06 October 2005- My arrival in Odessa, Ukraine is routine- I clear Customs without having my luggage checked, nor being sent to the Gulag for possessing two cameras; They don't even show interest in my small digital with it's various attachments. Yes, the Iron Curtain has been pulled back and neatly tied off here in the Ukraine. The taxi driver speaks very good english (I often wonder if foreign taxi drivers are merely enterprising, or out-of-work spies) and cheerfully points out suggestions on where to shop or eat on our way to the hotel. The rumors of the terrible roads are true- Odessa’s ancient cobblestone streets wreak havoc on suspensions. Which is why most people (my driver included) tend to drive on the trolley tracks (An odd game of chicken ensues, until my driver remembers that trolleys can’t swerve).
The hotel Mozart is the epitome of charm and elegance; all the amenities of the West with prices to match. As it is still early, I head out to explore and find sustenance. Odessa is a clean city, in that there is no litter and the dirt appears to be freshly swept. Occasionally, I encounter hints of Odessa’s former glory- onion-domed churches, sculptured eaves, bas-relief walls and fresh coats of paint. Some parts of town could be mistaken for Prague. As evening falls, the pedestrian zone springs to life; The garish neon lights of the casinos whirl and pulsate to the beats emanating from a multitude of dance club speakers. Armani suits pair up with denim miniskirts, knee-high leather boots and a short mink coat for drinks or dinner at one of the posh restaurants offering food from around the world. Searching for sustenance myself, I turn left after McDonald’s, and discover the local mall, as much a teenager hangout as it’s American counterpart. I opt for dinner at a cafeteria-style restaurant, where I can either watch Russian music videos, or the much more interesting shoppers, while I savor my chicken lasagna (which resembles chicken enchiladas, actually) slathered with sour cream and sample a Slavutich beer (pivo). For dessert, I head back to Baskin Robbins, where, much to my delight, I find that mint chocolate chip is indeed one of their 31 flavors. Further wandering brings me to one of Odessa’s parks. A floodlighted church, replete with clock tower and fountain, lures strollers and those looking for quiet conversation to the pathways and park benches. It is curious to note that the Odessans don’t mind hanging out in a darkened park, whereas most American’s would hurry through, if they didn’t avoid it altogether. As the clock announces the 10 o’clock hour, I head back to the Mozart for a bath and then bed.
I am awakened by the sound of car horns and yelling. Not the frantic bedlam of rush hour in New York City, but the carefree airs of a celebration. As the sun streams in through my open window, I think to myself that it is a fitting sound, as today I turn 34. From my window I observe that a wedding is in it’s final stages and that the day looks to remain sunny and warm, perfect for exploring. Breakfast is a feast- Ham, sausage, smoked salmon and cold cuts; eggs fried, scrambled, poached, boiled or ‘omeletted’; potatoes hashbrowned, roasted in butter and parsley or fried; 5 kinds of cheese; a hodge-podge of breads, pastries and cereals with a huge assortment of jams, jellies and preserves; 8 kinds of juice and tons of fruit; This is the way breakfast was meant to be! Before long, I am fueled for a nice meandering walk around Odessa. Leaving the hotel, I round the corner and encounter what I can only describe as an epidemic- I call it "Ukrainian Marriage Fever"; Every church on the block (there are 4) seems to be an assembly line, sending out newlyweds every fifteen minutes to be greeted with cheers and thrown rice. Las Vegas ‘Quick Hitch’ chapels must have been introduced by Ukrainian emigrants. There are ‘lucky couples’ everywhere, surrounded by an entourage of flowergirls, bridesmaids, bestmen and well-wishers; The streets are packed with cars; whether it be a dilapidated Lada or a sparkling white stretch limo, they are all bedecked with flowers, balloons, ribbons, and sporting interlocked gold rings on their roofs. A strange custom, who’s meaning still eludes me, is the splashing of a line of water in front of the newlyweds as they walk around. This act is usually performed by old ladies looking very much like gypsies. I am unsure if they are giving their blessing or reciting a curse. Venturing forth, everyone seems to be posing in front of a camera, and one might think that white gowns and black tuxedos are everyday attire. Eventually, I come upon the Duc de Richelieu (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof) standing at the top of Potemkin’s Steps, waiting to greet visitors entering Odessa proper from the docks. Looking down the length of the stairs, I feel that the sculptor should have posed the Duc with a glass of water, or at least an outstretched hand in welcome. The view from here is spectacular- if you like skyscraping hotels and shipyards. The Steps themselves are impressive; there’s even a tram for those who are overwhelmed by the thought of climbing up 192 steps. Walking down toward the port and out of the treeline, Odessa’s shipyards begin to dominate the horizon. These are what give Odessa it’s moniker "The Pearl of the Black Sea"; alas that it isn’t for it’s beautiful scenery or beaches.
The Hotel Odessa would not be out of place in any western luxury hotel guide, as long as one didn’t take into account the views. Shipyards on both sides, a small harbor with a lighthouse in the back, and the Steps to the front. The front also displays a very ugly sculpture reminiscent of a baby Mork from Ork. The port is a great place to observe people, however- From dockworkers loading and unloading cargo, to welders working on superstructures, or just watching others watching the ships, tugboats and motor yachts (of course there are plenty of newlyweds here also). Retracing my steps, I am tempted to try out the tram, as I strain to make out the Duc’s statue, which has been moved to the top of one of the Carpathian mountains. But then, it really isn’t an experience if you only climb down the Steps. It’s amazing how much one misses on the way down the Steps- I am continually stopping to take advantage of interesting photo opportunities on the way back up. As I continue to roam about the city, I cannot escape the miasma of matrimony- every park, statue, museum, scenic overlook and ornate government building in Odessa seems to be the perfect backdrop for a wedding photo. Eventually, I make my way to the open market or ‘Push and Shove’, as the locals call it; Here one can find everything from eggs to designer jeans. Prices here are very low, the food is fresh, and the people are quite friendly and helpful. Next door is the dilapidated bus station, where you can catch one of Odessa’s many ‘vintage’ buses and vans. After a local lunch of stew and fresh bread, I wander my way towards the coast, looking for a beach; along the way I encounter several relaxing parks and experience some of the more residential sections of town. Nearing the shore, I happen upon a go-kart track, where kids are racing around a rather intricate course complete with bridge. Guided by graffiti-laden stone walls, I am led to a huge park, where an elderly gentleman provides evening mood music with his saxophone. Following the dog-walkers, strollers, and rollerbladers, I find myself at one of Odessa’s war memorials, a miniature version of the Washington Monument, with a nice view of the sea.. Continuing from here, I descend further, until I step from the trees to behold the beach; it is rather disappointing- small, dirty, and occupied by two retired truck drivers wearing bikini briefs. The nearby pier is a much more interesting place; despite the fact that it appears ready to collapse into the sea at any moment, it is home to fishermen, strolling couples, sightseers, and a cat. As twilight approaches, I head back towards Ekaterininskaya Street for some sustenance. My first stop is Pizza Pan, one of the more popular restaurants in Odessa. The pizza is quite good, although it would have been better accompanied by a Dr. Pepper! Next stop is the Atmosphera Club for some music (I tend to refrain from dancing) and a Black Russian, my alcoholic drink of choice (Eventually, I will have one in Russia; until then, Russian-speaking Odessa will have to do). I can only imagine the lengths someone had to go through to get Kahlua here.... Re-energized, I return to the Mozart for some Birthday cake and ice cream. My concierge, Viktoriya, brings me a slice of delicious chocolate, strawberry and whipped cream cake with a scoop of strawberry ice cream topped with chocolate syrup on the side; ‘Birthday candle’, however, appears to have been lost in translation, resulting in a unique (and definitely more celebratory) experience- The small Roman Candle that she found draws the attention of everyone in the bar, leading to a multilingual rendition of "Happy Birthday To You". I am barely able to walk to my room after ‘quite a few’ toasts to my health- it is a good thing that the bar is small and rather exclusive (catering primarily to hotel guests), otherwise the bellboy would have had to carry me, and what should one tip a bellboy for that service?
I am awakened this morning (ok, it’s actually early afternoon) by the cleaning lady. Surprisingly, I feel rather refreshed. I quickly pack up and, after a quick shower, head off to the shops for lunch and souvenirs. It is curious to note however, that postcards don’t seem to exist here yet. Perhaps that will change, as more foreigners take advantage of the new visa policies. Before I know it, I am back on the plane, returning to Budapest for another ‘vacation’ enroute to Kosovo...