Friday, December 3, 2004

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Eleven years ago in Ukraine....

Amanda Butler has an amusing post at Crescat Sententia about what it's like to celebrate Thanksiving in an ex-Soviet republic. That, plus the high stakes in Ukraine, caused me to open up the electronic diary I kept of the year I spent in Ukraine as a Civic Education Project lecturer to see how we celebrated Thanksgiving circa 1993.

Long diary entry after the jump...

11/27/93: I'm typing this in the Palace Hotel in Yalta. The trip here was interesting. Yalta is in the Crimea, which is supposed to be the garden spot of Ukraine. After a pleasant overnight trip, we got of at Simferapol and were greeted by a biting wind, snow blowing everywhere, and a temperature colder than in Donetsk. We were met by a guy from the local Renaissance foundation, who proved useless. We asked him where we could get tickets back to Donetsk; he answered that it was in the city centre. We then asked him repeatedly if there was an Intourist office at the train station; he said that you could only buy tickets there for the next day. It turned out later that he was of course wrong. It's real pathetic when I know more about how the system operates than the locals.

We hopped a minibus to Yalta; it's a two-hour drive. The snow was unusual for this area. This perhaps explained why they were throwing sand on the road by hand.

Yalta has a certain charm, there's no denying it. It existed prior to the USSR, which perhaps explains it. The streets are narrow and winding, and resemble the French Riviera, except there are no good restaurants, and people are much less snobbish. The boardwalk on the shore is lined with palm trees, and bears a more than passing resemblance to the Coisette in Cannes. Our hotel has high ceilings, spacious rooms, and constant power outages. It's also not prepared for subzero temperatures, so it is a tad cold in here. We had fun today, playing on the bumper cars. Lunch today was eaten to the sountracks of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Karate Kid, and something by Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. Actually, all we had was soup, but despite that fact we had to shell out 70,000 koupons [at the time, about $15] apiece. My guess is that the restaurant was pissed at us for ordering only soup, and therefore overcharged.

After this, we walked to the Hotel Yalta, a mammoth construction built by the Yugoslavs (yeah, they really knew how to hold things together) in the early 70's. In typical fashion, they built the hotel so that it's long side runs perpendicular to the ocean. Nothing is as depressing as a tourist hotel out of season, unless it's a Soviet hotel out of season. The building was 20 floors, with perhaps 50 rooms in each floor. Occupancy was maybe 10% now. The lobby level had tons of little shops which sold western products at outrageously high prices. To get down to the beach level, you have to take an elevator and then walk through a tunnel straight out of a nuclear shelter. On this level there was some more shops, a sauna, and a great Chinese restaurant, with the following dishes (the names are in English):

1) Macaroni and Meat
2) French Fried Meat
3) Meat and Mash Beans
4) Roasted Meat and Cauliflower
5) Roasted Beef on Iron Board (?!)
6) Pork with Onion

You get the idea. The place was obviously catering to westerners. There were signs for everything in at least German and English in addition to Russian. The service was, however, a bit lacking. We wanted to rent out a sauna room for CEP, and was told that the sauna was only open in the daytime until 5 PM, and that it would be impossible to use it after that. This begs the question: who exactly did they build this hotel for? It's too expensive for Russians and too inadequate for westerners. It was pointed out to me at this point that there are a lot of stupid westerners. Maybe so; after all, I'm here.

11/27/93: Whew, Lord, where to begin. Yesterday we went back to the Hotel Yalta to use the sauna. It was about ten of us. We get to the service desk, and they tell us it's not possible, the saunas are reserved now. I got very angry in Russian at him, and we started arguing. Finally, in a fit of pique, he said, "What is it with you Americans?! Why do you think that if you come you can do something immediately?"

I was tempted to answer, "Because there's a service sector in our economy, you nimrod." but didn't. Americans are a blunt bunch, but we are also pragmatic. Instead, I mentioned casually that there were ten of us, and that perhaps we would return several times to use it in the spring if we came back to Yalta. At this point, he quickly changed his tune, called another hotel, and booked us in a sauna there, which he frankly said was better. We all hopped into a minivan, and a guy drove us to the neighboring hotel and fixed us up in the sauna. We were given the run of a sauna (which had a tea room) and access to a swimming pool for three hours, for the princely sum of $25. Now this was decadence.

Even though it was a day late, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, with all the trimmings (the turkeys were imported from Georgia). Just like a Thanksgiving dinner in the states, the side dishes were finished too soon and there was leftover turkey. Dinner was slightly delayed, because the power went out in the hotel several times. This has been a common problem in Yalta. The Crimean peninsula does not have its own functioning power station. An atomic plant was built several years ago, but it was so obviously unsafe that it was never switched on.

That night we went drinking in the hotel bar. We were the only westerners in the bar. During the evening, one of the locals dragged me from our table and offered me a vodka shot in the spirit of American Ukrainian friendship. This is a common practice. It is telling that I immediately downed the shot, said thank you, and walked back to my table as if nothing had happened. I've been in this country too long.

That night I got dressed up to go visit a local casino, the Casino 777. There had been signs all over, and I haven't been to one yet in this country (or my country, for that matter). I bought 15 dollars worth of chips (denominated in rubles, interestingly enough). The place was very nice, with maybe 10 blackjack and roulette tables. Each table had a rather attractive woman who dealt cards with as much dexterity as in Las Vegas. The bar was well stocked. Unfortunately, there was no one gambling. Admittedly, it's out of season, but on a Saturday night, it was astonishing to see this many people employed, doing nothing.

There was one other person gambling, a 40-year old man, and he was speaking only English with an Irish accent. His dress was Hollywood: Blazer over unbuttoned black silk shirts with lots of jewelry, and the week-old beard. I watched him lose about 150 dollars. I introduced myself, and, as I was only speaking Russian until that time, shocked the hell out of him. He was so pleased to see a Westerner that he bought me drinks for the rest of the night. I had the best vodka-tonics I have ever had (Schweppes bitter lemon and Absolut, with ice) and spent the better part of two hours with a wonderful Paddy named D----.

He's an actor in a BBC movie, starring Sean Bean, being shot here called "Sharp" (It will also be shown on Masterpiece Theatre). The movie is set in 1810 Spain, but being shot here. The reason, Darra explained, was that this movie needed a lot of extras and the Ukrainians are cheap. One of the dealers was an extra and paid only 9,000 kps a day (the wage was fixed from August). They had hired an entire army company to play a part in the movies, and every day they have to leave Simferapol at 3:00 AM to get to Yalta in time for shooting. The cast and crew of 400 were staying in a sanitorium, and the meals were catered. Apparently this caused almost 530 people to show up regularly for the lunch.

We had the usual conversation about life here, and he was just flummoxed by the place. I don't know how healthy it was for him to be here. He mentioned that he hadn't had a drink for five years before this shoot, but he was slurring his words badly (the woman behind the bar told me in Russian that she liked him, but thought he drank too much. That's something for a Russian to say). Of course, he mentioned the women. His problem is even worse than mine; he had a 16-year old interpreter blatantly offer sex. Apparently, during the shoot last year, 12 members of the cast and crew got the clap.

Paddy's view of this place was gloomy. He had been here last year for twenty weeks as well, and said that people were much less hopeful. He said, "I'm a Paddy, for Chrissakes, we have the worst poverty in Europe, and we're still hopeful. An Irishman would always be cheerful, but even I've become cynical about this place."

posted by Dan on 12.03.04 at 12:31 AM


You meet Patrick Harper and you don't even get his name right? Mind you, the Patrick Harper in the books is more impressive (as are the books compared to the impoverished screenplays), but still, it's the principle of the thing.

posted by: Bean on 12.03.04 at 12:31 AM [permalink]

Bean: Nice try, but it wasn't Patrick Harper.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 12.03.04 at 12:31 AM [permalink]

Spent Thanksgiving 12 years ago in St. Petersburg (Russia). Aside from trying to mind-meld a fatty pork roast into a turkey and fried zucchini into everything else, it was a fine time. But the telling could never stack up to Ms. Butler's nice story.


posted by: Rofe on 12.03.04 at 12:31 AM [permalink]

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