Polyphemus’ ruin


In the post Good wine needs no bush the gastronomical aspect of the topic was lost. That is: what kind of wine was offered by the ingenious Ulysses to the Cyclops who had devoured his companions? And is Studiolum right when he is afraid of the wine offer of the Caffè del Centro in Piazza Armerina? And in general, what and where to drink if we come to this part of Sicily?

The mosaics focused on by the post depict a Greek story, whose respective episode takes place in today’s Sicily, so I will obviously not talk about Roman, but rather Greek wines, as well as modern Italian wineries.

At the time of Homer, in the 8th c. BC already existed Greek settlements and poleis in the island, but viticulture was much more rudimentary than around the emitting poleis. This is why Polypheus says that although he also has wine, but it cannot compete with the nectar obtained from Ulysses.

“He then took the cup and drank, he was so delighted
with the taste of it that he begged me for another bowl full:
ʻBe so kind’, he said ʻas to give me some more, and tell me your name at once.
I want to make you a present that you will be glad to have.
We have wine even in this country, for our soil
grows grapes and the sun ripens them,
but this drink is like nectar and ambrosia all in one.”
(Homer, Odyssey 9, translated by Samuel Butler)


Ulysses took home wine on his journey, that is, wine of Ithaca, and although ancient Ithaca’s position is at least controversial today, nevertheless we can state that whether the wine came from modern Ithaca, or from the neighboring Cephalonian peninsula of Paliki – which was probably an island at that time –, it was sweet and strong, and the sailors diluted it with seawater to drink. Today, PDO Robola, PDO Muscat and PDO Mavrodaphne stand out among the wine regions of Cephalonia. Each denotes a grape variety. The first one typically gives light, dry white wines, so this region is most in line with today’s wine consumption. The other is a local clone of one of the oldest grape varieties, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, which produces natural sweet wines and so-called fortified sweet wines (where the fermentation of the wine is stopped by the addition of alcohol, so it remains sweet). Finally, Mavrodaphne is a naturally sweet red wine, so it is closest to the former Greek wine culture, where sweet wines were typically produced by drying the grape on straw bed after harvest, thus concentrating its sugar content. Then it was pressed, eventually enriched with previously prepared sweet wine, and then they added spices and seawater to it. The best example of this type of wine (although no spices are added any more) is the wine Methyse of 2004 from Cephalonia’s Foivos Winery, considered one of the highest rated Greek wines of recent years. (And the wine Commandaria of the Greeks of Cyprus, which has been traditionally made in this way to this day.)

However, we know that Ulysses did not offer his own wine to the Cyclops:

“I also took a goatskin of sweet black wine
which had been given to me by Maron, son of Euanthes,
who was priest of Apollon, the patron god of Ismarus,
because we spared his life and also his wife and son,
who lived in the wooded precincts of the temple.”

Unfortunately, the ancient fame of the wine region PGI Ismaros in Thrace is brighter than its present. Maron is only remembered by a seaside wellness hotel, and in terms of wines, there is no trace of one of the most famous, most dense and sweetest red wine of the ancient Greek world, the only one that had to be diluted in 1:20 proportion (!) so it would not make you drunk. (Nevertheless, I do recommend at least one local vinery, where you can find not sweet red, but light, modern dry white wines: the Kikones.)

Well, back to the streets of Piazza Armerina, where Greek wine is definitely no longer on offer today. Barely two hundred years after Homer, in the 6th century BC, the wines of the region not only reached, but exceeded the quality of Greek wines. This is partly because the Greek settlers, perhaps under Etruscan influence, began for the first time in the world to plant grapes in rows, in stalk cultivation, thus first establishing a monoculture of wine. The first steps to it already appear on the shield of Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad:

“He wrought also a vineyard, golden and fair to see,
and the vines were loaded with grapes.
The bunches overhead were black, but the vines
were trained on poles of silver
He ran a ditch of dark metal all round it,
and fenced it with a fence of tin;
there was only one path to it,
and by this the vintagers went when they would gather the vintage.
Youths and maidens all blithe and full of glee,
carried the luscious fruit in plaited baskets;
and with them there went a boy
who made sweet music with his lyre,
and sang the Linus-song with his clear boyish voice.”
(Homer, Iliad, 18, translated by Samuel Butler) 

Grape harvest in the reconstruction of the shield of Achilles. Above in the cover of the 22 September 1832 of Penny Magazine, below in Kathleen Vail’s reconstruction


Sicily, Magna Graecia of the time, was also called Oenotria, the “land of grapes cultivated on stalks”. The quality and reputation of local wines grew rapidly, but the history of today’s Sicilian wines was influenced at least as much by Arabic raisin culture, Normann gastroculture, Etruscan grape varieties, Roman and Carthaginese taste, as today’s marketing trends and Italian cuisine.


The Caffè del Centro mentioned by Studiolum in fact does not seem like anything more than a mediocre pub, although on TripAdvisor it has 4.0 from 37 reviews and on Google 3.8 from 21, so it must be a good place for a sandwich or other snack. The wine bar with the bakery is on Piazza Garibaldi, but its mother shop works in a narrow street beyond the corner (Via Guglielmo Marconi 2), and offers only coffee and cakes, perhaps some sandwiches. Most points are lost on the speed and quality of service. Wine is mentioned only once: a commenter in this summer wrote that the “local” wine was very poor. The quotation mark raises questions, but unfortunately the shop has no wine page on the net, nor has it any web page. Let’s accept that the wine is poor, but is it not local? In Sicily this is almost unimaginable. What is local wine and where can you get it in this charming little town?

Vineyards next to Piazza Armerina

The closest wine region is Riesi DOC to the southwest of the city. The most important grape variety of its white wines is Inzolia (also known as Ansonica), a variety producing a white wine of neutral taste, or with hazelnut characteristics. Many believe it to be of Greek origin, but it was in fact first described in 1696 (by the first Sicilan botanist, Francesco Cupani, in his Hortus Catholicus), and it also occurs in Sardinia and Tuscany. French Chardonnay is also important here. One of the two must be present in at least 25% in every Riesi Bianco wine, as well as in the sparkling wines and local sweet wines (vendemmia tardiva).


In red Riesi wines, Nero d’Avola (sometimes called Calabrese) or Cabernet Sauvignon are the most important. Nerello Mascalese is mainly used for rosé wines. The top wines of Superiore and Superiore Riserva can only be made from the local Nero d’Avola. For a first taste, I recommend the Riesi Rosso of the Feudo Principi di Butera winery, a relatively simple, but well-drinkable red wine from 2015.


The Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG wine region to the south-east of the town and of the mosaics is also known for its Nero d’Avola (Calabrese) and Frappato grape varieties. They are often marketed together as a cuvée. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG red wine of 2015 from Azienda Agricola Cos received a very high rating from international experts, but if you are also price sensitive, try the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG of 2015 from the Feudo di Santa Tresa (and don’t be afraid of the newer vintages, either).

Centuries-old farm to the south of Piazza Armerina

So far I have only recommended red wines. Let’s see the white wine situation. Sicily is one of the best known wine regions in the world, interestingly rather thanks to Lampedusa’s Panther and Marlon Brando’s godfather than to its wines. The southern island evokes the idea of “red wine region”, while it has more white wine than red!

Bar Vitelli, the site of Godfather in the movie’s Corleone (in reality, Savoca)

The Catarratto Antisa 2018 wine from the Tenuta Regaleali winery (Tasca Group, Conti d’Almerita) allures you with its fresh acidity and cypress flavor, which is no wonder, since the grapes grow 900 meters above sea level. This is the wine of freshly fried or deep-fried seafood, so it’s worth trying more than once.


As far as the site is concerned, that is, where one should have a glass of wine in Piazza Armerina, the folks of the internet clearly recommends the Bla Bla Wine Bar in Via Garibaldi 89. It received a 4.9 from 7 ratings, which emphasize its good wines and good atmosphere. It is only open from 5.30 p.m., but then until 1.00 a.m. TripAdvisor gives it 5.00 from 19 ratings, that is, the best available. They have no website, their FB page is not updated, so I could find no wine list. But if you ask for Catarratto (white) or Nero d’Avola (red), you will not be disappointed. And if you will mention the above wineries and wines, they will think you are an expert.

Just take care your wine tasting should not end up in Kottabos, one of the most famous Sicilian wine game of ancient times, which, if truly authentic, is assisted by a devoted young servant who only wears a string of flowers on his head, and puts the plastinx back in place and refills the wine bowls…


Good wine needs no bush


The Villa Romana del Casale in the center of Sicily, a few kilometers from Piazza Armerina, is one of the largest preserved mosaic ensembles of the ancient world. The senatorial owner of the Roman villa from the early 4th century adorned his huge mansion with over 3,500 square meters of first quality mosaics. Since the villa, built away from all settlements in a wooded valley, was first and foremost an elegant hunting lodge where the owner and his friends or clients retired to refresh themselves from Roman political life, most of its mosaics depict hunting. The floor of the guest suites displays hunting for local game, so the guests can dream about them before they pick up the compulsory hunting equipment at dawn and go to the woods. And on the floor of the large common space between the suites of the guests and of the dominus, mosaics depict hunting for exotic African and Indian beasts which the dominus probably dreamt of, or perhaps he also procured such animals for the Roman Circus.

All of these will be discussed in a future post. Now I just want to talk about the scene decorating one of the dominus’ suites. To be exact, the antechamber of the domina’s bedroom (marked with a red dot on the floor plan). This mosaic shows a story that you do not want to dream about. It is the episode from the Odyssey where the Greeks venture into the giant cave of the one-eyed Polyphemus – which is known to have been in Sicily –, and the terrible cyclops begins to devour them. Then Odysseus walks up to him, offering him a large jug full of night-colored wine, and, having made him drunk, puts out his single eye with a sharpened and heated stick.


Obviously, the terrible scene is made suitable for the antechamber of a bedroom by the soporifer, dream-bringing nature of wine. It is also conceivable that in this room the domina had wine with the dominus before bedtime. More to the point, this antechamber leads not only to the one-person female bedroom, but also to a cubiculum to the left, whose function is made clear by the scene in the mosaic floor.


This depiction is special not only because of its explicitly erotic nature. But also because the woman here wears a bikini just like the female athletes in the villa’s fitness room or the sea goddesses in the Arion room, which are the oldest bikinis documented in Europe. And that it also offers a clue to the scholarly problem of cultural history as to which intimate garment was first removed in ancient Rome.



But every honey runs out once, as the Italian proverb holds. The villa, already devastated by the Vandals, Arabs, Byzantines and Normans, was covered by mud in a landslide in the 12th century. This layer of mud preserved the mosaics until excavations began in the 1920s. The survivors of the disaster moved to the nearby mountain, where they took with them, too, the name of the village established around the villa, Platia (palatina, “belonging to the palace”).


The new settlement, Piazza (since 1862, Piazza Armerina) inherited not only its name from the villa. The little town strives to extract all the benefits from the World Heritage site belonging to it. Hotels, restaurants, public buildings are decorated with replicas of the ancient mosaics. Clothes shops are highlighted by the bikini pictures, bus stops by the female figures of the relay race. And the cheap pub in the main square obviously uses the scene of the drunk Polyphemus as a signboard.



However, the message of the signboard is ambiguous. It can refer to the excellence of the wine offered by Ulysses, but also to its unpleasant consequences. The polyphemi gravitating around the pub door – as in the above photo – uncomfortably reinforce the latter impression.

Polyphemus with a drinking cup. Boeothia, 5-4th c. BC. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Diyarbakır a Dengbêjský dům


Původně publikováno v češtině, ve vidaní ze 14. listopadu 2019 His Voice. Přeložil Petr Ferenc
Prozkoumáváme Sur, starou čtvrť hradbami obehnaného města Diyarbakır, a nalézáme labyrint úzkých uliček obklopených černými čedičovými zdmi s tu a tam proraženými okny a dveřmi vedoucími do nepoznatelných dvorů a útočišť domácího života. Nehybné horké nebe vrhá do úžin proudy oslepujícího světla, zářivé paprsky bodají, jako by byly hmatatelné. Červencové teploty překračují čtyřicítku a sebemenší stín je vítaným vysvobozením.

Uličky se zdánlivě donekonečna dělí a větví a z těch širších se klikatěním a zatáčkami po chvíli stávají vlásečnice. Jsou dlážděné kameny nepravidelných tvarů, a kde kameny chybějí, je vidět ostrůvky ušlapané hlíny, a i když některé úseky vypadají dočista opuštěně, po zmíněné trojici tvrdých povrchů se jako letící ptáci či pobíhající ještěrky linou, klouzají a otírají hlasy neviditelných lidí zpoza zdí. Otevřenými dveřmi a okny je slyšet hovor: matky domlouvají neposlušným dětem, strozí manželé hubují hašteřivé ženy, děti se perou o oblíbenou hračku, staří pánové probírají stav světa.


Postupně těm cizím místům přivykáme, poodhalujeme tajemství lokálních společenských interakcí, četné zatáčky a křížení ulic začínají dávat smysl a my si všímáme podrobností, jež je možné označit za typické. Tu starý nápis praví, že ten, kdo zde žil, vykonal pouť do Mekky, jinde ve zvětralém kameni vidíme zbytek vyryté dekorace již zapomenutého významu. Hlavice mramorového sloupu slouží k posezení, jiná, otočená na bok, jako schod k domovním dveřím; díra ve zdi je vyspravena fragmentem terakotové výzdoby z mešity.

Za několika rohy potkáváme lidi: stojí, chodí, nakupují, hovoří. Na ulici se děje to, co se patrně děje na každé ulici světa. Hluční kluci si v hlíně hledají místečka ke hře nebo hulákají na celé ulice a honí se s klacky v rukou. Ženy obtěžkané nákupními taškami vedou za ruce živé, rozjařené děti. Staří pánové sedí na schodech domů a radí mladším mužům, co je třeba a jak na to. Ženy a dívky sedí kolem velkých mis, loupají zeleninu nebo přebírají fazole, zatímco další muži sedí pospolu, kouří a hloubají. A pozorují. Kolem projíždějí vozíky a káry; melouny obtěžkaný prodavač ovoce vyvolává svou nabídku, z domu vychází žena a vybírá si z jeho zboží. Všude jsou toulavé kočky, nebojí se, a pokud si je přivoláte, dychtivě dojdou až k vám.


Na každém kroku nás sledují zvídavé, obezřetné oči. Interakce s lidmi, pokud jim nejsme zcela lhostejní, jsou přátelské a vstřícné. Můj přítel se zastavuje, aby si otevřeným oknem dílny vyfotil pekaře připravující chléb. Zdá se, že je ta pozornost těší. A než nám dovolí odejít, dostaneme čerstvý teplý bochník – jen tak zadarmo.

Jedna z mešit právě svolává věřící, muži a chlapci se scházejí a usedají na kamenné lavice kolem kruhu vodovodních kohoutků. Zouvají se, myjí se za ušima, myjí si krk, ruce, nohy mezi prsty, podnikají zkrátka rituální očistu před vstupem do svatyně. Někteří již kráčejí dovnitř, slunce zapadá a namodralé venkovní světlo je probodáváno zevnitř se linoucím světlem medovým. Pilné včelky se vracejí do sladké náruče domova a na okamžik jsou jako jedno tělo spojeny s něčím větším, než jsou ony samy. I když nejste věřící, je to silný pocit.


Ocitáme se na hlavní ulici Gazi Caddesi, která Sur protíná. Lidé se po chodnících motají v protijdoucích a chaotických houfech, zkoumají vyložené zboží. Ke koupi je lákají nejrůznější druhy ovoce a melounů, masově vyráběná obuv a laciné hračky, kuchyňské náčiní, čajové i kávové sady. Kluci prodávají vařené sladké kukuřičné klasy nebo z kovových nádob nabízejí zmrzlinu. Narážíme na velkolepý vstup do zrekonstruovaného karavanseráje Tarihi Hasan Paşa Hanı, který byl proměněn ve veřejný prostor plný obchodů, čajoven a restaurací. Zastavíme se a obdivujeme starožitnosti ve výloze malého obchůdku a brzy nás zdraví mladší muž s širokým úsměvem, který vyběhl ze dveří nabídnout své služby. Po chvíli nás zve dál a rozhovor se z obchodního brzy mění v osobní. Ptáme se, zda by nevěděl, kde slyšet místní hudbu. Nadšeně odpovídá, že máme jít do Dengbêj House, kde se předvádí kurdská tradice dengbêj, tedy druh lidové hudby a orální literatury zachycující život Kurdů od dávných dob po současnost.

Máme štěstí; dnes večer se hraje. Tiše otvíráme velké dřevěné dveře, zpoza nichž se line silný, jasný hlas zpívající v dengbêjském a capella stylu, a vcházíme do místnosti se sezením podél všech čtyř stěn a všelijak rozházenými stolečky. Všichni nás vítají úsměvy a hlavní zpěvák mi kyne, abych šel k němu a usedl po jeho boku v čele místnosti, vedle tří zpěváků, kteří postupně také budou bavit shromážděné svým umem. Usedám tedy vedle hlavního zpěváka, muž s tácem přede mě staví sklenku čaje, a zapínám nahrávání.



Diyarbakır and the Dengbêj House


Originally published in Czech, in the 14 November 2019 edition of His Voice, in the translation by Petr Ferenc.
We explore the neighborhoods of the Sur, the old walled city of Diyarbakır, and find a labyrinth of narrow channels within walls of dark basalt, perforated here and there with windows and doorways, leading to unknowable courtyards and the inner sancta of domestic life. A hot sky hovers above us, casting a torrent of blinding sunlight into the narrows, brilliant shafts jabbing like solid objects, painting geometric spots on the ground. The July temperatures go beyond 40°C, and the smallest patch of shade is a gratefully accepted mercy.

The channels split and fork in seeming infinitude, and the wider ones, by twists and turns, soon become narrow capillaries. The streets are cobbled with irregular stones, and earthen patches where the stones are gone, and for some stretches can seem almost deserted, save for the floating voices of the invisible people behind the walls, which slip and smear across the three hard surfaces, like flying birds or skittering lizards. Through the open windows and doorways, we hear conversations: mothers coax incalcitrant children, stern husbands scold bickering wives, children tussle for a favored toy, old men natter about the state of the world.


As our eyes get used to these unfamiliar spaces, as well as the mysteries of local social interactions, and as we habituate ourselves to the many turns and intersections in the streets, we begin to pick out details which seem characteristic. Here an old sign shows that someone who lived here had once been on the hajj; there the remnant of a decoration cut into stone now eroded, its meaning forgotten. The capital of an ancient marble column is here doing service as stool, or there turned on its side as a doorstep; a fragment of terra cotta decoration from a mosque has been used to patch a hole in the wall.

We round corners and find people: standing, walking, shopping, talking. There are things going on in the street, things which go on in probably every street in the world. Noisy groups of boys scratch out places to play games in the dirt, or scream through the narrows, chasing one another with sticks. Women lead bright-eyed children by the hand with their heavy shopping bags. Old men sit on stoops, giving instructions or advice to younger men as to what needs doing and how to do it. Women and girls sit around large bowls, peeling vegetables or sorting beans, while other men sit together, smoking, thinking. Watching. Wagons and pushcarts pass; a fruit vendor burdened with melons calls out offerings, a woman comes out from within to choose from among his stock. Stray cats are everywhere, unafraid, and they eagerly come to you if you beckon.


Eyes follows us cautiously, curiously. Interactions with people, when not indifferent, are friendly and hospitable. My friend stops to take a picture through the open shop window of the workers in a bakery preparing the day’s bread. They seem delighted at the attention. Before we are allowed to leave we’re headed a fresh warm loaf — no charge.

One of the mosques has just called its faithful, men and boys come to sit on stone stools at a circle of water taps. They are taking off their shoes, washing behind their ears, their necks, hands, and feet, between every toe, the ritual ablutions before entering the space of worship. Some are already going into the inner sanctum; it is dusk and the somber bluish outdoor light is pierced by a honey-colored light coming from within. These wandering bees come home to the sweetness of welcome, and, if only for a brief moment, are connected as one to a thing greater than themselves. Even if one is not religious, this feeling is powerful enough by itself.


We emerge onto a main thoroughfare, the Gazi Caddesi, which cuts straight through the Sur. People are flowing in opposing and chaotic droves on the pavements, inspecting what is laid out before them, fruits and melons of various sorts, mass-produced shoes and cheap toys, kitchen utensils, tea and coffee sets, beckoning the shoppers to make a choice. Boys sell ears of boiled sweet corn or dip ice cream from steel tubs. We stumble upon the grand entrance of a restored caravanserai, the Tarihi Hasan Paşa Hanı, which has been converted into a public space full of shops, tea houses, and restaurants. We pause to admire a collection of antiques in the window of small boutique, and are soon greeted by a youngish man, smiling broadly, who pops out of the door to lend his assistance. Soon, he invites us into the shop, and the conversation quickly becomes less mercantile, more personal. We ask him, does he know of a place where we can hear local music? He enthusiastically responds with the suggestion that we go to the Dengbêj House, established to showcase the Kurdish Dengbêj tradition, a form of folk music as well as oral literature chronicling the life of the Kurdish people from their past up to current events.

We are fortunate; a performance is taking place when we arrive. We quietly open a large wooden door behind which we can hear a strong, clear voice singing in the a capella style of the Dengbêj, and emerge into a room with seating along all four walls, and little tables scattered about. We are greeted with smiles of welcome from everyone, and the main singer beckons me to come forward, to sit beside him, at the head of the room, next to the three singers who will take turns regaling the assembly with their skills. I take my place next to him, another man with a tray sets a glass of tea before me, and I press the record button.



Arabic for beginners


At Odessa Airport, a multilingual greeting welcomes the traveler: Peace with you. In most of the languages featuring here, this greeting is not colloquial, so probably this is the same situation as in the previous post: that in Odessa, “foreigner” means “Israeli”, and their שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם shālôm ʻalêḵem is translated into the other languages.

In most languages this is fine, at least on the level of raw translation. Except for Arabic. Here, the eye accustomed to Arabic writing sees a startling mishmash instead of the correct السلام عليكم as-salāmu ʻalaikum. If you start to spell it, you will soon find out what happened: someone typed the letters of the greeting one by one, and they did not join together in the usual cursive writing. Each letter displays the “stand-alone” form from the four possible (initial, medial, final, stand-alone). And what is even worse: it all is from left to right.


It is likely that someone typed the greeting in an Arabic word processor, and the file was then read in Odessa in a graphic editor of European language, which isolated the letters, and turned the text from left to right. That no one ever bothered to check it, is the shame of the airport.

And it’s a great luck that the greeting was translated from Hebrew and not Yiddish, because in this case it would have rendered Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in all languages :) Imagine this in Arabic, left to right, with isolated letters…

In another city of Ukraine, in Lemberg, the large café on Ruska Street has the word “coffee” written in a different language above each window. The Yiddish version – קאַווע kāve – was written with the same mistake: not only was it written in reverse, but the patah, the small line under alef, indicating the vowel “a”, was typed as a separate letter. Probably due to a similar word processor incompatibility error. By now, someone has alerted them, so the word figures now right-to-left and with the patah under alef, but the sunlit traces of the old mistake are well visible on the frame of the window.



The actuality of the problem is illustrated by a very current cartoon. Here, Erdoğan, dressed in ISIS uniform, who has marched into northern Syria to commit genocide, is about to cut the throat of a female figure symbolizing the Kurdish people, whose face is borrowed from the Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, executed two days ago by the pro-Turkish militia. Meanwhile, Putin is washing his hands, Trump turns away, and the EU puts its head in the sand. The smallest problem with this constellation is that the name of the region represented by the Kurdish figure is written on her chest in the same mistaken way, with isolated letters, and moreover incorrectly, as Kudristan, instead of the correct form, which is

كوردستان

Bath Number Four

Kazimir Malevich: In the bath, 1911-1912

The Повѣсть времѧньныхъ лѣтъ, “Chronicle of Bygone Times”, composed in Kiev in 1113, in which its author, the monk Nestor, summarizes the history of the Eastern Slavs from the Tower of Babel to his own time, states that the apostle Andrew, during his missionary journeys, also visited the Eastern Slavs, from the later Kiev to the later Novgorod. Here he saw, among many other miracles, that pecular institution of the Slavs, the bath.

“Wondrous to relate, what I saw in the land of the Slavs. … I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.”

The art of Slavic self-torture has not changed much since Saint Andrew, or at least Nestor. In the hot chamber of the bath, water is poured on the heated stones, and in the intense steam they lash themselves with veniks, thin branches cut from birch, oak, or, more recently, eucalyptus tree, to stimulate blood circulation. When they sweat well, they bathe in cold water – in a lake, river or in the cold chamber of the bath – or roll in the snow. Then they take a break until the next sweat-lashing, spent over tea, beer, conversation or chess. The traditional bath is one of the most important scenes of Russian social life.

Boris Kustodiev: Russian Venus, 1925

Zinaida Serebriakova: Bath, 1913

Tamara De Lempicka: Women in the bath, 1929

However, the palaces for this traditional art have largely disappeared during the past century. On the one hand, the Soviet system tried to restrict these centers of uncontrolled social life, and on the other, they were replaced by the bathrooms that had appeared in most apartments. In Odessa, where at the turn of the 20th century there were more than 400 community baths, now there is but one traditional bath still active, and since 1861: Bath Number Four at the edge of Moldavanka, at 6 Astashkin Street.




At the end of a courtyard overgrown with grapes, beneath the stairs leading up to the bath, young men are standing and chatting. “Shalom”, they greet us: apparently, foreigners here automatically means a former compatriot coming back from Israel. We reply in Russian, and social life immediately starts. They draw our attention to the black marble plaque on the courtyard wall. This commemorates “Karabas”, the local mafia boss shot in 1997 here, “on the stairs, as he was coming down from the bath”, they point out. “He was like Mishka Yaponchik”, they say with reverence, although they were not personally directed by him, they only heard of him from their older colleagues. Mishka Yaponchik, the Jewish gangster boss of the early 20th century, who was the model for Isaak Babel’s Benya Krik, the “King” of Moldavanka, in his Odessa Tales, lives so fresh in the memory of the posterity of Moldavanka, to an extent that we, readers of Odessa Tales, would never think.

“On 21 April 1997, here was treacherously killed Viktor Pavlovich Kulivar. Your memory remains bright in eternity, Karabas. From your friends and associates. – Consecrated to V. P. Kulivar, our neighbor in Old Slaughterhouse (Kuibishev) Street, on the memorial day of his death.”

The courtyard wall of the bath is made of glass brick to provide light inside, and the top row’s first glass brick has been knocked out, so you can see who’s out there. The botched equipment of the downstairs boiler room, by which the bath is heated, evokes the golden years of socialism. Pushed among the hot surfaces, oak branches are being dried. In the courtyard, an elderly man is tying the branches for the bath. “Jó napot”, good day, he greets us in Hungarian. After so many previous similar cases, I ask him straight: “Did you serve in Hungary?” “Yes.” “Where?” “In Tamási, between 1962 and 1964.” “What was it like?” He lifts his eyes in nostalgic reverie to the vine tendrils covering the courtyards. “Heaven.” I should interview the Soviet soldiers who served in our land, while they are still alive.



Scene from the bath. From Dmitry Khavin’s documentary “Quiet in Odessa”