In solidarity of Україна (Ukraine)

September 7, 2014

Friends and Colleagues in Ukraine – 2007

Friends and Colleagues in Ukraine – 2007

My red-eye last night over the Atlantic from London to New York was not flight I wanted to catch, but due to lack of seats on earlier flights I booked it with an overnight stay in Newark before heading off to Dallas.

I was one of the first to board the plane and I was shocked at the small size of the aircraft, namely a Boeing 757-200. As I entered I could see the plane end-to-end. It had two rows of seats of three either side. The business class was tiny and I could see into the cockpit.

I walked down to Row 23 and took my aisle seat, which is my preferred seating. My wife Melissa loves the window seats, alas she was not travelling with me today. When I checked in online I saw that the window seat on my row was occupied and the middle seat was empty, so I was praying to the gods it remained so.

As the plane began filling up my travel companion came and sat down in the window seat. He looked flustered to say the least.

"I thought I was going to miss the flight," he looked at me and offered in an American accent.

"Where are you coming from?" I asked.

"Kiev, I had to run from the flight from Munich with only a 30 minute gap," he replied.

After he settled down I started conversing with him.

"Were you anywhere neat the fighting in the east?" I quizzed thinking he was some government or military personnel.

"No I was in the west around Lviv," he answered.

"Business or personal?" I asked further, beginning to sound like an interrogator.

"Aah! not business I am tracing my Ukrainian ancestors," He replied.

"Oh wow! that's brilliant, were you born there?" I questioned.

"No, no I am third generation born in the US," he offered.

He continued to tell me how his grandparents had emigrated to the US and Baltimore in the early twentieth century. He was trying to trace further back where his family came from and or went from outside Lviv.

"Where are you headed?" he asked me.

"I am off to Dallas," I replied.

"I love Dallas, but not the football team, Ravens are my team who play tomorrow. Are you on vacation?" He continued.

"Oh! I am not much of an American football l fan, soccer is my game," I responded

"And I am going home to see my wife,"

We continued to talk about Ukraine and I told him about my short work assignment in Kremenchuk, a mining city four hours south-east of Kiev.

He explained to me how he had traced 900 of his relatives from his grandparents villages outside Lviv. He was planning to reach 1500 and he had subscribed to He explained that as he was finding more relatives and lineage data he was updating He said that this trip was his first and now that he had made contacts he was going to be able to conduct his research from the US, without too much of a need to travel back to Ukraine.

We talked about Ukrainian cuisine, and I mentioned to him Borscht soup which he grew up on. Although the Borscht he grew up on was slightly different to the one dished up in Ukraine. I also talked about salo another Ukrainian dish that I remembered from my tenure out there. But most of all we talked about how much and how hard the Ukrainians drank their vodka or Horika. One brand I recalled seeing was Nemiroff which flashed a recognition in my companion's eyes.

He further explained to me how many of the villagers asked him, not in a demanding way but with sadness and sincerity, "Will Obama help us?"

He did not know what to say, because he knew it wasn't a yes. He dodged the question as best as possible without disheartening people too much.

I have a soft spot for Ukraine and it's people. My time out there was most enjoyable and memorable. I found the people to be very friendly and welcoming. I enjoyed International Women's Day weekend during 2007 in Kremenchuk, where eating, drinking and merriment was had by all. I further visited Kiev during May Day celebration that year and the city was alive to say the least.

My companion explained how his grandmother rued the day when in 1994 Ukraine signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and gave up its nuclear arsenal. I asked him why.

"Well, she said that it would leave Ukraine open to threats from other nations and especially the imperialist ambitions of Russia," he explained.

"And she was right, Russia is chipping away and taking Ukrainian land, where does it stop?"

"Yeah! I think the west has to make a stance and help Ukraine as much as they can. Diplomacy is the only way, we certainly don't want a full-scale war in Eastern Europe," I explained.

"I have a feeling nothing will happen and Obama will do nothing, because he does not know what to do," he replied.

"Russia could take in Kiev in  weeks and Putin knows it, hence he is doing what he is doing," I offered.

We continued to make small talk as he showed me pictures of his family's village in Ukraine. He showed me cemeteries he visited to find ancestors. After being served dinner we both took to our private solace, he watched a movie and I listened to music.

I was happy to meet this man who had traveled to the land of his ancestors to trace his roots and in the face of adversity such as war. He was doing a commendable task of updating for anyone from his family to be able to trace their lineage. He was in his own way recording history.

Our flight was pleasant and we landed just before 9pm in New York. We said our farewells as I took the line to the visitor immigration section.

"Enjoy the game tomorrow and I hope the Ravens win," I offered.

"Thank you and enjoy Dallas," he replied.

To all those people I came across in Kremenchuk, I wish them safety and well-being. I further wish the people of Ukraine a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.

Family & Friends

July 31, 2013

It was early July this year and I was going out to Surrey, England for the day. My train was leaving from Waterloo station.

Upon picking up my tickets from a self-service machine I made my way over to the Costa Coffee outlet midway on the station concourse. I queued up and when served I ordered my usual cappuccino accompanied by a chocolate twist pastry.

I looked outside the shop for a seat and spotted a vacant chair at a circular table in a tiny corner. I made my way over to the seat and noticed an elderly gentleman seated opposite to the vacant chair. I asked him if the seat was taken and he nodded to indicate that it was free.

As I sipped my coffee I became more aware of the man. He looked to be a couple of decades older than me and was looking down at his coffee cup drinking without raising his gaze. He wore a dark blazer and trousers with one leg crossed over the other. He wore thick milk-bottle top glasses and his grey hair was wispy and thin on the scalp. Looking at him he gave the impression of a lost soul in the big city that is London.

"Hello, how are you?" I asked.

"Not bad," the man replied, unsure as to why this stranger was conversing with him.

"Going anywhere nice?" I continued.

"I'm going to Bradford-on-Avon for the day," He offers.

"That sounds nice, are you visiting friends and family out there?" I inquire.

"No, I'm from Rotherhithe, my doctor has told me go out and spend time outside of London," he explained.

This response was the floodgate for the man and he then went on to tell me about himself, his family and why his doctor had recommended that he go out to the country.

His name was Alan and he was 65 years of age. His mother had passed away recently and he had taken over the tenancy of the apartment he had shared with her. Alan was a born and bred Londoner and was feeling extremely lonely as his family was dwindling away, compounded by the loss of his brother a few years back. His friends were also slowly passing away. His doctor had recommended that he take days out into the country just to break up the monotony of living in an inner city borough. I guessed it was also a tonic for the man's mental health and wellbeing.

"Hello Alan, how are you mate?" we were interrupted by a National Rail customer service agent.

She walked over to Alan and asked him if he had his tickets for the train to Bradford-on-Avon. He replied that he did have his tickets and his train was leaving at 10:30am. The agent told Alan that she would be back later ensure he got on the train and went on her way.

"London and the people living in it are not what they used be," Alan continued.

"Would you like to share my pastry?" I offered twisting the pastry in half and giving it to Alan.

He initially hesitated then took it and bit a piece off.

"Nobody talks to anyone these days, everyone's busy to talk to anyone and it's too fast," Alan stated breaking me out of my train of thought.

"I don't like it at all," He shook his head sadly whilst taking a sip of his coffee.

"I agree, it just seems that every year that goes by daily life speeds up just a little bit more, with no time to catch your breath," I replied.

He looked up at me now and asked, "So where do you live?"

I explained to him that I lived across the river from him in Tower Hamlets, and that having lived there since 1979 I have seen a lot of the changes in the city-scape as well as the make-up of its citizens.

"How old are you then?" He asked.

"Forty three," I replied.

"And what's your star sign?" He probed.

I smiled at his question and his inquisitiveness, "I'm a Scorpio".

"I'm a Virgo," He offered.

I got a feeling that his spirits had lifted a bit and was enjoying the conversation we were engaged in.

The customer service agent returned and explained to Alan that another agent would come by and escort him to his train. He thanked the lady as she went about her duties.

I asked him what he was going to be doing in Bradford-on-Avon. He explained that he found the town to be quieter and more serene than the tourist ridden city of Winchester, Salisbury and others in Wiltshire. He went on to say that he was going to have some lunch and a drink at a pub and return before the end of the day.

I then asked him how much money he had to spend. I knew this was a risky question that could go very wrong, but asked anyway. He shifted in his chair and said he had a ten pound note.

"If you don't mind Alan, I'd like to give you this," I drew out a twenty pound note and slid it across the table into his left hand, conscious of not wanting to attract attention. Alan took it and slipped it into his left trouser pocket.

"Have a nice lunch Alan and a few beers when you're out there today," I continued.

"Thank you," he replied with smiling eyes.

I then bid farewell to Alan and shook his hands, wishing him a great day out in the country and headed towards the train platforms.

My encounter with Alan was one of those moments for me that stopped me in my tracks, to "smell the roses". It made me realize that life can and does take twists that we can sometimes never prepare for. Goodness knows what the full story is behind Alan, however for me it hit home the importance of living in the here and now.

It made me further realize how important friends and family are to me. It made me appreciate the support , the companionship and love that they give without question that brighten my days. It made me think about pausing, putting away my to-do-list and savoring those precious moments with those closest to me. Even though I may not see my friends and family every day, every week or every month. They are always there in my heart and mind.