Together in Odessa

Three thousand kilometers, seven days, one hundred and twenty waking hours, a dozen visited places, a thousand adventures. Nineteen people who lived through all of this, and who report on their impressions below. The dots of the above map point to the related posts of Río Wang. Some of them have already been posted, the others will be published soon: check back. And if you feel that precisely this journey was missing from your life, don’t lose hope. Next April we will repeat it again: from 4 to 11 for the members of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association, with a forty+++ persons bus, and at the end of the month for the readers of Río Wang, in a usual small and mobile company. That is, if you register for it in time.

Odessa snapshots

In Melinda’s own blog
(in Hungarian):

Ogyesszai feliratok
„Poétikus hervadás”
A csernovici temetőben
A remény (Junona Avosz)
Babel Ogyesszája nyomában
Ogyesszai pillanatképek
Választások előtt Ukrajnában
„Az ember fáj a földnek”
Útközben Ogyessza felé
Menni kéne
You arrive at one o’clock in the night, you’re standing at the corner of Deribasovskaya and waiting while Studiolum checks the accommodations, and two dapple-grey horses stamp about on the cobblestone street, with two young girls in the saddles, asking you: “Taкси”? The last night I walk around the city park for a last time with my roommate, and another rider accosts us: “Дaвaйте катaться!

In the park, live music both on Saturday and Sunday, waving crowd, stylish women dancing, the audience singing the refrain of the popular Odessan song: Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу… They photograph each other with the statues of Utesov and of the 12th chair. The terraces of the cafés and restaurants are filled with young people.

The Potemkin stairs and its environs are a central spot: young men and children invite you to let fly eagles, they sell military ushankas, books, Nazi insignia; brides and bridegrooms (and in general people of all class, rank and age) have themselves photographed, election rallies held…

The Opera is cleaned of its greyness, in the adjacent small park they drink coffee in the gentle sunshine, and a small ballerina runs out to her parents in the pause of the rehearsal.

In the downtown, wealth, international brands, an incredible glut. The Moldavanka is a different world, that of Babel among others, but more about this another time. Grapes and cats everywhere.

Odessa nostalgia

Justs a fleeting moment from our long weekend:

We are watching the TV – we curiously find time for it even in a weekend so densely filled with the best programs. From the 70 Ukrainian or Russian channels the most enjoyable is the Nostalgia TV: see their ingenious logo above.

The program is similar to the one led by good old Uncle Tibi Dévényi n the Hungarian TV. The well-built TV presenter is sitting among a pile of black and white TVs, speaking by phone and sometimes by Skype with the viewers calling him. After some phrases appears on the screen the coveted performer, usually from the 70s or 80s. This is already bizarre, but suddenly a face, well known to every Hungarian from those year, appears, with the caption: Янош Коош. And the song ordered: Szent Péter vár rám, (Saint Peter is waiting for me), a surprising variant of I did it my way.


Everyone is taking photos. Some with serious professional cameras, some with digital ones, some with mobile phones, some with the eyes ;)
Lots of beautiful photos were taken in this journey, too, on beautiful autumn landscapes, magnificent buildings, people, monuments, many interesting moments and scenes.
But these are not the ones I want to publish here, since better photos were taken on them by better photographers.
My professional disease is that I carefully examine the buildings everywhere.
Beautiful and ugly, old and new, interesting and strange, as a whole and/or some details, their harmony or contrast, all of them are to be walked around and captured on photo… :)
This was the situation on the Odessa road, too: we saw lavish buildings surviving from the golden age of Odessa, Art Nouveau gems and glitzy modern buildings, but the condition of the houses, just like on the previous trip to Lwów/Lemberg, caused an almost physical pain.
While in Lemberg most of the beautiful buildings were only neglected or run-down (although many of them have been restored, and not badly), in Odessa there are disappointingly many ruined buildings. And what kind of flats can be inside?!? It is bad even thinking about. And yet, there also live people their lives filled with desires, hopes, faith. We wish them peace and that their recently elected new government might (?) bring them closer to the realization of their dreams.


En resa i erosionens, livsåskådningarnas och hoppets spår
A journey along the tracks of erosion, philosophy of life and hope

Ukraina visade genom hela resan upp fantastiska vyer över vad vatten kan åstadkomma i det geologiska perspektivet. Sorglig var dock synen hur lite det görs för att bevara viktiga lämningar från den korta översiktbara historien. Vad människor inte lyckats rasera, tar dagens sura nederbörd hand om i allt högre hastighet och lämnar inget objekt opåverkat.

Höstens överväldigande färger, när naturen samlar den sista energin inför en ny vår, var en upplevelse i sig själv. En slösande natur, bördig jord och naturliga transportleder, säkert en grund för tidiga bosättningar och kulturell utveckling men sannolikt ingen garanti för fred och ökad tolerans (?)

Utan att kunna komma ihåg alla namn, årtal, mm. som varit av stor betydelse för de olika regionernas inflytande på utvecklingen, kvarstår dock bilden av att ekonomisk och kulturell utveckling varit som störst då viss grupptillhörighets- och trosåskådningstolerans varit som störst (samexistens).

Att samtidigt i olika ofredsperioder vissa minoritetsgrupper i mycket stort antal i det närmaste totalt utrotats, var en chockerande nyhet. Historieböcker (de få jag läst) nämner litet eller inget om detta.

Det geografiskt vita hålet har marginellt men dock minskat, men resan medvetandegjorde mig om ett ännu större, det historiska.

Hur medvetna dagens Odessa – invånare är om sin historia, är svårt att veta men, noterbart var, att på kvällen kopplar hela familjen av. I gatuvimlet rörde sig inte bara tonåringar utan även minstingar på armen och far- och morföräldrar… Inslaget av spontan sång där de flesta sjöng med, kan inte vara något nytt utan är kanske en del av traditionerna. Sånger uttrycker många gånger sorg men också hopp.

Om renoveringen och nybyggnationen av synagogor är ett uttryck för hopp om ökad samexistens och tolerans, är omöjligt att ha någon uppfattning om.

Nu får vi liksom naturen övervintra, det kommer en vår. Hoppas på nya resor i historiens spår.
Ukraine has shown with a whole series of fantastic landscapes and views what the force of water is able to do when it comes to geology. Yet it made me sad to see how little it contributes to the preservation of the important traces of knowable history. For what people failed to destroy, is made up, in an accelerating pace, by the acidic rain, which does not spare a single building.

The spectacular fall colors, in which nature has once again gathered her last energies before the next new spring, were a great experience. The prodigal nature, the fertile land and natural transportation routes certainly cotributed to the creation and cultural development of early settlements, but were no guarantee of long-term peace and tolerance.

Without remembering every name, date etc. which were important in the impact of the various regions on the development of this territory, I had a strong impression during the journey that its economic and cultural development was the strongest when the tolerance of various peoples, religions and groups was at its peak. It was thus painfully shocking to hear how large number of certain minorities have been almost completely wiped out in the periods of various hostilities. History books, at least the few ones I have read, make no mention about these horrors.

The white spot of my geographical knowledge has got smaller, although only to a small degree, but during the trip I became aware of a large white spot, that of my historical knowledge.

I do not know what and how much the people living in Odessa know about their history, but I noticed one thing: in the evenings the whole family is relaxing. In the bustle of the street you can see not only teenagers, but also little kids sitting on the arms of their mothers, as well as grandmothers and grandfathers. Spontaneous singing being an ubiquitous element, with the participation of the majority of the audience, suggests that this is not a new phenomenon, but rather a tradition. The songs mainly express sadness, but also often hope.

I could not decide whether the renovation and rebuilding of synagogues can be interpreted as an expression of an increased hope for a peaceful coexistence.

Now we are preparing for the winter, like nature herself. But spring is here soon again. With the hope of further travels leading us back to history.

Carl Henrik / Sweden

There and back *

* In the Hungarian original the title – Od(e és vi)ssza – is a (slightly awkward) pun with the name of Odessa and the subtitle of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The hobbit (“There and back”). It is an interesting coincidence that it was 75 years ago that Allen & Unwin first published The hobbit in 1937.

It was a mixed company which set sail on 17 October in the early morning. I would not say I was worried; I was much more interested in its outcome, and – especially towards the end of the journey – we got pretty well accustomed to each other, which was also promoted by the long and tedious (but inevitable) bus trip. I do not want to be pathetic, much less sentimental, but I think that even after two days I have not yet completely come back; my soul is still somewhere over the Carpathians, but at least in the Maramureș mountains. While walking about in Budapest, I sometimes think (erroneously) to discover a fellow traveler in the crowd, and in my pocket the Hungarian forint is still mixed with Ukrainian hrivnyas and kopiykas. It was a week full of adventures, where, besides the magnificent landscapes, I also got to know interesting people, for which I would like to say thanks, and I hope that we will see us later in one or another journey of Río Wang.

One of the first decisive images that I recall from this journey was when we left the murky Maramureș behind us, and arrived to Pokutya bathing in the October sunshine, the border land of Galicia and Bukovina, between the upper streams of Prut and Cheremosh. I have partly slept over this section of the route, so it lives in me a little bit like a dream: in one moment, the monotonous gray, and in the other the golden trees everywhere, and bright sunshine, as if the Carpathian mountains had been a trial, after which even weather is improved.

Although Tamás said he prefers to lead trips presenting more closely one single region, and this two-day journey crossing various regions – Maramureș, Eastern Galicia, Pokutya, Bukovina, Podolia, Novorossiya – was born from the necessity of reaching Odessa, I think it was very good like this. The borders and changes of the geographical landscape, and what is very interesting, its impact on the local cultures (as for example the sparsely populated region of Novorossiya, inhabited for centuries by nomadic tribes, is suddenly followed by Podolia, densely sparsed with smaller and larger settlements) can be felt only in such a large scale, by crossing entire regions.

Again and again I have the impression that by advancing eastward there are increasingly more animals wandering along the highways and railways: cows, horses, goats, chickens, geese. I had also noticed the same when going from Budapest to Debrecen, or even more eastward,  to Kolozsvár/Cluj. Every time I recall the beautiful description by Andrzej Stasiuk:

“Three months later I drove at dusk through Rozpucie at the feet of Słone Góry. Cows were walking home from the pasture, they blocked all the road. I was forced to slow down and eventually stop. The herd split in front of the car as a lazy, reddish brown wave. It was biting cold, the breath was steaming forth from their nostrils. They were warm, swollen, indifferent. Looked straight in front of themselves, into the distance, as the things, the landscape and the objects had no meaning for them. They simply overlooked all that. And in Rozpucie I felt the enormous weight and unbroken continuity of the world around me. At the same time, in the same fading light the cattle was walking home everywhere: the same was happening from Kiev to, let us say, to Split, from my Rozpucie to Skopje and, say, Stara Zagora. The natural and built landscape, the type of animals, the shape of the horns and the color of the hair changed somewhat, but the picture was the same: well-fed herds are slowly marching on the road between two rows of houses, followed by women in scarves and worn-out shoes, or children. Neither the lonely islands of industry, nor the sleepless metropolises spread here and there, or the spider’s web of roads and railways could cover this age-old image. The human was connected with the animal, to wait together for the end of the night. They connected again, although they had never divorced from each other.

There are no wonders, I thought, while I changed back to first gear. In the rearview mirror I saw swinging hindquarters. There were no longer flies, the tails hung idly. All this has to be destroyed, I thought, so that it could survive, even if in a rudimentary form. The “lower and smaller” people live together with their animals, and would like to win salvation together with them. They want to be acknowledged together with their herds, since they have nothing else. The deep blue vortex of the cow’s eye is like a mirror: in it, we see ourselves as animated flesh, which nevertheless receives some sort of grace. […]

Yes, my Europe is full of animals. Large, muddy pigs along the road somewhere between Tiszaörs and Nagyiván, dogs on the yards of the Bucharest pubs, buffaloes in Resinar, released horses on the Chornohora. I get up at five in the morning, I can hear the bells of the sheep. It’s raining, the cows’ mooing sounds flat, without an echo. Once I asked a woman why she keeps so many cows since nobody buys milk. “How do you mean why?” she asked, as if she did not understand the question. “One has to keep something.” It simply never occurred to her that it would be possible to cut the archaic bond between man and animal. “What kind of people are we if we have no animals?” This was the approximate meaning of her answer, which also included a good deal from the human race’s fear of the loneliness. The beast is the missing link between us and the rest of the world.”

(Andrzej Stasiuk: On way to Babadag)

And of course the dogs observed by Catherine in the cities and villages, not to speak about the many cats.

I have also learned a lot about Ukraine along the way. The past seven days dispelled a number of unconscious prejudices about the country. I think that the majority of the cities and villages, in spite of the perceivable poverty, are well up to Central European standards (of course I know that we did not see all the Ukraine, so I should be more careful with such statements). The history of the country is also little known, and is often limited to vague and broad concepts. It was good to color the white spots of my mental map, to which, apart from the view, the expertise of our guide Tamás was essential.

Odessa is not only the city of miracles, Odessa is a miracle itself in a certain sense, a different world. The buildings, even in their present state, still reflect something from the former greatness; their “imperialist” traits show that once it was a major city of an enormous empire. There is a lot which is still swirling in me about the city, and which I can yet hardly put into words, I rather experience them in the form of moods and feelings. The Moldavanka with its houses and courtyards, so beautiful even in their ruins, the Moldavanka of Babel. The sea (thalassa! thalassa!) The rebuilt German Lutheran church, which is a bit too modern for me inside, but it has engraved in eight languages on its inner glass door, as a sign of the city’s former diversity: “peace with you”. Although the city has lost most of this diversity over the past hundred years, it has maintained its liveliness: the Deribasovskaya is full of life every evening, and the City Park also in the daytime. In Budapest I have never seen as much natural vitality and vigor as here.

Odessa is a great actor. In the last morning it said a theatrical goodbye to us. The weather went wrong, only a few people were loitering on the streets, ravens were croaking, the circus on the Deribasovskaya was pulled down – only a hurdy-gurdy was missing, to play some sad melody. But I am sure that in the afternoon and evening the city revived just like in the previous days. Many of us left something in Odessa: a museum we could not visit, a melody, a street to be discovered, a book to be bought. If nothing else, for these it will be worth to come back once (twice, three times…)

If Lemberg is a “ship-city”, or even ghost ship – as the Ukrainian writer and poet Yuri Andrukhovich writes in one of his essays, referring to the former cultures of the city stratifying on each other –, then this region from Galicia to Bukovina and Tokaj through Maramureș to Podolia is a whole ghost fleet, with several similar, although smaller ships, and with Odessa, this other great “ship-city” at the other end. True, it has been always more closed and sank deeper into the seabed of history than, say, Lemberg, so the discovery of its former diversity requires a more sharp-eyed diving – but on the basis of the last week I can surely say: it is worth to submerge.
K. Dani

In József’s own blog
(in Hungarian):

Cseremos és huculok
7. Kamenyec-Podolszk – Budapest
6. Odessza – Kamenyec-Podolszk
5. Odessza, még mindig
4. Moldavanka
3. Odessza, belváros
2. Csernovic-Odessza
1. Budapest – Csernovic
Everything passes on such little things. A few years ago I was looking for the lyrics of a WWI song about Doberdo on the net. The search engine gave a page, some Wang. The post was in English, but strangely it also included the lyrics in Italian and Hungarian. It seemed interesting. I set it aside that once I would visit it.
Since then I have been visiting it uninterruptedly.
One afternoon I did not want to go cycling – although at that time I was very determined to exercise at least a hour a day. But I have already cycled about every route in the neighborhood, let alone cycled about, but also got bored with them. I was already dressed for cycling, but the indecision paralyzed me. So I sat back in front of the computer. What is in my rss feeder? It says, Andalusian oliva oil. Location? The Kőleves restaurant. Ha! A perfect target. True, I do not like oliva oil, but the girls do, so I would surprise them.
And now, as a direct result of all that, I am now wobbling along, already the fourth day, on a small bus. The seat is more familiar with my weak points than my wife, although with the seat I have never had any budget debate. The fellow travelers sitting behind me are buzzing like an outboard motor. If they stop, I wake up scared from my nap.
What an insane thing! 1400 kilometers, by bus. Just there. And the same back. Although here, in the Ukraine even this is not sure. Just as the roads: not only their quality, but their very existence is uncertain. Foggy, gloomy weather: it is not even sure that the villages exist. A horse is grazing in the middle of the intersection. What is he chewing? The asphalt? Well, it will not make the magic steed breathe fire.

One village after the other. Time has stopped in all of them. Or, well, no. Where until now Lenin’s index finger broke into the heavens, now Shevchenko is waving for a hitchhike to the space. E.T. returns home.
There was a time when another, much bigger index finger pointed downwards: this will be your homeland! And for a long time it really was: in this blood-soaked strip from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea villages swarmed, then one or another army marched through them, but then they just swarmed again.
Today they no longer swarm. The landscape and the villages at most remember. There is fog, I remember fog… although there was certainly some sunshine, too, for one of my T-shirts went sweaty into the laundry basket. That must have been some warm fog.
Odessa is different. There the sun is shining. Even when there is fog. After the lazy, half sleeping shtetls Odesa vibrates – but this is only its beach mask. Moldovanka is rather lazy again. Every courtyard is a different shtetl. It is even possible that in one of them a horse is eating the asphalt.
Markets. It would be good to see the Privoz and the Starokinniy at the same moment. There’s no way that both of them are filled at once. There are not so many people in the world.
And then shtetls again. Kamenets-Podolsk shows you what the real fog is, guys. That you cannot see the village church in the fog? Hello, here a whole city has disappeared, together with a seven towered fortress, an old town built on a cliff, and a hetman dressed as a bride.
Then vodka in the store, and the bus does not shake any more. We are on domestic routes again.
It is a dangerous place, this Kőleves. You naively go there and you’re at once talked into some hair-rising travel.
And then I have not yet talked about the oliva oil.

On the blog of Tamas a trip to Odessa by bus from Budapest was announced. I was convinced by my son to join with him although I had no idea who Tamas was and what he would show us. Fortunately, Tamas turned out to be a perfect guide. He has broad knowledge of the history of the area visited and of the subject he dealt with. On this trip attention was paid to the remains of Jewish life in the cities we passed through and in the final destination, Odessa. Odessa is a remarkable city for the following reasons: The city, at least the center and the sea front are beautiful. In the communist history Odessa was of great importance, since the revolution of 1905 started on the Potemkin stairs, at least according to the movie of Eisenstein. Moreover, Jewish life once flourished here. Before the second world war about 40% of the population was Jewish – evidence is still there. The famous writer Isaak Babel described life in the Moldavanka quarter of the city where underworld dominated.
On the way back impressive fortresses were visited on the border with Moldavia, among which the city of Kamenets-Podolsk should be mentioned.
A remarkable thing was the absence of tourists everywhere we came, although the cities but also the landscape – the Carpathian mountains – were really nice and worth visiting.
Resuming I can say we made a journey through a part of the world we otherwise never would have known. Thanks to Tamas and also to the pleasant company on this trip.

Bram de Vries / The Netherlands

With the leaves in color and the atmospheric conditions suitably somber, what better time of year to make a journey through the Ukraine, along the cusp of Moldavia, to Odessa? Further, the promise of these vicissitudes opened up by the presence of a knowledgeable and worthy guide made the offer, for me, a done deal.

En route, our company often passed locals seated on wagons pulled by pairs of horses, a clear sign, I suppose, of their economic and cultural conditons, perhaps because grass is cheaper than gas, but maybe because they just like it that way. I keep the latter thought close to my heart.

The bells of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, Odessa

Who could forget the belly-button of Europe, one of many pretenders to the geographical center of Europe, that takes the form a brass nipple proudly facing sky, at the base of a carelessly painted obelisk?

Hasids praying at Rabbi Nachman’s tomb, Uman

At Uman, we were warmly welcomed into the sacred room containing the tomb of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, revered as a kind of saint of Hasidic Judaism. As men in black clothes, beards and forelocks continued their vocal supplications, we were invited to honor the Rebbe by reading a prayer (in Hebrew, helpfully transcribed into the Roman alphabet) at his resting place. On the return trip, in haunting Medzhybizh, a similar site locates the tomb of Nachman's great-grandfather and founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov. Crowded around his tomb are the numous graves of other rabbis who wished to repose for eternity near him.

Towards the tomb of Baal Shem Tov, by humming the Hasid motif of The Inn, Medzhibozh

Odessa's gridiron streets and lush tree-lined avenues offer ample delectations for the sightseer. Aside from the bustling boulevards and the waterfront promenade with its monumental Potemkin Steps, a central fascination of Odessa is her assembly of variegated façades, stairwells and courtyards. In varying stages of decomposition, these richly textured and storied spaces remind us that in other places, where a stage-managed, primped and pruned appearance is the preference, much of surprise and poetry is generally not to be had. Festooned with green vines and shod with broken pavements, the courtyards of Odessa allow the residents of the neighborhood to face each other from their balconies, and cross paths in the enclosure below during their daily activities, which would seem to support a village-like sense of community cloistered within the larger city.

A strolling accordionist in the evening on the Primorsky boulevard, Odessa

Impoverished Moldavanka, only intermittently picturesque, unfolded before us under the tutelage of our trusty guide, revealing the secret haunts of Odessa's Jewish gangsters, described in Isaak Babel's Odessa Tales. The dove-cote is still there, sequestered in a nested courtyard teeming with cats, a monument without official recognition, maintained by unwritten law.

Traditional pub music, with the guests singing, Odessa

The return journey took us to Kamenets-Podilsk, a city on a large rock, nearly encircled by the Smotrych River. This made a stellar location for protection from the invading hordes, and offers a striking vista for us today. Veiled in early morning mist about sunrise, we saw the castle that guards what historically was the only way into the city as if it were a mirage, the rosy light etching a fairy image from an old picture postcard.
Lloyd Dunn / USA/Prague
the recordings selected and complemented in a beautiful composition here

Ukrainian essay

Pruzsinszky Dani

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