Ukrainians say rushing travel brings bad luck – and that the most auspicious way to begin a journey is to sit and relax on your luggage. Arriving at Heathrow nine and a half hours before my onward flight, I didn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. I listened to the last half hour of a Chelsea defeat on the radio, read the Evening Standard from cover to cover, and went through everything the Bradt guide had to say about southern Ukraine. My neighbours changed every few hours: Indians who talked constantly on their mobile phones, watched TV on their laptops, sat and stared at the metal shutters covering WH Smith’s.
About four o’clock someone new sat down on my right. He was dressed like a demented officer of cavalry in black leather gloves, a cream-coloured Aquascutum mackintosh that almost met the top of his polished Doctor Marten’s, a pink shirt with braces and gold cufflinks, and a baggy suit in Rupert Bear check, with the trousers tucked into his boots, billowing out over the sides in the shape of two sails. He had a rabbit fur hat on his head, which he took off to reveal close-cropped hair dyed the colour of rust. I saw him turn towards me, and then he began to talk. He was an Algerian with a British passport and a Scottish wife in London, and his big idea was to open a small hotel in Yalta and fly over middle-aged men from England (“Americans too, if they want.”) who wanted to meet Ukrainian girls. “Near the beach, you know. Maybe with a small bar and a place to dance, everything under one roof. You spend all your money in one place. I bring the girls and get my commission. By the way, do you have a mobile number?”
He talked about a German friend in Kiev who was seeing seven girls at once, hiring a car and a driver before calling a different one every day to say he’d just come from the airport and was only in town for one night. There was a heartbroken Welshman in Crimea and a string of girls of his own. “Women here are real women. If you are good in bed, they never leave you.” At five he went in search of his gate – “I’ll call you – maybe we can meet in Yalta.” I still had an hour before my flight to Warsaw.
Changing in Poland for the final leg to Odessa, I counted twenty-six of us on the plane, but the stewardesses were being so generous with the beer that I could have been wrong. The guidebook talked about the “rush of warm sea air” that greets you in Odessa but it was the snowiest winter in years and my first sight of the place was dispiriting. There were clouds all the way, making it seem as if we were flying across an empty page in a book, then we dipped at the last and there were grey apartment blocks and snow piled on grass and a tiny terminal building the size of a small town railway station.
The first person I saw was the secretary from the school, surrounded by part-time taxi drivers badgering her for the fare into the city centre. There was no public transport so she called a company on her mobile and we sat down to wait. Where do you come from? How was your flight? Why were you late? Have you been here before?
I instinctively pulled on the seatbelt as we got into the taxi, but there was nowhere to fasten it and neither of the people in the front was bothering with theirs. I thought the driver might take a second attempt as an insult to his driving, so I concentrated on the window instead. There was a long road with kiosks selling bread rolls, a two-carriage tram, cars avoiding potholes, disused and dilapidated factory units. “What’s your first impression?” “A little but like the Czech Republic,” I replied, thinking back to bread and trams.
We stopped by a big yellow cathedral and a snow-covered park. There was a burnt-out building with flowers left on the steps, as if in memorial to a death, and a pizza restaurant on either side of the block. The landlord was waiting upstairs with his wife and an English-speaking friend. He explained things in Russian, the secretary translated, while the friend asked if I’d seen Alfie, what my favourite football team was and what kind of books I liked to read. “I’ll bring some novels for you,” he said as he left. “I have some questions about grammar.”