I was sitting in the lobby of the Mozart Hotel in the beautiful Ukrainian city of Odesa on its Black Sea a couple of decades ago, a hundred meters or so from the city’s stunning Opera House.
I had only been in Odessa a mere 24 hours, after traveling by the overnight train from Ukraine’s golden dome-studded capital Kiev, and had headed south almost on a whim because I had read the Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File and enjoyed the thriller film of the same name, starring John Voight (Angelina Jolie’s father).
I had always wanted to visit Odessa and cut short my time in Kiev to make this possible. Immediately I fell in love with the place, its wide tree-lined avenues reminiscent of the south of France, its people, its crazy pedestrianized Main Street, Derribasovskaya, which became an open-air circus arena in the evenings.
Although I had been surprised by Ukraine’s enthusiastic embrace of its new relationship with Western Europe in its first few years as a democratic sovereign state, I was very wary of the widespread corruption I had been warned about, and was waiting every minute for a shakedown by crooked cops or a dropped wallet scam on every corner.
But I didn’t experience anything untoward at all in my first five-day visit to Kiev and Odessa, and still haven’t in numerous visits since.
However, an incident in the hotel lobby when the receptionist called a taxi to the airport for my flight back to Dublin via Budapest will live with me forever.
It seemed to take an age for the taxi to arrive, and I was alone in reception, alone that it is until three somewhat shady and serious looking guys came through the swing doors and sat down facing me across the lobby. Wearing shower-proof raincoats, Gestapo-style, they were my exact perception of the Ukrainian equivalent of the Stazi or KGB.
They stared and stared at me motionless, giving nothing away, no hint to their next move, or why their intense interest.
Slowly, one I took to be their leader got to his feet and paced slowly across the lobby… my chances of getting that flight to freedom, or rather Budapest, looked remote – a gulag in Siberia was more likely to be my destination.
A few yards away the Slavic features creased into a warm, welcoming smile. He honed in on my quizzical look and pointed to the label of my jacket, and said (I will never forget the words): “Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery, God Save the Queen”, and threw his arms round me and gave me an Odesan bear hug.
I had forgotten I had been wearing my red poppy pin as I often do in the autumn near Remembrance Day – it was October I recall.
Suddenly I didn’t want the taxi to arrive, I wanted to share a vodka, or two, with my new-found Ukrainian friends, but there wasn’t time, in a couple of minutes unfortunately I was out the swingdoors and on the way to the airport.
Today, as 30 Russian warships bristling with guided missiles, loaded with tanks, and death-dealing military logistics, lie ominously just off the coast of Odessa – named Hero City of the Soviet Union because of its resistance to the Nazis in WWII – an army under orders from another fascist dictator, Vladimir Putin, is about unleash hell on Odessa, Ukraine’s Black Sea Beauty.
A popular international tourist destination, home to a large Jewish community, film festivals, art exhibitions and many nationalities, the city now waits nervously for the expected onslaught … including my all-too-brief acquaintances who were so pleased to meet a visitor from their WWII allies those 20 or so years ago.
Today I will shed a tear (more than one actually), and say a prayer or two for my Odessa: the smiling students who served me so many croissants, coffees and ice cream in Kompot; the old man who persuaded me to part with my Hryvnias for Russian war medals on the Potemkin Steps; the weathered seaman whose specialty was persuading me to buy so many sailing ships inside green blue glass bottles for Christmas presents; the owners and staff at the best restaurant in town, Grand Prix (that always serenaded patrons each evening with Sting’s Fields of Gold); and for many others, including my three new-found friends I encountered in the Mozart Hotel.
I hope against hope that the city and its people will not suffer the fate of Kharkiv or indeed as likely to befall Kiev… but I fear the worst as it faces the biggest evil since Adolf Hitler.
Good luck Odessa and everyone, I hope to see you again, DV.