Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Odessa

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890706.14

Day 7

We got into Odessa early this morning, after we had been up for an hour already (we were forced awake and I want to kill Radar for doing it too!). After a good breakfast, we did a city tour.

Odessa has not been around as long as Moscow or Kiev but it still has quite a few old buildings despite Nazi Germany’s attempts to obliterate the city (they bombarded the city over 300 times but never hit the opera house once!). Some of the streets are named after famous people such as Pushkin, Marx and even Louis Pasteur, a Frenchman.

We also visited the Potemkin Stairway, which is just in front of the Port of Odessa. There, we learned about the story of the Potemkin. A little further down the street, is the City Hall (at least that’s what I think our tour guide said), which had a British cannon out front, from when the British and the French were aiding Turkey in taking over the port of Odessa.

Odessa also has many educational systems and buildings. Speaking of buildings, the largest is only sixteen stories, mainly because the catacombs underneath are all over the city. The tunnels, laid end to end, would stretch from Odessa to Leningrad.

After seeing the tallest building, we went to the war memorial from WWII were we saw children guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Sailor.

Just outside our window is another cathedral!!!!.

That morning, the four of us were all very quietly sleeping. I was in limbo (half asleep, half awake) and quickly dropping off. Then I heard something. I thought I was just hearing things so I ignored. Then I heard it again. Some twit was knocking on the door. Derek, Pete or Shaun were still out like lights so I checked the door.

Lisa V stood there as cheerful as she had ever been. I hate morning people. She then went so far as to get the others up without entering the room. Now we all wanted to kill her. But just as we were about to skin her alive, she slipped in the word that we wanted to hear … Radar.

That dude had pissed us off the night before (couldn’t really blame him for it though) and now really had us pissed for getting us up so damn early. But according to Lisa, we were to arrive in Odessa in 30 minutes. We had no choice but to get ready.

It didn’t take us long to pack all our junk back into our luggage, brush the taste of dead fish out of our mouths and put the room back into a state of half decency. But when we went out into the hall, expecting to see the city, all we saw were trees. The train hadn’t even begun to slow down yet.

Roughly an hour after Lisa had waken us from our peaceful slumber, we pulled into the station in Odessa. Then came the fun part, getting off. The halls filled with grunting, cursing students with their bulky luggage desperately trying to get off. More or less it sounded like Kiev, but strangely different.

We had quite some problem getting off the train itself, the first step was a doozy. The platform was much lower than at Kiev, you we literally had to jump down. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, so I shouted “LOOK OUT BELOW!” and dropped my suitcase, narrowly missing a few people.

The porters were there to take our luggage for us and take it over to our awaiting bus. Our bus this time was a bit different from our others. Instead of a back bench, there was a back row of seats, of which I grabbed one, right next to the rear door (most of the Soviet buses usually had two doors).

Then we moved out for a short pre-breakfast tour of Odessa. It wasn’t really a tour, but we had to view many sites along the way to our hotel. The area looked a little rundown, but that might be due to the fact that it’s so far south, and right next to the Black Sea.

When we did arrive at our hotel, we ran into a small problem. Our rooms weren’t going to be ready until about noon. The only rooms they had available quickly became our courtesy rooms where we put all our stuff until later. This also meant that there were up to ten of us in a room for a while. While we did have access to the rooms, we took showers to wash off the smell from the trains. The trains don’t actually smell, but one gets rather warm in those rooms.

Then we zipped downstairs for a quick breakfast, which we all needed. Then came our city bus tour through the narrow streets of Odessa. The tour pretty well picked out every major site that exists in the age old city, except for a few that we would see on our walking tour of the city.

We passed up and down several streets named for famous people (there was even one named after Louis Pasteur! Weird, eh?), took mental notes of where things were such as the book store, and took pictures of the city that almost looked like several small town in Canada that I’ve seen.

Soon, we arrived at the Potemkin Stairway, one of the ways down to the Odessa shipyards. This is when we learned the gruesome story behind both the ship and the stairs that lay before us. Men on the Potemkin began a mutiny over conditions on the ship. The captain called for Odessa’s police to help. However, the people of Odessa also heard but came to rescue the sailors, not the ship. They were stopped on the old stairway by troops guarding either end. But instead of forcing them back, the soldiers opened fire, turning the old stairway blood red.

Eventually, the stairs were replaced with a new set, which are a little unusual too I might add. When you stand at the top and look down, the bottom of the staircase looks as wide as the top. Of course, this is an optical illusion. The width at the bottom is twice the width of the top. Most of us went down to the bottom to check it out from down there. The top then looked only a quarter of the width of the bottom. But we could waste no more time and had to go back up to the top.

Most of the group climbed up the stairs, some took an escalator on one side of the staircase while a couple of us (Shaun, Derek, Pete and myself) sprinted to the top, up all 192 stairs as fast as we could. I highly doubt any of us will ever do something that stupid again unless of course, our lives depend on it.

While we waited for the others to get to the top, a few indulged themselves in the local treat … apricot ice cream cones. While many bought them, only a few ate them. Those who didn’t like them gave theirs to Greg. He was so overwhelmed by all of them, it was beginning to look like a B-movie: “Attack of the Killer Ice Cream Cones”.

Our walking tour took us down a shaded paved walkway to the Odessa City Hall. It didn’t look impressive (they seldom do, no matter where you go in the world) but did have a few interesting facts, like a British cannon, from the Crimean War. Near the city hall was a sculpture that depicted a bearded man and his two sons being attacked by a rather large serpent. It is one of hundreds of copies of Roman artworks that are found in almost every city in the Soviet Union.

We turned there and headed north (it had to have been north), away from the Black Sea. Not far from there, we found the most famous building in Odessa, the Odessa Opera House. It may not sound like much, but one could say that it was one of the reasons why the Nazis did not fair well in the Soviet Union.

During World War Two, when the Nazis were trying to take Odessa, the Opera House was their main target. When the Opera House was first built, the citizens of Odessa took great pride in their new social spot. That pride has lived to this day. Hitler knew of it. He also knew that if the Nazis managed to obliterate the building, they would snap the strong will to fight, making Odessa easy to take. But the Nazis had a little trouble. They bombed the area about two hundred times. They managed to destroy every building around it but the best damage they could do to the Opera House was a broken window. Later, when the Nazis did finally take the city, they gutted the Opera House, taking everything of value. Today, there are still pieces of missing art from there. That was truly the greatest harm the house ever saw.

When the Nazis got word of the approaching Red Army, they made a hasty retreat, but not without a going away present. They left three hundred pounds of explosives in the Opera House with a timed delay detonator. The Red Army showed up earlier than expected and saved the house.

Greg and I shot across the street about a block from the Opera House, narrowly missing a Lada that almost nailed us (it was our fault for going then) to take a picture of the building. It’s large place, even for a wide angled lens.

Just in front of the main entrance of the Opera House was a small park with a few short trees, bushes and flowers. This, we were told, was the area in which the traditional Ukrainian Wedding was held. It’s an ornate affair, the grooms come in their military best, the brides in traditional garb. Usually, more than one couple is married at a time (every Wednesday if I’m correct).

To most of us, it was a quick lesson in the martial affairs of the state. But for two of us, it was a very good idea. As we walked away, I heard Lisa V mention that she wanted to get married to Greg that day in that style. She then asked Toni to be her bridesmaid.

“Okay, but only this time, and never again.” said Toni, “You know the saying, three times a brides maid, never the bride.” I personally could never believe that Toni would not be a bride even after being a bridesmaid a hundred times.

Then we hopped back on the bus for another trip to some other site that we probably didn’t care to see. I will say one thing for our bus trips, they were usually interesting and our bus drivers were usually unusual. For example, we were late for our next site, and our bus driver (whose name was Alexsi if my memory serves me right) had no choice but to take a short cut … right through the middle of a park. He used the roads that were in there, but he could have lost his license doing so. We just cheered him on, we didn’t care.

We arrived at yet another memorial. This was a memorial to all the people who died during the Nazi’s occupation of Odessa. The memorial itself was about the size of a football field. The first half was made of two walkways on either side of a lot of grass. Nothing here at all. The latter half is a little more interesting. Along the sides, almost a continuation of the walkways are large black stone grave markers. One of them caught me off guard, as our guide told us the story behind it.

It was from an Odessan male, who had defied the orders of the Nazis, and went so far as to sabotage their operations. When the Nazis captured him, they put him to death. But before he was killed, he wrote a letter to his mother, declaring that he would become a martyr, that his death was for the cause and not to grieve for him. He was sixteen years old.

At the very end of the memorial stood the Tomb of the Unknown Sailor, dedicated to the men who died on the Potemkin. A single obelisk stands 21 metres high, the same number of men who died. That may not seem interesting, but what struck me as a little odd were the guards. Children, no older than their brave predecessor who fought the Nazis and was buried near the spire that they were guarding. They volunteered for the honour and followed the traditional goose step in doing so. All of them carried tommy guns.

Then we returned to the bus to head back for lunch. During this time, Suzanna let us know about an opera, Madame Butterfly, that was to be held at the Odessa Opera house that night. Most of the bus signed up for it, except a small handful including myself. Gilbert and Sullivan is as far as I go.

This time, Lisa V also pulled out. She was sitting in the back row as well and we talked about why we didn’t want to go. However, Radar was nearby and heard her. He didn’t talk to her on the bus, but he did give her what-for later on. I think he picked on her because she was the sort of person who could be saved from the ravages of the rock culture. I on the other hand, was a lost cause. Radar complained that today’s youths are completely uncivilized, and that we should experience more culture. It’s a good thing he didn’t hear me, Lisa V is a hell of a lot more civilized than I am! I would have really caught it!

When we got back, our rooms were finally arranged. Due to a discrepancy in rooming, Jason and I got split up (I was the discrepancy, I didn’t want to room with Jason that night, I don’t know why). Instead, I roomed with Derek and Pete. But I had to sleep on the floor. But then again, I can sleep almost anywhere.

That afternoon was free time and our guides made a few suggestions as to what we could do. For some odd reason, I can’t remember what I did that afternoon. I have a funny feeling that we walked around, trying to find the bloody bookstore we saw earlier in the morning.

Evening rolled around, and those who were going to the opera prepped themselves for a night of cultural bombardment. Lisa V was also going, just to prove Radar wrong. I was lying on my couch pillows watching Derek and Pete readying themselves. I made a suggestion to Pete that I get a picture of him and Toni, for a memento. He liked the idea and a couple of minutes later, both Toni and Lisa were in our room. Derek had disappeared into thin air.

I ended up taking several pictures, three of Toni and Lisa, and four of Toni, Lisa and Pete. Both Lisa and Toni had brought their cameras and Pete wanted one for himself. Then we made a break for the dinner room. Almost immediately after dinner, the opera people left. That was why they had to get ready before dinner. I went down t the lobby to see if I could track down the rest of the “Unculturables”.

I found quite a few, Mr. Hanson (drinking beer from a Pepsi bottle), Mr. Phillips, Mr. Findlay, Anita, Andrew and a few other people. Mr. Phillips and Mr. Findlay went out for a walk but I found out that Mr. Hanson and troop were heading for a local pizza parlour.

My attention was immediately focused on the word pizza. I asked if I could come and was accepted. We waited a while for a couple of us to go and get some cash, but then we were on our way. Almost. Just as we were about to leave, my body told my brain, and I quote: “SCREW IT! I’m tired. GO TO BED!” And what was worse, my brain listened! I still can’t believe it. I actually turned down pizza so my body could recuperate. I could be spilling blood all over the place and still want pizza.

I fell asleep about ten minutes after I got to the room. I can’t figure out why I slept so much. Maybe it was all the fresh air I was getting, maybe it was all the active things we did all day, maybe it was the food. Then again, maybe not. To give you a rough idea of how tired I was, when Derek first returned, he brought Jason into our room. But not into the sleeping area itself. Although the second door was partially open, I didn’t hear either of them. I didn’t wake up until both Pete and Derek were in the room.

I then heard of the escapades from the opera. The opera was none other than Madame Butterfly, as I said before. It was so boring, it put several people from our group to sleep … including Radar. Believe me, did he catch it from Lisa the next day, who stayed awake even though she did find it as boring as she thought she would.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

Everyone, except nine of us, went to the opera (I was one who elected to stay behind) tonight. Just before dinner, I grouped Pete, Toni, and Lisa Van E. for some photos. I swore to Pete and Toni that it would be the last time (to myself, that meant until the beach!).I decided I would go to a Russian pizzeria but my sleepiness overcame my craving for pizza (once in an eon occurrence I might add) so I concluded to call it a night. Tomorrow, we leave (actually, only about half of us) for Sochi, via AEROFLOP! I mean, AEROFLOT.

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