Odessa, Ukraine, 1991
To the Black Sea with ‘Arh-dad’ (Part One)
Excerpt from ‘Evening in Moscow’
One of our group was a mature student, who I will call John, his real name. A squat, handsome and intelligent man with bright eyes but who on account of him being from Liverpool and being fifteen or so years older than us, we all called ‘our Dad’ in a phony Liverpool accent, pronounced, ‘Arh-daa’, as in, ‘eh, alright, Arh-dad, calm down, eh!’, every time that we saw him, in appalling mock Mersey accents.
John didn’t often hang about with the wide group. No surprise there perhaps. We can’t have been too much fun to be around and must have seemed to him just like a bunch of annoying teenagers, which some of us actually were age-wise and some of us had regressed to mentally, constantly cracking jokes about being in stalag-luft, moping about the empty mail boxes and complaining about the food, the buses, the roaches, the rats and the concrete. Siege mentality had set in. John was studying Russian with us for just one year, a career sabbatical and involving time out of paid work and a full fee for the course. There was one other taking the year long post-graduate course, a clever type, a young professional who was much more earnest than John, though much less interesting.
John had a penetrating air of enquiry and amusement about him whereas the other chap sort of quietly knew it all.
The know it all was sponsored by a household name British corporation that was presumably gearing up to corner the Soviet market as it opened up. Glasnost after all was still all the rage. The only time that Yan and I saw him with his guard down was after a riotous night attended by all in Slavyanski Bazar, an old-style, genuine Russian restaurant with a mocked-up Cossack feel to it that at the time catered to pre-arranged tour groups.
All evening we encouraged the know it all to quaff Sovietskoye Shampansko which we were virtually immune to by now and then to make a series of very un-corporate Britain speeches over several shots of vodka.
Later in the taxi home he opened his neat little rucksack that he carried everywhere and was profoundly and noisily sick into it.
Another mature student, a lady that was with us for the full four year haul dropped out after the Moscow trip – in fact tried to leave Moscow early on due to some drama in the girl’s quarters which we hadn’t been party to as we avoided it like the plague, and because the girls uniformly thought Yan and I were a pair of idiots.
The lady was a divorcee of a certain age that had clearly bitten off more than she could chew (hadn’t we all though? I certainly had) and who the girls called Gummy Bear, a nickname thought up by two senior year girls that Yan and I took to hanging out with for a while. I think she got the nickname because she wore pink ‘fluffy’ tracksuits about the place and was slightly overweight.
And they say that children can be cruel.
Being mature students and having paid their fair whack of fees, ‘Arh-dad’ and the know it all chap took the whole course a lot more seriously than anyone else. They had just the one year to master Russian; we had a full four years and the luxury (for the time being) of laziness without too many consequences.
John kept disappearing to meet with serious Soviet types who he was writing a dissertation about. One of his subjects was a Soviet General or someone else high up in the Party and who was fanatical about tennis. John played him regularly and always lost as the general always changes the rules at least bent them at his whim, always saying, ‘Rule is rule, Johnny’.
John planned to travel to Odessa in south Ukraine on the Black Sea coast and being a practical sort with plenty of common sense had applied for and received an internal Soviet visa for Ukraine, a flight ticket to Odessa, about two hours flight time from Moscow and a room at the local Intourist hotel in the centre of town. Although he hadn’t invited us to do so, Yan and I planned to join John in Odessa and set off once more to Kievsky Voksal to buy tickets on the black market.
Without our old friend Vika (see Evening in Moscow) to guide us we were on our own in the black market for Odessa couchettes, but we agreed that the same ground rules that had applied to our Kiev jaunt had better apply to the Odessa express. So we blew the dust off our Estonian personas and again took our vows as good Trappist monks from iz prebaltika and hoped for the best (Ethnic Estonians from the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic did not generally speak very good Russian – see Evening in Moscow).
We did not book ourselves into an exclusive four berth couchette all to ourselves for the journey to Odessa. Instead Yan (he was in charge, he had the better Russian when it came to dealings in Kievsky station) had got us tickets in Third or ‘hard’ class as it is known – open carriages stacked with bunk beds three stories high in cozy groups of six and with no privacy.
We set off, travelling very light, especially so in my case, in just the clothes that I was standing in with a toothbrush and extra underwear stuffed into a plastic bag and secreted in Yan’s luggage. I for one don’t remember the journey down to Odessa at all. I slept all the way through the night time part of the journey, one of the deepest and most peaceful sleeps I can remember, the rocking of the wide berth carriage and its slow progress acting on me like a perfect lullaby. The Moscow-Odessa Express takes about twenty four hours and so we must have amused ourselves somehow on the way.
On arrival in Odessa as we had heard, there was a gaggle of little old babushkas – grannies – a grey haired vanguard of private enterprise that offered rooms on the cheap. The gang of them was all dressed in black and touting openly for illicit business in the station ticket hall. For us this was essential, without a visa for Odessa let alone for Ukraine there was no way of booking into the one official hotel at any price and so we quickly struck a deal.
Our chosen babushka pitched it really low – in the low singles of dollars for the night and we all set off to make ourselves at home in a single ground floor room with four beds in it that had French windows looking out into the courtyard of a once handsome, now dilapidated nineteenth century building of which Odessa is so richly endowed with, its stucco cracked and falling off in places, showing the red brick underneath. We then set off to wander about town and later to meet up with John who was comfortably holed up in the Black Sea Intourist hotel and who managed to get us past the doorman as his guests for dinner and for a night of light cabaret entertainment, Soviet style.
Odessa is today largely an early nineteenth century city in look and feel. Founded by official decree in 1794 by Catherine the Great it is as much her city as Leningrad is Peter the Great’s city. There was a lot less of the concrete Soviet feel about the place, instead a more European feel, almost Mediterranean, though it is quite a long haul across the Black Sea and into the Bosporus before getting anywhere near there.
At street level Odessa had some good places to eat. Yan and I found a great place on one of the grand boulevards where we were able to order a delicious Ukrainian, ‘got-pot’. A ‘got-pot’ as there is no Russian or Ukrainian sensible equivalent to the letter ‘h’, which instead becomes a ‘g’, as in Gitler for Hitler, which seems wholly appropriate. My surname becomes Golland, which led rapidly to Golly and then on to various diminutives on the theme as well as some fairly insulting derivatives as these things go and which has stuck on and off in certain circles that I try and keep up with.
It was in this restaurant, which was very basic, and which might as well have been in the nineteenth century that an old lady with a face like a walnut and a mouth lacking teeth winked saucily at me before downing in one a beaker containing at least four good fingers of what must have been a very good local vodka, as when she had swallowed the lot she gave me a beautiful, wide-grinned smile as a way of sharing the fact that she had really appreciated it.
The food in this restaurant was good. More Ukrainian ‘got-pot’, stewed beef and potatoes in thick gravy that came in small earthenware pots. Yan had two.
The food at the Intourist where that evening we were John’s illicit guests, with him playing the westerner and us continuing with our absurd charade of being Old Estonians, was truly appalling. Back to the USSR – limp and greasy cold potato wedges, covered in some sort of lukewarm gravy and a gobbet of meat that just didn’t look or taste quite right. It really wasn’t very nice at all. The dining room was very formal, in a way that is unique to the whole Soviet experience, an experience that didn’t die with the demise of the Soviet Union, I have seen similar much more recently. All is not lost forever.
Eating out for the Soviets was always an occasion taken seriously. The clientele, all apart from us being Soviet citizens were decked out in their most uncomfortable looking Sunday best. Some of them must have been down in Odessa for the holidays and it seems strange to want to get decked out in a suit, mostly brown and all synthetic for a ‘gala’ night at an Intourist hotel. But despite its European feel, Pushkin said that in Odessa, ‘the air is filled with Europe’, and the thriving black market, Odessa was like all other Soviet cities labouring on with a system that failed to produce the goods. There were very limited options for a night out in this city on the sea of approximately one million people. It was the same story of Moscow after dark all over again, and yet seemed more repressive as Odessa really is a European city in its layout and building styles and lacks any of the sinister Asiatic mystery that is sometimes palpable in Moscow and which somehow makes one expect and accept its dark empty streets.
On stage there was an almost comical singer with a lot of bleached ‘blond’ hair who jiggled around with the aid of a very long bright green sort of feather boa and whose most accomplished song routine was the 1998 hit Stop! By Sam Brown which she sang more than once and whose version I can still hear in my head, just as I can still picture her quite clearly and her feather boa gyrating about on stage to the taped background music. Our fellow diners didn’t much react to the gala performance throughout most of it. They really were on their best behaviour, bolt upright in their polyester suits and shiny ties – silver on black diagonal stripes was a popular number – their pastry faced women going through the motions of a romantic meal out with hubby in groups made up of pairs around large round tables. It was probably the presence of the women that kept the lid on the men and their instinct to start a round or two of vodka toasting. Russian men can be well behaved to the point of total reticence around their women, like chastised little boys trussed up in suit and tie off to church, or the scouts.
Yan and I headed back to our room, a miracle that we could find it really after our thrilling night of entertainment courtesy of John’s hard currency at the Intourist, where they did not accept roubles. We only had roubles as we had exchanged our dollars on the black market with a stunning looking (real) blond wearing a flimsy t-shirt emblazoned CCCP, who took us back to her apartment to complete the operation at a very favourable rate to us.
Whereas in hard class all the way down to Odessa I had slept the dreamless sleep of the innocent, this particular night is one of the worst night’s sleep that I have ever had and I have a total, lucid recall of all of it.
There were four beds in the room, mine next to an internal door to the old lady’s kitchen, Yan’s on the other, far side of the room, with the other two occupied by permanently somnolent Georgians.
The first indication that something was amiss was the shape of the bed itself. Immediately on lying down on it I gravitated toward the middle. This was because the mattress had a shape like a shallow half-pipe, all support in the middle, springs, slats, must have long ago rusted and rotted away. I also became away as I tried to get comfortable that the mattress smelled a bit off. Not just old, but really old, damp too, with a middle tone somewhere between sweat, urine and death. The thought came to me that the bed had at one point, perhaps quite recently, served as someone’s death bed.
At about this point as either one or both of my arms was going numb as I flailed up one or the other sides of the half pipe shape, which became more and more pronounced in my imagination as sleep eluded me, I became aware that the little old babushka, our entrepreneurial landlady for the duration of our stay in Odessa was a lot closer at hand that I had previously been aware. While not quite as physically close as to be matrimonial she was just on the other side of the flimsy door from our bedroom to the kitchen, which in itself was adding to the overall medley of smells assaulting me. Old soupy smells and a deadened vegetable hum joined the overall unwholesome bouquet.
Two things alerted me to her presence. Firstly at some point just as I was finally about to drop off to sleep, at the bliss-point between being fully asleep and fully mentally alert, she called out in the night to me, so to speak, with an extraordinarily loud snore, almost cartoon character version of a snore, which was right in my ear, and that had me instantly wide awake. This deep, happy snoring sound was set to continue all night. I wish I had a decimeter or whatever instrument measures sound. I am sure that I would have been able to put in a valid complaint for noise pollution to the local Soviet.
I then began to attribute the ‘seat tone’ of the overall ensemble of smells in that awful semicircular shaped chariot of the night as belonging to none other than our little old landlady. It was far too fresh a smell to have been produced by the dead.
At some point during the night I started to lose my temper with my almost-bedmate. Her deep caterwauling was deafening. It was like having someone impersonating a snuffling piglet as an affectionate joke right in my ear. Had this been say, the girl in the flimsy CCCP t-shirt I would have relished the attention, but now I started to protest, quite politely at first, for her to be quiet, and then I got more heated as the night went on and she continued to deafen me. She could have woken the dead on a passing ship on the River Styx, my little sleeping beauty.
Yan and the others didn’t stir for a minute, either at the startling snoring nor at my more and more aggravated pleas for her to give it a rest, and which due to almost tearful vexation had progressed from a subdued, ‘sshh! Babushka, sshhh!’, through, ‘SSHHHUUUUUSSH! BABUSHKA! POZHALSTA! SHUUUUUSH!’, to ‘OH PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP WOMAN, PLEASE JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!’
Not very polite of me.
The next day Yan enquired, somewhat huffily, what all the racket had been about. I believe that to Yan’s mind my experience naturally balanced out his earlier crisis in Kiev and was a sort of karmic payback balancing out from his point of view the carefree time that I had been enjoying with Vika while he was in his dark place in among the concrete tower blocks.
In the morning, bleary-eyed, I was beginning to regret that I had travelled so lightly, as after a night in that bed my one t-shirt had absorbed some of the more homely scents that seeped from deep within the rank mattress and I had started to smell like something out of a crypt, or worse. Certainly I had gone a bit stale and Yan ‘tut-tutted’ me for having insisted on travelling so lightly.
This as he changed into fresh clothes.
We were off to the beach, with John.
PART TWO FOLLOWS SHORTLY