Yesterday we barely started our day before midday. The late nights equate to sluggish mornings. Our plan was to head to Lanzheron Beach and walk along to Otrada Beach. We collected Lara and her sister Milla on the way and caught the bus from their place which they assured us was clean, spacious and that it was a quick trip. It wasn't. When the bus arrived it was already bursting at the seems. My natural reaction would have been to wait for the next one (or better still get a taxi, I am a princess after all). Their natural reaction was to squeeze onto this bus. Seriously, I know I'm totally spoiled but I don't like this sort of shit; some cultural experiences I can do without. We were jammed onto this bus like the proverbial sardines. It was a 30C degree day and I can tell you the heat in there was awful and the smell was even more so.
To back up just a little, another Odessa scene. As we wait for the bus a car with two men pulls up. There is a young girl standing near us, also waiting for the bus. She is skimpily dressed but obviously more for the beach than for a nightclub or a pick up. The men are obviously very drunk though it is lunchtime on Sunday and one of them is driving. We can't hear what they are saying but they are obviously trying to talk the girl into something she'd rather not be doing. She ignores them, shakes her head, steps further away from the curb. The leering dickhead in the passenger seat continues shouting at her, waving his beer bottle for effect. She steps even further away and tries to ignore him. Please, just drive away, I'm pleading telepathetically. But no, the driver gets out and walks over to convince the girl of his romantic prowess in person. You can feel everyone at the bus stop tense up; will there be a confrontation? I am ready to belt this idiot over the head. Their target looks young and she is tiny, a skinny little waif of a thing. This man is short too, not much taller than me. I'm not very scared of him but I do wish my 6'3" husband was there to at least menace him if not outright throw him onto the road in front of the oncoming traffic. Suddenly our bus is there and we, and the girl, hustle on.
We disembark at the start of Lanzheron Beach and walk down the wide boulevard towards yet another large monument; they love a monument here in Odessa. I imagine that the beach is beyond the low wall but there are only some disused factories crumbling into the vines and bushes. The sea is beyond. We walk along the path, stalls selling drinks, ice cream, blow up children's beach toys and salted fish on both sides. A proper beach starts to unfold on our left. It is a busy summer's day at the beach; young people, old people, families are enjoying themselves on the sand, in the water and sunning themselves in the dirty scrub on the right hand side of the path. The water looks clean and inviting, though it is a very windy day and the surf is choppy.
After a while we stop and have a rest in what may have once been a restaurant, though now it is just a large canopy with some tables and chairs. Mum goes in search of piroshki (the Ukranian equivalent of an Aussie meat pie) but comes back with hotdogs which mysteriously have pickled carrot and mayonaise on them. We walk back on the path higher up, between the trees. We pass a private country club where people can relax by the pool, have a meal, maybe play tennis. Up above us on the hill we can see apartment blocks, tall ones, but I can't tell whether they are new ones coming up or old ones coming down. To me they look like maybe someone started building them ten or twenty years ago and gave up half way through, the gray concrete shells looking sad amidst the encroaching weeds and vines.
Some more friends arrive, friends of friends, and the nine of us head off for a very late lunch or a very early dinner, it is around 4 pm. I see yet another Dacshund dog, the large size, smooth hair variety. I have probably seen twenty of them since we've been here. They must be a popular breed since I would be lucky to see 2 or 3 all year in Sydney. Also I've seen at least three Chinese Crested dogs (you know the small hairless black and white ones with the fluffy heads) which are rare.
We settle into a restaurant not far from the beach and order crab bisque which comes with tiny little profiteroles rather than croutons, chicken cutletki (which is a minced meat pattie which mum is famous for, at least amongst my sister and I), something called chicken fingers (which turns out to be a sweet and sour chicken dish not unlike that which may have been served in a Sydney Chinese restaurant in 1985), pelmeni dumplings with fish and sour cream and yet another variation on Napoleon cake and another cake called Kiev. As an aside on the Napoleon cake, it has become a bit of a running joke. Because I mentioned liking it as a child when we were at the food market a few days ago, now I can't turn around without someone offering me some. Like when I used to collect pigs many years ago and everyone would get me a pig decoration of some sort for birthdays and Christmases until I was thoroughly sick of all things pig related.
Anyway, during the meal mum mentions having met a woman here in Odessa when she last visited five years ago. This woman owns a building company and does many of the restaurant fitouts in this city, not to mention building private homes and doing the interior fitouts in many of the new apartment blocks. No sooner had she started talking than the friends of friends who had joined us said they knew her and were on the phone inviting her to join us. Half an hour later there she was.
Regina is a tough lady, so Odessa she may as well have it tattooed on her forehead. She was very glad to see mum and after lunch/dinner came to a close she offered to drive us around and show us some of the beach areas which are hard to access. This is probably a good time to talk about driving around Odessa. Everything about it is bad: chaos and anarchy I whisper to J as we drive, or even walk, around. The roads are atrocious and the drivers are worse. Much like in Colombia I am in constant fear of imminent death or permanent disfigurement. Our new friend Regina takes it up to a new level. Zooming around in her red Rav 4 I'm quite confident I won't survive the evening. One way streets, tram lines, red traffic lights, nothing seems a deterrant for this lady; worse still she strongly insists we don't wear our seatbelts because you just don't do that in Odessa. Whenever I try to quietly sneak my seatbelt on she catches me in the rearview mirror and yells not to.
We drive around some very strange looking beachside suburbs. There are some huge new money homes being built, big fancy homes, some nice, some awful, just like you'd find at home. But they are surrounded by streets which look like they have just been bombed. Broken pavements, overgrown weeds, junk. We want to drive down to a restaurant by the water so I can use the bathroom and there a young man, with his entourage of hangabouts, asks Regina for a "parking" payment. After a typically Odessa-ish exchange we drive down without payment and I use the loo in a very posh looking seafood restaurant.
Driving back Regina wants to take us to a reasonably new restaurant for coffee. Alexandrovsky Restaurant is a jewel in a sea of poo. It was a wealthy merchant's residence before the revolution and was then turned to crap during the Communist era. About a year ago it was restored and is in now an absolute showpiece, stunning in every detail. Even the cutlery rests on little pewter cutlery stands decorated with tiny gargoyles, the crockery is creamy Villeroy & Boch just like they use in my favourite cafe in Peter's of Kensington. We have tea and share yummy little profiteroles filled with nutty ice cream and topped with vanilla custard.
We head back to Milla's house for a final goodbye with Lara who is heading back to Latvia where she lives. She went there 40 plus years ago to work after finishing her studies and, despite living in various parts of the world, has ended up there far from her family. She says she likes Latvia, apart from all the bloody Latvians (who are famously anti-Semitic and anti-Russian). Everyone is laughing and telling stories and having fun but there is still sadness underneath. Who knows when they'll all see each other again.
Regina tells us about the little boy she almost adopted. The son of a white prostitute and a black student he was "rescued" at the age of 3 and put in an orphanage where she met him around the age of 9. They bonded and became great friends, Regina taking him home for weekends and buying him all he needed, treating him much like a son. She said she wanted to adopt him but a black Jewish boy in Odessa wouldn't have much of a life and being a busy single businesswoman she knew she couldn't be a good mother to him. Eventually he was sent to a summer program in the US and found a family who wanted to adopt him. Last week she returned from visiting him at his high school graduation. Samir is now around 2 metres tall and 18 years old; she is very proud of him and he loves her like a mother. It was a wonderful story and quite strange coming from this tough little nugget of a woman.
Eventually we said our goodbyes and arrived home well after midnight. These late nights are going to kill me.