Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Dear Diary,

I'm not really in the mood for conversing, but I'm hoping that a litre of Zywiec (that's beer, Adam!) and some Legendarny Smak Krakersy (which of course means 'legendary tasty crackers', right Ola?!) will improve matters somewhat.  And, as I become aware of drinking duty free beer in an airport terminal, I recall the threats to sic the Feds on us at Hobart airport for drinking some leftover goon, politely, from plastic cups.  Ah, Europe, the wondrous place where you can drink anywhere, provided you behave yourself. Seriously, on German trains, they have this clause.  But in Germany they also consider beer to be essential, thus it remains untaxed (a benefit which I don't think even applies to tampons in Australia) and insanely cheap – unlike coffee, which is heavily taxed in Germany.

So, for those of you who've lost track like me, I've been away now for about a month.  And, as is my wont, I'll work backwards to the beginning.

I'm currently in Katowice, Poland, awaiting part II of my nice cheap flight to Kiev.  It cost me somewhere around 60 quid, from Milan, but I had to kill five hours here.  Customs/border control tried to speak Polish to me while checking my credentials and were surprised to learn that I couldn't speak back.  Such is the sad truth – that I can probably speak more Italian than Polish, and even that I only just learnt in the past week.


Wow, my left ring finger really wanted to pluralise 'week', and it's true that it feels like I was in Italy for longer than one week – and I nearly was because although I knew my flight was leaving on the 23rd, I had the idea that it was a Monday.  It was only yesterday, lying in the sun by the cascata (waterfall) near Chiavenna with Michele, writing a thank you card for my wonderful hosts Laura & Vinci, that I realised the date, and...eeeeeeeeeeek!  Lolli and Teo had to kick people out of their bar so they could dash to Chiavenna for a good bye drink.  Oh, but I think they LOVED to have an excuse to chuck a bit of a sickie...

So, I arrived in Chiavenna last Sunday evening, from the Swiss Alps (the Engadine Valley), where Marty and I had spent the weekend – he went kite surfing FOR HOURS on the Saturday (he was the 2nd last kite on the lake at Silvaplana and I was accompanied by peanuts and beer while I waited, oh so patiently...not my forte, as you may know...and then he nearly blacked out, methinks perhaps he overdid the exertion...but some pizza fixed him up and we had an early night in a campground full of exhausted kite-surfers.

On Sunday, the worse for wear Grandpa Moo Moo and I went for a day hike above Pontresina (not far from Silvaplana, which is near St Moritz).  We kinda cheated, I thought, because we started our hike with a chairlift which took us up to around 2000m and only climbed the remaining 1000m up to Piz Languard (3262m), but still we did it and it was really excellent, but a bit difficult to breathe at that height!  Marty and I also had one fun night out with his flatmate in Stuttgart, on the Friday when I arrived – luckily for me it was the Sommerfest, a big festival in the centre of the city.  We saw some great jazz, including a very convincing rendition of 'What a Wonderful World' (video to come!).  I'd expected to spend more time there, but Switzerland was appealing to both of us, and I'd already spent two weeks in various German cities.

Arriving in Chiavenna on Sunday evening was like coming home.  There is nothing like Italian hospitality – and they tell me they're considered 'cold' in the north and that the further south you go, the better it gets!  We went to a fancy new restaurant that night, which had only very recently been opened by some friends of my hosts.  It seemed that nobody in our group really liked the place, and at that dinner, and future dinners, I marvelled at how much discussion there was about every element of the evening – in Italy, everyone has an opinion and they're not afraid to shout it out loud!  Anyway, I liked the dinner and it only cost me a kiss!  I liked everything in Italy!  And having a personal translation service, in the form of the dashing, young Fabio who lived in Sydney for 16 years and thus speaks Aussie English without a trace of an Italian accent, was a bemusing bonus!  Grazie mille Fabio!!!
I returned to Switzerland twice to 'take in the sun' during my stay in Italy, hence 'Switzaly'.  The first time Laura and I spent an absolutely lovely day lazing, dozing and reading by the Silsersee at Isola – a freezing alpine lake which we only managed to jump into for about 3 seconds and resurfaced to applause.  The second time we drove with Laura's sister Cami, her Mum Antonia and her mum's friend Mariana to the other side of the mountains, the Splugel Valley (I think), for the thermal baths in Andeer.  It was a great day too, but we drove through three mountain passes and spent two hours in the pools and were pretty tired when we came home to Friday night dinner and drinks plans...but we went out anyway and had a great dinner at a Crotto (www.crottoalprato.it) – a particular type of restaurant only found in Chiavenna and named such because of the mountains in which they have natural wine and cheese cellars.  There is a set menu usually at Crottos – and in this case it was a five-course, heavy, meaty and lasted a good few hours.  But of course, my dietary requirements were well catered for with cheese cheese cheese!  We also drank a few chocolate grappas (!!) after the meal, and then proceeded to amble across town to a bar, where I sat uncomfortably for a few minutes across from a cool looking couple who I really wanted to talk to, but got the impression they couldn't speak English very well.  Tentatively, I asked them a few questions, and when I asked the guy, Pepe, what he did for work the floodgates opened.  Turns out he was a soldier, of some sort, and really wanted to tell me all about it, rating the differences between the soldiers of different countries and telling me amongst other things, that he didn't think soldiers should be allowed to have opinions about war.


While in Italy I also visited Lolli and Teo for two days in Domaso, on Lake Como, which was just gorgeous.  Surprisingly hot, so they say, for this time of year, but that of course, was good for business – Lolli and Teo run a bar La Maddonina, and business booms when the sun shines.  It was so super to visit them, and they took a day off each, to spend time with me...I felt very special.

The first day Teo and I went to Bellagio, by ferry.  It's an important town, apparently, because it's precisely where Lake Como diverges to become two separate lakes.  And it was pretty sweet to wander around for the day, albeit scorchingly hot and NOT a good place for swimming.  Surprisingly, there aren't that many good swimming spots on Lake Como, and people tend to swim in pools, rather than the lake.  Not because of the water, although I did hear of some toxic fungus in one town while I was there.   Anyway, the second day I got to spend with Lolli.  She and I went to Villa Carlotta, a huge, beautiful villa (possibly 70,000sqm, but don't quote me) which was given to Carlotta when she married George...I never quite worked out who he was tho, a duke I think...I was distracted by thoughts of George Clooney, who has a house near there – but who, according to Mariana, an authority on most things, doesn't care about anyone and has never had a girlfriend for more than two weeks.  But I digress.  

Lolli and I had a great day at Villa Carlotta and later swimming in the pool at Menaggio.  But both evenings that I spent by Lake Como ended similarly.  At around five or six o'clock, the Italian host for the day realised they had to return to work at the bar and started to negotiate with me...oh...Leonie...let's not go back.  Lolli/Teo can look after the bar tonight.  Let's stay in a nice hotel...let's have a few more drinks...let's...

Oh shit.  I think my flight is boarding!

UKRAINE: 23RD AUGUST – present

Ok, so I didn't miss my flight. And as predicted the beer helped me recollect my experiences. Now I'm Kiev.  I arrived close to midnight on Sunday, and was met at the airport by the beautiful Tatiana Alexandrovna and her tall and handsome son, Rostyslav Yurievich.  We caught a taxi home and proceeded to drink a bottle of wine, eat Yura potatoes (just the way he used to make them), salad and some wonderful fried and heavily mayonnaised vegies and to reminisce for hours about Yura, Tanya's husband, my mum's cousin and my favourite Ukrainian of all time who very sadly and suddenly passed away in June this year, only four years after his younger brother.  Lezhat Spakoyna.

At about 2am Tanya's flatmate woke up and came into the kitchen to smoke a fag, and down some Dzhin Tonic...oh Ukraine, how perfectly acceptable alcoholism is...

The next day was Independence Day in Ukraine, so after drinking the remaining cognac along with our midday brekkie, we headed to the city for the evening's antics.  We (and everyone else in Kiev) started with a walk through Marinsky Park to the lover's bridge, where lovers go and attach a personalised padlock inscribed with their names to the bridge to signify their undying love, or something.  Although it seems some of them can't afford padlocks and just tie tissues to the bridge.  Anyway, it's a nice idea, I like it.  I saw a similar thing through the window of a train in Germany – I think it was in Cologne.

We made our way to the Motherland monument and sat down to drink a beer mix – a popular, new beer/soft drink combo available in cherry, lemon and god knows what else. We saw some oldies singing traditional Ukrainian songs, lots of young women wearing traditional clothing almost fashionably, with tight jeans or short skirts and some buskers playing Gunners – 'knockin on heaven's door'.  Eventually we got to Kreshchatyk, the main street in Kiev, which is a 4 or 6 lane thoroughfare that is entirely fenced-off – so you usually can't cross it, but must use underpasses.  However, the street was closed and lined with tanks and army trucks, on which there were thousands of people climbing and posing for photographs.  Of course, we joined them.  There was also a stage, and some cool music by the Ukrainian band ????? ???? ('Another River'), which continued until the fireworks went off at about 10pm.  It was really a massive celebration – they were calling it Ukraine's 18th birthday, but my host commented that she thought things were better before independence, an opinion I'm sure is shared by many.  

Later in the week, I took an overnight train to Nikolayevka, where my pseudo grandparents Ivan Zaharovich (he's actually my grandma's brother, so my mum's uncle) and his wife Maria Pavlovna live, and where Tanya, Yura and Rostik also used to live.  It was difficult to get a ticket, so I had a place in the Plaskartny Wagon, which is sort of compartmentalised, but without doors so it's pretty open, and all along what would be the corridor are narrow bunks too.  I reckon it fits more than 50 people and is a pretty novel experience the first time.  People often talk to me on Ukrainian trains, I guess because I look so obviously different, and I was really pleased to find that I could hold a conversation, if a little haltingly.  I was asked to change places with another woman, so that two friends could be nearer – and then a guy generously offered to swap with me again so I could have the nizxhny bed (bottom bunk), which unfortunately put me closer to the snoring babushka, which I suspect was his plan all along.  He was very friendly, but not in an uncomfortable way, and when I said good bye in the morning, he said something like 'don't forget me' (nichevo ne zabyla), which I thought was pretty funny considering I didn't even know his name.

I was met at the station early the next morning by a teary, clutching Babushka Masha (that's Maria Pavlovna to you!), who nearly climbed onto the train in her rush to hug me, and the gold-toothed smiley Sergei – Tanya's cousin who has a car.  It's getting more common now to have cars and even fancy, new cars or 4WDs, but nobody in my family has one.  Lots of young guys have motorbikes now too, and of course they wanted to take me for a ride.  It was near impossible to say no, and once there were even three of us on the bike...helmets?  Ne nada!  At Masha's house everything is new these days, including the hot water service, which she rushed to buy from a nearby city on the day I arrived – because in Nikolayevka, there's no hot water throughout summer...at least not this summer, I think it's because of the crisis.  And although there is now a lot of new stuff to be seen in Ukraine, like laptops, DVD players, MP3 players etc, the standard of living is still pretty low, with really poor road conditions, public conveniences (don't even think you can call them 'conveniences', when they're not!) and public transport – for example it takes an hour by bus to travel the 15km from Slavyansk railway station to Nikolayevka.  

Masha, Vanya and I started that first day with breakfast and vodka, of course, followed by a nap.  And I am continually offered beer, wine and vodka at every meal, breakfast included.  However, unlike previous visits, I'm not overindulging at the pure wonder of it.  I'm actually attempting to not be overfed and grossly overwatered, but it's proving difficult, and exercise too is proving very difficult to achieve – mostly because I'm practically not allowed to go anywhere alone, oh yeah and hangovers abound.  Generally, my friends don't even let me go up four flights of stairs from the front door to Masha and Vanya's flat. This is endearing, in a way, but I'm starting to feel a bit strained.  And it's odd, yesterday I even asked about a particular woman's over-friendliness and was told that of course, everyone wants to meet me, to ask me questions, and even to touch me to see if I'm real.

But because of this, and because some people want to use their English, and improve it, I have found myself another dashing, 24yo translator & running buddy – Anton Constantinovich Chaichenko.  I actually met Anton four years ago when I was last here.  I didn't really remember him, to be honest, but I did remember meeting two cute, young English speaking boys on my last night in Nikolayevka.  Turns out those boys were Anton & Vova – and they haven't forgotten me, but then again, neither had the lady who works in the chemist.  Foreigners really aren't very common here – and particularly Australians.

Anyway, the first night Tanya's sister came over for dinner with her 5yo son Nazar, his 18yo sister Inna and her motorcycle riding boyfriend Sergei.  We had a vodka feast and then went gulyaht, which means 'walking', but which really just means walking until you get to a bar or the 'centre' and then sitting down and drinking the night away.  I talked with Tatiana Sultanovna (her dad's from Kazakhstan) and Anton and we made plans to go for a run in the morning – which, despite feeling like crap, we actually accomplished.  We ran to the river, Anton took a quick dip, and then we walked back, talking all the way coz his English is actually excellent.  He told me lots of funny things, like that he only drinks when he's at home, in Nikolayevka, because otherwise he might get crazy and blow something up, coz he likes blowing things up, like his school when he was 16...but he only blew up one wall, you see, so it wasn't so bad.  And all the kids were pretty happy coz they didn't have to go to school for a week.  

I think the population here is about 17,000 and that maybe 5,000 people work in the power station, which is probably the only reason this city exists, because the station powers the surrounding region.  Anton told me that the British wanted to buy the plans for the station and build their own, because it's so great, but when they realised they would have to manually fix everything, they lost interest.

On day 2, we went to the cemetery.  I wanted to, but I didn't realise how awful it would be to see Andrei and Yura's graves, side by side, and their poor mother in great distress, kneeling to hug their  headstones, kissing their pictures, and just bawling over the terrible pain of losing both her children, before the age of forty.  Vanya sat in stony silence, and Lida (Tanya's mother and a great support to Masha) busied herself cleaning and tidying, until Masha joined her.  We took a short walk around to visit and tidy the graves of other family members, and then returned to Andrei and Yura for a picnic.  There are lots of picnic tables in Ukrainian cemeteries, and it's normal to have a meal by the graves of your loved ones, and it's actually really a nice thing to do.
In the evening we went to old 'starry' Nikolayevka, where there are very old houses – no high rise flats like in the cities – and big vegetable gardens.  Lida's husband Sasha lives there, so we had dinner with him, Lida's sister Shura, Shura's son Sergei and his overbearing wife Marina, Inna, her brother and her boyfriend and my dyedushka (grandpa) Vanya.  Masha had had a health scare the previous night, which required an ambulance call –supposedly normal occurrence and nothing for me to worry about?! – so she didn't join us.  Dinner, with much vodka, was followed by some drinks in a bar, and then going to another bar to watch Yura's beloved football team Shaktyor Donetsk unfortunately lose to Barcelona (1-0).

The days following continued in the same vein.  There's not much to do in Nikolayevka, but stay at home watching TV or sleeping, roam the streets around or sit and drink.  So we did all of the above.  Everyone likes looking at photos, so we did plenty of that too.  And I've tried to sit and talk with Vanya and Masha as much as possible, but it's really hard, and they're both really miserable.  When Anton came for dinner last night it was pretty uncomfortable and he didn't stay long.  One day Anton and I went shopping in Slavyansk, which was pretty fun even though we had killer hangovers and it was horribly hot at the market.  But I just LOVE the fashion here, and I would buy so many clothes if only I had a Sherpa. I settled for just one top, which says in big, sequined letters 'I'm not going to teach you how to dance' – I love it!  I also found some great badges, cool hats and tres sophisticated sunglasses.  Vanya thinks everything is SO expensive, so I couldn't tell him what I paid.  The sunglasses were 120 griven, which is about 12 euro, but when he asked how much they were, and estimated 15-30 griven, I just had to tell a little white lie and agree with him.


But I've been remiss and must say a few words about my first two weeks in Germany.  My arrival was wonderful, mostly because Marty surprised me by meeting me at the airport and driving me to Aachen, where we went straight to Nico's new flat for some welcome drinks and then spent the weekend hanging out and partying with Nico and Gummi and a whole bunch of their mates. This was actually pretty fantastic because, although of course I was very happy to see Marty and it was nice not to have to take the train, it's also 400km for him to drive each way from Stuttgart where he lives to Aachen. So, to drive 800km to meet me and spend the weekend was really super lovely!

I've written a bit about that first weekend already, but after that, Nico was a brilliant host and tour guide, and we didn't spend more than a few days in one place.  He managed to skive off work A LOT (and it wasn't always my fault!), and so went to an awesome football match in Duesseldorf (in which 2nd level Fortuna Duesseldorf drew with 1st level Hamburg who they wouldn't usually play but it was a tournament and it went to kick off after the siren – if that's what it's called – and was very exciting, Gummi reckon the best game he's ever been to!), and spent a few days after that staying in Mettmann, where he grew up and where we went pretty much so that he could work on the house with his dad for a couple of days and I could ride his mum's bike around town and do some Tourism Vic work while sitting in his mum's lovely garden – easy life!  And Nico's mum is real, and a fabulous cook!!  It was pretty nice to meet them and spend a few days with them.  Although, if only I could speak six languages, and actually converse properly with people's familes!!

Nico and I had a pretty cool night out in hot hot hot Duesseldorf drinking Alt Bier and exploring the old city, then headed back to Aachen on a late train for a couple of days of swimming, shopping (needed more summer clothes!) and cycling around town, going to barbeques and hanging out in the park in the evening.  We went back to Mettmann on the weekend for a big party, and a day lazing by the pool at Nico's parent s place, where I managed to get stung by a bee grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr and then back to Aachen again on Sunday night.  The very next day, after a big sleep-in of course, we caught a bus to Maastricht, in the Netherlands, just to explore another interesting place coz it's only one hour away and something like 5 euros for the bus ticket and is really a world apart – we did a walking tour of the city, had a delicious Dutch brekkie, at around 2pm and did a mini pub crawl, but couldn't actually find any decent bars...shoulda checked the guide book!!  I think we stayed in Aachen for the rest of that week, but we did a decent bike ride to the 3-country-point a couple of days later, and so visited briefly both Belgium and the Netherlands again.  And had a super active night in the climbing forest, of which you've probably already seen pictures.

It was absolutely wonderful to spend two whole weeks hanging out there with my favourite Germ, and I'd love to have stayed longer, or go back and visit again, but I had a time-limited visa and a plane ticket to Ukraine, an Ola Chiquita Bonita to visit, some Wieners to see (!) and I still haven't worked out what the hell I'm doing after my redundancy present runs out and the thrill is gone.  A job is certainly in order, although my small, responsibility-fuelled desire to find one in Melbourne is rapidly diminishing...ah decisions, they're so overrated.  I wish I could employ a decision-maker, along with my Sherpa.  I wish I could SEE the future!  Ha, maybe I'll go to Turkey – they're good at seeing the future there, if I recall rightly...

Fso, mne para ('Done, I have to go') Xx