Cherkassy, Ukraine: Send Lawyers Guns and DevOps
Luckily for me, I have the blogger dashboard more or less committed to memory after writing hundreds and hundreds and drafts and actually managing to publish several hundred posts to this blog.
If not, drafting this would be problematic. My private browsing session has decided to put all of the controls in Ukrainian Cyrillic. Not the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, mind you, but Ukrainian Cyrillic, a fact I know because the Russian alphabet uses "И" in lieu of Ukrainian "І," whose nearest Roman vowel cousin is "I" which we in America pronounce "ee."
Better than various boutique luxury hotels. Better than hotels overlooking waves crashing on rocks jutting out of the black and angry Pacific waters over cliffs. Better than the Four Seasons in Thousand Oaks whose breakfast as minimum cost about $30 US ($20 for the omelet, $10 for the fruit juice, and just to stick it to you, another $4 for a cup of coffee).
A search for the Four Seasons Westlake Village hotel tells me that one night costs about 12,000 in Ukrainian hryvnia, which is about 3000 hryvnias more than my entire two-week stay in Cherkasy at the Hotel Optima (Ортіма Готель).
At USD 30 per night, Optima is considered to be near the higher end of economy hotels in Ukraine, as a coworker of mine pointed out, roughly equivalent to staying at a budget boutique hotel like A-Loft in the United States.
The time is now 7:33, and apparently, no one has shown up to serve at the restaurant attached to the hotel lobby which serves the breakfast buffet, Прованс, or Restaurant Provence, dubbed by my local "fixer" (aka co-worker) as "European-style."
I'm in my room debating eating Georgian left-overs I stashed in the mini-fridge last night.
This is, of course, not a major tragedy. Especially when considering a car-bomb killed a senior Ukrainian intelligence officer last night in Kyiv. This coincided with widely spread Internet worm that took out various infrastructure services – an unlikely coincidence indeed, and probably a love letter from Putin's intelligence apparatus who have been engaged in a knock-down-drag-out battle for the Crimea and eastern parts of Ukraine.
Putin's opponents favor closer ties to the European Union and independence from Moscow, and of course, Putin favors Putin.
I call the restaurant back. Finally an answer, they will be open at 8:00.
Перші світові проблеми.
Хефе, as he will be known from now on, is the person responsible for sending me here. In fact, it was his corporate credit card with which we booked my flight.
When I told him that I had inadvertently committed the number, expiry, CCV code, address, and zip code to memory, he immediately poured me a shot of Scotch, followed by another, in the hopes I would forget.
I forget a lot of useful stuff, but the credit card is now burned into my memory, another useless fact I will retain for years to come.
I have been sent by Хефе to work. To my mind, it always sounds like "I've been sent from downtown, I've been sent by Mitch and Murry on a mission of mercy."
In Russian, Хефе's lingua franca, the word for work is "Работа." For those of you who do not know how to transliterate Cyrillic into Roman alphabet, the word is "robota." Spoiler alert: Mr. Robot is with the Russians too (how was I to know?).
Robota is where we get the word robot, of course. Russian speculative fiction writers, arguably some of the best "science fiction" writers in the literary canon, imagined machines ("машина") that would replace workers; the rest is history.
Of course, one should not confuse these машина for ето машина (technically "this is a car") or "Я машина!" (I am the machine!).
Who is the machine? This guy is the machine:
"Компот" or compote, which is more or less what you would imagine: stewed fruit, mashed, and in this case added to water. This one is made from plums.
Salad with rare roast beef is also quite common. This one is on local Bibb type lettuces and comes with a mayonnaise-based dressing, variations of which are also familiar for local dressings or as a condiment to fried food.
This is "Кинкали" or "Хинкали"(khinkali) which is a Georgian (country, not state) soup dumpling. Some claim that the khinkali predates Shanghai soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) by hundreds of years, and even that the Chinese stole the soup dumpling from the Georgians.
Either way, they are delicious. Larger than Shanghai xiaolongbao, the dumplings come with a built-in handle of dough, which is not eaten.
The dumplings are stuff with pork or other meat and gelatin or aspic and steamed.
"Хачапури по-аджарски" or khachapuri is a baked, cheese stuffed bread. This is the classic preparation, with cheese, then garnished with an egg yolk.
From the "European" restaurant Provence, a salad of local lettuces, poached pear, beets, and blue cheese.
Maybe not the most "cuisine forward" thing we've ever eaten, but damn good.
This is "carbonara" from the same restaurant. Except I had to add the "carbonara" myself (a liberal dusting of peppercorn).
You see, carbonara is not named for the fact that it is full of delicious carbs, but after coal miners who would return home for supper dusted with coal; the dish is calorie-dense and features a liberal dusting of ground pepper as an homage to the miners the dish allegedly fed.
This "fact" may be apocryphal, and I am not going to waste time researching it (since the dozen or so chefs I've heard this same story from couldn't have been bothered to do so either). What I do know is that pasta carbonara is always served with a gratuitous fist-full of ground pepper, and this one wasn't.
It was edible, and I won't ask for my money back, but I reserve the right as an honorary Italian to gripe about it.
Georgian "მწვადი" or "шашли́к" (shashlik) is the local "meat on a stick" prepared with marinated meats baked on a wood fire.
Smoke from the wood fire has penetrated this pork loin shashlik to form a pink "smoke ring." Even in Europe, Georgians are particular about their barbecue.
Explaining the concept of an iced Americano was more arduous than one might think. Iced drinks and even ice are not accessible in Ukraine.
The Swedish themed cafe attached to the hotel serves a handful of iced or cold drinks, but not an iced Americano. The first few attempts to explain how one is made did not produce the results I intended: the beverage would be served in a paper cup, and hot water would be added (a standard Americano) to which they would then add ice. This would immediately melt.
Finally, I broke the process into steps: take this plastic cup and fill it with ice. Pour the espresso over the ice. Top it off with more ice and cold water.
The barista shook his head, saying they do not have such a drink, gesturing to the menu. He suggested that I try a latté instead, which is served in the plastic cups.
I suggested he make me a latté, but leave the milk out. I added that he should charge me the same.
Finally, we were coming close to closing the language and, more importantly, caffeine gap.
Depicted above, the result. A proper iced Americano.
I am not going to lie, this is the best goddamn steak I've had in a long, long time.
About USD 7.
I pride myself on my ability to make a good steak. I have friends who make a damn good steak. I have written at length about the proper way to make a steak. I've done science experiments. My friends have done similar tests. We've scoured the earth (okay, Northern California) for the best beef money can buy.
I have had actual Kobe beef from Kobe, Japan (not what they call Kobe in the US, which is usually Argentinian or domestic Wagyu beef).
This steak was beyond fantastic, and I got it in a strip mall in Cherkasy. At Oskar's. Tell them I sent you.
Not sure, but reasonably certain this is from the head (chateaubriand) end of the loin.
The Reverend. "The new face of gout," as my Instagram says.
Many jokes were made, but my favorite contribution was from a friend who is a graphic designer who said: "I think I know the second one from the left."
Хефе tells me there is a saying that the soil is so good in Ukraine if you put a twig in the ground the next day you will have a tree.
I don't doubt it for a minute, and the locals (without explicitly bragging) seem to be very proud of their produce.
I have yet to see a vegetable placed on a plate with the same casual disregard Americans seem to have for fruits and vegetables (often dismissed as "garnish"). Even parsley is revered here in Ukraine, showing up in chopped greens, dressings, or atop dumplings – perhaps this region is where the "parsley as garnish" trend finds its roots.
Another way to exemplify this is to consider Asian take-out food in the US. Often, and for no discernible reason, you will find egg rolls or potstickers atop a bed of cabbage in a plastic container for no good reason whatsoever. Does anyone ever eat the cabbage your egg roll came nestled in? I'd wager that for the most part, no.
In Ukraine, cabbage is something that is eaten with gusto. At the breakfast buffet, it is the first, and sometimes the only thing I see locals and visiting (presumably Baltic) tourists eat for breakfast.
My roommate joked before I left that I should look forward to enjoying a lot of beets and cabbage. Truth be told, I have been. The problem is not that beets and cabbage aren't good, it's that we consider beets and cabbage, especially cabbage, to be throw away food, like the noble parsley leaf.
One of my new favorite things in the world is this preparation of herring with potatoes, beets, and heavy cream.
Take a bite, chase it with a cold shot of vodka, rinse, repeat.
(Potatoes, beets, and pickled herring... go ahead and make a joke about Slavic food, but it is really, really quite elegant.)
This is honey cake, layers of crepes, honey syrup, whipped cream, and chopped nuts.
Accompanying this is a shot of cherry vodka.
Last time I posted something here was March 6th, but it might as well have been ten years.
The fact is that I had allowed myself to burrow into a deep hole of self-doubt and depression. I began to tell myself that not only was the blog a narcissistic indulgence but that every word and photo I had poured into the project over five years dripped with self-righteous mediocrity. There were silly interviews with my chef friends and lazy strolls over the well-worn territory of cliché. I was chewed out by a well-known food author in an email (I'm sure he's a nice guy otherwise). I had various public relations people play keep away between their celebrity chefs clients and me. I realized I had to change the names, not to protect the innocent but to keep all of my friends from turning on me when I write about them. I was guilty of embellishment (its a blog, people, there will be embellishment). Finally, perhaps worst of all, committing the sin of sentimentality.
But then late last night, after I had decided I needed to share this post anyway, a dear friend of mine offered up without any prompting, "thanks for taking me with you [...] fam!"
Well, I guess that's the point then. Fam.
Anyway, I'll try to ignore my inner troll when he tells me I'm a piece of shit. I guess that's good advice for anyone (unless you are actually a piece of shit, in which case, stop being a piece of shit).
Breakfast going into day ten arrived, and my love affair with the hotel buffet had waned ever so slightly, familiarity had set in.
Worse, the pierogi-like potato dumplings had disappeared. In their place stuffed blini called млинець (mlynets), sometimes stuffed with sweetened cottage cheese, sometimes stuffed with liver pate.
I opted today for a little каша (kasha), cooked whole grains, along with my usual cabbage slaw, vegetables, a little ham, and a croissant.
The waitress who had initially greeted me with what I deemed to be stereotypical Slavic disregard had finally warmed up to me and smiled in recognition.
After discussions with my coworker VC, a Cherkasy native, I realized something. The waitress both opens and closes the restaurant. Seating me after a 14-hour shift, could anyone blame her for lack of enthusiasm?
I can hardly get through 8 hours at an office without kvetching and kvelling about it, this poor woman had been on her feet for nearly 15 hours.
I made sure to leave her a generous-but-not-too-generous-so-that-its-awkward gratuity.
According to one website, the average monthly salary in Ukraine recently topped 6840 Ukrainian Hryvnia, currently valued at about $266 US (rounded up, one UAH is four cents). Kyiv probably pulls this average up a bit, according to locals, the Cherkasy average is lower, maybe closer to USD 200, a wage disparity on par with New York and San Francisco versus Detroit.
You can own a small studio outright for about $850.
As in the United States, skilled technical labor commands a higher wage. VC, formerly a computer sciences and engineering professor, is coy about exactly how much more than his government salary of about $150 per month he now makes as an IT consultant, but I would guess that it is at least three times as much; certainly above the average.
Then there was that time we spent an average month's salary buying the team dinner at the local sushi restaurant.
Pickled herring on buttered brown bread.
пельме́ни (pelmeni), dumplings usually stuffed with ground pork, onions, and pepper.
To go with vodka.
Somewhat lax parking enforcement.
"Oh! Show me round your snow-peaked mountains way down south, take me to your daddy's farm. Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out. Come and keep your comrades warm."
Obligatory payphone photo, maybe I'll submit it to 2600?
Squeeze-E-Cheese, the de-fact snack at the office.
Obligatory Ingress related photo.
Форшмак (forshmak), minced pickled herring. One of my favorite things this entire trip.
VC is like, "thank god these Americans are leaving."
The Reverend, on the right, is contemplating if fish really counts as real meat.
The hotategai is sliced a lot thicker here, and I am not complaining.
Sadly, a lot of this was a variation on Philly rolls.
Why ruin perfectly good sushi with cream cheese? I don't see any bagels anywhere near.
Later, Hotel Optima, it's been real.
I gave up on my iced Americano campaign.
Sometimes you have to do in Rome as the Romans.
The take-away from all of this: Ukraine is different than the US. It sounds like a corny standup comedy prompt, and I could riff on that if I felt like it.
No one drinks anything cold.
The cafe is full of teenagers and college kids before 7:00 am (and the sun at 5:00 am is fully up).
Ukrainians love pastries and cookies.
Don't give a Slavic person a knife as a gift (thanks for the tip, Хефе!).
Table service is typically glacial and by American service standards, apathetic to the customer's needs; give the guy or gal a break, they've probably been on the job for 12 hours. Tip well, speak slowly and be patient. If you are used to table-service in America, you are spoiled by our servers' endless obsequious genuflecting. I don't think there is such a thing as "professional servers," at least sampling the few restaurants we frequented in the space of 12 days.
And you can get some pretty good sushi in Ukraine.
Next time, I'll actually have some borscht.
Варенична Черкаські страви - Lazarjeva St, 4, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000
Fika Shvedskoye Kafe - Shevchenka Blvd, 187, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000
Стумарі - Shevchenka Blvd, 187, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000
Bierstube Пивний паб - Khreshchatyk St, 225, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000
Оскар - бул. Шевченка, 150, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000
Joší Йоші - Shevchenka Blvd, 205, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000
Оптіма - вул. Лазарєва, 6, Shevchenka Blvd, Cherkasy, Cherkas'ka oblast, 18000