a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Issue #12 (September 23, 2009)

"Tree of Life," Above the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles

Photo by Chris Collins

Drinking, Smoking and Smuggling in the Land of Sunflowers, Babes and Babushkas
By Jordan N. Mamone

According to the World Health Organization, the average Ukrainian woman lives to be 73 while her male counterpart only holds on until 61. Say what you will about socialized medicine, but these figures have fallen considerably since the end of the state-controlled Soviet system. Of course, a collapsing infrastructure and free-market growing pains aren’t the sole factors contributing to this decline: Daily consumption of smokes and horilka (you call it vodka, comrade), the yardstick by which true Slavs are measured, plays its part, as well. Although Ukrainian girls are capable of tippling and dragging like champs, their dads, brothers and grandfathers are predisposed to ingesting an alarmingly steadier supply of booze and cigs. Fraternal and professional affairs almost always demand several hundred grams of hard liquor and a kiss from Philip Morris. Both are essential accompaniments to meeting friends, making deals, settling disputes or appreciating a decent meal. Never mind how conveniently these vices can erase the stress of being the breadwinner in such a precarious country.

As for beer, it is, not surprisingly, viewed as a soft drink. Pedestrians may purchase and chug it openly, at all hours, in parks, on sidewalks, and on the way to work. It’s cheaper than bottled water and gentler on the guts than the stinking toxicity that drips out of faucets from Lviv to Kharkiv. An array of commercial Ukrainian brews verge on Czech standards of quality: crisp, occasionally creamy pilsners with the stealthy oomph of four-to-eight percent alcohol. Impressive suds for this corner of the globe, even if a Brit or Bavarian connoisseur might deem them underwhelming. Still, the fussiest of epicureans will concur that the local cuisine—say, a bunch of tiny dried fish or a salty, grilled pork shashlyk—excels with a pint of indigenous malted refreshment. (Alas, the muddy and indistinctive brand Obolon, a rather poor representative, is what usually finds its way onto American shelves. If you’re lucky, a smart importer will flood the U.S. with Lvivske Premium or unfiltered Chernihivske, thus sending Stella Artois scurrying home to Leuven, Belgium—where the native barflies sagely opt for Jupiler.)

Uh, where were we? Oh yeah: death. Thanks to the gender discrepancy in Ukrainian life expectancy, the place is overflowing with more than libations; it’s also brimming with females. Forget the criminal fringe of mail-order brides and human trafficking (which, by the way, caters to foreign clientele) and instead note that famous teetotaler Joe Biden made the following remark to President Viktor Yushchenko during a diplomatic visit in July: “[Ukraine has] the most beautiful women in the world. That’s my observation.” For once, a politician is telling the truth. Flocks of lithe young things stroll arm-in-arm, sashaying up Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s major pedestrian artery, or gossiping down Deribasovskaya, the equivalent boulevard in Odessa. They bask in their own fabulousness, blind to the clichés of Slavic pathos and immune to the stares of the few business travelers and even fewer tourists who venture to this unfairly neglected region. These leggy throngs—comprised of ordinary lasses who, at worst, resemble Lolitaesque catalog models or, at best, a platoon of would-be Milla Jovovichs—are difficult to avoid. Across the Atlantic, their vast numbers would attract flashbulbs, especially when the weather becomes warm and the garments become sheer. But here in Ukraine, they’re like sunflowers—another detail of the landscape, really.

This surplus of dames, however, isn’t all short skirts and great cheekbones. The flipside is the demographic of pleasantly round grandmothers and deceptively frail-looking widows who arguably fulfill a more crucial role in society. They’re as ubiquitous as the gamine teens and, despite their headscarves, welcoming smiles and kindly exteriors, they’re often tougher than the mutton-necked bouncers who roam the nightclubs along the Black Sea shore. Ukraine’s tragic past has dramatically shaped its matriarchs’ mentality: In the ’30s and ’40s, entire generations lost their mates to Stalin’s systematic starvation of up to 10 million (a genocide wholly ignored by the West) and to the atrocities of World War II. As the century progressed, the blunders of the USSR and the irresponsible oligarch-capitalism of the ’90s added insult to injury, leaving many families’ pensions either worthless or nonexistent. And so, Ukrainian crones learned to make do, often unable to utter the word “retirement.”

In the provinces, they tend plots with hoes and scythes. In large metropolises, they sell herbs, rhubarb, and the savory pastries dubbed pirozhki. A minority resort to begging, but if they’re able-bodied and sane, most babushkas get by via clever forms of marginal employment. Compared to their American analogues, these industrious elderly women come across as astonishingly robust and self-reliant. Instead of greeting patrons at Wal-Mart or slinging gruel in high-school lunchrooms, they till their fields or hustle their wares on the streets, rain or shine, because their very survival depends on it. They command your respect and they don’t need your pity.

Outside of Lviv, an elegant, Viennese-influenced city that escaped the wars with its baroque and classical architecture intact, this entrepreneurial contingent has found a particularly ingenious way to earn a little extra cash. Watching the gals in action was the unanticipated cultural highlight of our Eastern European vacation. The episode afforded us a unique glance at the resilient national character and furnished us with an experience that seemed more authentically Ukrainian than any museum or Orthodox church.

We had just crammed ourselves into a battered minibus bound for Zamość, Poland, an unblemished Renaissance town located about 75 miles away. The vehicle was actually going from Lviv to Lublin, but the driver had tentatively agreed to drop us off en route. For the cost of a ticket plus an insignificant bribe of five hryvnia (about 65 cents), we arranged for an unscheduled stop a few kilometers from our destination—inexplicably, Zamość itself isn’t a proper terminus for public transportation even though all Lublin-bound traffic must pass through its outskirts. As if that weren’t absurd enough, bus-station employees in Ukraine and Poland will blatantly deny that it’s possible to journey there. In truth, almost anything is possible if you possess a sliver of determination, a sense of humor, and a pocketful of chump change.

The driver repeatedly told us that he was “worried about police,” whatever that meant. Probably to guarantee his baksheesh, we thought. We had heard about the cigarette smuggling that persists between western Ukraine and eastern Poland, where tobacco prices are substantially higher because of a sounder economy and EU-imposed taxes. Spot-checks and searches result in an eternity of delays at the border. Our guidebook omitted this colorful information but we had stumbled upon Websites and savvy Lviv residents that mentioned the phenomenon. A Polish redhead on our minibus remembered that her Ukrainian husband once waited for nine hours at the crossing; this was perfectly normal, she assured us. We envisioned patrolmen being verbally abused and/or greased by leather-clad, bulldog-faced mafiosi, their Benzs with tinted windows stalled from the customs post to the horizon. Or maybe we’d encounter a convoy of tractor-trailers bearing cartons of Marlboros concealed inside pickle barrels or hidden in the plush torsos of stuffed animals. The reality was, in fact, a lot stranger.

Fleets of rickety minibuses, known colloquially as marshrutki (singular: marshrutka), ply sanctioned and unsanctioned routes around Ukraine. The tattered interior of our specific gas-guzzler—a jungle gym of torn upholstery and missing bolts—appeared to have been chronically trashed and refurbished. The constipated motor sputtered and shook, rarely permitting for speeds in excess of 30 mph on the pockmarked two-lane highway. Rolling, verdant pastures dotted with cows and poor but peaceful hamlets undulated beyond the tree-flanked thoroughfare. The terrain evoked the Amish expanses of Pennsylvania. A stone’s throw from the Polish front, close to the dumpy village Rava-Ruska, a grubby kid, a geriatric scamp, and a half-dozen jolly babushkas clad in their fanciest Sunday polyester boarded our ride. Most of the women were in their fifties and sixties, and their shoulders slumped from the weight of the shopping bags they carried. The chief crone offered a fistful of money to our gruff, nicotine-addled driver. His voice rasped like pure emphysema, which should have tipped us off to the scheme that was about to unfold. When the gang took its seats, the sedate mood of the quasi-deserted minibus erupted into a storm of frenzied activity and cackling.

As the marshrutka kicked into gear, the babushkas opened their sacks with gusto. Each repository contained a heap of cut-rate Ukrainian cigarettes, poised for the stores and black markets of Poland. With assembly-line precision, two biddies began wrapping multiple packs in either white or dark paper, then taping them together into compact bricks. A slightly spryer woman twirled a screwdriver and systematically removed the screens covering the minibus’ heating and cooling vents. She politely asked her fellow passengers to step aside so she could detach every single fixture. A fourth harpy brandished a crowbar and, standing on her seat, began dismantling the sunroof. When the cavities of the vehicle were fully exposed, the ladies slid their cigarette-bricks into the various grooves, ducts and ventilation shafts. The ripping of fabric joined a chorus of shuffling stationary, popping screws, stretching tape and barked orders. As we reclined and surveyed the insane scene, a set of fingers poked at our spines: A babushka was methodically slitting our seat-backs with a razor blade, then shoving the smokes into the hollow chambers. Her meaty hands blurred as she furiously repaired the cushions with a needle and thread.

These were practiced, career smugglers on a mission. Within 20 minutes they had stashed thousands of cigarettes in the bowels of our marshrutka. Despite executing a tight operation, they labored noisily and festively, turning their crooked enterprise into a convivial ritual that masked any hint of despair. We could decipher the crones making frequent, amused references to us, the amerikanski whose exotic passports would distract the Polish authorities and ensure a relatively swift passage across the border. The word “contraband” recurred in their rapid-fire sentences.

Meanwhile, a well-dressed matron locked eyes with us and frowned with embarrassment, as if we had unwittingly glimpsed the dregs of her kingdom. We graciously shrugged and grinned to convince her that we were not so easily offended. The rest of the passengers nonchalantly disregarded the commotion and kept to themselves, leading us to believe that the smugglers’ ball was a routine occurrence.

As the marshrutka idled at the Ukrainian exit post, the babushkas advanced to the neighboring duty-free shop, where they bought a final bale of tobacco and as many bottles of horilka as they could camouflage. They suited up in the superfluous layers of worn clothing that they had yanked from their suitcases. As quickly as it had been acquired, the new contraband vanished beneath bulky skirts and inside padded vests, jackets and bras. We arrived at the checkpoint as the last of goods were being stowed. A guard sauntered in and, while stamping our passports, said something that made the entire minibus rock with laughter. We couldn’t understand a word, but his wagging finger and smirking expression communicated the gist of his comment: “Now you ladies wouldn’t happen to have any cigarettes in there, would you?” we imaged him joking.

With our documents in order, the marshrutka traversed no man’s land and halted at the entry post for Poland. A customs official instructed us to file out and to deposit our accoutrements atop a long bench. As she descended from the vehicle, a babushka pseudo-casually jettisoned a plastic bag next to a wastebin. The civil servant took his time combing through everyone’s luggage for potentially illicit merchandise. A college-age guy, who was obviously not associated with the smugglers, happened to have a lone pack of cigs in his satchel—undoubtedly legal and for his own enjoyment. Upon discovering this, our tormentor muttered something in Polish, which, again, provoked mass hilarity. “You mean to tell me that you’re the only person on this bus who smokes?” we mentally translated his wisecrack. Satisfied with his inspection of our paraphernalia, the customs man fetched a two-foot metal rod and climbed into the marshrutka with the driver. A 45-minute examination of the coach ensued, accompanied by much clanking, rustling, and prodding at crevices. When the coast was clear, the babushka loitering near the wastebin slyly retrieved her discarded mock-garbage. The bag was, naturally, teeming with cigarettes, which she and the others hurriedly thrust into their already-searched purses. Reaching underneath the wheelbase, they fetched supplementary packs, having covertly planted them there at the start of our detention.

The women nervously munched on unshelled sunflower seeds while the agent rummaged and scrutinized. They spat the chaff, machine gun-style, as they discussed the situation in hushed tones, pupils darting frantically, sweat beading on their wrinkled brows. Tension cast its shadow. When the official eventually emerged, waves of shredded white and dark wrapping paper caught the breeze and orbited his boots, drifting onto the Polish plains. Judging from his bulging duffel, he had confiscated an abundant quantity of tobacco, though it was a mere fraction of what lay buried in the depths of the vehicle. As we returned to our seats, we wondered: Was the inspector genuinely probing or was it all for show? Was this some planned ruse? Did his findings equal the army’s allotted percentage of the babushkas’ cargo? Was there an unspoken treaty? If he failed to impede the smugglers but made it look legit, would he and his military buddies be entitled to as many complimentary smokes as they could handle? Was he hip to the scam? These were logical conjectures since nobody was arrested and no fines were issued. Then again, would the brass actually condone apprehending a herd of chattering grandmothers?

Onboard and safely within Polish territory, the crones began yelling and crawling around to retrieve their precious commodities. The razor blades, sewing kit, screwdriver and crowbar all reappeared, allowing the babushkas to quickly recover their stockpile. Based on their reaction, it must have been a successful run. The atmosphere regained its jubilance; at least 75 percent of the contraband was intact. After haphazardly patching up the marshrutka, the babushkas disembarked with their cargo, in the middle of nowhere or in the sleepy municipality of Tomaszow Lubelski, not far from the border. We surmised that they would unload their product, hitchhike or catch a minibus to Ukraine, and repeat the cycle ASAP.

A half hour after the smugglers had dispersed, the driver delivered us to the turnoff for Zamość. Hungry, weary, and dumbfounded by what had transpired, we walked the remaining kilometers to the city center. The ground floor of our hotel boasted a reputable outdoor pierogi restaurant, so we dined there, beneath a canopy, adjacent to the storybook main square. A music festival was underway: A full orchestra, complete with opera singers, crowded onto a raised stage shielded by a tent. They proceeded to perform The Barber of Seville. Lightning scampered above the pastel town hall, vying for attention with the red and yellow Kliegs that illuminated the dusk. Umbrellas sprouted like mushrooms in the assembled crowd as wind-propelled rain soaked the entertainers’ sleeves. At the table in front of us, a patrician Pole struck a match and lazily relished the taste of his cigarette.

[Travel photos by Jordan N. Mamone and Laura Vickery]

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

A Wyoming Photo-Essay
by Joe Carducci

This was taken on my way into Laramie on Sunday, September 13, 2009. It was about 7:15pm; I had a few things to do before hitting Lightbourne’s set at the Buckhorn Bar. I was heading east but pulled over and took this facing west. I moved to Laramie from Chicago in December 1995. After I got my building liveable, I started driving out once a week to hike around the Medicine Bow areas to the east and west of Laramie. I learned not to let the look of weather conditions dissuade me from driving out. There is no telling what conditions might be like around the Happy Jack/Vedauwoo pass east of Laramie or the Snowy Range west, because the peaks make the weather. Since moving to Centennial I've been able to go out hiking three or four times a week at different points along the twenty or so miles of Hwy 130 as it cuts through the mountains. I'll miss that; I don't think I'll be posting as many photographs from Illinois.

An array of snow-fences help keep Big Hollow Road clear in the winter. The road runs down the west side of the Big Hollow which drops off south of Hwy 130 toward the Colorado border twenty miles south.

Facing north from my house earlier this month. At the bottom is a marshy drainage that is ranchland, though pronghorn are on it more often than cattle. There is also a 1960s-era tanker truck down there for unknown reasons. Over the near hill are a scattering of trailers and cabins around the North Fork of the Little Laramie River. Beyond them are Corner Mountain, Middle Mountain and Bald Mountain, and beyond them thirty miles of hills and forest roads and deer trails before you cut I-80, but don't try it.

This is from the walkway along Lake Marie a month ago -- it's wheelchair accessible. This string of peaks -- the Snowy Range -- tops off at 12,000 feet and marked trails circle them -- those aren't. Up behind and between two of these peaks is an old stone fire spotters station from which one might spot a fire clear to Laramie.

Southwest of the Snowy Range peaks, a snowmelt pond just beneath Hwy 130. The bark beetles are killing the pine trees; there'll be a hell of a forest fire soon. It's been a cold, wet year so far but we'll need a couple of thirty-below nights to stop the bugs.

There are some big critters in and around the trees and this one's a baby, maybe a two-year old. The parents were just down the creek so I didn't wait for a better shot. They were near the highway west of the Snowy Range near the west-face winter closure gate.

My neice Maya and her family come out often from Nevada. This drawing is a couple years old and based on a roundup they came across along Hwy 130. In late summer the herds are moved closer to the highway. Most of the ranches still work from horseback augmented with pickups and ATVs. Last summer I and some others had to wait as a nearby ranch closed off the highway as they drove cattle from one side to the other -- they have certain privileges.

This just in: Winter crashed Fall Sunday evening, this from Monday along Hwy 130 about one-third the way up from Centennial.

Also from Monday, this is just past the east-face winter closure gate but before the Snowy Range Lodge which is open all year if you want to rough it within reason.

From the desk of Joe Carducci...

Byron Coley and Andy Schwartz are doing readings Friday in Brooklyn.


Rhino's LA compilation, Where the Action Is, is just out.


Rango, a Sudanese cotton-slave music is disappearing from Cairo due to recorded music and Islam, but is appearing in London at the Barbican Transcender Weekender festival September 30.


The weekend Financial Times had a news story, "Workplace suicides spark French outcry" and a Christopher Caldwell column which are about France Telecom's apparent wave of employee suicides. Caldwell pretty much blows a hole in the story as there are less suicides at France Telecom than there are generally in France itself. But the political interpretation has it that the slow push to bring the state owned behemoth up to private telecom productivity standards since 1996 is driving employees to hang up the phone. Actually, reading any of Michel Houellebecq's novels will tell you why the French generally are killing themselves half again as often as Americans and double the Brits. The novels are funny and bleak; Houellebecq was a civil service apparat and so his "hero" -- usually named Michel -- is at the center of France's lost ambition.


Uruguayan Senator Jose Mujica on his Tupamaro past and what he's learned.


James Ledbetter comes a cropper. I guess he doesn't listen to NPR or watch PBS where they now regularly use Brit pronunciations: primmer, progrumm, et. al. The BBC and the Economist are better than NPR and Time/Newsweek though they have veddy British blindspots. But the sophistos at NPR and PBS will never pronounce schedule shedyule, however, because their nemesis Rush Limbaugh has been teasing that one as part of his wordplay-hobbyhorse for decades.


Normally the word "corporate" is intoned as if everyone knows what the word means. This NYTimes editorial is progress, but as Judge Sotomayor is not mentioned in this editorial, and neither is any television program nor pop culture figure, we can guess this is a "personal" instruction to her because, wouldn't you know, the NYTimes has its own policy prescriptions on most matters. The editorial doesn't mention this WSJ Law column either. She is being advised to decide to accept this mission.


Mike Seeger performance film dates, availability. (check Lightbourne's Seeger piece in Vulgate 6)


Jake Austen on the lost first Jackson 5 recording.


Bia Hoi - A beer worth re-fighting the Vietnam War over? Or French colonial swill?


ONO performing Sept. 5, 2009, Viaduct Theater, Chicago.

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

1 comment:

  1. The types of things which has been shown here should be avoided by the people such as smoking,drinking,babes in the land of flowers.