Sunday, 31 March 2013

Day 301 – A discotheque and a film set. (Ukraine)

We had a couch surfing host in Odessa lined up, but before we could go and meet her we had to find someone who could align Trevor’s wheels. When we’d bought two new tyres in Romania (Blog Day 289 – Threatening to spontaneously combust), now almost two weeks and about 1,500 km ago, we’d been advised to get the wheels aligned after driving about 300 – 500 km. Having spent €210 on the tyres, we felt we owed it to ourselves not to wreck them by driving around on them wobbly for too much longer so it really needed to be done sooner rather than later, and it was really starting to get later. We price checked a couple of places on our way into Odessa and ended up returning to the first one where we had been quoted 180 Hryvna ($21) for the full caboodle. While we waited for the job to be done another guy who we assumed worked in the yard, but actually we have no idea who he was, came in to see what our story was. He was very excited by our trip, studying all the stickers on the car and asking questions about individual countries and flags. He was so enthusiastic about helping us out and was adamant that he could surely offer us some sort of assistance, so when he found out where we were headed (towards Scotland) he insisted on giving us the phone number of an acquaintance of his called Alex who lives in London. He wasn’t exactly sure when he’d last seen Alex and was a bit vague as to how they knew each other but he suggested that perhaps we could go and stay with him. Of course we gratefully accepted the scrap of paper on which he wrote the name and phone number, but we were just imagining rocking up in London and ringing this fellow: “Hi, is this Alex? Um, we met a friend of yours in Odessa a couple of months ago who said maybe you could put us up. No sorry, we didn’t ask his name. No sorry, I’m not really sure how you know him...”

Odessa is Ukraine’s city of beach resorts, where tourists go to get sun tans and drink cocktails on the sand, and we’d heard a lot of glowing reports about it being a beautiful and exciting place. This couldn’t have been further from our first impression of the place though. The buildings were greyand drab, the roads were potholed and the traffic noisy, and everything was dirty and crowded. It probably didn’t help that it was raining – something that supposedly only happens four or so times every year, but the suburb where we stayed was one of the grottiest of all the ex-Soviet suburbs we’ve seen. The grey cement walls were covered in graffiti and any paint that had been applied to any trim was peeling off. The “lawns” and “gardens” were squelchy patches of mud and the uneven road surface was covered in deep brown puddles, litter floating on the surface. It was very difficult to imagine this being the desired destination for holiday-makers in summertime, but we are aware that the suburbs aren’t exactly where they aim for.

When we arrived at our host’s house she was out somewhere so we were greeted by her boyfriend who asked us if we wanted to go to the party that his girlfriend was already at. Other than eventually managing to get out of him that it was a “tourist club” we couldn’t glean any information on what this event was or whether or not we wanted to go. So we decided to go. We walked a bit then caught a bus and walked a bit more and found ourselves at some sort of community hall. Still we had no idea what we were actually going to – we were really struggling to get any information about anything whatsoever from our male host. So in we went and met our host for the first time, who made me look like a giant! (For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m barely 5 foot and generally shorter than anyone over the age of about 11.) The room we entered reminded us of a late primary school/early high school “disco”; there was a DJ in the corner, a line of trestle tables set up with crisps, chocolate and soft drinks, and a group of about a dozen people around our age letting loose and dancing energetically to a selection of pop music. Still not exactly sure what the point of this event was we threw ourselves into the mix, making the most of it and enjoying the simple fun. It was only after we’d been dancing for a while that we eventually spoke to our host, the one who had invited us through the couch surfing website, and found out that the group was some sort of uni club dedicated to tourism and travellers and that this event was just for the sake of fun, loosely celebrating New Year. It was nice to have finally found out what it was that we were gate-crashing!

We spent the following day exploring the old centre of the city and we discovered that this part of town was actually quite magnificent with its Renaissance architecture, wide boulevards separated by sprawling squares sporting classical statues, trendy cafes and classy restaurants, shadowy residential lanes, views over the port and bits and pieces of quirky modern art dotted along the streets. The main landmark of note was the famous Potemkin Stairs (more commonly known by Ukrainians as their Soviet name – the Primorsky Stairs) which were made famous in 1925 by Sergei Eisenstein’s silent movie “The Battleship Potemkin”, and have since been featured in other works of art. We were intrigued when we arrived at the top of the magnificent set of steps to find that parts were closed off by work tape and cones guarding piles of rubble, scrappy wooden structures, canvas mats, shards of metal, sandbags and rusty cannons. The vantage point at the top of the stairs allows you to clearly see a large section of the port, and watching the view whilst noting the unusual items laid all over the stairs, we descended the 200 steps. We realised that this must be a film set and as we reached the bottom of the flight this was confirmed. A lovely parkland area runs adjacent to the staircase and this was filled with actors dressed as soldiers, all sorts of war-time vehicles, directors and cameramen arranging furniture and tents and fake snow and elaborate settlements and buildings. Having made our way back up the 200 steps we watched on for a while, intrigued by the action, but still completely unaware of what the movie might be that the filming was for. We found out later on that the director is a famous Russian director and that this, his latest work, was quite high profile in the area.

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