30-Minute Writing Sketches in Sochi

PART 3. SOCHI

Episode 8. A Morning in Central Sochi, 11.03am, April 22

Three days ago, excited for this final leg of the trip I got back to the sea. A long bus ride from Esto- Sadok took me to Sochi, the Russian Black Sea pearl, the country’s unofficial summer capital, the city that epitomizes a sea holiday in the minds of a lot of fellow Russians. Just as with my first seaside destination on this trip (Adler), there are multiple versions as to the origin of the word Sochi. There is a river called in the same way whose name originated from Ubikhian, which is a dead language belonging to the Abkhazian and Adygean language family. According to one of the versions, it might have meant «by the sea». Through a sequence of linguistic transformations the word ended up being as we know it today. Sochi doesn’t sound very Russian and is famously grammatically misused by a lot of speakers who instinctively decline it as a plural noun (with a typical -i ending), which it is not. 

During the Caucasian War in the mid-19th century this area was a fort. It was only in the early 1900s that the city’s identity as the country’s future largest resort was forging when the first resort Caucasian Riviera (a nod to the French one) opened in 1909. Even though this place has been a city for only around a century, when I first arrived three days ago, it hit me with its buzz. I instantly felt energized by that urban vibe which I thought I had been missing somehow over the last two weeks. Can I call myself a city person? All I know is that growing up in a small place, which we would jokingly call «neither a city, nor a village», I dreamt of living in a city. Back then the region’s capital where I have been living for the past 15 years now would have been fine by me. But having been to a lot of cities around the world, after all these years I am still struggling to define where exactly I would love to live without fantasizing about other places. I am enchanted by the chic ambiance of Nice. I miss that intoxicating sense of happiness I felt in San Francisco. I often dream of roaming the alley of historic streets of Rome again. I am longing for a solo trip to Paris to get to know it on a more intimate level this time. I would write a whole book about the complexity of New York if only I was not overwhelmed by the number of those already written… Anyway, I am not sure which of these cities I wouldpick for living. Am I yet to discover my perfect match one day..? 

Due to its geographic position, central Sochi might be a bit steep but yet not too strenuous for walking around. Or does looking up at all the various lush palm trees make climbing up seem a lot easier..? I am staying in a guest house in a non-touristy area, just a moderately steep climb from what used to be called Stalin Avenue and is now known as Kurortniy Avenue, which is indicative of the city’s Soviet and recreational identity. On my way down to the sea there is a famous Sanatorium Svetlana (which is a popular Russian female name) founded in the early 1900s. It was in this area that people who later launched a project that would see this place develop into a resort built their summer houses.Looking at the city’s Soviet street names and architecture, I am wondering if it had to give up some of its former Caucasean identity in the process of its transformation…

Sanatoriums, which are a big part of Russia’s cultural or rather social identity, are a Soviet legacy. This period in thecountry’s history evokes nostalgia in our ancestors, the feeling that despite being born in the Soviet Union, our generation finds hard to comprehend. Apart from an alleged sense of security, one of the perks of the Soviet social system was that some workers were sent to sanatoriums for free as a way for them to regain strength and improve health. I have none of my grandparents to tell me more about what living in the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century was like. If I had, I would have documented some of those memories. I just wish I had discovered my love for interviewing while any of them was still there… At least I know that working in a factory in the 1960s, my late grandfather on Mum’s side went to a sanatorium in Baku, Azerbaijan. Being there did wonders for his leg and he came home no longer using his walking stick. 

Yesterday his granddaughter travelled further along Kurortniy Avenue to experience the iconic abandoned sanatorium named after Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a Georgian Bolshevik. It was built in the 1930s in a record time period. This opulent complex covering the area of 16 hectars magestically overlooking the Black Sea was originally designed for accommodating miners and offered a range of different treatments. Despite having no memory of living in the Soviet Union, I was utterly impressed by the imposing beauty of the place. Imagine experiencing it as an average Soviet worker… To me, it was like walking back in time wishing the dead could come alive and talk… How did those workers feel being here during this hugely complex historic period..? Despite crowds of people taking pictures, the place, which got officially closed ten years ago, felt lifeless and deteriorating on a closer look. I did manage to find a perfect spot for some contemplation and a few pictures, of course… Seeing a Lenin statue amidst the lush palm trees was one of the most surreal things of this trip — an homage to the communist past with a subtropical twist… I would certainly love to roam this area more if I ever return… I also got to experience a pure culinary delight on my way back at a legendary Soviet-style canteen famous for its chebureki. This is a traditional Crimean Tatar dish which is a kind of a crescent-shaped pastry filled with ground meat. It is essential to the Soviet and now Russian culinary identity. 

The Sanatorium Ordzhonikidze
A Lenin statue amidst the subtropic greenery

I have decided (quite naively for a 32-year old) that the country’s summer capital could read my mind and reward me with a few sunny days to finish off my trip. At this point I feel that my spiritual rehabilitation has had its effect and I amfinally reconnecting with my old self. Seeing a few operating sanatoriums walking around Adler and Sochi, I can say I wouldn’t like to be treated in one because dealing with doctors would be the last thing I would want during a holiday. At the end of the day, I am Russian who has been lucky to have travelled the world a bit but not Soviet… I want my freedom while travelling, I thrive on it to the point of feeling healed. Seeing some of my selfies I took here in Sochi, Mum mentioned I have got some of my American smile back. That is definitely a part of me that has been so hard to restore since I returned almost three years ago… When I look at that 29-year old girl on the other side of the Atlantic smiling at me from countless pictures, I understand how stupid she was questioning her own beauty… Even though this formerly popular chatup line about Russian women being one of the most beautiful ones in the world is more a thing of the past now, we did grow up under a certain amount of pressure. I have spent all of my life focusing on developing my intelligence and leaving being beautiful to others. But how is beauty measured anyway? Even though I tend not to believe men screaming «Hello, beautiful!» at me, I would agree with those Caucasean men saying that in their distinct accent on a few occasions here in Sochi. It is not up to them to decide that for sure, but sometimes it is great to be reminded of your female powers (in a not too intrusive way). I am no longer in my 20s, but the atmosphere of the city did give me that glow making me feel younger inside than I did confined to my room back home during the lockdown. How old is really old anyway? What I resent the Soviet regime for is creating certain scripts that our ancestors expected us to live by achieving certain things at a certain age. Luckily, we are no longer in the Soviet Union with its «five-year plan» and deadlines to meet. As turbulent as the modern Russia is, I am happy to see my life less scripted than that of my grandparents and parents… 

Those palm trees do make me happy!
The area around another sanatorium

Now it is my fourth day here in Sochi and I have secured myself a lovely spot overlooking the legendary building of the Sochi Sea Port where I can enjoy a postcard view of the Russia’s main all-year resort. This port built in the 1950s is like a channel connecting this only subtropical part of the cold and rough nation with much warmer maritime ones across the sea. The figures on the building’s neoclassical columns are peering into the depth of the sea. The spire punching the sky somehow reminds me of the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the Danube in Budapest. Lush palm trees, glamorous yachts and high-rise hotels project a carefree allure, a vibe so different from the one in Adler and Esto-Sadok. All of this brings out the sensual side of me. When I walk these streets, I ignore somewhat unhappy young Mums with kids, grannies trying to discipline their offsprings. They all seem killers of this vibe. As a single lady with no such issues to deal with I just look away. At the end of the day, each city is a canvas that we pick our own way of processing… I choose to focus on the playfulness of this Russian resort the way I see it now during the shoulder season. Being here you feel so plugged into the world stopping to listen to another street performer, to stare at a beautiful shop window, totouch and smell some of those lush trees. That glamour of the Russian Riviera depicted in iconic Soviet films gets to me here… For a moment I feel I am in Limassol, Cyprus and its beautiful marina… 

Even though this pandemic has created a feeling of the iron curtain being pulled back on us, the people walking this area are somewhat different from those I can see in black and white photos from the 1960-70s in front of me. In the recent decades more and more Russians have been travelling outside the country and have gotten to feel some other vibes of other places. So can we learn to stroll along the promenade in a carefree fashion like all those people in warmer countries and make Sochi seem like a somewhat foreign seaside resort? The port is also a popular photoshoot spot — it is nice to watch people creating their own unique snap of this sunny day here in central Sochi. 

I have just finished teaching a class and before it I had my breakfast enjoying a cup of Americano and a fabulous raspberry-pistachio cake. This coffee shop is named Frida after the famous Frida Kahlo, a Mexican wonder woman. She was looking at me from everywhere — cushions, chairs, walls as if begging me to carry on my work despite eyebrows raised along the way. Hers definitely speak volumes of her strong personality. I know how sometimes calling yourself creative is being dismissed by some as pure laziness to engage in real work. They all say the same about us, people in Humanities. The prevalence of STEM jobs in the global market is leaving us feeling unnecessary indeed. Somehow being in this place has inspired me to keep forging my own path no matter how discouraging and frustrating it might feel. I guess having to rush through my breakfast to start a morning class is the price I, a woman in Humanities, pay for my independence, which having my own disposable income is.

When I finish this session, I am going to explore more of the pedestrian part of the city centre away from the sea but lined up with palm trees. I mainly see Mums and kids everywhere and what about romance…? There are hardly any couples around. Those screaming kids definitely ruin the sensual vibe. After all, being child-friendly is what the city aspires to be. What about being one for singles as well? I guess I still have to find this perfect place for me. For now I can just live in the moment savoring the breezy, carefree, playful vibe… And of course, being able to treat myself to a lovely lunch at a Georgian restaurant is another perk of my independence… Have a wonderful afternoon, Sochi! 

Episode 9. My Last Afternoon in Central Sochi, 1.58pm, April 23

This morning I took a shortcut through a park on my way down to the sea. Being experimental and exploring new routes is a sure sign I am getting used to navigating this place, which I think is becoming my favorite on this trip. Yesterday I walked around the area away from the sea promenade to investigate more of the city’s identity. Muralswhich can be found around some of the central streets have been really instrumental in this. Unlike some graffitis that might seem arrogant public acts of self-expression potentially disrupting the urban aesthetics, these art paintings seemrepresentative of the whole nation. There are faces of famous military commanders setting the tone for the most «sacred» holiday, which is Victory Day celebrated on May 9. This day marks the anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in what we call the Great Patriotic War. Others feature famous Soviet football players back from when we had reasons to be proud of our national team…

There was one specific mural that I went in search of. This is the one featuring the characters of a legendary Soviet comedy called The Diamond Arm. Some of the scenes of this 1969 masterpiece were shot here in the Sea Port of Sochi as well as in a restaurant where I had dinner on my first evening in the city. Along with a few scholars examining identity, I think that films are a very insightful way of exploring a nation’s character. As a translator, I don’t think any colleague would be able to make what our DNA memory seems to grasp perfectly comprehensible to foreigners. I wish I could put into words what exactly this is that makes me laugh and marvel at the quality of screenwriting every time I watch this old-time classics, which is basically on every national holiday. This is when this film is shown on TV along with a few other Soviet films. It seems that each line from The Diamond Arm has become a catchphrase casually used by Russians in a variety of conversations. I feel proud to be old enough to get all these references and to have been exposed to something different from those Russian films released these days… 

The Diamond Arm graffiti
A patriotic graffiti

I continued my exploration of the city centre by visiting the city’s oldest coffee house with an Italian name and the interior evocative of the Italian Risorgimento — I guess that is the closest to Italy we can get for now… The pedestrian Navaginskaya Street lined up with palm trees reminded me that it was the closest I could get to California for now as well… Yes, it was a pleasant change from lots of busy highways in the city as well… I walked a bit further to get to Riviera Park. I didn’t find it particularly impressive except for a restored building of the house of Vasiliy Khludov, a merchant who contributed to shaping the city’s resort identity. My final stop was the Sochi Arboretum for which I walked back to my hotel area. I had doubts about whether I needed to visit as I had already been to the Southern Cultures Park in Adler. But as it was so close to my guest house with its birds seemingly singing right next to my door, I paid a visit. By that point I had been tired of walking, but I knew there would be no time the following day. My first stop was the gorgeous villa Nadezhda (a popular Russian female name also meaning «hope») with its terraced gardens, which also reminded me of Italy. I wish Mum would agree to come down here to find out how close all these lush green trees she has never seen are to home… Again, even not being as fond of plants as Mum, I loved standing up here glaring down into the Black Sea appreciating how many palm trees I have surrounding me. Well, for now my thirst forthem has been quenched on this trip… After walking around and taking pictures of sakuras, magnolias and more palm trees, I was ready to go back down to the sea to see my last but one sunset here in Sochi… 

The Sochi Arboretum

Today I have been teaching the whole morning which started off windy and chilly. I hope that my students don’t hate me for showing them this view I have from a bench in this small park overlooking the sea. Over these past two weeks and a half, I have had to stress out about how I was going to fit work into my time here. There have been a few technical issues related to teaching from the street. I should have probably tried that gazebo a bit further on the right, but I don’t think I would have had any luck keeping it all to myself. I don’t believe now that the world has gone digital, the learning and teaching environment is so important any more. I can say that the best classes I have had were outside a conventional classroom and the most interesting individuals I have worked with were not those from university. I am still struggling whether I should refer to all the people I have been teaching as students or clients. This is a two-way interaction as in the process of our collaboration (that’s what I love calling it), I have been learning about all kinds of areas such as IT, Physics, Medicine, Architecture, Law, Metrology, Real Estate, Banking, Marketing, Archaeology… I am really grateful for the opportunity to go on this trip to work outside a traditional setting… Despite a few obvious perks, our field is getting growingly competitive and saturated making a transition to self-employment not easy at all. So, being able to have a change of scene has been really important for my mental health. I am not a believer in psychotherapy as I think that those of us struggling with mental health issues just have to learn to live with them. All I know is that being as what some scientists refer to as «highly sensitive» people, we have to admit our vulnerability and make an extra effort to take care of our mental well-being. My own personal psychotherapy is travelling and writing… 

One of the downsides of this type of job is that sometimes my schedule changes the last minute. Just like it did now meaning that in an hour I will be teaching my last class on this workation. It is an absolutely relaxing sunny afternoon here in Sochi. Sitting by the sea I am thinking about slow living and simple pleasures in life. Even though I tend to feel anxious at times, I love to take things at my own pace without being rushed to deliver on time and meet tight deadlines. Even though lounging in the sun letting it kiss my skin sounds amazing, it makes working a tiny bit more challenging… I am definitely not excited about working from the comfort of my room back home knowing that I could well be here with a sea breeze blowing into my face and dishevelling my hair. I don’t mind the smell of fresh paint and lack of vacant benches or having to run around to hide from the music blaring from yet another street performer. It is funny how some passers-by joining me on a bench while I was working instantly went away. I hope that hearing me speak English didn’t scare them away. I guess teaching this international language is how you can feel like a foreigner or at least a strange person in your own country… 

I love the colors of the sea today – they somehow remind me of the pristinely azure colors of the Meditarranean in Nice, the city I am going to pay tribute to later this afternoon when I head to a bakery under the same name for what will most probably be my last dessert here in Sochi (what a milestone!). After this last class I am going to a fish restaurant a short walk from here. I am not a fish person but as I am by the Black Sea, I have to eat the local fish which is called red mullet or surmullet in English. Now that Sochi has mostly been kind to me weatherwise, I finally feel like trying some local wine. Actually, despite not being a sucker for seafood, I have already had some fabulous mussels twice in a place that I found out about on Instagram. This taste also took me back to the other seas I have been lucky to see… 

What I don’t mind either is the awkward structure of a restaurant called Platforma built right in the water which is somewhat obstructing the view. It is being put final touches to just in time for the high season. The azure, dark muddy and emerald green are pleasing my senses this afternoon. The wild trees radiate a sense of wilderness as if perched on top of a cliff even though they are just a bit uphill. It is a lot of fun looking for various places to peer into the sea just to be genuinely surprised every time. The sea has this power to take your breath away whenever you lay your eyes on it. I am not sure about the intensity of this power on people who have lived here for a while, though. After the start of all the craziness related to the pandemic, a huge number of people have moved down to this region. But why do they come here for the sea just to complain of how they don’t get to see it more than a couple of times a month – just like that family whose story popped up on my newsfeed..? It is totally beyond me and I don’t think I am ready to take the same leap of faith as they did to even begin to understand…

In about two hours I will be absolutely free to enjoy my last evening (and sunset!) here in Sochi. This time tomorrow I will be arriving home and needless to say, as much as I appreciate having a home to return to, that’s the last thing I would like to do. These past 16 days have gone by in a flash leaving me incredulous that the pandemic and the restrictions have done nothing to stop me from yearning to travel and explore. The only difference is that I have to do it in my own country now. Well, looking at the bright side, I have been doing what few fellow Russians must have even thought of — writing about Russia in Russia in English… 

Episode 10. The Last Morning in Central Sochi, 7.52am, April 24

I started saying goodbye to the Greater Sochi area yesterday while sipping on some local wine and eating smoked cheese on the terrace of my guest house. It was kind of romantic to be watching the Sochi TV tower being lit up in a variety of colors. It reminded me of the World Trade Center in New York lit up in Pride colors in June. I remember thinking of how I would never get to see anything like that back in Russia… I didn’t know the reason for this particularcolor display (other than marking the last night of my trip, of course). On this rainy morning I am finishing my travel journaling sitting beneath a massive palm tree next to a famous cafe called «By the Palm Tree». As there are no articles in Russian, I am not quite sure as to which one I am supposed to use in this name. Given the size of this palm tree, the definite article seems the better option. 

It has been very special being in one of the few places in this country where there are palm trees, those tokens of subtropical heat. Just fantasizing and reminiscing about them warms our hearts during brutal Russian winters. The moment I saw this tree for the first time in Adler 16 days ago, I knew my trip had officially started. Of course, you can have your own house palm tree anywhere in the world, but seeing it growing like this is a totally different feeling. Of course, we have to ignore the fact that some of these palm trees we see in abundance all over the area must have been brought from other lands. They have been a major draw of this destination for at least a century and are even depicted in the city’s flag. Our relationship and a degree of attachment to these trees are in a way determined by our national identity. I remember how amazed my friend from Papua New Guinea was by my excitement to see them on our trip to California. To her, those gigantic palm trees felt like home on the other end of the Pacific while to me, they were a reminder of how far I was from mine… My friend remembered that trip as well when I sent her a picture of that palm tree I am now sitting beneath and I showed her some more during our video call three days ago. It is amazing how these lifeless trees are capable of keeping human connections alive and bringing back shared memories despite thousands of miles between us. 

I am sitting looking at the sea which is pretty calm despite a slight drizzle. Whenever you are leaving a place, you secretly wish it is not a sunny day because you would hate to miss out on one especially given that there haven’t been too many during my 16 days here. I hope these raindrops will not damage my laptop so I will have to keep this post a bit shorter than intended. Well, I have actually moved myself away from the rain to a covered bench so that now I am technically not beneath the tree but just like the cafe — by it. Those palm trees and the sea might get you dreaming about places like Bali. Just like during my first writing session, I remembered this remote island again. I guess thosestalls with Bali-inspired street food I saw on my way show how Sochi aspires to be a place where you can live a dream of many freelancing with a glass of cocktail in your hand. I am not sure this is a scene that will become typical here in the Krasnodar Region, but all I know is that given the state of the current labor market, more people will be able to make this dream a reality. I have been embracing being a freelancer for the last few years and I have no idea how long I will be able to stay one. Now this option definitely sounds even more appealing as this lifestyle seems to suit me. I am a kind of person that thrives on changes which don’t push me too far from my comfort zone but yet far enough to give methat intense feeling of being alive. That has definitely been a refreshing period after the insanity caused by what is referred to as the global pandemic when a lot of like-minded people had what we love most — travelling — snatched from us.

As I said to a student/client a few days ago, I do believe travelling is a privilege and I can’t be complaining knowing so many poor souls out there are struggling to make it through a day. But of course having travelled once, you can’t let go of this newfound addiction and not being able to get any gratification definitely takes its emotional toll. As I said before, this global frenzy hasn’t been able to restrict my desire to explore. Before this trip, I had been wondering if I could be the same traveller again after such a long period of «dry spell», though. Turns out, I can and I am still me. Thatcurious, invigorated self I have been displaying on this trip is the real me after all. I still love my own companyv as well as reflecting on things around and inside me, contemplating myself and my multiple identitities, my job, which is English teaching. 

As for the latter, having spent almost ten years in the field, I don’t feel I have been much in touch with this language lately. It might not have to do with me not watching Netflix or reading while here as I normally do back home. I guess these milestones tend to leave us questioning our previous career choices and reflecting about the future ones. And of course, the soundscape of home hasn’t been conducive to reinforcing my connection with English either. If domestic travelling becomes «a thing», will people be less willing to learn English leaving me with no opportunity to pursue thisfreelancing path..? This might be a possibility — a scary and an intimidating one. Where will it leave me and my cosmopolitan self..? The comfort of uninterrupted mutual understanding of the language as well as small nuances of the reality and landscape inspired by centuries of shared knowledge of shared history haven’t been conducive to making me feel as if I was in another country either. All we know is that a wind of change is blowing strongly into our faces and we are going to have to face whatever comes our way… 

It is peaceful and quiet by this palm tree this Saturday morning. There are hardly any people around except a few ladies having breakfast at the cafe (they must be staff members as it is still closed). The sight of a cup of coffee made me crave one even more. Hopefully I will get my coffee fix a bit later this morning before I head to the airport to catch a flight back home. Well, I have some work to do after I arrrive, but before I get to it, I will have to rest to help me through a sort of a transitional phase between two different realities. I can now smell the coffee too — along with the massive palm tree and the quiet sea it makes for a perfect serene morning scene. The birds are chirping — unlike myself, they don’t have to worry about the rain. It is nice I can wear my heavier jacket so that I don’t have to worry trying to make room for it in my suitcase stuffed with packs of Matsesta tea, some sweets and a Sochi palm tree kit I got yesterday to bring back home. Hopefully I will get some wine at the airport. I keep forgetting the name of Stalin’s favorite I tasted on my trip to Abkhazia two weeks ago, but I will try to get it. I am not aspiring to have anything in common with this infamous person, but truth be told, I liked it as well. It is Kindzmarauli, by the way. I will have to pronounce the name of this Georgian wine a few times to practise saying it to a shop assistant I guess … It should take me a while to process this bizarre mix of somewhat repressing and yet nostalgic Soviet past and dreams of a modern glitz here in central Sochi along with many other things I have encountered on this trip… 

“I Love Sochi” sign

Now I feel I am ready to say goodbye to the Greater Sochi. All of my three locations have been great in their own waydespite my originally low expectations. This has been a wonderful escape and I hope I will be able to afford more of those in the future as I pursue my freelance path offering a degree of freedom and flexibility further. I also hope I will continue with these writing sessions somewhere else in Russia as well… Goodbye and see you one day, Greater Sochi – hopefully not too long from now and under more certain circumstances. 

Navaginskaya Street at night
The last morning in Sochi