Oh, Dessa!


ODESSA, UKRAINE — Odessa is a horrible place with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I don’t recommend ever visiting.

Okay, that probably sounded a little insincere. More on that later. This was my fifth visit to the city, the first having been a fact-finding expedition with friends back in 2006. Since then, I’d been there on a handful of boys’ weekends, thanks to a cheap and convenient thrice-weekly direct flight from Budapest. Crossing the border from Transdniester, I was relieved to be in vaguely familiar surroundings. I bought a Ukrainian SIM card for my phone in the market just across the border, hopped back on the bike, and cranked the throttle in fourth gear towards Odessa.
I checked the time and was certain I’d beat my friend John, who was flying in from Dublin, to the apartment we’d rented downtown. And then a thunderstorm hit, the sort of biblical weather event the likes of which I’d last seen years ago back home in southwestern Ontario. (Central European thunderstorms tend to be pretty wimpy affairs; this one, however, was the real deal.) I rode in the driving rain across the denuded Ukrainian plain until a bolt of lightning struck uncomfortably close to the side of the road. Time to pull over. Defeated, I found a roadside diner and ate a giant bowl of borscht while waiting for the rain to stop.

The storm eventually passed, and I sped down steaming asphalt to Odessa. John did beat me there in the end. We found each other, shook hands, and took a picture for posterity.

Never thought I'd make it, did you?

We also got a shot of Apartment-Findin’ Anna on the Hamburglar. Anna runs a concierge service for visitors to Odessa, and she was quick to point out two things: be wary of policemen asking for your passport at the clubs down at the beach, and whatever you do, don’t drink beer in the street, because a national law forbidding that had just been passed and the cops were enforcing it. This new law sounded dubiously un-Eastern European to me, and I wasn’t impressed.
I’d chosen to come to Odessa to take a break from the first hectic few weeks on the road, and John didn’t need much convincing to take a short vacation from his job in Ireland. Odessa is an impressive mid-sized port city, and a relatively new one by European standards: Catherine the Great founded it just over 200 years ago, and her grandson, Alexander I, commissioned a Frenchman to design it. As such, it’s laid out on a strict grid, with stately, tree-lined boulevards and a fairly uniform architectural style. You’ve probably seen one of the main tourist attractions in the city, the Potemkin Stairs, in the famous scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, whose nerve-wracking baby-carriage-down-the-stairs routine was revisited much later in The Untouchables.

The Potemkin stairs

Odessa boasts a list as long as your arm of famous playwrights and writers who called it home, which led, during the communist era, to its establishment as the official Soviet Capital of Humour. (Yes, they had such a thing.) Odessa’s reputation as a cultural heavyweight is underscored by the fact that its arguably most famous son is none other than Yakov Smirnoff.

In Soviet Russia, blog reads YOU!

Nowadays, though, Odessa is most well-known as a summertime holiday destination. Along with Yalta and Sochi, this is the Russian Miami Beach. There’s a heavy dose of tacky family entertainment on hand, what with all the guess-your-weight stands and bumper cars and cotton candy and so on. But where Odessa really shines is its nightlife.

John at work in his office at Club Itaka

For the uninitiated, a first visit to Odessa’s beachside playground of Arkadia can be jolting. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, there are a great many qualities there that would appeal to the superficial man. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. Hordes of drop-dead-gorgeous women flock to Arkadia’s vast open-air clubs, and the clickety-clack of thousands of pairs of high heels echoes through the night. Few of these girls speak English, mind you, and all the average non-Russian-speaking tourist can do is stand there, jaw agape, clutching his beer. As John put it, grimly surveying the scene, “It’s just… wrong, man. It’s just wrong.”

We're not in Kansas anymore

So, that’s where John and I hung out, behaving like college kids for a very long weekend until John had to head back to Dublin. It was great fun and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. A friend in Budapest, seeing that I was in Odessa, excerpted a passage on my Facebook wall from Tennyson’s poem The Lotos-Eaters:

   They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
   Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
   And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
   Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
   Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
   Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
   Then some one said, “We will return no more;”
   And all at once they sang, “Our island home
   Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.

The comparison with Odessa is apt. It’s a mesmerizing land of “seems” that would be very easy to get stuck in, with milling crowds of smiling happy people and suntan lotion and bronzed bodies and all kinds of superficial temptation that will eventually pack up and head back to Moscow and St. Petersburg and Kiev. The effect, after a while, is total stupefaction, and it’s probably not very good for you in large doses.

There’s a very visible and seamy side to all this, mind you: the sex tourism. I spent a lot of time at the only late-night cafe in town that had WiFi, and at all hours there’d be Western fat guys sitting there with their beers, glowering at the working girls through beady drunken eyes. For some reason, they all wore cheesy wooden bead necklaces, the sort of jewelry that only Justin Timberlake can pull off. I saw one such fellow, English I’m guessing, who was in such a bad state that he’d sit there talking to nobody in particular, then pass out for a few minutes, then wake up, startled, and resume the conversation with himself. Two not-at-all-skankily-dressed women at an adjacent table got up to leave, and he stumbled after them to chat them up. Good luck, buddy, I thought. Minutes later they walked off with him, arm-in-arm. I was shocked.

Note to self: don't end up like these guys

And then Eteri and Natalya came to the rescue. I had the good fortune, thanks to Couchsurfing, to meet these two local girls who operate an online gift shop with its main markets in the CIS countries. (Item! Online retail in the former Soviet Union is finally taking off.) Before this venture, they spent a year in New York working in the gift shop at Statue of Liberty, of all places. They showed me an entirely different side of Odessa far removed from the fantasyland of Arkadia, one where the normal people live and work and sit in off-the-beaten-path cafes drinking compot, a delicious fruity beverage with no booze in it. Of course I got the obligatory Hamburglar picture with them.
In short order they posted a piece about my trip on LookAtMe.ru, a Russian fashion and lifestyle blog they occasionally contribute to, and the next day I was beset with a dozen Facebook friend requests from Russian-speakers I’d never met. (I think that more Russians have seen my blog now than have friends and family.) Eteri and Natalya also had the decency to invite me along to a Fellini film festival before I left town. Finally, I was doing something in Odessa my mother would approve of! We drove out to the local repertory cinema, which had this single-sentence manifesto emblazoned above the projection screen:


I loved this, especially the typically Russian exclamation point. We sat with serious faces through a three-hour screening of La Dolce Vita, which was, now that I think about it, a fitting cautionary-tale coda to a week in Odessa. I had my camera with me and got a screenshot of a pivotal scene:

This reminded me that I had a Vespa of my own, and that I was meant to ride it instead of dicking around forever in the Black Sea’s most beguiling resort town. The clock on my Russian tourist visa was ticking, and I still had to make my way across the Crimean peninsula. I thanked Natalya and Eteri for their hospitality, and the next day I packed up my things and hit the road eastwards towards Sevastopol.


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