Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Broadcast News" from Odessa

Pardon me for blasting this long Odessa report, but the internet here is terribly slow and I don't want to wait another 15 minutes for a separate form to appear. I have typed out the diary entry using Notepad. I only hope that the message goes through. And of course, there's no editing. Just my stream of consciousness, so pardon the mistakes.

This is my fourth trip to Ukraine. Each time, I have managed to find someplace to access the internet for email and browsing. This time, however, the only access I have is ridiculously slow.

I am getting DNS errors on When the browser cannot even get a DNS resolution, that's pretty sad.

Still, one aspect of Ukraine never fails to satisfy: the plethora of pulchritude. It's amazing. Eight years ago the fashion was for young girls to wear short skirts and short shorts. These, I am happy to say are still in fashion. Mmm. I don't flatter myself that any of these girls are interested in me. That really doesn't matter since I cannot speak their language even if I wanted to talk to them. And I don't really want to talk to them. It just never stops being fun to look.

Needless to say, the beach was a special treat.

We went downtown with the kids. Odessa has changed a lot in the last five years. They have an area down by Deribosovskaya Street that is meant to attract tourists. They have spruced up that area quite a bit. When I first came here eight years ago, it was kind of sad, really. They have made big progress.

And yet, they have a long way to go. They have no idea how to route automobile traffic effectively, so traveling by car is crazy. It has always been this way, but now there are a lot more cars. You can tell that some people here are richer than most Odessans by the cars they drive. Also, they've made the tourist area more attractive, but there is still a lot of building to be done and no public restrooms -- just an awful latrine behind city hall.

I suppose five years from now they'll have made these improvements and that will all be for the better. But I find myself nostalgic for the primitive and somewhat innocent Odessa I found in 1999 as it was emerging from Communism and utter poverty and all things Cyrillic, Ukrainian or Russian seemed new and strange to me.

We went to a shopping mall that sits on top of a parking garage. One can even park one's car in front of the supermarket there and take the shopping cart out of the store to load up the car. No more lugging bundles all the way back to the apartment. This is a big innovation in Odessa. In 1999, the site of this mall was a boarded up vacant lot. I recall seeing a homeless bitch there nursing her mangy pups in the dirt. I was delighted with the improvement. Just think of all the jobs this very compact shopping mall has created.

Inside, the shopkeepers have learned the lessons of corrupt Western capitalists. Everything is ON SALE! 30%-50% OFF. These signs are in English, by the way. The Levi's store even had a sign that said, in big bold white letters on a red background


Yahoo *

And then in tiny letters at the bottom of the poster, they had a footnote with the Ukrainian translation. They translated Yahoo as Uuu-AUU, which is really more of a transliteration of Wow. [What kind of language does not have letters for the W, H or Th sounds? Russian is absurd.]

It's clear that they aren't trying to appeal to the English speakers but rather to borrow the cachet associated with rich Americans. If only they knew that most real Americans are nothing like the supertoned, chic models they see on TV. If you want to see beautiful people, come to Odessa.

I get the impression that the window is closing for fat American men like me who want to pick up a beautiful Ukrainian bride. In five years, what will America have to offer that Ukraine won't have? Considerably faster internet service, that's for sure.

America has a great quality of life compared to here in too many ways to enumerate in this letter. Mundane things like car insurance and smooth roads. Important things like superb medical care. But is that enough to lure someone away from a land where your family lives and everybody speaks your language and opportunity is blossoming? It's going to be a much harder sell.

On the bus back from downtown, another passenger started an argument with Oxana. He tried to start it with me, but I was congenial and did not take the bait. He chided Polina for "shouting", even though she was just talking too loud. I agreed with him and promised that we would keep our voices down. This was not enough for him. He kept going on and on as though he were looking out for the interests of the other passengers. He could understand that Polina was speaking English, but those poor other
passengers could not. What significance this has, I cannot tell you. We were all lucky that Nastya, my three-year-old, was not throwing one of her screaming tantrums. They are language-neutral.

The fact is, he was drunk -- and persistent. Eventually, Oxana had had enough of it and started giving him a hard time. "What is your problem? Leave us alone." This just got him going all the more. Then he dropped the F-bomb. Odd thing to do for one claiming to be defending bus passenger protocol. "Fuck you twice!", was Oxana's response. She refrained from answering him in Russian and really telling him what she thought because she did not want to upset the other passengers and worsen the scene.

He made some drunken babble in broken English about how he could pleasure Oxana and that he did not need her because he had a wife to take care of him. He advised me to teach my wife to be more respectful. The F-bomb is not usually, and certainly not in this case, about actual fucking. It's just a gesture of contempt. I am amazed when people get bent out of shape over this word.

Some people will show tremendous disrespect and contempt to others (for example, offering unsolicited, non-constructive criticism, e.g. "What ever made you think you could wear that?"), but then gasp in horror when you reflect that disrespect with a blunt, "Fuck You!". They seem oblivious to their own disrespectful behavior that precipitated the swearing. Or perhaps they are perfectly aware of what they are doing and get away with it most of the time simply because they maintain a fig leaf of courtesy. That's why I was delighted when it was reported that Dick Cheney, in a private conversation, told Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to "Go fuck yourself". I feel certain Leahy deserved it (or worse).

In any case, I motioned for Oxana to calm down and assured the drunk bus passenger that he was entirely in the right and that we would talk more quietly. I shook his hand and kept nodding and smiling agreement. He retreated from where we were sitting, but even though he was getting ready to go, he kept trying to catch Oxana's eye so as to re-engage the argument. This was impossible as Oxana had had enough of him. Shortly before disembarking, he admonished Oxana to "Love your husband", advice I am happy to report that she really does not need. But, of course, this will now be a private joke between us as, whenever she disagrees with me, I can wag my finger at her and say, "Love your husband".

I was glad he finally left the bus, as were the other passengers, I presume, although, no one said a peep. Somehow I think that passengers on an American bus would have told him to shut up. Maybe not. It's hard to know what to do with drunks. I felt sorry for him. He was so drunk he weaved around as he stood. I wager he did not know we could tell he was drunk, that he thought he was holding himself together pretty well.

The fact is, I disagreed with him about Polina's talking, but I was not going to let on to him. Sometimes people do talk on the bus. On the way home from the beach the next day, the passengers were talking a lot, because we were mostly families. On this particular night, however, Polina was the only one talking, probably because we were the only family on the bus -- everyone else had but their own self for company. So why shouldn't my daughter play and talk with her father? True, she was not using her "inside voice", but she's six years old. A simple finger to the lips and a "shoosh" would have sufficed.

Coming home from the beach, we let the first bus fill up and waited for the next so that we could be first in line and have our pick of seats (an important consideration when you have two kids and a stroller to arrange).

A group of pre-teen boys came up behind us and one of them asked me a question. I said, "Ya nye gavaryu po Russki" -- a good phrase to memorize meaning "I do not speak Russian." I motioned for them to ask Oxana. They wanted to know if we were getting on the approaching bus (we were). Once we were settled in our seats, the boys passed us as they boarded the bus. Oxana tells me that they said (in Russian), "I don't see what the problem is. I speak English." Then he struck some rap poses and offered a sampling of his English, "What's up, muhthehfuckuh! What's up, muhthehfuckuh!". I'm sure his "muhtheh" would be proud.

People wear a lot of English phrases on their T-shirts. Some of them make absolutely no sense. Hell, back in the 80's I wore a tie that said "Kamikaze" in Japanese, or so I was told. It could have said "Suzie's Sushi bar", how would I know. If you have to ask why I would wear a tie with Japanese writing on it, you probably missed the 1980's. We saw one kid downtown with a shirt that said, "I'll fuck anything". At least it was worn by a boy.

Then at the beach Oxana saw one that read, "Born to fuck" (well, who isn't, I'd like to know -- why not just wear a shirt saying, "Desperately horny with no prospects in sight"). Again, there's some comfort that this shirt, too, was worn by a male.

Oxana said that she saw a girl at the beach baring her breasts for a couple of men who were old enough to be her father. One was Georgian -- one of the men, that is, not one of her breasts. I am not sure why the man's country of origin factored into the situation, but Oxana somehow deduced it and felt it was a necessary detail, probably to emphasize that neither of the two breasts being shown were from there. As father of two girls, I would be aghast to find them soliciting attention as this girl was. And yet, the prospect of having a pretty, teenage girl flirt with me, even if I had to pay for it, does have some appeal. How could it not? I am born to fuck, after all.

My girls were topless as well, but at three and six it's not an issue. One woman was sitting right at the edge of the water baring her beautiful and ample breasts for all to see. As luck would have it, Nastya insisted on gathering rocks at that very spot on the beach. I tried not to stare, but I certainly stole several (hundred) glances. Oxana was mildly disgusted. Personally, I think she was setting a good example. One I wish several dozen others would have followed.

The fact is, the bathing suits don't hide much, and as an irredeemable "ass man", I was in heaven. If I were a younger man, and not married, I would spend every day at the beach.

I am glad that my daughters like the beach, but I am constantly on the edge of panic if either of them strays out of sight, which Polina inevitably does, much to my consternation. Nastya, too, is quite willing to go walking right through the crowd of people, across their towels and over their bodies. She has no idea where she is going, she just occasionally takes off. The vigil really distracts from the plentiful eye candy.

Nastya was wearing her "pampers" at the beach (that's what they call disposable diapers over here). Several old ladies came over and talked to me about that. I pretended to understand them, but gave no reply, of course, just shrugged my shoulders. I presume they were giving the same advice Oxana got -- that we should just remove the "pampers". Oxana was convinced that the diaper was somehow protecting Nastya from the various dread diseases that lurk in the Black Sea. More likely, it just held the water in place so the germs could grab ahold. Eventually, Oxana saw fit to remove the diaper and Nastya was the only totally nude girl on the beach -- an example I was hoping several other girls would follow, but no dice.

The weirdest thing of all, however, happened after we left the beach. We walked the "boardwalk" of beverage, souvenir and food vendors. We bought shuarmas -- a cross between a burrito and a gyro -- a very large, soft tortilla stuffed with spicy lamb, cabbage, spicy shredded carrot and cucumber, garnished with (ugh) ketchup and mayo. I much prefer the shuarmas in Amsterdam that were made with what I presume are more traditional Turkish spices. The Ukrainians seem to like mayonnaise on everything. (ugh)

That's not the weird part. After eating, we walked the rest of the boardwalk and took in the seaview. There's a slightly more isolated area of the road that is not populated with many vendor booths. Families make picnics in the grass there and cook shashliks (meat kabobs). Oxana had to pee, so she took Polina off to find a suitably inconspicuous bush. Polina did not have to go, but Oxana figured that, if by chance there were onlookers, they might feel more sympathetic toward a little girl.

As it turns out, up the hill from the spot she chose, there was a yellow concrete building that housed two latrines, one for men and one for women. Each room was labeled -- Zhe for Zhenshina (Women) and M for, well, whatever the Russian word for Men is. The men's latrine was disgusting. It's hard to imagine a room for shitholes that is not disgusting, but these were extraordinarily bad. Outhouses have seats, at least, which not only aids in directing the effluent into the target hole, but also eliminates the need to put your feet close to said hole, where, by the way, some previous users happened to have missed the target.

Oxana and Polina had scrambled up the hillside and entered the latrine by themselves. With Nastya in the stroller, I had to take the long route to the bend where the low road meets the high road. That U-turn was about 100 meters long, so for a while Oxana an Polina were on their own. A teenage boy, I'd guess around 16 years old, decided to watch Oxana do her business. He just walked in after Oxana had dropped her drawers and stood looking at her. She yelled at him and threatened to call the police. But this nervy kid just stood his ground. Even after my girls emerged from the latrine, he continued to hang around. He finally took off after I arrived, but not because I scared him. I think he finally felt ashamed. I looked at him with a mixture of bemusement and pity. I remember what it was like to be so full of hormones and have no outlet for it. Nature is quite cruel in that respect. Needless to say, Oxana was a little freaked out by him.

There's more to write, but it's late. They baptized Nastya yesterday. She threw one of her screaming fits most of the time. She briefly stopped when she noticed a ring of candles in a brass candleholder surrounding an icon (one of dozens in the chapel). "Birthday cake!", she shouted. At another point, I managed to get her to play a word game.

"What about a tiger?", I whispered.

"What about a ELL-PHANT!", she shouted.

"What about a goat?"

"What about a SHEEP!"

This went on for two blissful, scream-free minutes until we exhausted all the truly interesting animals and started repeating.

It was ludicrous, but then any Orthodox ritual is ridiculous. At one point, the godmothers and godfathers (it was a dual-baptism with her cousin's baby boy) were required to follow the priest in a parade around the altar. Well, forget that! Nastya was not going to let anybody but her mother or me hold her. And yet, the parade must go on -- it's part of the ritual -- can't be fully baptized without the parade. So I had to join the parade, patting Nastya on the leg as her godmother held her and her godfather brought up the rear. I just hope none of the magic rubbed off on me instead of going to the intended recipients.

Afterward I apologized to all for Nastya's nearly incessant screaming. Apparently, she's an atheist. We should have asked. Well, now she's a baptized atheist.

[I'm reading Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion". It's a tedious defense of atheism. At least, I find it tedious and I'm an atheist. I think I'll move on to Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". What I really wanted to read was "God is Not Great" by Chistopher Hitchens, but that was oversubscribed at the library. One point that Dawkins makes is that we pay far too much deference to people on account of religion. With politics, we feel free to argue each point, but with religion we throw up our hands and say, "Well, that's his religious point of view". If he said, "2+2=5, according to my religion", would we still be silent? How about "genital mutilation is just a part of my religion"?]

After the "Christos" (baptismal ceremony), we went to grandma Tanya's place where she had laid out a big spread. Lots of tasty stuff, all fixed without onions for my benefit, so I ate a little of everything. Polina, of course, ate only the cheese. No strange food will cross those lips. Grandma poured me three double shots of vodka. I was hung over all afternoon. I've had enough vodka for a year (and we've still a week to go).

Bad news on Wall Street yesterday. Not a good time to be cut off from the internet, I suppose. I don't trust any of the computers I use over here (possible keystroke monitoring password sniffers), so no banking or brokerage business until Aug 20. I hope I still have some assets by then.


1 comment:

Pam said...

That was sooooo interesting. I hope you continue to have a fun visit. I hope you can come to our Townhall meeting on Sept 6th so you can tell us more about the trip. Take care!