Just back from Ukraine, I follow TV reports of the election protests in Kiev, the capital. Via e-mail, friends have described the situation in Odessa, where I lived, as much calmer. Odessa is neither in the eastern mining and industrial center nor in the western nationalistic area; its politics are less heady. Situated on the Black Sea, the south border of Ukraine, Odessa is a port city. Once it was the third-largest city in the Russian Empire. Now, with a population of about one million, it's the third-largest city in Ukraine and no more typical of that country than New Orleans is of the U.S. It's young — only 210 years old. It has strong literary credentials. Pushkin, greatest of Russian writers, lived there for more than a year. He's celebrated with two statues, one of which, from the end of the 19th Century, names him "Citizen of Odessa"; the other dates from the end of the 20th Century. Pushkin also has a street named after him. Enough writers have come from or lived in Odessa that street names in one section of Odessa read like a who's who of Russian literature: Gogol, Mayakovsky, Babel. Like other port cities, this one is multicultural, multinational, multilingual. Again, the street names say it all: Polish Street, Greek Street, Jewish Street — which is only a block from Trinity Street.
The many restaurants with menus in English give a deceptive impression. Just because something is on the menu doesn't mean it's available and, perhaps more telling, just because the menu is in English doesn't mean your waiter or waitress understands English. It's symptomatic. Odessa is "almost" ready for tourism. As a consequence, groups fare better than individuals, and high-priced hotels are more apt to have English-speaking staff than moderately priced ones. More visitors arrive by bus than by air tours. The ferry from Istanbul and river cruise boats put in at the sea terminal. But the railroad station is the most-used terminal, always crowded with locals.
The downtown streets, their sidewalks uneven, are tree-lined and bordered by two-storied Art Deco and Classical-styled buildings, many with grapevines climbing and shading them with large leaves. A city park borders one side of Deribosovskaya Street, the main drag and now a pedestrian mall. The street sports casinos and jewelry stores, and there's a McDonald's, a "steak house," and a Georgian (the country, not the state) restaurant, among others. A little farther on is Primorskij (Seaside) Boulevard, not far from the archeological museum. If you stroll this promenade next to a park, you can look down on the Black Sea and the port. Keep walking and you'll arrive at a statue of a man in a toga, Richelieu, the first mayor of Odessa. You are at the top of the Potyomkin stairs made famous by Eisenstein's film in which a baby carriage careens down a long flight to the port below.
I was in Odessa from the end of August until December as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at Mechnikov National University. I lived in a downtown apartment, my wife with me for two weeks. Fortunately, I speak Russian, one of Odessa's two languages (Ukrainian is the other). What follows are accounts of incidents and observations, an attempt to convey some of the flavor of that remarkable city in the early fall of 2004.
Because Odessa is celebrating its birthday, there are free music and dance performances all around town. We go to the Philharmonic for modern Polish music and Dvorák. As we are waiting to enter, a woman decides we must be foreigners or at least non-Odessites and, unasked, starts in on the history of the building, the former stock exchange. "It's without columns," she explains, "so that merchants couldn't concoct secret deals. They stayed at the hotel across the street, which, like so much in Odessa, is being renovated." She says that when the architect was asked what the style of the building was, he replied, "Various; one style per floor." The Philharmonic itself is slightly garish, in mock Florentine style, with lots of curlicues on the façade and, inside, carved-wood ceilings.
Looking for the Ukrainian Theater, I stop a woman for directions. She hears my accent.
"Where are you from?"
"Oh, dear guests, and how do you like our city? And are you comfortable? Are you tourists?" She is full of questions and genuinely excited. Perhaps that is because there seem to be few Americans here. Germans filled the plane we arrived on, and there have been German tour groups around the center of the city. On an outing a bit farther from the center, I stop to consult my map. A dapper man in his 60s asks what we're looking for. I say, "The sea and the monument to the unknown sailor." He, too, gives directions and asks where we're from. When he retired, he started to travel extensively throughout the former Soviet Union, he says, and in Europe as well. "I just couldn't stay at home," he says. When I ask where in Europe, he answers, "Bulgaria and Romania," the extent of Europe available to Soviet citizens before the end of communism. Even today, "East" Europe still makes the best fit for Ukrainian pocketbooks.
Although there are beach areas closer to downtown, Arkadia is the most developed. According to my younger friend Lena, it has a nightlife all its own, but according to Valeria, another friend, it's so noisy that many of her generation, past 60, have sold their summer dachas in the area. It takes 20 minutes by car, a little longer by bus, and a bit longer than that by tram to get there. You walk from the parking area and bus stop past vendors selling beer and sandwiches, hot dogs and shawarma stands, people in various stages of dress or undress, from skimpy bathing suits to business suits with vests and ties. There are private beaches and public ones, resort hotels and a restaurant in the form of a pirate's ship, in which we eat. The fish is fresh, well prepared, and surprisingly tasty. We have a bottle of Moldovan Chardonnay with it. The deck we're sitting on overlooks the Black Sea. Below us, people stretch out on the beach. In the distance we can see a regatta and sailboats strung out for a mile or so. It's an hour to forget the bombings and terrorist acts taking place not far away; an hour to be soothed by the sea.