Trials and tribulations in Ukraine

Ukrainian soccer fans react as they watch a Euro 2012 Group D match between Ukraine and France in...

Ukrainian soccer fans react as they watch a Euro 2012 Group D match between Ukraine and France in Kiev, Ukraine, June 15, 2012. (ANATOLII STEPANOV/Reuters)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:37 PM ET

ON A FLIGHT BETWEEN KIEV AND DONETSK - This originally was supposed to be a yarn about life in Ukraine and the buzz surrounding Euro 2012 in this country.

But as these words are being tapped on the keyboard about 30 minutes before landing in Donetsk, another "buzz" becomes a distraction.

The guy in the next seat, a journalist from Belgium, is frantically waving his arms around. After a few seconds, the source of his flailing becomes obvious.

There is a bee flying around the cabin. Huge sucker, too.

A flight attendant comes by and swats at the thing with a rolled-up newspaper, sending it whizzing towards the passengers at the back of the plane.

"Is OK now," says the flight attendent in broken English.

Maybe for us. For those passengers 15 rows or so behind us, well, not so much.

In more than two decades of travelling on this job, I've never seen a bee on a plane before.

Then again, there are a lot of things I'd never seen before I came here two weeks ago.

THE HANDS OF FRIENDSHIP

Let's start out by dispelling the notion that people here might be unfriendly, a stereotype that was being promoted by some members of the international media before the tournament started.

Haven't seen any of that. Quite the opposite, in fact. The majority make you feel welcome, even if they don't understand English.

Some even extend a helping hand when you need it most.

On one particular evening in Kharkiv, I'm walking back from dinner, preparing to do a radio hit with Tim & Sid on Sportsnet The Fan 590 when the skies suddenly open up. Within seconds, cracks of thunder are accompanied by countless bolts of lightning and sheets of pelting rain. Makes the storms back home seem like mere sunshowers.

Suddenly, there is a shopkeeper in the doorway of a nearby store, waving frantically for me to come in, presumably before I am washed down the street, which has suddenly become a raging river.

Once inside, I say "thank you." She doesn't understand. She just grins.

In this case, a smile is the universal language.

THE PRICE IS NOT RIGHT

Having said that, one pre-tournament perception that has proved accurate deals with the price gouging going on.

My first night in Ukraine is spent at the Kharkiv Palace hotel. Nice joint. Would compare it to something between a Marriott and Holiday Inn. The room costs $180. Not bad.

The next day, with the tournament starting, it goes to $850 a night. A bit rich for my QMI Agency blood.

But the only thing you can get for less than $200 is a tent on a campsite outside of town dedicated to fans. Little difficult to churn out four-plus stories a day next to the flickering light of a Coleman latern.

What followed was stays in a series of three apartments, each an adventure in itself. The rooms themselves ended up being OK. Other than that, well ...

The first one is on the fourth floor of a downtown building. The door into the place is splattered with graffiti. The dimly lit stairway? Scary. Crumbling walls. Garbage and butts on the floor. Exposed leaky pipes on the ceiling.

After sending photos of this scene to Toronto Sun sports editor Bill Pierce, he describes it as a scene out of CSI. Without the tracings of a body outline, of course. Thankfully.

The second one is a basement apartment. You have to walk down a dingy alley to get to the door of the building which, of course, is covered in graffiti. Inside, down one flight of stairs, the room is fine. In the hallway, however, is a bucket under a leaking air conditioner. The next morning, there is so much water between the apartment door and the stairs, I might have to swim out of the place.

No problem, I'm told. It will be cleaned up. By the afternoon, it is. The next morning, things have definitely changed. Now the pool is twice as deep. Ugh.

The third one is near Metalist Stadium, where the games are taking place. More graffiti on the door. Must be a sign of prestige in this town.

To get to the apartment, you take an elevator to the eighth floor. If you can call it an elevator. It's barely big enough to fit one person. It's lined with peeling sheets of plywood from the 1960s. And the way it rattles and weaves around, you hope the guinea pigs on the treadmill pulling it up have been fed and have lots of strength.

All this for $350 a night.

That's living!

THE HOLE TRUTH

We've been told that the government has pumped big-time money into the roads here.

Can't imagine how bad they were beforehand.

After a 1-1 draw between England and France in Donetsk on June 11, a shortage of rooms has forced me to stay in the town of Yenakiyeve, 40 kilometres away.

Not the 40-km drive that I envisioned.

It's pitch black out and there are no streetlights whatsoever on the two-lane highway. Suddenly, the GPS tells me to turn right onto something that looks like a cowpath into the forest. Check that. To call it a cowpath would be an insult to cows.

For the next 40 minutes, it gets worse. There are holes in the road that look like the bunkers at Augusta. Some of these craters are so deep, I can imagine what Neil Armstrong felt like when he took the first stroll on the moon.

No wonder the rental car company demanded a $2,800 US security deposit for potential damages before they gave me a vehicle.

In the darkness, you can see the odd crumbling shack with no lights on. Every now and then, stray dogs run in front of the car, flashing their teeth. All that's missing is Jason coming out of the darkness holding an axe.

Finally, there is a paved road. Civilization!

The next day, as I return the car to the rental office in Kharkiv, the attendant gets a call from a bunch of fans from England who made the four hour drive to Donetsk for the game like I had. Seems their car was damaged and is kaput.

When I ask what caused their car to break down, she says: "They drive into hole."

I can relate.

SMILE ... IT'S CANDID CAMERA

In Kiev, a major metropolitan city, the police and military presence is like Afghanistan prior to games.

Not so in Kharkiv.

Walking to Metalist Stadium from the subway for the Portugal-Holland match, ESPN.com's Ravi Ubha and I spot a bunch of cops sequestering two Dutch fans who are decked out in great garb. They are replete in orange from head to toe, including towering tangerine top hats.

Hopefully, no pepper spray is required.

Upon further review, the situation isn't what it seemed. The cops just want to pose for photos with these guys.

Why can't we all just get along like this?

IN CLOSING

Having avoided the bee, we've safely arrived at Donetsk airport.

Most of me has, anyway. My suitcase, containing enough clothes for five weeks away from home, has suddenly gone missing in action.

There are a few others in the same boat, including a TV broadcaster. We are led to a room for people whose baggage has been lost.

In Canada, there would be an entire staff doing computer checks. Here there are two women with a phone.

This could take a while.

After two hours, no progress has been made. Maybe someone is trying to hock my dirty Canadian socks on the black market.

Hey, in this place, you never know.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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