The Odessa Fine Arts Museum contains Russian and Ukrainian fine arts; another museum houses Western and Eastern art. As my wife and I enter one of the rooms, a woman sitting there, more a watcher than a guard, asks if we've noticed the ceiling. It's full of plaster cherubim amid vines and leaves covered with gold paint or leaf. It was a palace formerly, she explains, restored in 1929 and, by its look, again more recently. The parquet floor bears designs of flowers in a large wheel, all inlaid wood, she explains. Hearing me translate for my wife, she prattles on happily. "Imagine living in such a room," I say, to which she replies, "They were very rich people; you can't imagine how rich. They were used to such things." The first-floor exhibit ends in a display of contemporary photos of Odessa. The second floor is in total disarray. The woman who checks our tickets there attempts to sell us dolls. She has written out their prices in dollars, euros, and hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency) but without much disappointment accepts the fact that we won't be buying. Three men are moving paintings around, photographing them. The lights are out in two rooms. It's a Sunday, late morning; we're almost the only visitors.
Although the stores around us have prepared food and staples, it's hard to find much in the way of fresh fish or meat. But out near the university, which is a 15-minute bus trip, there is a supermarket. You select the carrots you want (they have dirt on them), they're weighed, and the price is written on a tag. Along one wall are cellophaned packages of meat and chicken. The fish in the case looks frozen; the woman behind the counter reaches down for a touch. "Yes, but it's all I have just now." We're looking at prepared salads -- chopped up this and that in mayonnaise -- eyeing an eggplant concoction and another of beets and potatoes, when someone suggests the fish pâté. "It's very tasty," he says in English. "Where did you come by your English?" I ask. He's a retired sea captain, been all over: New York, Norfolk, L.A., and San Francisco. What do we think of the new methods of teaching English, he wants to know, and when I tell him we don't know about them, he launches into a critique, which ends with something to the effect that only hard study will work. Captains are required to know English, he tells us; all ports operate with that language.
The sea captain is about average height, with a bit of a belly; he feels comfortable in this store, which obviously caters to people with some money, though you're asked if you want a bag, since they're not free, and your receipt is checked against the items you're carrying on the way out. The crowd is mostly young, well dressed; the older shoppers, like our retired sea captain, are even better dressed. The minibus we ride home in sways a bit -- shocks gone, stuffing coming out of the seats. It is in marked contrast to the tidy supermarket in which the employees wear uniforms and thin plastic gloves when picking up or dishing out food.
I'm stopped at a little guardhouse at the entrance to the city archives, which are housed in a former synagogue, and asked what I want.
"To get some information about my family?"
"Where are you from?"
"Show me your passport," he says, asks my name, waves off the passport, then leads me into the building and a small room with tables and benches. It resembles a schoolroom; there's even a woman at the desk in front to hand me forms in Russian and Ukrainian and a blank sheet on which I'm to write out a "declaration." I fill out what I can, go up to her, and am told that the Ukrainian form repeats the same questions as the Russian one; I can fill it out in Russian. But my declaration won't do. She leaves, returns with a sample I'm to copy, filling in my particular details. Meanwhile, her assistant arrives. She's to start hunting for relevant documents while I go to the second story and give my papers to the director, who initials them, sends me back downstairs, where I'm directed back to the assistant. Half an hour later, I ask how long her search might take. She doesn't know, disappears, and reappears 15 minutes later. "Perhaps I can return on Monday," I suggest; she says the school reference is ambiguous, but she's hoping to be able to show me several possible references so that we can decide which one to follow up.
Back on the street again, I have the feeling that Kafka was here. The next day, that feeling grows. I'm given folders that list documents, with partial descriptions of their contents. I select several, only to be told not all are present. Still unclear how this system works, I make a final list based on what is available. I return in a week. The building's closed. The next day there's a notice. "Closed due to 'technical problems.'" On my third try, a new guard takes and misspells my name. The woman I've worked with nods, and I sit down at one of the rickety desks. Today the lights work. The woman brings me three folders -- the fourth was not found, is missing, or, she says, they did not look hard enough. The documents use old Cyrillic spellings; often I can't make out the handwriting. I am not expecting much. Just handling the material is interesting. The second folder contains a list of students who sold something on a particular evening. And there it is, my family name. I fill out a new form, name and address in Russian and English. She goes through both versions with me, letter by letter and number by number. Since I can't read Ukrainian, the cover will be in Russian. It will be ready next week. When I pick it up, she tells me about a woman who returned week after week for months and never turned up anything. I tell her how lucky I've been and thank her.