Chapter XXI (21)
The Czarina Catherine
We entered the high-rise building in downtown Odessa, rode the elevator to the 15th floor and walked down a red carpeted hallway to The Czarina Catherine.
The manager greeted Vasily with a hug, and traditional kiss on each cheek, then directed us to a corner table in front of a large viewing window.
“What a spectacular view from up here.” I said. The sky lit up with the bright lights of Odessa.
Gold hurricane lamps sat on each of the small tables with crisp white tablecloths, porcelain china and crystal wine goblets. Waiters moved effortlessly between with trays of food carrying caviar on slices of toasted baguette bread with cups of thick chowder. Pickled herring appetizers with creamed cucumber and diced tomato filled another plate.
Beet colored glass sconces on the walls provided soft lighting for the intimate atmosphere. Portraits of past Russian czars and Czarina Catharine, and oils of Odessa, the Black Sea, and Ukrainian landmarks lined the walls.
In one corner violinists and stringed instrument musicians played old Cossack and Ukrainian melodies. Dressed in red and gold embellished vests, white ballooned shirts, black, billowing pants and shiny black boots they looked like they had stepped off the pages of a history book.
“The architecture of this building on the outside looks like one from the fifties, or old Soviet era, but the inside is all contemporary. Was it recently remodeled?” I asked.
“Yes. The building is old. It used to be a drab, gray apartment building, but has since been converted over to offices and restaurants except for the remaining remodeled apartments on the top floors above.”
“Back home we have those kind that are restored attic apartments in old warehouses and downtown buildings. They are called Lofts.”
“’Loft’ apartments. Nice concept for an attic room. Those here that would qualify are hardly bigger than a cloak room.”
“Some of those on the east coast have circular stairways winding around and up to the ceiling, taking up a whole floor. Those kind come with a hefty price tag or lease.”
“Impressive.” He nodded as if taking a mental note of everything I said.
“The paintings and icons on the walls here look much like those I saw in, The Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg on my first trip to Russia.”
“Oh, these are reproductions I assure you, but still come with ‘a hefty price tag.’ I don’t remember seeing on your records when we first met that you visited Russia before this trip. Were you here as a tourist then, or for your job?”
“As a tourist, mostly. Since my family had ancestry from the Ukraine, and my cousin, Jeremy was serving an internship abroad we came over together. We did some local tours to places visited.”
“Interesting. And did you find this time around that the ‘Old Motherland’ was changed?”
The waiter interrupted our conversation to take our dinner order. Vasily gave him our entre and wine choices, speaking in his fluent Ukrainian dialect without needing to refer to the menu. Moments later the waiter returned with the first course: a cup of borscht beet soup with the pickled herring appetizers.
“Yes, drastically. In answer to your question on ‘change.’ With the new democratic government in place, and capitalism and entrepreneurs flourishing, it was as if they had stepped off a set of the middle ages into postmodern times. Such drastic changes of things and places from yesteryear to the new look today. The former, old ‘Gum’ department store looked more like a defunct ‘dime and ten’ store, when I went by there, with it decaying and falling apart.” Then I caught myself, rattling off like a self-righteous critic again from the still great super power of the west.
Vasily lifted his wine glass as if gesturing, “Well. Here’s to change, then”.
Our glasses came together. “To change.”
“Change did not stop there in Petersburg, and Moscow, but changed all over old ‘Mother Russia’. Even into the Siberian provinces,” he added, with emphasis.
“Yes, I know. So, with all the changes I cannot help but wonder why there are still so many areas closed off from the public. The Moldavians especially are so tight-lipped on subjects like what happened during the Holocaust, and famine of the 1930’s, Bolshevism, Stalin, purges and Lenin eras. I’m still trying to figure out what their problem is with an American wanting to visit some historical sites, and…oops, sorry.”
“I think perhaps that is because people want to move forward, not dwell on the past and so they refuse to discuss what has been only painful, like a wound reopened.”
“But, don’t you think that a wound heals faster when it is cleaned up, exposed to the air, the poisons drawn out, and bandages kept off?”
“You’re quite the philosopher with your impressive metaphors. But, to answer your question; there is still a visible scar, while exposed.”
“But, time cannot heal a wound if first there is no reason to cover the scar. And, I think a country cannot move into the future with change if they are not willing to talk about its past, and deal with the things that caused those infected wounds in the first place.”
“Are you philosophizing again, or are we in another debate? It sounds a little familiar, like the conversation we had earlier today.” He said, smiling, keeping a calm exterior.
But, I could see the glint of cold steel in his eyes, and they no longer reminded me of melted chocolate. And, I realized I had once again fallen into debate and needed to cut the crap, change direction. As deftly as I could, I switched back to the earlier, safer conversation of ‘Odessa’s new look.’
“Odessa has so many beautiful things to see and do, but I have not had much time to get out and visit those things on my ‘to see and do’ list.” I said, hoping to redeem myself, and hoping he would still want to escort me around, if I could only keep my mouth shut while doing so.
“Well, we will change all that. Starting tomorrow I will show you places that are now restored to beautiful malls, museums and shops. And, there are other places I think you will find right up your – how do you Americans say – alley.” He said, holding his wine glass up, then added, “To new ventures.”
“To new ventures.” I repeated.
At times I was ready to chuck all my work back into their musty old file drawers, visit a few more interesting sites, then head back home.
By the time the waiter came out with our next course of the meal, I was thankful to focus only on enjoying my prime rib served with a horseradish sour cream sauce and chopped spinach and potato cheese puff with fresh chives, followed by Creme brulee.
Three hours later after a leisurely walk along the avenue near Odessa’s old opera house and Pushkin’s Square Vasily drove me back to my hotel.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)