Luxury in 2nd Class
So much better than going in steerage...
It becomes very clear that second-class train travel in Ukraine is worlds apart from being hauled around the country in plaztkart (плацкарть), or third class. The wagons’ hallway windows are decked with burgundy drapes and embroidered valences reading the city of origin, L’viv (Лъвïв), however framed with cheap plastic flowers. In spite of a torn radio knob blasting the latest Ukrainian hip-hop, I managed to turn the “music” off and discovered the reading lights work wonderfully on each of the four couchettes in my private compartment. Mrs. Doubtfire’s evil twin runs the car like a drill sergeant, dishing out tea and separating passengers such as myself from the local currency to satisfy some mysterious supplement not paid up at the ticket window before departure. Toilets are certainly an improvement; the escaping foul odor is only half as revolting as third class and nothing on the recently mopped floor appears to be moving at all. For $15, I get a decent night’s sleep, will start my new book by Theroux, and should arrive in decent shape in Odessa come morning. I am sold on this service. So, from now on, consider me a proud second-class citizen in Ukraine! What would happen if
But no one with whom to share my private joy of comfort...
I went first class?
While I crave to wander away from my compartment and see what is happening elsewhere aboard, I am reluctant to leave my belongings unattended. I have no companions right now. Phillip just rolled out of sight, a gloomy realization, and no one has come up to shake my hand, roll out the red carpet, and say, “Rich! Welcome! Come eat our food and be merry with us!” That conspicuous solitude with which I have become familiar only once a year has returned. It accompanies me as an independent traveler and I have accepted it in all its forms. While it shows its ugly face when least desired, it is important to bear in mind that, as I have come to learn, it is always better to be alone than in bad company. Taking a look around, there is nothing but sound of the rails’ pounding underneath, and the tapping of the keys of my laptop. I am secure, warm, and dry. Loneliness is back from its hiatus, but I am OK with it.
Ever since landing in Ukraine, it is simple to observe this part of Europe and make note of the sharp
contrasts. No signposts exist anywhere but for perhaps a destination when leaving town. If you’re looking for a hospital, business, school, or police station while behind the wheel, you’re out of luck. In fact, although maps of Ternopil and Odessa other cities unambiguously state street names, I have yet to see corresponding street signs to guide motorists. Uncommon souvenir stands sprout up in the most unexpected places. The cracked windows and dented fenders of ambulances that rush by turn one to think they may as well be hearses dashing you to the hospital. A local salesman in Ternopil said when I asked him about the hospitals here, “Hospitals? No one goes there when they are sick. We go there when we are ready to die.”
A balmy and hazy morning greeted me at the train station in Odessa, along with scores of aged and wrinkled women strolling aimlessly along the platform advertising rooms for rent. I made my way through the labyrinth of school groups and families, dodging the women whose signs strung around their necks indicated they were ready to do business. But I was not, and could not for the life of me make heads or tails of
Cherniv beer on a summer's day...
the words on their cardboard placards. So, I aimlessly staggered around the station looking at the scheduled departures and arrivals, as always is my habit when pulling into a new city. I have learned to read most of the Cyrillic and get a good idea of which trains go where, at what time, and which days they run.
Eventually, after peeking out the main entrance, I lost the will to maneuver around Odessa in early morning for a hotel room suggested by Let’s Go. So, I stepped back into the station and approached the first woman that looked friendly enough and started in.
“I need room for sleep. You have room?”
“In center Odessa?”
“You have hot water”?
“Da.” I did not know at the time “hot water” meant, yes, we can boil it for you so it is hot, you stupid American.
“You have shower?”
I got an affirmative and forceful, “Da! Da!” Translation: We have a rotten and moldy chamber with a concrete drain hole in which you can pour said hot water on yourself and apply soap.
OK, so far, so good!
“How much?” I asked that in Ukrainian, unfamiliar with the expression
Potemkin Steps to the shore...
Seeing no better offers left or right, I accepted and followed Ludmilla to her home, in the center of Odessa. But it is the part of central Odessa right behind the train station. Oh, well. It could be worse, I thought. And I was right.
While a couple was vacating what was about to be my “apartment”, I took a look at my surroundings. Three blocks from the station, my room, down a cramped and dark hallway that doubled as the kitchen, consisted of three beds of which I had the pick of the lot. This is not saying much. Peeled and faded wallpaper drooped down from discolored plaster molding. The lumpy mattress on my bed’s wrecked springs saw its better years long ago. When I went to lie down in it, my torso was immediately hurled only inches from the floor and as I looked up to the ceiling I could only see my feet dangling above me. This twin-sized bed was the prime choice of the three. A few adjustments later and I got myself level again, almost. Ludmilla’s mother, a Latvian by birth, happily gave me my towel as if I should have taken it with great delight as part of the stellar service. She smiled and handed over nothing more than a cloth napkin that would hardly do as a fig leaf in a Renaissance painting. The house is guarded by a two-year-old German shepherd that, thank God, does not find Americans a very tasty treat to snack on. It came near me for an inspection. I went down to my knees and let him sniff me, mark me, whatever. He could have peed on me and I would not have twitched pending its approval.
Each morning, I bathed (a rare occurrence for anyone else in this household) with a bucket of cold water and a pail with which to douse myself. While primitive, dawning my flip flop to keep my feet out of contact from the scurvy tiled floor, I made the routine organized enough to where it took me but a few minutes, and I was out of there. It reminded me of the times I was a guest twelve years ago at Martin’s in Regensburg, Germany. His mother prepared my “bath” the same way and probably wondered why I insisted on this every morning. She did so gladly, as I was so content in Regensburg that I often pondered never leaving.
When putting out of your mind the immediate area near a train station, as anyone always should, downtown Odessa strikes you as a classic European city. Bricked pedestrian ways blocked off from motor traffic are lined with chunky and abundant chestnut trees, which provide shade for passers by. Columned buildings in pastel colors anchor hidden squares. The city actively renovates run down areas, though this is a task that will never end. Overcrowded and overheated trams and trolleybuses zoom by, shipping commuters all over town. If you squint properly and when the sun strikes at just the right angle, you’d think you were in Brussels.
Odessa entertains tourists, merely in the smaller numbers that its infrastructure can manage. Grumpy Germans complain about the beer. Turks text message family back home across the Black Sea in Istanbul. There is a tolerable level of very pompous British that blend in with clueless Americans, who wonder why Chicken Kiev is not on the menu in ever restaurant they enter. By and large, it is the Russians that come to Odessa in the greatest of proportions. In fact, Russian is the lingua franca even though Odessa is in the process of tearing down all signs in Russian and replacing them with the same in Ukrainian. Single American and British men come to Odessa on marriage tours to see if the woman of their dreams lives here. In fact one man I came across would be a great interview to get more information on the business. But, he has been far too busy entertaining three local beauties at a table nearby for me to speak to him. He’s on a roll right now, and it would be rude to cramp his style.
Mick O’Neills (Мик О’ниллс) is the Odessan version of “I want to be Irish, too!” It is an overstaffed pub of idle waitresses in the predictable style, a fad that is now known worldwide. The standard three ocean containers of paraphernalia are disorderly smattered on the walls: the Declaration of the Irish Republic, some Gaelic jerseys, hurling sticks and Guinness posters. But the Guinness tap is for show; no stout flows, as is the same with Kilkenney and the Magners cider. Almost no staff speaks English, has even been to Ireland, or could ever find it on a map. The local foot patrol takes their 1½-hour break at Mick O’Neills, which includes free drinks for the thirsty cops and use of the computer to play solitaire. If this place is Irish, than I am Bolivian. Yet, I’ll use it as base, as I can add it to the scores of “Irish” pubs in which I have set foot all across Europe.
A ten-year-old ragamuffin has stepped up to the bar not too long ago, changed over a 2 hryvnia to coins, and has seated himself at the video slots, and has blindly fed the noisy and flashing machine dozens of kopecs.
While baseball is deemed the United States’ national pastime, as is hockey for Canada and soccer for most of the rest of the world, here the national sport is waiting. Ukrainians squander vast portions of their waking hours waiting for something to happen so they can go on to the next ordeal and kill time elsewhere. I once heard that lines were endless in the former Soviet Union. This is not true. They indeed have an end. What I was never told was that they simply do not move. People stand in line for train tickets with a resigned expression. Few converse with each other. The target of touts trying to sell “discount” tickets and hotel room, their pained looks of irritation say on their faces that this is just something that always has been and will continue to be. Russians and Ukrainians will shamelessly cut in front of you if you let them or approach a window in a bank or station under the pretense of posing a simple question. Lo and behold, while they are there, they complete their intended business. A young woman tried this with me at the station in Odessa. Good technique, too. Since forming a single file is unheard of here, she put her bag next to mine and slithered herself ever so slowly past my shoulder. Aware of her goal, I tapped her from behind, kindly said “Nyet”, picked up her back and put it behind me, which provoked her to say something not too friendly in return. She once again tried to gain access in front of me, and was met by a good shove from my left shoulder. She got the idea. Good thing her bodybuilder boyfriend did not accompany her. It was all the same in the end. Tenth in line when I got there, I was seventh after one hour of watching the ticket clerk slowly tap keys on her obsolete computer, reset the paper on the dot matrix printer at least a dozen times, and holler at every single passenger for something that inconvenienced her. Oh, and there was the fifteen-minute break, a curious event seeing as she performed very little work. I left in hopes that I would encounter more success following the afternoon rush. A few beers at the Potemkin Steps would make me feel better.
Lines at the train station are the epitome of inefficiency. But it does not stop there. Bus stops attract people in transit, standing idle and motionless for minutes on end. I have peered into banks to catch sight of vicious lines. And if traveling to Ukraine, get used to standing in line to use the toilet, however disappointing the experience may be once you arrive to relieve yourself. By the way, men stand in line just as often as women, much to my disappointment given that back home, we get a pass in this area. Surly and indifferent wait staff at restaurants will get around to you when they see fit, especially if you had the audacity to seat yourself in their section while they were on the phone with a friend or family member. If in the same section with a handful of attractive young women who occupy a nearby table, a certainty in Odessa, don’t expect Dimitri to tend to you all that often. He has other priorities. And you are not among them.
While deciphering the departure board at the station, looking rather astray and confused, I tapped a hulk of a guy on his shoulder, as he struck me from afar as someone who knew his way around and might even speak English. Well, I was one for two. He was one of three friendly Frenchmen in the same predicament as me. So, we pooled our resources together, and accomplished very little as a result. They, like me, wanted to go to Chişinău, Moldova. Showing them the way to the bus station and back, they bought their tickets for a departure the next day. I discovered through a concierge at their ever-so-upscale hotel that I could not get to Moldova without a visa. Nor could I manage through their bureaucracy at the border, as I have read on so many Internet message boards. I smiled at the lady at the travel desk, turned to walk away and heard from behind, “Anyway, Moldova. There is nothing to see. Why do you want to go there?” I thought to myself, so many countless others posed me the same question about Ukraine. Yet here I am in your country.
No experience better characterizes being in a second or third-world country more than going to the bank to exchange money, or in my case, traveler’s checks. Under recommendation from Ivan a Mick O’Neills, I walked into a bank around the corner that I was told would turn over the checks. Indeed the bank was set up for doing just that. There were no lines! Good, I said, this will be easy. Then, the circus commenced.
The inside of the bank registers as quite the serviceable operation. Clean, carpeted and adorned with teller windows and small cubby offices, it reminds you of any Bank of America or Webster branch in a mid-sized town. A suited gentleman manned each desk. Touch-tone phones, computer terminals and printers stood nearby and ready. Curiously, they all appeared so terribly busy doing very little productive. I made my way to window six on the side of which a brand new sticker read “Visa Travelers Cheques Welcome”. I smiled. This was going to be easy. In my best Rusukrish, I explained my situation to Bachelorette #1.
“I have Visa checks. You change for hyrvnia, please?” I showed her the checks, $200 worth.
“Nyet, we no accept.” I looked at that sticker again to my left pointed it out to her, and motioned that she come up with a better answer. This got her on the phone with some manager, I suppose, in a back room. Three minutes go by and she is disappointed that, yes indeed, the bank can process my request. “But we do 2% commission!”
I smiled artificially. “Wonderful”, and gave her the thumbs up. I handed over the two checks to her and for the next several minutes she leisurely keyed in my passport details and check numbers into the computer, with the phone in her right ear, taking step-by-step instructions from her manager. It could have been her beautician on the other end for all I knew.
That episode done, she barked that I should go to Window 5 and pay the commission.
“Huh? I pay commission first? With what? I have but a few kopecs!” I showed her my pocket change. “I came to the bank for hyrvnia. How can I pay?” This perplexed her. She shrugged her shoulders and sent me off to the window, happy to see me go so she could continue to file her already ruby red and sharpened nails. “Akno Pyat!” “Window five!”
Bachelorette #2 processed more paperwork and eventually gave me a bill for the commission. Miraculously, I dug through my pockets and daypack and produced the few hyrvnia necessary and put my signature on papers in triplicate, none of which I could read if I had to. This took about three minutes. Bear in mind now, I am the only customer in any of these lines. Off to Window 2 for the cash.
Bachelorette #3 was the most oblivious. Hardly able to add, she requested help from her colleagues to get me out of her life. In the end, she sent two crisp one hundred dollar bills my way, shut the windows and spun herself around in her swivel chair. I knocked to get her attention. She reopened her window reluctantly. “I want hyrvnia. Not dollars.”
“We no do that here.”
I replied, “Yes! Woman. Window six say yes. Hryvnia.” Another shrug of the shoulders. As I took my money and exited the bank, it occurred to me: Each teller I encountered was younger than the next, clearly more beautiful, far more stupid, exposed oodles more cleavage, and wore her skirt enticingly higher. By the time I got to the last one, I seriously wondered if the application process at this branch included jumping up and down in front of the manager.
I walked no more than fifty yards away from the bank and turned over my cash at one of the hundreds of exchange booths that are scattered about Odessa.
Without question Odessa boasts the most impressive gathering of beautiful women I have ever seen in one place. Not the most beautiful; that still would be Mexico. Rather for one city, there is no equivalent. They come out of the woodwork from every direction. They brand wide-brimmed sunglasses, see-through blouses, stringed backs, high heels, hooped earrings, and the teeniest of floral-designed miniskirts leaving plenty of midriff for all to see their pierced navels. For a good number of them, it would make little difference if the simply spun themselves every morning in Saran-Wrap. When it comes to looking at women, Odessa is a single man’s dream…and a married man’s nightmare. Women, do not take your husbands to Odessa and believe them when they say, “Honey, when I am with you, I cannot even look at another woman.” If staring at gorgeous women were the equivalent of an NFL season, the Superbowl would be held in Odessa…every single year.
“You cannot afford an Odessa girl”, Nick cried out two tables away to a group of Anglophone men. Nick is a British entrepreneur who came to Odessa six years ago. His most memorable statement about Odessa, excluding the women, was, “If you fail at business in Odessa, you lose every penny. If you succeed at business in Odessa, you are taken over by the Russian mafia.” It so happens that the prettiest ones who learn English are rather expensive to maintain. They seek out foreign men for entertainment. The arrangement is simple: I’ll be your girlfriend. Let’s go shopping. I buy. You pay.
It is not an uncommon sight to see foreign men strolling through the cafés and parks of Odessa with a stunning woman on each arm. But, according to Nick, these girls are savvy and will ditch you as soon as they smell a shortage of cash. Many men come here to marry an Odessa girl, Nick says. Yet, the men are beyond naïve, as some local families put their daughters up to the task and tell them which man to marry in order to secure a steady flow of cash from The Netherlands, United States, or United Kingdom.
At any rate, it occurred to me while prancing around downtown Odessa: What are all these ladies doing walking around, dressed to kill with the latest Gucci bag dangling from their arm, at two o’clock in the afternoon? Don’t they work? Have they nothing better to do then show off their goods and possibly cause a four-car pile up while crossing the street? “No, says Nick. “They live off their boyfriends.”
“All of them?”
“Nah, not all of them, mate. But most do. You see, many have relatives in the States or in England. Those relatives send enormous amounts of cash, mostly dollars to theoretically support their families. Unbeknownst to them, the cost of living is so cheap here that the extra cash provides both the young women and men of the family an exceptionally healthy social life.”
“So, family elsewhere work hard to buy their poor relatives can enjoy Long Island Iced Teas and a good salade niçoise on a Thursday afternoon”, I concluded.
“You got it, mate.”
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