Monday morning, Marina’s mother made a breakfast of (hold your breath) cabbage rolls, cheeses and salamis, hard-boiled eggs, meat-filled potato dumplings, a glass of homemade grape juice, a glass of homemade tomato juice, orange slices, bread with homemade raspberry jam made from raspberries in the garden, peppers and cucumbers, coffee AND tea and Ukrainian chocolates.
After stuffing myself and a delightful two-hour conversation, Marina and her parents took me to a monastery near their home, a beautiful collection of old buildings dating back one-hundred and ninety years. The grounds are open to the public, requesting only a contribution. The onion domes are coated in real gold. Several of the onion domes were painted blue with gold eight-pointed stars.
The monastery is completely self-sufficient. There are honey combs and a green house for growing food. I saw a number of the monks walking around as we milled about and I snapped photos. Even though the Soviets destroyed many churches in their attempts to eradicate religion, some survived.
After our little tour, Marina’s father took me and Marina near the waterfront. We walked down a rickety staircase to reach a street that ran parallel to the bay until we were able to actually have access to the area. Marina took me on another tour of Odessa. Once more I observed the vast wealth in the form of massive construction projects in the city. The waterfront was lined with exotic nightclubs featuring swimming pools and lines of chaise lounges. High-rise hotels and condominiums popped up from the ground. Construction cranes abounded.
I saw high-end shopping centers, an amusement park and expensive health clubs. Mercedes after Audi after BMW whizzed by on the street. I kept marveling at what I was witnessing.
How can it be, I asked Marina, that a nation suffering such devastation in war-torn Luhansk-Donetsk can just continue as though nothing is happening? In typical Slavic fashion, she matter-of-factly said that life needed to move on.
Interestingly enough, she pointed out the number of refugees that had poured into Odessa. She could tell by their look and their dialect. Thousands of people have fled the area since the uprising started. Marina told me about entire families who had to leave everything except the clothes on their back and start over from the bottom in western Ukraine.
I found it strange that unemployment is apparently so low in both Odessa and Lviv. Marina told me that the refugees come to Odessa and both mother and father must work (as in America, oftentimes). She said they come to Odessa, find jobs and start over which amazed me. Apparently, there are jobs around for those who want them. The rest want a hand-out. I heard the same thing from Ed in Lviv, from Aleksander in Krakow and Guido in Italy.
We stopped for lunch at a beautiful and elegant restaurant and dined al fresco. Marina ordered fresh-squeezed orange/grapefruit juice and I ordered Ozkaz a smoked juice made of apples and various fruits. For lunch we ate shashlyk (various types of cooked, seasoned meats), and for dessert she ordered a cherry-filled dumpling and honey cake. We didn’t finish our meal so we packed it up and had it placed into a sack which I carried.
As nighttime approached, we came upon a year-round carnival and took a ride on the ferris wheel. After disembarking, Marina’s phone rang. It was her girlfriend inviting us to a karaoke bar. Was I interested? I said yes.
Marina warned me that she did not particularly care for this bar. It was dirty and gross, she said, with garbage everywhere. Russian mafia frequented the place. Worst of all, her acquaintance always sang and she sounded like a slaughterhouse. In my overly dramatic mind, I pictured Mercedes lined up outside the establishment with neck-less bodyguards carrying Kalishnikovs lurking about outside. I pictured a dive as she described. I was self-conscious going to a restaurant populated with mafiosi to meet her friends while carrying a large bag containing our leftover lunch. I felt like a homeless person.
Instead, I saw a mostly-empty restaurant-bar with about ten people. Marina’s group embraced her and she introduced me to everyone. At first I was a bit shy since I knew no one and assumed that no one spoke English. I was waiting for Marina’s girlfriend to show up who, she assured me, also spoke English.
The first person I really noticed, though, was a man from another group. He was VERY portly, wearing an orange shirt. He and his girlfriend were on the dance floor for every song and he made the most of his interpretation of each song through his dance moves.
Shaking his prodigious bottom, he twerked his girlfriend. Gyrating his hips, he bopped around the floor. His determination to be sexy had me howling with laughter as he provocatively ran his hands over his enormous stomach and breasts while he moved. I tried not to stare, but he was so entertaining, I couldn’t help myself. Soon Marina was watching with me. I had to admit that I admired this man and how self-assured he was to move with such candor and confidence.
After a bit, I met Oleg, a large man around twenty-eight years old who is the captain of a cargo ship and spoke English. Oleg is a very proud, regal sort of man. A fierce Russian nationalist, he threw rubles to me, remarking that, in twenty years, it would be the world’s premier currency. I just smiled.
I was very impressed with Oleg. As a ship captain, he had a rather foul mouth, however, he refused to utter a swear word in the presence of a lady. As a matter of fact, all the Russian men were the same way.
Another man arrived a bit after Marina and I did. His name was Alexey and I will never forget him as long as I live. He was quite reserved at first as he sat across the table from us. By this time, karaoke had started and Oleg was the first to sing. The song obviously impacted Alexey deeply. I watched as his countenance changed from ambivalence to concern to sadness to total devastation.
I felt bad as I watched his emotions deteriorate so I asked Marina if she knew the problem. Was he in the throes of a divorce? Did his mother die? No, she said. Russian men love to cry over songs. It reminds them that they have emotions. According to her, all Russian songs are morbidly sad. My brother said that they are so depressing, they make him want to reach for a butcher knife to kill himself.
Alexey displayed this quite vividly. I was not willing to quite accept Marina’s explanation so I sat next to him and put my arm around his shoulder to make sure he was okay. I asked him what was wrong.
“Bob, the man who writes this song, he prisoner.” he explained in his fractured English. “Love gone, no hope, terrible prison rules. And he DEAD now! Just like Tupac Shakur!”
I tried to feign concern. When the “Tupac Shakur” comment came out, I realized Marina was right. I guess Russian men sometimes like to look for a good cry. I left him alone.
The evening was a blast. I got to know Marina’s friends. She told them she was bringing a professional American singer (she had heard me sing a couple of bars in a New York restaurant). I dutifully sang “Desperado”, my signature hit. Afterwards a short man came up to me with his eyes as wide as dinner plates.
“You must sing again. I paid for two more songs for you!” he exclaimed. I was a bit embarrassed. I felt obligated because I thought he was the manager. So I sang two more songs, including “Yesterday” with Oleg. As the night drew to a close, Oleg and Alexey exhorted me to “show them my beautiful voice” one more time so I warbled the Beatles’ “In My Life.”
At one point during the evening I walked outside to cool down. Oleg and Alexey joined me. The talk turned to politics and I took a decidedly centrist stance. They railed over the fascists in the Kiev government and how their rights as Russian-speakers were being taken away. All they wanted was to speak Russian. What was the problem?
Rather than engage them after the prodigious amounts of vodka that had lubricated their emotions, I offered that it’s the government who creates the problems. We all want the same thing–a good life for ourselves and our families, safety, opportunity, creature comforts. We are all people and the governments color the people with a negative hue. They seemed to agree with that. I was off the hook.
As I travel through Ukraine and read the news here and engage with the people, I cannot help but wonder about how we get sanitized versions of the news, just like people in every nation. How do you know what is truth and what is sensationalism or subjectivity? I’ve always felt the truth is somewhere in the middle. Rarely does the Right or the Left have a lock on all that is righteous and truthful. Everyone has his or her own agenda or opinion.
Why can’t we all just get along?