Friday, January 10, 2014

Holiday travel: Odessa

Yikes: it's almost lesson-planning week, which is followed by the actual go-back-to-work week. It feels like a disproportionate amount of our time off was spent on this:
Hello, 42 hours of train travel in 10 days!! Although we did get THE HOLY GRAIL of trains on one leg- an empty compartment : )

To start there was the annual corporate pilgrimage to Odessa for a night of partying.

This year we traveled with a massive group of about 40 people (employees + girlfriends/family):
Our group carrying their luggage from the train station.
Some of those people in the picture above were well-rested. Others, probably not (read: hungover). The festivities had started the night before as the overnight train pulled out of Kharkiv. Things started literally with a tremendous jolt- the guy carrying all the booze and snacks first missed the train, but some quick-thinker on board pulled the стоп кран (emergency brake), the entire train shuddered to a halt, and the latecomer was able to hop on. There was a 180 uah fine to be paid for pulling the стоп кран but hey, no comrade will ever be left behind!

We got on the train not knowing if we'd all be crashing on someone's floor or not for the next three nights, but the company took generous to a new level as they booked everyone rooms at the Black Sea hotel:
The Black Sea hotel. Felt just like we were at home because of all the remodeling (or perhaps our neighbor with the drill was also on vacation!)

Through the heavy fog we occasionally got an awesome view of a nearby church:
Entrance forbidden! Dangerous to your life! is written on the sign on the balcony door.

There was only one downside to staying at this hotel:
My jeweler couldn't stay in the room. He had to sleep in the lobby, poor guy. Sorry, Jacob.

The company also took care of most of our meals at the nearby Kompot restaurant (where we ate last year as well):

Outside of group meals and The Party, people were free to roam the city. We took major advantage of this, walking and walking and walking and walking until it felt like our feet were broken.

the mosque
street of very upscale shops
Christmas tree! : )
Opera House in the distance

As a city, Odessa feels very different from Kharkiv: much older, much less Soviet. Downtown was filled with people who were wealthy and flaunting it and their luxury vehicles. Buildings are more colorful and more ornate.
I think this was a children's hospital of sorts.
Creepy much?
oops, thumb alert

That distant tall building marks the port.

Instead of хрущевки (the stereotpypical USSR apartment block building), Odessa is a city of arched doorways that lead to inner courtyards ringed by apartments.
Pushkin statue next to several arches

Every 5 feet there's an arch with a dozen mailboxes or some scrawled graffiti or perhaps a guard cat:
Sooo friendly! It was originally sitting way in the back by the car, but when it saw us it ran over to get petted.

At lunch one day the waitress at a small café asked if we'd prefer the non-smoking section (which was tiny and empty) or the smoking section (crowded with diners). Perhaps indoor smoking in Ukraine lives on behind closed doors?

And of course, there was The Party. The company rented out part of this grand building for the event:

No crazy amount of pics and videos this year, just these:

Every 2013 Ukrainian corporate party I've heard about has been gangster-themed, and ours was no different:
Bonus points if you recognize this guy ; )
"Awesome party!" I said to the owner's wife shortly after we arrived. "Wait until 4 AM," she replied in perfect English, "then you'll truly know how awesome it is!" Feather boas, beads, and mafia-style hats were being handed out at the entrance where (oh man, I can't believe I'm typing this) some foreign students had been hired to pose for group photos and shine shoes (I think they were actually members of the band that played later that night.). Women dressed as flappers struck model poses as professional photographers and videographers cruised the room.

At one point I went simultaneously deaf, dumb, and blind.
The owner approached: Will you try a Bulgarian drink?
Um, okay. Wait, is it moonshine?
Yes, but it's okay. It's not Ukrainian, it's Bulgarian.

Well, I drank about 1/3 of that shot at 11:19 PM and don't remember the next 15 minutes of my life.

But the greatest moment of all was when I spotted some of the other ladies in the bathroom, perched on giant couches that encircled the entire room. They revealed to me something I've long suspected of being a gigantic conspiracy in Ukraine.
me: What are you doing in here?
Ukrainian woman: Resting my feet from these heels.
me: What, seriously? All girls here in Ukraine have sworn up and down that heels are comfortable.

She leans in and whispers: They're lying.

This was further corroborated by the eventual mass exodus of women from the dance floor to the couches.

Another topic that's swept under the rug was also revealed that weekend. Slight change of topic here: since housing is a hot commodity in these parts, it's common for mom and dad and kid 1 and kid 2 and pet to live with grandma and/or grandpa and/or various other relatives. This always made me wonder.... well, how do babies get made? Where do people go when they're sharing a one-room apartment with their in-laws? It's not like I could go around asking people this question, so I tried to just keep my eyes and ears open. (Ears, btw, = nothing. Never heard a peep from any of our neighbors, aside from several bouts of drunken karaoke and a woman who would hurl colorful insults at her "good-for-nothing" husband.)

A couple of years ago, a construction company placed billboards around the city of Simferopol with the words Mom and Dad, do you want grandchildren? Then buy your children their own apartments today! But this didn't answer my question- this just attested to the existence of it.

And then, I saw it. A bus in Odessa covered with an advertisement for Zirka, a hotel "for family couples, 95 uah for 3 hours". There were four figures pasted on the sides of the bus:
  • a woman pulling a man by the tie, saying "No one will bother us"
  • a little kid saying "What are you guys doing?"
  • an older woman with a look of outrage on her face- "On MY couch??!"
I got a picture of the bus but accidentally deleted it so I wrote all this down right away. Question answered! 

A few days after getting back from Odessa (and after spending New Year's Eve at home with colds, a box of kleenex, and a bottle of champagne) we took off again, paying a visit to this bastion of loveliness in southern Ukraine:
Any guesses which city this is? Read on to find out!