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Odessa

I’ve been to a couple of interesting cities around the world. I visited a few shitholes as well. Then, there is Odessa… Some say Odessa is not really a city – but a smile of God. Others say she is a woman, seducing and eluding everyone who comes knocking. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they are both right. Maybe they are both saying the same thing. It took my fourth visit only to begin unraveling the layers of her enrapturing appeal. I still don’t understand her. But I feel her, vividly. And I want to come back to her bosom – or tits – a thousand times more.

It is a universe that entices you from the moment you arrive: a melting pot of cultures, of languages, of ideas. A place where dangerous people flee to feel safe. Where wisdom is always humorous, where glory is still measured by amounts of wit – and where tolerance for different types of survival is as essential as the sea. A city of tricksters and schemers, rogues and schnorrers, smugglers and treasure hunters, hustlers and vagabonds. Everything is rougher here, the skin peels off more quickly. You can not tell fact from fiction, you learn to think in stories.

History plays it’s tricks on the present and wherever you walk you’re immersed in both at the same time. I’m in Marazli’s house in Greek square, once a gathering place of Filiki Eteria, where the first seeds were planted which led Greece into uprising and eventually freedom from Ottoman rule. Now, in the coffee shops around the corner, it’s the Turkish emigres who are quietly chatting and plotting – and looking over their shoulder for that far-reaching shadow of Erdogan. Walk along the boulevard of the venerated city father – Armand-Emmanuel Sophie-Septimanie de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu e de Fronsac – and find Georgian khachapuri and Tatar cheburek kiosks next to an Arabic cultural center. Not far is Tavernetta, where Jews from the synagogue across the street come to discuss Jehovah over a bowl of kosher Florentine panzanella. Pass by a few Bulgarian perfume shops, Armenian jewelry stores and an Uzbek barber – and hail a marshrutka to take you to city’s spiritual center, “more Odessan than Odessa itself”. As I roam around the slums of Moldovanka I realize little has changed here. Tumbledown courtyards filled with cats, dovecots and improvised terraces with patched curtains – hiding the entrance to what used to be a bordello and is now an overcrowded kommunalka; junkies, pimps, gangsters, swindlers of all kinds and backgrounds… all of it less romantic but as picturesque as in those quintessential tales of Babel.

Except now the business is nightclubs – and thousands of Turks, Indians and Chinese awkwardly hop in and around them every summer, desperately looking for the Russian bride package: take away, please. Odessa is a creature of night and night comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s sunsets and guitars on Lanzheron beach – nights filled with dance, loud laughter and chutzpah on the boardwalk – when you can understand what they’ve been telling about Benya, that he got his way because he had passion, and passion rules the world. You are very young again, you feel you can do it all one more time, do it properly, from the beginning.

There are nights transformed into an almost elegant affair. It starts with her smile at Le Petit Paris, few glasses of Bessarabian wine and an obligatory forshmak in a late lazy afternoon; evening continues at the Opera and later with a stroll down Primorsky; a second passes when you’re afraid she might say something schmaltzy and ruin everything, but she’s already a woman and you take the taxi home. After all, there’s no Seychelles in your offer, only a warm bed in the suburbs and a vigor of youth, and sometimes that’s all she needs.

Then there are those other nights: a glitzy melancholy that smells of chestnuts and Soviet cosmetics, dried semen and cheap champagne: the autumn rawness of a Black Sea port. With the sound of a saxophone across the street as two devotchkas, painfully beautiful, enter the back seat of a bulletproof car.

Nothing is what it seems and neither is the picture of us quietly sitting on Potemkin steps when Katya, hazy and dangerously honest after a half-bottle of Shustov, starts going over those bloody events of early May four years ago, revealing more than she should have. And I kept wondering if it’s true what they’ve been telling me about her from the beginning – that she never really stopped working for the Russians. This time I didn’t want to get involved. Lulled by a gentle breeze blowing from the harbor, the evening seemed too pleasant to ponder about the war. But inevitably there comes a time when one has to choose a side – and hers wasn’t mine anymore.

Did I tell you about capricious Odessa? I was feeling right at home, and now I have to pack up and leave again. She kicks me out but it’s for my own good she says; men are like dogs she says: no need for them to stay in the house too long. She also said some other things but it’s not important to repeat them. I leave her kvetching but I know she’ll take me back.

I still keep wondering what ties me to Odessa. Is it a never ending flux of inspiration, as vast as the catacombs spread beneath the city for miles on end? Or an opium den where you seek an escape into oblivion: a refuge for the lost? Is it a promising glimpse into the unknown and yet so familiar – like making love with a stranger on a slow rainy day? Is it serenity: opening a book under the blooming acacias and towering sycamores? When you realize that, right now, nothing is more important – and you’re gonna take all the time in the world to read as long as you want to. Or is it restlessness, when distant shores seem distant no longer? A ship over there is bound for Istanbul, city of cities, and the one next to it leaves for Georgia and from there – I can already hear the steps of Asia whispering an invitation. The lands of Timur – where another great adventure awaits.

Perhaps everyone has their own Odessa. A city of dreams – well-lived ones, or a city of life – dreamed up until the end – in all its splendor and magnificence, so light you can feel it like sunshine on the palm of your hand. A never-ending odyssey, and there’s none like it anywhere else.