Last night was magic. It was meant to be the big reunion dinner for mum and her found schoolfriends but it didn't quite work out like that. People are proud, people are complicated, people didn't turn up. So it was the usual suspects, the three of us, Lara, Milla, Zosa and a male friend who keeps popping up whose name I cannot remember.
On Zosa's advice we had booked a table at Klarabara; I chose it from Zosa's comprehensive review of local good restaurants just on the name, don't you love it. Also it is almost on our doorstep, just across the little park from our apartment.
Just before 7 pm we walked across and got transfixed by the park. An orchestra was playing in the large rotunda in the middle. People were dancing in front of the rotunda, mainly older people, mostly couples made up of two ladies. Can you try to picture it? A warm summer evening, a pretty park with a fountain, people walking around in their Saturday night best, the sweet music drifting through the air and these heart-breakingly nostalgic couples dancing.
The restaurant itself is actually within the park, on one side. We sat in the outdoor area where we could see the orchestra and the people. Klarabara is supposed to be modelled on an old style communal Odessa apartment (which had me a little worried to be honest, going by what I'd seen so far). But it was nothing like that. It's more like the eclecticly furnished apartment of your old gay uncle. Gorgeous mis-matched bits of furniture, lovely fabrics, thick curtains I could have killed for (and I'm not even a curtain type of girl) and funny little nick-nacks in the funny little nooks and crannys. A warm ambience I really loved.
A couple of special things about this restaurant. Pretty much all the paintings are large Botero reproductions. What are the chances of finding a restaurant in Odessa, Ukraine decorated with paintings by my favourite Colombian artist? Can you calculate the odds? It gave me an extra little thrill, I have to say. Secondly the restaurant is overrun by cats. One slept on my feet for about half an hour during dinner. Not sure how that would work with the Australian health authorities but I though it was a quaint touch.
Dinner was the usual array of cold starters: chicken liver pate (this version, like my mum's, not like the version you'd buy in the supermarket) which was soft, fluffy and not too rich, eggplant dip and an assortment of toasted breads and pickles, oh (almost forgot) and a gorgeous fried mushroom dish. Oh (and another thing I almost forgot) a dish of fried potatoes; when these were ordered J and I thought they'd be old style fried potatoes like mum used to make us, but when they arrived they were a small plate of french fries, McDonalds style, which everyone fell upon much to our bemusement.
Then we took a walk to the fountain. The orchestra had packed up and left. Now there was just music playing and lights on the fountain. There were lots of young families there, with little kids dancing around the fountain, a joyous sight.
We returned for our hot dishes. Shashlicks (marinated pieces of meat: chicken, beef, lamb) grilled and served with salad and flat bread, pork ribs with a cherry sauce. I loved it all. After another long break we argued over dessert finally settling on a slice of Napoleon cake, a poppyseed roulande and a sour cherry strudle. I have to say the poppyseed roulande was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted and this morning I wish someone would hand me a giant plate of it right now.
There were seven of us, there was plenty of food, some of us had a mojito, some had wine, some had a liquor with dessert, we all had tea or coffee at the end. Zosa even bought a packet of cigarettes and the bill, with a tip, was less than AUS$200 (mind you we did benefit from Zosa's loyalty discount, which seems to be a popular thing here).
We had a little walk around the park which by now (after 11 pm) was getting a little less family friendly. There were many groups of drunk young men staggering around, looking a tad dangerous to my conservative eye. There were groups of young girls being eyed off by the dangerous looking boys. There were many couples kissing on bench seats (which seems to be an overriding theme here). The rotunda was now occupied by about half a dozen couples practicing tango, young people dancing beautifully, passionately.
Back at our apartment we sat around talking and laughing, planning for today. Finally our friends set off for home at midnight and I staggered to bed. I am reluctantly becoming such a night owl. Who knows how I'll return to my early to bed, early to rise routine back at home...
Let's recap the earlier part of yesterday. After (an increasingly late) breakfast we set off to the little souvenir market in the big park a block or two away. As much as I wanted to I couldn't bring myself to buy the tins of Odessa Fresh Air. But rest assured I am now stocked up on appropriately Ukranian souvenirs for all my nearest and dearest. You have been warned. One of the sweet little things I noticed was the older couple walking amongst the stall holders, selling home made food from containers in their laden plastic bags. "Freshly made at home this morning" they would say and the stallholders would eagerly ask what they had.
We dropped off our purchases and after a little rest headed off for the waterfront. We had decided to stop for coffee and cake at the cafe in the little park near the Opera House. Having passed it a few times in the previous days we had been charmed by the comfortable lounges sitting in the soft sunlight under the gorgeous trees. We had to walk past the marriage registry (where incidentally mum and dad had been married) which is across the little street from the Opera House. Saturday is obviously Wedding Day. There was a line of extra long wedding limos parked along the street and in the cul de sac, all with blinking lights and white ribbons.
As we approached an awful scene was unfolding at the front of the registry. An old man, a double amputee with no legs, possibly a discarded veteran from the Afghan war, who was obviously homeless and drunk had positioned himself in front of the registry doors and was shouting obscenities at the wedding couple trying to enter and the various people milling around. I felt so sick, but what to do. I guess the only thing buttoned down people like us can do, keep walking.
Trying, and failing, to put this awful scene from my mind we settle at one of the few tables left at the cafe. The place is overrun by wedding parties. I guess not everyone can afford (or even wants to have) an elaborate wedding reception, so many couples are joined by a small group of family and/or friends for a snack and a drink here. It is so beautiful, after all; a very suitabl place for such a thing.
Soaking in all the atmosphere we ponder the menu. I wish I could take the time to write down all the funny menu translations we have found here; I could write a book, or at the very least send out a tedious chain email you could all bore your friends and colleagues with. We settle on pancakes (crepes really) with red caviar, but only after mum asks the waiter if the caviar is "good" (only here could such a question be taken seriously and the young waiter and mum discuss this question for a few minutes while I roll my eyes at the absurdity) and chicken liver pate. I get an iced tea with granadine which seems to be the in thing; I am becoming addicted to these and will crave them upon my return home.
We people watch and scoff down our delicious afternoon tea; the caviar is good, very good (which surprises me since I have had a love/hate relationship with it ever since I've had two, possibly coincidental, bouts of severe food poisoning the previous times I have had it), the pate light and morish. My tea gorgeous, served with big chunks of orange and lemon amongst the ice. It needs to be said the newly married couples don't look too happy, generally speaking. One particular bride, who reminds me of a cranky, anorexic drag queen, would terrify the be-jesus out of me should I be the unlucky groom.
We continue down towards the waterfront as we want to go down the famous stairs and checkout the ship terminal. A man is holding a small alligator and a fluffy round rat-like creature is sitting on his shoulder. The alligator's mouth is taped together. Mum asks him about it and he says he is illegally brought from Egypt and that he doesn't feed him properly so he doesn't grow too big. This sounds disgusting and is probably a lie. He wants us to pay to have a photo taken with this unfortunate creature but we walk away. My sister wants to report him to somebody (but who on earth cares about anything here); she loves all animals more than most people and such cruelty breaks her heart.
All along the wide path families walk with their little children and babushkas sit on the benches with babies in prams, a watchful eye over playing toddlers. It's Saturday and everyone seems dressed up, especially the children. I've noticed that children are always well dressed here, the children I've seen seem cherished and coddled. On the other hand there are posters all over the city showing a beautiful young mother kissing a baby's head. I thought these may have been advertising Johnsons' Baby Shampoo or some brand of nappies but mum tells me they are ads asking women not to abandon their babies in the hospital. Oh!
On the famous steps leading down to the waterfront we see a man with a monkey in a stripped jumper and another man with another alligator and a green lizard. An older lady sits on the side with a tame owl, asking a small fee to have your photo taken with it. Later on, when we are returning up the stairs, I see what strikes me as a typically Odessa-ish moment. A couple are coming down the stairs with their son, he is around 6 or 8 years old. The woman with the owl calls out "boys and girls, come and see my owl". The boy turns and heads towards her, curious. The mother coming up behind him shouts "EEDY SUDA" (come here) but it's the harsh way she yells these words, the tone, which makes me think Odessa!
At the waterfront we have our photo taken with the statue of the woman and child looking out to sea. Here is the famous Odessa lighthouse, now dwarfed by the container terminals on either side, the giant hotel and the Russian Orthodox church with its shiny domed roofs which was strangely built right at the tip of this wharf.
It is hot and very humid. We head back to our apartment to shower, rest and get ready for our evening out. It is 4:30 already. The days fly by here.