To Odessa with Arh-dah, Part Two
We went to the beach with John. There is a tram-link through a wooded park to beaches organized along the lines of the Italian stabilimento system, and just as crowded, at least in summer. The climate in Odessa is very mild in comparison to where many of the happy holidaymakers spend the rest of their year. In the summer months the temperature gets well up into the twenties in Celsius and peaks in August when it can get up to thirty Celsius, or the late eighties in Fahrenheit.
Many would have been sent as part of their overall deal with their factories, as many of the larger Soviet enterprises owned their own holiday facilities at the beach or in spas. This system isn’t limited to totalitarian vacationing. Italy is another example of large employers that own holiday facilities as well as setting up its beaches along the lines of an assembly line – mile after mile after mile of organized beaches, to which families tend to return to the same spot on year after year after year. That was the deal then, and at least it was a secure one. For most of your year your job is guaranteed in state-owned bureaucratically driven enterprise manufacturing the component parts of the latest five year plan, or pretending to, just as they often pretended to pay the workers in the dying days of the Soviet economy. Most likely you lived in a micro-rayon, where everything is laid on too, neatly numbered in a rational concrete-grid pattern – schools, medical facilities, shops. Regulated fun, but then everyone did look like they were having fun, the men, many with stomachs over hanging tiny speedo-style trunks, the women more modestly attired in one-piece bathing suits, and kids screaming and having fun like kids anywhere else on the beach in high summer. The soon to be next generation, and soon to be the first post-communist generation.
There were no teenagers in sight. Perhaps they were all still in bed like teenagers on holiday all over Europe, after spending all their energies off the beach, at least during the day.
Further up the coast the crowds thinned out and we wandered up a sandy path to higher ground. Private enterprise supplied good grilled sashlik, to Yan’s delight, and weak beer, and down below on undeveloped, almost empty, beaches a couple of small groups sunbathed and swam naked. It must be blissful to feel the sun on skin that in Novosibirsk (four thousand kilometers east), if they were from there, or in Omsk (just three thousand eight hundred kilometers east), is more used to being covered from head to toe from late September to April during winters when the temperature can and frequently does drop to minus twenty five Celsius, and can go as low as minus thirty five in Novosibirsk and minus forty five in Omsk.
We parted company from John later in the day, as he was in town in some sort of official capacity, perhaps playing tennis with his Soviet grandee, or perhaps he just wanted to get shot of us. That evening we found a small, dangerous bar that was very dark, at the top of the Richelieu or Potemkin steps. We drank too much, left when the atmosphere started to become menacing and walked back for another night with our little old landlady. Sunshine, vodka, and Sovietskoye Shampansko deafened me to her nighttime serenade, as well as inducing a truly sickening hangover for the trip back to Moscow.
As with our tickets for the train down to Odessa, we went to the station and tried our luck on the black market. We had no choice as we were in Odessa illegally and would have been refused and likely arrested at the official ticket office.
The train left Odessa in the afternoon and immediately on boarding we realized that something was amiss. We had no couchette on this train, we noted. Instead we had almost free run of an entire carriage and chose a compartment fitted out with six hard plastic seats, no beds for this journey, and we settled down as best we could for the overnight and what should have been most of the next day’s journey to Moscow. We had little money left and no hard currency. We were also feeling very sick, all self-induced, and after a couple of nights sleeping in the same clothes on the rotten bed I was feeling fairly grubby.
We were hungry, but more importantly we were thirsty and at the next station, a country affair at which all the local babushkas had turned out to sell their wares – a bunch of onions here, an apple or two there – Yan leapt from the train to see what he could do with the last of our money. I would have gone, I am sure that I could have managed the bargaining just as well, but I was beyond caring. The bed experience had got to me and I just wanted to get back to Moscow.
Just before the train pulled out, Yan returned triumphantly, displaying the fruits of his mission – a couple of sticks with what looked like dried raspberries attached to them with cotton, like some weird looking edible baby rattle, and a few glass bottles of juice, which being thirsty he cracked open and took a slug. Inevitably it was the kind of juice that needed to be diluted, some sort of thick cordial, full of sugar or more likely some sort of artificial flavouring.
This was a problem as we had no water and there was none on the train.
We then found out that we were on the slow train to Moscow, which would take all night, all the next day and the next night to get back to Moscow, arriving just about the right time to get the first metro back to the Komsomol. We settled in, trying to get comfortable in the awful seats and later slept in the overhead luggage racks.
I read Yan’s copy of David Copperfield from cover to cover and opted out of the dried raspberries.
His need was greater than mine.