May Day Blues

The Weather is at the core of the British psyche. We start any conversations discussing it, and our mood is determined by it. Whatever the weather it is wrong for the British. When it snows we complain that everything stops working. When it rains the news cameras always find a flood. When it gets hot we want it cold again.

Tomorrow is the first day of May and today it is raining and the weather has taken a complete U-turn and headed back towards winter. It is cold, once more fires are being restoked, and central heating restarted. There has even been whispering of snow. It is made more painful because 10 days ago we were into a summer heatwave with temperatures just under 30oC.

I love hot weather. The temperatures in Dubai were perfect for me. I remember one winter’s night the disdain in the radio announcer’s voice as she read the forecast complaining that the night time temperature would drop to a low of 23oC. Can you imagine that?  23oC!!

There has been research to suggest that as the atmospheric pressure drops so does the mood of the British. That research may be spurious but bad weather affects me. I become indecisive.

There is enough happening in the world that surely something would attract my attention and there should have been no problem finding a subject to write about. There are meaty topics out there that deserve to be considered but weather-induced procrastination is rampant.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary resigned yesterday after two weeks of hounding and chasing. But, the why and when we should resign will be for a later day. It requires more thought.

Last week again we saw the British legal system in disrepute as another trial collapsed because the requirement of the prosecution to provide the defence with all the available evidence, even if it supports the defence, was not met.

Previous examples were in rape cases. This time it is a commercial trial. We are unsure if this is a deliberate and systemic failing or a consequence of funding shortfalls. Both are unacceptable. When prosecutors and defence lawyers are interviewed there is general concern and condemnation, but no action.  However, with Maddie very close to qualifying as a solicitor I would like to speak to her first before I comment.

I had tentatively arranged to meet some friends this week, but none has confirmed. I don’t mind if they are busy, but none has answered my emails and I am left just wondering and re-planning. It is both annoying and impolite, but I wrote about politeness last week. I can’t cover it again and this is not the place to moan.

It is not just the weather that is disrupting me. Sasha has the day off for a public holiday. In Ukraine, today and tomorrow are the Labor Day holidays.

You probably know I write to Sasha every day. They are long letters and while Sasha speaks and reads English well, we arrange for them to be translated. It means I can write without thinking about simplifying my thoughts and writing style. But, because it is a Ukraine public holiday, our translators Tatiana, and her colleagues, are also relaxing in the sun. So not only is anything I write left in the in-tray but also none of Sasha’s letters arrive.

The role of the translator is interesting and one of high confidentiality. Subconsciously, I know that my innermost thoughts are being read by someone else before they are read by Sasha in beautiful Russian. In this process, Tatiana is almost invisible. It only strikes home when I am in Kiev and we catch up.

We greet and then she might tell me that it sounds as if I have been busy or it was unfortunate that something or other happened. It is only then that I remember that she reads every romantic, mundane, naughty, word and thought I have shared with Sasha. It is momentarily disconcerting. I forget that she knows all about my life, love, and fears. It is a good job that Tatiana is a good friend.

It continues to rain. If I was a writer of lists I could spend the next two hours compiling one, but then I would have to find reasons to procrastinate before working them off.

I could try and sort out the details of my next trips to Kiev first in early June for a few days, and then September when I will be moving there. I am sure that I will need a visa to stay for more than 90 days especially if I want to work. But, first, I probably need to get the dates sorted.

When I move I hope I will learn some Russian. That is the plan but with everyone speaking, or wanting to learn English it may not be easy. I have started by buying two language courses. Using them is also on that hypothetical list of things to do.

It is still raining and getting no warmer. I think the best for me today is to wrap up in two jumpers, think about Sasha enjoying herself in a bikini on the beach, while I read a good book.

Although I might start a list.

  1. Buy an umbrella.
  2. Buy a new warm jumper.
  3. Turn up the central heating
  4. Throw out summer clothes.
  5. Write a list of all the lists I need to write.

Kiev Day 5: The Supermarket

One of the truest ways to understand a society is to watch them shop. Just as in the UK it is no use going to Regents Street because that is nearly only tourists and so it’s the same in Kiev. There are many Malls and if for example, you go to Ocean Plaza there all the big international brands. That is probably why Sasha always takes both me and my credit card there. One of us all always takes a beating.

No, where you need to go is to the local supermarket where you can watch everyday folk about their business. In the supermarket, there are no pretensions. There is just a job to be done and so it was yesterday when Sasha and I went food shopping.

It wasn’t a mega market nor was it a corner shop, but just an ordinary medium-sized local, busy supermarket with the normal mix of hardened and determined shoppers with both super-sized baskets and the faster racing in after work for evening essentials.  We were somewhere in between who didn’t need much but slowed by my insistence to visit its every corner.

Mother always told to take off my hat indoors and so my sense of etiquette had me remove my insulated woolly hat and pop it into the pockets of my Barbour jacket, but I was the odd one out among fur coats and a wide range of hat styles. The message was clear. When it is cold outside you keep your head warm at all times.

As a passing observation, I noted that while in the UK there is a strong movement against women wearing natural fur there is none of that here. The furs are everywhere. I am not an expert, but sables and minks had better watch out and it leaves me conflicted. I understand the reasons we don’t want clothes made of natural furs but when you see how beautiful and warming they are there is a moment of indecision.

I had a chance to wander around rather than push the trolley. I may be good at many things, or my family might say just a few things, but Sasha quickly decided that pushing the trolley is not my forte. Maybe it was the way I meandered away to look down other aisles and never be next to her when she wanted to place purchased items that ultimately determined my demotion from a simple job.

Anyone who is a regular supermarket shopper would recognise the layout. No sooner in and you are faced with the fruit and vegetables. While Sasha chooses a selection of grapefruit I noticed the quality. There were no pre-packaged selections. Everything was loose just as in an old-style greengrocer but unlike my UK experience, all the produce was handled carefully. My etiquette might have been removing for my hat but for everyone else, the etiquette was to handle the fruit and vegetables carefully to avoid bruising the fruit for later shoppers. There was a love of the food.

My next calling was to the large display of dried fruits and nuts. For me this was special. My current diet is long on the dried fruit and a major source of protein is peanuts. To be able to buy them loose was a treat. There are scoops and plastic bags and I piled in large quantities of high-quality product. For someone who pays £3.50 in Sainsburys for their large bags of peanuts to find that these were both nearly a fifth of the price and healthier with lower salt levels, left me wondering why Sainsburys couldn’t do the same. They were so good I sealed, weighed and priced my first selection and then collected a smaller portion which I ate as we shopped presenting a priced but empty bag at the check-out.

Sasha was still at the fruits while I went to look at the meat both fresh and cooked. Just as it was with the fruit there was an extensive range which was all beautifully butchered and presented. With all the charcuterie on display, it was a great standalone boucherie. So, it was with the bread, rolls, cakes, croissant and cheese. All was individually cut to order and served from an extensive choice.

This wasn’t a scientific piece of research but just a wandering around, but I did find my granola with summer fruits, kiwi yoghurt, cranberry juice, and oats.

I don’t have a deep understanding of UK prices other than everyone telling me that they are always going up. But I can say that the things I did buy were a lot, lot cheaper. I am always wary of these statistics, but one website tells me that Kiev is 326th out of 338 most expensive cities to live in, in the world. That sounds unlikely but those with more information might ogle at:

Milk (regular), (1 litre)

Loaf of Fresh White Bread (500g)

Eggs (regular) (12)

Apples (1kg)

Banana (1kg)

Potato (1kg)

£0.49

£0.24

£0.68

£0.45

£0.75

£0.20

I am not going to draw deep conclusions about Ukrainians from such a trivial survey. This wasn’t a super special supermarket. It was just the local shop, but prices are not the issue, it is the quality that counts.

Kiev is undoubtedly one of the richer areas in Ukraine but even here the average income is still much less than $10,000 each year. Price has to be an issue, but Ukrainian shoppers must demand quality because quality is everywhere.

Conclusion? Let me put it this way. If this supermarket was in the UK it would be my store of choice and the everyday fur just adds a special glamour.

Kiev Day 4: Macho Men

It is so cold! It has been overcast but the forecast says it will be sunny today. I am still wrapped up in my scarf and my woolly hat.

At the market at St Sophia I was tempted to buy one of the second-hand Ushanka or Russian fur hat as worn by Dr Zhivago, but something got the better of me. It was probably the shake of her head and the look on Sasha’s face. I would like to think it was because she was being responsible as it was expensive on a stretched budget. I can’t believe it was because she thought I looked stupid in it. I thought it was quite fetching especially with the red star of the Russian Army on the front and the ear flaps pulled down.

I have not made a point of watching the men as we walk around town, but I can’t remember seeing any of the local men wearing a Ushanka. What I have recognised is that the men in eastern Europe are far more Macho, at least in appearance, than those back home. It is hard to ignore.

Of course, their gang leader is President Putin. Half of every photo we see of him, he is stripped to the waist, riding a horse, cutting wood in a forest, or dipping in cold water as part of the Eucharist celebrations. His macho image is portrayed across all Russia and is the basis of his election success. While the West may not like him, he has the significant support of many Russians.  He has far more support among Russians than Trump has among Americans.

Maybe it is not surprising that football hooliganism is now most prevalent in Eastern Europe, and there are already fan warnings for the World Cup in Russia this summer. It was the Russian gangs that clashed with English fans in Marseilles during the Euros.

Men and machines always drives macho behaviour and so it is in Kiev with the taxis. Drivers in Kiev, and particularly those steering a taxi, add more than just a sprinkling of macho spice as they ignore traffic lights, cut across oncoming traffic and accelerate as if they were in F1.

The one Ukrainian man I have met a few times is Alexander who is Stanislas’ lawyer. He is a mild and thoughtful man as you would expect from a lawyer but when he starts to tell you tales of going into the forest to fish and hunt you know that the Putin’s macho spirit survives beyond Russia’s borders. When the photos he wants to show you on his phone are of guns and not women, grandchildren or cars you know there is a difference.

I wrote yesterday about the modern generation of women and I have asked Sasha her view of the men in her country. She was reluctant to say too much but i will try and press the point and report later.

Of course, another consideration is the attitude towards LGBT. The country is still predominately right wing, by which I mean conservative, in its attitudes. Same sex activity between consenting adults, in private, is legal but same sex couples are ineligible for much of the legal protection offered to heterosexuals. Recent surveys suggest that attitudes are changing but even in 2017 only 56% of Ukrainians think that members of the LGBT community should share equal rights.

While walking around Kiev it is rare to notice explicit LGBT encouragement. It was only last week that I learnt that a restaurant I had used many times was in fact a major meeting place for the lesbian community, something far from obvious while I was sitting there quietly eating a pizza. I don’t know if it was my renowned poor observational skills or just that it was all very low key. Probably both.

There was an example of current attitudes in Lviv last year at an LGBT festival which had to be abandoned when the venue was surrounded by about 200 members of far-right groups shouting “Kill, kill, kill”.

I find that unsurprising from the observed attitude of the men. However, over the last two days I have been writing about war and in particular the ongoing war in the East. As far as I am aware conscription, introduced in 2014, is still active. In those circumstances it is hard to imagine that macho attitudes would reduce or there would be an increased tolerance towards LGBT.

I am sure it will change but it may take a long time. War, a culture of heavy alcohol abuse and history are not the normal diet for change.

Kiev Day 2: A country at war

I am now in Kiev with Sasha. She met me at the airport and the anticipation and wait was worth every moment. She looked as beautiful and wonderful as ever.

I have been to Kiev many times, but the excitement is still there. Like all cities, it changes with the seasons. Sometimes it is very warm and sunny, but today it is very cold and snowing. Unlike last summer, this week it is very unlikely we will be enjoying a trip on Sasha’s father’s boat on the river Dnieper.

Last night we had dinner with our friend Tatiana at Carpaccio on the left bank. The food was as good as ever but the temperature as we left the restaurant to pick up the taxi was way down low. It was at -9oc.  This week will be much more scarves, gloves, and woolly hats. The temperature today is going to be a little over -3oc, but the sun is out.

Kiev is an ancient and beautiful city dating back to the 5th century although there were clearly earlier settlements. Despite significant damage in the second world war there are still many historic buildings. I enjoy walking around Kiev.

On a summer’s day, a couple of years ago, I walked around an open-air market in the shadow of the mainly 17th Century, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. It is an architectural wonder. Around the church there are restaurants and shops. I hope this week I will find out if the market also opens in the winter. Like all markets around tourist attractions there is a wide range of tatter, but rarely elsewhere do you find old Russian Army great coats, fur hats and soldier’s jackets.

The plan is that later this week Sasha and I will go there, walk a little and then stop for a coffee or hot wine in the shadow of the St Sophia.

I like to walk around and although now Kiev is a sprawling city, the middle is compact. It is also a green city and there was a saying that in the summer you could almost walk around the centre of Kiev in the shadow of a horse chestnut tree.

Sasha was always concerned when I said I liked to walk around sightseeing, particularly at night. She is concerned for my safety and that is made worse because of the war.

From our cosy sofas in the West of course we know that there are problems in the East of Ukraine and now that the Russian invasion of Crimea is no longer in the headlines you may have even forgotten there are problems. Ukrainians don’t talk about it as a ‘problem’. At least in Kiev they talk about war.

Many have forgotten that there is a continuing war in Ukraine.

This is what the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth says on its web site offering advice to travellers. The security situation in the south eastern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine remains highly unstable with ongoing clashes between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed armed separatists. The UN calculates this has resulted in approximately 10,100 deaths and the internal displacement of between 800,000 and 1 million people residing permanently in government-controlled areas of Ukraine. Civilians continue to get caught up in the fighting.

The Kiev Post in December 2017 reported (https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/top-10-developments-russias-endless-war-2017.html): Russia’s war is still going on, now in its fourth year with no end in sight and casualties — more than 10,000 people killed already — continuing to mount. Ukraine remains no closer at the end of 2017 to regaining control of Crimea or the Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas, an area of 46,000 square kilometres, or 7 percent of the country’s territory. The peace talks didn’t make any progress and 2017 marked the first year of the war without any Ukrainian hostages being released by the enemy. Russian-occupied Donbas moved further away from Kyiv economically, with shortages of food reported on both sides of the war front.

The situation may be even worse. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) newspaper reported: In 2015 “Germany’s special services estimate the probable number of deceased Ukrainian servicemen and civilians at up to 50,000 people. This figure is about 10 times higher than official data. Official figures are clearly too low and not credible,” the newspaper reported on Sunday, citing its source.

This is not just a problem. It is real war and it has led to increasing numbers of injured or homeless returning to Kiev and this is the threat that Sasha worries about for us walking late at night in central Kiev.

When I took that trip back from Malawi and stopped off in Addis Ababa in my naivety I was unaware of their ongoing civil war. Maybe tanks stationed all around the airport should have been a clue, but I wandered around, as I now try to do in Kiev.

With more knowledge and a proper guide I take far more care of our safety, but nothing takes away the enjoyment of being in Kiev.