Amber Johansen writes for The Odessa Journal a charming column, a blog about the city and people. She is passionate about vintage fashion, vegan food and wine.
She has lived in Odessa since autumn 2019
After moving to Odessa in autumn last year, it didn’t take me long to realise that I am somewhat of a niche in the demographic. One question that I constantly receive is simply, ‘why Odessa?’ It is a question asked by Odessites with acute curiosity, in wonder how a British woman chose to relocate to Ukraine alone. I owe my migration largely to serendipity and spontaneity, but in a nutshell I wanted the challenge of teaching English in city I had previously unexplored. Odessa seemed like a great choice – an affordable yet decadent city situated on the Black Sea coast. Despite my priority being teaching, I have essentially become a keen front-desk student of Odessa; the city is my classroom in which I’m always scribbling down notes and asking questions. After almost a year here, I’ve developed a love for it’s unique nuances. Here are five reasons why I have chosen to plant some roots in this charming city.
I love Odessa’s unique architecture, which namely features Gothic, Classical, Baroque and Modern styles. Neo-Classical structures, such as the Archaeological Museum, Western and Eastern Arts Museum and City Hall, particularly catch my eye with their extravagance. The buildings line patterns of geometric leafy streets and are illustriously ornate, yet often sadly scarred and in a sorry state of disrepair. Recently I almost fell victim to a brittle balcony, which sent shards of cement smashing onto the ground in front of me. However, if you look beyond the crumbling facades and avoid the homicidal balconies, you will notice a special ambiance retaining the charms of yesteryear. One of my favourite buildings is Odessa Passage on Derybasovskaya, which epitomises the Golden Era of Odessa. Built within a two-year time frame at the close of the 19th century, its Neo-Baroque interior is adorned with intricate statues and is lit by a stunning skylight, giving the impression of being in a royal palace.
Living by the sea feels like you’re living at the gateway to the world. In Odessa you can see, hear and feel the maritime influences everywhere – think anchors, sailors, salty air and Breton shirts. For me, like many, it is a meditative and calming effect to be near water. In my free time I often visit Shevchenko Park to ruminate about life, watching over the vast sea as the ships come and go from the port. From the warm marmalade sunrises of summer, to the ghostly blanket of fog in winter, you can find beauty in every season. Of course there are the famous beaches, like the tourist honeypots of Lanzheron and Arcadia, but I find them to be a grubby and crowded ordeal during peak season. During this time it is best to go a little out of the city to find a sandy slice of serenity.
Odessa Never Sleeps
On the wild side of the moon I have discovered Odessa’s nightlife to be truly diverse, with almost every kind of bar and club concept you can think of. Even many supermarkets and cafes are open 24/7, so night owls can buy groceries and grab a latte at their convenience. The nightlife is most animated during summer, but in the chillier months there are also plenty of things to do. Post-sundown, Odessites put the burdens of life aside and take to the lively cobbled streets, immersing themselves in the eclectic bar scene and diving head-first into every hour. Of course it’d be rude not to join in, so I have indeed made wonderful memories (some fuzzier than others) of life in Odessa under the stars.
Despite being from England, which is synonymous with tea, I have developed a penchant for drinking coffee on a daily basis and foregoing tea altogether (it never tastes quite the same as at home). Luckily, there is a strong cafe culture in Odessa and many baristas approach the brewing process in near academic seriousness, with the result being exceptionally good coffee. Historically, Ukraine hasn’t been well known for it’s artisan coffee, but now it has become one of Europe’s fastest growing coffee shop markets. As a strict-vegetarian, I was glad to discover that the majority of cafes offer at least one kind of plant-based milk, so I can still enjoy my morning cappuccino.
Last but not least, the people of Odessa are what anchor me to this beautiful port city. People are what make a place; my experiences and perspectives of cities completely shift depending on the hospitality or hostility received. Fortunately, my initial impressions were very positive before I had even stepped foot in the city. When I first made my way here on a stuffy minibus from Chisinau, a fellow passenger sparked up a conversation with me in broken English. He was from Odessa and taught me some Russian words (the primary language in this city), shared his WiFi, helped me with my backpack and waited with me until I was collected by taxi at the station. These acts of kindness made me feel incredibly welcome during a very unnerving time, so I was very grateful.
As I spent more time here, I began to form lasting friendships with both locals and foreigners that I feel so blessed to have. My friendships in Odessa are particularly enriching, as we have fun whilst learning about language and culture from each other simultaneously. I started studying Russian only recently, hence my level is juvenile and tends to make me more shy than I’d usually be. So if my friends aren’t around to help, people often offer their assistance when they overhear me butchering their language. They are never patronising and are genuinely pleased to help, which I find very comforting.
Overall, despite Odessa still being relatively unknown to the west, I believe its charming idiosyncrasies and friendly people make this coastal metropolis a hidden gem and a fantastic place for foreigners to live, work or vacation.
To be continued…
Main photo: Petr Obukhov