It was a hot sunny summer day in the afternoon in June 1995. My mother and I patiently waited for our train at Yaroslavsky Railway Station in Moscow. We were off to our annual summer vacation to Odessa, Ukraine, a beautiful seaport city located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea. Odessa, major transportation hub and tourist destination, is known for its historical and exquisite architecture, as well as, it’s famous and largest sandy beach called Arkadia.
As we waited anxiously for our train, I remember feeling happy and overwhelmed with excitement. The blue train came shortly after we had a quick lunch at a café inside the train station named Solnechniy den’ (sunny day in Russian). We got on the train with our two small bags and headed to our compartment. There were a lot of people on the train, mostly families with small children who were also going on a vacation to Odessa. The kupe compartment was a separate tiny room with four seating/sleeping areas, two on one side and two on the other, and a small table alongside a window in the middle. I remember sleeping on a top bench of the kupe. It was my favorite spot.
It took 24 hours to get from Moscow to Odessa by train. A whole exhausting day, which sometimes felt so long that I kept asking my mother, “Are we there yet?” every half an hour. The train stopped at several cities, small villages and towns. The window view from our kupe was magnificent. We usually left the half of window open. The light breeze felt warm and gentle as the air passed softly from across the room.
I remember looking out the window and seeing grain fields, farms, cows, houses, and small colored houses. The landscape looked absolutely breathtaking with lots of greenery and beautiful Russian trees called bereza, tall skinny white birch trees with light green leaves and sharp edges. When the train stopped, the local farmers used get on train and sell fruits, vegetables, roasted chicken, bread, milk, and kwas, which is a Russian and Ukrainian refreshing iced cold beverage made from black or regular rye bread.
When we got off the train, our family friends, Olga and her husband Grisha, were waiting for us the train station. My mother and Olga had been best friends since high school. Right after high school, Olga got married and moved with her husband to the Ukraine were her husband’s family lived. Olga was Russian, Grisha was Ukrainian Gypsy. They were a very lovely couple. They used to always get along and laugh at each others jokes, which I thought was very sweet. I never once saw Olga and Grisha fighting. I did not noticed anything unusual or different between them.
They were one of the most friendly, warm, kind, and funny people I’ve ever met in my life. Every morning we used to have breakfast in their backyard, which was a big open landscape with tall green trees and pretty roses everywhere. Olga planted red roses throughout the backyard and next to the front porch. They smelled wonderful.
My mother and I used to stay at their house. They had a big gated house. Their house was dark green, with lots of windows, four bedrooms, and tiny farm right outside their backyard. They used to grow fruits, and vegetables such as peaches, apples, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, rodish, carrots, and cucumbers. They also grew barriers, such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, red currant, gooseberries and loganberries.
They also had lots of animals, three dogs, about six cats, and lots of chickens. I made friends with their oldest dog, Graf. Graf was a German shepherd. The kindest and friendliest dog I’ve ever known. We became friends from the first time I petted him at the age of five. Every summer when we went to Olga’s house, the first thing I did was play with Graf. When I was a child, I used to be scared of big dogs, who were my size, but not Graf. Graf was my best friend.
One life changing afternoon, Graf literately saved my life. I was playing in the backyard. Olga had a huge wide pool in the backyard. It was quite deep and scary looking for me at the time. I was seven years old back then, and did not learned how to swim yet. While playing ball by myself by the pool, I slipped and feel in the pool while try to catch the ball. I don’t quite remember the exact details, but from what I can remember now, is that I fell in the water and started crying and screaming extremely loudly. I was nearly drowning. I didn’t understand what was happening or what was going on. The next thing you know, Graf jumps in the pool, starts swimming towards me to my safety.
Then, I remember my mom screaming extremely loud. It was as if she was about to have a panic attack. She ran as fast as she possibly could towards me, jumped in the pool pulled me from the water. I still remember how scared and terrified she was. She hugged me tightly, yelled at me few times for not being careful, then started crying. In that moment of being scared and shocked, I looked at my mom and I didn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t speak for a few minutes. It almost felt like I was losing consciousness. As this was happening, I looked to my right and noticed Graf was standing right next to me the whole time. From that day on, I knew that Graf was a special dog, a brilliant dog. I was seven years old, but I remember that day like it was yesterday. If it wasn’t for Graf for saving me that day, who knows what would have happened.
Once in Odessa, in the morning, we went to the beach. Oh, those filthy Odessa beaches! Never clean, always yucky and unpleasant. I remember Arkadia beach, the most popular of all the beaches in Odessa. It was very dirty and usually overcrowded with first time tourists, lots of families with small children. On the other hand, I remember bunch of drunken college students who had no manners whatsoever, and used to leave their trash and empty beer bottles on the sand and in the water. I remember being afraid to go in the water. I did not know how to swim. I was afraid that if I go a tiny bit deeper, above my waist, I was going to drown, thus every time I went in the water, I swam with my blue inflatable armbands that had little pink ducks all over them.
In the daytime, we walked around the city and enjoyed the warm sunny weather and the pleasant summertime daylight. The architecture and sculptures in the downtown area called Deribasovskaya, was absolutely charming beyond words. Deribasovskaya had numerous of historic beautiful old buildings, cute little cafés and coffee houses with cozy outdoor furniture. The atmosphere of the city felt like you were transported to somewhere in Europe, with its narrow street sidewalks, cute little cafes and restaurants, street vendors, and a lot of tourists. It had a very European-like feel to it. Exquisite parks and museums, enchanting little boutiques, people were always very welcoming and polite. I heard few different languages when walking by the main streets and at the restaurants, from Russian and Ukrainian, to German and English. I did hear American-English couple of times in the downtown area and on the beach. I suppose they were tourists from the United States who were visiting Odessa.
The last time I was in Odessa, was when I was ten years old. My mother and I never went back sense then. I still remember my carefree childhood days, where everyone used to be so kind, loving, understanding, cheerful and generous about one another. Life was straightforward an uncomplicated in the 1990s. Neighbors helped out neighbors in times of need. People weren’t as harsh or selfish; hasten to run after money and success, as they are today. Life had tremendous meaning to it. And that meaning was simply, humanity.
When it was time to go back to Moscow, I always felt a little sad, because leaving Odessa I felt kind of joyless and unhappy. Going back meant saying goodbye to the hot summer Odessa days, and hello to the chilly and gloomy Moscow autumn. When we were leaving, Olga, Grisha and Graf, they used to take Graf with them, drove us to the Railway Station. Once we got there and were about to board the train, Olga used to pack for mom and me a bag full of yummy goodies, such as fruits, variables, fried chicken and potatoes, fresh made bread, Ukrainian pastries, and cold iced kwas, which she used to brew by herself from scratch.
In the train, I remember looking out the window and waving goodbye to Olga, Grisha and Graf in hopes of someday coming back to Odessa again. Remembering Odessa is always a pleasant and nostalgic experience for me. I think about how life has changed since then. Will I ever go back to Odessa? I don’t really know. I suppose, if life gave me another chance to go back and experience those lovely summers all over again, I certainly would. It would be very compelling to see how everything changed since the time that I was there.
I was super excited and looking forward to our summer vacation in Odessa each year. The nostalgic memories are still on my mind to this day. Hot summer air, beautiful kind people, enchanting architecture, fascinating and captivating city, which draws you in with its Paris-like atmosphere of the city center Deribasovskaya. I remember like yesterday, that sunny summer day in the afternoon in June 1995, where my mother and I patiently waited for our train at Yaroslavsky Railway Station in Moscow. It was so long ago, so far way ago, yet it feels just like yesterday getting on-board of that light blue train, with no worries, no stress but carefree childhood moments that would last a lifetime.
Odessa will stay in my heart forever.
This article originally appeared on theodysseyonline
And later re-appeared on Medium
Featured photo by Oleksii Hlembotskyi on Unsplash