Odessa, Ukraine

jumping point for the trans-Siberian Railroad…

Checking in at LAX I remember how bad the American Airline companies have become.  Only after traveling around the world do you realize that the American consumer is getting the short end of the stick.  For example, Turkish Airlines service, meals, & fares rival any American carrier; they have great fares, a good meal, and their staff is friendly and helpful.  The last flight I took on American Airlines I thought that the entire crew needed a serious attitude adjustment.  On most American carriers, not only do they NOT feed you, you have to pay extra for a checked bag.  I don’t see why they don’t include the bag price, add a meal, and just raise the prices ten or twenty dollars?  It all seems so silly.

As I put my passport away, I look again at my Russian visa.  I have only 30 days; 30 days to get across that great big country.  To put it into some perspective, Los Angeles and New York are about 3,000 miles apart.  Just part of the way across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok is 6,000 miles.  And the trains only move at about 55 miles per hour…  Despite the distance, getting the visa was tough – it seems that Moscow is still living in the cold war; anyone with a U.S. passport is still suspected of being CIA or a spy.  To get a visa, you first have to be “invited” to Russia.  Your “host” must make a formal letter, with all the requisite stamps and approvals and send it back to you.  You submit this form along with your visa application, photos (2), and fees to the Russian Embassy or Consulate.  $300 later, you have a visa.  Almost no one makes the invitation forms themselves.  Instead, we rely on travel agencies who do it for a nominal fee, say $40.  In the end, you get your visa, but with added bureaucracy, time, and expense.  After arriving in Russia, you must “register” yourself with the local police within 3 days.  Every time you move, you must re-register.  If you are staying at a hotel, they will usually do this for you.  But in my case, where I’m staying with a family in Yoshkar-Ola, we will have to go to the local police department.  Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that…  But, it’s close to impossible for Russians to get Visas to the US, so, I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Poland’s LOT airlines was late with my connection, so I was stuck for a day in Warsaw.  They put me up in the Courtyard by Marriot – it was actually in the airport parking lot so I didn’t have to go far.  Polish jokes aside, everyone in Ukraine tells me LOT airlines is always late…  I wonder if those jokes have an origin somewhere in reality?

At least they put me in a nice hotel :-)

Odessa, Ukraine is as I remember it.  It is a sleepy beach community in south Ukraine on the Black Sea.  It is a popular tourist destination for the CIS countries (former USSR) and there are visitors from Russia and other parts of the old empire.  In the city center, there is a main walking street.  It is similar to the Riverwalk in San Antonio or 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California.  The streets are lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and of course, one McDonalds.  Only in the east can you find a McDonalds full of women in size 3-5 – LOL.

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Walking the streets, the Ukrainian women look as though they have just stepped off of a Paris fashion show.  Everyone wears 4” heels, and curve hugging clothes that make all of the visiting men suffer from a rare form of whiplash.  The local men, long accustomed to the beautiful women are long since immune and don’t even seem to notice the beauty that surrounds them.  Oleg, my friend and local guide tells me it takes about 6 weeks before you don’t notice them anymore.  I find it hard to believe.

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While visiting Odessa for about 2 weeks, I decided to go to the Ballet.  The Odessa Opera House is an iconic landmark in Ukraine and is a well-known landmark in Ukraine.  It is a beautiful building and the inside wood is gilded in gold leaf.  It is a custom for married couples in Odessa to go to the Opera House to have their photos taken after the wedding.  There is a beautiful garden and fountain on the Opera House grounds.  I went to the Opera in Minsk in 2002, I believe the tickets for box seats were $2 US.  For first row second section (close enough, but not too close that you have to stretch your neck – considered the “best” seats) at the Odessa Ballet set me back $5.  It is wonderful to experience world-class culture in the professional arts for such a great price.

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I can gladly say that for two weeks in Odessa, I didn’t do much at all.  I ate, slept, sipped coffee, relaxed, people watched, exercised a bit, and practiced my Russian.  After 4 ½ years in the Middle East, it was nice to just sit down and do nothing.  Oleg rented a nice apartment for me.  It is a spacious place, maybe eight or nine hundred square feet including a fourier, bedroom, living room, fully stocked kitchen, bathroom, and even a balcony.  The price is about ½ of what I paid for a smaller hotel room on my last visit to Odessa.  With the kitchen and the fridge, I’m able to stock food and make my own breakfast and cook my own coffee.  Some days I go to the café, but it is nice to have breakfast still wearing pajamas and watching TV (albeit it is in Russian and I “maybe” understand every 10th word).  The apartment also has Wi-Fi internet making it very convenient and comfortable.

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One day my interpreter/Russian teacher and I ran into her mother in the park.  I was “forced” to pose for  a photo with “Mom.”

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Aside from high fashion, Ukraine shares one characteristic with Russia – the never-ending disco music.  No matter where you go, you will be surrounded by driving disco, techno, or house music – the kind of music that has a steady beat, techno keyboard sounds, and a futuristic sound you might hear in a rave or night club.  It doesn’t matter if you are in a clothes store, at the park, in a taxi, in a sushi restaurant, or in the hotel lobby.  Chances are, you’ll hear some kind of disco music.  Without fail, if you climb into a taxi, as soon as the car starts moving, the taxi driver will turn in some disco music for you.  It is almost as if the Russians find comfort in disco and the taxi driver is trying to make you feel at ease.  I don’t mind it sometimes, but when you’re at the park enjoying the squirrels and birds, the driving disco from the shoe store on the corner just spoils the mood.  And in a sushi restaurant?  It just seems very non-traditional Japanese.

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I am surprised at the bank advertisements.  Grievna deposits are paying 30% and Dollar/Euro deposits are paying 13-15%.  The government of Ukraine insures all accounts to US $20,000 and many European and American banks have branches here.  So, a Citibank deposit in Odessa, denominated in US dollars pays about 15%.  Many foreigners are coming and investing in Ukraine.  The credit crunch is global, but it seems that some countries are willing to pay to attract capital.  Even marketing has come to the eastern block; I see a huge billboard that reads in Russian “Ukraine bank and us” next to a family looking at their bank statement.


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late night Ukrainian TV

This is a travel blog: primarily to pass the stories that I’ve experienced to friends and family (primarily in America).  What I deem to be “interesting” is pretty much anything that’s different from what one might experience in America.  In the case of this post, that cetainly is true.

One evening when I stayed in rather than go out, I was flicking through the TV channels, trying to find a Russian language program that was subtitled in English when I came across the “nude” channel.  This wasn’t on pay-per-view, this was regular TV.  It seems that after 9pm or 10pm in Ukraine, the “PG” rating gets lifted.  Hmm, actually the “R” rating gets lifted as the shows and advertisements had full frontal nudity.

So, I was a bit shocked as we certainly don’t even have chest nudity in America on regular TV.  But, after a while, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  I remember a conversation that I had with a Norweigan couple wherein the woman asked me, “What’s the big deal of showing a tit on TV?  In America you have violent movies, boxing matches and Ultimate Fights where people get bloodied, bludgeoned and some even die.  Those shows are ok for children but a natural body is forbidden?  Hmm…  no wonder America has so much violence.”  And as I thought about it, no one in the inner cities ever died from a drive by boob flashing.  Maybe she had a point.  When I saw topless women at the beaches in Norway and in Greece it was a shock for all of about 5 minutes and then it was just “normal.”  I am sure that for my European readers, this is no big deal as I have seen topless women on late night TV in many European countries.  I’d love to hear your input in the comments section below.

Well, the culture and “decency” standards are certainly different between the two countries.  It is something I learned while traveling, it is something that I’ll have to think about before I make up my mind on the subject.

Well, I had better cut this post short as I need to save my fingers to type response emails to my family as I get barated with angry emails – LOL.


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Odessa

My first visit to Odessa – I’d been to Ukraine before, but never to the Black Sea Coast.  It was summertime after all, what better to do than spend 5 or 6 days at the beach on a work break?  As I had been studying Russian a bit, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to practice a bit.

In hindsight, I really should have taken more photos.  But, this was a holiday for relaxation, not necessarily a trip for the sake of travel.  I realize now that I didn’t take a single photo at the beach, but heck, who wants to babysit a camera when swimming in the ocean?  And so, each day, I walked to the beach from my hotel, did some running, a little cross-fit (push-ups and pull-ups) and got a little sun.  The beaches were just covered with beautiful (and fit) Ukranian girls and sadly, I don’t have one photo to post.  LOL

In the photo above is the Saint Panteleimon Cathedral and Monastery.  Built in 1876, it served as a resting point for religious pilgrims traveling to the holy places: Constantinople and Jerusalem.  It is just across the street a few hundred meters from the Odessa train station (below).  Both are a two dollar cab ride, a .15 cent trolley ride or a 20 minute walk from the “walking street” district with its prominent McDonalds restaurant and park.

The train station (voksal) is a good meeting place and had a large square in the front and a nice park across the street.  In the square are vendors of all kinds and you can find a nice lunch or a snack.  Looking through my photos, I see two Ukrainian couples that are typical of what you might see on a summer day.  Everyone is always asking, “Are the Ukrainian girls as beautiful as we have heard”?  In answer, “Yes.  Yes they are.”  It’s not that American women are not beautiful, they are just 10 or 20 kilos larger (on average) than Ukrainian women.  Oh, and the Ukrainian women glam it up every day.  High heels, mini-skirts, makeup and jewelry are common every day sights.  You won’t ever see a girl in jeans and a t-shirt.  Ukrainian women are all about feminine beauty and it’s almost a competition between them.

For the men, the dress is definitely European except for the tell-tale Russian “bowl” haircut that is so popular in the East Block and the Balkans.  Many Ukrainian men (actually many E-block men) cut their bangs straight across, and, you actually see this hair style with a lot of women.  I often see men wearing – what I call E-block “bowling shirts” – like the man on the right is wearing.  At the night clubs, shiny long sleeve “pimp” shirts (like you would see in the movie Night at the Roxbury) are the norm.

The Ukrainian people have a mixed look; some appear a bit Mediterranean (even Latin or Middle East looking), some look Slavic (traditional Russian looking), and some look Germanic or Nordic.  It is interesting as some people have a mix of different “looks,” and I wonder from where their ancestors originated.  What is always surprising is the large number of green-eyed people here.  The most blue eyes I ever saw were in Croatia, in Ukraine, a large portion of the population is blue, hazel but there are so many with green eyes…

So, back to women’s fashions.  I was having breakfast on my balcony when I spotted this woman across the street at in a commercial parking lot.  I thought I’d capture her photo as she is “all Ukrainian” in her dress.  I mean, get a load of those high heels!  Can you imagine a woman in America dressing like this just to go to market?  Again and again, I noticed how the women here take some time and make the extra effort to look feminine.  It was a refreshing look after the baggy sweats and “frumpy” look that we seem to have embraced in the west.


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