|Lisa and Jessie in Athens|
Living all my life in a country with water lapping at three sides, in states with coast carved across and through, I can see why there's been fighting for access to water on this border between Europe and Asia for millennia. Each country we visited recited the list of who had conquered them, from the Romans to the Byzantines, the Ottomans to the Mongols; and, more rarely, those they had resisted. In modern times, the Soviet bloc used to control the entire European side of the Black Sea, protecting their warm-water ports with the Black Sea Fleet that could pour into the Mediterranean in a day. In World War I the battles at Gallipoli raged after the Ottoman Empire came into the war on the Axis side (reportedly because Germany offered one million dollars more than the Allies) and tried to cut off this access.
|Inner streets of Athens|
|The Acropolis, in disrepair|
Though I repeated this everyday in every port, not one of my letters or postcards have made their way home. If not a meaningless exercise, perhaps it was one in math; every country had a different currency. I brought bits and pieces of each home to my daughter Lizzy and she was thrilled. The one exception was Constanta, Romania. There are some deep local prejudices against the Romanians; when I thought my hairstylist on the boat, Radmilla, was Romanian she was horrified. "Do I look like a Romanian? I'm a Serb!" she hissed, and the knot-pulling intensified. I kind of understand her point; I couldn't breathe the air in Constanta without wheezing and had to stay below decks for the day. While all the ports were busy in one way or another, Constanta was heavy industry, the ninth busiest cargo port in Europe, though they said it was fourth. It led to an oily, coaly smell in the air, acrid, and so no postcards were sent and no currency saved. But pictures were taken, especially when Jessie went to Bucharest. These pictures are mine, the best and worse views from inside the boat.
Odessa was next, and stunning. My husband Mark and I went to Europe for our honeymoon, Innsbruk, and though we tried and tried to get to Vienna as well, the snow was thick in January and we were blocked by it on every effort. Well, plus once I forgot my passport and we were stopped where we had to pass through Germany...and we never got to Vienna. So I think Odessa is the closest I may get; it is so beautiful, old-world European buildings and squares, baroque pastel hotels, an opera house, those famed Potemkin Stairs. Well, maybe you haven't heard of them but they are famous, in Russia, a symbol of the first Russian uprising when soldiers on the Battleship Potemkin mutinied and found safe harbor in Odessa; when tracked down by the Cossacks in control of the region, not only the soldiers but the residents, for harboring them, were machine-gunned down the stairs, and elsewhere, in 1905.
It's all memorialized in a movie, the Battleship Potemkin, but like the similarly-depressing Gallipoli, just because the movie's a masterpiece won't get me to see it. Not even with a young Mel Gibson. The Allies had almost 50,000 men die at Gallipoli, most of them British, many of them Australian and New Zealand new recruits sent in as fodder. The Ottomans lost nearly twice as many, and that's not including other casualties; the total between both sides, deaths and injuries, was nearly half a million (473,000 in a campaign that lasted a year). And all for what ended up being nearly a draw; no one in the end could use the straits, because they were so heavily mined. Vicious, bloody tragedies--I can read about them, but I won't watch.
I have a feeling I'm not getting through the whole trip in this blog; we're less than halfway. I'll give you just one more port, and then the rest next week. Sevastopol. Pronounce it any way you want; the locals seemed to. It was a surprise, far lovelier than its name, at least in awkward English; it might sound lovely in Russian or Ukrainian, as named by Catherine the Great when it was first a fortress. Like most of the other cities we saw it's a resort city and we saw a lot of swimming in the Black Sea, though all adults, and diving off of a concrete grandstand. While other "beaches" in the Black Sea were made of sand, there apparently was none to speak of here so they made one. It's nicer than it seems, I almost dove in myself. We wandered the city up and down, through parks and , just the right size, on a candy hunt that led us to the central fruit and meat market. Lots of people were playing like we were. Few locals spoke anything but Russian or Ukranian, though we were able to buy things by holding up money and letting them have their way. It is the second largest country in Europe, behind Russia, with the second largest military, much of whose Navy is based here. This may be due to Sevastopol undergoing siege and occupation not once but twice, during the Crimean War and World War II. Both times the people within suffered mercilessly; the spirit they showed during the 1941-1942 siege made them a Soviet Hero City. The obelisk monument for this is prominently displayed at the entrance to the port, next to the one with the seagull for scuttled ships. Everyone pointed it out. It's quite beautiful. But to me, not as much as the Love Locks heart sculpture in Odessa, where sweethearts attach a padlock to signify their unending devotion. That's what I'll end with for now, the universal language.