Monday, 11 May 2009

Travels in Ukraine, Russia and Byelorus in May 2009

Babooskas selling vegetables on the underpass steps in Kiev

May in Ukraine means the arrival of spring with summer on its heels. The warm sun puts on a mini skirt and the boys take off their shirts to catch her attention. Her flying blond plaits tickle their tough Slavic tyre slapping chests. Meanwhile on the streets of Kiev the sunshine finds your author chilling with Vanya, my dancing-clown host.

Triin in Belorus. Eating spagetti in a bar in Minsk

I came to Kiev for a swing festival with Triin via Belorus. Triin had to leave straight after the festival for school but I stayed to look around. I still haven't really seen much of the old city and haven't even stepped into a single museum yet! I seem to have spent most of my days here relaxing in the park, sketching and playing music, cycling for hours along bumpy tracks, getting lost among dachas and dragging by bike over train tracks and along roads on the map that turn out in reality to resemble an overgrown goat path through abandoned industrial complexes. In one such spot I felt like I was the last man alive cycling through the destroyed earth on his trusty mountain-bike. In the balmy evenings I often find myself partying at someone's house playing guitar and singing Russian songs with heavy drinking strangers in someones megalithic ruined apartment block kitchen. So many magical moments here! Urban beauty in its most extreme. Last night I took a girl home on the bike and on the way back I stopped next to a wooden giraffe and elephant play area. The street lights don't work and the full moon was shining yellow between the giant robotic gray monster housing estates. In the darkness I could hear a small group of friends quietly talking by a bench across the green space about 40 meters away. They laughed and clinked bottles. The big road behind me was empty of cars - as if they had all tucked up to sleep in the countless pot-holes and frogs could be heard croaking busily from some swamp between the appartment blocks. In the 10 story block of flats standing infront of me like a huge chunk of Mego-Lego most of the lights were off but from one window I could see silhouettes of arms waving with bottles in their hands and hear several voices singing and a guitar somewhere behind it all. In the quiet night I could make out the tone of the voices and the occational familiar russian word. The sky was a deep night-time blue and small shreds of dark grey cloud slid along between the concrete housing estates while the big round orange moon bobbled slowly over the factory chimneys. Far away a dog started going berserk and the woofing spread like sound-dominoes until soon there was a red-army choir of barking-mad street and yard dogs yapping and howling in the distance. It slowly died down and one little pug was left wimpering like a kettle coming off steam.

Two days ago I was strolling through the main square on friday night with Vanya and Nastya and some other Petersburgians after seeing a puppet show in Ukrainian - I went asleep for the whole show but it was fun. There was a small band of musicians playing klezma and balkan music - clarinet, accordian, guitar and drums - wow the clarinetist was super hot - a pug-nosed Russian proffessional with more slick licks than a desert weasil in a leapard skin waste-coat! I danced with a drunk blond fan who spun so much it made me feel as drunk looking at her as she probably was being her. I started jumping around on my hands to kick off the dizziness of looking at the blond spinning top and that over, I played a bit of clarinet with the band but they did not really need me what with maestro-vsky on clarinet. I think Vanya did not really want me to hang out with the musicians but before he dragged me off they managed to invite me to some gallery where to my understanding there would be some chilling taking place a little later. Vanya and I went to fetch the car near some metro station.

Musician friends in Hydropark in Kiev

Metro in Kiev

On the train a drunk soldier started making violent expressions of friendship for me ... mixed with not very vague warnings not to mess with him which included several not very feint punches to my vital organs in a friendly military manner and a display of his military record including several mean photos of him scowling with guns in his hands like Rambo on a bad morning full of no-coffee. Most of the guys have short hair cuts and look like characters out of Starship Enterprise in their casual wear - caucasian, christian, marrying and drinking god fearing and devil loving guys. He then insisted we come and drink beer with him. We protested ... in the future I won't bother - best to go along with such drunks and then hook them up with some other alcoholics to kiss or fight with - usually both. We managed to bind him into a life long relationship with some hag with a handbag outside a late night off licence and as he aggressively instructed her about the wonders of fishing we crept off the scene through the dead market ... I bought my own beer after refusing 100 offers from the fishing fanatic soldier and could have passed for a local as I held it aloft while Vanya and I strolled along the railway tracks to his car chatting in Russian - he is great at explaining russian phrases to me and we help each other through linguistic labyrinths with lots of laughs. When the night gets really late he sometimes starts talking to me about girls but he does not drink so he is much easier to communicate on a equal basis than many locals!
Anyhow, we eventually made it to the car and we decided not to have the early night we had planned but to rush off to the musicians party at the gallery. Half an hour later, across town in the back of some courtyard people were hanging out in front of a garage and in the yard weird art pieces were scattered randomly around under the tree and on the old brick wall - we rang the bike bell on the garage door and a manic blond violently friendly artist opened the door. He started throwing spanners around the small garage, kicking a chain saw to start and several times almost fell into the man hole leading to the basement while his buddies quietly painted a huge wheely bin in gold leaf. The insides of the wheelie bin had already been lined with bath tiles and a plug and two big silver bath taps stood at the top with the attachment for the piping. From the velvet tassles and botnots dangling on the golden lid to the shiny silver wheels under the beasts belly it looked all in all like a jolly jazzy bathtub! However apart from throwing spanners the artist seemed to do very little work - in between fake artistique tantrums he crashed around the room chattering and jabbering and hitting people in a friendly way with the free hand that was not holding a bottle of beer by the neck which spluttered and foamed at the mouth like a rabid puppy. I did not really enjoy his violent friendliness but he insisted I came back the next night for a big party - quite early for a party I thought but apparently they wanted me to do a sound check??? Vanya did not like the place much and we drove home and slept like pancakes on the mantlepiece!

I arrived around 11pm and the party seemed to be getting quite warm. A manic violinist was playing with the wicked russian clarinet player and the dude on accordian and the tough blond artist appeared in a pink blazer and hit me a few more times before introducing me as Johney to everyone and looking for weed for me to smoke out of some dirty old bottle. I let him go off alone on his search and he came back a little less violent and quite smoked out after fifteen minutes of me not being slapped by anyone. If he had not vanished i may have had to leave but by that time i had met a few cool cats. Infact in Ukraine in general i have witnessed quite a lot of slapping and violence - seems quite acceptable to a degree. At its peak the gallery party was a bit like a saloon fight in a wild western, one girl was slapping the artist repeatedly while he tried to do some kind of drunk hippo dance with her, two others were playing tennis with the wheely bin while the chubby hairy little sozzled man stood grinning as he stood half naked in the empty bath-bin piece of art with his paws perched on the golden rim like a doped hampster in a bowel of nothing. Others were jumping on each other and rolling on the carpet and a boggled eyed witness sat with his knees akimbo like a babe rolling his eyes at the scene infront of him as his head and boddy boobed around like a buoy in the harbour. The various effects of alcohol were very clearly on display... I felt like I was in the alcohol equivalent of Reefer Madness - the 1940s US properganda short movie about smoking marajuana where some youths at a party start smoking and seconds later a young lady is visciously kissing a pianist who is crashing at the piano while another woman laughs manicly as a guy chops at some gent sitting on the couch with an antique sword. Check 'reefer madness' on youtube to see the funny 1 minutes video!

Anyhow, this was not the first time I had witnessed the violent effects of ahcohol in Ukraine ... earlier that evening i had tried to play some music in the subway but a drunk invalid from Chernobyl started making friends with me sitting by my side and he got into a fight with a small ragged drunk blond who wanted to take my phone number for some reason i did not quite get - something to do with irish music and bells??? Just a few minutes earlier a friendly couple had invited me for a beer and I said OK but i just wanted to play music and not really chat to anyone. It all got a bit wierd and I found myself between the invalid waving his crutch to hit the small rag-doll woman while she stood there screaming at him that she was a journalist and the friendly couple came back with two beers for me tried to get me to carry on playing and encouraged me to play on and the huge security guard walked up and watched it all like he was a big well fed tree or content stone lazing in the sunshine.

So it was not totally unintentioally that I arrived at the artists party only 5 instead of 6 hours late the next night. After much dancing including me walking on my hands around a drunk Ukrainian guy lying on the ground and jabbering in Spanish mixed with slow lines of Ukrainian poety I found I was a little tired and not looking forward much to the long cycle ride back to Vanya's place - probably about one hour across town and over the very very wide river Dnipr - it was already 4ish. When the accordian player invited me to stay at his place and give me a ride in his car I accepted and quite soon we had the bike strapped to the roof of his car and we were bouncing along the empty streets in a car with two twin girls, the accordianist and the Gogol look alike violinist whose eyebrows kept dancing to some mental melodies going on his skull-box. Sergei the driver stopped in Uprising Square and we went to eat at a 24 hour sandwich bar called Miiisterr Snyeek ('mister snack' pronounced in the local manner) and I hosted a small conference for the non-plused waiters about what animal products were and eventually got a plate with a sliced tomato and some bread and mustard and only a small discreet sausage hanging out on the side of the plate like the local police smoking in dark corners! Not too bad going considering everything. I posed outside with a gang of street cleaners and then Sergei and I played some music for them and they told us to shut up and then they all piled into the back of their truck and drove off up the hill. We drove to Sergei the accodianists place and I was given a really cool bed and went to sleep as the sun was rising. In the morning i found that the twin sister of Sergeis girlfriend had slept on the kitchen floor but she said she liked it there. I was too tired to realise the night before that i was doing her out of a bed but I soon found that part of the deal of staying the night was that I would pose for a portrait which was fine by me. So after a big breakfast the two sisters started painting me in oils. I sat in the corner looking at the clouds and chatting nonsense for what seemed like a month. It was about 4 hours and it was 6ish when it finished - about four hours of solid painting and posing from 1.30 in the afternoon with a small tea break inbetween. Anyhow it gave me lots of time to contemplate the two twins - quite an interesting couple.

Julia and Tihon in their dacha home near Moscow

My beautiful friend Zhehia in St Petersburg!

Ira and Lena, Ukrainian sisters painting me in Kiev
(gee, I had to sit still for FOUR hours)

Ira was a fierce blond with blue eyes and a chisled wolf like expression on her face. She painted a fantastic portrait of me looking like che guevara and really found the raw wild man in me - very soviet style portrait - all I lacked was a pickaxe and a blood crimson sunset bleeding across the sky! She was the girl who was slapping guys at the party the night before and had become almost viscious when one goofy tall dude told her he would not give her a cigarette because it would harm her children - he told her later that it was a joke and he simply did not have any more but by then one look at her and inside her eyes you could see her brain hacking him into little pieces and feeding him to famished yellow eyed featherless zombi chickens foaming with hunger through their twisted beaks. I did a one minute sketch of her without looking at the paper in 'mr snack' as I waited for my 'sliced-tomato-with-chunk-of-bread' salad and she told me it was not a picture and I was careless and not an artist. Alright, alright, alright!!! She will probably mellow out on me and be a bit more fun after a while when she realises I am not trying to drag her off to some Tartar camp to make her carry stones to Constantinople. Anyhow her sister Lena was very very different, she seemed very much in awe of her strong willed sister and told me her tough exterior hid a very very gentle heart - well it certainly did a good job hiding any heart at all gentle or not and I almost got punched in the mosh by deep down lilly-hearted sister Ira for putting breath to my comments. Lena seemed much younger although they were born in the same hour. She was dark haired and soft spoken and hazel eyed and more rounded and soft. She drew a picture of me looking like a big hairy baby beneith a fresh blue sky - I think my mum will really like it. As they painted we told fairy tales in russian and english - I didn't get what the hell they were talking about but I think it was some kind of wood forest zombies in the carpathian mountains and an ugly old nice lady who turned into a tree in the rain. They then started singing and both had very very beautiful voices - Ira sang some Billy Holiday with a voice that could chop your winters supply of wood with and Lena sang several ukrainian folk songs with glistening tears in the corner of her eyes and a quite mesmerising effect. They seemed to turn the clouds into imaginary animals and make you want to yearn for deeper sadness so you could float away on a flood of tears. They both laughed when I sang a few of my songs ... they especially liked my song 'fruit salad blues' and when I told them it was a sad song about bananas and they said it sounded like everyother song I sang and concluded that all my songs were sad songs about bananas! I guess they are right in a way...??

I cycled Lena into town on my bike and stopped by a woman selling kvass from a big yellow barrel shaped trailer and Lena carried my cup of kvass while I chugged along crinkled concrete pavements and across manic motorways. We chilled out in the park together with Sergei who was playing in a beach cafe with Mitchos the clarinet lord! After a while we went to meet up with Vanya and we he drove us home where we cooked a big meal with lots of home made fresh delicious vegetables. I cycled Lena home and sat looking at the night sky with her on a bench outside her apartment block. She is very attractive and quite a catch for any guy so I felt quite pleased with myself by not taking advantage of the situation and trying anything on. I came home feeling like I had done a great noble public act of fidelty to Triin who I have been getting along very well with of late. In all truth I do really feel jolly lucky being with one of the most gifted and cheerfully tough girls I have ever met. However, when I came home and Vanya started telling me that Lena obviously liked me and how he thought flirting and kissing and so forth would do no harm to my relationship with Triin, my virtuous mood seemed to crumble into a feeling of self-chastisment for lacking of a certain 'carpe diem' attitude to events. I guess I was just tired and I slowly gave up saying 'Da Da Da' to his interesting analysis of relationships and trickled into dream land.
I guess on this note I may as well make a few observations about relationships in general. Having not been with Triin for several months and haven given up during that time on a long distance fidel commitment I thought that since we did not know how long we would be back together we might as well not loose any chances of love that may present themselves to either of us. What I guess is called an open relationship in 'ze vestern hemispheeere'! But when you have grown so familiar to someone after many taxing adventures and good and bad times interest in others may hotten the blood but seems quite superficial. There is little point in moving flats just for the new oven, if you follow me! And these romantic efforts can be dissapointing to me and despite Triin's pride in her unshakeability, not very inspiring for her and although perhaps masicistically I hope she will have a fling just to see how I react, my record is not so good in such matters. I dont know if it is less painful to keep these things quiet or to talk it over like adults but it is very hard to resist telling the person closest to you about things that you feel strongly so we have been talking about it and despite my efforts I dont think Triin will ever loose some of that Estonian verbal reserve - which on the face of it is no great compliment but if you have read this far, you will probably be starting to appreciate it and wish I had it in larger doses. Basically the whole thing does not make relationships much easier but I guess it does make them more flexible and relaxed and by telling the heart not to get jealous you can rein in the feeling before it sweeps you away. The most important thing in a relationship is to love deeply and honestly and since no deep honest love is conventional don't let conventions tie it down.

However on the conservative side of the coin it feels like finally this year, after ten years of boys schooling and living in a household full of brothers, eventually I am finally making friends with girls in a normal buddy way. Annie from Finland and Gesina and Sara from Germany are good examples - people I feel so comfortable and open with and love in a way I love my mates Bots or Talis or Channing. I think in some ways I have really come to appreciate that side of women and changed my behaviour in a way that makes it more easy to get there ... of course they are wonderful and very special girls too! And as I said before at the moment after a lot of fun in Finland and Kiev swing camps I have a very high regard for Triin - a record high I guess! She gave Vanya some delicious tea and gave me a big bag of dried fruit before she left and I have been swimming in the sweet aroma of the tea ever since. I tell locals here who ask where I am from that I live in Tallinn so they dont look at me like a total wierdo or try to rip me off. I met a woman in the market selling childrens books and told her I was from Estonia and she came to life chatting to me about when she lived there for 2 years in her youth at the military camp in Paldisky - she only knew a couple of words in Estonian so my cover was pretty safe! It felt good to make the old bird selling bits and pieces of junk for pennies smile and also made me feel close to Triin. I sneakily bought a childrens book and soviet badge off her so the woman in the next booth who I had bargained down for the CCCP hammer and sickle red boxer shorts for my brother Henry's birthday would not notice that I did actually have the right price for her overpriced boxer shorts.
OK not the best ending as endings go but it will do.
Hammer and sickle boxer shorts.
Lots of love

Ukrainian girl called Tanya making a garland near Pushkin, a town near St Petersburg

Kiev Lavrio, view from the hillside looking West

Street musician in St Petersburg

Evgenia, a swing dancer from Moscow at the Kiev swinglandia dance camp

Babooshkas in Kiev working out how to use their mobile phones


Nastya from St Petersburg

Church in Zagorsk, an ancient medival city famous for its giant stone crosses in North Western Russia, very close to the Estonian border. The wind was blowing very hard and the big clouds were sailing past with their cold black shadows rippling over the green rolling fields.


  1. hey, Jimmy, this is Evgenia!)I want to read some more about adventures in the camp)))and I'm waiting you in Moscow and want to see the portrait you draw)

  2. Oh, and you can write me not only on phone - use the facebook if you have! Evgenia Silantyeva!