Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ukrainians Shouldn't Talk to Strangers


Ukrainians should never talk to strangers on a plane. They'll get crazy ideas that you can never get out of their heads.


On the flight from Atlanta to Augusta, they chatted with a few of their seatmates. Georgia locals. When everyone learned they were visiting from Ukraine, all they could say is "You have to go to Savannah!"


Well, once you get something stuck in your head, it's hard to get it out.


We had the schedule for the whole week planned out. Sunday was the Morris Museum of Art and a Greenjackets game. Monday was training. Tuesday was training, a trip to the Columbia News Times. Wednesday was training and a cookout at Dana's house. Thursday was training and golf at West Lake. Friday was training and a music cruise down the Augusta canal. Saturday was a trip to the Augusta Museum of History and shopping. We had it planned out for about a week and it didn't include Savannah. 


So, Kim and I started trying to find a creative way to get them there since part of the group had never been to the United States. And most had never seen the Atlantic Ocean. We wanted to make their trip special. And if it meant going to Savannah, we were going to Savannah


As the week progressed, things started to fall in place. We were able to move a few things around and free up time on Saturday for a quick trip. 


Beach day finally came and I picked up everybody at the hotel. We made it to Savannah and quickly made a beeline for Tybee Island.


You couldn't have asked for a better day to spend at the beach. We just happened to be spending it with thousands of other people that thought the same thing. 


People were everywhere. What I thought was a crowded beach was nothing compared to Ukrainian beaches along the Black Sea. Everyone scoffed at my observation. Apparently, there it's hard to walk on the sand without having to step over someone. So much for my idea of a crowded beach.


We all managed to dip our toes in the Atlantic Ocean that day, munched on some leftover snacks from the music cruise the night before and even took a few pictures. But the best part was great seeing everyone having a great time.


On our way back from Tybee, we had to make a stop for gas. For the record, $90 will not fill the tank on a Ford Expedition. This alone makes me glad I drive a Honda. 


Just like every gas station on the way to and from the beach, there was a produce stand next door and we were able to pick up a few Georgia peaches. But, before we left, I had to grab another southern delicacy for the group; boiled peanuts. After Anatoliy's first introduction to peanuts at the baseball game - I'm convinced he devoured the peanut, shell and all - I wasn't sure how these would go over. Most everyone tried some, but it seemed Anna and I liked them the most as we devoured almost the entire bag. We were even snacking on them well after they got cold several hours later.


All in all, a beautiful day to spend at the beach with friends.


Well, our Ukrainian friends have come and gone. We keep in touch via the World Wide Web.


Another group will be here in a few weeks. We can’t keep them from talking to strangers on the plane ride over, either. But if they do, I hope their seatmates suggest other places to visit. Maybe like Hawaii?



























Scratch One Off The Bucket List



During the Ukrainian visit to Augusta, Dana Atkins, president of The Augusta Chronicle, was gracious enough to invite everyone to his house for a barbecue, where we all gathered on his back deck for some awesome food and a little socializing.


After dinner, he quietly stole Anatoliy away and the two headed out to the garage.


To say Dana is a golf enthusiast is an understatement.


He started pulling out every golf training aid he had. There was a mirror, a weighted driver, a power swing fan and even a hinged training club. It was everything Anatoliy needed to become the Tiger Woods of Ukraine.


Dana worked with Anatoliy as I stood by, taking pictures and shooting a little video. This was history in the making. He gradually worked through the training aids to actual clubs. I watched as Anatoliy would take a few swings, often losing his balance and ending up on his tiptoes. But with each swing, the grin on his face grew wider and wider. He was in heaven.


Anatoliy had never held a golf club in his hands before tonight and talked to us about how it was dream of his to swing a club.


Golf hasn't taken off in the Ukraine like it has elsewhere. In a country where the average income is less than $400 a month, it's hard to find the disposable income to afford a golf habit. Plus, there are only a handful of golf courses in the entire country, where many people don't know the game. Just about the only golfer they recognize is Tiger Woods. The headline for a story in a Ukrainian newspaper on the US Open didn't proclaim Justin Rose the winner. It said Tiger Woods lost.


Such is golf in Ukraine.


We were going to introduce them to golf in America.


During their trip to Augusta, we wanted so badly for them to see Augusta National but knew that wasn't possible. The best we could do was take them to the main gate on Washington Road and let Anatoliy look longingly down Magnolia Lane.


But Dana had a special treat for our friends. He had arranged for the group to hit balls at the driving range at West Lake.


As luck would have it, it was raining that day. The same way it has almost every single day for the past month.


Anatoliy, though, wasn't going to be deterred. Having held a golf club for the first time the day before, he was determined to hit a few balls. And the monsoon that was upon us wasn't going to interfere.


As the rain poured, we all huddled under umbrellas to watch as Dana worked with Anatoliy on his swing. Anatoliy made a few whiffs and dug up some worms, but his dream finally came true when he made contact with the ball. This may have been the happiest time in his life.


When Kim and I were in Ukraine, everyone we met was introduced to us with a list of their list of sports accomplishments first and then what they did. Sometimes those came before we even learned their names.


Now, Anatoliy can add one more accolade to his list. Golfer.




















One If By Land. Two If By Sea. Three If By Delta Airlines.





We knew it had to come to an end. All good things do. Right? We just wished it wouldn’t. 


Friday came and it was time for Kim and I to get on that big ole jet airliner and start heading back to Augusta.


It was a sad goodbye. Tears were suppressed. Hugs were exchanged. But they say, “What goes around comes around.”


After all, in two weeks, the Ukrainians were coming!


It was a long two weeks. For Kim and I, it was worse than being kids waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, combined with the last week of school before summer break. And you might as well throw in those days leading up to the family vacation to Disney World.


We were excited kids and the day of their arrival couldn’t have gotten here fast enough.


Soon, the day we had been waiting for, had finally come.


Kim and I waited at the airport for their plane to arrive. We watched anxiously as the plane made its way to the gate and the passengers started deplaning. People filtered out as we waited for our friends to appear. And we waited. And we waited. Just when we began wondering if they had missed the flight, we caught a glimpse of Anna. The rest weren't too far behind.


They were finally here.


The area between the terminal and baggage claim is no man's land. It may as well be the area that separates North Korea from South Korea. While Kim and I could see everyone, we couldn't run to greet them. We had to wait some more. 


And to make the wait even more agonizing, there was one more stop to be made before they officially crossed the border into Augusta. 


Anatoliy, being Anatoliy, gathered the group for a picture. He chose the statue in the middle of the terminal of golf great Ray Floyd as the backdrop for his picture. Kim and I chuckled. After 24 hours of traveling, they, or should I say Anatoliy, were in no rush to get out of the airport.


But they were here. And another good thing was about to begin again.
















Friday, June 14, 2013

We Are The Champions. And I Have A Medal To Prove It.






Ok, so we didn’t quite walk away as “the champions.” But, we did take third place. And that still comes with bragging rights.


Our trip to work with the staff at Nikolaevskie Novosti happened to coincide with a bowling tournament between local media outlets. Anatoliy, the  chief editor, invited me to participate. Having a slight competitive streak, I gladly accepting.


I was assigned a lane with the team from a competing newspaper. We were given a warm-up period of a few minutes before the start of the tournament.


My turn came for practice came up.  


I can’t tell you the last time I bowled. It had been years for sure and I was a little nervous. But I let loose with my first ball. 




The folks on the competing team must have thought I some kind of ringer, brought in just for the tournament. But they had nothing to fear. Because my game went downhill from there. 


I managed to break a hundred in both games. Nothing stellar, but it did help us secure third place.


Everything the Nikolaevskie Novosti staff did, they did as a team. As a family.


On our last night in Nikolaev, the staff held a barbecue in our honor, at a very secluded spot on the bank of the Yuzhny Bug River. It also happened to be on the grounds of the Athletic and Sport Committee of Ukraine in Nikolaev. Anatoliy took Kim and I in to meet the local chairman, a very gentle giant of a man that was once a competitive rower. As we would find out during our trip, everyone in Ukraine is an award-winning athlete in at least one sport. And that’s how they’re introduced.


As we walked into his office, we noticed it was  adorned with sports memorabilia from soccer balls to pennants to trophies and medals.


Little did I know, he was about to present me with one of those medals.


Anatoliy introduced us to Valeriy Babiy, award-winning competitive rower for Ukraine. He told me he’d heard that I helped the Nikolaevskie Novosti team take third place in the bowling championship and wanted to give me something. He reached back to his desk and grasp the medal. I was speechless as he presented it to me.


Olena, our friend from IREX, translated the words on the medal for me. 


On the front read “Athletic Sports Society, Ukraine.” And on the reverse, “For the Considerable Contribution to the Olympic Movement.”


I had just become one of Ukraine’s award-winning athletes.


But this wasn’t all.


As we continued talking, he walked over to one of the walls of his office and pulled a couple of items down. Kim and I couldn’t tell what they were. But, as he presented them to us, we finally saw what had once been on the wall. They were Ukrainian Olympic pins. Each from a different sport. Mine was synchronized swimming.


Having covered the 1996 Olympic Games, I knew how much people coveted these pins. They weren’t given away haphazardly. These type of pins are traded between athletes from different countries. You don’t just hand them to complete strangers and expect nothing in return.


Yet, that is exactly what he did. He gave them to two people from the United States that had walked through his door two minutes prior.


We chatted briefly before going to meet our friends and watch the sun set over the river.


Several people prepared salads and fixings as the smell of barbecued chicken and meat filled the air. Even the herring in a fur coat salad was there.


Kim and I settled in with a couple of beers and took in took in the delightful evening. It was our last night in Nikolaev.


Just like the rest of the week, we were treated like family. We watched the sun set, took silly pictures, shared stories, laughed at jokes and had the most special meal of the week. Everyone had taken time away from their families and their personal lives to be with us. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.


A real gift comes from the heart. One that’s taken off the wall and handed to you. It can be the gift of a person’s time that they spend with you. Something that has special meaning to them and they want you to have it. These are true gifts. They’re the ones that are cherished for a lifetime.


Sadly, our week had to come to an end. 


Kim and I knew the next group to go to Ukraine would have to meet our expectations. After all, we’d set the bar. 


They have to help the Nikolaevskie Novosti team win a championship. Their trip is supposed to coincide with the tennis tournament between the media outlets. One of the requirements for the Chronicle participants: they must have some serious tennis skills.


Because we’re sending the ringers.














You Shouldn’t Judge a Salad by the Type of Coat it Wears






One of the most exciting parts of traveling is experiencing the different cultures in these unique places.


Our trip to Ukraine was no different. We were immersed in a new culture the moment we got off the plane.


For me, culture contains a lot of different elements. It can be the people, the food, their customs, their religions or even the architecture. It becomes the sense of place. Take those away and you have a very generic locale that has been whitewashed of everything that makes it interesting. 


As a person who has travelled a lot domestically, I haven’t travelled that much internationally. So when I’m in unchartered territory, I like to try new things, especially when it comes to food. I have a very open mind and will try almost anything. There was the bone marrow on toast incident in Paris. And my not one, but two, encounters with haggis in Scotland. 


I’d survived those. Bring on Ukraine!


I knew there were some traditional dishes that I had to try, like borscht and the dumplings. After that, it was all about experimentation.


Our interpreters soon became our unwitting co-conspirators. Whenever we’d eat dinner somewhere, they would always ask if the restaurant had an English version of their menu. Some did. Some didn’t. Some even had English and Ukrainian on the same menu. But we loved the ones that came with pictures. At that point it didn’t matter if the menu was in English, Ukrainian or Chinese. We knew exactly what we were ordering.


With the English menus, however, we were a little skeptical. We knew we couldn’t always trust the interpretations.


If you’ve ever tried Google Translate, you know what I’m talking about. There are just some words that don’t translate between languages. 


And this was one time when we were very apprehensive.


On the menu at this particular restaurant was an item called “Herring Under a Fur Coat Salad.”


I don’t know about you, but that set off some serious red flags in my head. And almost right below it was something called “Local Lard Assorted.”


So much for getting totally immersed in the culture. We were going to avoid these two dishes at all cost.


But, the names did provide us with a little entertainment.


Kim and I immediately started cracking jokes. You can imagine the pictures that were floating around in our heads about a fur coat salad. If you took the name literally, and we did, this wasn’t a very appetizing image.


All we could think is this really the right name? Surely not. They must have misinterpreted this somehow. It’s got to be a mistake.


Nope. It’s the real deal. And as we’d soon find out, it’s a very traditional Ukrainian dish that is layered, consisting of ingredients like herring, potatoes, onions, beets and mayonnaise.


Traditional dish or not, we weren’t sold on it. Kim and I opted for dumplings.


But we wouldn’t be able to dodge the fur coat for long. In fact, it’s was just a matter of days before we’d come face to face with herring under a fur coat salad.


Now, the people in Ukraine are very welcoming. The staff at Nikolaevskie Novosti is no exception. It’s one big family that does everything together. We had become their cousins, twice-removed, visiting from the United States.


And what better way to celebrate family than to have a barbecue.


It was a potluck that included barbecued chicken, grilled beef, lettuce wraps, salted herring, salads, bread and the star of the night; herring under a fur coat salad.


Our attempts at avoiding this dish were over. We had hoped our luck wouldn’t run out. But, we were wrong.


Sitting in front of us, in all its purple glory, lay the one dish that we had mocked earlier in the week. I think we both breathed a sigh of relief when we found out the “fur coat” was actually a covering of beets and mayonnaise. Now, all eyes were on us. There was no avoiding it.


Kim and I both took a sample. 


The best part of a potluck is the amount of food on the table. It can work to your advantage, especially in this situation. There’s more than enough to go around, which means you have to plan your portions accordingly.


After helpings of chicken, beef, salads, bread and lettuce wraps, there wasn’t much room left for the fur coat salad on my plate. Just enough space for a couple of spoonfuls. I hadn’t quite avoided this dish, but at least I’d minimize its impact on my intestinal fortitude.


The time had finally come. I took a forkful and put it in my mouth, expecting this to be my biggest regret of the week. 


Wow! Fur coat salad, where have you been all week? This is great, I thought to myself. I turned to Kim in disbelief. She had the same reaction.


In a feverish attempt to rectify our mistake, we each got a second helping much, much larger than our first. We had to make up for lost time.


There would have been a third helping if the potluck hadn’t taken its toll on us. We were full. What we had avoided all week, turned out to be one of the best Ukrainian dishes we’d had all week.


For me, it was a hard-learned lesson. You shouldn’t judge a salad by the type of coat it wears.


I guess for my next trip to Ukraine, I’ll be looking forward to the “Local Lard Assorted.”






Odysseus Would Be Proud






It was 5:30 a.m. and I’m usually halfway through a good night’s sleep. But now my alarm was going off. I had an hour to shower, get dressed and finish my packing. My boss Kim and I were beginning our marathon day that would take us from Augusta to Atlanta to New York to Paris to Kiev to Odessa.


The two of us were asked to take part in the Ukraine Media Partnership Program this year, promoted by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. 


Our newspaper, The Augusta Chronicle, was paired with a newspaper in Nikolaev, Ukraine, called Nikolaevskie Novosti. It’s an independent newspaper with a staff of fifteen that’s published three times a week.


At first we were very excited about our trip. But soon, we started having second thoughts. 


Our flight from Atlanta to JFK in New York arrived 30 minutes late. As a result, we had to scramble to the gate to make our next flight, finding our way to another terminal and passing back through security. As we’re waiting in the security line, we hear the final announcement for passengers Todd Bennett and Kim Luciani to proceed to the gate for departure. When we finally made it, we saw the plane being pushed back from the gate. We’d missed our flight. 


Luckily, Delta was able to get us rebooked on a flight through Amsterdam that left about an hour and a half later. It would take us that much time to get back through security. 


We were back on track. 


Arriving in Amsterdam, we had a small layover. Long enough for us to get something to drink and for Kim to grab a smoke or two.


The flight to Kiev was uneventful. When the plane touched down, we both realized we had finally made it to Ukraine. Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t.


We waited patiently by the baggage carousel as the bags went round and round, passengers plucking their bags off the conveyor as they passed by. Slowly, the numbers dwindled down until the carousel finally came to a stop. At this point, Kim and I realized our bags hadn’t made it. They were stuck somewhere between New York, Paris and Amsterdam. 


At this point, we began to worry that we may never see our bags again.


Before we left, Kim had mentioned to me that I should pack a change of clothes in my carry-on bag. I did. Unfortunately, Kim didn’t follow her own advice. She only had the clothes on her back and her pocketbook. It would take us two days to get our bags and Kim a fresh change of clothes. 


As we walked through customs empty-handed, we were greeted by a smiling face and a sign with IREX written on it. It was Olena. She had arranged our trip and was the best thing our travel-weary eyes had seen in 20-some hours.


Our next flight would leaving in five hours for Odessa. We’d spend the night there and it’d be our first chance to get some quality sleep in 30 plus hours.


As departure time arrived, all of the passengers were crammed into two buses and taken out to the tarmac. The plane was an old 737 that had seen better days. As we made our way to our seats, we walked through the first class cabin, if you want to call it that. It had the same seats as coach, separated from the rest of us by an ugly yellow curtain, probably as old as the plane itself, that was drawn after takeoff. The plane on our return trip would come complete with ashtrays in the armrests.


The plane landed with a thud and came to a screeching/grinding halt. We thought the brakes were going to fall off.  


As we exited the plane, we were again crammed into two more buses and shipped to the terminal.


Now claiming your luggage at the Odessa Airport is a journey in and of itself. 


Instead of a carousel, bags are dumped outside a set of windows, where passengers grab their luggage from several large racks. It’s pretty much a free for all. Luckily, by fate, Kim and I didn’t have to partake in this melee. Olena wasn’t so lucky and waited a bit as the mob swarmed around the bags. It was like a pack of hyenas feasting on the carcass of a dead zebra. After a while, Olena was finally able to get to her bag. When she returned, I was  surprised she hadn’t lost a limb or at least come away with a few bite marks.


We piled into a cab and headed for our hotel. This was probably the only sane taxi cab driver in all of Ukraine. He got us there in one piece.


After about 36 hours and five airports, we had finally arrived at our happy places. They came complete with pillows and blankets.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again

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It’s been a long time; almost eight years. But I just made the transition back to working at a newspaper.


I know. I’m a rat jumping back on a sinking ship. What am I thinking?


It’s a little different this time around. At least that’s what I tell myself.


For the past two months, I’ve been the multimedia chief at the Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, GA. It’s a coming home for me because I worked here four years from 1998-2002.


And a lot has changed since then.


Gone is the director of photography position. It’s now called the aforementioned multimedia chief. Mostly a chief photographer position in this new age of photojournalism. Instead of a eight staff photographers, we’re now down to a staff of four photographers plus me. 


This is the new reality throughout the newsroom where about half the desks sit empty. Just like everybody else, we’re trying to do more with less. 


We’re now a digital first publication. Photographers create videos and slideshows from their assignments and those get posted on the web before appearing in print. Circulation numbers seem to take a back seat nowadays to page views.


But some things never change. 


One of the big ones for me is the thrill of creating compelling images. These keep me going. I enjoy being able to show our readers/audience a different look on the ordinary. Or the chance to show them something new altogether. 


Right now, this is like a dream job for me. It’s been two months now and the honeymoon effect hasn’t faded. This is my happy place. I’m just hoping I don’t have to wake up from this dream.



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