Last Sunday night found me and five of my friends waiting curbside for a ride on the magic bus that would transport us across Moldova’s northeastern border into Odesa, Ukraine. We were going to join the celebrations for the Festival of Humor, or “Umorina” and it is known here.
Humorina (Russian: Юморина) is an annual festival held since 1973 on and around the April Fools’ Day. (It was invented in 1972 by the Odessa KVN team after the KVN contests and the corresponding TV show were discontinued. For more background on KVN, click here.)
Pictures from past festivals online portrayed an atmosphere and antics similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans – people wearing masks and feathers, with painted faces and outlandish costumes. Carnival rides and games. Artisan crafts. Music. Food. Laughter. With Moldova fiercely clinging to the last vestiges of winter, this seemed just the antidote I needed.
My partner, Tania, who had arranged the trip with a tour agency and was accompanying us with some of her friends, had told us to be there promptly at 8:30pm. Thought somewhat surprised at the notion of anything Moldovan adhering to a timetable, we are, after all, compliant Americans trained to adhere to schedules and so showed up 10 minutes early, just to be safe. We could’ve trusted our instinct, though.
Around 9:15, earnest young girls conferring over clipboards directed clumps of passengers on, then, mysteriously, off, three Greyhound-sized tour buses that had been waiting, empty, since 8:45 or so. As there was no immediately detectable order or reason to the activity, we decided to wait for direction from Tania. Around 9:30, we told to board one of the buses and take the first four pairs of seats.
This was a happy boon, as one of the pairs of seats sported a sort of table that one could conceivably lay one’s head on to catch a little nap during the hours-long journey. Two of my friends chortled merrily at their luck, failing to remember the machinations of the clipboard wielding young women. All too soon, they were being asked to relocate themselves to the nether regions of the bus, in order to accommodate the driver’s friends, with whom he wished to be able to talk during the trip.
Well, neither one of these particular friends of mine are easily disabused of their booty if lady luck should happen to dump in their direction: a lively debate ensued which approached the outside boundaries of “peace & friendship,” the go-to mantra of all PCVs who find themselves in tense circumstances in foreign lands. Thankfully, after a strident seven minute articulation of their perception of the general unfairness of the situation, said friends gathered their belongings and stomped off to the back of the bus.
Of course, the clipboards weren’t finished with us just yet.
In the end, all of us, together with Tania and her friends (and a couple no one knew who remained lip-locked and limb-entwined through the bus ride) landed in a 20-seat microbus with a kick ass stereo, fluorescent lights and reclining seats, all of which would come to be the bane of our collective existence by the time the bus arrived in Odesa at 4:30am the next morning. But initially, we were happy to be out of the swirling minuet of seat changes that continued up until the moment of our departure in a swirl of liberating exhaust – we were off!
One of the best qualities I am gaining – I believe – from my Peace Corps service is the ability to just let go and allow circumstance to deposit me where they will. I have been accused, in the past, of having some ‘control’ issues. And to all my accusers (you know who you are,) let me assure you that Moldova has met those issues of mine in all their various permutations head on and absolutely trumped them. There is nothing like taking a seat on a bus, driven madly by stranger down a pot-holed, bone-shaking highway into the black chasm of night toward a destination you’ve never been where people will speak a language you won’t understand, to rid yourself of all pompous notions of having the least bit of control over anything.
Affording myself liberal swigs of the cognac being passed around, I determined not to look out the front windshield and focus, instead, on the heavy bass threatening to burst my eardrums.
Predawn: we pull into an Angel-stadium sized parking lot that we can see is steadily filling up with caravans of other cars and buses. For an hour or so we labor under the misapprehension that this is our destination – and confer in hushed tones about how to hail a taxi, with no Ukranian money and no notion of where we are – before Tania explains to us that we are just waiting for the last bus in our entourage to join us.
Did I mention that the border check filled exactly half the time of our six hour trip? And we paid a 10 lei ‘fee’ apiece to speed up the process? Well, apparently our fellow tour participants were not afforded this same opportunity for a ‘speed-pass,’ so all of us ended up waiting the extra 3 hours for them in the huge asphalt parking lot that hosts Odesa’s piața, or marketplace.
I am not even going to talk about the bathrooms.
Some things are better left to the imagination. Or better yet, not imagined at all.
But oh – Odesa! Once we finally arrived, every exhausted, uncontrolled, bass, thumping moment was swept away in the stunning beauty of the streets, the blue sky, the beating sun, the distant horizon over the steel grey sea. Even the harbor, punctuated by the steel arms of cranes and over-sized boat lifts, cement piers, and smokestacks, was gorgeous to my vista-starved eyes.
More and more buses, filled with more and more people, continued pulling up before the Potemkin stairway that leads up to the heart of old town. Perhaps the most famous site in the city, the 192 steps of the famous staircase were built in the mid 1800’s and were made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Vendors lined its edges, selling their wares, along with a perplexing preponderance of bird handlers – doves, hawks, eagles, falcons, even a peacock. I made the mistake of taking a picture (aiming at a statue behind him) which included one and had the angry owner following me for 100 feet demanding a fee. Everything is for sale in Odesa.
After spending an hour and half in the one bank that was changing money, we headed out to find food. And oh – the food! We stopped in an adorable little restaurant Kompot, which I’ve since learned is a favorite spot for Moldovan PCVs – everyone recommends it for its generous portions, cozy atmosphere and friendly wait staff.
Then on to wander about the city, exploring the parks and bridges, the proscenium overlooking the harbor and the numerous side streets. Odesa’s buildings are a mixture of different architectural influences; some are built in the Art Nouveau Style, which was in vogue at the turn of the 20th century, while Renaissance and Classicist styles are also widely present. It feels very cosmopolitan and is quite picturesque.
After doing a little bit of shopping, and watching Costea try his arms at a carnival game, we got to eat sushi – one of my happiest gustatory moments in recent memory. There is nothing like the way sushi glides down the throat, to nestle softly and happily in one’s tummy. I LOVE sushi and its one of the foods I have missed the most.
Then we found a table at the edge of a park facing on the street procession and spent the next four hours soaking in the sun and slowly sipping beverages, wanting the day to last. We meandered from subject to subject in that lazy manner that is only attained on holiday, when words become diamond sparklers lobbed between you, making the very air glitter with untold possibilities. We could have stretched those hours into days and been perfectly content.
Of course, the scene only became livelier as dark descended. A ska band was playing at the top of the Potemkin staircase and dancers were out in force, swaying and singing, arms flung around shoulders, laughter and merriment wafting through the crowd on the ocean breeze and we vowed next year to come back and stay the entire night.
Deposited back in Chișinău at 2:30am, we were forced to wait in an all night pizza joint for the buses to start running at 6:30am. Having not slept in almost 72 hours (we had a bad night in the hostel from hell Friday night in Chișinău) it was an exercise in fierce determination to keep our heads off the table and our eyes from crossing.