Sitting on the sofa of the small common room area of the hostel in Lviv with my laptop, a two year old Mac Powerbook whose battery has pretty much died so it now needs to be constantly connected to a power supply. In the area just outside, covered by a leaking plastic roof, where building work is going on, occasionally, some men sit around a table drinking vodka and beer. One of them is the owner of the hostel. He invites me to come and join them for a drink. He speaks a little English but none of the others speak any. I’m introduced to them by immediately forget their names. The owner pours out vodka into small plastic cups, except I get a metal measuring cup.
What do you say in England? Prost? He speaks more German than English. Cheers. Here they say nasdrovia, or something like that. I say what I think he said but apparently I’m saying it wrong. Perhaps I was saying nasdrovnia, or just putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable.
I’m not sure if nasdrovnia is Russian or Ukrainian. The owner tells me he’s Russian. from Moscow. People here seem to speak both Russian and Ukrainian, usually mixed together, though it’s hard to tell since I only know a few words of each. I notice they say da (= yes in Russian) but I haven’t heard anyone saying nyet (= no in Russian) so maybe they’re saying the Ukrainian no, or maybe they’re not saying no. Vodka? Da. Pivo? Da. Pivo is beer, which is what’s poured into the cups after each vodka.
A couple of vodkas later, when offered another, I say nyet. Das ist verboten. The owner pours vodka into my cup. After the third or fourth round, when I’ve been sitting there mostly not saying anything, listening to them talking, occasionally having something translated for me by the owner, each time starting with him saying: You understand? and me saying: Nyet or No or Nein. We are going to the Carpata mountains to look for champignons, he says. How do you say champignons in English?
We are going to look for the muslims high up in the Carpata mountains. You understand these are not the kinds of muslims you eat, they are just for the smoking. Would you like to come to the Carpata mountains with us and look for muslims? You can take a bag of muslims back to London with you and you can tell your friends these muslims came from the Carpata mountains.
What time are you going?
We will get there at 2 o’clock.
2 o’clock tomorrow or 2 o’clock tonight?
2 o’clock tonight. So you will come with us? You understand these are very beautiful mountains. You will breathe in and the mountain air will fill your… He pats his chest.
He demonstrates how I will take a deep breath and let the mountain air fill my lungs. You will feel very good. Gutt fur der gerzunt (good for the health).
Much of what he was saying was in German so I was only catching bits of it. I decided I’d go.
But before we can look for the champignons we must have a small drink – and another round of vodkas is poured. Due to the language barrier and having had a few vodkas I’m a bit confused about what’s going to happen, when exactly we’re leaving, how long it takes to get there, whether we’re going to sleep somewhere there or just go and pick the mushrooms and then come back. I have been introduced to the designated driver though, a young guy who hasn’t been drinking vodka or beer. He is a bit young but he can driver, the owner explains. It’s bad to drink and drive, but I do it. The police never catch me because I turn off my lights and I go very fast and they don’t know where I am. I just go.
That was a few days ago. Now I’m on a train from Lviv to Odessa. I walked from the hostel up to the station to catch the 19:52 night train and only just made it, with 2 minutes to spare. It’s about a 45 minute walk. I would have taken a bus or tram but I never know where they’re going. Very few people here speak English and signs are all in cyrillic.
There was a large political rally going on in the main square of Lviv. Several thousand people. Enough to fill Trafalgar Square perhaps. A stage had been set up, with a large screen next to it. Loads of orange flags in the crowd. The Victor Yushchenko party. I heard the speaker say President Yushchenko a few times, along with Ukrainia and economica. I didn’t understand anything else. Earlier on, in the hostel office they had the radio on and I heard the name Yanukovych mentioned. I asked one of the women who runs the hostel about the elections that are coming soon for the Ukrainian parliament. She told me: Yushchenko is our president and Yankovych is the errr… prime minister. But she didn’t know anything about the elections.
The elections were called after President Yushchenko dissolved parliament, though his rivals in the Yanukovych party said he didn’t have the authority so the decision went to the high court. All I know about their politics is that Yushchenko is pro-western and Yanukovych is pro-Russian. In the presidential election of 2004 they stood against one another. Yanukovych was the preferred candidate of the out going president and he was backed by Putin. Initially Yanukovych was declared the victor, but Yushchenko and his supporters claimed their candidate the victor and they contested the result, alleging fraud. People took to the streets in what was called the orange revolution and the result was overturned by the courts.
I read a few days ago that Viktor Yushchenko is now opening accusing the Russians blocking the investigation into his poisoning in the run up to the 2004 presidential elections. Russia is refusing to provide samples of dioxins its laboratories produce, which would enable investigators to see whether the Russian dioxins match those that Yushchenko ingested.
The Russian hostel owner had some opinions on British politics. He said the British government had done a very bad thing in taking in Boris Berezovsky: He is a very bad man. He is a killer. But he has a lot of money, that’s why Britain wants him. I said I didn’t know much about it, which I don’t.
I don’t know what he thinks about Ukrainian politics. I tried to prompt him into giving an opinion but he didn’t. Maybe it’s a touchy subject. Western Ukraine is the heartland of Yushchenko support. People here will mainly speak Ukrainian rather than Russian, and a few do speak a bit of English, or at least they want to try. I’ve not been to the East, but I think there they speak Russian and really don’t want to speak English at all.
On the train the woman sitting opposite me asks if I’m going to Odessa. (I understood the word Odessa, and guessed the rest.) I buy some chocolate, pistachio nuts and juice from the passing trolley and after eating the chocolate I share the pistachio nuts with the woman, having read in Lonely Planet that it’s customary to share your food on trains in Ukraine. It pays off because later she offers me one of her two sandwiches. I feel a bit guilty about taking it, but don’t let that stop me. I haven’t eaten since lunch which was 8 or 9 hours ago.
I need to get a Russian or Ukrainian phrase book. I had a look round the book shops in Lviv but they didn’t have anything. There were a number of book shops but they were all quite small, about the size of a Charing Cross Road second hand shop, but whereas a Charing Cross Road shop would be packed full of books from floor to ceiling with barely room to pass between the shelves, these just had books around the edges, the centre left open and empty, and mostly they were behind a counter so you couldn’t just browse, you had to speak to a member of staff if you wanted to have a look at something.
Now in a cafe in Odessa train station. I had hoped to get some breakfast but can’t see anything I want to eat. On display there’s half a chicken (cooked), something that looks like it might be a pancake, a sausage, some biscuits and bars of chocolate. I asked for a Bounty but was told the chocolate was not for sale or something, so I’m just having a chai – tea with sugar and no milk.
I had a chai on the train and bought one for the woman opposite. She poured the two sachets of sugar into it. I don’t usually have sugar in tea, but I guess chai here, like in India, comes sugared, though in India they brew the tea with sugar already in it, and milk as well.
It’s quite hard to find edible food to eat in Ukraine. There are plenty of bars and cafes but mostly they seem to be just for drinking – either vodka, beer or chai. There aren’t that many restaurants, and in the shops there’s not much food that you can take away and eat without having to cook it or prepare it in a kitchen in some way. They don’t seem to sell ready-made sandwiches. Maybe you could ask them to make you a sandwich if you spoke the language.
Five of us got into the car. After driving the wrong way down a one-way street we pulled into an estate of flats, Soviet era. The hostel owner pissed against a parked car then leant against it smoking a cigarette. A young guy came over and there was an argument. It seems it was his car, though he didn’t look old enough to drive, but then neither does our driver.
People kept saying things to me in Russian or Ukrainian, I couldn’t tell which. The owner would then say: You understand? and I’d say nyet and get a translation.
Whoever’s flat this was comes back with a bag that he puts in the boot of the car. Someone else comes back from a shop with a bottle of vodka (vodka), a bottle of beer (pivo) and cigarettes. We drive off to another block of flats in the same estate where one of the others goes and gets his change of clothes. A round of vodkas is poured and drunk while we wait. As we drive off the hostel owner is on his mobile. He hands the phone to me and asks me to say something. I say hello but no one answers. Later he says: You understand? and I say nyet. He says he was telling whoever it was on the phone that the Americans and British are invading Ukraine, it’s a krieg, how you say in English? War? Yes, I say it is war and we need all able-bodied men in the centre of Lviv to fight Americans and British and he [whoever he was talking to] say that’s problem because I am in north Lviv and it will take time to get to centre. The hostel owner laughs. Later we meet the guy he was speaking to, at a bus stop by a kiosk, the same place we were at about an hour ago. He’s a big guy wearing a camouflage combat jacket. He has a small moustache and looks a bit like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai, only fatter.
Another round of vodkas to welcome Alec Guinness, who then squeezes into the back of the car. With four of us in the back it’s a bit cramped, particularly since Alec seems to have a whole seat to himself so three of us are all on one side, and we drive off to the hostel owner’s flat. His estate appears to be a bit more up market than the others. There are some trees in the parking area. I make use of one of them to have a piss. In the other estates everything was a mixture of concrete and tarmac.
the owner, who, along with two of the other guys, is called Andrey, comes back with a bag and a bucket. He says his wife has told him to come back with the bucket full of muslims or she’ll divorce him.
We stop at a supermarket and buy a load of food, plus more vodka and beer. I notice how people are quite assertive when ordering something at the meat or fish counter. You don’t wait for the server to make eye contact or to say: Can I help you? If you do that you’ll be waiting there all day. And you don’t take any notice of people who might have got there before you. Instead you demand what you want and the exchanges all sounded quite aggressive, though I couldn’t understand exactly what was being said, so perhaps it was more friendly than it sounded. The server didn’t seem too bothered. She was just as aggressive in her replies. In Odessa I saw a guy at the cheese counter demanding four pieces of cheese, in English, though it didn’t sound like English was his first language. He kept saying it, getting louder each time and holding up four fingers, but the server was just giving him a baffled look.
At the checkout I offered to pay something but they tell me I’m a guest so I don’t pay anything. Another vodka in the car and then, about 10 or 15 minutes later, just outside the town, we stop for a piss, another vodka, beer, a bit of food and cigarettes. In a foil bag there are lumps of meat, I couldn’t tell know what sort of meat, but 50 percent fat and 50 percent meat. I eat both the fat and the meat though. With all this drinking I need to get something solid in my stomach. The empty bags, bones from the meat, empty vodka and beer bottles are thrown onto the grass verge.
It’s now dark. Must be gone 9 o’clock. We’ve been driving around like this for about two hours. I’m told it’s another two hour drive to the Carpathians. An ex-student of Andrey, the hostel owner, has a hotel out there. In Soviet times he was a trainer for the women’s alpine skiing team.