Friday, November 25, 2011

Odessa is Odessa!

“Odessa is Odessa”   “Odessa is different.”  Those are the kinds of things I’ve heard from both other Ukranians and Odessans themselves.  The first time I visited Odessa, it was on April 1;  the day that entire city comes out to play, celebrating April Fools Day with funny hats, satirical floats and a general good time.  So I knew it was different.

And sure enough, just like our Kyiv and Donetsk conversations were different from each other, this one was also different. Because of Odessa’s history and its status as a major port, this city is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of different ethnicities and nationalities.  (For a great look at Odessa’s colorful history,  read Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King).

Hanna Shelest, head of the NGO PIC, our Odessan partner, had a particular interest in working with us to engage the different cultural groups in the city and reached out to Yaroslava Reznik, Head of the Department of National Minorities of Odessa Region State Administration.  And so our conversation here was held at the Bulgarian Cultural Center, one of several similar centers in the city. We reached the ornate meeting room by walking up past portraits of somber Bulgarians hung along the stairway,  but our conversation proved anything but somber.  

We were joined by representatives from many communities here in Odessa:  Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Byelorussians,  Moldovans,  Germans, Indians,  Armenians, and more.   It proved a great place to collect stories about the food that made memories for so many different people.

A German woman remembered her grandmother’s streusel cake,  while an Indian recalled his confusing arrival in Odessa as a teenager, when it was very hard to be a vegetarian in the city. But when a girlfriend made him stuffed peppers, he knew he could make a life here—and that he should marry her! One of the loveliest memories was shared by Yaroslava Reznik.When she was a child, her family lived just outside of town, in a small private house.  She told of a day the family ate varenyky. Not an unusual day, but just a day in the summer,  when the family ate outside, under the pear tree, and to this day, she still remembers the look of the bowl, dappled by the leaves of the tree, sparkling over her mother's handmade varenyky,  the beautiful sense of the day and the food.  Her description was so lovely I said, "you must be a poet,"  and with a shy smile Yaroslava said, "My parents were poets."
We talked a bit about the foods that are Odessan, which are the same foods that many Jewish Americans associate with their own family traditions—a fish like gefilte fish;  chopped liver, and more.  And the new foods also came into play, particularly as groups intermarried, and a new bride learned to make her husband’s favorite dish, while sharing her own traditions.

To me, one of the exchanges that symbolized the Pickle Project's efforts to do something different, to share our thoughts, ideas, beliefs and hopes by talking about food, came here in Odessa.  An ethnographer came with his students.  As he joined my small group,  he listened for a bit, and then spoke up to say that we were doing this all wrong, that it was not scientific!  As he explained exactly why it wasn’t scientific, I looked at the faces around me, who previously had been actively listening, laughing and sharing family stories—multiple generations, multiple ethnicities, multiple beliefs.  And their looks were polite, but with a bit of impatience and annoyance.

Ukraine is still a place where, in many situations, “experts” are revered.  And it was surprising—and a bit thrilling-- to watch these participants realize that they, not the ethnographer, were the “experts.”  That their stories, their perspectives, their beliefs, were the strength of the conversation.  No matter where you live, or where your family originated,  the ability to share your experiences through meaningful conversations with a larger circle is one small way in which civil societies are built.

So from the light coming through the pear trees to the stuffed peppers made by a girl in love,  Odessa’s conversation will always remind me of the powerful connections food can make, no matter where we're from.

No comments:

Post a Comment