of other places) and I say good luck to them.

Walking back we go a different way and wander around the streets immediately behind the beach. Streets filled with luxurious houses and small hotels. We finally make it back to the main road and by now we're exhausted, it's after 9 pm. I think we're going to get a bus back up the road to Zosa's place (she stayed home to wait for her husband to return from work) but suddenly mum's friend Lara is hailing a car, yes just a car. Apparently it's common and normal to hail any passing car as you would a taxi. I guess what we may have called hitch hiking but in a much more normal-mode-of-transport manner. The person takes you up the road, you pay him a little money. The car Lara pulled over is small; there are five of us (traditionally built) ladies - and the driver. Lara hops in the front and her sister Milla, Jules, mum and I squeeze (and I do mean squeeze) ourselves into the back seat. I'm not happy Jan.

Back at Zosa's we sit around for another few hours. The table is laden with sweets on our return: delicious freshly fried little local fish (not everyone's cup of tea but I love them), freshly baked apple strudle which is gorgeous, a big bowl of cherries and chocolates. We drink tea and talk and laugh. We could easily sit there all night but at 11ish we call for a taxi and head back.

As always I cause a drama by daring to open my mouth when mum haggles with the taxi driver over the fare. This is a recurring theme on this trip.

Bye for now. Lots of love to everyone at home. (Go the Swannies!)

Friday, June 05, 2009

Another busy 24 hours since last I wrote.

We started the day with breakfast downstairs. Lots of Americans on a tour of some sort. The owner of these apartments is from New York, so far all he seems to do is sit in the courtyard and chat with various shady looking guys. J and I call him the host with the most, because he's not. He barely makes eye contact when we walk through. Possibly we're of no interest to him because we're not here for a girl. Maybe I'm misjudging him, maybe not.

Anyway, then we booked a car, a taxi, to take us to the cemetary. We picked up mum's friend and her sister, our main hosts and tour guides for this trip, on the way. We went to the Jewish Cemetary where my grandfather on mum's side, her father, is buried.

I'm not a big fan of cemetaries in general (as opposed to all those people who are!) but this one is a good example of what is wrong with this place (i.e. the Ukraine). On the one hand you have these very elaborate headstones, huge slabs of polished granite with the deceased's face etched at the top (though this is apparently against Jewish custom), following by the dates and inscription. Some have a life size marble or stone statue erected next to the headstone as well. All have a little wrought iron fence around each grave site, mostly rusting and some collapsing. So the effect may sound pretty, at least quaint, at least interesting to the casual observer. The problem is there is apparently no maintenance of the cemetary grounds and the weeds and bushes have almost taken over. The grave sites are very close together and the paths which lead between them are very narrow anyway. So the weeds (I'm talking serious weeds here!) and the vines and the overhanging trees and bushes make it almost impossible to walk along a row to a particular grave site.

We met with a man who is like a private caretaker here. The big expensive headstones are apparently purchased by wealthy relatives who have made it overseas and come back to outdo each other with headstones to their deceased relatives. So many of them, while they are still alive and/or still care, pay private caretakers to clean and look after the headstones of their relatives. This man took us to my grandad's headstone. At least it was reasonably accessible though we stood amidst tall weeds. Mum talked to him about what she wanted fixed and we stood for a while.

I am unmoved by cemetaries (my thoughts on these places at another time) so I didn't feel very much standing there. I was interested in looking around, seeing other headstones, just absorbing the atmosphere. When we came back around to the front gates after walking around for a while we saw the gypsy part of the cemetary. Whoa baby, these people know how to do a headstone. Well not a headstone actually. More of a outrageously grotesque memorial. For example the huge slab of granite etched with the full size image of the deceased gyspy man, complete with real gold plate on his watch and his ring (mum joked that he should have been smiling so that his gold teeth would have been on display). Another tomb was surrounded by an iron fence, the stone itself was as big as a small stage and next to it was an outdoor table and chair setting. We were told the gypsies come and have huge drunken parties at the cemetary on various rememberance days, which is very upsetting to the Jewish people who share this cemetary with them.

At the front gates of the cemetary is a small building, the office. When we arrived 3 or 4 men were sitting outside this building and when we left they were still there. I was told one of them was the director. The question arises if these men are paid employees of the cemetary why the fuck are they sitting around doing sweet FA while the cemetary goes to ruin and turns to jungle. When I asked mum's friends about this they just said that's how it is.

We leave and decide to get the public bus to the prevoz (the market). The buses are old and bleak and after a few stops it gets very crowded but it's an experience and we get there safely. The prevoz is something else altogether. Wow! Mum says if you haven't been to the prevoz you don't know Odessa. This place is huge, with outdoor and indoor areas that seem to go on forever. There's the meat building where chunks of meat sit on the stone slabs, exposed. Dogs and cats roam around. This place is certainly not for the squeamish and dispells my long held belief that meat comes on styrofoam trays from the supermarket. This is the real deal and only one short step away from the abatoir.

Then there are areas where people sell cold meat, hams and salamis, stall after stall after stall. The dairy area where people sell cottage cheese, cream and sour cream, fetta cheese, stall after stall, etc. People walk around, take a taste of this and that. It's the way it's done here but I felt so bad. These are peasant people, most of them, making these goods in their homes on the city outskirts and hauling them in every day. Making a pittance on the tiny prices they charge and yet the locals walk around and take a taste of everything. A particular custom is to get a dollop of cream or sour cream on the top of your hand and to lick it off. I couldn't get into that custom.

Outside there are countless stalls, tiny ones, selling fruit and vegetables, sometimes no more than a few handfuls of this or that, a few herbs, a few tomatoes. Here too people ask to taste the produce and then bargain over the already low prices. There are clothes stalls, shoes and sunglasses, hardware, somewhat like our Paddy's Market.

We come away with some cottage cheese and sour cream, a smoked mackrel (mmm....) - a beautiful big fat juicy one for about AUS$3.50, some strawberries and cherries, a big slice of Napoleon Cake (a special childhood memory of mine).

We take the bus back to mum's friend's house. On the way a man hops onto the bus to sell newspapers. He tells the people all about his particular paper, an Odessa speciality. He is dry funny. The paper costs ONE GRIVNA (the local currency) which is about 15 cents. After I get off the bus I think that I should have bought one as a souvenir.

After sharing another long lunch with mum's friends we call for a car to take us back to our apartment. We were getting ready for the ballet. We walked down to the Odessa Opera Theatre, a beautifully restored building not far from our apartment. It is lovely and like old European royalty we sat on little velvet and gilt chairs on a tiny balcony. The ballet was lovely but I'm more of a So You Think You Can Dance type. The music was lovely, the dancers were gorgeous, everything was perfect, yet I kept nodding off, the last few days finally catching up with me. If only they could have installed a few Jason Recliners (Gold Class cinema style) I may have enjoyed it a little more.

We finished off the evening with a late-ish supper at the Ukranian restaurant where we ate on our first day here. Though the food was delicious I may be reaching my limit on pork fat products. The cafe downstairs from us was in apparent disco mode when we returned home but closing my window made my room soundproof and I slept very very soundly last night.

Now it's almost 9 am and we need to head down for breakfast. It's raining so our planned day at Arcadia Beach may not pan out. We'll see what happens. It rained yesterday but only for about 20 minutes and then it became humid and very warm.

Hope you're all well and happy, my friends. [Glad you're reading my blog now honey, love you!]

Thursday, June 04, 2009

So time for a catch up.

The flights

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...)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

It's 4 pm London time. I'm writing this from the lobby of the Novotel at Heathrow Airport.

I am really really tired. Mum and I have just come back from Soho where we had lunch with Jules. It was great to see her but to be honest I am too tired to appreciate anything much right now.

Things will only be worse tomorrow when we get a 3 am wake up call and a 3:45 am taxi to the airport for flight to Odessa via Vienna. Mum's story about her previous flight with Ukranian Airlines does not inspire great confidence in me. Wish us luck!

I hope to be feeling better on day two in Odessa and to have some internet time so I can do a full update on the trip so far.

Come back in a couple of days.