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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Odessa’s Jewish Legacy

Once considered the Jewish capital of the Russian Empire, Odessa is filled with traditions, buildings and monuments with ties to this cultural legacy.  The city was once the center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The small restaurant across the street from my hostel specialized in seafood from the Black Sea. In the middle of the street-side dining area was an old wine barrel topped with a humorous display of two traditional Jewish dolls dressed in the attire of their respective professions, a baker and a musician.

Purim at the Grand Coral Synagogue

During the Jewish holiday of Purim, I decided to spend the night at the charming California Boutique Hotel which was next door to the beautifully restored Grand Coral Synagogue, one of two functioning synagogues in Odessa. It was built in 1790. Purim commemorates the time when the Jewish people who were living in Persia during the First Persian Empire (550 -330BC) were saved from extermination by the courage of a young Jewish woman called Esther.

I checked into my hotel in the early evening and then proceeded next door to the synagogue. There I befriended a security guard who spoke English and stood close to him so as not to be too obtrusive in my street attire. Streams of children and young people were bounding joyfully in and out of the synagogue, many dressed in colorful costumes and masks. Adults who were with them were dressed in costume or Sabbath clothes. The guard explained that the time for the children to celebrate was over but the adults would return at 11pm to celebrate among themselves.

At the corner a food truck was surrounded by eager young people who had just exited the synagogue. A few boys were wearing a kippah, a head covering worn by Jewish men. I stood in the darkness watching and listening to the surrounding activity. Families, many with strollers, were socializing in front of the synagogue. Colored lights decorated the entrance to my hotel next door, in celebration. I later learned that the hostel was owned by an Israeli/American.

Later that night I looked out over the stone balcony of my room, and admired the beautiful stained glass window of the synagogue, which was lit from within. The sound of revelers inside pierced the clear night air. What a joy!

Brodsky Synagogue

In striking contrast to the activity at the Great Choral Synagogue that night, the dark, imposing Brodsky Synagogue which was just around the corner, stood in mute testimony to its grand past. Built in 1863, it was the largest synagogue in the south of what was the Russian Empire at that time. Two years ago, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community after a century of state control. It is slated to be the future site of the Odessa Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Both synagogues were in the vicinity of vul Evreyska (Jewish Street).

Holocaust Memorial

It was a beautiful, sunny spring-like day when I visited the Holocaust Memorial on the outskirts of town. The balmy feeling in the air belied the somber history that took place there during WWII.

I hired a local English-speaking guide, Anna Sokoloskaya, whom I met through the hotel next to the Choral Synagogue, to take me on a Jewish tour of Odessa which included the holocaust memorial. She ordered an Uber for us to get there.

Anna was extremely knowledgeable of Odessa’s Jewish history. She was not Jewish, but said she had visited Israel several times in order to broaden her knowledge of the Jewish diaspora. A large percentage of her business is taking people on Jewish tours of Odessa.

At the memorial site we visited the “Road to Death” that lead to the extermination camps for thousands of Odessa’s Jews and Gypsies starting in 1941. Along with memorial signs, the Alley of the *Righteous Among the Nations featured a tree dedicated to each person in Odessa who saved a Jew.

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* An honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis

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Odessa’s Hidden Courtyards

Odessa’s hidden courtyards intrigued, fascinated, and more often than not, surprised me.

Around the corner from Cathedral Square in the old town was my hostel, the door of which was deep inside a gated, old courtyard. The pavement was in upheaval, paint was sorely lacking everywhere, but it was clean. Laundry was often hanging out to dry between the walls of houses which surrounded the inside of the courtyard.

I eventually came to the conclusion that my atmospheric courtyard was typical of Odessa’s old traditional courtyards which were hidden throughout old town. The occupants were of diverse nationality, age, and profession. It was scarce on beauty, but revealed an interesting slice of Odessa life and culture.

My courtyard became my *Little Odessa. I soon felt very much at home there. I periodically exchanged friendly greetings in English with two Muslim women outside the entrance of their stately, two-story house. A couple of times I observed a young professional man tapping on a window as he approached a door of a house in the courtyard. The door opened quickly thereafter and he vanished inside. Once I was faster than he was and got a glimpse of a stunning, flower-filled interior. I often exchanged smiles with a middle-aged woman who was taking her dog out for a walk. Two adolescents occasionally played a noisy game of football (soccer) until someone called them in.

I observed a different kind of courtyard activity just outside my dorm window where I often sat while writing this blog. A large paved area with a volleyball net was surrounded by buildings. It was often a buzz of activity with students from the high school next door who were playing volleyball or football (soccer). First there would be a scurry of excitement, then a whistle, then total silence as the group exited the play area. Then I would get back to work until the next pleasant disturbance. Fun!

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No courtyard was more thought-provoking than the one where the Museum of History of Odessa Jews was located, which was a few blocks from my hostel. In the rear of the crumbling courtyard was a small apartment where four Jewish families had lived together during Soviet times. This museum pictured the lives of the Jewish population of Odessa before the Holocaust with a rich, diverse collection of items donated by descendants of Jewish families who managed to survive those times.

I couldn’t help but compare this humble museum to the grandiose Jewish history museum that I visited a couple years ago in Warsaw, Poland. The museum in Warsaw delved deep into centuries of Jewish history. In comparison, the museum in Odessa gave me the feeling I had walked into the lives of several Jewish Odessa families in the 20th century. It was cozy, informative, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

The new handbook City Guide of Jewish Odessa, which I purchased at this museum, was a great help in my quest to learn about the city’s heritage. The smile on the fresh-faced Jewish boy on the cover made me feel like he was welcoming me into his world, which he did through this well-written guidebook.

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On the wall of one of Odessa’s more artistic courtyards was a mural containing the famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist, Alexander Pushkin, in a very casual, relaxed pose. Born into Russian nobility in 1799, he was the great grandson of an African slave. He was eventually banished, for his political poems, to remote southern Russia, where Odessa was located.

It seemed every time I turned around there was some sort of remembrance of Pushkin, whether in the form of a statue, a bust, or a wall painting. This wall painting was the most endearing of all these remembrances, presenting him as a charmer, which I understand he was.

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* Little Odessa was a nickname sometimes given to Brighton Beach, NY, due to the Russian immigrants who settled there, largely Russian Jews, from Odessa.

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