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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Our Day in L’viv, and how my Son Nailed a Fraudster

Beware Les Femmes fatales blondes (des billets) in L'viv Ukraine - Especially in Hot Pants

Photo - Tanya Rides the Tram - Alias L’viv Transport Inspector Number 31 - for this Shift Only (Julian Sutton)

Former Budapest-based accountant Alan Sutton (who will be remembered fondly by some in here) has lived in Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), Ukraine, since late 1997. In Budapest last week with his son, Julian, the pair [Edit - plus Julian's friend Valerie] made the journey back to Ukraine, starting last Friday, experiencing a little socio-cultural hiccup in the western city of L’viv en route.

In Perspectives Budapest's first ever guest post - this is his account of what happened.

Photo: L’viv City Hall - Behind the Flats - Stands Proud above this one-time Austro-Hungarian City. Taken from Shevchenko's statue (Alan Sutton)

* Mr Sutton later explained Taras Shevchenko was - is - the great Ukrainian poet who was the first to write in the Ukrainian language and responsible for the birth of national literature, culture etc. I'm sure 99.5% of readers from Tierra del Fuego to Vladivostok know this and more - only despite three visits to Ukraine, I didn't. I must pay attention to statues, especially those with inscriptions in Ukrainian in future. Mea Culpa. Ed

Our day in L’viv, and how my son nailed a fraudster By Alan Sutton

We returned from Budapest to Dnipro, Ukraine, between last Friday and Sunday. As there are no flights between Hungary and Ukraine till at least 17 June, we had to make the journey overland. Moreover, with the border still semi-closed until 1st June, trains were not running. As a result, we took an overnight bus from Budapest to L’viv, leaving Nepliget at 7 pm on Friday evening, arriving in L’viv at 7.30 Saturday morning, to be followed by train to Dnipro departing at 3.49 pm on Saturday afternoon.

This meant that we had time to spare in L’viv, and since my son, Julian, had never been there before, I wanted him to see something of it.

L’viv is perhaps one of Europe’s most underrated tourist destinations. It is one of those towns that has passed through various hands in the last century or two. It was Lemburg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and this is the name still generally used in Hungary.

After the First World War it found itself in Poland as Lwow, before being invaded by the Soviets after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, Nazi Germany under Operation Barbarossa in 1941, and the Red Army again in 1944. The latter “liberated” the city to become L’vov in the Soviet Union. Since 1991 it has been L’viv in Ukraine.

Under the Austrians it developed as a centre of Ukrainian literature, culture and particularly Ukrainian nationalism, a feature which it has retained to this day. Indeed, during our visit, all conversations were in two languages. Not one local person spoke to us in Russian. Julian spoke Russian to them. I spoke barely intelligible English-accented Russian through a mask to them, and they without exception spoke Ukrainian back. (Bi-lingual conversations are one of the fun things about life in modern Ukraine.)

Despite the multiple invasions, no major battle took place in L’viv during the war(s), so the city was far less damaged than other Ukrainian cities, as a result of which it has over 50% of the country’s surviving historical buildings.

The architecture of the town centre has a distinctly Monarchial look to it, and there is a cafe culture which reflects that of Vienna and Budapest.

The following incident happened as we were making our way back from the Opera House to the station on Tram number 1. In Dnipro, the tradition is to get on the tram with your banknotes visible in your hand, a conductor comes along, and you pay 6 gryvnia (about £0.15, or euro cents 17) for your ticket.

In high-flying L’viv it is 10 gryvnia. I am aware that other towns have different systems. In Odessa for example you pay the driver on exiting the tram.

Whatever, I boarded with three red 10 gryvnia notes for the three of us in my hand, then saw that here the system was to pay the driver on entry, I was just about to do so, when a ticket inspector jumped on us.

She was a woman of medium height with short blonde hair, dressed in a black sports top, ridiculous black hot pants, black stockings, black ankle boots, a black cap and a bright green mask leaving only the eyes visible. She flashed an inspector’s badge at us and then said she was fining us for not having tickets. She was very aggressive, pushy and rude. (Just the kind of Ukrainian to welcome tourists, eh Alan? - Ed)

Julian started to explain that we were strangers, and did not know that the system was to pay the driver, as in Dnipro we have conductors. She said that it was written in a notice that was there to be read, and that we should have read it, and pointed to a notice on the side of the tram. It was of course in Ukrainian only, which neither of us speak. Julian explained again that in that case we were quite happy to pay the driver, and would do so, but she was determined to fine us.

I saw at this point that it was futile to argue. I said to Julian that I would pay her and let her go to hell with her money. I was willing to just write off the experience, but he demanded to see her photo ID and asked for her full name - which she refused to give.

I was getting worried at this point that he would be getting himself in more trouble, particularly when she threatened to call the police. I paid up, three fines of 200 gryvnia (ie £5 - EUR 6) each, but did make sure to get receipts from her, to ensure – as I thought – that she wouldn’t simply pocket the fine.

We got out. Julian was fuming, went off to the toilet and then stood outside vaping furiously and talking on the phone, while I tried to tell him it really wasn’t worth getting stressed up about people like that.

And I thought that was that.

Photo: Alan in front of the L’viv Opera House. When not otherwise engaged on voluntary policing duties, he enjoyed L’viv's parkland (even if a little irrigation might not go amiss) and the city's Austrian cafe culture. Pity that culture doesn't always extend to local ticket inspectors. (Julian Sutton)

But Julian was on the phone to a contact of his in the police in Dnipro, a person I don’t particularly like (his mother’s on-off lover, so I can claim extenuating circumstances). He then asked for my receipt and lined up all three of our receipts before telling me that the whole thing was a con. Two of the receipts had the same number and besides which they were black and white when they should be coloured.

We still had two hours to spare so I thought it worth following up. The station at L’viv has a transport police office and they directed us to the local police station, about 10 minutes’ walk away. The police at this station were quite sympathetic but said they didn’t know what the fine receipts should look like, and that we should address the City Transport Dept. However they were very helpful, called this department for us and then told us that a inspector would come to meet us.

After about half an hour three arrived, a man, a plump jolly girl with long flame-coloured red hair and another plump, jolly but quieter one with black hair. We explained the situation again. Julian had also taken a picture of the woman who had fined us. Yes, she was one of their employees, yes she was right to fine us for not having tickets but they agreed it was a bit harsh that we were fined for a basic mistake.

(L’viv and Ukraine Tourist Offices - I hope you've read this far and taken note - Ed) Then we showed them the receipts, especially the two with the same number. At this point they started to get interested. They thought she had fined us three times, but only twice officially and had pocketed the third. Then they checked the numbers.

The tickets were marked with Inspector number 31, but she was not 31. Number 31 was a colleague who was not working that day, and from the photograph we could see that she was wearing that person’s badge.

Tanya (as she turned out to be named) had pocketed the lot. Of course she had not shown her photo ID or given us her name as they would have shown a different number which would have given the game away.

In short, she had used her position, uniform and badge, but another inspector's fake receipts, to levy fines which she had then taken for herself. The red-haired lady asked us to handwrite an application for her director and gave us a blank piece of A4.

This proved hilarious as the letter of complaint had to be in Ukrainian. (Tourist Agencies, please note - not many western tourists - they are the ones who spend money by the way - speak or write Ukrainian - Ed.)

Julian couldn’t write it at all: I made various spelling mistakes, and in the end our friend Valeriy wrote it. Then along came the Director, who rang the evil ticket nspector. She took an age coming (one wonders why? - Ed) and by now the departure time of our train was approaching.

But finally, she arrived.

“Tanya, what’s all this about?” the director demanded, and after various excuses, he said: “Don’t argue, we’ve a picture of you and we have the receipts you issued”.

I was really surprised at this approach, as usually when challenged, Ukrainian departments tend to close together and refuse to criticise each other.

He then said she should pay us back the 600 grn. But she didn’t have it, she claimed. “How come, when you have just taken it from them”. She said she had lost her wallet.

At this point, I couldn't contain myself: “Yes, and the moon is made of green cheese,” (It really does not translate well into Russian).

The upshot of all this was that the nice flame-haired lady gave me 600 grn from her own purse with the intention of reclaiming it from Tanya. I had two bottles of wine with me, and so gave one to the flame-haired girl. “600 gryvnia for a bottle of wine?” she asked, but she seemed happy and I apologised that it was probably the most expensive bottle of wine she had ever bought.

One closing thing I did just before leaving was to ask the Director to issue Tanya with a formal reprimand (or “vigavor”) – which he said he would. This is a hangover from Soviet times, still exists in Ukraine and is unbelievably effective. In 15 years as a chief financial officer in Ukraine, I only ever issued two. It is a written reprimand which is published, for example on the staff notice board.

More to the point, as Ukrainian salaries in the state sector tend to comprise a low base salary and a string of supplements, all such perks (for example in her case free transport) are removed for the period of enforcement – effectively a pay cut of about 50% and finally, two such reprimands are legal grounds for dismissal, which is otherwise difficult to do legally in Ukraine

We had a sprint back to the station. I later found a lot of comments on Trip Advisor about aggressive ticket inspectors on the L’viv trams having ruined other peoples’ visits, so one can only wonder how many other fines have been pocketed in this way by 'corrupt kontrollers' over the years.

Lastly, while I thought I had a good record at identifying and catching fraudsters in the various companies where I have worked, here I got upstaged by a teenager who still thinks I was an idiot for paying up.

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…..

(Even if they vape? Ed).

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