Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Black Sea and Me

Lisa and Jessie in Athens
My sister and I went on a cruise with our father around the Black Sea because he'd always been curious about it and he asked us to go.  It's been the hub of a lot of history, from the bloody battles at Gallipoli  to the peace accord at Yalta, and this likely fueled his interest, but when I asked he said he'd done a soft shoe shuffle in grade school to "Istanbul, not Constantinople" and his images of the place had stayed with him, one of those beacons that calls to you.  So we went, and it was amazing.

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.

Today, though, there are six countries that border the sea, and we saw them all.  There's tension between the borders; a skirmish broke out between Russia and Georgia while we were there.  Russia does appear to be looming especially heavily over that country, more so than Ukraine.  On this side of the Atlantic many of us think of Russia as relatively contained these days; I'm not sure this is true.  Turkey was also flooded at its Southern end by Syrian refugees every day, and Turks we met predicted the Syrian government would fall within the month.  Falling governments are also a foreign concept to Americans; here they are real and serious, and common.  My mother was far more concerned about what was happening between Syria and Turkey than were the Turks that I talked to.

Inner streets of Athens
The Acropolis, in disrepair
But politics was a topic most of all in Greece, where our trip started in Athens.  It was still summer, brutally hot, and most of the city residents were away in the islands for vacation or a return to their family homes so the city was almost vacant, hollowed out except for a few tourists and resentful people who couldn't get away.  Our taxi driver was one; he said he used to be able to get two months off for summer vacation and now he's lucky if he can get two weeks.  Hmm.  Discussing the dire financial straits of the country, my father asked about their national pride in tax evasion, and whether he paid taxes himself.  He said he would, whole-heartedly, if it would make a difference.  So.  The place was a mess, graffiti eveywhere, roads all torn up, every other storefront out of business, but the Acropolis was open and we hiked up with pleasure (and adventure, as we didn't have euros to get in but Jessie used charm and wiles to find us some), then down through the pretty central blocks of the city before eating at a harborside restaurant that gave new meaning to al fresco dining; there were fish nearly nibbling at our feet.

The boat we traveled on, the Oceania Regatta, was luxe and delicious, and educational if you could sit through the lectures by the professors on board.  I couldn't, given my attention span these days, but my father and Jessie did, and learned about harems, vodka, Stalin and the various ports of call.  I watched them on the room's onboard TV station, a geek as well, and learned a lot, which I promptly forgot because I have no pictures to jar my memory.  So, what I'll write about is what I can see again on Snapfish.  First, Nessebur, Bulgaria, lovelier than it sounds, all fishing boats and postcards and village squares and rosewater.  Jessie and my father went on a tour, drank some stiff local stuff, met the mayor, and ate in a local residents' home.  I went to the town center, watched kids swirl around in a bunch of juiced-up motorized Tonka trucks rented by the minute, wrote out a postcard home, and went through the motions of converting dollars to euros to Bulgarian Lev.  Two of them, so I could send the postcard.  Done.

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.

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