Wednesday, March 31, 2010

34: The New 33.

I woke up with the taste of beer in my mouth. The text I'd just got was a reminder of my own birthday (an overlooked drawback of hand-me-down phones). There were car horns blaring on the street outside and sunlight streaming in through the window - which was a big improvement on last year at least.

It was already half past ten and there was no hot water in the shower, so I shelved my plans to go for a run. "Happy birthday," I thought as I went back to sleep.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Saving the Planet

I read James Lovelock saying "I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change," and I think of dopes sending so much 4 global warming texts to Five Live each and every time it snows in winter (wait until July, people, and let's see who's laughing then).

And George Carlin.

"The planet is fine. The people are fucked."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Newcastle - Forest: TwitReport

I haven't tried this since Portsmouth at home at the end of last season, but then, as entertaining as this season has been, with no derbies to play (the only thing Middlesbrough have is annoying fans - all 16,000 of them) we've rarely had so much at stake as we do tonight. Win and the right combination of results at the weekend could see us promoted. Lose, and we're looking over our shoulders.

The game in tweets:

Wonder if my Ukrainian neighbours can make out the words to 'We hate Nottingham Forest'? Probably not.

Either this feed's got a bit of a time delay or I've lost seven minutes of my life.

Match tipple number one: Tuborg Green. Only available in Denmark, eastern Europe and the 1980s. First gulp. I can almost see why.

What a chance! Shame Carroll wasn't so reticent about striking when he had Stephen Taylor to aim at.

Carroll and Lovenkrands looking lively for #nufc. Can't see this staying goalless, which means that's exactly how it will end.

The only attack Forest have had in 10 minutes and the picture suddenly freezes...when it comes back a black-and-white shirt is advancing over the halfway line. Phew.

Beer number two: Chernihivske wheat beer. In a one-litre plastic bottle. Classy bloke, me.

"Absolute mayhem" in the penalty area. On my screen too, unfortunately.

As Betfair's gone a bit funny, I'm now listening to an over-exciteable Norwegian describing Andy Carroll's ankle knock.

And there's the Norse for "How the fuck did he miss that?"

#Ameobi started the season like a house on fire. He's ending it like Shola Ameobi.

If we score here, it's coming from Routledge and Lovenkrands.

"It's gone in off the post." I thought Forest had scored until I heard the words 'Shola Ameobi'. The bloke's a genius. I've always said so.

Forest respond by bringing on The Mekon.

"We're Newcastle and we're gonna win the league." Indeed.

Not that I'm tempting fate or anything...

Geeeeeeeeet iiiiiiiiiiin!!!

Game over. Good showing from Forest but we deserved that.

I'll miss the Championship, I really will. But they'll miss us too.

Fixing Football

Transfer windows to help supporter buyouts, forcing clubs to hand over a 25% stake to fans and far tougher scrutiny of would-be owners. It's easy to be cynical about a policy idea floated six weeks before an election, but Gordon Brown is a genuine socialist football fan, having been involved in the fan-led campaign to save Raith Rovers. Credit where credit's due: were Labour this radical about the things that really matter, they might even be worth voting for again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Return of the Poison Pen

Whatever did or didn't happen on the training ground last Sunday - Secret texts and money taunts? What else did footballers ever find to talk about? - you can be sure Louise Taylor had a lot of fun writing this.

But not half as much as I had reading it:

Newcastle's manager won a UN commendation for anti-apartheid campaigning but as Carroll waved insouciantly to fans at Doncaster it seemed Hughton had suddenly lost sight of the bigger picture.

Yes, Louise, that's exactly what did it.

UPDATE: Spot the subtle reference in her match report too. A lovely bit of shoehorning.

The People You Meet In Bars

"Sorry, where are you come from?" asked the man in the Lacoste cap, suddenly materialising at the bar. "My English not good," he apologised as the only pair of single girls in the whole place scraped back their stools and got ready to leave. "You live here? But this is not possible. Odessa is a Russian city, nobody speaks English." I zoned in and out, made the occasional comment, but left most of the talking to my friend. "London is smog?" "Not really, not anymore." "What is your money from job?" "Erm..." "Secret?" "Yes, secret."

He stuck around for five minutes, then left to join his friends. "Could have been worse," my mate summed up. "I thought it was going to be another one of those TEFL conversations."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What is History?

"Crimea," said Potemkin, "is the wart on Russia's nose". It wasn't always. For five hundred years it was ruled by Muslims, descendants of the Mongol horde, but most of them left in the three-quarters of a century between Catherine the Great's destructive policy of Russification and the end of the Crimean War. Stalin saw to the rest, deporting the Tatar population en masse on the trumped-up charge of collaboration with the Nazis. They weren't allowed back until 1989 and now make up just 12% of the near two million inhabitants.

To the majority Russian population Crimea has always been theirs. Or at least it was never Ukraine's. When Krushchev transferred the peninsula from Russia to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 most of his countrymen thought he must have been drunk. In 1991 88% of Crimeans voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union, two-thirds of the population speak Russian as their first language, and Russia's Black Sea Fleet still has its base in the city of Sevastopol.

None of which is likely to change anytime soon.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Among the Sex-Pats

"Saw a doco on Odessa last night," went the email from my friend in Brisbane. "It was about the raging sex industry there. Said it was the Bangkok of Europe. Now I know why u went there ;)". Thai comparisons are still a bit of a stretch, but the Irish bar on the main drag is often full of seedy, older, German and English-speaking men and I've already met too many foreigners here who live off undefined "internet work" (online marriage agencies for the most part).

One of them - a fast-balding, thirtysomething American with manboobs and a jagged scar on his forehead - used to live in my flat, which seems to be enough of a link to merit conversation. "Is the bed still propped up on metal? Yeah? Sorry, I broke that," he leered by way of introduction, extending a sweaty hand. "This hot chick totally checked me out when I was walking past the pizza place. I would've gone in and spoilt her boyfriend's night but I'm already fully booked. Got a date tomorrow and a choice of two for the night after that. They're both smokin' hot." I must've looked dubious for a second, because he finally paused for breath. "And I've got the photos to prove it." And the receipts too, I thought sardonically. "Man, what is it with this place? There is nothing on this menu worth drinking. Give me your number and we'll go out sometime. I'll have to hook you up."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In the News

'Construction of airport Boryspil terminal D 3 months behind schedule' was the headline of the main story in this week's Kyiv Post. 'Depressing outlook as Euro 2012 stadium work falls five months behind' began the introduction to the next story down, as the government held crisis talks about the state of the capital's Olympic Stadium and UEFA threatened to strike Lvov off the list of host cities altogether. 'Kyiv's authorities have three months to solve urgent problems' said the one below that.

They should probably get in touch with Multiplex.


Just as in Riga, my adult classses are a never-ending source of cynicism and conspiracies: the Marks and Spencer's on the edge of town is more expensive than in Britain but "the clothes are not the same quality like in London. They send us only the bad things." The market by the train station is cheaper than the one nearer my house, though "they cheat you more with the scales." Lipton Tea is "shit, but only in Ukraine." Moldovan fruit is dangerous. Yulia Tymoshenko, the still glamorous 49-year-old ex-prime minister, "only looks young because she takes lots of drugs."

"Have you heard what Azarov said about women?" I asked in class today. "It was even in the British papers. And Yanukovych told Tymoshenko to stay in the kitchen".

"I hope not," smiled one of the students. "She'd confuse the flour for cocaine".

Running (Again)

We started our run at the traffic lights on Torhova, watched by a line of cars, some people on a bus, and an old woman applying whitewash to the base of a tree. Downhill towards the Black Sea, we swung right towards Prymorska, crossing a rusted bridge with padlocks and graffiti on the railings. A group of men in the trees below were having an early morning picnic, dried fish, black bread and vodka laid-out across a sheet of newspaper that had been spread over the top of a wall.

Over cobbles and badly-laid paving stones, we went straight on at the top of the Potemkin Steps, past the Duc de Richelieu statue and under still-bare trees to the bust of Pushkin, deliberately placed with his back to the town hall after the politicians refused to pay for it, where we turned around and went back to the start.

It was twenty minutes from traffic light to traffic light, and I was barely out of breath at the end. "Same time tomorrow, mate?" "Yeah, go on."

The Stuff Students Say

"England is a more rich country," began a teenager, struggling with the comparative form. "However, there are more of black people."

Now where do you begin correcting that?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Things Not To Do In English Class

Choose the real-life case of an ex-president ordering the murder of a journalist to illustrate the use of to have something done.

Going Up?

With last night's win at Doncaster the worst possible end to the season is sixth place and a shoeing in the first round of the play-offs. This would have seemed wildly optimistic to most supporters at the beginning of August, when the most likely outcome was us winding up like Stephen Taylor's jaw. Will the current team be good enough to stay in the Premier League? Ask Burnley. Or Wolves. Or Stoke.

The first rule of supporting Newcastle United is to enjoy things while they last. The second is that it's best not to get too far ahead of yourself.


I was teaching in Latvia when the expenses scandal broke. Most of my students were shocked. "Corruption is something here, not in Britain," was a common response. Others were more phlegmatic. "They're politicians. What do you expect?" they shrugged.

What do we expect of our politicians? To represent the best interests of their constituents? ("Thank you for emailing me. If you live in North Tyneside, please make sure that you have included your home address as I can only represent people who live in my constituency," is the now ironic reply when you email Stephen Byers.) Byers, who as Minister for School Standards once went on live TV and claimed eight sevens were fifty-four, recently likened himself to "a cab for hire," though others might prefer to call him a greedy, lying bastard. In the immortal words of Francis Urquhart, "You might well think that; I couldn't possibly comment."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Potemkin Steps

Never meet your heroes goes the old saying. Standing at the top of the Potemkin Steps it was clear to see why. I'd been hoping for something out of Eisenstein, but what I got was pure Mike Leigh. Overgrown trees and blue metal fences, white graffiti and smashed green bottles, the view is not so much of the Black Sea than of the ugly oblong sprawl of the 1960s ferry passenger terminal and all nineteen stories of the post-Soviet Hotel Odessa. Damaged by erosion, the stairs no longer even sweep right down to the water: the original Trieste sandstone was covered over with granite in the 1930s and an extension to the port cut the number of landings - famously invisible from the bottom, despite being so broad that the stairs can't be seen from above - in half, reducing the two-hundred steps to one hundred and ninety two - plus one busy road.

Here's one they made earlier:

Monday, March 22, 2010


"Thoughts come clearly while one walks," wrote Thomas Mann. Travelling around Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin thought that "if you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god". Pablo Neruda strolled along "serenely, with my eyes, my shoes, my rage, forgetting everything". Emerson said you could measure a person's health by the number of shoes they had worn out. "Our nature," wrote Pascal, "is movement. All man's unhappiness stems from his inability to sit quietly in a single room." Often the best form of medicine is to simply put one foot in front of another.

I was feeling cooped up in Odessa. The weather was bad, there was nothing to climb but the steps to my door, and life was no more or less interesting than a beer after work and football once a week. And so I walked. From the Opera House to the Potemkin Stairs, south through Taras Shevchenko Park and down to Otrada Beach. When two routes presented themselves, I always took the longer: past a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral and a two-sided football stadium. The only time I checked a map was when I thought I was lost.

There were monuments to old poets, dead sailors and teenage military conscripts, empty beer bottles and cigarette ends littering the ground, stray dogs and kosher food kiosks, a homeless woman singing hymns outside a church. People smiled and frowned, strolled hand-in-hand, took photos, climbed onto plinths, sat on cold, white sand with bottles of vodka, nodded off on park benches, or found broken-down walls with a view of the port.

But mostly we all just walked.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Moldova: Signs of Change

Welcome to Chişinău! Fancy a pie?

Study English! Emigrate to Canada!

Subtle anti-smoking message from woman in thumb ring (or that's the last time she leaves a cigarette in her back pocket).

Our Language! Our Soil! (Wonder why there's no Russian translation on this one?)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring is in the Air (I Continue My Fascination With Weather Related Blog Posts)

A line of washing hung from a garage door, tied at the other end to the leaf-clogged, mud-filled water feature in the middle of the courtyard. Out in the street, a row of five stray dogs were curled up with their eyes closed on a bare flowerbed. A flat-capped crowd were playing backgammon on tables by the cathedral, a hatless woman was trying to flog souvenirs from a stall in the shape of a ship, and the man who hands out boat-trip flyers had draped his coat across a bench on the edge of City Park.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Encounter in a Subway

"Thanks to God," said the face from the top of the steps. "You don't look like Ukrainian. Can you speak English? Wait one moment." I continued walking, recognising the set up, but he caught up anyway. "I'm a Christian, not scammer. I know a man in Southampton. You know it? His mother was very sick with cancer but, thanks God, she's ok now. I'm very happy to meet you. Nobody in Odessa is friendly. I'm guide but there are no tourists in this season and I need money for a bus to my city."

I made excuses, he persisted for a while, then shook my hand before walking away. I felt slightly guilty until I got to school. "Knitted hat? Friend in Southampton?" asked my neighbour in the staff room. "He spun me the same story twice the same week." "Not that bloke again?" said a voice from behind.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Between Seasons

It's that neither here nor there time of year when it's no longer fully winter but not yet quite spring. Last night brought a sudden flurry of snow, this morning was bright, cool and sunny, and it was almost warm as I walked into school. There were workmen in a crane snipping stray branches from a tree, sailors on park benches wearing buttoned-up pea coats and peaked hats, When a Man Loves a Woman was coming to an end at the deserted outdoor ice rink, and a woman in sunglasses sipped hot coffee on the street, a fur-lined hood pulled tight around her head.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Over the Border

There was a wrecked car beside the road out of Chişinău, mounted on a plinth along with a printed warning against driving too fast. I wasn't particularly worried: the bus driver stuck to the centre of the road wherever possible, and when he couldn't he picked his way around the ruts and pot-holes like a man with new shoes attempting to navigate a pavement full of puddles. The land was flat and unenclosed with white corrugated fields and black matchstick trees. There were stone houses with vines and small gardens, herds of goats by fast-running streams, wood piles and statues of Jesus on the cross, satellite dishes over doorways and communal wells by the side of the road.

We picked up and dropped off on the edge of each village. The man next to me was built like the stump of a tree, flat-nosed in jeans and a short leather jacket, carrying a bunch of flowers hastily wrapped in a Russian-language newspaper. A young couple were kissing on the seat in front, the Soviet version of Those Were The Days played over the radio.

Chişinău: Evening

At first glance the car parked in front of the National Hotel looked a lot like a taxi. Despite the cold, the near side door was open and the driver had one foot out on the pavement. A cigarette dangled from the side of a mouth in the passenger seat. They let us walk past then raised themselves slowly. "Passport," one said in Russian.

"Where are your girls?" he asked. "What have you been drinking? Why aren't you drunk?" He'd finished with our documents but kept hold of them all the same. "How about we go for a drink together?" he asked. "But you're driving." "We're not tomorrow." We laughed, looked at each other, and didn't know what to say. "We're busy then," someone said at last. "Meeting friends." He stared at us for a few seconds, exchanged a look with his partner, then handed the passports back with only half a smile.

Why Come To Slaka?

In and out of the Hotel Cosmos, it didn't take us long to see the sights of Moldova's capital: statues and casinos, an Orthodox cathedral, rubble and squash courts where the Republic Stadium had once been, and an Arch of Triumph built to celebrate a Tsar's victory over the Ottomans. A TV station was blasting dance music from the road in front of the Communist Party HQ, but all the lights were off in the fire-damaged Parliament, which looked a bit like "a really shitty Soviet hotel." There were billboards everywhere, but most carried slogans instead of adverts: Moldova: My Homeland, EU Yes, No to Drugs, a huge picture of a woman breaking a cigarette in two, and an even larger one of a peasant holding a blanket welcoming visitors to the city.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Things Change

"It's common for all Slavic people," a student in my all-female class began. "We all like talking about other people's private lives." "It's true," another agreed, "but in England nobody does this. It's the same like in Japan."

I was half-tempted to stay quiet, as I was when a Canadian launched into a eulogy to the British postal system, or when a Japanese football fan said he loved watching England because the players never cheat. "I think," I started to say, "you should read a British newspaper sometime. Things are a little different now."

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


After the briefest of lulls, winter is back in Odessa. We had snow again on Saturday, more forecast for the end of the week and the temperature only creeps above zero when the wind isn't blowing. "Maybe it will get warmer in the end of the month," one student said. "Maybe April," another disagreed. "Wait until summer," came a voice from the corner, "but then it's too hot."

Monday, March 08, 2010

On The Way To Chişinău

I woke up at four on the morning I went to Moldova. Snow had started falling overnight and the streets were already slippery with slush by the time we reached the bus station on the edge of Pryvoz Market.

The sticker on the window read Quality and Comfort, but there was precious little of either once we got onboard. The seats were low-slung, saggy and permanently half-reclined, and the air so cold that no-one took their hats off. The driver had a black leather cap pulled down low over sunglasses. "When I was travelling in India," began an American voice from the front of the bus.

The roads were straight, flat, pot-holed and snow-covered. It took twice as long as normal to get as far as the border, where we waited half an hour on the Ukrainian side, motored forward a few hundred metres, and then sat for half an hour again before getting into Moldova. The border guards were all in one jeep, dressed in combat fatigues and fur hats. They watched half the bus rush to a concrete toilet block by the side of the road where you paid 18p to piss down a skittle-shaped hole in the floor, holding your breath all the while.

We made it to Chişinău just before three. A pack of stray dogs was roaming the bus station and there were brown puddles as big as garden ponds. "Which way into town?" someone asked, stepping around a muddy pile of snow. "Taxi?"

Friday, March 05, 2010

After Work

Monday to Friday my last class finishes just before nine. My house is a few minutes' walk from school, I live in the same direction as two other teachers, and there's a bar on the way where a pint of beer costs eighty pence. Usually I get home around midnight - and the waitress no longer asks what we're having to drink.

You Know You've Been Teaching English Too Long When...

You actually teach someone the (alleged) idiom, "It's raining cats and dogs."
You start making the same errors as your students.
When you use the letters BC (which you do far too often, by the way), you're not even referring to a period of time.
You appear on promotional materials for your shitty, low-paying school with a grin that looks like you've just received a Botox injection from the dustbag of a Dyson.
You don't fear people observing your lessons; they fear you.

Students in ex-Communist states laugh pityingly at your salary.
You save money by walking metro stops, shopping in food stores right before they close and sleeping overnight in parks.
You've found a way of getting two meals for the price of one by buying jam tarts, only eating the pastry and scraping what's left onto a slice of bread later as a treat.

You've actually had a 'proper job' and then gone back to TEFL.
Your friends no longer ask when you're "going to settle down and stop running away" but only because you've lost all their contact details.
You become embroiled in a staff room argument about the existence of a future tense in English. "I'll smack you one in a minute." "Yes, but you're still threatening me from a present aspect."

You love the sound of your own voice and often find yourself talking to people without actually caring whether they're a) responding, b) listening or c) interested in what you have to say.
You write up the above in multiple-choice format and use it as a listening comprehension test for your next conversation.

You turn into your least favourite teacher from school.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Online At Last

The workmen arrived at two on the dot, then sat around the room for ten minutes while we waited for someone to come and translate. One went up on the roof while the other did all the work downstairs. Twenty minutes - and three weeks - later I was finally online at home.


I was meant to be going to the football on Sunday afternoon but I didn’t get home until five in the morning and it was already half-time before I finally managed to drag myself out of bed.

The day wasn’t a complete write off, though. A whole nine of us were present for the new Sunday tradition of a semi-competitive, ninety-minute kickabout on a covered five-a-side pitch behind the railway station. I got a stitch after five minutes, scored my one and only goal an hour and a quarter later and spent most of the rest of the time trying to look vaguely interested in receiving a pass (while hoping to be left alone in defence).

I undid whatever little good I'd done in the evening, with two pints of Stella and a burger and chips.