Odessa: The Smile of God

Posted on February 4, 2012


My Turkish Airline flight landed in what appeared to be a field adjacent to a small bus terminal. A Siberian wind shot through multiple layers of clothing as I exited the plane down the steps and onto the tarmac. A bus took the other passengers and I over to the bus terminal which I then realized to be the Odessa Airport.

Joey was waiting for me inside the ODS’ one and only single story building. I was so excited to see my old friend and roommate, but I was becoming skeptical about my vacation choice: Mid-January in Ukraine.

In preparation for my trip, I had been reading the short stories of Isaac Babel. The picture he paints of Odessa is both stark and comical, populated with Jewish mafiosos who must learn to mix with Russians, Maldovans, and Ukrainians in a steaming mafia soup or borscht if you will.

At the same time I’ve been reading a guide to Ukraine (Ukraine by Ashley Hardaway) which is both helpful and a refreshing change of pace from the obligatory Lonely Planet’s smarmy take on things. The guide tells me that Odessans pride themselves on being the most cosmopolitan city in the country where people value the arts, fashion, and humor. Odessa is the humor capital of the world in case you didn’t know, and they have annual humor parades and festivals. Joey tells me on those days you’ll often see the young men hop on city buses wearing crazy wigs. You have to admit that’s not unfunny.

My wife couldn’t come on this particular journey as she was working. I had a two week break in between semesters at the middle school where I teach, so I decided to go somewhere. When I told any of my Turkish neighbors I was headed to Ukraine they thought it was an excellent idea. At least until they heard I was going there without my wife.  At which point their mouth would melt into a slight frown “…Oh…,” they would say. Every man would then immediately warn me that Ukraine is a dangerous place for a married man. The general perception of Ukraine in Turkey is that it is a beautiful girl factory. One of the slang words for prostitutes in Turkey is Natasha, obviously a Russian name. Unfortunately, Ukraine does have a big sex trade problem.

However, of all the preconcieved notions I had before arriving in Ukraine, the biggest was it’s immense fascinating, sad, resiliant, and multi-cultured history. Odessa is a land which the great empires passed around like a hot potato. It was one of the great Jewish capitols before WWII. It was the home to both Cossacks (roving land pirates),

and world class writers such as Isaac Babel, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin, and even Mark Twain.http://www.npr.org/2011/02/27/134055091/dreams-death-and-jewish-gangsters-in-odessa

One thing I could not have forseen was that the day I arrived was the beginning of a European cold snap. The cold has claimed the lives of 220 people so far, and I pray it stops soon. Ukraine has been the worst hit with 101 reported dead. During the trip both mine and Joey’s hands would start bleeding from the cold. The change in weather caught a lot of people off guard, and these are people who are used to cold weather.http://www.smh.com.au/world/more-than-220-dead-as-europe-freezes-20120204-1qyv9.html

In spite of the ferocious weather, this trip gave me some of the best food I’ve ever had, a walk on a frozen beach,

a mafia sauna experience, and a new love of cognac. I’ll write about all of this in upcoming posts. I really fell in love with this city, and I’m already making plans to take my wife this summer. Odessa has been called the Pearl of the Black Sea ever since Catherine the great decided not to tax the city making it an instant boomtown. As I walked around, Joey pointed out signs promoting the city saying: Odessa, the smile of God. After spending five days there, I can totally see God, face flushed red from the cheap and refined cognac, smiling in approval.  I highly recommend Odessa as an exciting and very affordable vacation even in the dead of winter.



Posted in: Odessa, Ukraine