Odessa, Ukraine 2014 - The fog hung thick over the airport. It reminded me of a Stephen King horror film, the one with all the fog and the tentacled creatures. I expected a monstrous tentacle to slam up against the glass door at any moment. It was late afternoon and nothing had landed or departed from Odessa airport in over 24 hours.
More than 200 restless passengers were crammed into a departure hall the size of a postage stamp, equipped with little more than a single cafe. Tempers had become ugly; nobody wanted anymore free coffee or sandwiches. We wanted strong drink. Unsure how long the café's mini-bar would survive an onslaught from the assembled hoards, I took up a position on the front line, accompanied by two Englishmen. We would defend our access to cheap vodka at any cost.
The boney, middle-aged one told me they were in town on an international trade mission. These were, after all, trying times for Odessa; pro-Russian forces had annexed Crimea and were stirring tension in the Black Sea port; political and economic chaos had engulfed the country; and the currency was in free fall. While everything seemed to be going to the dogs, one industry was still thriving: the internet romance trade. As it turns out there is nothing like economic hardship to facilitate international liaisons.
Before I could get into any detail about their romantic trade mission, a Ukrainian voice blared something incomprehensible over the public address system.
“Barman, what are they saying?” I shouted over the noise.
"No planes leaving today. You must go to hotel." he grunted in broken English.
We spent the next three hours collecting our luggage and rebooking tickets before piling into a minivan and negotiating a maze of dark backroads to our hotel. Only to arrive and be told there were limited rooms. We would all have to share.
"Rodney, you want to share a room?" I asked the boney one. "You don't snore do you?" he joked. "Hell no!" I lied, slapping my passport on the counter.
The check-in formalities complete, we crossed the reception area to the bar. "Two Oblon." I yelled at the barman.
“Now, tell me about your trip, ” I said turning to Rodney, "and don’t spare any detail."
"Well, I came to Odessa to find a 'nice' girl," he croaked. "I'm tired of the women back home, they're too much like hard work. I want a woman who will look after me, a woman who has traditional values."
Rodney appeared to be in his late fifties, possibly older, and definitely single.
"And, did you meet anyone?" I asked.
"Oh yes, not one of the girls I came to see, but I met another girl last night. We've been talking for sometime, she's about 28 –"
"Twenty eight?" I exclaimed, "Rodney, no offence, but you look old enough to be her grandfather!"
"Oi, lads!" It was James, with a Ukrainian guy from the airport. They were making their way toward the elevator, a large bottle of vodka in hand. “Room 639!” the Ukrainian guy shouted, raising the bottle of vodka.
"Hold that thought Rodney!" I said. "Let's join the party."
We paid the barman and took the elevator to the sixth floor. I was here to discover the Ukrainian culture. What better way, than to share stories over a bottle of vodka in a hotel room full of strangers. The door open, we barged in to the surprise of a burly fellow carving a leg of something with an 8 inch hunting knife–what had I walked into this time?
'The Butcher' looked up from his work, “Welcome! You hungry?” he smiled. It appeared our Ukrainian friends come prepared for any eventuality. The drab hotel room had been transformed into a banquet hall; tables covered with a smorgasbord of pork, and sausage, and cheese, and bread – a large bottle of vodka to wash it all down.
"We drink to friendship!" announced the man who'd been carrying the bottle. He handed out shots and we raised our glasses to a chorus of, "Na Zdorovie!" before slamming the hot liquid down our throats. Pink Floyd blared through a speaker somewhere, and the conversation turned to the war. The Butcher is concerned the Russian will invade. "Donetsk airport, has just been modernized and now it is a pile of rubble! What next? They will come here to Odessa" he moans.
The war is a desperate situation, but tonight the real story is the intercontinental romance trade. I want to get back to my conversation with Rodney.
I pull him and James aside, wanting to get to the root of their story. James is 48, doesn't drink, carries a few extra pounds, but surely he could find a nice English girl? But he's also looking for a Ukrainian woman, a woman who will treat him right.
They're both on Anastazia, an international dating site, which describes its service as: Connecting singles across the world to their ideal partner. It all sounds like a rather civilized way to find romance without borders, until you dig a little deeper.
Before braving the trip to Odessa, Rodney and James had established telephonic relationships with a number of women, at a rate of £1 per minute. And neither of them seemed to flinch at paying £1 per minute.
While the trip to Odessa must have approached £3,000, I suspected they had already spent thousands of minutes and thousands of pounds chatting to potential mates online.
And the worst was still to come. All that money spent, they arrived in Odessa to find most of the girls they had been talking to from England, suddenly weren't available when they arrived. Some family emergency or other. Far from pissed off, Rodney and James were full of compassion. "These things happen," Rodney said raising his hands."It must be difficult looking after your parents when they are sick, I only wish I could do more."
Do more! Do you not realize these woman have fleeced you of your hard earned cash. Is it not obvious they had no intention of ever actually meeting you?
Our glasses were refilled, another chorus of, "Na Zdorovie!" and we down our drink. In the Ukrainian there seems to be a drinking tradition; no glass will ever be left empty for any length of time.
I recalled an incident at a restaurant earlier in the week, my friend had pointed out a table with three people, “See that group?” she nodded toward the table. “The guy nearest us is a translator, it's one of those internet dating setups. The guy comes here to meet a Ukrainian girl and needs a translator."
I asked James and Rodney if they'd used translators. "Yes, I had to pay £20 for the translation service, and the cost of his dinner," groaned James. "Not to mention how awkward it is going on a date with a translator."
“How about some homemade wine?” one of our Ukrainian hosts offered excitedly. "My father slipped a few bottles in my bag before I left home."
Having recently sampled a Romanian version of homemade wine, I politely declined. I was convinced the Romanian stuff had already destroyed the layers of my stomach. But our host wasn't taking no for an answer. He disappeared and returned a few minutes later with a plastic bottle full of red wine. “Empty your glass and take some wine,” he insisted “but not too much, wine and vodka don't mix well.”
Surprisingly, it wasn't half bad. A little sweet, but a vast improvement on the Romanian jet fuel.
Wine in hand our conversation drifted back to the impending Russian invasion. Rodney and James, I realized, were fodder for a sophisticated money making scheme. These girls were anything but stupid. They have aspirations of getting out of Odessa, out of the Ukraine. Finding their way to a better life, in a safer place. They used these poor fools to make money off telephone calls, having no intention actually hooking up with them.
The vodka and wine kept flowing until the wee hours. The conversation degenerated into some political debate, and I escaped to find my room, I needed sleep. The next morning Rodney was nowhere to be seen, so I boarded the first transport to the airport.
The fog outside had finally lifted, replaced by the fog of a mass hangover that had descended inside the plane. As our wheels left the ground, and our plane crossed the Black Sea toward Istanbul, I wondered to myself; how many of my fellow passengers had ended their trips being dispatched to the airport with heavy hearts and empty wallets.