Monday, 6 May 2013

When Old Ladies Attack

Never believe anything you read on the internet, especially if it warns you of the dangers of a place you want to visit. Fear is a good motivator to keep you ploughing through someone's blog but stuff can be made up or exaggerated to provide a good read. Don't worry - you'll never find me trying to provide you with a good read.

Here's a fine example - the Ukrainian border. I'd read on numerous occasions of time-wasting, total bag searches that keep you trapped for hours and then the compulsory bribe when the guards find a tube of Smarties that could - they say - be a party pack of something trippy. So, as I approached the Moldova-Ukraine border, I fretted a bit because my blood pressure medication consists of five tubs of self-labelled pills that could easily be mistaken for ecstasy (well, in my mind anyway, having never actually seen a real E). That's surely got to be a bribe in the thousands.

So I turned up at the border, the guards and I chatted nicely about my trip - even the burly bouncer type border guard in charge seemed impressed with the distance (I'm now past 25,000 km) - and they let me through within five minutes. The irony is that I don't have high blood pressure and I now have loads of high quality drugs with a street value of three million pounds to sell in Kiev. Except I can't speak the lingo. Looks like it'll be personal consumption then.

If the first 24 hours of life in Ukraine is a yardstick for what's to come then it might take me a few months to get through the entire country. Yesterday, shortly after arriving here, I quickly searched for a hotel and quickly found one. Sat in what you could call reception but wasn't really (think hallway) were two middle-aged women: a small, chubbly, smiley one and a small, chubbly, moustachioed one. The latter was Maria, also a guest, a Polish lass here for Orthodox Easter. Despite my insistence that I don't believe in God and stuff she invited me to the celebrations at the local church the next day.

So I went. Now, I could write about this for about five thousand words but I won't. I'll summarise. If you want more, please buy my book. When I eventually write it. Each book will come with a free E.

Anyway, the service itself, like all church services, was tedious in the extreme with lots of chanting by a football team of heavily garbed priests in big hats standing in distant parts of the church that the congregation could barely see. I think boredom at these things is to be expected but I was there for the new experience.

Church service - Yeahhh....awn!

There was also an outdoors part of the service where we were all splattered with a large brush soaked with holy water. Some poor, old sod on the front row got a right soaking. It nearly knocked off her head scarf. But it was a hot day and we were all happy for God's cooling effect.

After the service, which lasted two and a half feckin' hours, there was an outdoor buffet. Buffets in the UK are very British. We all form an orderly queue with our little floppy plates and then, after collecting our goodies, we stand around in the middle of the room with the plate in one hand and a drink in the other wondering how the hell we are going to eat that pasta salad. Not in Ukraine. Here you stand around the table with a spoon in your hand and you dig in. (Yes, Nina - double dipping!)

Dig in, ladies!

And then once you've realised that the tall bloke with the weird blond eyebrows near the end of the table is from England you stop digging in and you make it your life's mission to feed him and make sure that he takes as much as possible of the table's contents home with him.

Next to me was Julia, a soft spoken German-Russian lady in her 60s with a lovely, open face ('open' as in friendly, not an axe wound or anything). We spoke in German. She topped up my plate about ten times, made sure I had plenty of wine and water and slied chocolates into my little rucksack. And then, when it was time to leave, she sneaked a bottle of red wine in there too. Oh, and two carrier bags of snacks. Then another older lady asked me to wait for a minute and then delivered a third carrier bag. I haven't lost the whole of my winter weight yet - I can't look that hungry. But lots of the folk around the table were doing a sort of 'strong cycling' mime - y'know, scrunched up faces and twisty hands - and so I guess I might need the sustenance to get me through the little hills that lie ahead.

Me and (one third of the) swag.

Normally it would be time to return to the hotel but not today. Instead Maria and her new friend Acsenti, a wonderfully friendly but manically talkative bloke, had decided to take me to the monastery at Lyadova. Only a visit - they weren't planning to section me or anything. So we climbed on to the back seat of Sergei and missus's car (yes, I know these are new characters - keep up) and off we popped to this 11th century church on the deep green banks of the silver river Dniester. And we saw skulls in caves, and drank holy water, and Acsenti bought me a couple of Jesus Top Trump type thingies from the gift shop for luck and health - if only I played Dungeons and Dragons! - and that type of thing. Look at the website - it was an interesting trip.

Skullls. You'd probably guessed that.

Just as we were about to jump into the car to go back to town, a family of Moldovans invited us - just like that! - to join their picnic. We drank their wine and ate their jars of meatballs and I really can't imagine something like that happening in, say, Blackburn.

The family of friendly Moldovans.

When the dad of the Moldovan family learnt of the nature of my trip, he said to me, "Your ride is a mission of peace". And even though I'd never thought of it like that, and - who knows? - maybe the religiosity of the day had got to me or, in reality, the totally wonderful and yet entirely unnecessary friendship that had been shown to me by absolutely everyone I'd met today, he was right. It's about peace, and it's about new friends, but some of it's also about old ladies sneaking bottles of wine into your rucksack.

So, if there's somewhere you fear going, just go. It'll be fine. Scratch what I said earlier. You can believe some things on the internet.

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