The Eastern Block
This one is a little overdue but I figured better late than never. Before this latest leg of the journey through Turkey and Greece we spent a couple of months in the Black Sea visiting Ukraine and Bulgaria I like to refer to this portion of the contract as ‘The Eastern Block.’
I had been to the Black Sea once before, but in Romania, so I didn’t really know what to expect to find in either of these countries. Having been in St Petersburg, Russia many times earlier in the year and finding it drab, depressing, and full of jerks I didn’t have high hopes for Ukraine. This was largely based on the fact that they speak Russian, but in the end couldn’t have been farther from the truth. It turns out Ukraine is a really interesting place, albeit quirky, but filled with warm and friendly people. We went to 3 different cities in Ukraine; Odessa, Sevastopol, and Yalta. In Bulgaria we weren’t fortunate to spend as much time as we only visited the city of Burgas a few times.
Let me first begin to describe Ukraine by telling one of the better adventures and of some of the weirdos we met. This was a cool day in October in the city of Odessa. Mike and I set out for adventure in the late morning with the intention of not returning to the ship until 4.00 am when we were required to be back. It was a day off and we were going to make the most of it.
We set out into the city to get some coffee, a bite to eat, and use some wifi to find some activities to get into for the day. After doing a little research we decide to go see the Odessa Philharmonic that night. We also decided that this was the appropriate time to start drinking. Fortified with caffeine and bloody marries we set out to find the concert hall in order to get tickets for the night’s show. We had a map, but neither of us read Russian so we just tried to line up the squiggles on the map with the ones on the signs. This proved to be rather difficult. Eventually we were standing on a street corner looking confused when a guy came up to us and asked (in really good English) if he could help us. (he had apparently lived in the states for a while.) Armed with his instructions we set off again. We walked for quite a while in the direction he suggested but it was to no avail. We stopped again for drinks and to consult the map and realized we had passed it blocks ago.
Eventually we arrived at the hall and get in line at the box office. There was an American couple in line in front of us, which was quite lucky because they had to go to all the trouble of explaining what they wanted and then we just made hand signals for the same thing. We got the tickets and now had a few hours to kill before the show so we set off for some drinks and a bite to eat.
After walking for a while we settled into an interesting looking place in a more residential neighborhood. While enjoying some beers and perusing the menu, we noticed a large black man in a suite smoking a cigar and sipping a cognac behind us. This might seem like an unusual thing to notice but keep in mind that there are no black people in Ukraine. We struck up a conversation with him and it turns out that he was from New York and there on some kind of ‘business.’ He later told us he sold diamonds but his whole operation seemed kind of gangster. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy and he seemed to be having a huge time in Ukraine. We made plans with him and his buddy to meet them after the concert but that was the last we saw them.
After this exchange we set out for the concert hall. We arrived just in the nick of time and found our seats right next to the Americans from the box office line earlier in the day. They turned out to be guests on our ship and we would run into them periodically throughout the rest of the cruise. The first half of the concert was weird. The first selection was some kind of bad movie music with poppy harmonies and rhythms. The second selection was a very short new piano piece, played by a young guy who was reading the music. It was strange. The audience seemed to love it though. At the break, we went to bar in the hall. I usually avoid concert hall bars because they are generally way over priced. This one was a little different. We had 2 glasses of champagne, 2 shots of vodka, and 2 portions of caviar for 25 Ukranian schnip-schnaps or a little over $4. Did I mention how awesome Ukraine is?!?!
The bell rang and we ran back in for the 2nd half of the show. It was Scheherazade and it sounded like a completely different orchestra from the first half. Really nice playing from many of the sections and to be fair, there were many different musicians on the second half.
After the show we went in search of our friends from earlier in the evening but were unable to find them. About this time we decided to go into the city center and search for our friend Jack. I’m not totally sure why we thought that if we just wandered around the city we would find him but that’s the way things usually work for us.
As we were wandering around searching for Jack we encountered 2 Ukrainian girls and hence began the oldest scam in the book.
We passed them on the sidewalk and made eye contact and they said “priviet,” (hello) which we returned with American accents. They giggled and said some probably horrible things to each other in Russian and then asked what we were doing. We replied, “looking for Jack.” This confused them greatly but they proceeded undeterred by asking if we would like to go for a drink. We said of course, as we were out drinking for the night already and they suggested a place nearby. Once inside they spoke to the hostess in Russian and then suggested we go to the upper level of the café as it was quieter. We followed them upstairs and to a back room with visions of stolen kidneys and white slavery in our heads. We ordered some drinks and they asked if they could order some food so we said yes. It was pretty obvious that they were just playing nice in order to get us to buy them a meal. It’s pretty much the oldest trick in the book. In the end, they were quite sweet. Our drinks weren’t drugged and we made it out with all of our organs and plans to meet them at a club later that night. First we had to find Jack though.
We spent the next few hours checking all the bars in Odessa for Jack but never found him. We decided to step things up a little bit by getting a couple of $2 pints of vodka from the supermarket. This was probably the most horrible beverage I’ve ever tasted in my life and I’m pretty sure it had more lead than alcohol in it. Nevertheless, it fit perfectly into my back pocket and insured that there would be no dull times for the rest of the night.
About this time we started to get hungry again. (this was probably around 1.30-2.00am) We remembered a sushi place nearby and set out for there. Luckily they were still open, though we were the only customers. We asked if they took credit cards as we were out of cash and they said no. We said it was ok and ordered a bunch of food and Sake anyway. They seemed a little reluctant to serve us without having any way to pay for the food so I ran around the corner to use the ATM.
Sidebar- using atms in Ukraine is super fun because of the exchange rate. If you take out the equivalent of $100 it’s about a half inch thick of 50 schnip-schnap notes.
I get back to the restaurant, we eat the food, drink the sake, and finish the vodka. We thought we were being really sneaky about the vodka but it turns out they knew all along and just didn’t care. When we left I cleverly hid the bottles in with the display of soy sauces and other condiments. The waitress spotted them immediately and told us not to forget them. Then she came outside with us and pointed us in the direction of more fun times.
We made another short lap through the city and then back to the ship to crash out.
Another time Mike and I ate some Russian potato salad and had some cognac at this little place inside of a market place selling fish and other food products. It was the kind of place mostly for locals just needing to get a quick bite or something while running errands, nothing fancy about it at all –Anthony Bourdain eat your heart out.
What struck me about this place was that the people were so friendly with us. They spoke virtually no English and we speak no Russian, save ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ These people were totally willing to stand there and laugh with us while we tried to pantomime exactly what we wanted, and this was definitely not a tourist place. It made me think of all the times in St Petersburg that we received a bunch of attitude or were completely ignored in restaurants and how different it was in Ukraine.
Sevastopol in Ukraine is a super nice seaside town.
In Bulgaria we were lucky to be with our friends from the jazz quartet here, Fade to Blue. 3 of the 4 members from their band are from Bulgaria. They took us for lunch by the sea and ordered a bunch of great local foods including a large bread that was thin like a pita and shaped like a football but stuffed with cheese and butter. Pretty delicious.
The town of Burgas is a great place for walking around and not doing much of anything. They have a large beachfront and nice parks which seem to get a lot of use from the residents.
I enjoyed my time in ‘the Eastern Block’ very much. I’ve known many Ukrainians from work and enjoyed spending time in their country. I’m sure that it is probably very different when you get away from the seaside and into the larger cities and it would be interesting to check that out as well. I would definitely recommend traveling to this part of the world.