From Ukraine to Canada and Back

Aug
11th
2010

BALAKLAVA, AUTONOMOUS REPUBLIC OF CRIMEA — And I’m back.

Two weeks ago in the southern Ukrainian bridebasket of Kherson, I loaded up the crippled Hamburglar in a truck and hopped in the passenger seat for the 8-hour ride down to Balaklava. The truck’s owner-operator and his wife might have been the world’s friendliest Ukrainians, and despite no common language we managed to chitchat the entire way. I also managed to get a hell of a sunburn on my right arm.

We eventually found my friend Olga in downtown Balaklava, and she led us to her cousin’s garage up on the hill overlooking the bay. My Vespa would at least have a good view while waiting for a new brake drum upon my return from Canada.

Yes, Balaklava is the eponymous birthplace of the headgear favoured by special forces units and bank robbers everywhere. So the story goes, during a bitterly cold winter in the Crimean War, women in Britain took to knitting the full-face hats, sending them to their men in Balaklava, and the name stuck. The town is also notable for its Cold War-era nuclear submarine base, which is tunnelled deep in the hills surrounding the bay. During its heyday, it was allegedly able to survive a direct atomic attack. It was decommissioned in 1996 and today serves as a museum for tourists.

Balaklava, like its big brother Sevastopol across the peninsula, was one of the most secretive military areas of the Soviet Union, and residents were subjected to intense security and required a special pass to be there. Nowadays, it’s a resort town with a strong Mediterranean feel to it, complete with all the tourist infrastructure you’d expect.

I had a few days to kill before heading to Canada, and meanwhile Olga and her mom rolled out the welcome mat and stuffed me with yet more Ukrainian food. I’ve really taken a liking to the local cuisine. There’s always an emphasis on appreciating the simple grandeur of barely-adulterated fresh vegetables, which means that if all the heavy-duty meat, grease, and cream in some Ukrainian food starts weighing you down, you can always just hit the greens and be left feeling oddly healthy.

Olga later took me on a grand tour of the Balaklava harbour, and by “grand” I mean it. Thanks to her sterling connections, she had a friend of hers fire up his 150-foot ferryboat and steam the pair of us out into the open Black Sea to go swimming. I’m a terrible swimmer, but I gamely jumped into the briny deep anyway. Yarr. It was cold.

I was soon off to Toronto via Simferopol and Kiev and London. Arriving as I was from lily-white Eastern Europe to the vast immigration hall at Pearson International, I was immediately struck by how most of the border agents were visibly of south- or east-Asian descent. The sight all that ethnic diversity didn’t fail to impress. Canadian airports also have wall-to-wall carpeting, which does not exist in Europe. Frankly, having spent so many years away, I find all that upholstery on the floor kind of disgusting. It’s filthy, surely. The Anglo-American obsession with carpeting probably deserves its own book.

I took a cab to my friend Chris’s place uptown, and we headed out to a charmless local chain pub to relive our beer-using days back in Montreal. I ordered a Creemore Springs Premium Lager, brought it to my lips, and was floored by the potent and complex flavour of something that wasn’t yet another watery European pilsener. This last trip to Canada confirmed my suspicion that European beer snobbery is founded on an outdated and utterly wrong picture of the beer situation in North America. Most Europeans subscribe to the idea that we colonial types drink nothing but Bud Light, and they take an almost unseemly glee in it; meanwhile, back in reality, the selection in most North American pubs is vastly more interesting and varied than what you get in Central Europe. (I’m looking at you, Czechs and Slovaks!) North America started taking beer seriously not too long ago, and it’s amazing what you can find even in small towns nowadays: pale ales, cream ales, all kinds of summertime wheat beers (including one made with tea!), oatmeal stouts, and weird seasonal beers made with pine needles and pumpkins and such. Conversely, you can zigzag from Austria all the way to Russia and find that the only readily available local stuff — Gösser, Dreher, Jelen, Kozel, Ursus, and Baltika, to name a few — all tastes pretty much the same, and only varies in quality. You heard it here first: don’t go to Central and Eastern Europe for the beer. If you want excellence and variety in that, go to Belgium.

The next day, I met up with the northbound wedding convoy, and we drove to Mark & Megan’s nuptials at Mark’s freshly renovated cottage up in Bala. As we cruised up Highway 400, a motorist with strong opinions on at least one subject sped past us.

The wedding, though, was beautiful.

The lovely couple made quite an entrance

Paddleboaters got an eyeful of the first dance

The Lorne Crescent Crew reunited

Mr. Selley burned the chicken

Montreal's original I.G. Crew went for a spin

There was also time for some political discussion, as viewed from my Muskoka chair on the dock.

I was then off to Cambridge, Ontario, where my sister and brother-in-law fired up the barbecue. We went down to the local big-box retailer for supplies, and a kindly Dutch lady gave us a taste of locally-made pierogies. In at least one way it was like I’d never left Ukraine.

After the royal treatment in Cambridge, it was back on the train to my hometown of Chatham. First order of business: Bloody Caesars with the old man. I don’t exaggerate when I say that my dad makes what is possibly the best Caesar in the world. He has no sense of restraint, which is essential to effective Caesar-ology. There’s just so much jammed into this salad-in-a-glass: celery stalks, an enormous pickle, an almost unbearably spicy pickled asparagus shoot, a slice of lime, olives, and about 10 dashes of Tabasco. Plus an indecent amount of celery salt.

Cheers!

Among my many administrative hassles back home, I had to finally get my motorcycle license, which was far easier to do in Ontario than anywhere in Europe. Full disclosure: I’ve been riding around Hungary and Serbia for the last three years on a 200cc bike, which counts as a motorcycle, without a license. That’s all solved now. During my weekend course I learned about all the bad habits I’d picked up, a big one being this tendency to keep my index finger on the throttle handle while braking with my remaining three fingers. I also discovered that I’ve been riding all this time with my pinkies sticking out, like I’m holding two cups of tea. I have to work on this.

Thanks, fellas, for going easy on me

The following morning, I reassured my poor mother that I wasn’t doing anything all that dangerous in heading back to Ukraine to drive my Vespa to India. Something tells me she didn’t buy it. I took the train back to Toronto and went straight to the Motoretta Scooter Shop, where I picked up a brake drum and other Vespa parts imported from Chicago, all of which I’d assumed had made their way from Italy. I stuffed it all in my checked luggage, dropped by the Pakistani consulate way out on Finch street to confirm my visa application was being processed, and then made my way to the airport.

And now I’m back in Balaklava with a working Vespa! Next stop: Sevastopol.


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