London to Vienna, Austria

I arrived in London a few days before Brexit was to go into effect.  In the early morning hours on the first day of this momentous occasion, February 1, 2020, I received an email from longtime friend, historical author, and citizen of the United Kingdom, Lee Stokes, concerning his feelings on the separation of Great Britain from the Economic Union.

Lee stated: “Nations must work together at all levels to prevent war. This is especially true in Europe, where the peace has held (since WWII), thanks to the strong NATO military alliance and the economic clout of the European Union. Britain’s quitting the EU has made the EU weaker for me.”

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London is young, international, and ALIVE!

During the evenings in London’s West End theatre district, buskers sang popular tunes in Piccadilly Circus to streams of passers-by and to the young perched under the fountain that graces the square. Street artists were hard at work drawing caricatures of customers. Theatres were packed. The streets, squares, promenades in Chinatown, and restaurants were bustling. I attended a couple of theatrical performances, both of which were under US$45.

Covent Gardens, an Italianate arcade square in London’s West End, was a great place for people watching and enjoying free outdoor entertainment. A highlight for me was when the harmonious music of a classical string quintet drifted upwards as I passed by an open-air food court which was below street level. I contributed a few coins in appreciation.

Historic Camden Town, easily accessible by London’s efficient underground transportation system, is well known for its eclectic, fringe marketplace. It is also a popular place to go to snack on international street food while watching Camden’s community narrowboats maneuver the surrounding canal waterways. My favorite fast food stall there sells traditional Venezuelan arepas, a small corn flour pita filed with a variety of ingredients. Lone lines were frequent, but it was well worth the wait.

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I’m off to Vienna, once an Imperial Capital, now a major European city of culture. The historic city borders the Danube River and parts of the former East Bloc. It will be my jumping off point for my winter adventures this year as I continue my exploration of Eastern Europe.

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Post script from Newport, Rhode Island, USA – Navy War College & Ukrainian Student

The U.S. Naval War College* in Newport, Rhode Island, was established1884. The college brings 100 to 150 foreign officers to the U.S. from around the world annually, including military officers from Ukraine.

The Naval War College International Military Student Office (IMSO) manages the NWC sponsor program, which Merrilee Zellner, author of this blog, participates in regularly. One of the main purposes of the volunteer sponsor program is to “….provide a level of exposure to American life and culture that complements the official academic and social program for the course.”**

This program enriches both the lives of the sponsors, through interaction with special people from around the world who are serving their country, and the students they sponsor.

CDR Burdov Mykola from Ukraine and his sponsor Merrilee Zellner, at the Naval Staff College International Cuisine Night, November 1, 2019.

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* http://www.usnwc.edu

** http://www.usnwc.edu/Faculty-and-Departments/Academic-Departments/International-Programs-Department

Saying goodbye to Odessa, Ukraine

Following are a few photos in memory of my experience in Odessa, the former Soviet city on the Black Sea which is packed with Jewish history, and now holds a special place in contemporary Ukraine.

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Arcadia, Odessa, a Black Sea Resort

Arcadia is a popular resort area a few kilometers south of Odessa along the Black Sea where luxury buildings coexist with old Russian aristocracy houses and Soviet-era sanatoriums. The majority of Odessa’s beaches are at the foot of steep cliffs and slopes. In Arcadia, the wildly popular Arcadia Beach can be accessed via natural, gentle slopes.

Soviet sanatoriums, halfway between a spa and a clinic, were state-run institutions that provided workers with constructive rest. Hundreds of sanatoriums are still found scattered throughout Russia and the post-Soviet states.

There are two popular ways to reach Arcadia from Odessa. One is the pedestrian six-kilometer Route of Health that runs along the shore. The other is by trolley. I boarded the trolley near Odessa’s main train station for the 20 minute ride.

Mid-rise and high-rise hotels and apartment complexes, interspersed with construction cranes, dominated the Arcadia skyline. It was in sharp contrast to the low-rise, historic buildings of Odessa’s Old Town a few miles away.

I alighted at the end of the trolley line which was at the entrance to a wide promenade lined with cafes, bars, shops and modern apartment buildings. A few people were strolling on a long pier that extended from the end of the promenade. Construction workers were busily working on decks of restaurants, bars and clubs that lined the waterfront. Arcadia Beach, which was wind-swept and empty, stretched out on both sides of the pier.

I strolled the boardwalk. All the photos I had seen over the years of this famous Russian Black Sea resort with wall-to-wall people sunning themselves on the narrow stretch of sandy beach, suddenly seemed unreal. Off season certainly did paint a different, inviting picture.

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Odessa City Garden

Odessa’s picturesque, leafy, City Garden is one of the best places in town to observe, and be part of, the city’s diverse life pulse.

It was donated to the city in 1806, and is located in Old Town at one end of historic, pedestrian vul Derybasivska.

Statues abound throughout the park such as the bronzy lion, the delightful dancing people, and the seated bronze sculpture of Leonid Utesov.  Utesov was a famous Soviet jazz singer and actor of Jewish origin and was awarded the prestigious title of People’s Artist of the USSR in 1965.

City Garden appeared to be used by a cross section of the city’s diverse residents while I was in Odessa. Young people were buried in their cell phones. Older people worked on computers. Children played in the central pavilion and in and around the music fountain, which was currently dry. There were Muslim women dressed in black burkas, dog walkers, and Navy personnel in uniform.

The Western Naval Base, located in Odessa, is the current main naval base of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It was formerly a base of the Soviet Navy.

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A opening along a stone wall in the park lead to a large open area with a massive pile of rubble from a demolished building. This was the only part of the park that didn’t feel inviting.

One day a group of what appeared to be volunteers were clearing the rubble. They were mostly male and of diverse age with the youngest being about five years old. Two girls were enjoying a makeshift swing which hung at the opening in the wall. A posted news article with photos indicated there was a plan in place to transform this area into a lovely part of City Garden.

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An enticing mix of restaurants surrounded City Garden.

My favorite place for dinner was a buffet restaurant that offered a wide variety of local food at rock-bottom prices, similar to the buffet restaurant I frequented in Podil, Kiev. Both appeared to attract a similar crowd of young professionals and students.

One young man who was in line spoke to me in fluent English. When I asked how he learned to speak English so well, he said he gets a lot of practice with his American friend who has been living in Odessa while he is writing a book. The low cost of living in Odessa makes it affordable for him to do this, he explained.

When I was passing through the park one day, I heard some voices in song coming from one of the restaurants. Women in traditional Ukrainian dress were singing Ukrainian folk songs in harmony next to a table where drinks and traditional pancakes were being sold to passer’s by.  

I lingered here for a while enjoying the atmosphere and music. It was the only place in Ukraine that I had experienced such an inviting outdoor promotion of a restaurant.

On another side of the park was a restaurant, called the Odessa Cafe, which was located in an attractive yellow, historic building. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Odessa. A sign in front of the cafe promoted a group of musicians who play “shuva” music on weekends. Never having heard of that kind of music, I was­ intrigued.

As I approached the cafe one Friday evening, a group of men, all dressed in dark street attire, were milling around the entrance.  Feeling a bit intimidated by them, I almost turned away. But the strains of lively music that drifted through the front door propelled me to walk courageously through the middle of them.

Inside it was packed with men crowded excitedly around a small band with a female vocalist. Partially-eaten community plates of food were in the center of each dinner table. I recognized the music to be similar to klezmer, traditional music of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Fans held up smart phones to record the show. I put my camera on recording mode also and started swaying to the music. I half expected to hear the popular Jewish celebration song “Hava Nagila.”

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Exploring Odessa’s Public Markets

I made every effort to visit at least one of Odessa’s many colorful markets each day. I never had to go too far out of my way to make this happen, as most of them were in Old Town, seldom more than a few blocks away from wherever I was at the time.

Privoz Market, the main city market near Odessa’s main train station, is one of the largest farmer’s markets in the world. The smaller Novyi Bazar, started in 1850, is located in the heart of the historic district in a building that is an architectural gem.

City Food Market, a “foodies” food court which is frequented mostly by upwardly-mobile young Odessans, occupies a stunning historic building in the heart of Old Town. Odessa Book Market, a fascinating holdover from Soviet times, stretches for a long city block under cover in a park-like atmosphere in old town.

Privoz Market

Privoz Market is one of Odessa’s top tourist attractions. It began in 1827 when wares were sold from the back of horse driven carts.

Full-fledged shops mingle with street-side vendor stalls and stout women perched on stools surrounded by their goods for sale. There are over 6000 vendors participating. Consumer goods abound. Huge individual sections of the market are devoted to meat, cheese, fruit and fish.

Eating samples of fresh homemade cheese in the large cheese section was a special treat. Buying any was a challenge because nobody spoke English. I watched what others were buying around me, tried to figure out what they paid, and then ordered the same.

I was constantly lost in the narrow maze of lanes, but that was half the fun.

City Food Market

The recently restored building that housed the City Food Market looked like a former palace from the outside. Itinerant tribes used to congregate here for jamborees. The two-story building is divided among prepared shops, each with its own kitchen dedicated to a particular product.

The international cuisine was delicious. The vegan and “green” stalls appeared to be some of the most popular. The young staff in the food court generally spoke English, which made ordering a wiz. I enjoyed observing the chic, young Odessan professionals who packed the place.

The prices were higher than what I was used to paying in local restaurants about town. But dining in Odessa was generally so inexpensive that paying a bit more in this “foodies” food hall hardly made a dent in my budget. The atmosphere was worth every extra hryvnia (Ukrainian currency) I paid.

Odessa Book Market

One day while I was crossing a wide leafy boulevard, I stopped in the middle to listen to a male musician with disheveled long hair playing popular tunes at an old upright piano. He was next to a casual outdoor bar and some book stalls. This was one end of the Odessa Book Market which was under a long metal and glass dome.

The book market was important during Soviet times when books were hard to come by. One book stall that caught my attention was promoting *Lonely Planet guide books in Ukrainian language.

Novyi Bazar

Whenever I wanted a quick breakfast of oranges, cheese, and some fresh bread, I headed for the Novyi Bazar, which was only a few blocks from my hostel. No English was spoken there and I didn’t know any Ukrainian. Whenever I bought fruit, I assumed any posted price was for a kilo and then proceeded to buy a kilo. Not a flawless way to shop, but I got the fruit!

Near the market was a traditional Georgian bakery. The neighboring country of the Republic of Georgia shared a common history for a time with Ukraine, both of them being one of the former Soviet Republics. Georgia’s traditional foods and baked goods of meat-and-cheese-filled pastries are popular all over Ukraine. I loved their hot bread which came out of their round, floor-mounted traditional oven.

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*A series of internationally acclaimed guide books especially geared to independent travellers

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