Twenty years later: That’s Odessa!

In the middle of the winter, Catharine the Great of Russia receives some boxes of freshly-picked oranges. A note says that they have come from a distant port, part of her Empire. “See what we are capable of; but we need your help to grow”. Impressed, the Empress of all the Russias sends an enormous amount of money so that this port can develop even more.

In fact the oranges had been brought from other countries across the Black Sea. Without telling any lies, the note to the Empress also did not tell the whole truth. But, as I came to understand as soon as I landed there, continuing the 90-day pilgrimage that I proposed to make without any fixed destination, the sentence one hears most often in the city is: “That’s Odessa!”

When I decided to take this journey, I knew that I would need to have at least one official commitment a week. That would help me to resist the temptation of interrupting the trip in the middle and returning to Brazil before the proper time. In this case, I accepted to come to Ukraine on the invitation of the government, to the forum held on the 20th anniversary of the atomic disaster in Chernobyl. The event was to last only one afternoon, and since the wind was carrying me to Ukraine I decided to stay there for another week. When they asked me what I wanted to do, I explained that I was arranging “surprise” meetings with my readers, normally giving them only two or three days’ notice. And where was the meeting to be?

“Odessa,” I answered.

Everyone seemed very surprised. Why Odessa? I answered that I had met Sergey Kostin, who had a project selected by the Schwab Foundation (I am on their Board of Directors). At the meetings held in Davos (the Foundation is connected to the World Economic Forum), I was impressed by that Ukrainian who, without speaking any English, managed to show his project and sensitize the businessmen who frequent Davos. Sergey insisted that I should come to visit his town; since I was being guided by impulses and signs, I felt that the time had come. Following a tradition that began in Puente la Reina, I asked the local book vendor to organize a book-signing party for 50 readers chosen by drawing lots.

A friend lent me his plane. When we landed, my representative in Russia asked to see the invitation to the party just to make sure everything was alright. I saw a look of fear in her eyes.

“But there’s no date, no place, no time!”

“That’s Odessa!” answered the book vendor. “Those who received the invitation will telephone 3 hours ahead for the necessary information. If they find out earlier than that, we will have many fake tickets.”

We feel that nobody will turn up, but I ask Natasha not to worry, we have no expectations, this is all part of the adventure. I visit the staircase where they filmed the strongest scene in Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin”. The party is a success, although, since “that’s Odessa!”, far more people turned up than was expected. The book vendor introduced me to a gigantic man who wanted to make a sculpture of me.

I have already received this kind of proposal. I have never accepted because I know that it means spending days posing, and I plan to go back to Kiev the next day. But the book vendor insists

“Just one hour. That’s Odessa!”

It’s the Orthodox Easter, an important day for Christianity. I feel that I should accept just to please him – I really could not stay for more than an hour, we had to get back to Kiev.

I go to his studio with some friends. Alexander Petrovich Tokarev, that is the sculptor’s name, says he spent the whole night praying in church (an Orthodox custom). Even though he has not slept, he begins to sculpt. I am a bit anxious: he will manage to do nothing in so little time. He is sweating profusely, his hands do not stop for a moment, yet his movements are precise, a sort of spiritual ballet. I look at his work all around the studio, his genius and talent. I understand his love and his capacity to accomplish things that seem impossible. There, once again I am reminded that when we want something, the whole Universe conspires in our favor.

At the end of the hour the sculpture is ready. But why should I be so surprised? That’s Odessa!

(*)The photos of the work can be seen by clicking on Photo Gallery

The next text will be posted on the 19th of May.

P.S: Dear reader,

During this journey, that is filling my soul with very interesting experiences, one of the most magical moments comes every night when I read the comments posted on this blog. Even though I can’t answer all of you, I want you to know that it’s very important to me to know that I’m not alone on this path. Thank you so much for your support and for the words and ideas that are now engraved on my heart.

Paulo Coelho