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  • Michael Krakovskiy 12:32 am on June 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alexander Pushkin, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot, , , City Hall building, , , electricity meters, , , , Pushkin monument, , sadistic gym teacher, , Ukrainian Navy   

    Odessa Close Up 

    I own a few quality Canon lenses, but 100-400 zoom lens is my favorite. 100-400 is heavy and it needs to be swapped in for something more reasonable often because it only catches a small part of the overall picture. Yes, extreme closeup is a cheesy trick: every object starts looking more significant than it already is when the focus is on it and the background disappears in a soft blur known as “bokeh“. But more often than not I do want to get rid of the clutter and take a closer look at something, to intensely focus on one thing. Sometimes looking at an object zoomed in at 400 you find something new – like a ghostly outline of the old company name hiding behind a new neon sign or a joke left in by the sculptor or notice what is going on on the tops of skyscrapers.

    100-400 seems to add a strange, otherworldly glow to things – the glow that I associate with memory.

    Here’s a series of closeup photos of my hometown, Odessa. Beware, if you are from there this might cause some serious nostalgia.

    The postal boxes were repainted a few times, but are still pretty much the same.

    A core sample is the best demonstration for watermelons

    But you have to trust the merchant’s sign that the grapes from Tairovo are sweet!sweet!

    The dish of my childhood – a tomato salad with tomatoes that taste like tomatoes.

    The building in the background is gone, but the old horse chestnut (which is probably a few hundred years old) is still around

    Here’s what you do with the leaves of acacia: you rip them off in one motion and hold them tight in your fist. Then you let go in an upward motion and try to catch as many as you can. Then you play age old game of loves me-loves me not with the remaining leaves. Well, at least that what I remember.

    Kitteh, as neglected as the city itself voices her complaint.

    A pigeon walks around in fallen acacia flowers in front of my hildhood home. I gathered a bunch of these flowers. They still smell like the city that I lost.

    These flowers in the park are still the same.

    A terrible piece of tile grafitti sprung on a refined and sophisticated building by its new owners is now covered in even cruder grafitti. Soon the slate will be wiped clean. The act of tiled vandalism always amazed me when I saw it as a kid – it was one of the first hints as to what happened in 1919.

    The staircase that leads to the sea at 13th Station of the Big Fountain. If you were brave, you could ride it down, but it lead to more sprains, scrapes, ruined pants and mis. injuries than I care to remember. Yet few kids could pass by the opportunity to ride it down.

    Seemingly indestructable electrical poles are surprisingly free of ads, but they must have carried more of them than many newspapers.

    Pushkin’s fish is still spitting into the fountain basin full of coins left by tourists.

    Corn on the cob at the beach is as spectacular as ever

    A remnant of a communal flat: after the Soviets kicked out and mostly shot the old tenants, what is known in New York as a “classic 5“, a spacious one family apartment became a 5 family apartment. The communal spirit was not complete though – all 5 bells would have been connected to separate electricity meters.

    These sturdy cast iron garbage urns might be pre-revolutionary in origin. They always reminded me of the Pushkin monument and the drinking fountain in the park (which I’ll cover further down).

    Mercury from the City Hall building stares blankly

    The iron fence of the old synagogue reminds me the fence in front of a church on 5th Avenue.

    This is where I would jump off almost every time when visiting the park

    Bullheads!

    The laurel crown of Odessa’s beloved founder, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, looked like a kangol-style hat to me when I was little. I guess it still does.

    Poor old lion dragged from somebody’s pre-revolutionary dacha to “the old Odessa corner”. I sat on this beast many a time for a photo, and so did probably millions of locals and tourists.

    They still use homemade brooms – I’m sure these are superior to synthetic-bristled ones. At the very least they must be cheaper.

    Wild grapes are in every other courtyard. They are extremely sour when green, but rarely survive into maturity.

    This Atlas always amused me because unlike other classical atlases he wore a working man’s belt. He is in a very bad way.

    This lion appears on dozens of buildings. I guess it was on sale two centuries ago.

    It’s pretty hard to destroy ironwork.

    I bet Alexander Pushkin tied his horses to this thing. Or something. It was good for jumping on and off it.

    These trashcans were all over the place when I was a kid – I only found one in the back of a courtyard.

    I bet this kid with a cournucopia (or just a bouquet) of flowers had a wingwang at some point.

    A piece of Soviet sculptural impotence is still memorable to me for some reason. I think it’s supposed to sybolize basketball. Or the last drop of patience or something.

    The crown of one of the last remaining cast iron ad pillars

    There were a few of these things all over the city. As a kid I was told that these were for sampling gas – I remember trying to smell it at some point.

    The entrance to the park – a place to meet after school.

    A park bench

    When I was crawling around the park as a toddler this fountain used to work. It always reminded me the Pushkin monument – it might have been cast by the same company. I still have memories of my father raising me up so I could take a drink.

    Our sadistic gym teacher made us do pull-ups on these bars.

    This is another place where no self-respecting child would walk on the ground instead of skipping on the parapet

    This lamp has seen better times

    Some people say these wells were operational at some point, others say that they were simply ornaments dragged from elsewhere where they were operational. In any case, these are reminders of the time when Odessa’s major source of water was roof-collected rain and the Fountains.

    A lamp of the Soviet vintage

    A horrible Soviet-era mosaic that is nevertheless burnt into my childhood memory

    The soccer stadium lights always made me sad for some reason

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:48 am on August 27, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Robert Heinlen, , Ukrainian Navy   

    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 Ukraine, Havana, hotel Zirka, , , José Pascual Domingo de Ribas, Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron, , , police captain, , , , same architect, , , , , Turkey, , Ukrainian Navy, , , 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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