I have re-written this post a half-dozen times as my stay in Odessa has grown to more than a week, my longest layover by far. I planned to persuade the Russian Consul here to grant me a Russian visa. The four-day International Worker’s holiday was the first delay. Then, over the course of three long days spent riding busses, waiting in lines and waiting rooms, and filling out form after form, I got to meet with the man who says, “Nyet.” I admit it now: Russian bureaucracy is stronger than my resolve. So I am employing an American visa specialist to obtain the visa for me. This involves sending my passport to Washington, DC, for ten days. It is risky to be here without it, (every hotel needs to see it, and any cop can demand to see it), and not exactly legal to mail it overseas. In fact, FedEx refused to accept it on a Saturday, adding two more days to my Odessa Odyssey. The good part is that it is a vibrant, fascinating city full of nice folks.
I arrived during the May Day holiday, when the center is particularly busy in the parks, shops and restaurants. Along with the usual food, flower and souvineer vendors, there are musicians, pony rides, and jugglers. In what seems to me a stroke of genius, they rent little electric cars for the kids, with radio remote controls for the parents. The kid has fun, and dad gets to play with a new toy. You can also pose for a picture with a giant snake, lizards, falcons, peacocks and various mammals.
I stop to chat with Slavi every afternoon. He does portraits on the street, a trade he has pursued in twenty different cities around the world. Good stories and information, that guy. The waitresses in Wuko, my favorite tavern, have little English and greet me like family, guiding me to my favorite table and bringing my Corona with no glass (and giggling at it).
It is very fine in and around the center, the Potemkin Stairs, with many busy parks, fountains and sidewalk cafes, a beautiful opera house, rows of beautiful buildings and several world-class hotels. The atmosphere is relaxed: traffic is slow-moving and quiet, shopkeepers sit outside and smoke, couples stroll the streets, and parents with children are everywhere taking their time. In the parks young and old men play chess, backgammon and dominoes. The outskirts are dusty, chaotic and crowded, with noisy bazaar markets spilling into the potholed streets, dense traffic ignoring the rules, and antique, overloaded trolley cars rumbling along on a treacherous snake-pit of tracks.
The Opera House
Closer to the water is the port, huge, industrial but clean and hard-working. A large hotel there caters to those ship captains, traders and businessmen who visit Odessa without ever leaving the waterfront. To the north and south are the beaches, most topless, many nude. The unusually warm and sunny weather has brought about a marvelous surplus of sunburn.
Andrey Ivchenko. Photo my Not Me
I attracted to the noise and action of skateboarders in one park. They had more skill than I see in most places. I quickly befriended Andrey, Alex and Stanislaus. They enjoy some status in his town; a skateboard video displaying their skills and passion has made them admired heroes to the young skateboard crowd. When we walk around downtown kids stop frequently to greet and bump fists.
I am fascinated by the extremes of rich and poor living in close contact and what seems like harmony. The rich are like any big city’s upper class, shopping and dining in the fancy establishments, parking their Porsches, and having a hell of a time all dressed up and fingering their phones.
The poor are making an impressively good show on tiny incomes. The apartment building where I’m staying holds three times as many as a similar sized building stateside. A a toilet and a cold water only sink in a hallway serves half a dozen people as their only plumbing. Couples make a home in a single tiny room, and four men share one slightly bigger room, with a toilet far away upstairs. It’s grimy and falling apart, with junk piles and plaster suggesting generations of dense habitation and neglect. Yet every morning well-dressed, stylish people emerge and go to work in retail, restaurants, banks. My friend Andrey, for instance, works in an art gallery; most of his pay goes to his rent, and he eats little in order to keep clothes on his back and his phone and electricity paid. Yet I don’t see a poverty mentality. That’s just how it is; walking around with a only few cents in your pocket most of the time and dealing with it, counting your thirty-five cent bus rides because you only earn a dollar or two an hour.
So far on this trip it as been easy to get local cash with my debit card at an ATM. It stopped working in Ukraine, for purchases as well, and I used up my small stash of Euros and Dollars. With the four-day holiday, stuck in Odessa waiting for the Russian Consulate and the banks to open, I completely exhausted my cash. Andrey and his friends kept me (the rich guy) fed, and I’m sleeping at Andrey’s tiny downtown apartment, accessible only through a crazy maze of hallways, other people’s kitchens, dark stairways and long passageways full of stuff. It was fairly easy, and fun, to get enough for a beer by playing music on the street.
I finally got the bank card working with the help of the good people at Vermont Federal Credit Union. In the meantime it was a complete change of pace for me, waiting instead of pedaling, watching the hours rather than the kilometers go by. One day I sat in a park watching people for so long I had to change benches twice to stay in the shade. The little skateboard dudes stop to bump fists with me. In fact, when I visit Primorskaya Park the skateboarders glide over to see me and there is a great big round of handshaking, slapping five, bumping fists and (for the girls) cheek kissing. I try skating every day and I’m learning to jump, if not land upright.
As an example of the relaxed atmosphere here, the people enjoying the park seem to enjoy the skateboarders as well. My pals swerve closely through the strollers and children without any disturbance, behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated for a minute in New York. They are friendly with the police. In one incident the boys told me about, a stray skateboard bumped (but did not injure) the shoes of a distinguished looking older man on a bench, prompting an exchange of insults. He called the police, who politely told the boys to be more careful, and politely told the gentleman to go sit somewhere else. They’ve got a little advocacy group going, and the get a huge amount of tacit, and almost no official, acknowledgment from the strong-mayor city government.
With my my bike up at Andrey’s I’m on foot for a change, which is good, one notch closer to the people. I’ve walked miles and liked what I saw, mostly.
Here they have trolleys and big old busses, and unregulated taxis, all pretty cheap. But most people use the “little bus.” These are Mercedes Sprinter or Isuzu vans, a little smaller than a UPS truck, outfitted as a small city bus. They are privately owned but licensed by the city, which assigns routes and provides bus stops and signs. The drivers are often the owner, or the owner’s family. Like a NYC taxi, they are prized moneymakers. The driver decorates with curtains and such, provides music, talks on his phone and lets his friends ride shotgun. A carpeted engine cover to his right is strewn with bills and coins; you make your own change, paying 2.50 grivnas as you exit, about $.36. They get crowded and overloaded (bumping bodies is OK but eye contact is rare), and when a rider exits the rear door, he hands his fare to his neighbor; then it passes from hand to hand to the front. Sometimes two or four people make change together so they can hand a five or ten up through the crowd. I never saw anyone exit without paying. Another thing: no man or teenage girl sits while a woman stands. This courtesy is performed completely without eye contact or acknowledgment. Late at night they park near the clubs and wait until all of the seats are full, then go roaring off, a rolling bar scene with no bar.
I am eager to get back on the bike, but I’m waiting for Monday to ship my visa application. It’s easy to stay; I have a place to sleep, bike security, friends young and old, and eating doesn’t cost much. In fact, I’m busy making my rounds, sticking my head into Ludmilla’s barber shop to say hi, checking on the chess games in the park, dropping coins in my favorite beggars’ cups, and getting ice cream from beautiful Elena. I can’t walk very far downtown without bumping into an acquaintance. A few don’t know why I’m dressed so funny, they just know I’m Billy. Some have agendas involving a few grivnas.
On Saturday night I visited some clubs, large dance venues packed full, one with a great bar band. I wound up in an extra-crazy gay bar (strictly on a tourist visa), with a good bunch, drinking and dancing to excess, and experienced that old familiar shock from my youth: stepping out from the decadent smoke-filled light-show nightlife noise into the bright Sunday morning sunshine, birds chirping in the trees.
In a couple of days I’ll head down to the autonomous region called the Crimea, a mountainous peninsula said to be different from the rest of Ukraine. There the native Tartars were forced to relocate by the USSR before WW II, replaced by Russians populations from the north. Many Tartars returned after 1989, and live uneasily among the Russians. There are few ethnic Ukrainians. The Crimea is resource poor and underdeveloped except for seaside tourism. The hills are known for their wild feuding hillbillies. Can’t wait to meet those guys.
Then I plan to visit Luhans’k, near the Russian border. A widely-believed legend from ancient times tells of an empress of Ukraine who was insecure about her beauty, so she exiled all the beautiful Ukrainian women and girls to far-off Luhans’k. Today their descendants give the city it’s reputation for tall, beautiful Ukrainian women. Gotta check that out.