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A Week in Culture: Barry Yourgrau, Writer, Part 2

May 12, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Yourgrau’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

DAY FOUR

11:00 A.M. To the Privoz, Odessa’s signature sprawling bazaar market, alas now overly spruced up. Anya and her mom want to talk to the babushkas. Most of the stalls seem run by women—huge-girthed, older, sharp of tongue (famously), sporting flowery headscarves and preposterously frilly French-maid aprons even while sawing lamb carcasses. The scene suggests a chaotic operetta with edible props. I sample five homemade Bessarabian wines from plastic water bottles, then a scrumptious brownish baked yogurt.

One massive dame, a vast beauty like some folkloric monument to Ceres, asks if I’m Anya’s dad. When told I’m her boyfriend she wisecracks that I must be very rich to be with someone so young and pretty. Anya and her mom guffaw at this notion (me and wealth). Anya compliments the lady on her looks, and the woman sighs, Nyet, she’s too fond of moonshine. With a few friends, she says, she can put away four liters. (That’s a gallon and we’re not talking pinot grigio.) Anya gasps in amazement.

7:00 P.M. At the opera: a great gilded proscenium echoed by ranks of smaller gilded prosceniums, the boxes and balconies. Tchaikovsky's Iolanthe is the offering. The male voices are fine, but the lead soprano playing the blind princess has a vocal wobble of seismic intensity. Jabotinsky’s 1935 novel of Odessa, The Five—only recently translated into English and supposedly an excellent portrait of the city a century ago—opens with a scene here. Jabotinsky: “The beginning of my Zionist activity is connected with two influences. Italian opera and the idea of self-defense.” I think of Walter Benjamin’s line about fascism as the aesthetization of politics.

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