Friday, 26 September 2008

#25 – Information in ex-pat bars

Or getting the inside track in an Irish pub.

Something missing in Kiev
Recently, I was in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. I heartily recommend it by the way – it’s a gorgeous city. I was doing a few pieces for various outlets, but by the end of my third day there, I had a nagging doubt that something was missing.

Feel for the city
In essence, although I’d seen a lot of the city and thoroughly enjoyed it, I hadn’t really got a feel for it. Usually I’m pretty good at this; getting a snapshot impression, spotting a few quirks and getting a general gist for the overall atmosphere. But it wasn’t happening with Kiev, and I knew that this would show through in the articles.
The only solution, therefore, was to go to the pub.

Not speaking the language
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Part of my problem was that I don’t speak or understand any Ukrainian. It wasn’t as if I could break into conversation with a shopkeeper or a waiter. The same applies for if I went to a local bar.
I could sit, watch and soak up – something that’s usually a great source of material – but I wasn’t going to quite get it.

Ex-pat bars
This is where ex-pat bars and pubs come in. There are some in every major city – the places where the foreigners that have ended up living in the city go for a few drinks. More often than not, they are the Irish pubs.
This sort of pub isn’t exactly my first choice to drink in – I much prefer to find a real local joint that has the character of the city/ country it’s in rather than one that’s been imported – but it is often ideal if you’re after the lowdown.

Listening in
I plucked one out of my guide book, sat myself down with a beer, ordered some food, then kept my ear open for conversation in a language I recognised. As luck would have it, I ended up on a table next to two Englishmen and their Ukrainian work colleague who was fluent in English.
I surreptitiously listen in on them, moaning about the odd aspect of Kiev life, and then when I got the opportunity, I barged in.
“Hi, I couldn’t help noticing...”

Pub crawl
Within a few minutes, I was sat around the table, discussing endemic local corruption, infrastructure problems, relations with Russia, the antagonism of locals towards sex tourists and those coming purely to get an attractive East European wife.
It was fascinating. I got an idea about underlying tensions, work ethics, cultural differences and odd habits.
And, just before we embarked on a pub crawl (“come on, we’ll show you the best places to hang out”), they gave me a run-down of the best places to eat and see.

Sense of place
It was brilliant; the sort of information you can never get from a tourist board or PR person. And it’s not the first time that this has happened. Admittedly I struck gold this time, but on other occasions just listening in has been enough to give me a better sense of place. It won’t always work, but it’s often a good trick for getting that little bit extra.

No comments: