The work assignment to Odessa had come at short notice leaving scant opportunity for preparation or research, and my plane had arrived in the dark and rain meaning that, as I surveyed the scene from the 18th floor of the Hotel Yunost next morning, I knew precious little about the place beyond cliché. Odessa has the Primorsky Stairs as featured in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – surely one of cinema’s iconic moments when the runaway pushchair bounces down them. Lazy stereotypes also attach themselves easily to port cities such as Liverpool, Marseilles and Baltimore, so I wasn’t surprised to be warned that Odessans too had a wry sense of humour, and were the salt of the earth – apart from those who would as readily slit open your throat as your purse.
So here was a chance to dig a little deeper and find other versions of the truth. Maybe also to discover some of Odessa’s sumptuous architecture, of which the hotel receptionist had proudly boasted as he checked me in. Trouble was, even a cursory scan from my 18th floor lookout told me I was a good three or four miles from the historic centre so there would be no chance of nipping out during coffee breaks at my conference. An expedition would be necessary.
I finally stole more than a few moments and headed for the tram stop. It quickly became apparent that the shabby Soviet-era Yunost (Youth) stood in less than splendid isolation, surrounded on three sides by large areas of scrubby woodland. I paid it no heed but, as I was rummaging for a few hryvna for the fare, I started to realise it wasn’t as empty as it had first seemed. As my eyes accustomed I could pick out a shape here and there – walls, buildings, statues… or the remains of them. By the time the tram swept by, curiosity had already clutched me and I was off, probing for a weak point in the perimeter fence. I didn’t have to look far before discovering a decrepit gateway through which I could slip.
Whooossshhh! Another blast of scalding air hit the ceiling and rebounded onto the top of my head. “That’s it. Can’t take anymore”, said the young guys as they scampered out of the sauna in pain. That just left me, and him - the man commanding the water bucket and ladle. “You want more Mister!” I smiled weakly, as he raised the temperature another infernal notch, before adding aromatic oil to the stove and taking an enormous lungful of air.
“You’re new here aren’t you?” “Yes” he said, “Valery, I’m Russian”. So here I was in my Yorkshire home town with my very own banyan. We hit it off quickly, Valery and me. He was chatty and I’m interested in most things Russian.
I finally decided I liked him well enough to confide I was planning a trip to Russia in the coming week. “Oh, tell me, where you going?” “Well it’s a very strange and unusual place. Very few Russians have even been there. It’s called Norilsk”.
He beamed. “Norilsk! I know it well – my brother lives there! I’ll give you his address – he’ll take good care of you.”
What is public space? Is it just something that was there before us and will still be there after we’ve left? Or is it a more dynamic thing, that can come and go and that we have to work at if we want to retain?
In western Europe we are getting a little less complacent about who can do what where, and who can monitor and regulate it, but essentially we take our public space for granted. It’s only when you move out of this bubble you appreciate for others the stakes are rather higher. Three separate experiences in the Russian city of Kaliningrad brought this home to me recently.
After all, it’s not every day of the week that you find yourself in a newly created public space that used to be the private home of a KGB censor!
Do walls store secrets and memories even though their owners are long gone and forgotten? If they do then in Lviv they must almost be the mortar that holds the stones together. That this Ukrainian city exudes meaning from every manhole cover and window frame is, for me, beyond question. The place has taken the brunt of many of Europe’s most significant and traumatic upheavals of the last few centuries. It has at least 8 different names, testament to the variety of people who have either dominated it or called it home. That’s no particular surprise you might say, as few cities in central Europe have been spared occupation by conquering armies and imperial masters. But Lviv’s experience, it seems to me, is of a different order entirely. It has, after all undergone the equivalent of a demographic and cultural blood transfusion.
The pen is mightier than the sword, we’re told, but what about the battle between the gear stick and the paint brush?
“So you say in England you have streets with three lanes of traffic? Here we have streets with seven, and we’re going to cross one now.” “He’s exaggerating”, I thought as Salvador Ramirez Medina led me though the Coyoacán district of Mexico City. “So how are we going to get over it Salvador? Fly?” “No, I’ve made arrangements, you’ll see”.
We arrived and, sure enough, he was right. Seven lines of growling, fuming, impatient traffic, aching to roar into the main highway but tamed and restrained, for a minute at least, by a thin white zebra crossing, which pedestrians gratefully scuttled across.
“Up to last year there were no facilities at all for pedestrians in this area – you risked your life everyday just to go to the shops. Of course people had been pleading with the city to do something about it, but nothing ever happened. So we decided to take matters into our own hands. One early morning I went out there and painted the zebra crossing myself”.
“No way?” I said, “And how did the drivers treat it next day?” “They stopped and, as you see, it’s become a habit.” “Any problems?” I asked. “Well, because we could only afford cheap paint, it very quickly wore out. But before I had chance to get out there and repaint it, the City came along and did it for me. They’ve adopted it as their own now.”
I call that a result.
You know how, occasionally, you idly click onto a website or a blog and the images seem to jump out and burn themselves into your subconscious? That happened to me last year with a blog called Crack Two which had lovingly gathered images of “25 Abandoned Yugoslavia Monuments that look like they’re from the Future”
I know, you’re probably thinking to yourself “I can quite happily live my life without knowing anything about Yugoslav war memorials, thank you”. But you’d be wrong. Take a quick peek at the images here and you’ll surely agree that something pretty special was going on this country that is no more. I’m not asking you to love them or even like them but you surely can’t deny that they make a statement (like the memorial to the victims of Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia – pictured above - I’ve just visited) and one that doesn’t deserve to be buried with the other redundant paraphernalia of the former socialist republic of Yugoslavia.
When is a city not a city? When you have to buy a ticket to enter it, maybe. Like Pompeii or Petra – dead cities, you mean? No like Dubrovnik in Croatia. Excuse me but I didn’t know Dubrovnik had died. Well it hasn’t… yet. But read on.
“Come back again. Don’t forget us. Don’t leave us on a desert island. Do not put us aside – we are yours and you are ours.”
This poignant plea was one of many messages people left for me as part of a social experiment I ran as I toured the Balkans on my two-week CORNERS Xpedition. I asked the question "Kako biste pozdravili stranca?" (How do you greet a stranger?) Not all of them were as warm and heartfelt as this, but most were hospitable to me and to other strangers.
I took a walk in one of the world’s smallest capital cities today. Indeed, up to the First World War Cetinje was the smallest of them all, but this pint-sized powerhouse has obviously never felt any sense of inferiority as its elegantly laid-out boulevards are dripping with embassies, ministries, museums and royal/presidential palaces. Okay, I know, Podgorica is where the mundane business of running the republic of Montenegro goes on, but for romantics (which evidently includes current President Filip Vujanović), this former royal capital of under 14,000 people is where the symbolism of power lies.
But this is going to be one of those “city of contrast” stories - Cetinje subverts conventional notions of what a capital city should be at every turn. After Yugoslavia became a kingdom, and gobbled up Montenegro, Centinje languished. Then, after the Second World War it seems to have been deliberately insulted and humiliated by Tito’s socialist regime with the construction of massive factories for footware and refrigerators in amongst the Beaux Art and Jugendstil. These are now trashed and empty making for some stark juxtapositions.
This is the story of a donkey that thought it was a space-ship.
There was a time in socialist eastern Europe when every city of any significance would have its grand central hotel. Along with Communist Party headquarters and the war memorial these were the urban icons of power and progress. For most of these pleasure palaces, their glory days were short lived. They were badly built from shoddy materials and inadequately maintained, and time and climate treated them unkindly. My first experiences of these bombastic follies were in the 80s, when they were already past their sell-by date. After the fall the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the old system, things went from bad to worse, and with no capital investment and little revenue for staff wages they slowly rotted. Everyone has a personal horror story of a night spent in one of these hulks. I’ll personally not forget having to barricade my room against marauding prostitutes in Moscow; or the place in Macedonia which was in almost complete darkness and where, when I pulled the plug out of my bath, the whole room flooded.