15. Ukraine to Moldova
Justine – The Odessa Files, Odessa cloth, Pearl of the Black Sea, trade of the world, melting pot of humanity – Odessa conjures so many images. But before we could see if any of them were correct, we had to battle our way through customs and immigration. We arrived in Odessa to the usual customs shenanigans. 40’c heat, no signs or instructions and what turned out to be seven complicated forms to stamp in seven different buildings. The officials were all very nice when we did eventually find them, but it was difficult to stay cool when it was that hot. We followed some of our ferry friends who had a GPS into Odessa and spent a happy day exploring the beautiful old town.
Before the Revolution, Odessa must have been quite a place. Catherine the Great first nicked the area off the Ottomans, founded the city in 1794 and then opened the doors to traders from all over the world to come and build Odessa and create one of the great trading centres of the 18th century. Traders were given land on the condition that they built a house during the following two years. The wonderful classical, renaissance and art-nouveau mansions lining the streets give testament to the fact that the city was awash with money. It was easy to imagine the early years as something like the gold and land rush in America, with entrepreneurs of every nationality scrabbling to make their fortunes.
Odessa’s change of fortune during the pogroms, world wars and subsequent soviet years took it’s tole,but 26 years after the collapse of communism, and the wealth and cosmopolitan vibes are back. Serving by far the best food we had encountered since leaving Biarritz we blew the budget seriously on sushi, gelato ice-cream, milkshakes and vast cakes. We were not the only ones. Ukrainian men seem to have skipped the sushi and just gone for the girth expanding stuff – shaved heads, gold chain and bellies hanging over their trousers. Not a good look, but there does seem to be a direct correlation between the size of the bellies and the number of Range Rover sports on the streets. Conversely, the women of Odessa have left the Soviet Union in the past and are clearly cake-proof. They are all pencil thin and gorgeous. In fact we can’t remember being anywhere with quite so many fabulous looking women and such a disparity of looks between the sexes. I felt really sorry for the women having quite such a rough choice of men, but perhaps Ukrainian males are hilariously funny and kind and the Ranger Rover Sport has nothing to do with it. Full of cakes ourselves, we waddled to the best people-watching beach, which to Tom’s delight turned out to be where all the luscious ladies
moved to in the evening. The sea did not look very inviting and seemed to follow the pattern that the hotter the weather the greener the water, but people don’t come here to swim. They come to promenade, look for Range Rover owners and dance. A last minute internet search (during the 10 minute drive to the beach) found us a fantastic flat right in the middle of the action so we could eat more ice-cream and go on fair-ground rides while Tom focused on the natives.
So far the retroroadtrip has taken us through or along the border of every one of the breakaway states or autonomous regions that Vladimir Putin has nurtured in his neighbours territories. Transdniester (also known as Transnistria) is one of the strangest, so we felt we had to visit. Recognised by nobody (including Russia) except the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it declared independence from Moldova in 1990. It is totally dependant on Uncle Putin but has its own army, currency, police, border controls and its very own oligarch who owns everything. The former policeman amusingly decided to call his conglomerate ‘Sheriff’ and everything is branded with the same sheriff badge logo in this tiny country that took a mini bite out of Moldova and nestles against Ukraine. Sheriff bank, Sheriff supermarket, Sheriff utilities, Sheriff hospital, Sheriff petrol pumps, Sheriff car tyres, Sheriff market place, Sheriff construction.
As we left Odessa for Transdniester, the temperature was pushing 40’c. The kids were clamouring for a dip in the Black Sea but every beach we came to had a barrier at which you had to pay for parking, and then another where you had to pay to enjoy the delights of the water. When I asked a guard if there were any free beaches for a 5 minute dip, he shook his head and said ‘welcome to capitalism.’.
Naturally we were baking hot when we arrived in Transdniester but because our hostel had promised a swimming pool and tennis court (odd for a hostel,) the kids had stalwartly put up with the heat. Sadly the guidebook description of the hostel turned out to be Transdniestrian propaganda. It was in fact a 20sq metre apartment in a communist tower block out of the film Train Spotting, a place that would have even disappointed manky students. Luckily we were the only guests. It would have been quite unpleasant if we had had to share the limited space with some strangers on the sofabed. The good news was that it was managed by a very nice local who showed us around town and explained how things worked in this bizarre little country. It turns out that though the local oligarch Mr Sheriff has been very good at clamping down on criminals, corruption remains rife. Our guide’s girlfriend explained that her university professor had told them that if they wanted a good mark in their exams they would need to pay him, and that this was common practice for all public servants, like doctors, surgeons, teachers etc. Our Greek friends have always told us this is common practice in Greece too, so perhaps Transdniester will take Britain’s place in the new EU. Interestingly, although Transdniesterans seem resigned to paying their teachers, they are not happy transgressing minor traffic regulations. NOBODY will cross the road without the green man illuminated at the lights even if there are no cars for miles. Strangely you can also buy fake Euros in the newsagent.
The next day we hopped over into Moldova whose roads were lined with vast fields of sunflowers dancing in the heat. When it gets really hot we deploy the aircon, which for us means taking the door tops off. The roads in Moldova are either OK or terrible, and somehow we seemed always to find ourselves on the terrible ones. Its difficult to say there were vast potholes in the road because in many cases the road was just potholes with only the occasional bit which could be called a road. As evening drew in our alternator finally packed up, after behaving strangely for the past two months. Until this point, Tom had always managed to get to the bottom of all Kabylie’s problems himself without the aid of a garage or expert. However the alternator’s intermittent problems had defeated him. As luck would have it we stopped outside a tiny village garage that, strangely, had its door open at 19:00 on a Saturday night and it turned out that the young owner was only too delighted to spend his Saturday evening stripping down Kabylie’s alternator. Remarkably he found and fixed the loose connection, and then refused payment! Tom’s elation was so great that he insisted on payment, particularly as we learnt he was about to take his girlfriend to sample the delights of Odessa. Now he could buy her copious amounts of ice-cream whilst he gawped at the girls. As the sun set, we drove to a nearby sunflower field and pitched camp.
We waved goodbuy to Moldova and it’s friendly people and entered the EU. It felt rather sad to be coming back to Europe as it highlighted the fact that the retroroadtrip will be coming to an end in September. The ease of choosing supper ingredients from a supermarket stocked with familiar products is of course welcome, but at the same time it is sad that the exotic is receding the closer we get to home. Luckily Romania still holds much to delight, from it’s geological wonders to it’s rural way of life.