Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ukraine Part 2...Kharkov

The six days spent in Kharkov were, simply put, outstanding.

Waking up refreshed on Tuesday morning (after having spent 6 1/2 hours on a train, and then a number of hours chatting and having drinks), in a new city, felt wonderful. New places to explore, streets to walk, monuments to see, Churches and Monasteries to much to do (not to mention that there was a brood of family and friends to visit and meet as well). So many things were done and experienced in Kharkov that it would take a countless number of pages to tell my stories. Instead of dazzling you all with masterfully told tales, I will grace you with a list of amazing occurrences and adventures (listed in no particular order ofcourse);

1. Meeting so many of V's family members, and family friends, who were all so wonderful to spend time with. I would like to send a special shout out (otherwise more humbly known as giving a special mention) to, V's father, aunt, and other grandpa, who we ended up spending most of our time with.

2. The French Bakery located on Pushkinskaya Street was a treat which we looked forward to visiting everyday. They had quite the assortment of sandwiches, sweets, and Ukrainian delicacies (not to mention their smooth tasting coffee).

3. The streets of Kharkov were very reminiscent of Montreal's (in fact the entire city was very much like Montreal). The buildings might have been in slightly (probably more than slightly) worse shape than in Mtl, but it had very similar architecture, including a small section that was known as little Paris. The streets in both cities were not only pot hole/large crack ridden, but both were also very dirty and dusty, simply beautiful.

4. Attending my first European football match. I was given this opportunity by V's father who pulled some serious strings to get me into the game. It was a Europa League (formerly known as the UEFA Cup) match between Metalist Kharkov and Sporting Lisbon (a Portuguese club to which I have no affiliation, although to the people I was with that fact was difficult to understand). Sporting had won the first leg (half or match) of the home and away series 2-1, and in order for Metalist to advance to the quarter finals they needed a win of 1-0 or a win by more than two goals, ex. 3-1.
The whole event was a surprise to me, as I only found out after having arrived home with V from a day of being out and about. I was told simply to grab a warm jacket and to follow on of V's father's friends. I didn't ask any questions and simply did as I was told. I followed his friend, S, as we walked briskly through the streets of Kharkov, ending up at a very swanky looking cafe. He motioned for me to sit and gestured to the menu, stating coffee, latte, cappuccino, in an inquisitive tone. I simply stated cappuccino pajalusta (check out the kofe post to find the definition). After a couple of minutes of S chatting to one of the waiters, he motioned for me to once again follow as we walked out of the cafe. He began walking towards a massive white Lexus SUV, akin to an army vehicle, at which point he turned to me and simply stated "Driver", while pointing to the gargantuan ride. The door was opened for me and I was ushered in, sitting in between S and a man who's accent when speaking Russian was quite noticeable, J. I soon learned that J was an ex-pat American who moved to Ukraine for business in the 90's, and who is regarded as a business-man of the highest degree in Kharkov. Sandwiched between S and J, I also met an associate of theirs who sat in the front seat beside the driver, who spoke enough English to communicate well, and who happened to have visited Montreal once before. So off we were to a traditional Ukrainian restaurant to ensure that our bellies were nice and full before making our way to the stadium. The long table we sat at was absolutely covered with platters of various different kinds of food, including; kolbasa, sala, oliviya, all kinds of breads, fish, and pickles. All of this was quickly eaten during bouts of intense conversation, boisterous laughter, and shots of vodka for just about anything anyone could thing of. I only joined in for about three rounds of the vodka shots because I was thankfully put on a short leash in terms of drinking, and S did a great job of making sure that others didn't impose too much on my taking of vodka shots. After having finished every last crumb off the table, we walked back to the small white tank and sat in our previous seats. The drive to the stadium took all of about 8 minutes, as we quickly approached a blocked road by police. I was somewhat surprised as we kept on driving towards the blockade and then even more surprised as the gentleman sitting in the front passengers' seat, proceeded to employ some sort of trick out of the Jedi mind control handbook. He waved a card at the officer standing in front of the wooden fence like structure, who promptly nodded at us and began moving one of the wooden fences so that we could enter.
As soon as we entered the parking lot, the glow of the stadium slowly started creeping into our line of sight. I don't believe any word can properly describe how I felt in that specific moment in time, but flabbergasted does a pretty slick job. The newly renovated Metalist Stadium stood before us in all its majestic glory, with the club's logo prominently showcased at the entrance. I was given my ticket by S, as he grabbed hold of my forearm. I was again ushered, into the stadium, in between S and J, while I handed over my ticket to get scanned. The machine displayed a green light, that means go! I walked past the ticket checkers, all the while being held at the arm by S, as I could seem to do was look up at the stadium's exoskeleton. We headed for a side entrance, simply labeled VIP. One of Metalist's trainers walked out the door, and stopped to shake our hands before joining the rest of the team. The VIP doors were opened for us as we walked towards them, and we entered an elevator going up to one of the highest floors. Upon stepping out of the elevator, a maze of people appeared before us. The place was absolutely packed (a lot of VIPs I guess). Food was bountiful, drinks were flowing, and arm candy was present at every turn of the head. We had spent so much time at the restaurant though that we couldn't waste any time in the VIP lounge. We made our way through the crowds to finally come upon our seats (right below the private box of the owner of the club). Player presentations were just beginning for visiting Sporting, as boos reigned down from the crowd (a hostile crowd to say the least). I was asked at this moment by J who I was supporting, and I quickly responded with "Metalist no doubt". To support Sporting (especially since they are rivals of my club of choice FC Porto) would have meant that I would have to endure some serious verbal threats, not to mention invites to test my physical prowess, probably not a smart choice. After all, it would be wonderful to celebrate with everyone in the stadium if Metalist was able to pull off a win.
The game began with beautiful tifos (large images and banners, see pic below) drawn out by both Ultra groups supporting Metalist. The stadium filled with loud roars of approval as the home team walked onto the pitch. At the very same time, the home side's team song began playing as 40, 000 people (minus a few, including myself) began singing in unison. It truly was a magical moment, that raised the hair on my arms and on the back of my neck. A tingly feeling crept all over me, as I simply couldn't believe what I was witnessing at that moment. The game then began and played out without much incident. At half time it was Sporting that went to the dressing room with a one goal lead. Half time came and went, filled with caviar, bread, and drinks, as the general mood was somewhat sombre to say the least. Minutes after the half though, the home side pulled into a tie with a quick counter attack goal. The stadium erupted with cheers, song, and flares. Smoke began filling the stadium as the flares cast an eerie glow upon the far ends of the stadium (where the Ultra groups were located). Mere minutes after the goal, Metalist were thrown a lifeline as they needed only one goal to come within inches of potentially vying as one of the contenders of the Europa League Quarter-Finals. The home team was awarded a penalty as a questionable foul was called in the penalty area. Cleiton Xavier, the Brazilian captain of Metalist, stepped up to the spot and carefully placed the ball. He took a couple of steps back, as the referee made sure that no one else had even as much as a toe within the area. Xavier looked sideways at the referee awaiting the whistle to be blown. A shrill whistle sound filled the stadium, while the crowd was absolutely silent and holding their breaths awaiting the spot-kick. He stepped forward without a glance towards the goalkeeper (Rui Patricio), and carefully placed his shot low and to the corner of the net (a well placed kick). Patricio was literally on the ball all night long, and this was no exception as he correctly guessed the side of Xavier's kick and easily parried the ball out of bounds for a corner. At that very moment it seemed like Metalist dreams of advancing to the next round were absolutely crushed as they needed two more goals in roughly 30 minutes time, against a Sporting defense that wasn't letting much by. The game finished without much more excitement as it seemed like it had reached its climax with the penalty, Metalist had tied the match but lost the overall two game series.
After the final three whistles were blown by the referee, we quickly sprang to our feet and walked towards the VIP lounge and the elevator to take us down to the ground floor. The driver of the small army vehicle (white Lexus SUV) was waiting for us almost right outside the door, and we began getting in as I took one last look back towards the majestic stadium, still beautifully lit up. The ride home went by quickly as J and I spoke of football strategy and what went wrong for Metalist earlier on in the night. I was back home within 20 minutes time, thanking those who stayed in the car for great company during the game. S followed me out of the car making sure that I hadn't forgotten anything. He gave me both match tickets to keep, as motioned for me to go on upstairs to V's father's flat as he was going to finish a cigarette outside. I climbed the stairs to the flat and walked in with a large smile covering most of my face. I thanked V's father immensely for providing me with such a great experience. Surely one that I will never forget.

5. The days spent in Kharkov flew by as we always had something to do, someone to visit, or something to go see. It finally came time to make our way to Kiev after a week spent in Kharkov. We could've taken the same train back that we took to get there (super modern) or the ancient Soviet overnight train. We obviously opted for the train that screamed Soviet era, fully equipped with windows that didn't open. We were to sleep in a four bunk room, shared with two other passengers. Upon arrival onto the train we discover that our fellow room-mates were a portly and smelly middle aged man with bountiful amounts of food and drink, and an older politician or diplomat type who travels to Kiev for work on a weekly basis. V and I had the top bunks, while our fellow passengers had the bunks below us. We quickly made our beds, and packed up our luggage in a quasi compartment above us. Since there was no ventilation (all windows had no opening capabilities except for a small window roughly the size of a loaf of bread located outside the compartments that could half open), and were stuck in a small room with two other people, one of which smelled terrible, that was hot to the point that sweat was dripping of my brow, it made for somewhat of an uncomfortable sleep to say the least. In the morning, tea was being served in beautiful glass mugs with ornate silver cup holders and small spoons inscribed with the train company's logo. We had little time to finish our tea as we were to reach the station in only a few minutes time. Our bags were lifted down from above us, we grabbed our coats and other personal items, and made our way off the train as soon as it stopped at the station. We hopped into one of the first cabs we saw, missing the four minute window that was given to us to find V's uncle at the train station parking lot, and off we were to rest and eat a bit before embarking on another sightseeing exploration of Kiev for the next day and a half.

Part three to be posted soon....

The Metalist Ultras tifo.

Not a happy really wasn't that bad.
V settling in to her bed for the night, with a smile on her face.


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