Category Archives: Transportation

OMG. Train ticket tech support works . . . . WELL. Tears of happiness fill my eyes.

OMG. I’m dizzy with Ukrainian pride. Just for the hell of it, I called tech support for the website that sells train tickets. It was after 9pm.

Not only did someone answer, the lady was perfectly polite and competent!

Just two years ago, buying train tickets was the bane of my existence: http://romaninukraine.com/train-stations-and-supermarkets-in-ukraine/

Train Station Clerk Pauses for Cleaning Lady. Ugh

Train Stations are the worst. My life has gotten measurably better since I learned how to buy tickets online. Nevertheless, sometimes I still have to go to the station. Picture this:

Crowded. Long lines. Everyone is cranky. The cleaning lady pushes aside the clerk with her mop. The clerk first slides her chair back to accommodate the cleaning, then leaves her booth altogether and so the stone-faced hag with the mop can fishing moistening the floor with her dirty rag on a stick.

The Bus from Przemysl

Note: The author is an American of Ukrainian descent currently living in L’viv Ukraine. His ancestors had fled that country to escape the Bolsheviks. Przemysl is a city just on the other side of the Ukrainian-Polish border.

The Bus from Przemysl

I.

Yogurt. Juice. Mandarins. A bicycle chain repair machine. Coffee creamer. Goods tightly bound in plastic bags, or placed individually in the overhead compartment.

Constant, frantic noise of middle-aged women, like walking into a chicken coop. rows full of boxes. seats piled high. windows blocked. boxes and bags.

The business of clearing seats, of ladies reminding each other what belongs to whom.

Diapers.

The doors close. The driver climbs over some bags to find his seat. A woman calls for the man sitting in front. He pulls a roll of packing tape from his coat pocket, steps over bags. he seals a torn-open box, returns to his seat, resigned to the duty of his labor, completely silent, unlike the women. A woman hands him a bag of vacuum sealed sausages. Some tumble to the floor. He kneels to retrieve them from under a seat. He will hold them in his lap for the rest of the trip. Another bag of sausages goes to the lady across the aisle from him.

The driver insisting the under compartment is full, unpacking a bag of thermoses — each is boxed, ready to be shelved in some store — and placing them individually in the overhead.

Boxes of powdered milk under the seats.

Slowly, things settle to private conversations. There are big snowy fields and villages in the distant forested hills.

What a vulgar, vile idea it was to reduce all this to the brutality and ignorance of a post office.

II.

I see the traffic before I see the border. Three lanes of vans and cars. All still. People stand among in their coats. So many. Later, I’m told they will mostly be crossing on foot.

I’m happy to see the bus steer into the lane for opposing traffic. We skip almost the entire line, then the driver stops and cuts the engine. We wait. There’s a 100 zloty note prominent on the dashboard.

One of the women speaks to the driver. 150 zloty. A quiet conversation. Another 40 zloty. I am a bystander to this world. (my ticket cost only 25.) A shuffling of documents.

We wait beside a flatbed trailer with two cars chained in place. I think they have no tires, but then see the tires laid flat. The frames rest upon the tires. Perhaps these aren’t cars at all. Perhaps in this moment they are merely scrap metal. A different thing entirely.

I watch my travel companions. Fascinated by their world. They know this trip well. I imagine their lives, look into their bags: Kiwi. Mushrooms. Butter. Seeds.

The Polish guard collects passports, looks, each of us carefully in the face. No smiling. Soon they’re returned.

More waiting.

The Ukrainian guard does the same and then (rejoice!) we are through! Breathe again.

At a gas station, the flurry of activity, the frantic clucking crescendos. One woman can’t find her bag. Two men carry crates of juice to the gas station. A woman exits the bus and six bags are unloaded onto the curb beside her. The two come running back from the gas station, arms swinging. The driver yells hurry. Boxes go into the trunk of a waiting car.

Such intricate chaos. God bless it, I think. God bless these people, this system.

At the next stop, numbers — forty yogurts, no sixty. Counting. Such hustle and precision! Nothing like US Army logistics. Ha.

A box of yogurt and a box of butter become two boxes, half-full of each.

Now, there are hryvni on the dashboard.

A lady unloading the overhead places a large box of chocolate snacks in my lap without asking permission or speaking to me. She clears a space on the seat across the aisle and moves the box there. I feel . . . accepted.

Boots, crackers. Someone needs something from beneath the seat adjacent to me. I begin to help. The boxes of butter are heavy.

Men await our arrival beside one grocery. The women hand them boxes through the door. They stack them in the alley in the spots where snow had melted away.

Now, the hryvni are gone.

A microwave gets passed from the from to the back of the bus. They yell at the driver to open the rear door. They call him by his first name.

Four bags go beside the traffic circle where a taxi waits.

The stops get quieter, less frantic now with fewer people and fewer goods. It is dark when we finally reach L’viv. I am one of only three passengers when the bus parks beside the train station. I exist with my suitcase and walk home.

III.

Snow is falling lightly. Everything is calm. Freshly returned from the west, L’viv’s poverty is clear. I carry the suitcase because its little wheels can’t handle the disastrous sidewalks, the snow and slush, the trolley tracks buckling the cobblestone streets. Yes, Ukraine is poorer that the west — run down in many ways. The roads and sidewalks, a disaster. But still, it’s very beautiful. Everywhere, under dustings of snow, in the shadows cast by electric lights, there are hidden treasures of architecture, history, religion, faith.

A programmer, two central bankers, and I were on a train . . .

Not kidding. I was on the Kyiv-Lviv train today. Happened to be sitting in the wagon’s one booth arrangement of seats. There’s exactly one in each wagon of the new Hundai trains. My companions are two young women who work at Ukraine’s central bank and an 8-year computer programmer, back-end specialist.

He spoke English pretty well. The two women were attending some central bank conference in L’viv. They mentioned that there’d be discussion of an audit.

Great conversation. Yes, Bitcoin came up. It came up a lot. :-)

I love my life.

Oh, and during the trip, a fantastic rainbow appeared over half the horizon.

Ukraine’s New Hundai Trains

So, I recently took a trip on them, Kyiv to Lviv. Five hours instead of over-night.

I like that you’re not forced in a strange union, sitting on bunk beds with strangers in a private cabin. I love the free electricity, the comfort, the modernity — sliding class doors, nice seats that face forward, windows that you can look through without having to lean awkwardly.

These new trains are over staffed compared to European ones. Of course, it’s impossible to tell who is doing it correctly without a more competitive free market for transportation, but I suspect that like most of Ukraine’s government endeavors, the trains have way too many employees. There’s someone assigned to each car. There are two people taking a cart of snacks through the train (which I love). There’s another lady whose only job seems to be passing through and collecting garbage twice during the five hour trip.

In other rail news, they’ve been requiring identification both for purchase of tickets and for boarding which slows things down a lot and increases the level of stupidity. Sadly, most Ukrainians aren’t very good at standing in line, and government institutions will never, ever think to invest in any sort of crowd control. So boarding a train is even more of a mob scene than usual because the gate keeper has to check everybody’s id.

Days like today make me miss America

So for the past couple weeks, a friend of mine who works in a municipal level gov’t position has been telling me that everything’s fine, that he’ll call tomorrow and tell me when I can pick up documents I’ve been waiting for. His help has been completely selfless. I’m grateful, and want to be polite, even when he never calls. I kept waiting TWO days, giving him a chance to live up to his promise, and then calling him, and receiving the same reassurance.

When I called him yesterday, he finally said everything was ready. “Travel to the regional office and pick up your stuff.”

Public transportation in Ukraine kicks my ass. I’ve written about train stations before. Same goes for bus stations: the only way I’m able to figure out when a bus is going somewhere is to travel to the station, stand in line, and then ask the clerk.

Yesterday evening, I enlisted the help of a native Ukrainian. She made an inquiry online. She said there was a bus from L’viv to the regional office at 15:00. That didn’t sound right and I decided to take a marshutka first thing in the morning to find out when the buses travel.

I take the #10 Marshutka to the bus station. I just googled the distance and see that it’s about 10.5 kilometers. The fact that a ten kilometer trip takes 45 minutes is one of the miracles of L’viv’s public transportation system. It’s a little cartel. Marshutky are filty, slow, and even more crowded than the NYC subways I grew up riding. There are never enough.

It turned out my Ukrainian friend was wrong. One bus leaves at 8:30 in the morning. I learned this at 8:45. The next one at 13:00. I waited in a nearby restaurant for almost four hours.

I eventually took the bus to the region where my paperwork was being prepared. During the two-and-a-half hour ride at a snails pace to avoid pot holes, I telephoned a cousin and asked him to meet me. We went together to the office where everything was supposedly ready. Nothing was ready.

I couldn’t even pay the 26 uah fee (about $3). I was told the following week not to return there, but to go to the Oblast center to get my documents, and then later to the regional office to pay the three bucks.

It would have been a foolish, rookie mistake to try and figure out why I’d been asked to go there in the first place when apparently I had to first picking up the documents in the Oblast center. The fact that the question didn’t even occur to me until much later is a sign of my maturing to the reality of Ukrainian bureaucracy. It has no logic, no center. It is idiocy for the sake of idiocy. It is a cruel joke without a punchline. It just keeps stumbling along, but without ever actually getting anywhere.

I waited another two hours for the bus back to L’viv.

Here’s what really made today special:

I had intended to take Marshutka #10 back toward my apartment. I thought I saw a #10, and moved to secure my place in the crush of people. (There are never enough Marshutky.) It turned out that it was #40. I zoned out for what I expected to be a 45 minute, 10 kilometer trip, and didn’t realize my mistake until I was in a little town beyond the municipal boundary of the city. My cell phone battery died.

I was able to take a different Marshutka back to the bus station, and arrived just in time to see the last bus departing toward the city center. Of course, I didn’t realize it was the last bus until after a good twenty minutes of sitting on the cold bench.

I started walking home, and found a big crowd of people at a different Marshutka stop. I waited with them for quite a while, but felt reassured by their number. Thirty one. I counted. I took that Marshutka. One lady told me it was the last of the evening. After a half-hour ride, it may or may not have gotten me closer to my home. Not sure. I exited and walked across what seemed like half the city, climbing piles of snow and wading through ankle deep slush.

It was after midnight when I returned home.

My day has been as smart and efficient as a bag of hammers.

Public Transportation Bluster in L’viv

Email from my friend Andri this past Sunday:

Today we have an conflict situation in Lviv: owners of carrier-companies require from the city-administration to rise the price from 2 hryvnias to 3. Otherwise they will stop working on 20:30 every day. The city-mayor aswered: this is intimidation, your requirement can’t be satisfied till you won’t buy more comfortable buses. Carriers promise to start strike on Monday :) Some other details about the situation – owner of the biggest carrier-firm is a deputy from Svoboda. We have three private firms but I don’t know if they are subsidised from city or state budget. Private owners shares the carrier-market of city with one municipal firm which started using big second-hand buses from Europe. Major demands from the private carriers to drive the same class buses.

A member of my English club wrote this essay several months ago about public transportation in Lviv:

The case against nationalized urban transport

***

As far as I can tell, no actual strike took place. Several people told me before the supposed deadline (Monday), that it wouldn’t happen. It was just the necessary bluster which the voting public must hear before a last minute solution by hard-working and concerned politicians was found.

Train Stations and Supermarkets in Ukraine

First published in the Ukrainian Weekly, July 1, 2012:

L’viv-born economist, Ludwig Von Mises made the case that capitalism forces people, even enemies, to cooperate and serve one another. This is so evident, we often fail to see it.

Consider buying something at a store. It is typical for both customer and cashier to say “thank you.” This mutual expression of gratitude reflects how both parties benefit. The customer receives his product, and the cashier, on behalf of the owner, the customer’s money. They are both happier and the world becomes a better place.

The mutual benefit only occurs for businesses relying on voluntary patronage. It doesn’t exist where people profit from tax dollars — for example, at the train station. This brings me to my personal experience buying tickets in Kyiv’s “Vokzal.”

I was been told you can buy tickets online in Ukraine, but the website looks confusing. You must register. Also, after you buy them online, you go to the train station and cut in front of the many exhausted travelers waiting on long lines just to receive online-purchased train ticket. I can’t imagine doing that. So, for my stay in Ukraine, I’ve resorted to standing on lines at train stations to purchase tickets.

For my non-Ukrainian readers, let me clarify how horrible this experience is: The station is perpetually crowded and smells like body odor. By my estimate, the average wait in Kyiv is thirty minutes. You have to demonstrate your capitulation to the system by stooping to speak through a little portal to the impatient clerk. You have no idea what train tickets are available or how much they cost until you get there. A decision must be made the instant you get the information and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get an overview of what’s available.

You ask for Thursday night, they tell you, very rapidly what’s leaving on Thursday night, which types of cabins, times of travel and cost. It’s an awfully large amount of information to process quickly, especially for non-native speakers and especially if you’re a nice person sensitive to the impatience of the people behind you.

It gets worse.

On a recent visit to the train station a young man asked to cut in front of me, just as I reached the front of the line. Perhaps he had bought a ticket online. “Thirty seconds,” he said. I nodded. Good manners are only a weakness in a bureaucratically managed enterprise.

He was indeed finished in thirty seconds, but a lady sensed her opportunity and asserted her place behind the young man. I told her she couldn’t cut, and even posted my arm, but she snuck around my other side as soon as he finished.

She jumped straight into a heated argument with the clerk. The clerk refused something but she wouldn’t accept it and kept arguing. Eventually, the clerk put a cardboard sign in the window that read “Technical break,” dropped the venetian blinds, and left her booth, switching off the light.

This shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.

Various times are printed on the glass of the booth. Though they weren’t labeled, I’ve since learned these were the technical breaks. Each booth has five or six technical breaks during the day and they range from ten to sixty minutes in duration. This one was supposed to be twenty minutes long, and I decided to wait it out rather than move to a different line. She returned on time, but then spent five minutes counting money with another lady. When I finally had her attention, she told me that nothing was available on the day I wanted to travel, or the day after that. I couldn’t make an immediate decision about what to do, so I left empty handed.

Most Ukrainians would probably think: “Of course, that it how it works at the train station. That is how it always worked, and that is how it will always be until the end of time. There is no alternative.”

One must be able to imagine progress before achieving it. Imagine a supermarket. I shop at the Mega Market near Olympiski Stadium metro station. In fact, I went there just to cheer myself up after my failure at the train station. I like choices. I like polite people.

At Mega Market, I don’t have to ask which products are available. They are advertised with beautiful pictures and sometimes, attractive people hand me leaflets as I wander the aisles at my own leisurely pace. I get free samples. I can touch, hold and even smell things before I buy them. The biggest miracle of all, however, may be the checkout.

There is no glass between me and clerk. I don’t have to stoop. They smile and demonstrate good manners. They never take technical breaks. A girl only leaves her station when her replacement arrives. Even if they did take breaks, it wouldn’t matter because the lines are always short. Do train station bureaucrats stumble through supermarkets in utter awe? Do they consider the managers there to be super-human geniuses?

Economist Frederick Hayek distinguished between two economies in every society. There is the voluntary economy, where exchanges rely on voluntary patronage, and there is the coercive economy — so called because it runs on taxes which are collected coercively. For the sake of good manners, peace, and making the most of the little time each of has on this Earth, we should remember how we are treated by each.

Luhansk-Lviv train for Easter

I bought a bag of “warm, fresh” vareneky for 12 uah ($1.50) from a lady who boarded during a brief stop. On this trip, I spoke with my fellow kupe passengers. Ivan had been traveling all the way from Luhansk and was already reclined comfortably on his bedroll when I boarded &entered the kupe in Kyiv. He said they make better vareneky here in the west, that their dough isnt right out east, that he was traveling home for Easter, and that the mentality in the east leaves young people asking for free education, a pension, free heathcare from the government, while in the west they ask only to be left alone. Interesting to me that its noticed, though Id heard almost the exact opposite before.

The kid in my kupe was so noisy & unruly that a lady came from another kupe to argue with his mom. I’m told we were delayed near Broviv when a passenger fell down between the cars and was killed. I was sleeping the whole time we were halted. A second official said “they’re not telling us what happened… maybe its Spring repairs that caused the delay.”

From Kyiv with Love

Missed my train to L’viv. Afer a brief search for the proper platform, I arrived just as my trai departed.

Partial refund on the ticket. Next train at 1:20am.

I’m now sitting in McDonalds browsing via Kinde.

When I get back, I plan to write and work like my life depends on it.

Peculiarities

I like discovering foreign details of day-to-day life, different approaches to similar things. After two weeks, I’m already ceasing to notice them, perhaps a sign of my increasing comfort & assimilation into Kyiv life, so I thought I’d detail them before they’re entirely forgotten.

Peculiar:

1. Light switches are in strange places. It’s like a big Easter egg hunt, except the reward is being able to see.

2. There are many “Solon’s of Beauty,” which struck me as an adorable turn of language.

3. Groceries are usually marked with big signs that say “продукти” or “Products.”

4. Lots of women walk around on impossibly high heels, especially when scaling steep, cobblestone streets.

5. There are lots and lots of Sushi restaurants, including at least two different franchises. Even some coffee shops serve sushi. When I visited Kyiv for the first time I stared, and stared at a sign that read “суші.” I sounded it out, “su-shi,” but could not believe it. It’s a word I never expected to see in Cyrillic letters. I crept closer, crossing a street and peering into the window, confirming it was, in fact, a sushi restaurant. As much as I like sushi, I told myself, you’d have to be crazy to consume raw fish in Ukraine. That was then.

6. In one products store, I only saw 15, 20 and 25% milk. (The box of 15% makes a cameo appearance in an earlier post.) I thought that was the standard, but I’ve since discovered bottles of 0%, 1%, 2%, and the like. So this really doesn’t count.

6-again (since the last one didn’t count). Ads very frequently appear on my cell phone. My phone doesn’t vibrate or ring, and the ads aren’t stored as text messages, though they look like them. The ads are in Russian, which I struggle with, but I can understand enough to know that some of them are for ring tones.

7. Metro tokens are plastic.

8. In many places, cars park diagonally on the sidewalk. Occasionally, where they can’t pull directly from the street onto the sidewalk, they drive amid pedestrians for a bit.

9. The cost of food is surprisingly high. I usually pay the equivalent of $4-$7 per meal for eating out when it’s nothing fancy, $15 for sushi. For a country whose average annual income is usually reported as between $4,000 and $7,000, this is very high. Several possibilities: Kyivian are a lot wealthier than other Ukrainians. Kyiv restaurants benefit from massive tourism. Statistics about income are artificially low because much of it goes unreported.

Regardless of the cause, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an eating out culture here. When, after yesterday’s music show (which I’ll write about soon), I asked a Ukrainian guy to recommend a place where a few of us U.S. expats to eat, he immediately joked: the best place to eat is home.

10. Ukrainians seem to love stamping thing. In the restaurant we ate at last night, all the pages of the menu were stamped and signed. On almost every street you see a “нотаріус” or notary.

11. Ukrainian, or, at least, Kyivans, also love fireworks. They’ve happened at least two or three times at week since I’ve been here. I usually startle, just a little, and for a split second wonder what is exploding.

12. You often have to go underground to cross big streets. The underground passages are usually filled with retail shops. Some are nicer than others. Around Maidan, the underground area sprawls beneath several complex intersections, and I can never get to the corner I want on the first try. I have to surface like a ground hog, reorient myself, and continue closing in my desired destination.

Surprisingly Familiar:

1. Break dancers, live mimes, and other street performers.

2. McDonalds.

3. People on the street in the city’s center handing out various coupons.

4. During my 2004, a restaurant named Domashna Kukhna (home kitchen) charged a nominal price for packets of salt and sugar, napkins, plastic ware, toothpicks, etc. I found this rather annoying and the market seems to have agreed. They no longer do this. (Side note: Domashna Kukhna is both the name of a franchise and the name used by many individually-owned restaurants. There doesn’t seem to be any problem distinguishing, though. Take THAT intellectual property advocates!)

EDIT: 5. Television commercials — for cat food, skin cream, movies, cell phone service, and a whole lot more.