Slices of Life in the Ukraine

Oh my, oh, my Ukraine.
You are not in an enviable position.
You seek EU membership. As Russia surrounds you in ever decreasing circles.

We arrive by ferry in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea.
We go from Odessa to Kiev and to Odessa again.
We didn’t expect to linger so long! Such honest places. Such real people.

Despite your geo-political pickle, you prosper quietly. A GINI coefficient (an inequality index) drops from 39.3 in 1995 to 25 today! An impressive feat, indeed.

Russia tightens around the Ukraine. It annexes the Crimea in 2014. There is an on-going armed conflict in the two eastern provinces. Belarus and east Moldova are pro Russia.

As we ferry again across the Black Sea to reach the Ukraine, we pass by the Crimea Peninsular recently annexed by Russia.

In the capital, Kiev, we see the wall of remembrance for sons lost in the recent battle for the eastern provinces of Donesk and Luhansk …

Oh Ukraine, we are so grateful for a Slice of Life in Odessa, then Kiev and then Odessa again.

KIEV

Kiev, the capital city, has bounce. It is totally destroyed. Twice! And bounces back. Twice! Mongols raze it to the ground in 1240. And WW2 flattens it again. Today, almost everything is new. Some made to look old and some made to look new.

The city centre boasts brand new government buildings and brand new cobbled streets. Crisp replicas of old churches and monasteries lure us from square to square.

And the suburbs, that surround, stretch skywards. Fresh apartment blocks! Twenty storeys high. They group in pastel shades, then in terra cotta colours, then in glass and aluminium frames. At their feet, small grocery stores and playgrounds serve. On walls yesterday’s crèche artworks, today’s specials, and tomorrow’s school plays, sparkle. And parks, ponds and pathways criss-cross with Kievans. Toddlers teeter on tricycles, dads haul shopping bags, families tuck into picnics and youngsters simply strut.

Our apartment is on the 17th floor. Our elevator smells of detergent and take-away meals. And from our perch we lose ourselves in Kiev’s newness. As far as the eye can see ….

But! The hairdressing salon on the ground floor draws me like a magnet. I swoop down. It’s closed. I swoop down again and Anastacia opens. A young girl with a milky skin, a head of pink and tell-tale tattoos.

We converse excitedly, without a sound. With google translate! Cell phones pass between us and tell of boyfriends, of bikes. Two hours go by in a flash. With a soft and tender touch, Anastacia gives me colour and curls. The next morning my Harry takes her for a motorbike ride. Harry says Anastacia shrieks … with a taste of adventure.

Anastacia. A girl we will never forget.

The capital, Kiev, is impressive ….

… and down to earth at the same time.

Kiev is rebuilt twice, once after it was razed to the ground by the Mongols and again after WW2. This is the city centre …

… with many relatively new buildings and monuments …

… and with beautiful monasteries and churches rebuilt as they were before ….

… and that seem to be used like never before.

And circling the city centre are fields of new and modern suburbs ….

This is the view from our apartment on the 17th floor …

And nestled in between apartment blocks are playgrounds and ….

… extensive parklands …

… that are used ALL the time.

The ground floors of the apartment blocks hold shops of all descriptions, florists, gyms, beauty salons ….

… and on the left, our favourite grocery store ….

… and on the right, our bakery …

And in this hairdressing salon …

… the unexpected pleasure of getting to know Anastacia …. on top of getting my own hair done.

This simple ride means the world to Anastacia.

Anastacia, like Kiev, is wise way beyond her years.

ODESSA

Kiev is new, tall and clean. And Odessa is old, squat and crumbly.

How could it not be! It’s a port city on the Black Sea. What, in the world, will a ship with an unknown flag bring? Opportunity, threat, disease or all three. Odessa swings from success to suicide, from boom to bust, from grand to grim.

Potemkin claims it. Catherine the Great funds it. Richelieu builds it. Out-of-luck and out-of-favour merchants, artists and administrators populate it. Odessa welcomes Jews in 1826, albeit conditionally.

The Catacombs tell it best. Underground run tunnels 3 levels deep and 2,500 kilometres long. Tunnels dug to extract the limestone below to build the city above. When the tunnels start to undermine the city it builds, extraction stops! Then smugglers, persecuted peoples and freedom fighters move in. They hide and seek in Odessa’s underworld. Dates, chiselled into tunnel walls, still mark Jewish Pogroms, the Russian Revolution and 2 World Wars.

Above ground, the city centre slips on the Potemkin Steps, a Catherine the Great Statue and one of the best Opera Houses in the world.

But to be honest, Odessans prefer it close to the ground. In 3 and 4 storey apartment blocks. Around shared courtyards! Odessa is a city of blocks within blocks within blocks. Everybody lives in an apartment that collects around a courtyard that quarters a block. Everybody!

And so do we.

Our apartment is on the 3rd floor. Broad steps sweep from floor to floor to our floor. Everything smells of wet dog, cat pee and old cement. But our apartment smells of fresh paint; newly renovated. We open doors to a balcony and look out onto our very own Odessan courtyard.

Higgledy. Piggledy. A few parked cars, a ladder, lots of flower pots, buckets and bottles, a hen house. A tree with a green canopy, an old desk and a red bench. Discarded dolls and cats. The sound of a violin is never far away.

And on that red bench we meet Julia and Galina. Babushkas, the world calls them. The Commandant and the Princess, they call each other! Our motorbikes displease Julia! We move them, quickly, as she commandeers. And then we hold each other dear, so dear. Julia collects and sells cardboard and Galina pots and sells plants. To augment their meagre state pensions. We let each other in. We deploy hand gestures and prance out descriptions. We bring out books, stab at maps and point at photos. And when we get stuck, we call Daria. A young mother, on the second floor, who runs an English school with her husband. Daria translates in a racy Russian accent. We chow cherries and suck oranges. The student violinist comes down to prune a rosebush.

Our courtyard family! Still brings happy tears to our eyes.

Odessa, below ground. This map shows the tunnels dug to mine for limestone to build the city above. 2500 kms in extent dating back to the early 1800s with the first construction boom.

We walk through a section of these tunnels. . After mining activities stop, smugglers, persecuted peoples and freedom fighters use them. We are given Russian army jackets to ward off the cold.

Here is a date chisselled on the tunnel wall during the first Jewish pogrom. The experiences of this time and others to follow must have been shattering.

A date chisselled during the Russian Revolution.

And a date chisselled at the time of WW2.

Odessa above ground, neatly planned with public squares and a grid street pattern.

Here is a Statue of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great with other Odessan founding fathers.

And the Potemkin Steps, made famous in the Soviet propaganda film, the Battleship Potemkin. From the bottom up you only see steps, from top down only platforms.

The impressive Odessa Theatre of Opera and Ballet, first erected in 1809.

But you do not have to look far to see the real Odessa.

Old buildings line the streets.

And Odessans live just on the otherside, through gateways and entrances like this …

… to cosy coutyards surrounded by a square of modest apartments.

These courtyards are great places to congregate, especially in summer.

In the old days they used to hold the communal water service. Today these are largely ornamental.

And fancy, we are invited in from the street to enjoy some damn decent homemade red wine …

… with Elena and …

… Valentin. Elena and Valentin and Harry and I are exactly the same ages. We easily share of our experiences on opposite ends of the world.

And our very own apartment, and courtyard, is just on the otherside of this street …

… there through this gateway …

… to apartments, some a little grand …

… and some a little not so grand …

… and this our shared courtyard …

… but lets just get the laundry in first …

Here under the tree, next to the old Lada ….

… we spend 5 afternoons together …

… from your left, it is Julia, Galina and Daria ….

… or rather the Princess and Commandant, with the young Daria in between, a mother and our official translator.

Every photo is an occasion and we pull together our props, atlas, laptop and notebook.

Julia, in particular, likes things done her way.

Steady On.

I left a little heart in this courtyard.

8 Responses to Slices of Life in the Ukraine

  1. gail van der mey

    I would have been worried to get lost between all these tower blocks and court yards, even not quite knowing where I had been and nobody that could understand me !!! Nightmarish !!! JAN

  2. Jim and Muriel xx

    From up high in the sky in Kiev to underground in Odessa——–and what an entertaining time you had—-thanks for the insight. Take care love as aye Muriel and Jim xx

  3. Naude.K

    Wow special meaning. Why? – our friend Sasha comes from Kiev, Ukraine. I can now visualise and understand better what he described when he talks about his homeland. I will send this link to him- it will mean the world to him the fact that you guys explored it 🙂

  4. Glenda

    Fascinating far away places. Thanks for bringing them so close. Xxx

  5. MvdMey@T-online.de

    Wonderful, Linda and Harry, I would have liked to share your experience meeting people in the places you visited,

    Michiel

  6. gail van der mey

    WOW!!! This was a slice of life indeed and yet it could be fictional as well as who could believe it all. What a contrast. My heart goes out to your courtyard friends.
    What a comparison between Kiev and Odessa and these beautiful churches and friendliness and the opera house. WONDERFUL

  7. Anonymous

    Fascinating! Thanks again for sharing your experiences and great pictures. Keep safe.

  8. Mike

    A taste of what life must have been like behind the old iron curtain, I wonder how things have changed since then, if at all. Us, and them, were heavily brainwashed. Thanks as always for sharing such beautiful pics and of course your descriptive write-ups bring them to life.

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