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.