Ukraine – Part 1

In Transit
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Detained in Charles De Gaulle, all of us refugees of security theatre. Held en la atrium, locked – by one way funnels of scans and pat downs – out of the consumer concourse. This luxury itinerant camp is bedded with brown tongues, leather chaise longues on which we loll like Jean Paul Marat. We lie sleeping and colouring and cradling our young, behind a smoky glass promenade, stocked with plastic pandas and liquorish black shoots of steel bamboo.

In the super luxurious future all of us are imprisoned in indolence – trapped in liminalities; half light, jet lag, the susurrus of wakeful children excited just to be away from home. Sir Alfred Mehran  spent eight stateless years stuck in this airport, Tom Hanks plays him in the movie. Under these high gauze carpeted ceilings and gill pleated metal columns, driven mad slowly by the fridge coolant hum and the never never sleeping, who will play me?

From Kiev we share a tiny sleeper carriage with an enormous woman and her haunted looking husband. At each stop she bangs his bunk and makes him climb off to look for a concession stand. He changes her socks and helps with her insulin injections. They are travelling from Munich. All night she toys with her iPad, every now and then switching on the cabin light to pour out another bowl of pistachio nuts.

Mariupol

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The Irish start out ugly. We’re born with extra sets of teeth, flaps of skin between our toes, cleft pallets, duck toed, buck toothed, cock eyed. Over time we improve – diet, exercise, most of all money, play their part. Ukrainians are just the opposite. Their children are beautiful, their devushkas heavenly, their women worn and thickening, their babushkas like Baba Yaga. Here the eloi live under the earth and only slowly turn to morlock.

Sergei carries a handbag: A tiny case, like any responsible business woman. ‘Men have them here’, Anya tells me. Mariupol is a pleasing intrusion of nature into a remnant of Soviet utopia. Everywhere public parks spill into the streets. Chestnut trees and weeping willows burst through the cracking pavements. Its the walkable city, arrived at not by enlightened urban planning, but neglect.

In babushka’s apartment there’s a carpet on the wall and the balcony looms twelve floors above a barren quadrangle. All she remembers of the holodomor, is missing sugar on her bread. Mariupol is by the sea, and ‘didn’t suffer as much as other places’. I ask her why the people here are so forgiving, while we Irish hold a grudge over a famine a third as bad, twice as long ago. ‘Other places suffered too’.

Inscription reads 'A man chooses, a slave obeys'Today the coast plays host to heavy metal factories which cast a brown fug over the city and make everything taste of iron. Babushka serves us coldcuts and peppers with rice and meat and cooked liver and pork with mashed potatoes and calamari and spiced cabbage and mushroom salad and smoked salmon and celebration champagne. For desert there’s chocolate mousse with blackberries and raspberries for mixing and profiteroles with buttercream. She packs a leftover feast in buckets to take with us, scuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the living room.

I am a bloated tourist in a Hawaiian shirt. The local dentist scolds me – ‘you must get your teeth cleaned professionally every year’. She reads a war history in my gums: Braces, fillings, scars from the surgery I needed after a lip piercing caused permanent injury. I don’t tell her the cost of a dental check up back home is two weeks wages here. I don’t tell her that it would be cheaper to catch a flight to Kiev and the sleeper out to Mariupol than to get a LUAS from the Phoenix park to Charlemont St for a filling.

As the rain falls on Sergei’s Lada on the journey to Crimea, I am reading. Sergei has rented an apartment near Yalta, at the very southern tip of Ukraine – closer to Iraq or even northern Sudan than to Ireland. Marina has baked pastries with chicken and mushroom and packed them together with leftover beef-chicken burgers and cream fried aubergines from our second and still more opulent feast in baushka’s cramped and cat ridden apartment.

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At a bar called Alaska we drink vodka out of espresso cups with sailors who look as though they may be gangsters. I adopt the persona of the garrulous Irishman abroad. The gombeen armature of ‘slainte’ and ‘conas a ta tu?’. The locals watch in horror as I mix vodka and alcopops. ‘Da, it is like water now, but tomorrow you will wish it was water!’ I race  against Олеся, giddy with sugar, down a slope built for skiing in Winter and for those mad transparent plastic balls which you strap yourself into and go rolling and rolling, sometimes forever. But the ball has broken and so we run instead under the floodlamps into the darkness  at the foot of the slope where it breaks into another steeper cliff. We stop and stare into the dark at the belching factories out over the edge of the water, then stumble back up hill. The girls eat tiny prawns from an enormous plastic bag, tossing them under the table to the stray cats that writhe about our feet like possessed scarves. Night falls on Mariupol.

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