My Year Abroad: Part 1

The first in a three part series following TOMMY BAJOREK’s year abroad in Ukraine. This week: first impressions, tree surgeons and vodka.

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Odessa is the fourth largest city in Ukraine. It is home to nothing of any particular note, apart from quite a big staircase and the odd sex tourist. It’s a big port on the Black Sea that was founded at some point in the 18th century, and is the hero city of the soviet union. I’m spending my year abroad here.

For those of who aren’t in the know, MML students study two languages for two years, disappear for 12 months, then come back for finals once all of their friends have graduated.

I study Russian and French. So, when it came to planning my ‘gap yah with a dissertation’, I had a choice: go to France and learn nothing new linguistically or culturally, or go somewhere Russian. I went for the latter, which left me with quite a big choice of destinations. My sense of adventure had me enquiring after jobs in far-flung places such as Almaty and Yakutsk. But, ultimately, it was my laziness that won the day, and I ended up in Ukraine because a friend who was already on his year abroad recommended it. I applied for a job teaching English in a language centre in Odessa and, within a week, I had a job. I passed a Cambridge teaching course (CELTA) in the summer and flew out of Blighty in September, thoroughly unprepared for what was awaiting me.

A big staircase

When I found myself dumped in the middle of Johnny Communist-land, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. I had prepared for my year in the Russian-speaking world by diligently doing no Russian at all throughout the summer. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise how much of a disadvantage my laid back attitude would be until I came face to face with the natives.

Ukrainians have a funny way of appearing extremely aggressive. If you don’t understand them, as I certainly did not, this can be difficult. Herein lies the problem of MML. MML at Cambridge does not teach you anything useful. Thus, when attempting to negotiate a taxi fare, I found myself resorting to the only vocabulary I’d learnt in my first two years. Let it be a lesson that discussing: polygamy, weapons of mass destruction, and cures for Parkinson’s disease won’t get you far with most Odessan taxi drivers. As you can probably imagine, my first few days here were pretty unnerving.

I soon discovered that learning from the locals was the best way forward. In my case though, there was no need to go about it à-la-Ray Mears. I didn’t need to stalk street-sweeping Babushkas, live with a pack of the city’s street-dogs, or drink a litre of homemade spirit before driving home. Luckily for me, I was surrounded by students. These students would soon become an infinite resource bank of useful information to help me navigate my way through Odessa’s little foibles.

Johnny Communist-land

On the surface, Ukrainians don’t seem to care about much, which is just as well. After all, if you’re paid to do a job, who in their right mind would expect you to do it properly? When asked about the ‘b-r-i-b-e’ word, they simply shrug and mutter some answer, omitting all the articles and making a mess of the present continuous. They don’t care about health. They don’t care about safety.

One day, I was inconsiderately woken at 1pm by a loud noise coming from outside my window. I was surprised to see some tree-surgeons having a bash at the trees outside. There was a distinct lack of hi-vis and, being English, this shocked me. I began to observe their chainsaw wielding more closely, and noticed that plenty of healthy-looking branches were being butchered. In hindsight, they probably were not tree surgeons.

Anyway, their tea break provided further entertainment. Instead of tucking into their wives’ homemade ham sandwiches, one of them cracked open a bottle of Finlandia, much to the delight of his friends. Visibly perked up by the 150ml or so of fine Finnish spirit, the men promptly resumed their pruning with renewed energy and vigour, handling their chainsaws with great confidence. I did not share in their confidence. After their departure, I scoured the land and, thankfully, couldn’t find any limbs. They must have known what they were doing.

And this just sums up Ukraine quite nicely. There are no rules. No Deans or DoSs. No Community Support Officers telling you to dismount your bike on St John’s Street. If you want to start up a business in Ukraine, but don’t fancy paying any tax, you just bribe the taxman. If you’re slightly disaffected with a local politician and would like to shoot him behind the Opera House, then go ahead. If you want to drive like a lunatic and cause a minor accident, then that’s your prerogative. This is the home of Brezhnev, borsht and beautiful women; not the Bill of Rights, and yet it feels like Ukraine truly is the Land of the Free. Unless you’re gay. Or black. Or a member of any other undesirable minority.

Next time: how slipping in the snow is my own stupid fault, and what it’s like waking up to a police raid.