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The following is an article featured in this month's "Travel + Leisure" magazine, in a special "The Europe Issue". If you have some time on your hands, this is an interesting read, with everything from history of Odessa to it's current rebirth.

It's really exciting to see how much exposure Ukraine has received recently. Before a few years ago, nobody would ever mention Eastern Europe as a hot destination. Now, I spot Ukraine and other Eastern European countries here and there. More articles and mentions will undoubtebly follow, and I know that Eastern Europe can become a very popular, exotic tourist spot.

Note: If you're freaked out by the long article, don't leave ... you can still check out a collage of Odessa pictures below. Just scroll.

:colgate:




City of Dreams

The Black Sea port of Odessa has long been a place of possibilities, where rulers govern with benevolence, artists rise from the ghetto, and the past is always present but never a yoke. Adam Goodheart explores a city whose enduring spirit is at the heart of a newly vibrant Ukraine.

On my first evening in Odessa, I was invited to a birthday party. The celebration, held in the Opera House square, had the casually merry mood of a fête for some small child, attended by a throng of doting grown-up relations. The kerchiefed women on the benches behind me twittered like a flock of aunts, their smiles flashing gold teeth; a row of pink-faced cadets from the merchant-marine academy glowed as proud and solemn as elder brothers; and the stout gray mayor worked the crowd with godfatherly condescension, pinching babies' cheeks and double kissing his superior, the equally stout, equally gray provincial governor.

Then the late-summer air was broken by a fanfare of horns. On both sides of the square, French doors swung open and trumpeters strode out onto the balconies, playing the first bars of Franz Liszt's Mazeppa, a Cossack warrior's stirring call to arms. On an outdoor stage before us, the orchestra conductor, tall and pale, with the shaggy black mane of a Mitteleuropean maestro, swung the full ensemble into motion. For this was no ordinary occasion, no ordinary birthday party: it was the birthday of the city of Odessa itself.

Perhaps, though, I could be forgiven for imagining myself at a child's party. Of all the great cities of Europe, this is the youngest—a fact that often startles those who have never been here, for whom its very name conjures white-bearded rabbis, the tarnished splendor of the old Russian Empire, Greek galleys beating the waters of the Black Sea. Yet Odessa is younger than Los Angeles, younger than Nashville, younger than Pittsburgh—younger, indeed, than the town of Odessa, Delaware (though not Odessa, Texas). It was brought into being in 1794 (by tradition, on September 2), with the stroke of Catherine the Great's imperial pen. She chose its name, with its echoes of classical Hellenism, both to honor the region's ancient heritage and to draw Greek and Italian merchants there, a gesture that, by combining romantic panache with rubles-and-kopecks practicality, presaged enduring elements of Odessa's personality. (Catherine, too, was the one to specify that the city's name, originally conceived as Odessos, must be in the feminine gender.)

It is strangely fitting that a place that has nurtured so many composers, so many authors, so many artists is itself a composition, an invention. Alone on its steppes at the farthest edge of Europe, amid the nowhere lands of southern Ukraine, facing its inland sea, Odessa is an orphaned daughter of the Enlightenment. She is the brainchild of poets, the capital of nothing but dreams and fancies.

From my seat at the concert, as the orchestra broke into a Tchaikovsky polonaise, I looked up at the Opera House. In the 19th century, it is said, fistfights would break out here between the partisans of various Italian divas, the Montechellisti doing pitched battle against the Carraristi and the Tassistristi. Odessa is a different place now, but the façade of this building at its heart is still the same. Arch rises atop arch; angels and centaurs writhe and twist in neo-Baroque profusion. At the summit, driving a chariot pulled by four marble panthers, a white-robed figure casts an autocratic gaze across the city: no frowning czar or stern Soviet, but the gentle muse Melpomene, patroness of all those who spin tragedy into art.

My invitation to the birthday concert had come from the star of the occasion himself, the shaggy-haired maestro of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra. Offstage after the performance, his arms loaded with bouquets, he was thronged by well wishers, fans, and friends who affectionately repeated his name: "Hobie...Hobie..."

Hobie, plain Hobie (not Hobinski or Hobarovitch), is Hobart Earle, a 44-year-old American—a Princeton man, no less—who has led the ensemble since 1991, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He still remembers the first time he arrived in the city, getting off the plane and smelling the warm, salty breeze wafting in from the Black Sea: "I thought, Where am I?" As much as by the atmosphere, Earle was drawn by the city's passionate love of music, a love that cuts across the whole of society. "The average age of our audiences would be an American symphony's dream," he told me. "We have tons of kids at our concerts—eight-, nine-year-old kids who come on their own because they want to hear a Mahler symphony."

In finding himself seduced by Odessa, Earle was simply following in the footsteps of a long procession of outsiders who have made the city their own and have, in turn, been embraced, if not wholly absorbed, by Odessites. Although Russia as a nation has never exactly been known for welcoming foreigners, Catherine the Great wanted her new city on the Black Sea, like Peter's capital on the Baltic, to be a window open toward the West. The two men who laid out the settlement's street plan were a Dutch engineer and a Spanish-Irish soldier of Neapolitan birth. Its main thoroughfares had names like Grechskaya (Greek Street), Italianskaya (Italian Street), and Frantsuzskaya (French Street). The Odessa region's first governor, in fact, was the Duc de Richelieu, in exile from Napoleonic France, whose tolerant and gentle rule—especially in the context of Eastern Europe—set a gold standard of enlightened despotism that, for many locals, endures to this day. (Odessa was hardly at the forefront of the Orange Revolution that broke out, and eventually prevailed, several months after my visit to Ukraine. The majority of Odessites stood behind President Leonid Kuchma and his would-be successor, Viktor Yanukovych.)

When Richelieu left in 1814, it is said that Odessa's citizens unhitched the horses from his coach and bore it instead on their own shoulders to the outskirts of the city. He returned to France to become prime minister under the restored monarchy, a job that suited him less well than his Ukrainian governorship. (Talleyrand, a political rival, caustically commended him as "the man in France who knew the most about the Crimea.") To this day, the duke's bronze likeness stands at the top of the Potemkin Steps—the famous cascade of granite immortalized in Eisenstein's film—keeping vigil with his gaze fixed on the Black Sea horizon. Or rather, until lately his gaze was fixed on the horizon. Thanks to a recent construction project, Richelieu now gazes at the Hotel Odessa, a glass-and-steel monstrosity that hulks between the steps and the harbor—a reminder that the influx of foreigners, and of foreign capital, has begun afresh.

The tony boutiques that have sprouted up downtown—Tommy Hilfiger, MaxMara, Gianfranco Ferré—seem oddly at home in a city that has always appreciated life's material pleasures. For anyone who has traveled elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Odessa feels like a kingdom unto itself: a sunstruck Mediterranean version of Russia, where strangers smile at you as you pass, where strolling couples promenade with Neapolitan insouciance along the seaside walks, jackets draped over their shoulders, and nibble ice cream cones at stylish sidewalk cafés.

The Marquis de Custine, more than a century ago, reportedly called Odessa "the only city in Russia where you can smoke in public, wear a flower in your buttonhole, sing songs in the street." A 21-year-old Ukrainian who had just returned from college in the States suggested an even simpler formula. "Kiev is New York," he told me. "Odessa is Miami."

In the 19th century, Russian aristocrats built summer palaces here, sherbet-colored classical confections that were designed not as spaces to live in so much as stage sets for the all-night balls in which the counts and countesses delighted. Double staircases of richly veined marble sweep upward to high-ceilinged ballrooms—oriented to catch the breezes off the sea—where hidden orchestras once played behind boiseries.

Tchaikovsky came to Odessa to conduct at the Academical Opera and Ballet Theater. Liszt played piano recitals here, and Gogol staged a comedy. Chekhov complained in his letters from the Londonskaya Hotel—the vast Romanesque pile where I stayed more than a century later—that he was spending half his money on ice cream. Pushkin lived in the city for several years in the 1820's, writing poems and taking in performances of Rossini, although his sojourn was not entirely voluntary, since he had been exiled here for satirizing the czar. (His stay ended somewhat precipitously, too, when he was caught in an affair with the wife of the then-governor.)

Today, many of the old palaces are crumbling, but a few have been at least partially restored as museums and private art galleries. I visited one of these for a show of paintings by perhaps the only living artist in Odessa who was born under the reign of the czar. Dina Mikhailovna Frumina, at 90 considered the last of the Odessa Impressionists, made a slow but grand entrance into the second-floor gallery, supporting herself on a silver-headed parasol as she scaled the staircase one step at a time. Entering the room to applause, she cocked her beaky glance at walls lined with canvases of summer picnics, girls in sundresses, a familiar skyline rising hazy beyond the meadows.

"In the thirties," she told me through an interpreter, "I was criticized very much for what was thought to be a capitalist way of thinking and painting. I was brought before a Party committee and asked to stop. I told them: 'America was discovered, and it cannot be undiscovered; so it is with Impressionism.' "

Her aristocratic carriage notwithstanding, Frumina still lives in a cramped Soviet-era communal apartment in central Odessa. She has never considered settling anywhere else. "There is something about the tone of the atmosphere here, something about the light," she said, her voice trailing off. "I cannot imagine life without this city."

Despite Odessa's noble lineage, its secret reservoir of creative genius has always been not in its palaces but in its slums—not along broad Greek Street and Italian Street but in the tangled alleyways sloping down to the old port, and the noisy, crowded courtyards of the infamous Moldavanka ghetto.

Isaac Babel, born in Odessa in 1894, told of how the poor Jews would groom their sons to become great violinists, dreaming that with a bow and four strings, they could waft their entire families into a better world: "And in fact, in the course of ten years or so our town supplied the concert platforms of the world with infant prodigies. From Odessa came Mischa Elman, Zimbalist, Gabrilowitsch. Odessa witnessed the first steps of Jascha Heifetz. When a lad was four or five, his mother took the puny creature to Zagursky's. Mr. Zagursky ran a factory of infant prodigies, a factory of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent-leather pumps....My father decided that I should emulate them."

What the basketball is today for the children of South Central L.A., so was the violin for the sons of Odessa's slums: a genie's lamp from which miracles could be caressed by the chosen few. Even now, coming back to my hotel at midnight after dinner, I crossed paths on Rishelievskaya with a pack of pale boys in dress shirts, most with their cases slung under their arms, but one with his instrument out, practicing chords as he strode beneath the streetlights, as casually as if he were dribbling his way home from a pickup game.

Babel himself didn't stick with the violin. Instead, much to his father's chagrin, he sought immortality through an even simpler instrument, the pen. In his Tales of Odessa, he conjured the gritty and pungent city of his childhood: the courtly Jewish gangsters in their creaking leather boots; the splendor of a Hebrew street funeral; the sweaty embraces of a country landowner and a Moldavanka *****. More than any other author, Babel captured the soul of his native city, a place of street brawls and pageantry and whispered back-room deals.

"That city that Babel described—it really existed," Helena Karakina, a director of the Odessa Literary Museum, told me, her wide-set blue eyes flashing with amusement. "In 1918, my grandmother was robbed at gunpoint as she came down the steps of the bank with the family's entire savings, which she had just withdrawn. The robber was very polite; he said, 'Madam, your reticule looks very heavy; may I take it for you?' For the rest of her life, Granny was very proud to have been robbed personally by Mishka Japonchik, the famous Jewish gangster from the Moldavanka!"

By the time of that memorable robbery, Odessa's Jewish community had already begun to shrink, sapped by pogroms and emigration. (Among American Jews, Odessa is famous as the place where at least one of everybody's great-grandparents was born or died—a fact that's true in my own case.) At its peak, the community amounted to more than a third of the city's population and included, of course, not just gangsters but wealthy merchants, lawyers, publishers, intellectuals. Despite occasional outbreaks of violence (to which the Jews eventually responded by organizing their own self-defense force) it was possible to live a secular and assimilated life here, to a degree impossible elsewhere in the Russian Empire. The saying "to live like God in Odessa" became a catchphrase for prosperity among Jews throughout the Pale of Settlement.

All that changed with the Russian Revolution. The city's Main Synagogue, built in 1850 in the style of a Florentine palazzo, became a gymnasium. The Jewish cemetery where my own great-grandfather was buried was bulldozed, so that Party apparatchiks could use the marble headstones as kitchen counters and foyer floors. Intellectuals like Babel—who had fought in a Red Cavalry regiment in Poland—were silenced, or worse. Even non-Jewish Odessites were considered suspect by the authorities in Moscow, who regarded the city as a nest of dangerously bourgeois values and traditions.

At the Literary Museum, Karakina showed me a pair of Babel's spectacles that the author's widow had preserved. "When they came to take him away in 1937," she said, "Babel accidentally left them on the table, and they told his wife, 'Don't worry—he'll never need them again.' And they were right." The writer never emerged from Stalin's prisons.

A few years after Babel's arrest, Odessa fell to the armies of Nazi Germany. The Germans rounded up tens of thousands of the city's remaining Jews and shipped them to the death camps.

With help from supporters in America and Israel, Odessa's Jewish community is now coming back to life. At the Main Synagogue, given back to the community by the Ukrainian government, I found workmen demolishing the last traces of the old basketball courts, and teenage students—many of whom are ethnically only a small part Jewish—taking classes at a religious-based private school that the community has founded. Next door is the Restaurant Hebron, a stylish kosher spot that is popular with Jews and non-Jews alike.

But as my interpreter, Natasha Kolosova, an Odessa native, told me, "While you may see more Jewish life now than fifteen years ago, you'll see fewer Jewish faces in the street." In the past three decades, some 500,000 Ukrainian Jews have left for the United States, Israel, and Western Europe. The impact on the city's cultural life, especially its musical life, has been profound.

"Almost all my friends from conservatory in the eighties are gone," says the violinist Aida Earle, a non-Jewish Ukrainian who married the philharmonic's conductor. "The best musician from our school, the one who was my closest rival, is a piano tuner in Holland now."

Between the Opera House square and Rishelievskaya stands the shattered stump of an old oak tree, much beloved by Odessites until its downfall in a storm years ago. The honored remnant, draped with a broken length of chain, is protected by a little Doric tempietto.But it would be too easy to view that tree stump as a symbol of Odessa itself, shattered by war, revolution, and tyranny, yet its spirit still indomitable, and newly unbound. For the truth is that Odessa seems almost to have shrugged off history, to have rubbed the 20th century from its eyes like a bad dream and gone casually about its business. Surely it says something that this is one of the few former Soviet cities not to have dismantled its statue of Lenin; rather than go to so much trouble, it simply left him standing, ignored, beside his asphalted parade ground, where I found him keeping watch, not over a May Day procession, but the ratty tents of a traveling circus from Kiev.

If anything, Odessa—this infant city of 10,000 sunlit afternoons—stands in peril not of being burdened by the past, but of losing touch with it. Along Deribasovskaya, the cobblestoned pedestrian heart of the old town, demolition crews are tearing into prerevolutionary buildings, clearing space for fast-food joints (McDonald's operates one of the busiest sidewalk cafés on the street) and a 30-story office tower. Along the pleasure beach known since the 19th century as Arcadia, where wild roses and hawthorns once bloomed along the bluffs, the waterfront is now fenced off almost completely by private bathing resorts, dance clubs, and theme restaurants.

An irony of history is that socialist regimes turned out to be the 20th century's best custodians of the old haute-bourgeois values: piano music and leisurely cups of tea, fat novels and serious conversation. Now, a generation is coming of age that barely recalls the Soviet days. ("All I remember is that there was only one kind of soda in the soda machines," Ilya, the 21-year-old student, told me.)

"We used to be a city of sentimental, sophisticated, romantic people," Helena Karakina said. "Now, everyone has become more tough." She well remembers the absurdities of Soviet censorship, but now, she said, "there is no censorship, so you can write whatever you want—so no one writes." When I visited the huge Central Bookstore downtown, once a cultural landmark, I discovered that it was scheduled to close the next week; the building it occupied was being demolished. Already, its shelves were crowded with cheap calendars, translated John Grisham novels, and out-of-date English textbooks. ("Translate the following into Ukrainian: bauxites, rare metals, 'the eastern neighbour,' coal.")

Hobie Earle, too, said that things have changed since his arrival in 1991. Back then, the philharmonic's musicians played broken-down instruments that they lacked the means to repair; on tour, they would busk on subway platforms to help cover expenses. Today, the orchestra pays decent salaries (which, in Ukraine, means $150 to $200 a month), but the problem is keeping musicians on the job. "A couple of years ago, the son of our principal horn player left the orchestra for a job selling imports from China, and his father was incredibly upset," Earle said. "Now, the father is barely surviving, and the son just bought a new Mercedes and an apartment in Moscow." He smiled. "So the horn player has started bringing his grandson to rehearsals."

Late one afternoon at the end of my stay, I told my interpreter that I wanted to go exploring in the Moldavanka, the section of town made famous in Babel's tales, where the legendary gangster Benya Krik—who burned down a police station on his sister's wedding day, who killed a man and then paid for the finest funeral Odessa had ever seen, whose automobile horn played "Ridi, Pagliaccio"—reigned supreme. Natasha, a formidable character whom I had come to think of as a kind of human version of the battleship Potemkin, tried to talk me out of the visit. "Why not go to the museum of Russian and Ukrainian arts? You do not want to see the floor made of twenty-eight different types of wood? It is in your guidebook." But she could not dissuade me, and to the Moldavanka we went.

The Jews were gone, of course. Yet the sun still glinted on trolley-car tracks among the sloped cobblestones—stones that had seen so much, and forgotten so much, in the century since dutiful sons traversed them in their lace collars and patent-leather pumps. In a half-ruined courtyard, three or four rough young men and blowsy women sat around a crooked wooden table playing durak, the ancient Russian card game, as stray cats prowled at their feet. We passed a produce stand, heaped high with the opulence of Ukrainian late summer: fat watermelons rolling into the gutter, succulent purple plums, tomatoes the color of dusty rose velvet, bursting out of their own skins. "Azeri Muslims," Natasha sniffed, glancing at the proprietors of the stand. "Until a few years ago, those stands were all run by Jews. Now the whole neighborhood's full of these people." Turning a corner, we found ourselves standing before a building that must have been almost as old as the city itself: a once-grand palazzo, its stucco cracked and scabby, with several wrought-iron balconies hung askew from the façade. As I stood there taking notes, with Natasha growing impatient at my side, a middle-aged man stepped out onto one of the balconies and looked down at us quizzically. He was dark and burly, with tufts of hair sprouting from his shoulders, bare except for a sleeveless undershirt. Hastily and deferentially, Natasha explained that we were harmless; I was interested only in the history of Odessa.

Then she tried to drag me away, but the man smiled and beckoned us closer; he was beginning a story. Reluctantly, she translated for me. "This is a very old house, built by a great Russian aristocrat," he said. "The city has condemned it. I'll be moving soon into a new house in the suburbs. I'd rather stay here. This is our city, too, you know." He paused for effect. "We Muslims were here before the Russians were. The Turks had their city of Khadjibei about ten kilometers up the coast, before Catherine destroyed it. But now we're back. We will not give up our Odessa to anyone."

In the safety of our car, on our way back to the hotel, Natasha clucked and fussed. "What if something had happened to us? Did you see what kind of people they are? Criminals, drunk, playing cards, gangsters..."

But I was happy. I had found my Benya Krik. And perhaps he was right—perhaps this newest (and oldest) tribe of outsiders, as others had done before, would make the city its own.

Where to Stay, Eat and Go

The most convenient way to reach Odessa is on Ukraine International Airlines from Vienna or Kiev; visas are required for U.S. citizens. Although Ukrainian is now the official language of the country, most Odessites still speak Russian almost exclusively. It can be quite difficult to find English-speakers, so hiring a translator or guide is advisable. This has its drawbacks, however—most guides are trained in the old Soviet style of tour management, which means regimented schedules and long recitations of agricultural statistics. Stand your ground, learn a few Russian phrases, and be sure to spend some time on your own: aimless strolling is one of the city's great pleasures. Taxis are plentiful, cheap, and safe; just negotiate the fare before getting in the car. Exeter International (800/633-1008; www.exeterinternational.com). a Tampa-based agency specializing in Eastern Europe, can arrange for a guide and plan your itinerary. The company also organizes Black Sea cruises with visits to Odessa and the Crimea.

WHERE TO STAY

Londonskaya Hotel
This stately, historic hotel, which overlooks a tree-lined promenade in the heart of the old city, is the best in town. The neo-Renaissance buildingunforgettably combines czarist grandeur with an overlay of late-Soviet glitz.
Doubles from $130; 11 Primorskiy Blvd.; 380-487/380-110; www.londred.com

WHERE TO EAT
For those whose stomachs have been tested in other parts of the old Soviet hinterlands, Odessa's excellent restaurants are a delightful surprise.

Greenwich Café
A popular upscale restaurant with English hunting décor and a menu that ranges from French to Thai to local standbys like blini with caviar.
Dinner for two $70; 21 Bunina St.; 380-482/347-401

Restaurant Hebron
Good Jewish food in a stylish, modern space.
Lunch for two $25; 30 Rishelievskaya; 380-487/150-374

Pilot
A sidewalk restaurant, perfect for people-watching, that serves the city's best shashlik.
Lunch for two $20; 15–17 Ekaterinskaya; 380-482/356-600

Yokogama
A trendy new spot for sushi.
Dinner for two $60; 26 Deribasovskaya; 380-482/378-900

Privoz Market
A massive farmers' market, great for assembling a picnic. Bring cash in small notes, but watch your wallet.
14 Privoznaya

WHAT TO DO

Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra
Tickets from 25 cents to $15; 15 Bunina St.; 380-482/256-903

Odessa Literary Museum
This brainchild of Soviet-era dissidents artfully showcases authors from Pushkin to Babel; it also hosts concerts in Count Gagarin's former ballroom.
2 Lastochkin St.; 380-482/220-002

Jewish Museum
Small but fascinating; open by appointment only. Have your guide arrange a tour, or contact the Jewish community office at the Old Synagogue, itself worth a visit.
66 Nejinskaya, Suite 10; 380-487/289-743

Saunas
Don't miss a chance to experience one of Odessa's famous saunas. Ask your guide or hotel staff for a recommendation, but take care: unless you emphatically repeat the words "nyet prostitutki," your request may be misunderstood.

WHAT TO READ

The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (Norton)
Contains all of his Tales of Odessa, as well as the Red Cavalry stories.

Odessa: A History, 1794–1914 (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute)
A full history of the pre-Soviet city, in English.

Odessa Memories (University of Washington Press)
Photos, posters, and essays conjure the spirit of Jewish Odessa in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Source: Travel + Leisure
 

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Also Odesa has a lot of weird festivals. Like just yesterday, I think, they had a festival of body-art where a lot of naked people with body-art walked around the city.
 

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this place is getting really popolar in Poland, my friend was there last year and he said it was absolutely gorgeus
 

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And I've never been to Odessa... but I know a lot about it. It was always as famous as the capital city, at all times.

Towarisch Serhij: good avatar.
 

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I was born in X-Yugo but me and my bro went to visit Odessa in 1996.It was one month partying ,drinking playing all kinds of sports sports in the sport Center.

We satyed in Hotel Russia. I will never forget it. Nice relaxed walking along the beach.We bought some souvenirs to remember it. I remember we had to wait in Belgrade Airport like 3 hours and I woke up at 5am to go to Belgrade .Will never forget it.
 

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have been there last summer for seven weeks, in February for two weeks and will be there for the whole month of July. yes, it's a great city!

 

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I think Odessa will soon put Crimea out of business :D
 

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Well, beaches in Odessa are actually outside the city. And if you add to "Odessa" the fact of the presence of the actual city, with great shopping streets, beautiful architecture and the fact that it's so large, probably lots of clubs. It seems to be a better choice than Crimea, where for the past 10 years Ukrainian and Russian crooks were just building their villas.
 

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beautiful city and nice pictures.I love Primorski and deribasovskaya the most.Bring back lot of memories :)

Esli more bila piva ;) hehe
 

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Dr.Mesofius, wtf ? i'm eating right now,d'ya want me to throw out,man ?
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
That's why I always tell people to upload to ImageShack! When people notice some other site is stealing their bandwidth, they put up such nasty pictures to teach them a lesson.
 

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What, what happened?
 

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kokpit said:
I've read there is HIV epidemic in Odessa and that about 1% of Ukraine population is HIV positive, is it still so bad?
What has that to do with this thread :crazy:
HIV epidemic grows everywhere in every country in the world.
 
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