25 years ago, I visited Italy for the first time. I found a payphone on the second day of my stay there (yes, people still used them those days) and dialled the first Ukrainian number that came to my mind. I'm not sure whom exactly I called, but I shared a very important piece of news with that person, 'I've got it! I was actually born in Italy, but was kidnapped then!'
It has become a tradition: every time I come to Italy, I phone some friend of mine and inform him or her about this unknown part of my biography.
I've been thinking a lot about why this country is so dear to me, why I feel at home here. Recently I've realised that Italy is something that Odessa could be, but for... Because Italians and Odessites have a lot in common. Just think of it.
Odessites and Italians are the most easy-going and relaxed people. Our life is continuous siesta, because we are never in a hurry. Any meeting in Odessa starts 15 minutes later (in the best case); it's just impolite to turn up on time.
We think we are special. My favourite region in Italy is Piedmont, where people think they are different from the rest of the country. Natives speak their own Piedmontese language — a unique mixture of Italian and French. Odessites also have their own habits, dialect and attitude to life. Is it a mere coincidence that Piedmont and Odessa have the same latitude?
We are emotional. Once, when I was in Naples, I dropped by a small pizzeria that was kept by the whole family, as it often happens in Italy. A mother was responsible for charging customers, one son — for baking and another — for delivering pizza, a sister took orders and a father did nothing. 'It's just like back home', I thought. They kept shouting at each other, while packing my order. My intuition suggested that the sister mixed up the orders and the second brother had brought pizza to the wrong address. The sister was blaming the elder brother, who was blaming the mother, who in her turn — the second brother, while he was pointing the finger at the sister. The father tried to butt into, but got caught in the crossfire. In five minutes, they were hugging each other and crying. 'I've seen this before', I thought. By the way, the pizza was nothing special, so I won't recommend the place.
Both Italians and Odessites are obsessed with food. I keep saying that there is no other place in the world, where food plays a role as significant, as in Odessa. Italians and Odessites are people of meat, seasonal vegetables, fish and pastry. We also like to argue about recipes and cooking. Do you know that Italy can be roughly divided into two groups: the one supporting pesto and minestrone, and the other being dead set against them? Well, I spent my whole childhood between those, who supported beans in borscht, and those, who opposed such method of cooking.
Italians and Odessites are similar even in choices of key products for our cuisines. We like and know how to prepare tomatoes. We would have found ourselves in a completely different culinary world but for Columbus, who brought seeds of these vegetables from America. The first tomato-based recipe was published in a Neapolitan cookbook (and no other way!). Both Odessites and Italians prefer large tomato varieties* like beef tomatoes, while everything else can be hardly called tomatoes at all.
Both Odessites and Italians live in clans (don't be afraid of the word). We multiply relatives, surround ourselves with the nearest and dearest, and the theory of six degrees of separation was long brought down to zero degrees in Odessa. You know everyone in the city even before you are born. The same in Italy. That's why our house is so important for us. This is a place where we welcome numerous relatives and relatives of relatives, where we celebrate all possible holidays, keep setting tables over and over.
I'm getting more and more proud of Odessa, while I'm writing this. This is a serious matter to bring down a small provincial town by the sea with a huge ego and undoubtedly great Italian culture to a common denominator. We have a lot in common indeed, the same as all inhabitants of the south do. We also love food and take our time. But there is something hiding behind this amusing similarity. I would call this an 'insuperable cultural divide'. We inherited a manner of speaking from Italians who built our city, but we missed the main thing.
I've always thought it is blasphemous to say that people are cultured only because they don't spit on the ground. This is, however, a classic characteristic of a person in Odessa. It’s enough to throw litter in a litterbin to gain the reputation of a 'person of culture'. Italian culture in its turn implies centuries of architectural, musical, artistic and culinary development. Of course, Odessa is only 224 years old, but this is a significant period still. Experience shows that we are not only incapable of creating culture and investing into it, but also of preserving what we already have.
If I could choose the things to adopt from Italians, I would have gone for obsession with art, the ability to preserve the heritage under any circumstances and the talent to involve others in our way of living. We, however, have chosen emotions, laziness and idle talks. That's why the world is addicted to mozzarella and Italian tomatoes, while bryndza and Mikado remain nothing but little-known local specialties, although they don't differ much.
*Italians call large tomatoes Cuore di Bue.