My First Trip to Odessa
A few weeks ago, I visited Ukraine and Odessa for the first time in my life. I had of course heard of Odessa before I came here, but I did not have any image of the city, nor of Ukraine, in my head. I think I thought of Ukraine as a much larger version of Moldova, i.e. vast rural areas dominated by an agricultural landscape and with small villages with pretty but quite simple architecture. And perhaps it is partly true. I have not seen more than a fraction of this large country (the second largest in Europe after Russia). But Odessa definitely did not match this image.
Getting there was quite complicated. I went there with a Swedish friend, Andreas, who fortunately speaks Russian (mine is non-existent though I am planning on learning). Andreas had already bought tickets the day before for the 7:45 bus. Due to the situation with Transnistria (Transdniestria), no trains go between Chisinau and Odessa, and trains rides are generally slower here than buses anyway because of the poor infrastructure. We would have preferred to take a bus directly over the Ukrainian boarder in the south of Moldova for the same reason, but there were no buses going that way that fitted our time schedule, so we decided to go through Transnistria.
We planned to meet up at the bus station around 7:15, just to be on the safe side. Organized as I am, I was of course there 7:10, and waited for a while for Andreas. I knew he had been out partying the night before, but I thought I wouldn’t act as miss goody-goody and check that he actually was up, though the thought crossed my mind several times. Around 7:20, I couldn’t take it anymore and so I called. Twice actually, since he didn’t answer the first time. And of course he was asleep! But he promised to jump into a taxi and be there in 15. Well, 7:30, he calls me again. He had forgotten his passport. I thought about it a bit and decided that it wasn’t the end of the world if he didn’t make it, there were more busses that day. But in the end, Andreas arrived in time for the bus. The big achievement was that I managed to explain to the bus driver in Romanian that my friend was on his way with the tickets that we had bought the day before, which this in itself was a bit of a milestone for me. It means that my Romanian now is good enough to actually travel around in Moldova and Romania by myself, which adds a lot of freedom and independence to my life.
Anyway, getting into Transnistria was ok, but getting out was more difficult. We had to fill out forms in Russian, assuring that not only were we not bringing out bombs, nuclear material, or chemical equipment, but also no information material in Russian.
Then we had to go into a small room with one of the customs polices/militaries, who posed questions and went through all of Andreas luggage. And Andreas was so hangover that I thought he was going to faint. He also checked my handbag. I know that they can be very paranoid with diplomats and since I had both my UN Laissez Passer passport and my diplomatic ID (in order to get back into Moldova again), I was a bit nervous about his reaction. But though he was so thorough in his job, the fact is that he never recognized them. Instead, he asked us if we had any drugs. (No, of course.) – Any E? (No again.) – Not even a little?? Don’t know if they get supplies for their parties this way, but unfortunately we had to disappoint him and so he let us go.
But when arriving in Odessa, it was worth all the trouble. My first impression is that Odessa is like a mix between Barcelona and St Petersburg. It has the Mediterranean, summer resort feeling that Barcelona has despite being a big city and Odessa is also full of art details and artistic architecture. Yet the architecture is the Russian, grandiose, late 18:th/early 19:th century style that I remember from St Petersburg. It also had the grand parks easily accessible for everyone, which I find typical for the communist era. In addition, it is a port city and has always had a highly ethnic and religious mix of inhabitants, so it is a very vibrant city. I loved it! It is still in need of a lot of renovation and restructuring, but the shabby facades, smashed windows, and the old-fashioned shops are a reminder of what the city and its inhabitants have actually been through during this past century.
We stayed in one of the old Soviet Union sanatoria from the 1960s, located right at the beach. It was very institutional-like, but I kind of liked it. During the Soviet Union, everyone got a yearly free holiday to one of these sanatoria. From what I understand, they were divided and profiled according to profession. The workers had access to medical personnel and to the baths, and they got three meals a day so they could really rest for a few weeks. Kind of like the Soviet Union version of Club Med. In general, there are very few things that people miss with the Soviet Union, but the memory of these free vacations is something that tends to make people a bit nostalgic.
Some of these places are still working like sanatoria, i.e. you have to stay for 12 or 24 days, but ours was more like a hotel. But we did take a dip in the in-door swimming pool, designed after an ancient Roman theme, and the medical service was open if we would have needed it. We also ate a few meals in old dining hall, where a couple of groups of mostly big Ukrainian men in workers’ outfits were eating in complete silence. In a way, it was like traveling in time.
This was my first trip to Odessa, but it will definitely not be the last!