Six Days in Odesa
by Jeanne Parr Lemkau
Smoke is engulfing the streets of Odesa from the bombardment of the city’s oil refinery by Russian missiles. The Zatoka bridge, which links the city with the rest of Ukraine, has been attacked and destroyed. I watch the news with horror as the map of Russian-controlled territory expands. I fear for Odesa, the “Pearl of the Black Sea.” I fear it could become another Mariupol in Putin’s brutal war.
Because I have traveled to Odesa, the news feels personal. Odesa is a city redolent with memories of dear people and precious encounters.
In 1989 I served as a faculty member with the Semester at Sea program of the University of Pittsburgh. Odesa, then part of the Soviet Union, was the seventh of nine stops on our voyage. My husband, daughter, and I had six days to explore the city. Each day we left our mother ship to climb the Potemkin Stairs, which led from the port to the cobblestoned streets of Odesa. Seven-year-old Karin counted the 192 steps as we climbed. The city was replete with ornate nineteenth-century buildings, wide boulevards lined with sycamores, and the most magnificent opera house outside Vienna. Silver and gold onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches shone vividly against the blue November sky.
It was cold. Locals bundled up in fur hats and drab wool coats. We stood out with our light jackets in primary colors as we walked the city streets, perusing stores with empty shelves and passing lines of people waiting to buy the most basic consumer goods. Friendly locals approached us, asking if we might trade items of our clothing for black market rubles or caviar. One fellow reappeared wherever we went, offering to sell us an “official” Russian military watch, laughing each time we declined. People seemed to enjoy the banter of negotiation even when no transactions took place.
One morning, as I caught my breath at the top of the steps, I was approached by a young Russian named Vitali, who, after briefly chatting with me in English, invited me and my family to share dinner with his family the following day. We taxied to their country cottage several miles outside the city, where we were greeted by his wife, Svetlana, and an old woman in traditional babushka whose enthusiasm for our company made language irrelevant. Vitali and Svetlana’s two-year-old daughter, Lila, eyed Karin shyly at first, but the girls soon began to play together. We adults talked, Vitali deftly translating for all. They shared family picture albums. Over dinner, we drank vodka and toasted the future lives of our daughters.
As we readied to leave, the old woman stood up and gathered the two little girls to either side, holding one under each arm as a hen might shelter her chicks. Her cheerfulness dissolved into an expression of great sadness. Looking directly at us, with tears shining on her cheeks, she implored, “No more war!”
I wondered, but did not ask, what the old woman had endured during her long life—the famines of Stalin’s occupation of Ukraine in the thirties and then the Nazi occupation of WWII? How many family members had she lost? And what were her hopes in directing her words our way?
Vitali and Svetlana insisted on gifting us with a large green clock from their cottage and a pottery decanter full of wine. They drove us back to the ship, on the way taking us for a walk on the beach.
The next day I was buying a small weaving when, hearing me speak English to the clerk, an attractive Soviet woman interrupted us and introduced herself. She was my age, an English teacher named Nina. Might I meet with her and her class? she asked. “Anytime and anywhere.” Why not? I thought. Early the next day, she escorted me to a home whose parlor was full of young professionals who had been meeting with her for a dozen years in pursuit of English fluency. A young man had prepared a fancy torte, another a samovar for tea and coffee. We passed several hours in animated interchange about books, politics, and life in the USSR and the USA.
That afternoon Nina and I strolled the city arm in arm, as I might with a close friend at home, but with the poignancy of knowing that this intense connection might be the only one we would ever have. I asked if I might buy her something from the dollar store, where foreigners could access items not available to locals. She smiled. “There are so many things we need that I do not allow myself to want.” I didn’t know then that I would see her again. Two years later she visited the United States, and we strolled the streets of Washington arm in arm, visited a museum of women’s art, and shared afternoon tea.
My role on the ship required me to plan field trips in various ports relevant to the courses I was teaching onboard. For my Psychology of Women course, I arranged a visit to a maternity hospital in Odesa. There we were introduced to a jovial physician in a white coat who provided us with scrubs and masks and took us to the newborn nursery.
Morning sunshine streamed through tall paned windows, bathing dozens of infants in soft light. The babies were lined up like cookies in a tin, each one tightly swaddled in soft white cloth and settled in a tiny hammock. Only their round faces were visible. Not one of them was crying. I was awash with wonder, looking at the long row of slumbering innocents. The future of Russia, I thought, not knowing then that they would become the future of Ukraine instead.
Sipping tea in a government hotel, I noticed a sign announcing massage services. I paid the required sixteen dollars and reported back the next day as instructed. I climbed gray stone stairs to find the appointed room on the third floor. The wide halls were empty and silent, but I could see light behind one door. I knocked. A swarthy middle-aged fellow opened the door. He smiled and looked at me with kind brown eyes, and I soon realized that his English was as absent as my Russian. I looked around. The room was small, sparsely furnished, dimly lit, and with a black massage table in the middle. We were alone. I hesitated briefly, unsure.
My Russian comrade nodded. Assuming we shared a massage language, I undressed. He gestured toward the table, and I climbed on. He draped a towel over my buttocks, doused me generously with talcum powder, and began to thump vigorously on my back. He moved quickly with staccato punches and rubs, generating such friction that my whole body was warmed. Occasionally he hit a sore spot, I groaned, and he said, “Da!” When his pummeling stopped, I opened my eyes. From where I lay on my back, I could see him upside down, standing at my head. His hands were pressed together as if in prayer. He smiled broadly, exposing a jumble of teeth in need of dentistry, and bowed. “Fineesh!” he declared.
I dressed. We shook hands. I thanked him, knowing he would understand that much. When our eyes met, I think we shared an awareness of this encounter as an act of trust and mutual respect, a radical border crossing between two children from the opposite sides of the Cold War.
When our ship was ready to sail, Nina came to see us off. There on the dock, she accepted some practical items from us—laundry detergent and hosiery—and a book of Russian feminist writings. She gifted Karin with a book of fairy tales that her own daughter had loved.
In 1989, the masseur, Nina, Vitali, Svetlana, Lina, the old woman, and the man hawking the Soviet watch were all Russians. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, they became Ukrainians. No longer Russians, they now face the threat of obliteration by Russians.
Thankfully, the old woman must have died before this war, not knowing that she would leave her family—if they survive—to plead “No more war!” after this one.
Nina must be in her seventies now. I alternately imagine her fleeing her country or sheltering in a basement with her daughter’s family, praying for the survival of her grandchildren.
And the sweet, swaddled newborns bathed by morning sunlight? They would be thirty-two-year-old men and women now. Where are they?
- Jeanne Parr Lemkau, PhD, MFA, is a professor emerita at the Wright State University School of Medicine. She is the author of the travel memoir Lost and Found in Cuba: A Tale of Midlife Rebellion. Jeanne practices as a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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