The moment the plane touched down in Odessa I was assailed by the familiar mixture of elation and depair that for me that characterizes any trip to the former Soviet Union. Ah, I thought, back in the land of adventure (...and nonpotable tap water, and funny smells). A land where the authorities (from immigration officials to public toilet minders), while holding themselves to extraordinarily low standards of efficiency and conscientiousness, demand absolute accountability of the populace; woe betide you if you don't have your baggage claim tags (I did), or your receipt from the store when you want to exit (I didn't). A man nearby found that his suitcase, a formerly sturdy rolling one, had been conclusively broken in transit. He complained, and was told with a shrug, "Take it up with Austrian Airlines" (though our flight was operated by Ukraine International). When the inevitable dragon lady demanded to see his baggage claim tag, he replied irritably, "It's mine, it's mine. What, you think I purposely went and took someone else's broken-ass bag?" (I forget the exact Russian but that was definitely the gist.) But I get ahead of myself.
Almost immediately upon our landing, the unique ethos of the former Soviet Union began to make itself felt:
(1) The mere process of getting from the plane to the arrivals hall was marked by a series of typically Russian bottlenecks. First they herded us onto a bus (a bus that was considerably smaller than the plane we'd just been filling). Then they drove us to the terminal, where (and this really IS typical), although the entrance consisted of a double door, only one side of it was open (and was being held open by a guard, thus successfully intimidating any non-official person out of doing the sensible thing and opening the other door). So we filed in at snail's pace. Passport control went fairly smoothly, but then there was baggage claim -- to exit which you first had to show your claim tags to a dragon lady (who actually checked each on against the bags it referred to, thus slowing things down considerably), then hoist each piece of luggage onto a (single) conveyor belt, which shunted it through an X-ray. Finally, once you were through all that and had answered whatever random question the customs guy chose to ask you, you had to walk through another SINGLE door into the arrivals hall -- a door that was choked from the other side by eager throngs of people crowding around to see if their traveller was coming and/or offering their services as unofficial cab drivers. Madness.
(2) The next immediate giveaway that we were in the former Soviet Union was the ubiquity of ads, in places where a Western country would never think to put them. The straps you hang onto on the bus? An ad in each one, in a special plastic holder. (And that's just the bus from the plane to the terminal!) Even more amazing, the immigration form you have to fill out at the airport (and retain throughout your stay) has ads on it, front and back -- the one on the front (at the bottom of the offical form itself) is for an online travel agency, the ones on the back are for a hotel, a transport chin, a casino, and AeroSvit, respectively.
(3) If there IS a piece of paper associated with any transaction, be it ne'er so trivial, they WILL check it officiously. First was the baggage claim check, which no one in any other country ever checks. Here, they not only check it minutely against the tags on your bags, they also take it from you as though it were, you know, an actual ticket for something. (A ticket out of the airport, I guess.) The security guard at the store exists only to check your recipt before you leave; I forgot this the first time and had to go back for the receipt which I'd left with the cashier. Today, I bought a whole wagonload of stuff (food, stationery, cleaning supplies....) and had not one but two receipts, of which one was exceedingly long. The security guard looked at my receipts, looked at my cart full of bags, and said "Everything is there, yes?" So, and I know this will come as a shock to you, but it's not like he's actually *checking*....
But back to the story of yesterday. Finally I got to the guy holding the sign with my name, introduced myself, and we took off. I grabbed the seatbelt (pleasantly surprised that his Volga actually boasted such equipment) to strap myself in, but he looked at me funny and said "We don't do that here." (It's not like there was actually anything to plug the end of the seatbelt into, so this admonition was not strictly necessary.) On the road we passed the scene of an accident that might have happened an hour or a week ago; the two cars that had careened into each other had been abandoned, still crunched together, by their human occupants. My driver waved his hand at it reproachfully. "They found each other," he said, as if the cars were star-crossed lovers.
He drove me to the apartment I'm renting for $300 -- a bit of a trek (about 3.5 miles, as far as I can tell from the map) from downtown, but there are shuttle vans that go straight from here to there for 1.25 hryvnia (or 25 cents U.S.) each way, and a major bonus of living here (aside from the space and the price) is that there's a huge superstore (a German chain, according to Lyuda, who's in charge of helping me settle in) across the street which sells not only groceries but also housewares, electronics, books, hardware, clothes, etc. (A K-Mart, basically.) So once I'd met and paid my landlord, Gennady (a prof at the university), and had a late lunch with Lyuda (where I was introduced to the "local speciality," which appears to be a kind of pork schnitzel covered in melted cheese and pineapple; Lyuda asked what the national dish of NZ was, and I eventually said "lamb," but it shows you the kinds of questions you get asked here. Everyone expects you to have a national dish, a national tree, a national insect, etc...), I hied myself over there and walked about eight miles in the course of buying a kettle, frying/boiling pan, a cutting-board and knife, slippers, tea, food for dinner and breakfast, etc. (The mileage is driven up by the peculiar Russian logic of store organization -- for example, pepper is considered a spice and thus found with the other spices, next to the salami, whereas salt apparently counts as a "grain" and is found (in 1-pound bags) next to the rice and pasta, all the way at the other end of the store. For some reason, the frozen foods section and the hunting/fishing equipment section are right next to each other, while the fruit and veggies are separated from all the other food by the sections selling books, toys, etc. And so on.)
Anyway, by the time I found everything I needed and checked out (three giant bags of stuff, brilliantly calculated on my part to be within my carrying capacity), it was about 10pm and I came home in the dark (a feat of extraordinary orienteering skill of which I'm very proud) and cooked dinner and started writing this bulletin; photos in my next.