Wednesday, June 30, 2010


My mate Frank was booked on the midnight train to Crimea but he stayed back in the pub to watch Portugal play Spain. "Should be a cracker," he said as the waitress stood on a chair and searched through the channels. His optimism didn't last long. "First goal wins this," he said out loud just before Villa scored and, like the Portuguese, he picked up his bags and left. Another for the could have beens, then, as Ronaldo joined the list of players - Rooney, Ribery - who departed the tournament with a whimper on the pitch and a long list of grievances off it.

"Don't worry," I'd told Frank's girlfriend before kick-off, "it's only once every four years." There are times this month when I've felt like saying the same to myself.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Morning After

If Munich 2001 promised much for England's golden generation then Bloemfontein brought it to a final, juddering halt. "The (disallowed) goal could've changed the game," said John Terry, "I can't explain why we didn't start as well as we would've liked". His defensive partner thought "the ball took a bizarre sail in the air" before Miroslav Klose outmuscled him to score the first goal. From where I was sitting it looked more like a simple case of bad defending. There was a lot of that about.

At the final whistle, the Germans in the room were ecstatic, the Ukrainians slightly confused ("Aren't England always strong?") and the English magnanimous in defeat. "The better team won," we said, "but Argentina will be a much more difficult game." German TV focused on Rooney's reactions to each of the goals. He threw his hands in the air, pointed to where the defenders should have been and gave the impression of a man who knew he had lost from the start. Gerrard, Terry and Lampard stood motionless, hands on their hips, going gentle into that good night. South Africa was no country for old men. England need to rip things up and start again - but with who?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Clutching at Straws

"They pass the ball a lot better than us," someone said, watching Müller lay it back for Ozil, Ozil ping it crossfield to Lahm. "Yeah, but they're very young, aren't they?" another voice piped up. "And they might be tired," someone else agreed. "Plus their forwards aren't great and our strength is in defence." "And Lampard's due a big game, isn't he?" There was silence for a few seconds. "Shame we didn't win the group, though." "Yeah, we're probably out."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Lights Come On

I got home last night to find an old man up a stepladder. His head was inside the fuse box, a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, and he was poking live wires around with the tips of his fingers. "It's all burnt out," translated the woman the school had sent to oversee the work, "but he thinks he can get the power on in one room." "Which one?" I asked. "He doesn't know yet. It's unpredictable. In Ukraine everything is unpredictable."

Two hours later the lights flickered into life, the fridge started humming, and a clock face started flashing on the front of the microwave. "The only problem is the kitchen light," she explained. "If you want to turn it off, you'll have to use the trip switch outside."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


"So we spoke to your landlord about you moving out on the 20th of July," began my boss, "and he, erm, said in that case he wants you out by the end of this week so he can rent it out day-by-day over the summer." "Oh," was about all I could think to say in reply. "Anyway, as I'm going back away for the summer you can move into my flat. I have a Playstation, Sky and air conditioning, and it'll save me finding someone to look after the cats." "Oh," I repeated, wondering what the phrase looking after cats actually entailed me having to do.

I moved in on Sunday night and went straight to the pub. The next morning the electricity went off. No Playstation, no Sky, no air conditioning, no cooker, no hot water, no lights. Only me. And the cats.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Second Time Around

Two games in and, for England at least, South Africa 2010 already has the feel of a very bad sequel to Germany 2006. Unless there are some drastic changes on Wednesday (passing to players in white shirts for starters), Capello will have spent a whole year preparing a group of people for a test without making any improvement whatsoever to their final performance.

As a TEFL teacher, I know exactly how he feels.

Friday, June 18, 2010


The best thing about tonight's game was the thirty-minute power cut either side of half time. When we were eventually able to pay the bill and move to another bar, Shaun Wright-Phillips was on for Lennon (what's the point in bringing Joe Cole if you're never going to play him?) and England had sunk to the kind of panicky blundering last seen by Newcastle fans when Sam Allardyce was still manager. "Bring back Sven," shouted one voice. "Embarrassing" and "Shit" chorused two others. "You will go through," consoled an Algerian, "but I am surprised. I didn't know you were so bad."

Summer Heat

There are two Englishmen standing by a window in the middle of June. "Fantastic, isn't it?" says one, looking out at a stainless steel sky and lightly falling rain. "Yeah," agrees the other, "I hope it stays like this for the rest of the day."

After half a month of relentless, energy sapping heat - the kind that leaves you feeling there's only an electric fan and a wide-open window between you and mid-lesson spontaneous combustion - the most welcome sound of the week was Capello telling Rob Green, "You're dropped." the unmistakeable pitter patter of raindrops that I woke up to yesterday morning.

Today the sun's back out - and the temperature's a lovely twenty-three degrees.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New Season

With this World Cup shaping up as the dullest since...well, the last one probably (Germany, Diego Forlan and that Spanish self-destruct button aside), it's the perfect time for the Premier League to release next season's fixtures.

As last year proved, the single most important thing is to get off to a good start. With our luck, though, we'll probably end up with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal away before the end of August - and Sunderland at home in between.

UPDATE: I wasn't too far off. Old Trafford first up, followed by Villa at home. Two of our next three away games are against Everton and Manchester City, making Blackpool at home a must-win and Wolves away a must not lose. As for the trip to Wigan on New Year's Day...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Museum of Western and Eastern Art

Even if you've never been within a thousand miles of Odessa, chances are you've heard of the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. It hit the headlines in 2008 when thieves bypassed the alarm system by removing a window pane instead of smashing it with a brick and made off with Carvaggio's Taking of Christ. I'd been meaning to visit ever since I got here, so it was entirely predictable it would be closed on the day I actually got round to doing it.

"The Western Art does not work today," said the sign at the cash desk. Instead I was ushered into a side room where there was a temporary exhibition made up of the kind of stuff Beryl Cook might have knocked up in an afternoon if she'd been persuaded to make repeated sketches of Sophie Ellis-Baxter in the style of a bored Picasso. There was Sophie with a cat, Sophie with a bowl of fruit and Sophie at a party...with a cat.

As I was the only visitor and the guard was feeling particularly chatty, I smiled, nodded and I don't knowed my way through an introduction to the paintings, remembering to look appreciatively in all the right places.

Immediately afterwards I escaped to the beach.

Algeria 6 England 1

If we were England's best chance of a trophy, then God, and a decent goalkeeper, help us in the real thing. One-nil down after thirty seconds following a debatable call from the linesman, we got really worried three minutes later when some slack defending cost us a second. "How long does this game last again?" someone muttered as I fished the ball back out of the net.

And then something near miraculous happened. Despite having another four hundred shots on target, Algeria didn't score. We bundled one in, hit the post, hit the bar. Belief began to course through our veins. With the last kick of the half midfield dynamo Leo intercepted a punt to the edge of our area with an unstoppable drive...into the corner of his own net.

In the second half we had the age old English problem of trying to play a pressing game in thirty degree heat - and the age old five-a-side problem of no-one being arsed to defend. The Algerians' superior skill began to count: one of their players had recently passed a trial with Chornomorets Odessa only to fail his medical while another was impossible to knock off the ball on account of his body being approximately 97% sweat. 4-1, 5-1, 6-1. We missed a penalty, hit the bar again. Then Some people the caretaker was on the pitch, rudely telling us our time was up.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

You know the World Cup's started when...

The electricity goes off between lessons and the only complaint you hear is, "We won't be able to find out what the South Africa score was."

There are ten people in front of you in the supermarket queue - and every one of them is buying beer and crisps.

You listen to World in Motion at least six times every day. Love's got the world in motion and I know what we can do. And after repeatedly scoffing at the idea that England could ever possibly win it, you suddenly catch yourself thinking...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kiev Tales: Sunday on Kreschatyk

From Independence Square at one end down to the junction with Shevchenka at the other, the only traffic was either on foot, rollerskates or mini-bicycles. There were people dressed up as pandas and a man in the middle of the road flying a kite between the sixth and seventh lanes. At the bottom of the street Ghana were beating Algeria in a five-a-side football tournament while Slovakia waited to play the winners. People were using bus shelters as shade against the sun or taking their shoes off and walking through the fountain. There was a folk singer on one side of the street and a pop concert on the other, with a group looking suspiciously like Britain's 2007 Eurovision entry on the very same spot where, six years ago, the Orange Revolution made headlines all around the world.

When the weather outside is...

Today's temperature in Odessa is thirty degrees, yesterday's temperature was thirty degrees, tomorrow's temperature will be thirty degrees, the day after tomorrow it'll...well, I'm sure you get the idea. Hot and sunny, hot and sunny, hot and sunny. It could almost be LA - but with better looking women and a lot more pavement.

Daily Mail Reader

In badly punctuated World Cup rant. Bongo Bongoland versus the Former Soviet Republic of Bulimia? What planet is he on? Or what century...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Balcony Gardening

After a slight mishap involving a weekend away from home, a shortage of water and an overheated balcony, my courgettes are once again showing tentative signs of life. The basil, which by contrast needs a lot of direct sunlight and not much in the way of care beyond the odd splash of water, is coming on a treat, with leaves appearing on both sides and the plants beginning to sprout above the level of the container.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

World Cup Fever

Three more days to go. We drew the office sweepstake at the end of last week, though the Ukrainians just looked baffled when we tried to explain the rules ("Isn't it gambling?" "Yes, but without any skill.") and not even the revelation that England were still up for grabs could persuade any of them to part with their cash. In the end everyone got a third pick for free, with a 'Tournament Abandoned' thrown in to make up the numbers. As someone put it, "There's more chance of that happening than North Korea even getting through the group stage."

Before that half the staffroom spent three hours in front of a computer waiting for Capello to announce his squad and a similar amount of time trying to work out the best place to watch the games. There's an office Fantasy League and even a real-life five-a-side game between England (or a bunch of people who teach English, anyway) and a group of Algerian ex-pats to coincide with the second group match, played according to Futsal rules with a referee and a trophy presentation at the end.

It's probably England's best chance of winning anything.

UPDATE: Keep in touch with all the games here.

Kiev Tales: Death of a Party

The police turned up just after two, a pair of young men in frying-pan hats who stood either side of the doorway as we filed past in groups. "Where's your passport?" they asked, picking me out as a foreigner. I handed over the photocopy I always carry around and they mimed searching pages and looking for stamps. The music stopped, the kitchen emptied, "It's Yanukovych's police state," came a drunken shout from behind. "That's all I have with me," I said with a shrug. He looked over my shoulder to the Christmas lights still flashing on the wall. "You go," he said. "Who lives in this flat?"

Monday, June 07, 2010

Pictures of Kiev

Sleeping dogs, St Andrew's Descent.

Mariyinsky Palace. Presidential residence, building site.

Beauty and the Beast, Rodyna Mat.

Kiev Tales: Hydro Park

An hour off the train and we're sitting on an island in the centre of the Dnipro River, alone on a litter-strewn patch of sand. There are reeds and rowing boats, construction cranes and football stadium floodlights. A middle-aged man sunbathes in the Russian-style, standing up in skimpy trunks. Music from a party boat pumps through the trees, and the golden domes of the Lavra sparkle in the sun. I lie on my back, shoes off, surrounded by plastic beer bottles and cardboard boxes, wet cellophane bags and discarded cigarette ends.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Every New Beginning is Another New Beginning's End

June in Odessa means musical fountains and nightly thunderstorms, Poplar down floating like snowflakes and the smell of cat piss in the doorways where strays shelter from the heat. For me personally, it also means I'm into my last full month of living in Ukraine. From the end of September I'll be studying full-time for an MA in TESOL and Linguistics at a Big North-Eastern University, living back at home and hopefully doing just enough paid teaching to keep me in books and beer.

And after that?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Service Stories: Supermarket Etiquette

After three and a half months of trying, the labyrinthine rules of etiquette at my local supermarket remain way beyond my simple understanding.

In the absence of a conveyor belt at the checkout, the cashiers stand in a row behind waist-high counters, with the till displays hidden beyond walls of chocolate bars, breath mints, condoms and chewing gum. You put your basket in an angled slot which takes up half of the space between you and the cashier. Sometimes she tells you to leave your things in the basket, sometimes she tells you to take everything out, and sometimes she doesn't bother to tell you anything at all and just points or tuts instead. Whichever option you choose will invariably be the exact opposite of what she wants you to do.

"Do you want a bag?" is always the first question they'll ask. "Do you have a discount card?" the second. The third always used to be, "Don't you have the right change?" but they've stopped asking that one recently - perhaps because they've sussed I'm a foreigner and probably won't understand. Whatever else you do, don't forget to pick up your basket and receipt. You'll be shouted at if you forget the first and stopped at the exit by a guy in a bouncer's uniform if you don't have the second. Unless you're very lucky, any attempt at social niceties will be met with icy silence. Bringing your own bag merits a look of contempt.