Ukraine and Moldova

I can't say I ever expected to play squash in the Ukraine, or that I could point out the country of Moldova on a map, before I left the States. Adding to the long list of pleasant surprises from the pro squash tour came the news of making the main draw for the Black Sea Open in Odessa, Ukraine, in tandem with an invitation to take a minibus road trip afterward for a visit to the small but passionate Moldavian squash community, in the hills of Chisinau.

 All signs (in Ukranian/Romanian) point to a minibus toward Chisinau!

All signs (in Ukranian/Romanian) point to a minibus toward Chisinau!

Entering a country at war on one side, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. But Odessa was as described- a seaside tourist community on the far west, along the Sea and feeling very far away from any signs of violence. While only a sliver of the Ukraine, Odessa resembled much of what you may expect in post-Soviet, non-EU states trying to get their footing and fend off Russian advances: Buildings were plain and drab, bleak streets of convenience marts and shop stalls sandwiched together. Loud club music pulsated through everything: the squash club, grocery store, barber shop, cafes. Prices were as cheap as you can imagine, the people friendly but mostly confused at American English in a place where tourists not from Russia seemed rare. In a world where parts Eastern Europe - Prague, Budapest, Bratislava - have become more discovered, more mainstream, more polished over - Ukraine seemed left out of this makeover.

"LEW-IS! That you? Get up here man!" an American voice boomed down from outside a third floor hotel window window as I walked up. Who do I know in Ukraine? I wasn't expecting to speak English with anyone for a while. Upstairs I met my roommate for the week: Nick Talbott, a recent Brown grad and son of legendary squash player Mark Talbott. It would be only the second time I crossed paths with another American during an overseas event series, and it came at the right time: the two Californians teamed up for training sessions, meals and life chats, and when we were both eliminated, desperate searches for the best local beaches outside Odessa we could find.

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In the main draw first round I took on the Ukranian national champion Denis, the local favorite. Somehow I always find myself playing the local guy in the local town in places like Ukraine. But I was ready for him and gave the crowd a marathon see-saw battle, losing the first before creating a rhythm in the second that would ultimately push our match past eighty minutes and into five games. We were both fit and both content to play patient, although I think in doing so I became too patient and didn't sieze a couple openings. At 7-7 in the fifth Denis pulled out a couple big points and took the match, and while it really is never fun to lose, I knew I put in a solid effort against a good player, with a result that was as close to an even toss up as it gets. Next time.

Leaving Ukraine was where the real fun began: figuring out how the hell I was to get to Chisinau, Moldova. The night before my odyssey, the tournament organizer handed me a piece of paper, typed in Ukranian hieroglyphics, that was to be my bus ticket. Early the next morning a taxi wove me around Odessa and into the front of what apparently was a bus station but what felt more like a real life game of vehicle jenga. I expected signs in English, what I found was rows of vans, buses, and minibuses with different signs in the same hieroglyphics posted in the dashboard. I made out that one bus was going to Moscow- not what I wanted. I could only imagine the destination of the other ones.

I showed my piece of paper to five people - if four of them pointed me to the same vehicle, I decided I would take my chances. Sure enough the committee of strangers nodded me towards a battered minivan and a cast of characters lingering around it: a couple guys my age, and elderly grandmother, a businessman with a briefcase, a father. And me. Minutes later we were waved inside and our minibus revved out of Odessa, the first time I truly wasn't sure where I would be ending up.

It wouldn't be a Ukranian minibus trip if there was no loud pulsating club music, which came on just as I discovered that this would be an air conditioning-less ride. We hit our first of two checkpoints early on, staffed by armed military personnel making sure things were moving smoothly. We passed just fine and rumbled on our way around the farms of western Ukraine, a portrait of Jesus Christ bobbling above the rearview mirror as we headed for the hills of Chisinau, Moldova.

We crossed the border and I bought some peaches from a roadside stand to celebrate. A few hours later and our mini (dare I say party?) bus crawled to a stop - an hour early, no less - inside the central bus station at the of Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova. What I hadn't planned for was what to do next. Moldavians stared curiously at the foreigner with a bunch of racquets and a backpack, using hand gestures to barter for local coins to use the bathrooms, then more hand gestures to grab an ounce of internet access, before sitting on the side of the curb for someone named Igori.

An hour later and I was cruising with Igori, a music producer and squash nut who I met in Latvia a month earlier, as we sped toward an old cement building with a single squash court squeezed inside; a half dozen Moldavian die-hard squash players, their family and a photographer waiting for me as we walked on court.

After squash Igori weaved me through the thick trees among the central parks and monuments in the center of town, showed me the courtyards where the locals gather on nice summer nights like this one, told me about life here in bits of English and gestures. Around us families and couples were sprawled out under trees and on benches, kids playing in the fountains and a slowly fading sun letting out the last bits of daylight.

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We ate fresh produce and grilled fish at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, went through bottles of local wine and fresh peaches, then a special local champagne and more peaches, Igori taking me through YouTube music videos of Moldavian bands and folksingers, interrupting only on occasion to tell me just how damn good these peaches were, and that these peaches came from pristine soil and were not like any other peaches I'd ever have, and that the wine was made in the hills from all different types of grapes - fresh grapes, ones you don't find elsewhere. I believed him.

I spent a day living as Igori lives in Chisinau, a nothing special, mundane Monday that he let me peek into. Dropping me off at the airport, Igori gave me a CD from his favorite Moldavian band. I tried to tell him how surreal this all was for me, how I'd remember the special wine and the music, the parks and the benches, his local bands and the squash players. He smiled, and then shrugged, dropped me off and continued driving to work to start the day.

 Sundays in the park in Odessa

Sundays in the park in Odessa

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 The Crazy Cat: Califiornia-style Mexican food in western Ukraine. About as good as described.

The Crazy Cat: Califiornia-style Mexican food in western Ukraine. About as good as described.

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 The life and times of living (and washing/drying) on tour 

The life and times of living (and washing/drying) on tour 

Serbia, Bulgaria, and Lithuania

I landed in Belgrade with instructions to grab a taxi to a nearby hotel parking lot. I sat with an understandably confused Serbian taxi driver in an empty field of concrete, borrowed his phone and his fluent Serbian to make sure I was in the right place, and waited. Just when doubts begin to creep in, just when I start to wonder "am I really in an empty parking lot in Serbia waiting on a strangers' promise??", a car pulls up and out hops a smiling Marko, early thirties and a Djokovic look alike, the national squash champ and my host for the night.

Through the city we drove past a major park packed with new visitors- nearly fifty thousand migrants seeking refuge from from conflict zones and instability in regions like North Africa and the Middle East, reaching Serbia as the gateway into the rest of Europe. Mini-settlements formed seemingly overnight by everyday people pushed away from home or pulled into the lure of finding better lives. As they waited here in Serbia, this park was theirs. What happens now? Does the government allow this? Marko shrugged. "What can we do?"

We kept driving. With P. Diddy's "I'll Be Watching You" circulating from the car speakers, Marko toured me through the statues fortresses of Belgrade built first by the Turks and then the Celts sometime in the 6th century. At a table along a narrow cobblestone street in the old city, Marko ordered us his favorite grilled meats smothered in local cheeses as he took me back in time: the messy split of Yugoslavia after a brutal civil war in the early '90s, memories of the NATO bombings as a teen in '99, the tensions with Kosovo today.

 Old town in Belgrade, Serbia

Old town in Belgrade, Serbia

It's past midnight when we arrive at the gates of the club in the forest. The guard on patrol is sleeping and Marko doesn't want to wake him so we climb over the fence; Marko tosses my bag over once I've made it. The second guard inside the center let's us in to my home for the night: a couch at the cocktail bar opposite the main squash court, bright neon lighting of the Jana Spring Water vending machine twinkling in the darkness. Marko leaves me with the guard, who offers me some water before he tunes back in to watching Serbian Animal Plant. 

 The courts in the middle of the forest

The courts in the middle of the forest

Teeth brushed in the men's locker room and with Jana shining in the background, off to bed before squash a few feet away the next morning. At dawn a couple hours later, the first bar waitress would arrive to the bar next to the squash court in the forest outside of Belgrade, politely tap me awake on the shoulder and ask if I don't mind getting up and dressed before the first customers arrive. 

Passing through Bulgaria I trained with national team player, Stoil Toil, banging around the basement walls under a worn, sprawling athletic center. Stretching afterward, Stoil stopped the conversation: "I don't believe!" as he pointed to the side wall of the court. Out of a barely visible hole came a mouse, and as the mouse, the Bulgarian and I looked around at each other in mutual bewilderment in the basement, I wondered if it was just about time to head out of Bulgaria.

 Hanging with cardboard Bulgarian tennis stars in Bulgarian basements 

Hanging with cardboard Bulgarian tennis stars in Bulgarian basements 

I spent the last free days off on the coast of Lithuania with my Vilnius friends Domas and Agne, who decided the cap to any Lithuanian summer was to go camping. The week prior we had camped for a night at a lake outside the city, which was and still is surreal to me that these two had a life where they could finish work, pack the car, camp in the woods and be back for work the next morning. 

This time we headed for the coast and the popular seaside town of Klaipeda. There I coached a little squash clinic and later we pitched tents, grilled fish and snuck into a music festival on the beach, soaking in the last pieces of Lithuanian summer as I prepared for more tournaments ahead.

 Tents on tents on tents at the summer music festival in Klapedia, Lithuania 

Tents on tents on tents at the summer music festival in Klapedia, Lithuania 

 Blue steel x3

Blue steel x3

 Almost famous in Klapedia

Almost famous in Klapedia

 Another city, another metro station to lug bags into

Another city, another metro station to lug bags into

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Greece

"Relax! Don't be so stiff," Haralambos Loukaras, island economist and President of the Rhodes Squash Club instructed his recently arrived American squash guest seated behind him on the scooter, my hands sweating profusely and awkwardly clamped to Haralambos' hips. If you ever want to get to know someone fast, share a scooter ride. I tried to readjust my hold on the squash-playing economists' torso as he zipped us along the dusty streets on the Greek island of Rhodes, ancient stone cut walls of a 3,000 year-old city on one side and the crystal blue Mediterranean Sea on the other. Since I left Boston last year there have been a few times where everything seems to pause and I look around and wonder, "how did I end up here???!" Zipping along this dot of land off the coast of Europe, covered in sweat and draped over the back of Haralambos I laughed and hung on tight to Haralombos. This was one of those times.

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The trek from Australia back to Europe for a string of four tournaments meant a stop in Istanbul, Turkey, which meant crashing a "Girls Weekend" organized by my friend Ashley and her three friends in town then as well. Having touched down in Turkey, I lobbed in a couple e-mails to squash friends asking about the squash scene in nearby Greece. Four different email introductions later and the dots were connected to Haralambos. Training, coaching, and a couch awaited in Rhodes.

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Haralambos set me up with his friend Vasilis, a former semi pro volleyball player who now runs his own small IT company, and, like Haralambos, is also a squash fanatic. It was the peak of an already sweltering summer on the island, the type of heat that gets you sweating before you're out of the shower. I slept on the couch in the living room, kept cool from the winds coming in off the sea and quickly adopted the Mediterranean diet around baskets of fresh figs and handfuls of nuts and feta cheese and grilled veggies because, well, it was too hot to eat anything else. For lunch we would split a chicken from the charcoal grill at the market, with Vasilius chopping romaine and tomatoes and his favorite feta while carefully explaining the wonderful different facets of the cheese: "the are many types of feh-ta. Soft. Hard. Salty. Sweet. Many types."

We ended most nights at the locals' gelato spot- tucked away from the tourists in the other end of town, open til 3 or 4 in the morning. As we chased down the gelato before it melted away, Vasilis told me about the challenges with Greece today, both tangible (his struggle to get paid on invoices) and intangible (the widespread angst and uncertainty of what could go wrong next). "I pay 70% in taxes...I'm getting robbed." Haralambos, in his economist tone, tried to be more measured. "We will survive...we have to survive." He paused and looked out, reflecting for a second. "We will see."

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When the sun disappeared we would hit the courts for hours in the evening, me and the small but intensely passionate players of the Rhodes Squash Club, taking over the two courts on one end of a resort hotel. The first night I coached Vasilius and Jimmy, Kiki and George, and hours later trained with Haralambos. By dinner that same night Vasilius had phone calls from three more players, asking for the sign up sheet. Vasilis explained that there are no coaches on the island, and so when pro players come through town, word travels fast.

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Driving home from squash we would pass a non descript stack of pillars - remains of temples from early century BC that look like the type you'd see on a Hollywood set, except real. Housing plots marked off with fences speckle the city streets- "abandoned houses?" I asked Vasilis driving by them one day. "No," he replied casually, "That's when they are starting to build and discover ancient remains. So they're not allowed to keep building." In the States it's something if you find an artifact from colonial times. This was a few thousand years before then. I figured they must have found all there is in Rhodes but Vasilis said they find more every day. "They're still digging."

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On an off day we packed up some more nuts and figs and cheese and drove south of Rhodes to the quieter beaches and cliffs of Lindos. Along the way were relics of a checkered history- at one point the Turks controlled the island and later the Italians occupied it during the Second World War, leaving behind legacy remnants like Mosques and tons of gelato shops. 

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For dinner on a few night we ventured through the stone castle walls and into the old town, the largest of the last few remaining "living cities" in the world, going back centureis and still functioning today. Unesco Heritage Sites are used to preserve a specific monument or statue; this place was a Unesco Heritage City. On the way out we passed an old church where members come to offer fanouropita, a special pie they would bake if they lost something. After a few days of giving the pie away, it is said to bring good luck in finding what you lost. I was bummed not to see any fanouropita handouts as we walked by.   

On my last night in Greece, one of the local players Eftihia had me and some others over for dinner. I had traded her squash lessons for a home cooked meal and it was the best deal yet- fresh feta and tomato salad, fresh calamari and shrimp pasta, and my personal favorite: minced meat and rice folded into pressed wine leaves. A local classic that takes time and skill, as her mother spent an afternoon putting together. 

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It was another one of those nights where you're wondering how you got so lucky to run across these new friends, strangers except for a single bond of sport that brought us all here. Around the table, my hosts faced unknowns from a nation in turmoil with an uncertain future in the days and months ahead. And yet that didn't stop them from opening their doors and kitchens to the stranger, making space in their car and dinner table and showing me a sliver into their lives on the island of Rhodes.

As another bottle of Greek wine neared empty my Greek friends raised glasses and explained to me a common saying in the country: "Nothing is more permanent than the temporary."

Glasses clinked in the warm summer night on the island, somewhere in the Mediterannean. 

 Getting a seat at the dinner party with Eftihia and Vasilis 

Getting a seat at the dinner party with Eftihia and Vasilis 

 My Big Fat Greek Meal, every meal on the island

My Big Fat Greek Meal, every meal on the island

 Crashing "Girls Weekend" in Istanbul, on the way to Rhodes, August 2015

Crashing "Girls Weekend" in Istanbul, on the way to Rhodes, August 2015

 Figs nuts and feta- lunch on the go on the island of Rhodes

Figs nuts and feta- lunch on the go on the island of Rhodes

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