On the mashrutka to Mykolaiv
It has to be one of the most surreal journeys of my life - on the late night mashrutka bus from Odesa to Mykolaiv, doing a writing workshop with Olia Hercules over Zoom.
You could say it was perfect timing: my friend and cookbook author Olia Hercules had scheduled one of her writing workshops over Zoom at the exact time I would be traveling to Mykolaiv - ironically near where Olia’s father now lives. It proved the ideal way to spend an otherwise slightly surreal journey on the small minibus known here as a mashrutka - listening to some expert advice from Olia and doing some short writing assignments that she gave everyone during the online class. It was perhaps a bit awkward when it came to reading my little stories out in English in an otherwise very quiet bus full of Ukrainian passengers - the man behind me let out a huge sigh a few times, revealing his obvious disapproval. Perhaps he understood English after all: here’s the assignment Olia gave us 7 minutes to write - based around ‘suddenly smelling someone else’s food’.
Dried fish on the mashrutka
The journey did not begin auspiciously. As we scanned the narrow alleyways of the central bus station, looking for the last minibus to Mykolaiv, the air raid siren suddenly came on, a piercing wail through the sky, with a disembodied voice shouting from loudspeakers: ‘attention, air alarm, go directly to the shelter’. Of course nobody went anywhere at all: a group of soldiers continued smoking, a lady in a coat decorated with glittery slogans reached for a second can of Coke, and a young woman chased after her toddler who had waddled off in search of a small puppy on someone else’s lead.
It took a while to find the right minibus, as it was completely dark and there were no signs anywhere, while the passenger reviews online had warned that the driver on this particular service ‘was constantly on the phone, obeyed no traffic laws and was a complete bum’.
After a few confusing minutes trying to ask people about the bus situation we spotted it: it looked old but it was warm inside, the driver was definitely not a bum, and slowly it filled up with Ukrainian soldiers who were presumably heading back to the front. The glitter coat lady clambered on too, and finally an elderly man, clutching a bag of dried fish. Of course he sat directly behind me and as the bus wove its way past the blockposts with armed soldiers guarding the edge of the city, and along the road that hugs the coastline past Kobleve, the man rustled his paper bag of snacks
with predictable enthusiasm, so frequently that the whole mashrutka smelled of that dried fish, the Black Sea on one side, the inky depth of a night completely devoid of street lamps on the other. It was going to be a long way to Mykolaiv.