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.
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.
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.