Monday, 17 September 2007

Love from Ljubljana

I find myself surrounded by dead animals.

I am writing to you from Pension Zaplata in Slovenia.

Pension Zaplata must be the place that vegetarians and animals rights activists who have led unwholesome lives go to when they die. Just about every animal from Slovenia can be found here, stuffed, mounted and proudly displayed, welcoming visitors with cold, dead eyes.

From the birds and deer in the hallway to the imposing Croatian bear that greets you as you enter, this place is a Republican's dream.

At first I thought I didn't mind it too much, but waking up this morning to be confronted by the bare white skull of a deer, antlers still attached, is more than a little nauseating. (Eat them, sure, but don't decorate your house with them).

Still - and I feel a touch of hypocrisy coming on - I did tuck into a hearty meal of deer medallions in cherry sauce earlier, followed later by tender young boar. Perhaps that's why a bull charged me today.

That Bulls Got Balls

Slovenia truly is a beautiful country.

A few hours ago I rented a bicycle and took a ride to a nearby village called Kranj, travelling down little used roads and past green meadows, fast flowing rivers and towering, cloud covered mountains.

After visiting Kranj, I hid my bicycle and made my way into the hills on foot to explore this beautiful landscape further. After a short walk, I came to a wire fence and, mindful of the fact that I was entering private land, I hopped over and began making my way across a field.

I soon ran into a couple of cows, who started giving me the daggers, so I stared back, being sure to give them a wide berth. Don't bother them and they won't bother you Andrew, I thought to myself. With that thought barely finished, there was suddenly a great crashing noise and moments later a huge bull appeared from nowhere and came charging towards me.

I turned and ran, jumping the wire fence, and began making my way down a steep slope, going as fast as my legs would carry me. Inevitably, I slipped and started sliding down the slope, ass first.

With the bull now completely forgotten, my only concern was to stop myself falling. I was grabbing at branches and small trees but I was moving too quickly to get a grip. After sliding about 30 feet, I went - quite literally - crotch first into a small branch.

Looking back, and at the time, it was quite comical. I was sliding so quickly, there was no time to be afraid. The fall wouldn't have killed me, but that little branch saved me from a few cuts and bruises.

Surprisingly, I experienced no pain at all and my crotch came out completely unscathed. I suspect, however, that Emily may now need to wait a little longer for the child that she so desperately wants.

Smiles and Sadness in Semic

Being in Slovenia, and writing this email, brings my life full circle.

This is my second visit to Slovenia; I was here two years ago today, in a small town called Semic, working with paraplegics.

Tomorrow I head to Kranj again, leaving the stuffed animals and my friend the bull behind. I will catch a train to Ljubljana and then head to Semic where I will spend time with the same Slovenian people I first met in 2005.

Being in Semic two years ago was very intense. There was me, a dozen Slovenian paraplegics and a few other international volunteers. We spent nearly all of our time in a house not unlike the Big Brother house. There was no TV, no Internet, just us in the house, talking, eating, playing chess and other games.

On the one hand, it was a great experience. The Slovenians were great people and nice to be with. But I had problems with the other volunteers. There was a man in his late seventies called Howard who was fine. My problems were with a Swiss girl, an Irish girl, an American girl and a French-Polish girl. They were nasty, small minded people, who should have been appearing in an episode of Big Brother rather than volunteering to work in Slovenia.

They spent most of their time gossipping (about me, unfortunately) and were all obsessed with sex.

At one point - and it's embarrassing for me to relate this but I will anyway - I walked into the room to find them engaged in a conversation about how they would refrain from eating a day before having anal sex so they don't open their bowels before doing the deed. This is the type of girl we are talking about here. They said some very nasty and hurtful things about me and ruined my time in Slovenia.

That is part of the reason I am going back, to banish the memory of those awful people.

But more than that, I am going to spend time with the Slovenian people again. Wonderful people like Rok, Stefan, Damjan and Joe Rabbit. Tomorrow I will return to that small village and history will repeat itself as my life comes full circle.

More Smiles and Sadness in Semic

Thursday 20 September 2007

I am writing to you from Semic. Its a little after eleven in the evening on Thursday 20 September 2007. Two years ago, to the very day, to the very minute, I was here, in this house, almost certainly in this room, with the people who are sitting across the table from me right now.

Rok is here, and Joe Rabbit, and Stefan and Damjan and many of the people I met two years ago. Very often, when I visit a place and then go back in an attempt to recapture the past, I am met with disappointment because things always change.

In the time that has passed since I visited Semic in 2005, nothing has changed.

The house is the same. The kitchen, the decor, the beds, the crappy TV, the trolley we used to wheel the food around on. Even the neighbours dog that barked all night long and kept us awake two years ago is still here, still barking.

The church bells still rings. The same clock still ticks. Sitting here, writing this, it is like those two years never passed at all.

I arrived in Semic from Kranj on Tuesday and the past two days have again been filled with smiles and sadness. There have been visits to the pub, games of chess, meals, conversations, laughter and moments of reflection.

Tomorrow the camp ends and I will leave Semic once again. But for now, for this moment, I am back in the place of a thousand memories.

My life truly has come full circle.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

More Kisses from Kiev

First Kiss - From the Capital of Craziness

One year ago, when I last wrote from the Ukraine, I mentioned that Kiev was a very westernised city, much like any other European capital.

My experiences during the past eight days have encouraged me to revise that opinion.

Indeed, in the past week I have witnessed much Eastern European craziness, experienced real Soviet backwardness and encountered such absurdity, such outlandish stupidity, that 24 hours ago I was standing in the centre of Kiev shouting obscenities at strangers who couldn't understand a word of what I was saying and who were continuing to go about their lives blissfully unaware that, in simple terms, this is just not the way that things are done.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Second Kiss - The Great Ticket Adventure

This particular adventure in Eastern Europe began on 4 September 2007 when I made my way to Liverpool John Lennon airport and boarded a Ryanair flight to Riga.

After a 3 hour wait in the capital of Latvia, I boarded another flight with Air Baltic which took me to Kiev where Emily was waiting for me, hugs and kisses at the ready.

That's where the craziness began.

From Borispol International Airport we headed to the central railway station where Emily attempted to buy tickets to Simferopol.

We were told that there were no tickets available and that we should return a few hours later at 6pm. So we searched for a place to sit and rest but, as a testament to the genius of Soviet planning, there are no seats on the lower level of the railway station. The seats are two floors up, where there is nothing but seats.

Unfortunately, the lifts were out of order, so we had to struggle up two flights of stairs with our suitcases. When we eventually made it, we were approached by two shady looking individuals who told us they could sell us two train tickets to Simferopol on the 'black market' for twice the usual price. We declined their kind offer.

Later, we realised the reason there were no tickets was because shady individuals like this had bought them to sell to needy travellers like us.

So, we waited. At 6pm we returned to the ticket office but were told that there were still no tickets available for that evening and so we bought two tickets for travel the following day.

With nowhere to stay in Kiev, we remained at the railway station for a few more hours. Just before we were about to leave, Emily and I joined another queue to ask again about tickets to Simferopol.

After a 30 minute wait, the woman behind the booth told us that there were indeed tickets to Simferopol available for that same evening but we would first have to cancel the tickets we had bought some hours earlier when we were told by another woman behind another booth that there were no tickets available.

So, we joined another queue, spoke to another woman and she cancelled the tickets. Then we returned to the first queue and after about ten minutes of waiting in line the woman put a sign in the window and went off for her twenty minute break.

These twenty minute breaks occur at regular intervals during the day and give the overweight women who work behind these booths the chance to go and use the toilet, fart, eat a sandwich, whatever. All people can do is remain in line and wait.

Eventually the woman returned and, after much fussing, fighting and farting, we purchased our tickets and at about 10pm we boarded a Soviet train that would take us to Simferopol in the Crimea.

But this was to be just the very beginning of our adventures in the Ukraine. Things would get much worse from this point on.

Third Kiss - Kisses from a Man in Kiev

For the duration of our 13-hour journey to the Crimea we shared a compartment with a young man called Roma. Roma was energetic, talkative and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic.

An hour into our journey Roma produced the customary bottle of vodka, and more to keep him quiet, I agreed to one drink.

One drink soon turned to five and hours later we were drinking to my health, to his health, to Emily's health, to love, to the memory of his dead cat, to his shoelaces, to the woman he had met on the metro in Kiev who had held the door open for him.

He was calling me his brother and kissing me on the cheeks (not altogether an unpleasant experience) but by 1am I was tired and ready to sleep. But there would be little sleep for me that night.

Roma went on and on, like Ariston, and even when I turned out the light and crawled into bed he came in and out of the compartment, called me his brother and told me jokes that did not translate.

At 4am we pulled into a station and Roma jumped off the train and somehow managed to buy a small blue teddy bear. He shook us awake to show it to us.

By 6am even he was starting to become tired and after spending forty minutes trying to remove his jeans, he clambered into the bed above me and quickly fell asleep, only to begin snoring minutes later.

At 1pm we arrived in Simferopol and, after more kisses, we bid farewell to the unforgettable Roma and made our way to Sevastopol and then on to a small town called Balaklava where Emily's aunt Olya and uncle Slava and their son Sergei where waiting for us.

Fourth Kiss - Memory of a Crisis in the Crimea

We arrived in the Crimea nearly one year to the day since I last visited this sunny spot in the Ukraine. I almost lost my life in Balaklava, when I became stuck on a cliff for more than 24 hours before being rescued by Ukrainian mountain rescue.

Thankfully, there were no such adventures this time round, just five days of sea, sun, sand and shashlik.

The Crimea is a beautiful place, bordering the Black Sea, with Turkey on the opposite side.

Balaklava is a town many tourists never reach. It was a nuclear submarine base during the Soviet era and was closed off. Even today, many local people simply don't know it exists.

I spent those 5 days in Balaklava staying with Emily's relatives. They are very nice, hospitable people and a real contrast to the Westerners I meet every day.

They live in a very small, cramped two room flat. For the duration of our stay, Sergei gave us his bed and slept on the floor in his parents room. This is normal in Belarus and the Ukraine. Can you imagine some Brit doing something like that?

Emily's Aunt looked after me, fed me, gave me presents and treated me like a son. One day we visited Olya's mother in Sevastopol, an eighty year old woman, and she was just as hospitable.

She prepared borsch for us and gave me some home made liquor (made from mixing vodka and rose petals) to take home to my Mum.

We sat and talked about the Ukraine, the negative impact the USA has on every country around the world, her life and her health problems. When it was time to leave, Emily was close to tears, and I was too, not knowing if we would ever see this kind old lady again.

We left the Crimea on Monday. Just before leaving Balaklava, I returned to the cliff where I spent the worst 24 hours of my life. When I was rescued last year, I tied my towel to a branch I had sheltered under during my ordeal.

On Monday I climbed down a little and was able to make out my little branch below but my towel was gone, perhaps taken by the wind, or perhaps by an intrepid climber who may have wondered why on earth there was a towel tied to a tree half way down a cliff in Balaklava.

Late Monday evening we left the Crimea behind once again and returned to the capital of the Ukraine where more Soviet kisses, more madness, awaited us.

Fifth Kiss - Crisis in Kiev

We arrived in Kiev at 11.30am yesterday and should have been met at the railway station by a woman from a flat agency who was to take us to an apartment I had arranged to rent.

Of course, this being the former USSR, she wasn't there, so we phoned her. We were told by her partner that she wasn't home and we were asked to call back in 20 minutes.

We waited and then called back. The phone was engaged. We called again and reached her. Through a mouthful of food, the woman asked us to call back in 5 minutes.

We called back and she told us to go and wait outside McDonald's near the railway station and that she would come and collect us in 20 minutes and take us to the apartment. So, we went and waited.

After an hour, it was clear that she wasn't coming. We phoned her again. From that point on she simply didn't answer the phone. The apartment was not available. The bitch had lied and lied.

With nowhere to stay, we headed to a local Internet cafe to try to find somewhere but there was nowhere and nothing available, other than hotels that were well out of my reach financially. We phoned hotels, flat agencies, hostels, everywhere, but there was nothing.

Eventually, we found two options. There was a hostel at the railway station where we could take a room after 7pm for $20 per night and one flat agency had a flat available for $120 per night.

We decided on the hostel, and went back shortly before 7pm, only to find that there were no longer any rooms or beds available. Everything was taken. So in desperation, we phoned the flat agency and asked to take the flat but were told that someone else had taken it less than thirty minutes earlier.

It was shortly after this that I started shouting obscenities at strangers in the street in Kiev.

I admit that in my own country I encounter stupidity, incompetence and a lack of common sense fairly regularly. But in the former USSR things like this happen almost every day and there are times when it all becomes too much to bear and something just snaps.

There was however a happy ending late last night when I managed to find a 2 star hotel (for $140 per night) far from the centre of Kiev.

But for now I have just about had my fill of the Ukraine. As I wrote when I began this entry, people just don't seem to understand that this is not the way that things are done.

Last Kiss - Kisses from Kiev

So this is my final night in Kiev. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to Emily's kisses and head to Riga where I will stay for one night before returning to the UK for ten hours and then travelling on to Slovenia.

I am not sure if or when I will return to the Ukraine. I have no plans to do so. I will however return to Minsk in Belarus again in November or December, and that's pretty close to the Ukraine, geographically as well as politically and ideologically.

Until then, and until Slovenia, it's goodbye and a kiss to Emily, and goodbye to the craziness and madness of the former USSR.

Onward to civilisation.

Take care all.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.