Saturday, June 18, 2011

In honor of my father

My relationship with my Dad was not the easiest: we were so alike that all of his flaws were magnified in my estimation and bugged me disproportionately. But it was not always this way. When I was a kid in Odessa, we were really close. He told me tall tales to get me to eat my dinner, he took me for walks, he told me stories about our city. He instilled his love of Odessa in me, a love which I had forgotten until just the last couple of weeks.
I finally went back to Odessa after a 35-year absence. Just thirteen when we left, I was a reluctant party to our emigration. Despite my resistance, once we came to the US, I assimilated most successfully and repressed every notion of being from Odessa -- accent, uniquely Odessit attitude toward life, everything. Until I went back 10 days ago.

I arrived on a plane from Istanbul on Wednesday morning. The airport is a tiny one-story building with an attached airfield. Its only concession to modernity is buses that cart passengers between the building and the aircrafts. Stepping out of the plane, I sensed something achingly familiar in the light, the smells and sounds of the city. And this sense was to persist through the three days that I spent there.
Odessa, known as the "Pearl of the Black Sea", is the ultimate planned city. Established by the order of Catherine the Great in 1794, its role was to be a door to the southern trade routes, leading easily to the Ottoman Empire, as well as the ports of Western Europe. The architecture of the city, its art and literature, reflect the liberal, permissive attitude fostered by its founding planners that made it a civic and commercial success prior to the October Revolution of 1917. Now, emerging from her 70-year repression, Odessa greeted me with open arms.
The love for the city I learned from my father permeates everything in Odessa: Odessits love their city, despite her myriad flaws and imperfections. In this they are not given to extremes of thinking her either perfect or abominable. Their attitude is one of reverence and understanding. Some of her streets are perfect, while others are at the edge of ruin, and she still smiles and winks to us knowing that she transcends these minor details.

I went to the most treasured of places in Odessa, the Opera Theater. I sat in the sixth row, close enough to smell the make up. It was Rigoletto, and as Gilda was singing her aria, I could feel my Dad next to me, nodding and humming along with the music, as he always used to do. And I finally understood his years of silent longing for this most unpretentiously beautiful of all cities I have ever been to. Because if you ever visit Odessa, it will happen to you too.
So, on this, my first Father's day without you, I give you my love for our beautiful city.