Friday, April 30, 2010

The Final Debate

I went to the pub last night, but two sentences of Charlie Brooker filled me in on the final leaders' debate:

According to some polls, Cameron won, or at the very least tied with Clegg. Which is odd, because to my biased eyes, he looked hilariously worried whenever the others were talking. He often wore a face like the Fat Controller trying to wee through a Hula Hoop without splashing the sides.

"It'll take an earthquake to stop Cameron now," says Jonathan Freedland in this morning's Guardian. It makes you think, doesn't it? If we all jumped really high at exactly the same time...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Modern World

"Hang on a sec," I told my brother, "I'll need to write down a few words of Russian for you before you go out." "It's alreet," he said, "I've got an app for it on me phone."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"Typically, English cuisine is poor," a student informed me. "I completely disagree that Ukrainian food is unhealthy," chipped in a second. "Yes, Ukrainian drivers drive too quickly and ignore pe-des-tri-an crossings," said another. "Why is that?" I asked. "Because in Ukraine you can pay money and get your licence." "How much money?" "Two hundred dollars," the whole class said as one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Battle of the Eggs

Wondering how to liven the third and final debate up? Here's how:

The speaker of Ukraine's parliament huddled under umbrellas as eggs rained down and smoke bombs filled the chamber with an acrid cloud. Then the lawmakers attacked each other, punching and brawling in the aisles.

Last man standing gets my vote.

Service Stories: The Supermarket

The till showed fifty-six hryvnias and nine kopecks, so I handed over a fifty and a twenty note. "Don't you have one hryvnia?" the woman behind the counter asked, though her facial expression made it feel more like an accusation than a request. "Niet," I said, shrugging apologetically. "Not even one?" she tutted, reaching into the till to pull out three notes: a ten, a two and a one. "Don't leave your basket on the floor," she barked, pointing me towards the exit as the next person elbowed in.

Ukraine is many things, but one thing it isn't is Japan.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Crossing The Rubicon

Today was decision time. "I need to know if you want me to book you a single ticket or return for July," said the boss. I'd had my answer prepared for a while. "Just a single. I'm doing my Master's in Linguistics next year."

If they'll have me, that is.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

At The Train Station

"Dobry vyecher. Mozhne adin?" I asked the woman at the counter, handing over my piece of paper. She glanced at me without smiling, looked at what I'd written down, typed some numbers into her computer, then tapped a pen three times against the screen. "Da," I said, by now almost exhausting my supply of Russian (all I had left was no, goodbye and Can I have a beer, please?, none of which seemed particularly helpful). She turned around, scrawled the price across the bottom of my paper, and pushed it back without a word. "Spaseeba balshoi," I smiled. "Dasvidaniya." There wasn't a reply; she didn't even bother to look up.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Odessa Catacombs

If you're about to descend into two-and-a-half-thousand kilometres of largely unmapped subterranean tunnels, it's best not to do so in the company of a drunk. "Follow me," he'd said, through a mouthful of half-chewed Twix and the smell of rank vodka. "How much?" we asked, but he he'd already stumbled ahead and was pointing out some marks in the rock. It didn't take us long before we really started to worry. "This was where the women slept," he leered, miming putting on lipstick while he thrust his pelvis backwards and forwards in the gloom. "And this over here was carved by the Partisans. Where's your camera? Take a picture," he ordered as he staggered around in front of the words Blood for Blood! Death for Death! "Do you have one of me? Put it on the internet." He put his arms around both our shoulders. "Should we make a run for it?" asked Graham. "I'm not sure I know the way," I replied, thinking about the 2,499.9 kilometres we hadn't yet seen.

"You're American?" "No, English." "American journalists, yeah?" "No." "Listen, when you get back to America I know a way to make five million dollars." There was a noise behind and the real guide appeared, torch in hand. "Get out, Vitaly," he said. Vitaly wavered, looked as if he might give us a kiss, then raised his hand in farewell. "Don't forget the internet," he said as he stumbled back the way we'd come.

"He's mad," said Graham. "No, just pissed," smiled the guide. "He's the security guard."

One of the more distinguished visitors to the Catacombs. Bet he didn't get shown round by a pisshead.

One and a half thousand Partisans survived the Romanian Occupation of Odessa undetected in the catacombs. Among them were a hundred Slovak deserters.

I keep my promise to our new friend.

It's A Family Affair

Mykola Korovitsyn was a politician's driver for four years before he became one of Ukraine's deputy emergencies ministers. His only qualification was his mother, who happens to be deputy chief of the Presidential Administration. Volodymyr Bodelan, who now heads the Odessa emergencies ministry, is the son of the city's ex-mayor Ruslan Bodelan, who fled the country in 2005 charged with abuse of office, and later took up Russian citizenship. Ex-president Viktor Yushchenko's nephew is a high-ranking deputy in the Kharkiv Regional Administration. President Viktor Yanukovych's son has a parliamentary seat of his own, as does the Chief of the Presidential Administration's sister.

In Ukrainian politics it's not what you know, but who your parents do.

The Conways would love it here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Who Won?

"Clegg again," said the summariser on Radio 4, "the other two couldn't land a telling blow." "Brown," thought my parents, "Cameron and Clegg were just waffling most of the time." Cameron comes out on top, was the instant response of Sun readers, though you suspect they'd say the same if he was buried under a whale, the wreckage of a twenty-storey building and the entire continent of Africa. The Guardian, though, scored it much the same as last week - a narrow win for Clegg. (There was no Daily Mail equivalent, but only because they were still trying to work out why Clegg hadn't come on stage wearing a swastika armband, vowing to legalise paedophilia and give your pension to asylum seekers).

As was the case in the first debate, it was Brown who had all the best unintentional one-liners - "I was speaking to young people only yesterday" - but Clegg who provided the only genuinely funny put-down: "You can't deport 900,000 people - you don't know where they live," during the exchange on immigration (or "imnigrants" if you're the leader of the Labour Party).

Cameron was too busy wheeling out misleading statistics - "Sometimes (immigration's) been 200,000 a year. That's the equivalent of two million a decade." Except it hasn't, has it, you superficial moron? - and last week's gags about "border police on the M5" to crowbar his "1,100 business leaders" into every single possible part of the debate (if you love them so much, Dave, why don't you just let Mothercare and Next run the whole bloody country?). He did manage to make eighty-four-year old Grace Lane's day, though - by promising to sort out her state pension in 2016.

Bet she can't wait.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Proper League

So every cloud really does have a silver lining. Monday night at Home Park proved that if the Premier League has a monopoly on big money and global TV coverage, the Championship's still where you'll find most of the proper fans. You only need to compare Plymouth Argyle with the spoilt, self-pitying moaners at Anfield and The Emirates, or the snide, overly-gleeful reaction of Aston Villa supporters ("a nothing club who nobody cares about anyway, who can't even fill their ground when they're threatening to break into the top four," in the oh so accurate words of one internet poster) to our relegation last year. Best of luck to Plymouth. I hope you'll enjoy next season as much as we've enjoyed this.

I've said it before: I'll miss the Championship.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Rain It Rains

When the weather turns in Odessa, it really turns. From ice-bound streets to unbroken sunshine, from unbroken sunshine to forty-eight hours of non-stop torrential rain. Gutters turned to torrents, there are gravy-brown puddles everywhere, and the subway between my flat and work would be best put to use as the final part of an army assault course. This is bad for my shoes and exercise routine, but perfect for the next topic in the textbook: "Today we're going to be talking about the weather. What words go together with rain?"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


"Where were you when Newcastle won the league?" they'll ask in years to come. "In Odessa," I'll reply, "trying to get my internet to work."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Big Ideas

David Cameron bigged-up his Big Vision for a Big Society in big city Nantwich, where ex-big celebrity Gary Barlow helped him launch a big idea called School Stars.

"What exactly is this big idea?" I hear you all ask.

With School Stars we are going to see kids practising together in the corridors, forming bands, getting together in their lunch breaks, all of those things. I hope that by doing the brave things, and getting up on stage, more and more young people are going to be invested with self-belief, the belief that they can be someone, the belief that they can play a part and make a difference in our country.

Yes, this Big Society thing is big. Almost as big, in fact, as the laugh I had reading Armando Ianucci's piss take of it.

Summer Prices

"The prices have gone up," said Mike, looking at the menu in our local pub. "Must be almost summer again." The price of a beer had been raised from ten to twelve hryvna, and deep fried chicken sticks and chips (we're a healthy lot, English teachers) from thirty-seven to forty-two. "At least it's not too bad here. I'll have to go to Friends and Beer one last time before September, though."

"Yeah," agreed Ben. "Remember last year? Their burgers were suddenly half the size and the beer was crap." "Is it like that everywhere?" I asked. They thought for a second. "Pretty much."

Friday, April 16, 2010

"That's the end. A 1-1-1 draw."

Listening on the radio, it sounded like Gordon really wanted Nick to agree with him, but Nick didn't sound much like he did. All David wanted to talk about was a "jobs tax" and how a lot of rich blokes did agree, but only with him. But they all agreed that our soldiers were brave, our carers were amazing, our teachers should be free, and our politicians should cost a bit less.

"Cut the cost of politics!" "Fairness for all!" "Moving Britain Forward!" "People come together!" There were so many slogans I imagined the audience was a sea of sullen-faced, bamboo-hatted peasants standing anke-deep in a paddy field, not a retired toxicologist, some wannabe Andy McNab, Adrian Mole and a train driver from Accrington. Accrington? I knew we were in for a cheery night when the first two questions were about uncontrolled immigration and rampant crime.

The only clear winner was Gordon, who claimed a come-from-behind victory in the I've met more people than you have debate: "There are six million carers in Britain. I've met many of them." Cameron and Clegg had mainly met "young men" and their own children, though Call Me Dave cleverly pulled out the black-man-worried-about-immigration-and-he-can't-be-racist-because-he's-black card, tying it in with the military, who are not only brave but also need more helicopters. "Cut waste! More choppers!"

The highlights? Cameron trying to be a smartarse with Nick Clegg ("Will they have border posts on the M62?") and getting batted away, Cameron talking right over Brown's attempt at a joke ("This is not Question Time. It's answer time, David."), the Asda moment when Cameron promised to "Cut the cost of politics," (well, every little helps), and The Sun poll putting Cameron in the lead - they always did have a thing for massive tits, I suppose.

It was all good theatre, if you like that kind of thing, but it doesn't change much, does it?

Vote Green.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Centrally Controlled Heating

By government decree the heating in Odessa's apartment blocks was turned off last week. This is good during the daytime - far better than Riga, where April was a month of high bills, short sleeves and wide-open windows - but leaves me with freezing cold nights where I struggle to get any sleep.

My answer to counting sheep is the BBC World Service. It goes on at four in the morning, when everything else has failed. By the time the on-the-hour headlines come back round, I've usually drifted off.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Castle At Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi

It seems like everyone has been to the castle at Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. Built by the Byzantines but part of the Kievan Rus, it was controlled briefly by Genoans and Hungarians, attacked by the Turks and defended by Moldovans. In the late 15th-century, with Prince Stephen of Moldova busy fighting off the Poles, the Turks tricked its defenders into surrendering before slaughtering everyone inside. It remained in their hands for three hundred years.

From Russia the castle ping-ponged to Romania, which was given the city as part of the peace negotiations that ended WWI. Stalin recaptured it in 1940 but held out for less than a year before the Romanians came back. The Soviets swept through in 1944 and from then on it's been part of Ukraine.

Nowadays it's anyone's for 40p - and they even let you climb on the walls.

The Things People Say

"A gypsy family moved next door," she said, "so we're trying to be nice to them. Gypsies are very dangerous people." "Why?" I asked, not bothering to try and stifle my laugh. "No, this is true. They can make a hypnosis on you on the street. You look into their eyes and they can take your money. It's happened to many people."

"Anyone you know?" "No, but..."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Liberation Day

I noticed the flags on my morning run (so called because when I do go running I start before noon), but I didn't realise the significance of the date until midday, when church bells started ringing and all the ships in the port sounded their horns simultaneously. April 10th 1944: the day the Red Army liberated Odessa.

The city had fallen on October 16th 1941. Even with help from the Wermacht, the Romanians needed seventy-three days, four attempts and 93,000 casualties before they could take it. Less than a week later the massacres began. A bomb exploded in the Romanian HQ on October 22nd, killing 67 people. In response, over 25,000 of the 80,000 Jews who remained in Odessa were shot or burned alive. The rest were forced into a ruined suburb and left to freeze. Many survived the winter only to be sent to the camps.

The armed resistance retreated to the catacombs, a two-thousand kilometre network of tunnels which provided the limestone used to build the city, where they largely waited out the Romanians' attempts to find them. In 1944 the Red Army swept back through Ukraine - the liberation of Odessa was the third of Stalin's ten blows (from the lifting of the siege at Leningrad to the capture of the Baltics), which pushed the Nazis back all the way into Poland.

These are the things you never forget.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Planting Out

When you live in the bread basket of Europe it's only natural you should want to grow things. A couple of slightly overpriced containers from the market - where's Poundland when you need it? - some 20p seeds and a few weeks of sunshine and watering later, my thinned-out basil and (droopy) courgette are ready for the balcony.

Maybe I'll go crazy and add a bit of cress.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Seeing the Sights

Despite its fame, Odessa is a young city. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, two years after the end of the Russo-Turkish War, it was built on the remains of a small Muslim settlement. Before that there were the Scythians, a nomadic tribe of Ancient Iranians who once ruled most of what is now Ukraine, but would have passed out of history entirely if it hadn't been for Herodotus and the second paragraph of the Declaration of Arbroath. All that's left of them in Odessa is an ersatz, glass-covered burial chamber near the top of the Potemkin Steps - the only thing in the entire city that's always spotlessly clean.

When Mark Twain visited here in the 1860s he described it as "having no sights to see". Nonetheless, he spent an enjoyable few days wandering about and eating ice cream. Even allowing for local pride, my students wouldn't disagree. "What are the main tourist attractions in Odessa?" I asked. "The Opera House," they replied as one. "There's nothing else worth seeing."

Things people love taking pictures of here: themselves, themselves and children, themselves in swimsuits (on the local equivalent of Facebook everyone has an album called Pictures of Me), themselves and small bronze sculptures, themselves and the fibreglass cow in front of Steakhouse, themselves and the Karen Millen shop.

Monday, April 05, 2010

We Can All Smile Again Now

No, not even Newcastle United could cock up this kind of lead. As Neil Farrington put it, "For the Magpies to blow promotion now – with five emphatic straight defeats – would take capitulation on a scale beyond even a football club which specialises in epic disappointment". All we need is for Ashley to sell with promotion confirmed, £40 million or so to spend on the team, and we'd be able to pick up more or less where we left off: beating Sunderland, losing to the Big Four, the occasional run in Europe, and the old sneaky feeling that this just might be our year for one of the cups.

More realistically, we have a squad that does at least understand the meaning of the word team, as good a chance of survival as Birmingham or Wolves, and a club to support that doesn't run the risk of going belly-up in the next six months. These days, that's really something special.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Birthday Gifts

The students in my first class had clubbed together for a couple of cakes and a bottle of Malibu, which we drank during a listening on the Future Perfect. In the second I got two Happy Birthdays, a ceramic jug of vodka in the shape of a Cossack warrior (opening the bag, I thought it was some kind of Chinese panto villain piggy bank and my smile only turned genuine when I noticed the alcohol by volume) and several balloons tied up like flowers, which I haven't yet been brave enough to try and take home.

The alcohol theme continued through the day: a five-litre keg of Krombacher from one of my FCE classes, a glass jug of Ukrainian booze from the other. My intermediates tried something a little different, presenting me with a card that doesn't open - "Your homework is to translate the joke" - and a hard hat with a football pattern which allows you to stick two cans of beer over your ears and suck the contents through a bendy straw. "It's lethal, that," said my boss, "you can't stop drinking until it's all gone." One teacher got me a book, another a trowel for my windowsill veg patch, and a third a beer in the pub after work. We stayed until nearly two: the best thing about Odessa is that the day after my birthday is always a day off.


Odessa takes its Easter traditions seriously. At the football yesterday we washed down our beers with pretzels and paska, an Easter bread that had been specially baked by someone's girlfriend. Almost everyone last night seemed to be carrying a candle in a plastic bottle, except for a foreigner who was walking down the main street mumbling something about "short skirts". This morning I was woken earlier than necessary by the sound of church bells (note to bell ringers: I think I've got the message now, cheers), and the market was closed, which was bad news for anyone hoping to buy a last-minute pussywillow branch.

Some kind of Easter cake or something. Today.

It's even affected our regular afternoon kickaround. "I can't play on Sunday," said one of my students, "because it's sin. But I'll take some beer and be a watcher instead."

Saturday, April 03, 2010

April Fools

"Odessa celebrates April Fool's Day like no other place on earth," my guidebook said, but I couldn't find a single person at school who thought that "the outlandish street party" was anything other than a massive pain in the arse. People flock to the city from all over Ukraine, there's music at lunchtime, a parade of floats in the afternoon and a firework display at night, but mostly it's a chance to wear funny wigs, hit people with inflatable hammers and get as drunk as you possibly can. "Stay at home," my students told me. "The streets will be full of stupid people with too much beer." "I have to work near the centre and I can never get a bus home," moaned one. "I went there once and it was completely horrible," grumbled another. The school gave us the day off, which I thought was great until I realised we had to work Saturday morning instead. "My advice is to stay away from the centre unless you like talking to pissed-up village idiots," said the boss.

This year the police had banned alcohol. "It's nowhere near as busy as usual," said Ben, the only person who recommended going out. "Much quieter."

April Fool's Day in Odessa

It's half-past ten (or early morning for English-language teachers) and floats line up in front of my flat:

The street shows begin. Star guest: that bloke who sang Oh Chihuahua. He sings it. Twice.

The alcohol ban means a great time's had by (almost) all.

Some take advantage of the money making opportunites:

While others just hang around:

Or call home.

The parade finally kicks off with some cat people waving balloons.

And as always, the Hare Krishnas are close behind:

Friday, April 02, 2010

Online, Offline.

They don’t mess about when it comes to paying bills here. When I got back from the pub at two o’clock on Thursday morning, my internet connection had already been switched to Local Only. It stayed off until tonight. Birthday messages went unanswered, emails piled up, and I never did find out how bad Cesc Fabregas’s injury really was.

“I haven’t had any internet since Wednesday,” I told the office at school. “Is there a problem with it?” “Oh, the bill," one of the secretaries replied. "We’ll send someone to pay it today.”