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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #366

Yesterday was a tiring and frustrating day in that nothing much went to plan. The weather had soured and my beach visit to Odessa was looking less promising. I used the Bolt taxi service to travel from Mykolaïv to Odessa; the drivers were being particularly difficult yesterday, seeing a foreign name wanting to travel to Odessa and paying with cash. So the way they try to rip you off is by agreeing to the ride and then on the way over to the collection point they call you and shout at you in Russian, telling you that the real price is double or whatever the scam might be. This happened to me about five times in a row, leaving me exasperated and fuming at the door of my hotel until finally an honest driver arrived, after about 30 minutes of this nonsense. The drive was poor because by this time the narrow road was full of articulated lorries. I arrived at my centrally located apartment in a tired and aged part of the city centre and I found myself immediately overwhelmed by pieces of paperwork that I will have to spend large parts of today resolving when I came here for a holiday. The paperwork took so much time that I found myself having to jog to the opera house to get to the ballet which was a series of pristine dances to music by Chopin. And therein, while sitting in the Odessa Opera House, I started to come to understand what has happened to this once glorious city during war.

The Opera House was only about 30% full, on a Friday evening. The tickets were expensive but there was nobody there. The Opera House itself is in the Russian imperial classical style, overflowing with gold leaf and ornate wood and beautiful light fittings, and with a champagne bar now alas only selling Prosecco. Nevertheless the experience was fitting for a Russian imperial audience: remember that central Odessa, once an ugly humdrum port city, was refurbished in its centre for the wealthy of St Petersburg to enjoy their beach holidays in a Russian-speaking environment, at the end of the nineteenth century and the entertainment is congruent to that. Everything is rather over-the-top, including the opera house, the ballet dancers who were from the strictest Soviet tradition of impeccable line dancing, and the orchestra that beat out Chopin’s rhythms to impeccable timing amidst a cavernous empty gilded hall. I immediately compared it to the Lviv Opera House, which is more avant-garde, more daring, more intense and more passionate in its support of Ukrainian patriotism and Ukrainian artists. The Ukrainian National Anthem is not played at the beginning of each performance in the Odessa Opera House, a city of predominantly Russian speakers and with inevitably a more nuanced view upon the Russia occupation. They may be scared off from the Opera House due to its proximity to the port, which the Russians relentlessly bombard; but many of the population of Odessa are of Russian origin and although disgusted with the Russians the people of Odessa do not harbour the outright ethnic rejectionism typical in Lviv with so inflames the passionate cultural intensity of the performances at the Lviv Opera House.

Rather the performance at the Odessa Opera House was stately and magisterial, and one can imagine the Tsar and his court watching over the impeccable performances in Odessa before retreating to one of the city’s many restaurants and luxury hotels to dine and enjoy their evenings. Now this vision of Odessa is lost forever to the winds and no Russians will come to Odessa anymore, either those of high stature in the imperial court nor the low-grade drunks who want to dance the night away in Arcadia, the strip of beaches just outside the city that used to be the Magaluf of Russia, the place where young Russians would go to behave disgracefully over excess injections of alcohol. All that is gone, and it is as though crumbling, fading Odessa is on ice for now, waiting for the end of the war and then hoping it can attract western tourists to its beautiful shores and historical buildings in the same way as it once brought Russian tourists in droves.

Until then, the city retains a creepy lingering feeling full of high-end stores without customers, a few Ukrainian tourists sitting barely in the restaurants and a clutch of places where the English language community can say they are working in relative safety in southern Ukraine. The sprawling suburbs of the city, into one of which my now good friend N——- invited me after the opera, are host to a rather higher class of Ukrainian, often with pompous cars and fancy jobs, living through the war in comparative luxury and civility in an isolated corner of the country a long way from the fighting. Squeezed between these higher class residential areas are densely packed slums of people who used to be dock workers and now awash with internally displaced peoples from Kherson and further east. People have been moving from Donbas to Odessa since 2014, particularly those Russian native speakers who did not want to live under quasi-military occupation, and those people will likely never return to the East under the tyrannical regime of Vladimir Putin.

The evening progressed sweetly. I was invited to an English lesson, where I was impressed with the students’ formal knowledge of English grammar (I think they knew more about the passive tense than me) but I gently corrected their pronunciation. Slavic language speakers find English confounding because it is not a phonetic language and you have to learn to pronounce each word differently from how it looks written on the page. Therefore Ukrainians learning English often sound robotic in their pronunciations, and I encouraged them to draw lines under the syllables on which emphasis is placed in each word, and to squeeze the different letter sounds in a word together (so that “future” becomes “FEWchuh” rather that “futooreh”). After this bit of fun my friend and I visited a restaurant apparently run by a Ukrainian celebrity chef that I met but all he really seemed to cook was celebrity burgers. Then, past the witching hour of 10pm when no more alcohol can be sold, we hopelessly traipsed round liquor stores trying to buy some vodka, a project we failed in, before I realised that all that jogging earlier in the day had pulled the muscles in my ankles and I could hardly walk. I hobbled to a Bolt taxi who this time didn’t rip me off but drove like a bat out of hell as curfew time was arriving, and I slunk up my stairs to my bed to find the fridge was empty. I pray the weather will get better, and my feet will improve, so I can enjoy Odessa some more.


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