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A nostalgic look at a little coastal place in the Crimea

 

I am not much of a believer in transmigration of souls but several recurrent dreams and one life experience suggest that there may be something to it after all. Dreams apart, the life experience I refer to — or rather a continual string of experiences — is Gaspra in the Crimea. There was a moment, when years ago, arriving at my destination on the Crimean southern coast, I could not help crying out, “This is where I belong! I once lived here, and I loved living here!” And every time I go there — which is at least once a year — I absolutely love being there. I belong there, in Gaspra.

 

Vladimir Nabokov, a great American writer of Russian descent, arguably one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century, spent summer months in Gaspra in his very young years, and later, several months in 1918 and 1919 before his and his family’s departure from Russia overrun by the Bolsheviks. “I looked at the… mountains, covered up to their rocky brows with the karakul of the dark Tauric pine; at the maquis-like stretch of evergreen vegetation between mountain and sea; at the translucent pink sky, where a self-conscious crescent shone, with a single humid star near it; and the whole artificial scene struck me as something in a prettily illustrated… edition of The Arabian Nights.”

This Nabokov’s description of Gaspra, taken from his autobiographical Speak, Memory, makes my heart ache with nostalgia. I was there, in Gaspra, with Nabokov, and watched with him “the smouldering wreck of a huge, amber sunset,” inhaled the air in “the jasmine-scented, cricket-mad dusk,” and enjoyed, in the morning light, the sight of “the pink puffs of blossoming almond trees enlivening the dark mountainside.”

The beauty of the place is indeed such that it does seem, at first sight, unreal, artificial, a pretty picture from a book of fairy tales. But then, a moment comes, after you’ve lived within that scenic unreality for some time, when it becomes part of you, and you part of it, you become one with it, and there is no other reality that you want to live in. Anyway, that’s what happened to me.

 

The Crimea was not love at first sight for me, probably because I was too small to appreciate its all too-obvious beauty. My father was an actor, and when his theatre went on tours in summer, he sometimes arranged for his family to go with him.

I was about ten when I came to the Crimea for the first time. It was in the mid-fifties and the only practical way of getting to the Crimea then was by train. The journey took at least twenty hours.

From the railroad terminal in Symferopol, you could proceed to any destination in the Crimea — by bus or by car. The bus we rode in was made in the pre-war times — it was a tired, battered creature, whizzing and coughing and straining uphill with such an effort that it seemed it would die before it reached the top of the next hill. And hills were many. In fact, there were mountains, not as high as “real” snow-capped, ice-bound mountains go, but nevertheless mountains. The road from Symferopol to Yalta was narrow, “long and winding.” It was so narrow that the bus had to slow down almost to a halt and pull to the side of the road to let the occasional oncoming cars drive by. It was dusty and hot, with only a window or two open — the rest being firmly secured in their rusty frames by age and abuse in an “unopenable” position. Once in a while, the driver would stop at places where there were thick bushes coming up close to the side of the road, and the passengers dashed in to these bushes to relieve themselves or to be sick.

It was not the sea that made the greatest impression on me in Yalta — it was an enormously big, white ship in the port that absolutely fascinated me. It occupied the whole length of the quay, moored to it by ropes, as thick as my body. The enormity of this ocean liner was overwhelming. There was no foreign tourism to the Soviet Union at that time; neither could the Soviet citizens go abroad, so the passengers on that ship must have been Soviets, travelling from one port on the Black Sea to another. I did not know any of these things then — I just stood in awe, my head thrown back, mouth gaping. How I wished then I could sail on a ship like that into the distant seas, to the distant fairy-tale lands which, in my imagination, were still like those I read about in the books of adventure by the nineteenth-century authors.

Years later I learned that the ship I had seen then in Yalta was one of the many things that the victorious Soviet Union confiscated from Germany after the war. This “trophy” was renamed and used as a commercial ship for transporting passengers, rather than for cruises, to various destinations on the Black Sea coast. In the 1980s, it collided with a freight ship, and sank, taking with it to the bottom hundreds of people.

After a short stay in Yalta, we proceeded north-west to Yevpatoriya. A small resort town. In Yevpatoriya, some of the actors and their families lived in cottages, very close to the waterfront, practically on the beach. It was then that I had my first, full-time experience of the sea. The beach was sand rather than pebbles; the sand grains were mostly reddish, unusually big-sized, with lots of tiny, elongated, cone-shaped shells among them. In the water, among the weeds I could glimpse small fish darting here and there. It did not take long to learn to catch tiny sea horses, tiny polka-dotted crabs and flatfish into a glass jar. Lying on the warm sand in the hot sun, I watched them desperately trying to get out and fail to adjust to a new, glass-walled environment. I would let my catch out back into the sea in the evening, though I kept one sea-horse to bring home. The horse did not survive the journey, I was very upset, but I did not throw it away — I put it on the window sill to get mummified in the sun. It did and I kept it in a box for quite some time, letting my school friends to have an admiring look at it.

 

I came back to the Crimea years later, at the end of the nineteen-sixties when I worked for the Intourist, the Soviet company receiving foreign tourists. My trips to the Crimean southern coast were part of my job, and I did not particularly enjoy them. Most of the tourists in the groups I escorted were much older than I was, and having spent a day with them as their guide and interpreter, I would wander around Yalta mostly on my own. I promenaded along Yalta’s seafront esplanade, which at the time, began to look rather crowded, with occasional lookers enlivening otherwise drab, nondescript proletarian hordes. “On the white Yalta pier (where, as you remember, the lady of Chekhov’s ‘Lady with the Lapdog’ lost her lorgnette among the vocational crowd) various harmless people had, in advance, weights attached to their feet and then were shot by tough Bolshevik sailors imported from Sebastopol for the purpose.” I did not see Chekhov’s lady there; neither were Nabokov’s “tough Bolshevik sailors” in evidence, but the crowds and grim Soviet reality were there all right — there was practically no “night life” to speak of, no seaside, open air cafes to sit in, no bars to go to (these days there are too many of them, for my liking). Instead of advertising, slogans in huge letters on the roofs of the dilapidated buildings said, Work And Rest Are Guaranteed By Soviet Constitution; CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) is a leading force, and others as inspiring. At the end of the esplanade stood — and still stands — a monument to Lenin, incongruously wearing a long winter coat, and bravely striding toward the sea. Lenin had never been to Yalta — but it was he who inspired the Bolshevik ruffians to shoot “harmless people.”

At that time, I was only beginning to learn the true facts in the history of the Soviet regime, and what little I knew worried me and made me resentful. It badly interfered with my ability to enjoy life. And then, on one of the Intourist trips I met a girl, an American art student, long legged, short-skirted, who, like so many other Americans, asked me, “Why is it that people in your country do not smile?” She asked me many other questions too, and by the time we got to Yalta, I was head over heels in love. It seems love was reciprocated. Mid-summer stars at night, soft breeze, the lapping of the waves against the pebbled beach, the sparkle of her eyes, the touch of her hand, the taste of her lips were such a heady mixture that I became oblivious of anything around me — except her. I neglected my duties of a guide, I stopped thinking about the watchful KGB eyes and ears (Intourist guides were categorically forbidden “to enter into private relations” with foreign citizens, and a guide, if caught, would be immediately expelled with little prospect of finding any decent job ever again). I was madly in love, so much in love that even the sea and the seaside scenery were something irrelevant. The month-long tour that took us to several cities of the Soviet Union, abruptly ended — she left never to come back. She was a student who could not afford another trip, and I was on the KGB’s black list, not allowed to travel anywhere outside the Soviet Union, even to the neighbouring “socialist” states like Bulgaria. We kept writing letters for the next twenty years.

What a torture it was to return to Yalta, to walk along the streets we had walked, holding hands, to go to the seaside park of oleanders and cypresses, to look at the bench we had sat on, engaged in more than just holding hands, to pass by the hotel we had stayed in, to look at “her” balcony… She was not there — and I began to hate Yalta where my love had flowered — only to be taken rudely away from me.

 

When several years later, after I had quit the Intourist, a friend of mine proposed to go “to the south,” to a place about twenty something kilometres west of Yalta, I flatly said “No.” He said he had gone there the previous summer, stayed for a week and thoroughly enjoyed it. When he described the place he was proposing to go to, I began wavering. It was not in Yalta, it was in Gaspra, a very small satellite town, right by the seaside; a little house in the territory of a lighthouse. I imagined a lighthouse standing on a promontory of naked rock — and again said “No.” He was persuasive and provided a more detailed description — the little house stands in a grove of Greek junipers, ruins of a Roman bath ten metres away, a beach of rocks away from the holidaying crowds where you can sunbathe naked, if so desire… The Roman bath did it — I accepted the proposal. Little did I know what I was letting myself in.

I felt rich and expansive — I had received royalties for my first book of translation, and we (my young wife and I) travelled in class. Upon arriving in Symferopol, we did not get on a bus — we hired a taxi, an extravagantly expensive thing to do in those times, and arrived at our destination in Gaspra in chic, and much earlier than expected. We penetrated into the park through a hole in the tall fence, climbed the hill, and ignoring signs, nailed to the trees, that said, “Lighthouse personnel only! Keep Out!” “Beware of the Dogs!” boldly entered the territory of the lighthouse. We did not go to the lighthouse though, but taking a devious path, we arrived at a small, wooden house, ages ago painted green. You could not see this hut from the road leading to the lighthouse — it was well concealed from the human eye by Greek junipers and all kinds of bushes whose botanical names are unknown to me in any language.

We were greeted by my friend’s wife who was ready, she said, with lunch for all of us. I parked the suitcases near the hut, took a better look around — and suddenly I was overwhelmed by a realization that came from the very depths of my whole being, that I had come home. I had never been there before — that much was too obvious, and yet I knew with every cell of my brain and of my body that it was the place where I had lived, the place I had always loved. It was my place, it was the place where I belonged. It was an instantaneous and shattering revelation.

When people who know that I go to the Crimea regularly, ask me, Do you like the place so much that you’ve been going there annually for almost thirty years?, I answer that, first, I like only some places in the Crimea, and, second, that I love one place on the peninsula — the lighthouse in Gaspra. I cannot, really, properly explain it. Some rational arguments can be provided — it is a place of exceptional scenic beauty; I’ve always had a sensationally good time there; it has always been the time of rest for me after months of gruelling translation work; I have always been reasonably financed for the Crimean stays thanks to my royalties and while there I don’t have to pinch pennies (it takes several months of saving money though). But there is something else, something which is beyond any rational explanation, something that I call “the call of the lighthouse.” When I was once explaining this to a friend, she exclaimed, “You must have lived there ages ago, and then your soul, after a long period of transmigrations, has entered your body, and lets you know that you’ve discovered the place where you belong. In that earlier incarnation, you must have had a very good time there, at the lighthouse.” I laughed, and she, knowing my deep-rooted scepticism, did not press the point, but I think she (to turn the idiom usually used in the negative sense, into positive) put her finger on it.

Writing this takes me back in time to those very first moments of my coming to that place. It’s almost as much a palpable reality for me as the keyboard and the computer monitor in front of me. Everything is back — the smell of a hot July mid-day, in which are mixed the fragrances of the sea some two hundred feet below, of the junipers, of the grass, of the hard, dark reddish-brownish earth strewn with little stones, is in my nostrils; the expanse of the placid, dark-blue sea is in my eyes; the bows of the Greek junipers, hundreds of years old, are above my head, providing shade; the cicadas’ shrill greetings are in my ears; tranquillity and peace descends upon my soul… Then pain comes — why is it that I’m here, in a stuffy room with heavy traffic rumbling in the street, and not there where I belong?

Characteristically, all the people — my wives, my children, my friends — who visited the place, liked it, but only one person came to love it. It is my middle daughter who spent many summers with me there. But she never said she belonged there.

 

Coming back to that first day — the house, when examined closer, proved to be a really tiny structure, made of wooden planks and covered with corrugated iron that provided roofing. It had two rooms, or rather one room, six feet by twelve feet, a porch, made into “a veranda,” even smaller than the room, and “a wing” with another room, still smaller. The “big” room had two beds in it and a miniature dresser, and the other room was too small for anything except an antique divan which filled the room completely, leaving a couple of feet of floor space free by the threshold. The hut stood hardly more than ten feet from the edge of the precipice that descended precipitously to the sea, dozens of feet below. The wire-mesh fence ran along the edge of the steep, preventing a possible accident of slipping and falling down.

There was no room on the veranda to seat four at the round table, so our meals were taken outdoors, a sort of chaise longue, covered with a piece of checked cloth, serving as a table. That “chaise longue” deserves a couple of words to be said about it. It was of a general shape of a chaise longue, but it was made of long, narrow planks of wood, with a couple of inches between them, set on a sort of a low trestle frame, with a head rest, all roughly nailed together.

All the cooking was done on a portable, one-hot-plate electric stove, perched on a rock outside the house. “Partaking of the meal,” we sat cross-legged on the ground, our bottoms cushioned against the rock-hard earth either by rags, folded many times over, or air-mattresses.

That first meal, made of canned pork mixed with macaroni, cucumbers, green onions and soft drinks, laid out on the sun-dappled “chaise-longue,” in the Greek-juniper grove, with the buzzing insects and singing cicadas for the music accompaniment, the lazy sea below for the backdrop, the amazingly transparent, blue sky above for the roof, tasted so unbelievably, gorgeously good!

When the heat of the day began to subside a little, we went to the beach, preferring wild rocks with no one around except us, to the rather noisy and crowded “civilized” beaches. To get there, you had to swim quite a distance which, for me, an inexperienced swimmer who never risked going further away than ten feet away from the shore, was quite an adventure. We found a place with several huge, flat rocks sticking out of the water which provided us with “couches” for reclining. My wife sunbathed topless — a thing of great daring back in nineteen-seventy six (my friend’s wife was never up for it; even her bathing suit was of a most modest kind). My friend pretended never to look in her direction; the middle-aged who rowed past in rowing boats — for exercise and pleasure — with their wives perched at the stern, were mesmerized by the sight, and in spite of their wives’ strong admonitions to look the other way, kept throwing furtive glances at the graceful female figure stretched on a rock. When the boats got too close, she would lazily turn to lie on her stomach.

Then, there were fantastic evenings, with wine after dinner, slow talk, wild love-making (wild but discreet, in the privacy of the divan or the bushes; no wife-swapping, if you wondered), and star-gazing. I found it was too stuffy for me to be sleeping indoors, and I slept outdoors, on a folding bed. I had my first experience of looking into the southern, summer night sky, of being absolutely enthralled by it; I discovered the Milky Way in all of its stunning majesty and felt dizzy — it seemed I was being sucked into it. I saw satellites — tiny dots of light moving across the dark expanse of the firmament; falling stars, and tried to say a wish before they burned out; UFOs — blinking things that moved erratically and at a great speed. And I learned the meaning of bliss.

The little house belonged to a dexterous technician of over sixty (and an alcoholic war veteran into the bargain), who worked at the lighthouse. Yakov had built the cabin himself, and rented to people like us, for a song.

Food was cooked, as I said, on a portable electric stove that was maddeningly slow to get water boiling. For a refrigerator, we used an old basin, filled with water, and put in the shade but, of course, you could hardly keep any perishables in such a fridge for more than a day. For washing, we used a single faucet that stuck out of the ground near the porch. And the sea, of course. For food, we had to go shopping to a couple of local stores — or go to Yalta for vegetables and fruit. There were years when the local stores — dingy and smelly — were literally empty, with rows and rows of canned “seaweeds” on the shelves. So, things like sausage, cheese, butter, sugar, flour, pasta had to be hauled all the way from Kyiv. There were millions of people coming to the Crimea — and facing similar problems. Such vacationists were called “wild holidaymakers,” the “civilized ones” being those who stayed at the sanatoriums and rest homes (sanatoriy was a combination of a rest home and health-improvement centre, equipped with medical facilities and staffed with medical personnel that could provide treatment if need be). One such sanatorium was next door to the territory of the lighthouse but it was for “whites only” — party bosses and officials of various, rather high ranks, and their families. Not for the likes of me, anyway. The sanatorium occupies the park that used to be a part of an estate that once belonged to the Romanov Imperial family, with the central building preserved in an excellent condition since the early years of the twentieth century.

At the inevitable encounters with the sanatorium staff and the vacationing apparatchiks in the park, through which we had to pass to go shopping, I was given hostile looks by the clean and decent-looking sanatorium inhabitants — I was long-haired, bearded, wearing jeans, cut off above the knee, and shirts with suspicious mottoes on them in a foreign language. Many years later, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, I was given admittance to the sanatorium and stayed there, enjoying the privileges once available only to the Soviet social elite.

 

The lighthouse has been standing at the spot where its stands now for about twenty-five hundred years. Originally, it was built by the ancient Greeks who colonized much of the Crimean southern coast. Then came the Romans, followed by the Byzantines. They were replaced by the Tartars and then by the Turks, and in the eighteenth century by the Russians. And all of those who were masters of the promontory built their lighthouses, all of them, at one and the same place. Of course, electricity and other sophisticated gadgets were introduced in recent times, but the site was invariably one and the same. In the nineteenth century, several literary luminaries paid visits to the lighthouse, Tolstoy and Chekhov included.

Archeological excavations revealed the remains of a Roman settlement complete with a Roman bath, the ruins of which were located a couple of dozen yards away from the shanty that I have described earlier. Nobody looked after the ruins (and nobody does), but the place, being closed to casual wanderers, is out of reach of modern vandals. I heard spooks talking to each other at night in the ruins of the Roman bath, I saw something that defies description or explanation — and I realized one day that I was one of the Romans who had stayed at that place almost two thousand years ago. My wife did a little archeological digging of her own and discovered two marble plaques with inscriptions carved into them, a huge plate of the altar for sacrifices, and several cute artefacts, including dice, made of vertebra of some animal, red dots still clearly visible. The archeologists who were lazily digging around at the time, were put to great shame.

 

Somewhat paraphrasing the immortal phrase of Kurt Vonnegut, now, three wives, hundreds of bottle of wine and cognac later, I long as ever to go back where I belong, to sit at night in the Roman bath, gazing at the stars, at the dark silhouette of a distant mountain, at the moon path on the sea, sipping cognac and waiting for my soul to go back to that Roman who was there ahead of me.

 

Text and photos by Oleksa Opanasenko

 

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