January 20, 2011

Living In Odessa, Ukraine

During the 6 or 7 months that I spent in Odessa, Ukraine alone and without parents when I was 14 years old, I had the most exciting, lonely, wonderful, and scary time of my life.

I was sent to Ukraine to study at the Odessa State Ballet School when I was in 9th grade. I was young and vulnerable and had no clue that I was in for the ride of my life.

I still remember how nervous I was the first day in my new Russian school. I was put a grade behind because Russian schools teach much faster than schools in America. There were only 10 grades back then and the 8th graders knew far more than I did in 9th grade.

The teacher walked me into the class for the first time and every single eye in the room glared at me with curiosity. To them, I was a stranger from a bigger, better world. I was the celebrity student. But this quickly changed...

Once the curiosity wore off, hatred and jealousy set in. At first, all of the students tried to befriend me thinking that it would gain them popularity. But after a while, they began to detest the material possessions that I had.

School books were a luxury and most could not afford them. I, on the other hand, lugged around five of my enormous American school books so that I had something to read in English. I remember one day, a girl sitting next to me said out loud, "Look at the American and her fancy book, I didn't even know she could read."

I had brought my TI-83 graphing calculator to school one day. BIG MISTAKE. I was ridiculed for having something they could not afford. They said I was dumb because smart people didn't need to use calculators.

Even in English class, where you would think I would be the best student, I was considered an outcast. The students would constantly complain that they could not understand my "American" accent (they were taught proper English).

The bathrooms at the school were...not very private...to say the least.

There was no toilet, just a hole in the floor. To make things worse there were no stalls. Yep, just a hole in the floor next to another hole in the floor. Wait, it gets worse. There was no doors at the entrance of the bathroom. People walking by in the hallway could glance in and see several people doing there business out in the open.

I often held it in.

The crazy thing was that I went to the best school in Odessa where all of the rich kids went. It wasn't a rundown building or anything. It was a beautifully restored mansion with white marble grand staircases and the works.

Because of the torment, I would skip school many days and roam the city of Odessa. I would explore every bit of the city, sometimes walking for 5 to 6 hours at a time. I would walk along the famous Deribasovskaya Road....

I must have climbed the Potemkin Stairs at least 100 times during my stay.

Some nights, I would sneak into the Odessa Opera Theater and watch a real opera from high up above stage where the curtains are hung (kind of like Phantom Of The Opera).

I never wanted to go home. There was nothing to do there. The family I was staying with had no computers, not internet, and the only TV was in a bedroom that I was not allowed in. All I had was a solitaire card game on my phone to entertain me.

Even through all of the darkness, I began to make friends with the girls in my ballet class who all looked up to me because I was the best dancer at the school.

They were constantly asking me questions and inviting me to hang out with them. As I grew closer to these girls, I grew friendships that I will never forget my whole life.

Ballet and these girls were what made my life in Odessa exciting. Once a month we would all perform in the ballet Thumbelina, at the famous Odessa Opera Theater, in which I had a lead role.

It was truly amazing to perform a real ballet, with a live orchestra, and thousands of people watching you. I cannot think of a more exhilarating feeling than being on stage.

I was always aware that I had more money than my friends. The majority of people lived in poverty and the rich, well they were VERY rich. Well beyond the wealth that we know.

I remember my mom had sent me money from America one week. I went with a friend to exchange a $100 bill at an outdoor currency exchange booth. A group of older boys had seen us exchange the money and proceeded to follow for about 15 blocks begging for money for their "sick mom" or "dying dog".

Following us soon turned into a fast paced walk. In no time they were chasing us at full speed. We were outnumbered and scared out of our minds. We ran for 5 minutes until we reached our ballet school. We ran inside and waited half an hour for them to smoke a cigarette, give up and leave.

Everyone smoked in Odessa. And I mean EVERYONE. The first time I saw a 7 year old boy puffing away at a cigarette I almost fell off my chair. After several months, it didn't phase me.

It got even scarier sometimes. One night, a man came to our house and forced the elderly lady that I was staying with and her granddaughter outside onto the street. He beat them onto the ground and yelled profanities at them. My 14 year old self decided to protect them somehow and quickly grabbed an empty plastic bottle and ran to the doorway to defend them. I was shaking so hard from fear my body started to convulse. Fortunately he walked away without seeing me before I made an irrational move.

It wasn't all bad though. I have so many wonderful memories of Odessa. The late night sleepovers with my friends, getting butter & sugar crepes from outdoor vendors, performing in the theater, visiting the open air markets, and the friendly people of the city.

Several months into my stay, I very much longed to read something in English. A newspaper, a book, anything! I searched many many book stores and libraries, but nothing. I had bought 2 books at the airport before leaving to Odessa (Bridget Jones Diary 1 & 2) and reread those 2 books many many times. I craved for something that connected me to my world back home and it was the only thing that could comfort me.

When it came time for me to leave Odessa, I took the train to the Kiev Airport. Four of my best friends came with me to the station to say their good byes. The last memory I have is of them staring at me with sad eyes as my train took off. I watched one girl, Oksana, run after the train sobbing uncontrollably. And that was the moment that I realized how much they had meant to me and how much I meant to them.

I often think about my time in Odessa and the good always out shines the bad. I long to go back and be able to experience the city as a tourist.

One day I will.

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Tito P said...

Great story! My girlfriend is from Ukraine and the idea of visiting makes me wonder if I'll feel like an outcast even as a tourist.

April Westerhold said...

Wow! An amazing story.

april@Party of Five

Straight Up Glam said...

This is an amazing story! I was kind of sad when it was done. I always find it so interesting to read about others' experiences visiting different countries. Especially since you were so young! Thank you for sharing this with us! =)

Andrée xx

LynSire ♛ said...

Interesting to read. I'm glad you were able to find the good out of the bad. I live in the heart of Miami, near the downtown area. Why are you moving to Aventura?


Jewelz said...

Tito P:You won't feel like an outcast just visiting but there will def be some culture shock :)

LynSire:I'm moving to Aventura so that I can relocate my entertainment company to a place with more event business.

A Little of This and a Little of That said...

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MaviDeniz said...

Sorry, my last comment about your stay in the Ukraine was ment for this post >.< Im new to this whole blogging world and clicked on the wrong thing. I love your blog though

babó said...

Our stay in Odessa

My school is close to the Odessa disctrict in Szeged, but the city has been just a name to me, a place of no importance or meaning. But since I travelled there, it became an important part of my life, and I’m really grateful for those people who made an attempt to show us how stunning Odessa is. The Hungarian organizer, Katia Csóti told me that she has to go back to Odessa at least twice a year, because she feels „homesick”. Now I understand what she meant.
When I read about the exchange some years ago, I didn’t want to apply, I thought that if you don’t speak Russian, it’s not good for you at all. Who had known at that time that I would be an organizer of this exchange one day?
We expected something totally different from Chop, based on some stories. Surprisingly, there haven’t been any beggars, and no migration card was needed. Indeed it was surprising how much the country has developed, we had expected a totally different Ukraine.
What makes Ukraine wonderful to me is the hospitality that you can only experience in its real essence in the East. They relally appreciate guests, we’ve felt it in Odessa and in Kiev too, where we’ve had two guides besides Julia, one of them is a folk metal singer and the other one is Volodimir, who has been eager to show us everything. I think Ukranians are similar to us.

babó said...

We understand each other’s jokes, and the people I met are so educated. They are proud and their principles remained unshaken. I’m also glad that we met Mr Sergey Fiodorovich Skorohod the Prorector of the university, and we talked in Hungarian.

We’ve heard many stories about Odessa from the organizers, so we’ve had really professional guides and our stay was fun all the time. We met a Moldavian girl in the dormatory, who cooked for us and we taught her some Hungarian. She took us to the catacombs with her friend.
It wouldn’t have been so perfect without Julia, Svitlana, Irina,Katia Sacha and the others. I haven’t felt unfumiliar or strange for a single moment, for I have been sorrounded by individuals who are really fun to spend time with. The monuments, „Eisenberg’s stairs”, the museums, the historical architecture, the cultural atmosphere, the theatre,the Dolphinarium and the constant seek for Józsi, one of our group members was just unforgettable. While we’ve been walking from the port the Patyomkin stairs, I wasn’t aware of being a tourist, because we’ve spent much time with locals, we’ve visited the library just like students, we’ve had meals in the canteen.We explored every bit of the city, even the open-air market, sometimes walking for 5 to 6 hours at a time. We would walk along the famous Deribasovskaya Road and many other streets.
When we were coming back from Belgorod-Dnestrovsky fortress and we were drinking hot tea on the bus- potholes everywhere on the road, and some tea on our jacket, but who cares! In that moment we were like a family.
Experiencing the Slavic culture has been one of the main goals of our stay, because in two weeks you can’t study a lot in university, but it’s a perfect time to experince the local culture. We went to churches and we liked them a lot. Bonifác, my friend told me that he wanted to be an engine-driver in Ukraine because the sorrounding landscape is so characteristic. Moreover, in the West eveything is so predictable, the trains are never late, nothing wierd happens, but in the East it could be different. And what’s the point in having a predictable life?

babó said...

In the West many families meet just for holidays, while int he East family is still an important and valuable thing, even if it’s a generalization, that’s what you feel and what you hear. people care about each other. Somebody can send 100 hrivnyas to the bus driver from the end of the bus and they get back the odd money from the others. We hear in the news that corruption is also obvious, but don’t we all have it?
One of the best night during my stay was when I’ve seen the lights of Odessa from a building. I loved the view of the sea, it was luxuriant, contrasted by the soft black sky. What a fascinating place! Once I would love to watch the setting sun there again, the light fading from the distant landscape,till the shadows of twilight come…I loved the hour, when the last tints of the light died away, when the stars, one by one, trembled through aether, and were reflected on the mirror of the Black Sea. In the stillness of the night, I could breathe sweetness and a bit of tender sorrow as well, because I couldn’t stay for long in Ukraine. After that, we were in a car (in Ukraine each car is a potential taxi, as we know), and I could see Odessa by night. I heard Hungarian Rapsody by Ferenc Liszt on the radio in a postmodern, popular version, that was really surprising and fun.

When I had to leave Odessa, I went to the beach for the last time, silence and grandeur of solitude impressed me. Then I looked round our room, so long familiar and the idea of parting and change came to my mind…How little did I suspect that I would be so sad to leave, since it became my second home.

Taking everything into account, nothing could be finer than those charming days in Odessa, nor superior to them. I’m so glad I could enjoy the delights of this unique place.It appeared to be the best part of this year, and I really hope I’ll have an experience of a familiar sort soon.

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