Crossing the Black Sea


From 2007:

Today we’d sail on the Yuzhnaya Palmyra, a ship of the UKRFerry shipping company, on once weekly service Istanbul to Odessa. It was to be an approximately 28 hour crossing of the Black Sea south to north, although we’d have to see about the timing.

Departure was set for 9:00 on the web, 10:00 on our ticket (a hard copy they insisted on sending via DHL for $70 from Ukraine to the U.S.), and 11:00 by the people at the hotel, who made some calls on our behalf. So arrival as well, I suspected, ought to be approximate.

We presented ourselves down at the Karakoy docks shortly past 8:00 a.m. “Actual Time,” as the reception clock had it. We had ample time for a spin up and down ship, stem to stern, and an extended goodbye to the mosques filling the Istanbul skyline, lying at anchor, as we were, just meters across the Golden Horn from Topkapi and Sultanahmet. There would be breakfast service before heaving ho, part of the “three meals a day provided all passengers.”

It may have still been Istanbul outside but it was full Ukraine in the песторан (restaurant). Most of the good Ukrainian women were fat as those Americans they worry about on the news, most everyone smoking wherever possible, and a bunch of smoking and horseplay over a 9:30 breakfast of Slavic breakfast staples, cheese and meat slices, an egg dish and a sausage, a tea bag and aching-sweet juice the color of kvass.

Kvass was a Soviet era concoction a young man named Еѵгєлу (Evgeny) once showed me how to sample back in 1986 in a kiosk outside Red Square – served with the nice Soviet touch of a single, shared glass. Here each got our own glass. Mirja and I shared our table with a family of three women, all in print dresses, and a video-taping man.

Even as you gazed out onto working ships with good Turkish names like the Turgut and The Osman, and teeming local ferries of the Tur Yol line, here came women indefinably Ukrainian, with name tags Iruna and big ‘ol Svetlana, slinging plates for six or eight stacked right up their arms. There were pats of butter, and a jug of кетчуп (ketchup) on every table.

Syrupy ballads from the steppes blared straight out of Slavic central casting. They were just enough too loud to notice they were a little too loud.

It took half a year for word to reach the Atlantic coast that gold had been discovered in California. Here, it took three minutes to be jostled by regular, abrupt announcements, way too loud. In the style of receptionists back home, whose announcement echoes across, say, the parking lot of the car dealership, they never thought to put the handset down gently, but instead rattled it around in search of its cradle.

Turkish, Turks will tell you, is useless outside his country’s borders. Even inside in this case, as even at the Istanbul dock, the only announcements were in Ukrainian with just an occasional partial English translation.

Further humiliating, the Ukranian home currency, the hyrvna, and the dollar were just about the only ones in play. I had extra Turkish lira, and while they’d trade in them on the Palmyra, I put them away in the (probably idle) hope I could convert them later at a less usurious rate than on the ship.

Lots of smiles among the passengers. A country crowd, I thought, except for young men, most in sleeveless T’s or undershirts which apparently pass for cool or maybe virile hereabouts, all painted with the permanent scowl of defiance you see on 17 or 20 year olds worldwide.

I wish I could have telepathically conveyed, on behalf of every other man, the simple notion, “We don’t want your (brightly painted) woman.”

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