The Bride of the Sea

Seeing they were all looking at his chest he accommodatingly dragged his shirt more open so that on top of the timehonoured symbol of the mariner's hope and rest they had a full view of the figure 16 and a young man's side face looking frowningly rather. —Tattoo, the exhibitor explained. That was done when we were lying becalmed off Odessa in the Black Sea under Captain Dalton. Fellow, the name of Antonio, done that. There he is himself, a Greek. ~J. Joyce Ulysses

“Where are you from?”

“Odessa,” I answer…

The reactions that follow vary from “Oh, what a beautiful name!” to “It’s such a beautiful place!” to the cliched “Oh, I’ve been to Odessa; the women are so beautiful there.”

The Colonnade of Count Vorontsov. The legend says that if a girl circles around the first ten columns ten times she will get married soon.

And they are right on most accounts. Not that appealing to stereotypes ever worked in getting my affection, but Odessa is truly a unique, beautiful city. Its name is a feminine derivative of the ancient Greek fortress called Odessos. In urban folklore, Odessa is called ‘the bride-city’ or Odessa-Mama (Odessa the mother). Many women in Odessa are indeed beautiful and – as in any other city – fall in love, become a bride, a wife, a mother.

Odessa harbor through the gate in Shevchenko Park

What the polite, well-meaning, small-talkers forget to mention – but what captures my native city at its best – is that Odessa is a port. Ever since I left, there is something I look for and find in almost every other port city: the salt in the air, an open view over the horizon, the abundance of seafood. This mixture brings me close to the feeling of joyous, carefree, safe and secure childhood. Upon reaching this space through scents and sensations, my mind drifts off to imagining a chance encounter that leads a girl, a woman to meet a sailor. The chances to fall in love and marry a seaman are higher in a port city than in any landlocked city.

A Captain’s ID in his his daughter’s room

I know it; I feel it in my body. My mother happened to fall in love with a sailor and so had my grandmother.

In the eyes of a woman, the anchor comes to symbolize hope, rest and security. Yet, ironically, upon marrying a mariner, a woman embarked upon a life of uncertainty, of waiting for her beloved one to come back from the sea, of taking on a role of both a mother and a father to their children at least part-time. In a way, she becomes an anchor and a beacon for the sailor. She stays onshore and her life intertwines with the life of the city.

Some port cities, like Venice, Tripoli or Jaffa, proudly carry the name Bride of the Sea. In Venice the marriage of the city to the sea became an annual ritual. It’s a celebration of the city’s acknowledgement of the sea and submission to the wild forces of nature. In Odessa, the everyday ritual of marrying a sailor is similarly a celebration of submission to the forces of nature. The brides of the sailors merge their destiny and identity with that of the city. Accepting every catch, profit, achievement, crush in a storm, or death as a joy or a tragedy of their own. They bear the same fortune of staying ashore and waiting. The wife of the sailor nests in the harbor of the city, the Bride of the Sea.

Lena, captain’s wife: ‘I married for love and begged him to quit going out into the sea’.

The Bride of the Sea is my take on Odessan identity through a lens of feminine roles. It is a walk through the city, stopping at the harbor and city halls, for a visit with sailors’ wives, and reviving urban legends.

The marriage hut “Khanynka:” a marriage innovation by the current Odessa region governor Mikheil Saakashvili opened on the lawn of the regional administration building in July 2016 where a marriage can be registered within one hour.

Newlyweds on Primorskii Boulevard

The Odessa marine

Primorskii district City Hall, a traditional place to register a marriage and to hold an official ceremony

Ludmila, sailor’s widow, “We would miss each other and never got ta chance to get into a fight.”

The building that hosted Sailors Club, a home to sailors’ wives community center, turned into Karaoke Hall now

The monument to a sailor’s wife in the Odessa Marine