Month: January 2010

Kiev: A Snowflake Wrapped in an Icicle Inside an Iglue

My ‘block’

The C-c-c-c-old!

After whingeing on about the cold earlier in the winter, I feel like the ‘boy who cried wolf’ but, seriously – the last cold snap was nothing. If that cold was a wolf, then it was still a puppy and this weekend it just turned into a man-eating werewolf. It’s -20 something and set to hit -25 to -30 tomorrow. It beautiful to watch because it’s sunny and crystal clear but it ain’t funny once you’re out there. I (dressed in pants, long-johns, two pairs of sock, a t-shirt, shirt and jumper + big jacket and ridiculously large furry hat) attempted to go take pictures today and it went something like this

“whooooooooooahhhhh shiiiiiite”
“my cheeks!”
“fuck this” (yes, it’s necessary to swear)

…and then I aborted the mission and went back home, with some seriously rosie-cheeks and drank some tea. Oh, but I have learnt to walk like a Penguin. It’s the only way to stay on your feet in this weather. There’s no John Wayne style swaggering in Kiev these days – we’re all focused on the floor and waddling like arctic birds.

It’s so cold, the Dnipro River is frozen solid… so I went and stood on it 🙂

Ice Babushkas; the not-so-mythical ice maidens of Ukraine

It seems that the only people working to clear the snow here in Kiev are large tough-looking old ladies. Even at midnight on Christmas day they were at it!

Of course, I’m glad that, at least someone is making an effort but surely that’s a man’s job!? or better – a tractors job. Sending granny out to sweep the streets in sub zero temperatures seems a little harsh to me.

Maybe next year the city authorities will have a go.

I took this picture…

Then fell flat on back in the middle of the road and, in the process, took this picture

Ukrainian Optimism – The ‘Fast Tram’

Either Kiev city maps were written by tortoises or in doublespeak.

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ELDR Meeting, Moldova, December 18th 2009

As I arrived in Moldova, by train from Kiev, the two feet of snow that had fallen over the previous two days had stacked travel chaos on top of Moldova’s political and financial crises. As a result, our meeting/conference took place with a limited number of foreign attendees (me being the only one that I know of) and without the key speaker (Christian Busoi MEP) who was unable to reach Chisinau from Bucharest in Moldova.

However, those who managed to arrive made good use of the opportunity to explore some of the challenges facing Moldova and offer their opinions on Moldova’s future and possible EU integration. The attendees had been invited from the different groups in the Liberal coalition government and was mostly (although not entirely) made up of young Moldovans who were eager to see change in Moldova and a rapid move towards EU integration.

Discussions touched on different areas of reform in Moldova and gave a good insight into the differences in attitudes that continue to complicate progress. For example, when someone suggested that politicians should re-connect with the voters and travel to work on a bus as normal citizens must, another delegate thought this would be unacceptable as (presumably) he ascribed to the belief that political office grants you status and a certain degree of privilege. We heard how many young people seek change whilst others working in the large Moldovan civil service are happy to vote for the communists because a vote for change may mean they have to do more work! We also heard an interesting story of a project that ran with the help of the British Embassy. Various farming standards, rules and procedures were introduced to help Moldovans sell their products abroad and the project seemed to be going well until the procedures were audited some time later. It soon became apparent that, on paper, the procedures existed but in reality none of them were followed. The need to do so or the benefits of them had clearly been lost on those who stood to benefit from them.

This institutionalised indifference to rules and procedures isn’t unique to Moldova, it’s a hangover from years of communism. However it needs to be addressed and doing so is no easy task. Proper enforcement of rules (where bribery is not the answer to everything) and proven results will help but, ultimately it will require a change in attitudes and mentalities and this will take a lot longer.

As is the case in Ukraine, the words ‘European’ and ‘Western’ are synonymous in Moldova with ‘better’ or ‘high standard’ and (as is usually the case in the EU institutions) the words ‘Europe’ and ‘European’ were  unhelpfully used to refer to the EU.

The problem I have with this is that, it creates the idea of a unified set of ‘European’ values that doesn’t exist and in referring to the subset of European countries as ‘Europe’ implies that those who have been refused entry are not European. It creates an unhelpful ‘us’ and ‘them’ inside one continent.

It was clear throughout the discussions in Chisinau that there is a deep appetite for reform and a shift in values from the corrupt and somewhat morally bankrupt Soviet era to a system that is open, transparent, and fair. However, the values sought are universal values – they are not ‘European’ and they certainly don’t exist across all EU countries. Whilst administrative and legal reform are important, they will not bring an immediate change in social attitudes. A Romanian and an Italian may for example share linguistic roots (and EU membership) but they do not share some special EU values that are alien to Moldova.

If Moldovans are to be successful in joining the EU they need urgent administrative and legal reforms which will only work if they are enforced and supported with sound law enforcement. They must do this to satisfy the EU institutions who, in turn must convince the existing members to support Moldovan membership. If Moldovans want social reform then they must do this for themselves as the EU cannot and should not attempt to create a society.

Sadly, the ‘meat’ (in the form of MEP Given Christian Busoi) was missing from the meeting and so we didn’t get a deeper insight into the EU thinking on Moldovan membership or indeed any official insight into Romanian efforts to support Moldova. Also, as the time frame for the conference was just one day we obviously couldn’t touch on every issue relating to the EU/Moldova however, the most obvious topic that wasn’t on the agenda was the issue of Transnistria. Without a serious and workable solution to the problem of Transnistria I can’t see how any amount of legal and administrative reform will lead to EU membership.

When I left Moldova in April this year, the city had just experienced a failed election and mass street protests and violence and the police had resorted to heavy handed tactics of arbitrary arrest and violence. There was an uneasy feeling of gloom as even my proudest Moldovan friends decided that they wanted to leave if the Communists increased the use of force to remain in power. One successful (fair and non-violent) election and eight months later and a lot has changed. Moldova is still poor and life is undoubtedly hard but, progress is being made, reforms are taking place quickly and the international institutions (IMF, World Bank, EU etc) are all using the change from communist to Liberal government as a ‘window of opportunity’.

I hope the window stays open long enough to see real progress in Moldova. Change is happening but without continued (and enhanced) solidarity from other European countries (both EU and non EU-members) things could easily slip backwards. Once Moldova shakes of the real winter, there is no reason why it can’t shake off the political and economic freeze as well. Thankfully, it now has new EU member and increasingly influential neighbour – Romania. If Moldova can model its reform on the Baltic states or indeed Romania, the EU should be willing to extend it’s support and, if you ever need an example of how EU membership can bring enhanced prestige and confidence, stand on the Moldovan or Ukrainian border and look at Romania.


PS, As Moldova is currently in grid-lock over the issue of electing a President, a number of options are available. 1. Another election (leaving the change that the communist party may be re-elected) 2. A change to the rules to allow Parliament to elect a president with a simple majority or; 3. A constitutional change to have a directly elected President. Given the situation in Ukraine, I have serious reservations about the third option. Whilst it may break the deadlock in the short-term, the move to a directly elected President in this part of the world may simple serve to guarantee the future political influence of the richest Oligarchs – i.e. those with the money to stand as President or to fund their own choice of puppet.

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Globalised (and unified) media reporting

Come to think of it, this was a significant moment…
a syndicated editorial that ran in 56 newspapers, the international press have demonstrated far more collaborative spirit in coverage of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen than the politicians who have been sent to Denmark to take action.

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My stick promised so much, but it delivered so little…

Has it really been 10 years since the year 2000? I certainly don’t feel 10 years older and certainly don’t act it! OK, a lot has changed since the 31st of December 1999 when I was a 22 year old student jumping around in a nightclub in Bournemouth but it doesn’t feel like 10 years.

Anyway, enough reminiscing and onto the present day – 2009, Christmas and on to 2010…

For the 1st time ever, I chose to leave family Bearder and spend Christmas abroad, somewhere exotic, somewhere exciting and adventurous, somewhere like… erm – Moldova.

The decision wasn’t really difficult. The rest of family Bearder had decided to spread itself across Europe covering Italy, Ireland and the UK and so, it seemed only fair to let the East-Europeans in on the action too. Flights home from Kiev were expensive, I’d been invited to Ski in the Carpathians and well, I’d be in Moldova for a conference anyway – so that’s where I stayed.

Arriving on my super-hot train from super-cold Ukraine (see previous post) I was collected at the train-station and taken swiftly onto the Leogrand hotel in Chisinau. I assume Leogrand means ‘Grand Lion’ and that whoever booked this knows me well… Oh, a girl played the Harp for me whilst I enjoyed my breakfast too – nice touch!

You can read about the conference I attended in my next post however, my two days at the Leogrand were fun and informative and I met quite a few interesting characters. Notably, an African-English-American guy who worked for the World Bank. He’d been drinking the previous night with a guy who worked with Emma Nicholson who is the Lady who held my mothers job before her. Small world huh? well, more about that later…

So, Moldova was covered in snow but it didn’t upset my trip too much.The first time I arrived in Moldova it was about 44 degrees and insanely uncomfortable so it was interesting to see the contrast. Moldova obviously gets real weather and four seasons… no ‘slightly hot and slightly cold’ cycles here. Anyway, I checked out of the nice hotel and into a very nice hostel (imaginatively names ‘Chisinau Hostel’) and spent 4 days being looked after by three beautiful girls and a cat called Pinkie. Unfortunately, Pinkie was the only one who showed-up in my room after dark as he enjoyed climbing in plastic bags, hunting and killing pens at 3am. I spent a day or two exploring Chisinau, checking on ‘shoe man’ (who is still going-strong and must be about 78 by now) and checking out the large Shopping Mall next to my hostel called, yes – you guessed… Mall Dova! …someone should win prizes for these names! I went bowling, ate (too much) and watched the end of the world (film) 2012 in Russian with 2.5 hours of translation thanks to Christina. If you are thinking of watching 2012, my advise would be – don’t. The graphics are good but the story is pants and the stereotypes bordering on offensive.

Oh, and I listened to a LOT of Christmas Carols in English. It would appear that English language carols are just as much a part of Christmas in Moldova (and Ukraine) as they are in England. However, I wonder how many people know what Figgy Pudding is? Also, I evidently got bored at some point because, I decided to entertain the idea of going home… fired up google maps, found a cheap flight from Northern Romania (kinda close to where I would be skiing) and 20 minutes later – I had a WizzAir flight booked to get me home to Oxford on the 31st.

However, I still had a problem. What was I gonna do on the 25th? Christmas day. Well, most people in Moldova couldn’t care less because, under the Soviet Union it’s not a big deal as, unless you are a Catholic (and remember religion was suppressed) then you celebrated the Orthodox Christmas on the 7th of January …or neither and just partied like hell for NY!

but, I couldn’t allow this. OK, I’m not at home and I had a 12 hour bus journey planned for the evening of the 25th but, I had to have a Christmas! …and luckily, I did. I moved it to the 24th and Christina, Christina, Christina (no I don’t have a stutter) and Anna and friends ate Chicken, drank wine partied with me until the early hours of the 25th. Christmas Moldovan style.

Bukovel – The pride of Ukrainian Skiing

Where the “equipment has been fully tested and is ready for exploitation”

My bus dropped me in (a very cold) Ivano-Frankovsk at about 5.50am and I said goodbye to my new German ‘Chinese Gardener’ friend and vacated the row or rear coach-seats for the next lucky would-be sleeper. Two hours later and Maria, Maria and Maria had arrived (no, it’s not a stutter again) and we we’re on our way to our wooden home, in a village that I can’t pronounce, somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. We ski’d for 3 days, ate exceptionally large breakfasts and dinners, and played charades (not so easy if you don’t speak Russian). I’m no expert but Bukovel is a large resort and whilst it’s not nearly as beautiful as Slovenia, the slopes are much longer, the equipment much newer and the whole experience a LOT cheaper! However, if you ever decide to try it, NEVER decide to get home again from Cluj Napoca in Romania… Yes, I know it looks close on Google Maps (maybe about 300k) but trust me, it’s not. It took me 44 hours to get home from Bukovel to Oxofrd and involved a night in the train station in Chernivtsi (Ukraine) a day in Suceava (Romania) and then a night in the Airport in Cluj at the other end! I did however make 4 new friends, was helped along the way by almost everyone, saw a guy carrying a lamb through the train with a pink bow-tie and, believe it or not – met two friends from Kiev walking right towards me in Suceava! So, like I said earlier about it being a small world – I first met Ludmila outside a concert in Kiev, we met randomly again in a canteen the next day and then, amazingly, in Suceava in Romania!

The night in Chernivtsi train-station was an experience. It was about -5 and the place was full of homeless Babushkas, a sea of ‘Ukrainian bags’ (‘Chinese bags’ if you’re Ukrainian) a few drunks, an army guy who kept opening the door for me …and me. We spent the night hugging radiators together and although one Babushka lost the plot at about 3am, there wasn’t much danger – we were all in that freezing dilemma together.

Arriving in Romania was also an experience because, the first time I did this (about 4 years ago) the border guards were drunk, and making fun of my train cabin-mate. This time the guy was (in perfect English) welcoming me to Romania, laughing at my passport and asking if I was on my way home to celebrate NY? Which I was. Maybe he was drunk too? The tramp who stopped to ask me for something, realised I was English and then shook my hand, patted my back and wished me Happy New Year (in English) was definitely drunk… I’m starting to think Romania has the friendliest drunks in Europe…

The whole travel thing wasn’t helped by the forced internet exile (there’s no public internet in Bukovel) or by the fact that, getting travel info in Ukraine isn’t a straightforward affair. Maria and co did their best to help but I gave in and called home where things are done the easy way – online. OBB (Austrial Rail) to be precise as they have all train times in Europe and a piece of Software called Scotty who’ll do everythung for you in English.


On the whole i’m a huge fan of train travel in Europe (and I’ve done a hell of a lot of it) and although the trains normally take you a whole day (or night) to get you anywhere, they are warm, comfortable, fun and almost never late. However, there is one golden rule you should never break. Never attempt a ‘number 2’ on European a train. In fact, don’t even put yourself in the danger zone of needing one – it will spoilt your journey.


Anyway, I made it to my flight, had to leave the newly purchased bottle of cognac on the table because it wasn’t allowed in my hand luggage and then flew home with an incredibly nice Romanian girl called Iulia. I got home in time to see the new year …in bed – I was exhausted!

However, I finished that crazy week with:
A new Moldovan diary
A large map of Ukraine
A bottle opener from Italy
Some woollen socks that smell of sheep
8 new friends and some very funny memories.

My three favourite quotes were…
“your stick promised so much and delivered so little” …yes, one of the Moldovan girls actually said this to me, but it’s not like you think!
“IAN! You touched your laptop in a rude way!” …also, it’s not what you think!
“Where is gonzo with his weed?” …can’t explain this one
and “This conversation is totally monkey nuts” …because, like the whole week – it was.

If I ever hear Lady Gaga’s ‘Stuck in a bad Romance’ again, I might kill myself…

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What has the EU ever do for me?

Erm… secured the closure of Lithuania’s Soviet-built nuclear reactor and made us all a lot safer?

Also, I’ll write a real update soon – it’s a promise.

Ian the Ukraine-Ian

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