Odessa: Hammerman Destroys Viruses

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That’s what they call me

After a week of ups and downs, the time has come for us to turn our backs on Odessa, and to head back north to Kiev, Ukraine’s industrious capital city. It would take the obliviousness of a legitimately insane person to suggest that Odessa isn’t by far the ‘nicer’ city of the two we’ve been to, in all its neo-classical glory. Compared to Dnipropetrovsk, it’s more lively, cleaner, prettier and a lot less weird. But I guess that same weirdness is what made Dnipro so stupid and so loveable at the same time. Even through visuals alone, one can tell that Odessa has stood as a vital cultural hub for the Ukraine (and the USSR before it) since its inception – it’s church after church and opera house after opera house. The city is literally the antithesis of Dnipro, which was factory after factory and concrete high-rise after concrete high-rise. And yet, while I’m sure you’re expecting me to finish this meandering paragraph by choosing one over the other, I’m not going to. I like them both equally and for very different reasons. Deal with it.

Although Dnipro is the Ukraine’s main purveyor of that ‘weirdness’ I mentioned earlier, Odessa can – occasionally – still hold a candle to Dnipro. As many of you more seasoned nomads will know, sometimes when you’re travelling, there are days when nothing of interest will happen. Then there are days where you’re kept pretty busy and captivated by whatever your current location has to offer. And then – every once in a while – you hit the jackpot. On Saturday night, Elliot and I found ourselves exploring the city (Jake had excused himself to hang out with some local friends), and as we approached the top of the famous Potemkin Steps, we noticed a vaguely-musical sound coming from below the edge of a 30-40ft drop from a park at the top of the steps.

As we got closer, we realised a gig was going on, so we sat on the wall and had a listen. However, as we discovered, this was no ordinary gig. In a pub garden down below, a large stage was set up, and, in front of an audience of around 20 people – many of whom appeared to be straddling the line between interpretive dance and interpretive seizure – a man was absolutely freaking out to the sound of a bizarrely-remixed version of David Bowie’s Changes. Yet, just as this was clearly no ordinary gig, nor was this an ordinary man. Save for a cardboard box on his head and a printout of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers covering his manhood, he was completely naked.

And as he switched from extremely camp prancing around, to suddenly dropping to the floor and doing push-ups, the crowd – and two members of the audience in particular – could barely contain their feverish delight, clapping and yelping uncontrollably in what was the icing on the most perfectly surreal cake I have ever seen baked. We sat and watched as the tunes kept coming, the crowd growing more and more animated. The following morning, after a ludicrously difficult few hours of sleuthing, I discovered what we had just witnessed – a two-man band called Хамерман знищує віруси (‘Hammerman Destroys Viruses’). Upon watching further videos, I am none the wiser as to who they are, why they are constantly either naked or in skimpy outfits, what they’re singing about, or why they occasionally perform with a clarinetist with a hat shaped like a giant penis. The mystery goes on.

Yesterday we decided to do as the locals do, and went to a Ukrainian league football match. The mighty Chernomorets Odessa would be taking on FC Oleksandriya. The teams were level on points in mid-table, and after getting suspiciously cheap tickets off a tout, we made our way into the surprisingly nice brand-new stadium, grabbed some beers, and watched some of the most desperately awful football we had ever borne witness to. Both teams were misplacing passes, misjudging crosses, and misfiring shots. Until one decisive moment in the second half; as the ball gently rolled across the six-yard box during one of very few attacks by either team, the Chernomorets left winger sprinted onto the loose ball and smacked it back into the centre, where it proceeded to hit an Oleksandriya defender on the ass, and rolled pitifully into the net for a beautiful own goal. All 2,000 fans in the 35,000-seater stadium went wild, including the small section of ‘ultras’, who took a break from banging their drums to have a 100-man shirtless bundle on the concrete terraces. The game finished 1-0 and everyone went home happy, save for the 50-or-so away fans who had been placed far, far away at the top corner of the stadium like a leper colony.

Of course, Odessa has not been without its resident heroes either. And by resident heroes, I mean one guy in particular who was neither resident nor hero, but instead an inadvertently belligerent older guy from Perth, Australia. There’s a bar in Odessa called Шкаф (pronounced ‘Shkaff’), and it basically became our go-to hangout whenever we needed a drink. Every time we went, something interesting would happen. It could be good, it could be bad, but we knew it would be interesting. However, on our final trip there, we flew a little too close to the sun and ended up talking to this guy from Perth, cos, y’know, he’s an English speaker. And from here on out, the night became a dense whirlwind of clingyness, ignorance, and saying the word faaackin’ ahead of every noun. As we climbed deeper into the evening, PerthMan slowly evolved from talking about why he was in Ukraine – a perfectly acceptable topic – to some of the most bizarrely contradictory nuggets of self-satisfied wisdom that ever floated into any of our ears.

After we and PerthMan had agreed not to join a bunch of bulky Ukrainian programmers to the strip club across the road, he then proceeded to drag us over to it, ‘just to have a faackin’ look, y’know?’. And by this, he meant literally bargaining with the very confused and bored bouncers to let him stand at the entrance and stare longingly into the club. Like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, Elliot ended up taking the bullet and ‘having a look’ with him. However, after PerthMan  had imparted such age-old wisdom as ‘what man doesn’t faackin’ love tits?’ and ‘a woman is a faackin’ woman, am I right?’, he then immediately changed his tune, and after berating me with a ‘where the faaaaaaack did you go mate?!’ once I had sneaked away from his sordid bullshit, stated ‘if these faackin’ Ukrainian c*nts wanna see some faackin’ naked ladies, they just need to open their faackin’ laptops and have a faackin’ wank, am I right?!’. His statement was met with aggressively British silence.

Luckily, Jake had stayed in Shkaff, meaning Elliot and I could forcefully state to PerthMan that ‘we’re going to get Jake from Shkaff now’, i.e. ‘please no more’. Yet instead of understanding any part of what that statement meant, he then had a go at us, telling Elliot ‘you have to faackin’ say goodbye to the Ukrainians. You can’t just faackin’ leave without telling them where you’re going’. So after alerting the Ukrainians to our imminent departure (even though they weren’t even aware we were still there), we walked back over to Shkaff, only for PerthMan to walk with us, telling us we all needed to go drink somewhere else, cos 30 hryvnias for a beer is way too expensive. For those not familiar with Ukrainian money, 30 hryvnias is 85p. Ukraine to us is cheap, hence we can afford 85p for a beer, and hence why we get taxis everywhere. However, once we told PerthMan this, he proceeded to berate us yet again, saying that we should get trams everywhere instead of taxis because getting taxis is ‘not supporting the faackin’ economy mate’, despite the fact that a taxi journey costs £3-4, while a tram journey costs 14p. As these words fell from his lips, we realised the nonsensical wisdom of our perilous pal would continue to hang over us like a fat fart no matter what we did, save for jumping in the nearest taxi and telling the driver to get us as far away from that man as possible. So that’s exactly what we did.

Gabe

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Dnipropetrovsk: Runaway Train

Last night, far beyond the lurching reaches of Dnipropetrovsk’s smokestacked suburbs, somewhere in the darkest wilds of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, we stood with our heads on our forearms, resting on top of the open window panels as we hurtled towards Odessa on a 14-hour sleeper train. With cans of demoralisingly warm Staropramen we had bought from the housekeeping lady at the end of the carriage, we skipped past abandoned factory after abandoned factory, through towns, districts and regions evidently not sufficiently prosperous so as to have ‘de-Stalinised’ themselves; this was another instance of that pure, unfiltered post-Soviet backcountry that travellers like Jake, Elliot and I have scoured this continent to compile memories of for the past decade.

Having booked a first class sleeper cabin, we naturally assumed that our train would be of similar technological adequacy (and age) as our previous train from Kiev to Dnipro. However, as we touched down on platform five, our oversize luggage in tow, we were greeted by a row of grey-blue cattle cars masquerading as a cross-country train service. Climbing up the stairs into the carriage corridor felt like watching From Russia With Love in virtual reality. As steam spurted from pipes in the walls, and the smell of crumbling skin cells launched itself from the Persian carpet with every step further into the darkness, we sidled along a mahogany-flanked train carriage that must have been at least 80 years old. At our cabin, fold-up leather bunk beds greeted us, along with a window that refused to open, and subsequently a heat so stifling that we immediately knew this was going to be a rough night.

Skip forward three hours and three beers and Jake and I found ourselves with our heads protruding from the windows in the corridor, maximising our lung capacity in futile anticipation of any fresh air that might manage to penetrate the burning coal embers and iron smelting fumes surrounding the train as it sat motionless in a freight yard. Overhead rang out the deafening sound of control box operators communicating with each other and their various cargo-filled subjects via loudspeaker, and we watched as coal truck after coal truck was slowly dragged or pushed into the obsidian blankness beyond the last lamplight of the depot. Under the assumption that our train would lurch back to life once all tracks were clear, Jake then nudged me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance down the tracks. Out of the black rolled a coal truck with no engine attached. As it rumbled into the light, I stupidly asked ‘how is that thing propelling itself?’, before realising that it wasn’t. It was obviously a mistake – a carriage that had come loose and rolled away, and just about the closest thing Jake and I would ever see to a runaway train. As we watched with bleary-eyed nonchalance like a cow stares at a passing car, it then slammed into a row of stationary freight containers, waking the entirety of our train up with a thunderous impact. As everyone jolted upright and a group of worried-looking track workers suddenly jogged into the light, Jake and I burst into hysterics, further angering the burly Russian co-occupants of our carriage. Before we could even finish laughing, our train suddenly sprang to life and wobbled off, inexplicably back in the direction we had just arrived from. I decided to question no further, and promptly went to sleep.

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Sunset from Monastyrsky Island

So now it’s Odessa’s turn to undergo my mild-mannered and irrelevant scrutiny. Dnipropetrovsk had been fun, but a sort of challenging fun. A city that is in no way built for tourism, it’s grey, industrial and rough around the edges. With only one major boulevard, the centre is compact and – apart from on Sundays – mostly lifeless. However, there is an untapped beauty within it. For instance, while the city is a hollowed out former Soviet industrial stronghold, it also has sights like Monastyrsky Island, hugging the western bank of the vast Dneiper River, complete with forested parks, white sand beaches and – if you’re a fan of industrial landscapes – one of the most stunning sunset spots one could ever hope to see, underscored by the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, and punctuated by concrete bridges and shipyard cranes far, far in the haze of the distance.

Dnipropetrovsk is a city that I could never recommend to anyone I know. Nothing about it is conventional. There isn’t much to do, there isn’t much to see, but something about it left me with a sort of unspectacular love. And that’s still love, I guess, so it feels like it has to be qualified by something, but it isn’t. The emptiness, remoteness and unfamiliarity of the city are its drawing points.

I am perfectly aware that this knowingly-backhanded endorsement generously affords the average person an adequate arena within which to pick off reasons to avoid Dnipro at all costs, but that’s not really the type of person I’m selling Dnipro to. I write this because I know that simply by being in a place like this, Jake, Elliot and I are in a miniscule minority, even though I’m aware it comes across as perhaps a little overtly abstract to constantly try to put into words the perspective of someone who frequently finds himself in far-flung places purely because they exist. As a result, it’s difficult to explain much further, beyond saying the kind of fondness one has for a city like Dnipropetrovsk can only really be felt by those who have a love of travel off the beaten track – those who go somewhere simply so they can expect nothing and thus relish everything.

Gabe

Dnipropetrovsk: Gogl-Mogl

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Time to statue!

I promised myself (and of course all you tragically bored readers) that I would finally get this blog up and running again, and that I would be so on the ball that said ball would slip out from underneath me and I would crack my head open on the Dnipropetrovsk concrete, in a manner not too dissimilar to an exceedingly drunk club-goer I stumbled across in the midst of having his pockets ransacked by a bunch of burly gangsters pretending to help him last night.

As the mercilessly hangover-inducing unfiltered lager of eastern Ukraine flowed through my veins (that’s not good is it?), I stumbled up to this helpless man, passed out face-down on the concrete, while I waited for Jake and Elliot to emerge from the already-infamous Club Rio on the banks of the Dnieper River, its unusual girth measurable only by the blurry twinkles of streetlamps over a mile away on the opposite bank. As I stretched out a tentatively violent foot to nudge him (or kick him depending on my inebriated lack of judgement), two skinhead men appeared from behind a tree, and with an almost routine-like efficiency, power-walked up to the man, knelt down at his side, and rootled around in his pockets, stuffing his copious wads of Ukrainian hryvnia into their own coat linings, before locating his phone and tucking that into their waistlines. After that, they helped him to his feet, slapped him in the face to wake him up, and vanished into the darkness, leaving our drunken victim drooling long chains of saliva down his own shirt and onto the feet of a statue of Taras Shevchenko.

While I imagine this is the kind of story you were expecting a lot of in a blog about Ukraine, this is just about the only moment of genuinely reprehensible behaviour we’ve witnessed in our time here. I mean granted it’s only been four days, but it must be said that – what with everyone questioning our choice to head to a recent war zone – Ukraine is no more dangerous than any other country in Europe, unless you feel like taking a couple of shells to the face in Donetsk or Luhansk. The vast majority of this country is perfectly safe. Sure, the infrastructure is a little shonky and it does feel somewhat impoverished in places, but it’s not Mogadishu – people aren’t going to kidnap or murder you for being a foreigner.

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Shevchenko Park, Dnipro

So, after about 24 hours in Kiev (during which time I of course had a chicken kiev), we took the six-hour train to Dnipropetrovsk at 7am, weaving through the floodplains of the Dnieper across the flat interior of this vast country. We decided to spend the extra £3 to get a first class ticket, complete with reclining chairs and a buffet car unfortunately called the WOG Cafe. After knocking back a couple of hot dogs and watery americanos on our arduous march across the former UkSSR, we shuffled down the aisles and off the train, squeezing past the buffet car’s trolley service which we affectionately dubbed WOG-On-Wheels.

Dnipropetrovsk is an interesting city. It’s got a really post-industrial, post-Soviet hinterland vibe about it. It’s in the middle of nowhere, stranded hundreds of miles from the coast, with one big wide avenue (named after Karl Marx, of course) slicing through the middle of the city. Thick black smoke billows from the chimneys of factories that flank the edges of every panorama of Dnipropetrovsk, their corresponding high-rise apartment blocks for workers visible in their shadows. However if there was one trait I had to select as the most noticeable in this city, it’s that the Latin alphabet is nowhere to be seen, and if you’re hoping anyone can speak English, dream on, friend. In most Eastern European cities, signs will be written in their native Cyrillic, underscored by the Latin version, so us heathens can have a crack. However, in Dnipro, there is no Latin alphabet – it’s just thick, imposing Cyrillic, and there’s somewhat of a British mentality about your average Ukrainian’s attitude towards the English speakers of this world; if they don’t understand your language, say it again, and louder. We’ve had Ukrainians repeat phrases we already don’t understand twice as loud enough times to truly understand how infuriating it must be when English people do the same to unassuming foreigners trying to ask for directions.

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The sign in the background says Gogl-Mogl. We felt it deserved some reverential respect.

And no scenario saw as much heightened repetition as when our beloved Jake proceeded to leave his Sainsbury’s bag of valuables in the back of the taxi taking us from the bus station to our AirBnB. After rushing back to the station to find the driver, we found that he wasn’t there. He seemed like a nice enough guy and were convinced he wouldn’t steal someone’s stuff, so we approached another driver who saw us get into his car and asked if we could phone him. After the longest phone conversation in modern history, we were told in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that the driver was asleep. Then that he was driving around. Then that he was at home. Then that he had the bag. Then that he didn’t. Then that it was still in the boot. After about half an hour, a different taxi driver showed up with the bag. In our euphoric relief, we ransacked the bag to discover that Jake’s phone wasn’t in it.

Oh typical, bloody taxi drivers giving back the bag but pocketing the most valuable item in it. After it slowly dawned on us that he may have stolen the phone, we continued to quiz the other drivers about the whereabouts of the phone. Yet again, we were told that he both did and didn’t have the phone, that he was both asleep and awake, that he was both at home and still out driving around. Defeated and a phone down, we trudged back to the apartment to unpack. I hung up my clothes, did some laundry, drank some beer, and then unfolded the sofabed to reveal underneath a sight all three of us both wanted to see and didn’t want to see at the same time; Jake’s phone. For God’s sake.

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A disappointed selfie on Jake’s newly-found phone.

Gabe

Gatwick Airport: Lazybones

Yes, you read that right. The blog that nobody asked for in the first place, and that nobody pined for in its absence, is back. Though this will be one of my shorter blog posts as a half-hearted re-introduction of Hidden Gabe, it still needs to be said that I have been tragically lazy in recent months, in a manner that is unbecoming of an aspiring journalist.

The days of my weird and wonderful round-the-world trip are long behind us, and I have reluctantly hurtled myself back into the menial trivialities of life in the frighteningly middle-class terraced-house corridors of East Dulwich, I have been ‘travelling’ in a somewhat less explicit manner since then. For instance, I took a trip to Spain in June. It was undeniably a trip that was jam-packed, however it was mostly jam-packed with red-wine-laden family card games, and silently creeping further and further towards a melanoma diagnosis. And who wants to read scheduled updates about how many Catalan words I can mispronounce per day? I sure as hell wouldn’t, even if I had written them myself.

Then there was the Georgia trip. Now that was legitimately too busy and full of insanity for me to even pause for a moment. From winning over a grand on the Europa League final, to necking four glasses of wine with our own taxi drivers halfway along a poorly-maintained mountain road in Kazbegi, to helping clear a highway of debris from a truck that had recently disintegrated after tipping over on a sharp turn, Georgia was fast, furious, and fantastic. Hence, I just didn’t want to miss anything by taking time out to write paragraph after paragraph detailing every single event of the day. I just wanted to live it, not analyse it. Yes, that is as wanky as I have ever sounded on this blog.

And so, in 45 minutes I will be boarding a flight to Kiev, Ukraine. I will be spending 16 days touring the country with my companions Jake and Elliot (who are not on the same flight as me which is a pain), and really at this point I can only speculate on what’s to come. And I’m not going to do that because people don’t want to read blogs that tackle subjects that can only be written about by guessing. Oh wait, I forgot about Brexit.

Expect more soon.

Gabe