It's Saturday afternoon, and we're out for an after-dinner stroll in the area of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, now under reconstruction. In the '50s, Soviet engineers pumped in tons of molten glass to stabilize the foundation. By the early '90s it was moving again, and the city of Odessa had to come up with funds for the work. When it couldn't, the Ukrainian national government stepped in. Politics played a part. The target date for reopening the building was early 2004, then the fall opening of the new season. That date passed. (By the end of November. the exterior scaffolding had come down, but the interior was empty.)
Barricades around the building do not deter marriage parties from arriving. We see at least four such groups by the building. Downhill, near the archeological museum, a small classical building with a reproduction of the Laocoön in front, are three more couples, their friends carrying bottles of local champagne, cars strewn with flowers and double wreaths. And still farther downhill, near the municipal building, another classical yellow-and-white structure with columns for a façade, are four more couples.
It's a bright day, a touch of fall crispness in the air. Boys on skateboards are taking jumps off the marble base of the cannon mount. Brides are wearing shawls, which they take off for photos, but just now their bare shoulders are cold. The people of Odessa love to be outside. Cafés spill onto sidewalks. On Alexander Street, a long avenue with a grassy, tree-lined strip separating its two lanes, kiosks offer tea and coffee, beer and vodka, light snacks. Tables and chairs have been set out and are occupied even in November by the locals, coats buttoned up to their chins. People on park benches are eating shawarma, piroshki, and bubliki (like a bagel, but slightly sweet and eaten whole, not sliced). Sunlight weaves through the trees and dapples everyone, the fashionably dressed women and men talking into cell phones, briefcases tucked under their arms; those drinking, playing cards, and watching their children ride bicycles; even the sniffing dogs.
It's hard for me to gauge the size of the middle class. At any hour on any of Odessa's downtown streets, you can see men and women going through Dumpsters slightly smaller than U.S. models; these are blue plastic with swing-down tops. I bring bagged garbage from my apartment each morning, as everyone else does. The Dumpster-pickers are always there, after bottles primarily, but inspecting everything. Parked nearby are BMWs and Mercedes. At noon on the corner of Deribasovskay and Yekaterininaya Streets -- the very heart of downtown, with restaurants, kiosks selling cigarettes and sweets, jewelry stores, guards armed with automatic weapons, men in business suits and women in high heels -- you see scabby boys who should be in school. They're 10 or 12 years old, smoking and waiting for something to be dropped. They don't beg; they're patient.
Down the street an old woman kneels and utters prayers, a cup beside her. The poor can be found in all the cities of the world. And drunks too. But they seem more prevalent here, and the disparity between well-off and poor seems more extreme. It's that way even inside the courtyard where I live. Some apartments have been remodeled, others have not. Well-dressed, well-off tenants -- even a foreigner -- live alongside a man who collects bottles from his converted wheelchair. When I get a peek at his apartment once, I see a spigot above a small sink and shabby cabinets. My guess is he's a "pensioner" who supplements that income with what he can scavenge.
The cathedral at the end of Preobrazhenskaya Street is being rebuilt. It was razed in the '50s. The exterior is newly painted, the crosses gilded; it glows. The square it's located on has a fountain at one end and, at the other, a statue of Count Vorontsov, an early governor of the city. In the evening men play chess at the fountain's base and on nearby benches. Some players punch clocks while groups of men gather around them to watch and kibitz. Others are reading and rocking babies. Boys chase each other; girls walk arm in arm.
It's easy to forget, after you've been here for a while, how odd some things are. The cashiers' windows are so low that to talk to the people behind them, to buy a ticket or bread or anything else, you have to bend down. It's awkward. In effect, it puts you in your place. Inquiries are short, transactions brief.
I ask students about their impressions of America, of California in particular. Those who haven't been abroad talk of music and fast food. Style interests them most. When I try to get details, the conversation dies. One of my colleagues with experience in America reminds me that I have to ask specific, pointed questions and press to get answers. The students still aren't used to voicing individual opinions. They hang back. The least inhibited jump to the most difficult topics: America as the world's policeman, America's race problems. What about debts to former slaves, one student asks. They don't relate these questions to their own history -- to the pogroms here, to what happened to deported Crimean Cossacks when they returned, to events during the Second World War.
It's taken me weeks to unravel some of the complexities of a university system in which students proceed through their undergraduate classes much the way middle-school students in America do, in fixed groups from class to class. Their programs, which last four to five years, offer no electives. There is no changing of majors. I have to keep asking, try to uncover my assumptions, to remind myself of what I don't know.
-- Mark Halperin
Mark Halperin teaches in the English department at Central Washington University. He was a Fulbright lecturer at Moscow State Linguistic University in Russia and has returned there as an exchange professor. His most recent book of poetry, The Measure of Islands, is from Wesleyan University Press. He and Dinara Georgeoliani have published translations of Soviet-period writers Alexandr Galich, Daniel Kharms, and Andrei Platonov.