”Journeys rarely begin where we think they do.”
Travel writer Colin Thubron made this statement on his opening page of Among the Russians (1983). For those of you who´ve read my first post know this to be true for my trip as well. I´ve been thinking about this trip on and off for seven years, and just being here in Odessa have turned the abstract into a reality. In order not to get caught in old habits and dwell on the past, I have tried to leave all the bad things at home in order to be open to new and unexpected things, people and events. (And yes, M is one of those people who are no longer a part of my life.) But it is not an easy task to mentally delete things. The only thing you have to bring on a trip is yourself. And if you bring the body, you bring the mind that goes with it, like it or not. And the mind has a tendency to remember things…
Anyway, the first week in Odessa has already passed. Time flies when one is having fun. I have gotten a hold of the basics; roof over my head, food in the fridge, a great internet connection, a Ukrainian phone number and a membership at Formula, the local gym. And it is not my doing – my friends Skip and Helen have been invaluable in my settling down smoothly. Also, very importantly, I have found an Irish bar. The first night I went in there they served two Guinness for the price of one – €4,50. So for those of you who were worried – I will survive here. At the moment, my dear friends are scouting down good Russian teacher for me. Hopefully I´ll start more organized studies in the next few days.
Turning to Odessa as a city, it´s easy to think that the city´s attraction is made up of two constructions; the Opera house and the Potemkin stairs. The city´s official website actually doesn´t deviate much from that image either. Cafés, restaurants and bars are gathered within a few blocks which gives Odessa a small town feel. And at the end of one of those blocks stands the famous Opera House. And just behind the Opera House are the Potemkin Stairs. Below them: the Black Sea. About one million people live in Odessa, but I think visitors think the city is smaller than that, mainly because the size of the city centre. But there´s a lot that happens away from the city centre. As always, it takes a while to see and understand where to go. For instance, in summer time, lots of people are making their way down to the beach clubs along the seaside, a few miles south of the city centre. Going to the beach is still a doable activity here. Since I arrived Monday the 14th, we´ve had 27 degrees (Celsius) and sun and according to forecasts it´ll stay that way for a while longer.
When Thubron visited Odessa in the early 1980s he described Odessa as ”… a city quieter, tamer, more uniform. Its trade, once the highest in the Soviet Union, has been deflected to the satellite port of Ilyichevsk a few miles to the south, leaving Odessa becalmed among its nineteenth century streets and plane trees. It rises above the sea in terraced avenues fringed with old business houses, while at its quays the Black Sea passenger ships idle among cranes; a few tugs bustle over the water and goods trains dawdle on grass-sown tracks. […] I passed the Old English Club, the one-time London Hotel, the defunct Stock Exchange still adorned with its statue of Mercury god of trade (and thieves), and descended the flight of the 192 steps where Eisenstein filmed his classic sequence for Battleship Potemkin.”
The former Stock Exchange is actually located next to the apartment I´m renting, which means I am passing by there more or less every day. Today that building is filled with music rather than money, housing the Philharmonic Orchestra. But it evidently took some restoration work to make that happen. There is a myth going around Odessa about the acoustics of the hall. The short version is that the hall was built in order for conversations not to be overheard, since business (of many)are considered important, hence several features were put in that actually worsened the acoustic of the hall. But judging from what is written on the website, the problems were more direct and concrete. It had nothing to do with the place it was originally designed. As usually is the case, when a good story sounds a bit too good to be true, it´s just a myth.
But it´s still a good story.