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  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:48 am on August 27, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Geography of Texas, , , , Robert Heinlen, ,   

    Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards 

    When I think about Odessa, I often remember the title of Robert Heinlen’s novel, “The Door into Summer“. Odessa is a summer city. If I were to pick one word to describe it in the summer, it would be sun-dappled.

    The soil in Odessa is pretty bad, and there aren’t any local sources of fresh water. Because of that there are only three types of trees that thrive there: acacia, sycamore (locally known as “shameless” trees because they shed their bark), and horse chestnut. Acacia is one of the symbols of Odessa, and horse chestnut is that of Kiev. These trees are thriving in Odessa, and many hundred year old specimens provide a lot of shade.

    The tree shade and the bright sun bathe everything in these spots of light, like in Renoir’s La Moulin de la Galette.

    Here’s a very old acacia on the corner of the street where I grew up. Notice the parking sign: in Odessa the sidewalks are so wide that cars can be parked on them. Also, they are now selling melons out of cages that are locked for the night. Acacia blossoms cover all the sidewalks and produce and intoxicating aroma.

    As I mentioned before, Odessa was built on the grand scale and by the best architects. Even the lesser buildings are very decorated. Atlases were very popular.

    Apparently the current location of Odessa used to be under the Black sea, and the bedrock consists of a somewhat soft yellow sedimentary rock formed out of shells of sea creatures. It’s a type of limestone, I guess. This rock turned out to be a perfect building material: cheap and abundant, soft enough to cut and carve, but durable enough to build with, not too heavy, very good for thermal and sound isolation. So many buildings were built this stone that the quarries below the city formed a humongous labyrinth known as “catacombs“. It was used by contraband smugglers and WWII guerrilla fighters. It would have been super easy to build a subway in Odessa, but somehow it never happened.

    There are two architectural features of the old limestone buildings that became very important in the Odessa way of life: balconies and courtyards. Just like the wide sidewalks, these are the artifacts of the town mostly built in 1800s, in the era of horse buggies, no air conditioning, and gas light. Balconies provided a breath of fresh air, and internal courtyards let architects let in light into all apartments.

    Some balconies are very charming, with cast iron railings and pleasing shapes and aging gracefully.

    Some did not survive and were replaced by ugly shitboxes.

    Some are unsafe Frankenstein monsters.

    Some are huge, with fancy statues, and in horrible state of disrepair.

    Some are maintained.

    Some are elegant, curved around gorgeous bay windows. Notice the hanging laundry.

    Some instead of laundry are draped in grapevines.

    I have no idea how these grapevines survive: they grow in the street, are peed on by dogs and are never watered.

    Some of the most gorgeous buildings with the most awesome balconies are in such state of disrepair, that in New York they would have been immediately boarded up, but yet there are people living there…

    These old buildings are what New York realtors are referring to as “pre-war”: they have very tall ceilings, big rooms, parquet floors, fireplaces, and other bourgeoisie niceties. After the revolution most of these apartments where turned into communal flats: instead of a single family with help, now 5-7 families were crammed into it. The process kind of reversed itself in the 90s, with rich people buying out communal dwellers, but some still remain: here’s a picture of the doorbells on one door. You can visit a site about communal living in Russia. Interestingly enough, despite the Marxist spirit, in communal apartments even the doorbells were hooked up to separate electric meters, and the excessive use of a lightbulb in bathroom was a major point of contention.

    These buildings are old: many have horse hitches out front:

    Once you tied your horse down, you enter the building through a gate.

    Sometimes the gate is old and beautiful.

    Sometimes it was replaced by a horrible modern monstrosity painted with signs like “angry dog” and “there’s no toilet here”.

    Sometimes it’s missing altogether.

    The gate leads you through a passageway. What will you find in that passageway?

    A bunch of semi-destroyed soviet-era mailboxes. I am not sure if they are still in use. Here’s one of the better preserved specimen.

    The passageway, a utility space, often has interesting ceilings, which are almost always mostly ruined.

    Some are less ornate though.

    Often there are very cool windows within the passageways.

    The passageway will lead you into the yard. There will be entrances to apartments, parked cars, laundry.

    Here’s something that used to be very common, but is actually a rarity now: drying plastic bags.

    Some more cars and a kid riding a bike.

    Grapevines, cats, old cars.

    Restored all cars and walls that are in bad need of restoration.

    Sleeping dogs and more drying laundry.

    A non-functioning fountain.

    A little garden. This one used to be my grandmother’s.

    A granny reading a newspaper.

    Peeling walls: I distinctly remember this particular wall from my childhood, it used to look exactly the same. It’s a testament to the quality of work of the old builders that with next to zero maintenance these buildings survive.

    A seemingly functional pigeon coop.

    An old tree. These old trees move move in the wind in a very hypnotic manner. Being so tall, they can be used to forecast the size of waves in the sea by the speed at which the tops of them move.

    A decorative drinking well. I’m not sure, but it kind of looks like it could have been a real well once.

    A woman feeding cats who will tell you to stop taking stupid pictures like the dumbass that you are and go and do something productive.

    Walls with WWII bullet holes. Odessa is one of the few cities granted the designation of hero city for valiant resistance. When the Germans and Romanians entered the city there was a lot of executions.

    A sad, sad sight: an ad for apartments in a newly constructed building.

    Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction

  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:17 am on August 18, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie, , , BMW, building of Odessa, Catherine the Great, City Square, , , , , Everything Is Illuminated, , Geography of Texas, Geography of Ukraine, Havana, hotel Zirka, , , José Pascual Domingo de Ribas, Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron, , , police captain, , , , same architect, , , , , Turkey, , , , , Vienna, , Yushchenko   

    Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction 

    I live on a high floor of an art deco tower facing a busy Brooklyn street. The acoustics of the building and the street are such that I can sometimes hear what’s going on in the street right from my desk. Once I heard the sounds of a minor fender bender followed by an angry exchange unpleasantness that was escalating into some creative Russian profanity. The driver who rammed the other car was pretty unapologetic and criticized the driving skills of the one who got rammed. Then followed the exchange that made me laugh out loud – the driver who got rammed said – “the way you behave, man, you must be from Odessa.” “Yes, I am,” – answered the other guy, and added – “and you still drive like a moron.”

    Odessa, Ukraine, my hometown, is a very special place. It has a Bizarro mirror twin, Odessa, Texas.

    Odessa is a resort town situated on the shore of the Black Sea, right across from Turkey. Culturally it’s a bit like Brooklyn (or Brooklyn is a bit like Odessa because of an almost constant infusion of Odessans) – a city with an attitude, a city where a lot of famous people are born and famous people come to live. Architecturally it’s a lot like Vienna and St. Petersburg: a city built on a grand scale (but with softer edges), by the best architects.

    Odessa’s ancient past is obscure: a Greek colony, a small town controlled by Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, various Khanates and Kaganates, and finally a Turkish fortress. Odessa’s fortunes have turned when Russian forces invaded it in late 1700s. Catherine the Great apparently wanted to fortify the newly won land, and committed the people and resources needed to make the new city of Odessa a success.

    The founding fathers of Odessa were a bunch of distinguished foreigners in the service of the Russian crown: General José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and Count Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron.

    Richelieu, or the Duc, as he’s commonly known in Odessa, will forever be loved by Odessans for his accomplishments. The way I imagine the Duc is sort of like the 18th century Steve Jobs, with a reality distortion field of his own, except without being an asshole (Richelieu was known for his kindness and indifference to money). Somehow – nobody know exactly how – Richelieu got Odessa the status of a “free port“. This meant that goods could be unloaded without paying the taxes within the city limit. This brought about an unprecedented influx of wealth, which in turn fueled the building of Odessa by the best European architects in the European manner. Odessa’s opera theater is only slightly smaller than Vienna’s, and is by the same architect.

    Another unique aspect of this new city was the ethnic makeup. Besides the usual for Ukrainian cities mix of Ukrainians and Russians, Odessa became a melting pot. Frenchmen, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Armenians: all rushed into Odessa. Even the Jews were allowed in, and not being limited to certain occupations or living in a ghetto. Odessa is a very Jewish town despite what the author of Everything Is Illuminated might have you believe.

    I left Odessa when I was 16. I came back for a 10 day visit 15 years later.

    Odessa is a a city that makes you nostalgic, and I kept seeing it in my dreams. Luckily there’s a small international airport in Odessa and President Yushchenko kindly lets the holders of an American passport into the country freely, with no need for a visa.

    12 hours and $1300 later I was standing in Odessa, looking for a cab. A pushy cabby was very surprised when I did not want to ride in his clean BMW and chose a cheaper and dearer to my heart filthy Soviet-vintage car.

    As far as hotels go, Ukraine is much more reasonable than Russia, but there are still no Marriott-like affordable and well-designed chains. There are overpriced hotels with decor that will burn your eyes out, cheaper, but scarier hotels, and apartments that you can rent which cover the gamut. Odessa has a population of about a million, but it swells to twice the size in the Summer season. Because of that there are thousands of very reasonably priced rental apartments with great amenities. Unfortunately I did not plan enough ahead, and ended up reserving a very cheap room in a brand new hotel Zirka that recently opened right in the center of the city.

    For a very reasonable $35/night I lived in a tiny-tiny, somewhat flimsily outfitted, but very clean room with a fully functioning shower, air conditioning and beautiful views, right in the historic center of Odessa.

    The hotel was still being built when I lived there, and I herd later that it was becoming a bit notorious for renting the rooms at hourly rates.

    As far as I’m concerned, you really can’t beat their amenities, their location, and their prices. Also, the staff was very courteous and professional. It was very quiet there during my stay – but worst case scenario – you might overhear noisy sex, from which you are not guaranteed at almost any hotel.

    It’s hard to see on picture, but the towels had little dollar sign designs.

    My hotel room reminded me very much of the affordable hotel room that I lived in in Japan, down to the picture of soft drinks that I took there.

    In Odessa I mostly drank Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water. Borjomi, as far as I’m concerned is the tastiest mineral water in the world.

    Odessa has its own mineral water, Kuyalnik, but it’s not sold in restaurants for some reason. I found a few bottles in a convenience store closer to the end of my stay. More about Kuyalnik later – I have a very special connection to it.

    Apparently in Europe Diet Coke is marketed as Coca Cola Light, is sold in frosted bottles, and as far as I can tell, in a different formulation. It did taste different, and I know my cokes.

    I quickly unpacked, grabbed my camera and went for a walk.

    You really can’t enter the same river twice. I left Odessa when the Soviet Union was still intact. When I came back, a lot of things stayed the same.

    There’s still a fountain in the City Square, the live band is still playing on Sundays and the pairs still dance.

    Acacia trees, the most common plant and the symbol of Odessa, are still filling the city with the aroma and sidewalks with their yellow flowers. Cleaning ladies (and men) still sweep the sidewalks with brooms made out of small branches. I brought a small jar with acacia blooms with me – the smell of nostalgia.

    Remember that ethnic markup that I described earlier on? Well, somehow that mixing of genes resulted in the hottest women on the planet. Odessa is still the city of super hot women. This brings a large contingent of sex tourists and mail order (in this case – cash and carry) bride seekers. I was approached (probably because I was typing away on a laptop) by a most distressed gentlemen in a cafe: he could not get online. His hands were shaking. I fixed some gnarly windows crud setup options and wi-fi started working. All he cared about was getting to a dating site, and when it loaded, his hands finally stopped shaking.

    Things have changed though. Odessa took on some qualities of Havana, Cuba. Historic buildings are deteriorating, old cars are kept alive way past what’s reasonable.

    It’s not like Havana because people seem to prosper. Even the pensioners do not go hungry, there is a lot of new construction, and the rich are really, really rich. I’ve seen just about every expensive car I know in the streets, except maybe a Maybach.

    A few things about the new Ukrainian economy. The salaries are paid in US dollars, but dollars are not accepted anywhere. You can easily exchange them into hryvnas and back very easily, and the rate is somehow kept at about 5 to 1, without even having to shop around for a rate.

    Real estate is amazingly expensive: for instance the apartment that my parents sold for something like $5K costs about $500K. At the same time the mortgage industry is almost non-existent.

    I’m told that the government officials are amazingly corrupt, and they constitute a major portion of the upper crust. A police captain can easily become a multimillionaire, and so can just about any government bureaucrat. There’s a practice of “otkat” – kickback from a government project is rampant. High ranking policemen and bureaucrats are almost outside the law, like in India.

    At the same time, even with all the corruption and bribery, the economy is pretty healthy, even without Russia’s oil.

    Price-wise Odessa is not the bargain that it once was. For most things I’d estimate the cost of living at about 60-70% of Brooklyn prices. Food and rent is pretty cheap, but electronics, clothing and cars are more expensive. In particular, cars are taxed so much that they cost about 2 to 3 times more than in the US, which makes all those Rollses that I’ve seen even more impressive, and explain the Soviet-era cars.

    Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards.

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