I woke one morning to discover one ear lower on the side of my head than the other. “Damn!” I thought’ “Now I can’t be a Doctor because no one makes stethoscopes with uneven sides. A few minutes later Flypaper confessed that she had sat on my glasses and I should tweak the ear bits to revert to normality. I mention this because many men my age in Ukraine simply don’t wake up. The average age of expiry for men in Ukraine is 61. Women live until on average until 71. OK, that’s usually the way it is (the women get to play with the life insurance funds) – but the saddest thing about these statistics is that woman are eligible for the pension at age 56 – Men must wait until 63. That’s 2 years after the majority of them are dead. I think that says a lot about how this country is run. The reason men die so young is pretty obvious and well known. What can a man do when his children are all grown up and off his hands? They all seem to choose to build a still and indulge in some really serious Vodka consumption. Quantity takes precedence over quality so they don’t bother to separate the poisonous ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ during the distillation process. Simply doing this would probably have them standing in the pension queue. Perhaps they would have to hold hands with their wife. Maybe the still isn’t silly afterall.
It could also be one of the reasons the roading is in such poor condition. There aren’t enough old guys to fix them. The young ones don’t seem to do very much at all. I will say this for the Ukrainian Ministry of Works / Roading Division. They certainly know have to lay a patch. They can patch a patch on a patch with another patch – in four different materials. All will leave an edge that makes ones travel feel like a journey in a concrete mixer. If you are ever approached by a Ukrainian to build a road, don’t hesitate, for the sake of the motoring public beat him with a big stick until he promises to stop being ambitious and get straight onto the Vodka.
On a wall in our home we own a magnificent painting depicting the dejected retreat of the British and French Forces from their defeat in the Crimean War. It’s an incredibly poignant picture in which one discovers new misery each time it is viewed. My mothers name was Florence. She was nurse, just like Florence Nightingale who made quite an impression here. For these and a few other reasons I always fancied a visit to the area. The Crimea is the southernmost region of Ukraine. It is a diamond shaped peninsular that juts out into the Black Sea. (It also looks like a demented chicken about to attack Russia). It’s ever so close to being an island – a good woman with a shovel could make it an island pretty smartly – and I wonder they haven’t done so because they see themselves as quite separate from Ukraine.
The vast majority of the Crimea is a huge flat plain (Steppe landscape) – likely to have been formed by flood sedimentation from the huge Russian rivers – the Don & Dnieper. The southern edge of Crimea is a narrow rugged range of mountains. Our journey took us across the plain to the extreme eastern city of Kerch – because this was where we were supposed to enter this country from Russia. The transit took us back to our planned route. Kerch is quite pretty, that is to say boring. There is nothing to report until about 100km West when we arrived at ‘the beach’. This is a 5km stretch of course sand giving obvious delights to thousands of local holiday makers. Every known floatation devise that can be strapped to a child is available and in use here. I bravely entered the pleasant water without the aid of any floatation – and immediately wished I had something. The sand leads to soft seaweed which effectively conceals boulders cunningly strewn about ready to trip the virgin bather. Flypaper laughed to see such fun; as I think the old poem says.
It was here we reached agreement (noted herewith in writing) that the prevailing fashion in Crimea this summer is Dayglo colours. Vivid fluorescent garments of every shape and size sashayed along the gravel or lay in globular heaps under home made sun shades. I said to Flypaper, “I don’t think fluro would suit you”. Seven simple words creating an innocent hypothesis. She said, “The first three words are a fact – the rest are rubbish”. Fortunately we were heading into the rugged mountains. Every slope and valley was planted in grape vines. A much safer subject and one that resulted in our stopping at a small shed which I deduced may contain wholesale wine. It was even better. We had stumbled upon an indigenous wine tasting where the locals tested and pronounced judgments on the brews grown all around and converted around the corner into a fortified wine. (Think Madeira ) We could see by the fact that numbers in Ukraine are the same as in English, the offerings were incredibly cheap. The first one tasted was delicious – we’ll have one of those. The second was better – we’ll have one of those. The third was superb – whoa. The delighted maiden had started plunking 2 litre plastic jars on the counter. We still had 200kilometers of wine country to traverse that day. That 4 liters cost us almost $5 !!! Later for lunch we added $2 worth of fresh baked pastry filled with meat and cheese and had a picnic. I still don’t think either of us should buy fluro stuff.
In Yalta we teamed up with a local guide who normally takes people mountain climbing and trekking to inhospitable places that require tents and a change of socks. He staunchly showed up because the summer this year hasn’t been very busy and he needed the money. Turns out he was delightful – and we could tell he liked us too because he used his knowledge and charms to get our car close to every attraction and his official guiding ticket to jump every queue so the we didn’t have to wait. What a man. He was knowledgeable and articulate in excellent English. Yalta is a brash sort of town and not my cup o’ tea but there is one place I wanted to see. This is the location of the Yalta Conference. It was here, in February 1945, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin agreed to require Germany’s unconditional surrender and carved up German controlled Europe between them after WWII. The show was held at the magnificent summer palace of Tsar Nicholas II. Winston stayed here during the conference. Stalin & Roosevelt stayed at similarly grand palaces nearby. Interestingly, the Churchill’s were distantly related to the guy who built the place. Evidently some information existed in the family folk law which made Winnie specifically request the palace for his nocturnal activities. During the nights, people nearby could hear what sounded like demolition taking place in doors. This was a bit disconcerting but given the deal whereby the palace became a British Embassy for 8 days, nothing could be done about it. After the conference ended, large holes were found throughout the palace which exposed secret cavities. It is thought the Tsar used to hide gold and jewels in these cavities. Who knows what Winnie found? However, his wife Clementine was never again seen sniffing around Hatton Garden.
Just down the road is another city that has had its share of disharmony – Sevastopol. People have been fighting over this place for thousands of years. Honestly, if it were mine I would have done a deal to swap it for a Chateau in Tuscany. Our guide proved there are however some interesting things to glean from this area. To you, a Balaclava probably means an old sock with holes cut out so when you’re robbing banks you can check the cashier is stuffing the loot into your bag not her own. Actually, this fine piece of burglars’ kit was invented near Sevastopol at, of all places, Balaclava. During the 1854 war Florence Nightingale was operating on a guy who had lost his leg. She could tell he was a bit chilly and, given he had a spare sock, she put it over his head. Later she poked some eye holes in it so he could find his crutches. (This does sound feasible.)
To me, Balaclava means the secret Russian Submarine base that was built to withstand a nuclear attack by the US during the Cold War. The tour through this amazing underground facility is like being on a James Bond set. It was worth the hassles of the journey to see the place from which Russia believed it could recover from the USA’s best shot and emerge to conquer the world. Current history tells otherwise – but I suspect the reason the Russian ‘orthorities ruined my plans to check out their other Black Sea bases - they may be preparing for another offensive. Don’t worry too much yet. Recently Putin was seen on TV extolling the virtues of the new Lada. Unfortunately it wouldn’t start for him.
This is spooky. During the Battle of Balaclava the British forces were under the command of Lord Raglin. He was wounded in his shoulder. When he put on his tunic the shoulder seam was a bit aggravating. He called his tailor and ordered him to make the ‘Raglan’ Sleeve – which survives him to this day.
One of Raglan’s mates at Balaclava was the 7th Earl of Cardigan. His troops were wearing a garment named after him as they charged into the valley of death. This was the famous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade made immortal by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Thanks to my 3rd form English teacher I was able to stand on the hill overlooking that valley of death and say … Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them. Volleyed and thundered, stormed at with shot & shell. Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell – rode the six hundred. It made me feel quite scholarly. Flypaper simply said, I think I’ll buy a Dayglo Cardigan with Raglin sleeves.
One evening we were fortunate to sit at a table and accidently overhear a discussion between three men and their Ukrainian agent. The boys were here to find a wife. Two looked like they may have had a few wives previously but the youngest, perhaps in his mid 20’s was understandably nervous. To my great delight he wanted details of the program and protocol. He was already conscious that it had cost him many hundreds of US$’s in ‘correspondence’ fees, some thousands in registration and travel … and here he was – on the cusp of a moment he’s probably fantasized about for some time. The agent assured him the selection of girls that they would sightsee with the next day were all lovely and had ‘some’ English language skills. One of the older guys ventured the opinion that he would be surprised if those skills were more than, “Are you hungry? Would you like to dance? Where is the WC? At the end of a scintillating days sightseeing each guy would choose the girl he wished to take to the ‘Disco’ that evening. The youngest asked if he could meet the girl’s family. The agent scurried off to the toilet. The more experienced client suggested that may not be a good idea during this trip. What? How many visits does it take? The lad was hot to go … now. The other guy who until now said little, stated firmly that this protocol was a waste of time and money. He certainly didn’t wish to meet any fathers and whats more, why waste time at a disco? For a moment I feared for the chastity of the waitress.
The food and beverages we have been served in the Crimea have been excellent. Perhaps the presentation may require honing to a sharper point. Each focal feature of every meal, usually meat including veal, pork, mutton, beef, chicken, goose, etc, has been carefully sliced and stuffed with an astonishing combination of tasty gastronomical enhancements. They are then carefully rolled up and all presented nicely browned, looking exactly like those items people can be seen carefully scooping into plastic bags in the park. Sometimes the menu is accompanied by live entertainment. We choose establishments that have a sound in the lower decibel ranges and words that bring back memories of earlier times. Often I am so moved by the quality of the artists that I suggest to the holder of the purse that she part with a sum equal to a car wash to show our appreciation. Usually the entertainer(s) are moved to tears of joy that someone actually noticed their existence.
Only one meal is outstanding in its deviation from the standard. A breakfast. It was still delicious – but quite a surprise. Unusually, we were asked to choose from a written selection the night before so that the kitchen could present its best efforts on our arrival. The selection was wide and varied although some offerings were outside our range of previous experience. We decided to tick – Irish breakfast. We did discuss this at length and decided it would be a variation of an English breakfast. Perhaps served with Guinness. On arrival we were greeted as very discerning guests and given the juice of our choice followed in seconds by a small square of cold toast and 3 wedges of cheese. As soon as it was noticed we had disposed of these, the main course arrived - in a parfait glass. It looked, smelled and tasted exactly like a desert we had declined the previous evening. A mint ‘flummery’ with mixed nuts topped by strawberries and cream. Delicious and very filling. The saddest part was not being able to hang about to see the party that received an Irish Breakfast – or is this recipe well known as a hairy dog in Ireland.
Odessa is a big city with little to offer visitors. We hired a guide as usual and suffered a day in the care of a ‘mature’ lady of aristocratic fantasies who I suspect had married for love – then realized the silliness of that and moved on in the hope that at least a Count of substantial means would fall for her charms – which, sadly, are past their best. She misses the communist times during which she was better off than today. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the local party tea maker … in which case, it’s just as well we left town early next morning. During lunch I suggested that looking north to Russia for a better future was a poor option when the opportunities for Ukraine in a western environment were much more exciting. It was fortunate for both parties that the temperature was over 40 degrees centigrade and neither could engage in a really passionate argument. That temperate wasn’t helped back at the hotel as the whole city suffered a power failure. I consider I saved flypapers life by spending the early evening with her parked up in a leafy street with HeeHaws air-conditioning working at full power.
One Odessa attraction that has caught my attention is “Mother-in-laws Bridge”. I kid you not – that’s the name. It’s a useless bridge going nowhere and serving little purpose. Rumour has it built on the order of a Communist Official to make it easier for his wife’s mother to return home in the evening thus leaving him in peace. Sounds feasible. Another kinder version records that the official, Mikhail Sinitsa loved his mother-in-laws pancakes so much that he created a shortcut to enjoyment thereof. Highly unlikely. The final version is the bridge is long and narrow. It starts rocking when exposed to a strong wind – just like mother-in-laws tongue. You choose. The bridge is festooned with engraved and painted padlocks. These are fastened to signify everlasting relationships. I couldn’t help noticing some people working on their locks with bolt cutters, hammers and an irate demeanor.