Odessa…a reason to return to Ukraine

poster - superukraineWhen I left Ukraine in April, I found it hard to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues so I made it easier for myself by stating that I wasn’t actually saying goodbye [forever?] because I would be coming back.

And now I’m packing a suitcase and checking the weather forecast. [I know it’s only the British who feel the need to pack clothes for every season when we go on holiday, but that’s because the average holiday week in July in the UK can contain wind, torrential rain, sunburn, relentless drizzle and fog, often in the space of a single day].

I’ll be visiting the Odessa International Film Festival this weekend, after stopping over in Kyiv to see friends, and to see what the capital city looks like in summer, rather than winter.

Stephen Frears will be in Odessa as one of the featured film makers at the 2014 Film Festival; and Hitchcock’s Blackmail will also form part of the Opening weekend, screened to an audience of thousands sitting on the Potemkin Steps. This year’s Film Festival is taking place, despite huge obstacles and with few resources, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people like Producer, Julia Sinkevych, and her team – she writes ” It is challenging this year, and probably the most difficult project in my career and in careers of my colleagues due to the situation in Ukraine”.

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Ukraine is still in the news here in Britain but weekly, not daily. And the situation is still tense, especially in the eastern regions: a month ago, Izolyatsia – a vibrant platform for contemporary culture in Donetsk [see previous posts] was taken over by pro-Russian separatists; and my friend Olga wrote, after another murder in the centre of Donetsk ” It’s awful, and the most terrible thing is that we are kind of getting used to gun shootings and deaths of ordinary people.”

But she ended her email “Anyway, life is going on and kids are going on dancing, singing and doing a lot of interesting things. Besides, it is our common history which should be kept through generations.”

People’s resilience in the face of conflict is remarkable; and Olga’s positive statement, and the determination of the Odessa Film Festival team to go ahead with this year’s festival, is testament to that.

On a more mundane note, I’m looking forward to sitting on those Potemkin Steps (made famous thanks to Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin)  by the shores of the Black Sea, in Ukraine’s third largest city, which was officially founded by Catherine The Great in 1794. By 1824, Pushkin was writing of Odessa that “its air was full of all Europe”, in reference to its extremely diverse population.

I’m also looking forward to taking a battered yellow marshrutka around town, eating a bowl of borscht, getting a receipt in a little box, seeing Napolean cake on every menu, and seeing friends and colleagues at the British Council in Kyiv, and in Odessa…

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Shining Light into Darkness

photo of two people

Sophie and Mike volunteered to make the Star and the Moon which led the procession

In 1982 artists from the UK’s leading celebratory arts company, Welfare State International, went to Japan, in a visit supported by the British Council. Inspired by the lanterns of willow and tissue made by Japanese artists, they brought back the idea, began experimenting with ways of applying a simple technique to ambitious poetic visions, and shared their knowledge widely. Hundreds of thousands of people around the UK have made lanterns and carried them in processions since; and Walk the Plank’s contribution to the XVII Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Manchester (2002) – borne directly out of WSI’s legacy in so many ways – gave lanterns a new global TV profile.

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.           Dr Martin Luther King

 Aware that 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the British Council’s work in 110 countries around the world, and wanting to mark the end of my time in Ukraine, a lantern procession seemed the right thing to do.

My faith in the appetite of Young Learners to participate in making and carrying their own lanterns was proven when one hundred of them signed up to take part in workshops led by artist Helen Davies (Walk the Plank).

With the support of their English teachers and staff at every level, we unleashed a riot of glue, tissue paper and masking tape in the main Customer Service area of the British Council’s Kyiv office. This visibility was key to the success of the project – and the willingness of the British Council’s team to accommodate the artist’s needs, and the hubbub of 20 youths getting stuck in every evening, was admirable.

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Staff brought their own children to make lanterns on a Sunday afternoon, Helen took her lantern-making kit to satellite teaching locations in Kyiv’s suburbs, and by the end of the workshop programme, more than 100 lanterns were hanging from every ceiling of the office (as storage space is limited).

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Musicians from Ukrainian street band Toporkestra joined the procession, which was led up the hill of Andriivsky Uzviz by the dancing star and moon, to the park where our young people broke into an exuberant conga before the giant birthday cake was cut, and valiantly distributed to [almost] everyone who took part.

I hope that the images of those teenagers – their faces alight with smiles – offer an alternative and more optimistic picture of Ukraine than we are currently seeing on the news, as the fragile grasp of the new government slips under the pressure of (pro-)Russian provocation. A friend, when asked by a colleague from the British Council in Russia, described her feelings thus: “…. since you asked about how I am feeling about the situation in general – well, to be honest, we all feel very traumatised. The general feeling is being concerned and threatened by a possible invasion from another country that has amassed a considerable army on our borders. Also to have a chunk of our country suddenly taken away when we were at our weakest. This is all very hard to live with, but we are trying. Dum spiro spero.”

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv...

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv…

Under pressure, and with resilience, the British Council Ukraine’s staff – who I now feel I can also call my friends – continue to do an amazing job of trying to build trust, and create the conditions for better co-operation between countries… by working with artists, those involved in education, and those who want to learn English.

We all try to do what we can. I hope that writing about my time in Ukraine over the past six months has offered some insights that have been valuable. There’s much that I haven’t yet covered, so I may continue to add stuff, but this post is written from the UK as I have handed back the keys to my ant-friendly flat in Kyiv, used up all my blue metro tokens, and waved goodbye to Ukraine for the timebeing. I will be back soon.

Sauntering in a new city


pic of graffiti & church
“I must walk more with free sense”, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal

“It is as bad to study stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without seeing.

What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.” 

I’ve been tempering my wide-eyed tourist gaze with some “drifting” – walking without having a destination in mind in order to savour the mundane ordinary spaces in between the obvious tourist hotspots – taking time to let the poetry of this place rise to the surface.  

pic of busI’ve been meandering down strange alleyways, looking up to see the lie of the sky as well as down at the lie of the land, and peering through gaps in fences.

pic of gap in fence

This ‘sauntering’ helps me absorb the multiplicity of layers of history & geography & politics that old cities are built of: in this respect Kyiv feels like Lahore – both have been places of trading and passing through, of siege and conquest and occupation since ancient times. As someone who’s easily distracted, my solo journeys over the years have often had a quality of meandering to them: following my nose, or my ears, rather than a map, has led me down some intriguing paths… and though they’ve usually started as solitary pleasure they rarely end that way.

I discovered artist/walker Phil Smith’s wonderful website http://www.mythogeography.com/  where he explains the concept:                        “ By whatever means are necessary, it is the struggle of the differences against the big sameness (dressed in oh so many colours, of course). And those means may be entrepreneurial, may be trespass, may be poetic, may be effete, may be abject, may be disarming, may be perilous, may be made at a cost, may be invisible, may be best unspoken of for the time being, may be both naïve in hope and canny in practice. 

Phil is also the author of the Counter Tourism handbook – which you’ll be able to obtain if you follow that link above – “Beneath the simple sounding stories in the Visitor Guides and behind the locked gates marked Private there lies a multitude of inconvenient stories, hilarities, wonders, extremes and outrages…”