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  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:17 am on August 18, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie, , , BMW, building of Odessa, Catherine the Great, City Square, , , , , Everything Is Illuminated, General, , Geography of Ukraine, Havana, hotel Zirka, , , José Pascual Domingo de Ribas, Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron, , , police captain, , , , same architect, , , , , Turkey, , , , , Vienna, , Yushchenko   

    Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction 

    I live on a high floor of an art deco tower facing a busy Brooklyn street. The acoustics of the building and the street are such that I can sometimes hear what’s going on in the street right from my desk. Once I heard the sounds of a minor fender bender followed by an angry exchange unpleasantness that was escalating into some creative Russian profanity. The driver who rammed the other car was pretty unapologetic and criticized the driving skills of the one who got rammed. Then followed the exchange that made me laugh out loud – the driver who got rammed said – “the way you behave, man, you must be from Odessa.” “Yes, I am,” – answered the other guy, and added – “and you still drive like a moron.”

    Odessa, Ukraine, my hometown, is a very special place. It has a Bizarro mirror twin, Odessa, Texas.

    Odessa is a resort town situated on the shore of the Black Sea, right across from Turkey. Culturally it’s a bit like Brooklyn (or Brooklyn is a bit like Odessa because of an almost constant infusion of Odessans) – a city with an attitude, a city where a lot of famous people are born and famous people come to live. Architecturally it’s a lot like Vienna and St. Petersburg: a city built on a grand scale (but with softer edges), by the best architects.

    Odessa’s ancient past is obscure: a Greek colony, a small town controlled by Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, various Khanates and Kaganates, and finally a Turkish fortress. Odessa’s fortunes have turned when Russian forces invaded it in late 1700s. Catherine the Great apparently wanted to fortify the newly won land, and committed the people and resources needed to make the new city of Odessa a success.

    The founding fathers of Odessa were a bunch of distinguished foreigners in the service of the Russian crown: General José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and Count Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron.

    Richelieu, or the Duc, as he’s commonly known in Odessa, will forever be loved by Odessans for his accomplishments. The way I imagine the Duc is sort of like the 18th century Steve Jobs, with a reality distortion field of his own, except without being an asshole (Richelieu was known for his kindness and indifference to money). Somehow – nobody know exactly how – Richelieu got Odessa the status of a “free port“. This meant that goods could be unloaded without paying the taxes within the city limit. This brought about an unprecedented influx of wealth, which in turn fueled the building of Odessa by the best European architects in the European manner. Odessa’s opera theater is only slightly smaller than Vienna’s, and is by the same architect.

    Another unique aspect of this new city was the ethnic makeup. Besides the usual for Ukrainian cities mix of Ukrainians and Russians, Odessa became a melting pot. Frenchmen, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Armenians: all rushed into Odessa. Even the Jews were allowed in, and not being limited to certain occupations or living in a ghetto. Odessa is a very Jewish town despite what the author of Everything Is Illuminated might have you believe.

    I left Odessa when I was 16. I came back for a 10 day visit 15 years later.

    Odessa is a a city that makes you nostalgic, and I kept seeing it in my dreams. Luckily there’s a small international airport in Odessa and President Yushchenko kindly lets the holders of an American passport into the country freely, with no need for a visa.

    12 hours and $1300 later I was standing in Odessa, looking for a cab. A pushy cabby was very surprised when I did not want to ride in his clean BMW and chose a cheaper and dearer to my heart filthy Soviet-vintage car.

    As far as hotels go, Ukraine is much more reasonable than Russia, but there are still no Marriott-like affordable and well-designed chains. There are overpriced hotels with decor that will burn your eyes out, cheaper, but scarier hotels, and apartments that you can rent which cover the gamut. Odessa has a population of about a million, but it swells to twice the size in the Summer season. Because of that there are thousands of very reasonably priced rental apartments with great amenities. Unfortunately I did not plan enough ahead, and ended up reserving a very cheap room in a brand new hotel Zirka that recently opened right in the center of the city.

    For a very reasonable $35/night I lived in a tiny-tiny, somewhat flimsily outfitted, but very clean room with a fully functioning shower, air conditioning and beautiful views, right in the historic center of Odessa.

    The hotel was still being built when I lived there, and I herd later that it was becoming a bit notorious for renting the rooms at hourly rates.

    As far as I’m concerned, you really can’t beat their amenities, their location, and their prices. Also, the staff was very courteous and professional. It was very quiet there during my stay – but worst case scenario – you might overhear noisy sex, from which you are not guaranteed at almost any hotel.

    It’s hard to see on picture, but the towels had little dollar sign designs.

    My hotel room reminded me very much of the affordable hotel room that I lived in in Japan, down to the picture of soft drinks that I took there.

    In Odessa I mostly drank Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water. Borjomi, as far as I’m concerned is the tastiest mineral water in the world.

    Odessa has its own mineral water, Kuyalnik, but it’s not sold in restaurants for some reason. I found a few bottles in a convenience store closer to the end of my stay. More about Kuyalnik later – I have a very special connection to it.

    Apparently in Europe Diet Coke is marketed as Coca Cola Light, is sold in frosted bottles, and as far as I can tell, in a different formulation. It did taste different, and I know my cokes.

    I quickly unpacked, grabbed my camera and went for a walk.

    You really can’t enter the same river twice. I left Odessa when the Soviet Union was still intact. When I came back, a lot of things stayed the same.

    There’s still a fountain in the City Square, the live band is still playing on Sundays and the pairs still dance.

    Acacia trees, the most common plant and the symbol of Odessa, are still filling the city with the aroma and sidewalks with their yellow flowers. Cleaning ladies (and men) still sweep the sidewalks with brooms made out of small branches. I brought a small jar with acacia blooms with me – the smell of nostalgia.

    Remember that ethnic markup that I described earlier on? Well, somehow that mixing of genes resulted in the hottest women on the planet. Odessa is still the city of super hot women. This brings a large contingent of sex tourists and mail order (in this case – cash and carry) bride seekers. I was approached (probably because I was typing away on a laptop) by a most distressed gentlemen in a cafe: he could not get online. His hands were shaking. I fixed some gnarly windows crud setup options and wi-fi started working. All he cared about was getting to a dating site, and when it loaded, his hands finally stopped shaking.

    Things have changed though. Odessa took on some qualities of Havana, Cuba. Historic buildings are deteriorating, old cars are kept alive way past what’s reasonable.

    It’s not like Havana because people seem to prosper. Even the pensioners do not go hungry, there is a lot of new construction, and the rich are really, really rich. I’ve seen just about every expensive car I know in the streets, except maybe a Maybach.

    A few things about the new Ukrainian economy. The salaries are paid in US dollars, but dollars are not accepted anywhere. You can easily exchange them into hryvnas and back very easily, and the rate is somehow kept at about 5 to 1, without even having to shop around for a rate.

    Real estate is amazingly expensive: for instance the apartment that my parents sold for something like $5K costs about $500K. At the same time the mortgage industry is almost non-existent.

    I’m told that the government officials are amazingly corrupt, and they constitute a major portion of the upper crust. A police captain can easily become a multimillionaire, and so can just about any government bureaucrat. There’s a practice of “otkat” – kickback from a government project is rampant. High ranking policemen and bureaucrats are almost outside the law, like in India.

    At the same time, even with all the corruption and bribery, the economy is pretty healthy, even without Russia’s oil.

    Price-wise Odessa is not the bargain that it once was. For most things I’d estimate the cost of living at about 60-70% of Brooklyn prices. Food and rent is pretty cheap, but electronics, clothing and cars are more expensive. In particular, cars are taxed so much that they cost about 2 to 3 times more than in the US, which makes all those Rollses that I’ve seen even more impressive, and explain the Soviet-era cars.

    Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:22 pm on April 25, 2005 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: advisor, Beat Takeshi, Blankenship, , , , General, , Hayati Tani, Inferior-Style Electronics, Japanese people, Joe Salaryman, Kenny Blankenship, MXC, Spike, , Takeshi, Takeshi Kitano, , Takeshis', Tenneal, , , Vic Romano   

    “We Also Build Poor-Quality Cars and Inferior-Style Electronics”. 

    Oh. My. God. My blog is actually useful. See, livejournal user n0w emailed me about this show called MXC, telling me that it’s a new version of “Takeshi’s Castle“. This is some useful information.

    Here’s what TVHome.com has to say about it : “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge (or “MXC”) is the ultimate in reality sports, where contestants comprised of two teams are physically and mentally challenged and eliminated through crazy and challenging games.”

    This was not encouraging description. I recorded one episode, expecting a new American Gladiators type show. But oh no no no no no! It’s nothing but. This is a creation of a few of mentally challenged Spike TV producers who somehow got their hands on vintage Takeshi’s Castle footage and proceeded to anally rape it.

    Here’s what these brilliant minds did to the poor thing:

    • They renamed the main characters. General Tani became Captain Tenneal, Count Count Beat Takeshi became Vic Romano. Count Takesh’s advisor whose name I don’t know became Kenny Blankenship.
    • They edited the footage to somehow give the impression that the original one hundred something contestants are broken up into two teams.
    • They completely replaced the dialogue Mystery Science Theater 3000 style, but with a lot of crude, frequently homophobic and sometimes even racist comments.
    • They removed the actual storming of Takeshi’s castle, although you sometimes can see the castle in the background. Instead they show replays of the more painful falls and scrapes that the contestants suffer.

    Of course, it is possible that the owners of Takeshi’s Castle footage sold it under the condition that it should be disfigured like this. Or Spike TV did not have enough money for a Japanese translator. Or some bigwig came up with these brilliant enhancements and the poor producers had no chance but to go along. Then I apologize for calling this mutilation one of the dumbest things on TV.

    The original Japanese show had so many things going for it, no wonder I remembered it for 12-15 years after seeing a couple of episodes. It has hundreds of regular people facing almost impossible tasks. Most of them failed at these tasks, facing painful and humiliating falls. Yet they showed fighting spirit, hanging on as long as possible, getting up drenched in dirt and mocked by Takeshi’s henchmen, yet not loosing face. Instead of concentrating so much on humiliating falls, in the original show they replayed attempts that showed the most determination, to this day I remember the guy who tilted at about 20 degrees to the ground on the stepping stones challenge, yet made one more jump. The actual storming of the castle was a great thing to look forward to at the end of the show, even though the contestants succeeded only a couple of times through the whole run of the series.

    Well, I guess this mutant of a show is still watchable if you mute the moronic braying of the idiotic remixers. “Now, our game shows are a little different from yours. Your shows reward knowledge; we punish ignorance“. Well, our shows do not rewards knowledge. They punish the viewers. I so wish I could enact that Tivo commercial, where a couple of guys throw a network boss out the window, with MXC creators.

    General Hayati Tani renamed for us, “average American Joe Salaryman waiters”.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 9:38 am on December 5, 2003 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: a high school teacher, a journalist, , Army recruiter, , General, , high school teacher, native food, , Police Academy, , prison guard, psychological warfare specialist, Social history, , spy, text search, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do   

    Unrussian Profession or Dig Me My Grave Long Wide and Deep 

    Thanks to a recommendation from I bought “Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs“. It’s really a tribute to an older book called “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”.

    Gig consists of monologues of a wide cross section of working people. There’s a porn star, a software developer, prison guard, a prisoner (don’t know if that’s technically a job), an air force general, a high school teacher, a journalist and enough representatives of other professions to make a thousand “x y and z walk into a bar” jokes.

    My favorite little story was about a single mom who had a gig as a psychological warfare specialist. She ended up getting my dream job when an Army recruiter asked her about her specialization preference. Since “spy” was not an option she took the next best thing.
    Modern psywarriors, like this girl, sometimes hail from rather somewhat rural places, so they get a lot of multicultural sensitivity training. One point brought home to them is that it is very important to never refuse native food or drink that is offered to them by friendlies, even if it’s gross. In training they even have a mock dinner during which they have to down “weird” drinks and eat “weird” food. That training kind of came in handy to our protagonist, as she was offered “gruel goat” meal in Africa which you had to eat with your hands. She handled that well.

    Turkish coffee turned out to be a stumbling block for her : ” … Turkish coffee. It’s got like a half an inch of grounds on the bottom. Well, I didn’t know if I was supposed to eat the grounds or not …”

    What to do, what to do? Of course she decided to ask one of the guys. Guess what kind of advice he gave her. Riiight. I’d do the same thing.

    Anyway, you can read her story here tanks to the guy at Amazon who sneaked full text search past the lawyers.

    touched upon the most fascinating topic of what professions “Russian” immigrants never choose. Police officer appeared rather often on the list of professions suggested by her readers. Well, a guy who’s desk was right next to mine in a High School pre-calculus class finished the Police Academy here in New York. I am not sure if he actually became a cop though.

    One story that he told me was kind of funny (I can’t judge it’s truthfulness though) . He smokes a lot. And once he was caught smoking right next to what he described as an “ammo dump”. The instructor who caught him came up with a creative punishment. My friend was forced to dig a proper human size grave and then bury the cigarette butt in it. Yeah, being an NYPD cadet is tough.

    Another “Russian” classmate of mine became a US Marine. I wonder where he is right now. “Semper Fi” means the same thing even with a Russian accent. Yeah. By the way, the motto of NYPD is “Fidelis Ad Mortem”.

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