I’ve been in Odessa since Friday, August 1. As my friend Michael put it, I woke up in Tbilisi, flew into Kiev where I had lunch at the well known Ukrainian chain Puzata Hata, and took the 3pm train to Odessa where I arrived at 11pm. Michael was supposed to meet me at the train station at around 11pm but because he missed the bus coming from Moldova (Chisinau) he couldn’t make it until 11.40pm. My smartphone had died (the outlets on the train did not work) so I decided to wait there until he showed up. Curious to see how much the taxis would charge for 3 kilometers to the hotel, I tried to ask in my awkward Russian. Tired, I thought they were quoting me 700 HRN or 55 dollars. I saw a local militia and asked him if that was right. He said it was a fair price and that if I didn’t like it I should just walk the rest of the way. I later found out when Michael and I went to a shop and the kind shop owner called a taxi, that it was really 70 UHN not 700 and that I was making the same mistake again, mistaking my tens for hundreds linguistically and that I came across as a cheapskate to Ukrainian standards…thinking 4 dollars was too much to pay a driver to lug my suitcase, backgammon board, and backpack 3 kilometers. I was not surprised in retrospect when these militiamen first asked to see my passport. They probably wanted to know not what country I was from, but what planet I thought I lived on.
We arrived at our accommodation and after some much needed beer and rest, started the day Saturday with a walking tour. Last summer our guide Yuriy gave 120 tours. This summer, we were only his third tour and the summer is more than half gone. He was not the first one nor the last one to be surprised and baffled as to what brought us to Odessa during the conflicts and possible war. It was a long story, but basically I was supposed to go to Konotop, Ukraine to visit a friend but that friend and I had a falling out and I was left with a one-way ticket from Tbilisi to Kiev. Instead of crying over spilt milk, I decided to keep my ticket and meet my friend Michael in Odessa instead of Kiev because Odessa has always been in my top five cities to visit one day. And he found hostel prices at a 5 star hotel so the rest is history. There are a few things to note about Michael. One, he’s Australian and thus was born with an innate love to travel. Two, he’s extremely frugal in an ingenious way which means he travels more than a spy or secret agent. This month, Ukraine, next month Poland and the Carpathians, October Italy and November Lebanon. And he’s already met me in Poland on his way to Israel, took a fourth trip to Georgia (the country) and we did have a week long tour of Belarus during the hockey championships. So you get the picture. We both have a love and fascination with former Soviet and Eastern European countries so that’s how we both met up in Ukraine. As for myself, my maternal great-great grandmother a Gitl Tsipperbrun (Brown Bird in Yiddish) was originally from here. According to her husband’s family story, he took the train from Dnepropetrovsk (formerly Yekaterinoslav) to meet her. She loved her Odessa and was proud of this cosmopolitan city and told her children and grandchildren on summers swimming in the Black Sea, going to the opera, and how wonderfully multicultural this town was (and still is).
I soon saw for myself the beauty my ancestor saw in this place. The balmy summer evenings one can see many locals and Ukrainians walking in pristine breathtakingly marvelous parks surrounding the supposedly most beautiful opera house in the world. The tree-lined streets are occupied by cafes. Sushi bars are in vogue as are night clubs and elegantly dressed ladies. The beach Lanzheron was packed and had sandy shores a nice contrast to the stony shores of Batumi where I was a week earlier with another friend.
I love bazaars and markets because it’s how you really get a feel of the place. It’s heaven for people watching. I went there to buy certain Georgian and Central Asian spices for friends back in Poland and we encountered quite a few Georgians who weren’t just Georgian but a minority from within Georgia: Mingrelians.
This lady was selling Churchkhela a Georgian fruit snack that is basically nuts soaked in fruit juices. Michael bought the ones soaked in kiwi but after I recited a Mingrelian tongue twister that my friend Tina’s parents had taught me that probably sounded like this; the lady refused to charge us. It turned out that she and her two friends were Mingrelians and they weren’t the last ones we ran into in Odessa that day. My friend Tina is Mingrelian and after meeting some of her family and other Mingrelians around Tbilisi, she taught me how to tell if one is Mingrelian or not. Maybe it’s body language or features that this group shares but this group, closely related to the Laz minority in Western Georgia/Eastern Turkey is immensely proud of their heritage as they should be. My friend speaks probably as much Mingrelian or understands as much of it as I would understand Yiddish or Hebrew expressions. It’s her parents and my great-grandparents’ generation that can/could have spoken these respective languages fluently.
We went the above stand at the famous market called Privoznaya. The market was the perfect site for people-watching and spice shopping. I not only met Georgians there but we chat with Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Persians there too.
The spices were endless. They ranged from Georgian ones such as khmeli-suneli, adjika, Svanetian salt, to more Central Asian ones such as barberry, coriander, and custom-made mixes for manti and plov.
Going to open air markets in foreign countries never ceases to fascinate and excite me. When I was in Tbilisi, the people were just as friendly and lovely.
It was too easy to spend all day in the Privoz market where we sat and drank some Bessarabian wine and sampled the local nectarines. We stopped at a cafe along the way where the owner was too happy to practice his English and refused to speak any Russian with me. A foreigner coming into his bookstore/cafe on a Sunday afternoon was probably a big surprise. His cafe was not even in the touristy parts.
He was born in Sloviansk which I found out while admiring the Turkish copper and clay coffee pots. He pointed out that these were all made from Sloviansk which was famous for their clay craftsmanship and nearby rivers and nature, which no one would know normally because now his hometown is known for being part of the conflict zone. This young man’s name was Eugene or Evgeniy and he moved to Odessa when he was just a month old and thus considered himself more of an Odessan than anything else but still took pride in his birthplace.