Odessa Mama

Few American tourists visit the Ukraine. Those that do visit may well stop in Odessa, self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capital of South Ukraine” and a multicultural seaport city on the Black Sea. Odessa is all about the sea and ships and trade. (And petrochemicals, but why be mundane?)

Odessa is blessed: by warm weather, warm water, reasonable beaches, and an elegant downtown district. It possesses an astonishing number of elaborate nightclubs and beach clubs in which to dance all night, get stinking drunk, or both. Tourist t-shirts sell in volume.

Odessans are a special bunch, and it’s no surprise. Their city was built from scratch in the 1790s as Imperial Russia’s new free port on the Black Sea. Specifically, Odessa was built on a patch of nowhere that had belonged to the Ottomans until the Russian Army said otherwise. Odessa’s designers were exiled French aristocrats; parts of the city look quite a lot like Paris and Rome.

As trade grew, people came to Odessa from all over Imperial Russia and from many other countries: to make some money, and live, and perhaps even live well. Multiculturalism wasn’t a czarist priority, but somehow it happened in Odessa: a nearly-instant Russian-speaking cosmopolis in the middle of a nowhere that was suddenly somewhere.

You could get the European newspapers. French, the language of culture, was commonly heard. Jews did well there — well, between pogroms. There were even Jewish crime lords.

Besides Hong Kong or Macao and other great trade cities, then, there was Odessa: a place of wide-open commerce, murky and dangerous politics, organized crime, and lots and lots (and lots) of smuggling. Even today, Odessans speak an odd form of Russian instead of Ukrainian. The old ways survive. Locals call the city “Odessa Mama:” their mother ship. That’s what the Cyrillic at the bottom of the t-shirt translates to.

The Cyrillic words at the top of the t-shirt mean translate to something like “Beer, the Sea, and Odessa,” though don’t forget the Christian cross engraved on the hearty sea captain’s beer glass. Because God knows what Captain Mustachenko is really hauling in the hold of his fishing trawler. If it’s not anchovies, no Odessan would be shocked.

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