This past week I took a three day trip to Ukraine’s summer southern getaway city-Odessa. Many people highly recommended Odessa as a place to go and research showed it to be both the seedy underworld (yes) and also capital of strange humor, wonderful nightlife, and a generally relaxing atmosphere (yes x 3).
My impressions of the city were mixed. I definitely had some highlights like seeing of some of the more impressive sites such as the Opera House & the famous Potemkin Steps.
By the way, those steps are MUCH more impressive from the bottom looking up. I am not going to even put up a photo looking down-but when I walked up to them originally I had no idea these were connected to this uber-famous scene. FYI I did not see anyone pushing a baby in a carriage down the stairs to recreate the scene. . .the city may have a quirky sense of humor, but that would have been a bit of a stretch.
Anywho, one of my favorite moments came just relaxing in the central park trying to be cultural. I picked up a book of Pushkin (in English, of course) and read ‘The Queen of Spades’ while drinking a local beer. I suppose I could have picked up Mark Twain as he once claimed he never felt so at home as he did in Odessa (not sure what that says about Hannibal, MO), but I decided to blend in more with the local laureate. And here, Pushkin, the prodigious-producing and oft-problem-causing author, lived and is celebrated along with others as the town is a bit of a Russian literary hub. Hmmm…writing this I’ve realized I’ve seemingly gone on a literary tour of Ukraine (Poltava…here). If only I had time to visit Taras Shevchenko’s grave….by the way I still believe the Economist > literature.
But of course, the thing about Odessa that students and friends had told me about before was the beaches and the nightlife. To put aside any lingering questions: there are definitely beaches, and there is definitely an energetic night scene.
Generally, it seems the beaches are about making a show and being seen. Wait, this is true everywhere…but it is really true in Odessa. The entire non-speaking African waterhole-like staring interaction between visiting tourists (I regret to say that an adjective probably belongs before “tourists” in a lot of cases) and the locals is rather perturbing.
Also, about the night life, I actually didn’t endeavor out as much as I normally would have. The reason is most of the time I felt paranoid that I did not have my passport and was repeatedly told from my guidebook, the owner of my hostel, and foreigners living in Odessa that the local police make a sport of hassling foreigners and are generally looking for a quick way to get a bribe. I did not encounter any problem, but it put quite a damper on my trip. I guess the positive is it’s a learning experience that I now know what it’s like to be profiled (kind of)…the bad side is it’s exactly what I thought-extremely upsetting.
And that leads to my slight, albeit necessary, diatribe on Ukraine. After all, I would be doing myself, and any dedicated reader, a disservice to paint an illusory picture of the place. My sharpest critique thus is what has begun to wear on me more than anything else: the common need to say “Welcome to Ukraine.”
This explain-all phrase is used by foreigners and locals to give an answer to the troublesome quirkiness within the country. After a while, the routine ridiculousness is not so easily shrugged off however and it is difficult to maintain an optimistic and positive attitude. Let me give a few examples.
In Ukraine, I have a constant fear of being ripped off (see the Odessa police story). Shop workers, bartenders, the police-doesn’t matter. Maybe my fear is overstated as I feel like I have had relatively few problems. But others I have spoken to certainly agree there is an overwhelming prevalence that generally people are out for their own self-interest at the expense of others (this is also reflected blatantly in the politics though I didn’t include that in my formulation really).
Hence a tip for anyone visiting Ukraine is to have exact change whenever you order something. Otherwise, you are likely not to see the waiter/bartender for some time as the change will be taken as theirs. In a shop sometimes, people may just shrug their shoulders and say no change. What makes it worse is the point of complaining seems trivial as it’s often something like 4 hryvnia or roughly 50 cents.
But, it really is damaging in principle when it happens again and again. In Odessa, I bought a bottle of water that was blatantly marked 7 hryvnia in the fridge. After he told me 10 hryvnia, I looked at him and said 7 in Russian and pointed at the sign. Flabbergasted still by his nerve, I handed him a 20 and I got 12 back. To me, there was no point demanding 1 hryvnia. But when I said to myself “Welcome to Ukraine” after, it certainly felt more like a sardonic affront than a welcome.
Continuing, the publisher of a local Kyiv magazine called “What’s On” hit more broadly what I am talking about in a recent article:
“The people are warm and accepting but can be self-centered and thoughtless; the women are beautiful but treat this as a commodity; it’s warm in the summer but cold in the winter; there are huge opportunities for business married with huge risks; there are beautiful sandy beaches but they’re stacked with litter; the country thrives and survives despite the greed and idiocy of those running it; there is interesting architecture sitting alongside Soviet slums and modern atrocities; there is excellent public transport but it’s overcrowded; there are those with too much and too many with too little.”
I think he particularly identifies the first two well. Ukrainians are undeniably warm and accepting-just never try and stand between them and something they need (e.g. tickets at a railway station). Moreover, the commodity issue is excellently stated. Take women who seem to dabble in the oldest profession-something that is quite common throughout Ukraine and strangely intermixed within normal nightclubs.
To be certain, I have no interest in this sort of activity and thus only know from third person anecdotal evidence. FYI, I’m in the habit of telling people that while I love playing basketball, the only person I’d have ever paid to play basketball with is Michael Jordan. Other than that, what’s the point? Similarly, I *might* pay to spend an evening with Heidi Klum-but if that was possible she wouldn’t be Heidi Klum anymore because her virtue and more would have changed in my eyes etc. Anyway, from what I’ve garnered many of the women of the night-and I should say not only they-are driven by commercial interests to a degree that suggests this culture is losing the battle of compassion versus capitalism.
I am not one to question how someone makes a living, nor even how one spends it. To each their own liberty. However, when such an endeavor like prostitution is undertaken not to put food on the table, but to remain on the cusp of fashion, I personally cannot help but raise an eyebrow.
Enough of my soapbox, you can hopefully appreciate my point that I fully agree the commodity degree of beauty is disappointing here. More than that though, you should still appreciate the publisher’s larger point which is to celebrate the demonstrable irony of Ukraine (or in his case, specifically Kyiv). After all, who wants something easy? Here, I agree.
Yes, the hedonism that leads to recklessness and selfishness can leave a bad taste in your mouth as you feel constantly ostracized for simply being outside the Ukrainian bubble-especially as you risk being taken advantage because of it. Moreover, that repeated feeling can wear you down and unfairly prejudice you against a lot of Ukrainians undeserving of any such stereotype.
But, at the same time you need to remember Kyiv really is a fantastic city and Ukraine a fantastic country with incredibly unique traditions. As gloomy as the above sounds, anyone who wants something easy shouldn’t come in the first place.
My next and final blog entry from Ukraine will give my final impressions of Ukraine from this summer and explain why I am quite convinced this has been the best summer of my life. In the mood of the Olympics, spoiler alert: I believe the sweet is never as sweet without the sour. Living in Ukraine demands that you appreciate the bountiful sweet, because the sour is as close as the next “Welcome to Ukraine.”