Sunday, June 11, 2006

Train Celebrities or It's BEAUTIFUL!

I promised to tell more about the trip. We had quite a few people that extremely colorful and interesting that we met up on this trip. Tom and I left Simferopol for Kiev on June 4th. We had originally thought that we were going to be flying the morning on June 6th and the train is an overnight one. It would have been far too tight of a squeeze time wise for us to try to all but fly from the the train station to Borispol. In some ways this was completely correct: if we had been flying at 9:30 AM like we thought, we'd have been hard pressed to make it - the trains out of Crimea had a 'traffic jam' because of a breakdown. However, we were wrong. Our flight was at 15:45 (3:45 PM) on the 6th and we had mixed up the times with the flight from London to Kiev, from earlier, rather than the flights from Kiev back to London for time. Oops!

We said our goodbyes to my in-laws and my family - which was very painful for me prior to this trip, three days was the longest in two years since I'd been parted from my wife or my daughter since she was born. Tom went out to say his goodbyes and snap some pictures, but I made him finish quickly so I could say goodbye to my family and in-laws. My wife's mother was extremely verbose in her goodbyes and wanted to impress upon me how much she approved of Lyuda and I's relationship. She also wanted to tell me how appreciative she was for taking her to Crimea: she'd lived all her life in Ukraine, but never once been able to go. For an American, that's mildly shocking. It isn't that far. There are ways of making a dollar, or hryvna, stretch to no end in Ukraine, at least until recently. Post on that another time. But for those that were considered 'middle class' for Ukrainians, or were, this was simply too expensive since independance and she had kids, two fiesty young girls, prior. It was a rather depressing and ego puffing moment at the same time. Very Ukrainian for that matter.

As were getting set to make our final goodbyes, neither Tom nor I would realize that we were about to end up minor celebrities on that car. Oh, we didn't have people being the Ukrainian equivalent of poparazzi, but we did have a number of people dropping by or giving us a lot of attention. The ones of note are the Brothers Drink, the Train Lady, and the New Russian.

So while Tom was waiting on the train and I was having the compacted emotional rollercoaster ride, our carmates showed up. In 'first class' on a Ukrainian trains there are four bunks for sleeping. The rooms are damned small and I have to bend my legs a bit to sleep. The air conditioning only works...sorta...kinda...not really...but that it has airconditioning at all is a miracle compared to prior trips even if its patheticness is exhibited only while the train is in motion: it shuts down when the train is stopped...which can be for over an hour at some stops. Lux class (aka deluxe), which we'd ridden from Kiev to Gorlovka on, has two bunks per room and the airconditioning actually works. Second class is pretty grungy, but not that different from 'First Class'. Third scary. It's a huge car, no doors or whatnot, with everyone in bunks everywhere. I'd not be able to sleep, truthfully...

Anways, as I was saying, these two guys in the picture are the two characters that we shared our - that is Tom and mine - train sleeper car from Simferopol to Kiev with. They were fun. They were overawed with the prospect of sharing their room with a pair of Yanqi. Their eyes about popped out of their skulls when they found out. They bubbled with questions and comments that they filtered through their bad English, our wretched Russian, and a little translator software on a PDA.

Their names, anglicized and cut down for brevity, were Alex and Mike, from left to right. Alex is 25. Mike is 20. They are from Shotska in north central Ukraine. They are construction workers, truthfully not much more than day laborers, and work on anything they can. They were building a house in Crimea for four months and were headed back to visit their families before going off on another job. The pay, they said, was horrible, but they both had very poor educations and had left prior to high school. Mike is married. His wife kept calling on the cell, but its really understandable even if she did keep ripping him from one end to the other - and you could see how miserable he was from each time she called and was angry - because she was pregnant and he wasn't there. The miracle of pregnancy, I've said repeatedly based on Lyuda's experiences, is just surviving it. Mike is a brave, brave man, perhaps braver than I, for venturing out to scratch out a living like he is and having the rollercoaster of a pregnant wife at the same time.

Anyways, back on track here. Alex was jovial. Mike was high strung. If anything, Mike reminded me of my brother with his intensity and what seemed to be suppressed anger, prior to my bro's tour with the 2nd ACR in Iraq (the italicized part). We tried hard to crack jokes about anything: Bush, Yushenko, Timoschenko, Yanukovich kooshite people was one I made. They laughed pretty hard from that: kooshite is a very badly transliterated Russian word for 'to eat'. We showed them some techno toys and talked about as much as we could. The bandwidth was horrid and it often took us 15 minutes to find a single word becauser their Russian spelling abilities were as bad as ours. We communicated four about four hours straight and had a wonderful time.

One spector raised its ugly head during that time. We sat down to eat and they had their cheap piroshki and we had some very nice sausage and cheese. We shared. We had a lot. My wife takes care of me in oh-so-many ways. We drank water...they drank vodka. and beer. three bottles, iirc. Not the whimpy sized ones from the states. These beer bottles were at least two litres each. My liver cried out in pain just watching them. When we inquired, they let us know that they do this all the time. It sprang up the catch phrase that Alex used from then on: Vodka BEAUTIFUL! Anything he really liked was an exuberant BEAUTIFUL. It was merely depressing. The rate these guys were consuming alcohol was going to kill them. Sooner than rather than later. The next morning as we pulled into Kiev at breakfast time they were cracking open more beers. They had a handover and wanted something to stop it. *sighs*

Of course, being the generous Slavs they were, they launched an all out attack to get us to drink too. I don't partake. At all. They put some damned heavy pressure on us to do so. I cut, thrust and parried with all the arguments that I'd accumulated since 13 with the exception of one: that stuff tastes like shit, folks! How can ya stand it? They understood some about the alcoholics in my family. Something clicked when they looked at me and frowned a heavy frown with some sort of dawning realization and asked if I was a sportsman, their word, auf english. I jumped on that and agreed that I had competed in high school on the swim team. The BEAUTIFUL thing about it was they backed off for me immediately, but they thought I still was an athlete. Ah, the lack of 'to be' in Russian just plain rocks sometimes.

Tom didn't fair so well. Tom's older than I, but these guys wore him down. They eventually got him to quaff three shots of vodka...over the space of several hours. Tom's comment about the vodka was that it was 'gut rot'. He is a rather big guy, despite the both of us losing so much weight from the hard work and Lyuda's "death marches" going from place to place in the hot Crimean sun. The vodka hardly phased him, but he gulped water just be sure.

Eventually, the alcohol took down the brothers they crashed and slept. However, not before several more protestations of BEAUTIFUL and comments about this and that. The other problem the brothers had was they smoked. Like a chimney. Fortunately, they were respectful and did it out where everyone else does between the cars. The Train Lady might have been why.

She was a tall, no nonsense broad. Like 99% of all Ukrainian women, she was in heels despite being in uniform and on her feet all day making sure the train was clean, people got sheets and pillows, people played nice, and took care of whatever problems she could. She stuck her neck out - a lot! - to make sure that Tom and I were doing well. She kept after the Brothers Drink to behave and not mess with the Americans. Alex and Mike were more annoyed wither her than anything, but she made damned sure that they were respectful. Tom and I finally had to try to tell her to lay off the poor sozzled brothers. She was surprised, but not offended. She took on several rather big or tall passengers when they got uppity during the breakdown and found an english speaking Ukrainian when I wanted to ask for some help with what was going on with the train. She was polite, friendly, and above all else, professional!

To those of us in the West, that might be a given. We take it for granted that the pros are almost always going to treat their customers with respect. In Ukraine, this is a new thing. I had ridden the trains numerous times there. I encountered a pro only once before and it was a woman that was obviously something of an idealist trying to hold back the tide on her train car. I wish I'd been astute at the time to talk to that woman back three years ago. She was such an aberation at the time Lena and Lyuda had remarked on it to no end on that train ride.

Ukrainians, at least according to my wife, and watching them, treat each other rather badly and rudely when they are not friends. Lyuda didn't used to see it. One guy at the Magarach Winery that had been to the States, specifically to Napa and Sonoma here in the Bay area that we talked to when visiting three years ago told us the contrast in the States to Ukraine. He was a top vinter there in that winery and he loved the friendliness of Americans (at least our friendliness contrasted to Ukrainians). The thing was that the Train Lady was this way, professional and friendly and caring about those in her charge, not just with us Yanqi, but with all her passengers. There's a cultural shift happening there because we saw this multiple times before and after with the train personnel, but it really struck home with the Train Lady.

Based on a conversation with a train exec - for another post - Tom and I wondered if the train company had decided that it was going to try to influence people and the culture by setting an example. Almost all Ukrainians need the trains to get around Ukraine, so all of them are going to be exposed to the people there. If they're all friendly and professional, might it not leak out? Well, that was the speculation. Damfino if its true. Either way, my hat's off to the Train Lady and her pushing back the darkness. Whether its official policy or not.

The Brothers BEAUTIFUL had that other nasty habit: smoking up a storm. Between the drinking and the smoking, I can see why Ukrainian men have such a low life expectancy: 60 yo +/-. Mile had crashed for the night and was gently snoring in his top bunk, but Alex, around 8:30 PM/20:30 went out to smoke one last time. He was sodding sozzled to the gills by then, his light frame couldn't even open the room door without help. What he brought back with him wasn't so pleasant as he or his brother. He returned with a stereotypical New Russian. Or rather New Ukrainian since he wasn't really Russian...but the Ukrainians still call them New Russians.

I guess I've picked up my wife's attitudes, and therefore, the Joe Ukrainian attitudes with respect to New Russians. Everytime I've met one they've some way. This new guy was a slight, short dark haired guy from Kiev. Immaculately dressed, had he been an American either he'd be a metrosexual or outright gay (not a knock-on gays, so chill, many dress uberwell). He came in very polite and seemingly friendly enough. He stated that he wanted to work on his English, but apologized if he screwed up since his private translator was not on the train with him. At first, I'd hoped to break through the stereotype and meet a real person rising in the nouveau rich. He chatted us up with the standard small talk and when he found out we were computer people - HPC really - he ran off to get his laptop. His legit business was that of an online store front. The sort that are reminiscent of Craig's List, but far lesser in quality. That's okay though. His business seemed to be growing and the quality would improve...if that was his real business. Alex had crashed a while ago bored with the technogeeking and drunk. He had only wanted to know about what Americans drink (*sighs*) alcoholwise and I professed that I was not the man to ask. I told him about wines - that my wife does drink some - the New Russian thought it was interesting...or at least fained interest. Alex had been disgusted. Wines?! Pha!

After a while, and talking some, he started showing off the picture uploads section of his website. It really was something not unlike craigslist, but with some different flavours. The pictures were very funny at first. Then...less so. Then more risque. We got bored and when we stopped laughing he noticed. That's when he asked if we were going to be in Kiev long. We weren't. We were polite, but something felt off in talking to the guy at this point. The sleeziness we'd felt earlier was coming through in waves. He then asked if we'd like some girls while we were in Kiev. That was his game and probably where he really makes his money: the guy was a pimp.

It made me ill, honestly. He knew I was married. Yet he still was offering me girls. It angered me. A lot. Here I was missing my wife and daughter and this dipshit wanted to give some prostitutes to me. And Tom. Tom had the same stony face I did. His voice was unfriendly at that point as mine. Enough. It was 9:30 PM/21:30 +/-. We all but chased him out of our room. We locked the door, exchanged our disgust with the guy and went to bed. The next morning, he was there, immaculately dressed in a black suit without wrinkles. He wanted to exchange phone numbers, but you could see it was half hearted: he knew we weren't interested.
We rushed off after our train made it to Kiev. We needed a place to crash, neither of us had slept well and Tom was getting sick. We'd been roasted during the night on the train with no window to open, frequent stops, and anemic air conditioning. We did and then spent the remainder of the day and change wanering around Kiev. It was Tom's first time. It might not be his last. heh. heh. heh. ]:)

So we got to meet some of Ukraine without the aide of a translator. We liked their salt of the earth, their new professionals, but ended up despising the New Russian. The salt of the earth types are self destructive though and are prolly not going to make it to 40 if they keep up their lifestyles. The pro was an exciting little twist on Ukraine. The New Russian represented all that I hate about the place. It was fun and educational. It was something that had my extended family come along, I'd not been able to experience.

It was the real, unbuffered Ukraine.

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