Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Lone White Sail Gleams

With summer ending, The Welsh Tourist Board of Wales is stepping up its campaign to bully some imaginary English poshboy into spending a few weeks glaring resentfully at his made-up wife over a slate of flummery in Lleyn.

And why not? We Welsh have so far been spoiled by the quality of our summer visitors. The questing Dutchman, panning for Mawddwy gold; the German couple with gunmetal eyes, calibrating their theodylites to sort the mountains from the hills; the vanful of Poles a-kindling in your copse - they all love Wales for what she is, so why not ring the changes and welcome a fellow who calls the game "rugger" and watch how long it takes before someone paints him green and sets his car on fire?

This raises a related question. While the world roils in Wales's tepid embrace, where can a Welshman go? Like Italians we are not great travellers, as we already live in a country that has everything - cakes, more than one coastline, y-front-rending women and no Highway Code.

I suggested Ukraine as a worthy holiday destination way back in the days when I still blogged in Wenglish. So let me now highlight its fine port of Odessa.

As close readers know, Madame Boyo and I spent our honeymoon in this Black Sea Tangiers and promptly dubbed it cymreigiol - worthy of the Welsh.

Russia's relationship with Europe has always been awkward. Peter the Great intended St Petersburg to be Russia's "Window on Europe", but built it on a troll-dark Finnish swamp miles from anywhere. Catherine the Great had the advantage of being an actual European, but still laid out Odessa somewhere over the Ottoman Empire.

It was a French-run free port for much of the Romanovs' reign, and managed to maintain its louche, Interzone buzz through Civil War, Stalin and Stagnation, topped up by a few war years under or occasionally straddling the corsetted Romanian officer corps.

When the various states of the Soviet Union just stopped turning up in late 1991, Odessa found itself, minus one "s", as Ukraine's main port. The Odessites adapted to the new country in their cosmopolitan way by speaking Russian but acting Ukrainian, and soon found a steady income from channelling the hinterland's chief exports - construction workers and whores - to Turkey.

Odessa has not allowed the advent of democracy to stifle its picaresque heritage, and the happy proximity of the brigand republic of Transdniestria to the northwest ensures that there's no better place for car thieves, vote-riggers, plutonium smugglers and taxi drivers to flourish.

Moreover, if there are any cocks trying it on, Odessa will snook them:

1. The Romanian occupiers killed almost all of the city's Jews, who themselves weren't too popular with Ukrainian or Russian nationalists either, so free Odessa chooses the splendidly Semitic Mr Edward Hurwitz as its elected mayor whenever the central government allows.

2. Viktor Yanukovych, the cloddish Ukrainian president and Kremlin fluffler, is no fan of Odessa, given its overall high IQ and lack of coal mines, so the Odessa Port Authority has reciprocated by putting up a Soviet-style banner of one of his most banal statements over its gates - "Professionals ought to work in the transport system" ("B транспортной системе должны работать профессионалы"). Yanuk of the North is flattered, and everyone else chuckles into their breakfast cognac.

The Soviets renamed the city's streets after random anniversaries, mass-murders and root vegetables - "Yeah, I'll see you at the corner of 29 Years of the Armenian Power Grid and Turnip, opposite Boston Strangler Square". Ukraine expected free Odessa to give them suitably Cossack monickers - "Jewbaiter Passage", "Square of the Sacred Sword of St Skovoroda" - while the looming Russians wanted the Lenins and Great October Socialist Revolutions to stay where they were.

The Odessites simply ressurrected the French names of the past, so you can still flâne down Richelieu Boulevard and De Ribas Street with a sprig of hibiscus in your lace-sleeved hand.

But the true jewels of Odessa are its women. Ukraine, like most Slavonic countries, is a British sit-com writer's dream - the men are oafs, while the women are sharp yet easy to handle, like Stanley knives.

Not in Odessa. The local men are cheery drunks, of course, but the women wander around as if they were auditioning for "Post-Coital - The Musical!", with hair akimbo, 3-D lipstick and thoughts that tune in and out.

Madame Boyo and I sought ice-cream, directions to French Boulevard and some sense from several Odessitas, and got nothing but asymmetrical smiles, Expressionist hand gestures and a rant about why President Yushchenko wasn't doing something about it (he'd been out of office for months).

But the finest tale of local womanhood came courtesy of Captain Ponomarev and the Odessa Yacht Club. This enterprising mariner and his chums ran a tourist entrapment service. It consisted of dressing an unusually coherent young woman in garments a size too small, positioning her on the coastal path with some Yacht Club brochures, and letting male lechery and female patience do the rest.

Within moments she had delivered us to the Captain, who put us to the test. Would we like a cruise around the bay in one of those motor yachts you see accountants fall off all along the Thames, or in a proper sailing boat? We passed, and hopped aboard his bilious barque.

We sat towards the prow with neither life-jacket nor harness, as Capt Ponomarev swung his great boom about our heads and scythed between tankers and towlines with the occasional arcane order to Bo'sun Grafich.

We clung to one another through more degrees of list than non-Odessan geometry allows, while the Captain recounted the proceedings of the local Pirate Society, of which he is Secretary and Keeper of the Plank of Justice.

(The chairman, as it happens, is a dentist. He carries out surgery in full rig on public holidays, reserving antique equipment for members of the City Council.)

I asked the Captain whether he had many local passengers on his Ship of Ghouls. "You know we call the city 'Odessa Mama'?" he began. "Well, one day a couple of our own Odessa mamas drifted down here and asked whether I did cruises of the bay. I said I did. With a satisfied cluck they parked themselves at the prow, so off we went.

"Once we'd left harbour one of them asked whether I had any coffee below deck. I did. 'Two coffees, please.' I fixed the coffee, passed them the cups, and out we surged into the swell.

"I gave them the big tour. 'Here's where the Germans bombed the Crusier Shnorbitz in '41, and just over the top of that crane is the Palace of Hadji Girai' - but I might as well have been yodelling.

"We crested some bell-bottomed waves, we tasted a whaler's spume, we passed through the shadow of a shark, and all the time they were like this -

"'Mrs Lyakhobiy, her as isn't no better than what she oughtn't to be, well, you've seen the hat, of course? If you can call it a hat. I had to whack my Grisha's cockerel with an icy spoon, if you catch the drift - '

"'Ooh, she never? Her neighbour, the one whose sister ships those dodgy plums from Romania in her stays, well, she robbed a couple of mackerel from the market, and there was no way of telling, if you know what I mean. And that Tymoshenko woman, if she is a woman - '

"A good hour and a half this went on for. I got them back to harbour, they thanked me for the coffee, stuffed enough money in my mitt and wandered off. They weren't wrong about that Mrs Lyakhobiy, either."

We reflected on the Eternal Mystery of Woman for a while as Grafich tacked us back into the little harbour. Suddenly we found ourselves beset by a Lilliputian fleet. Tiny sailing boats, each bearing a small boy, bobbed about us. A man by the quay in sinister Soviet-era tinted specs was yelling random orders at them. "Yura, haul your mainbrace! Shura, your boom's awry! Dima - are you listening? Dima?! - "

Dima, in Tot-Yacht No.9, was a lad apart. The others, none older than ten, acted either assured or appalled as we cleaved their convoy. But Dima, kitted out by his guilty dad in sailor's peaked cap and braided jacket, was pure Odessa in his indifference to our hulking hull. He sailed on as the others scattered. Capt Ponomarev ordered Grafich to steer sharply to starboard.

"Who are they?" asked Madame Boyo, as the junior service regrouped before their quayside commandant.

"That's the kids' trainee yacht club," beamed Ponomarev proudly. "We take them from five years onwards. Even give them life-jackets. Our little pride and joy."

The children stumble shaken-shanked onto the decking, all apart from Dima. He still sat at his mast, watching the sun soar over Trebizond, ethereal and unconcerned.

I can't help but think that Odessa and her Dimas of all ages will always hover between sky and sea, like Tadzio on the Venetian sandbank, just out of the ruffians' reach.

"What's your junior yacht club called?" I asked as we slid into our mooring. Ponomarev glanced over at the boys, nodded, and replied - "The Optimists".






21 comments:

Mrs Boyo said...

I recall the waitress at the Otrada bar. My inquiry about a margarita prompted her to protest that her name was MargarEta.

Tim Newman said...

Superb, what great writing! I never made it to Odessa, but I did spend 10 days or so in The Crimea. I also took a taxi from Kiev to Simferopol once, which was pretty stupid.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I can't read a damn thing in their Pirate website, but I doubt those Slavs have anyone to compare with Henry Morgan. Did the Captain know you were a Welsh and pay due homage?

Ciaran Rehill said...

You have got it all wrong. Since North Wales Heddlu lifted their fatwa on me I am now back in love with the Welsh. The obvious vacation spot is Patagonia where you may indulge in your llaith with distant cousins. I am off to Iran soon where "Family Guy" is banned. Cuntiau. Hope does one order Semtex in Farsi?

No Good Boyo said...

Indeed, Mrs B. The Odessita two tables down worked out that the way to attract the waiters' attention was to take her bikini top off.

Thank you, Tim, praise indeed. I've been enjoying your blog ever since finding you on The Mighty Peter Briffa's blogroll, and was in Kiev when you conducted your epic journey to Crimea. I've not been there, but Mrs B assures me it's Russian minigarch heaven.

As it happens, GB, I boasted proudly to Captain about my buccaneering ancestor, and he promised to write about me in his next freebooting newsletter. Which I'll have to find one day. I'll post a photo of the two of us once I've tracked it down.

Ciaran, I'm as keen as the next man on increasing my hit rate, and the combination of "make semtex" and "Iran" is likely to attract just the sort of punter I like. Beats those Gulf Arabs looking for Charlotte Church and Nipponese practices.

Patagonia is basically a Calvinist-Methodist Theme Park with llamas playing at bein super-sheep. Little different to hanging around Bala, really.

Francis Sedgemore said...

"Beats those Gulf Arabs looking for Charlotte Church and Nipponese practices."

I regularly get Saudis looking for "Naked Germans", none of which are the sort of punters I like.

No Good Boyo said...

As Maurice Chevalier sang, "Duw ffyc, I remembers it well", Francis.

I too commented on the horrors of Freikörperkultur:

http://alfanalf.blogspot.com/2009/02/nacktwandervogel.html

Surprised at the Saudis. I thought "babes of the IDF" was more their style. It certainly is mine.

Sauti Ndogo said...

Does Patagonia have any oil? If so, we could consider swapping it for the Falklands. If not, both of them will have to be thrown into the mix in my Grand Plan to Solve All Global Territorial Disputes, in which all UN member states play a real game of musical chairs to see who gets the West Bank, the Western Sahara, Kashmir, the Crimea, Alsace-Lorraine, Quebec, South Ossetia, Ceuta and Melilla, the Basque Country, Trieste, the Mosquito Coast, the Caprivi Strip, Kurdistan and Berwick-on-Tweed.

When the music stops and one country's UN ambassador fails to get a chair, everyone else votes to give them one of those places.

Jon said...

A fine & brilliant piece.

I spent quite some time in the Former Soviet Union in my oil days and found Odessa quite charming. Even the local hoods running the oil base there were quite ebullient, which made a nice change from the miserable mafiosa we had to deal with elsewhere.

No Good Boyo said...

Nice one, Sauti. I had a similar idea, which involved hopeless would-be countries' adopting the names of classy but defunct states:

http://alfanalf.blogspot.com/2009/09/my-father-was-wandering-aramean.html

Thanks Jon. Odessa is very proud of its criminals, having even spawned the genre of "blatnoy" song to celebrate it. These growly, guitar-based bursts of macho cynicism are as ubiquitous on taxi radios as insane violin-backed wailing is in the Middle East. The masters is Alexander Rosenbaum.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Beautiful. We took one of Mrs Dilo's cousins on her first foreign holiday this year and now she's got the bug and repeats, bizarrely, and eerily like wheelchair Andy off of Little Britain, "wanna go to Odessa". We might just. Corsetted Romanian officers did indeed perpetrate an awful lot of shite there during their brief flirtation with efficiency. But you can't tell people anything about their history...

No Good Boyo said...

Your cousin-in-law won't regret it, Gadj. I bought a pair of loafers, made by the estimable Romani company, on De Ribas St. I think it's a Greek firm, but the typically baffled shop assistant told me they "must be Romanian, or else they'd be called Greciani or something". Excellent value at $30, and I'm wearing them today.

If you do head that way let me know and I'll send you my "Odessa - mode d'emploi".

John Gray said...

just read your profile
you were born in the sea?
great blog by the way

No Good Boyo said...

Very kind of you John. I've enjoyed looking through your blogs, as Trelawnyd is a village I'd only knew through its choir. The Cardigan Bay coastline comes and goes...

SnoopyTheGoon said...

One thing you haven't mentioned is the Yiddish accent that is ingrained in the Odessa's spoken language no matter how few Jooz there are in that very special place.

Oh, and re Yanukovych: check this out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYDEPADnH2o

(Get assistance from Madame Boyo if necessary) ;-)

No Good Boyo said...

Too right, Snoop. The "rrrs" have it. And thanks for the latest Yanuckerie - you just can't keep Ukraine down. Russia it ain't.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Speaking about the current Ukrainian president - check this out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYDEPADnH2o

You can buy a t-shirt with the text if you wish ;-)

No Good Boyo said...

Ukraine endures. I particularly like this lady:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBconLQBu2g&feature=related

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