It’s Pride Month, and I want to tell you about my experience at a gay club in Odessa, Ukraine 8 years ago. Or maybe 10. I don’t remember anymore.
If you don’t yet know, I am originally from the Republic of Moldova of the former Soviet Union. Moldova bordered with Ukraine and, growing up, I spent every single summer in Odessa, on the Black Sea. The city holds a special meaning in my heart.
When I was little, my dad worked summers at a small resort on the outskirts of Odessa that hosted visitors from all over the country. And, as a kid, I got to reap the benefits by making new friends, learning Table Tennis tricks, and sneaking into night-time grown-up dance parties while my parents were worried sick trying to locate me. They often found me swirling between the legs of tall men and women, imagining I, too, was dancing with someone.
This trip to Odessa, my ex-husband and I stayed in the city’s cultural center rather than the outskirts. At the time, I was just coming out and both of us have decided to take each other back to our homes first, before saying our final goodbyes. One day, after we explored my ex’s neighborhood, we gave each other space to spend a night separately. He went out with his childhood friend to a beach party and I took myself to the only functioning gay club in Odessa. I was planning to dance.
The club was hard to find. I circled around the block a few times before finally spotting a person, standing on the corner of what looked like a gated staircase leading into a basement, the kind of basement we had on the bottom of our 4-story apartment building in Bendery, where we kept home-pickled food for the winter months. I cautiously made my way to this person and asked her if this was THE Gay Club. I was worried to out myself in a country of homophobia. She looked at me in mistrust, nodded, and removed the bolt from the gate. I went down the staircase and entered the basement.
The place looked like any gay club I’ve seen in the States. A disco ball in the main room, right above the dance floor, a bar, tightly spaced pleather booths, a bowl of condoms by the entrance doors. There was a stage and on the stage stood a trans woman, flirting with a butchy cis woman, while fixing her microphone, “раз, два, три.” There was nobody inside the club yet – I must have come too early, as I usually do when I get impatient.
I went up to the bar and got myself a glass of cognac. I was timid. This was new territory for me and I did not know what to expect. I’ve never been around the Russian gay community and I was worried about not being accepted. Acceptance has always been a struggle of mine – having immigrated to another country as a teenager-turning-into-an-adult, I always struggled to feel accepted.
People slowly started trickling in. Men fabulously dressed in brightly colored shirts. Women, in tightly-fitted tanks. A very different-looking crowd from the one cruising the Primorsky Bulvar during the day. And it almost felt like I was back home in San Francisco. Until the woman on stage started singing. The music was Russian Camp, with every other song being either T.A.T.U. or Kirkorov. The dance floor became crowded and I squeezed myself in.
I felt shy and out of place but I kept on dancing, side by side with same-sex couples and friend groups. Suddenly, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me in. It was one of those girls in tight tank tops. I smiled at her and we danced. When the song ended, she dragged me off the dance floor into a booth where her friends were socializing over a bottle of vodka.
We spent the rest of the night getting to know each other. Her friends were asking me about what it’s like to be gay in the USA and I was hungry to know about their lives here. As we parted ways and exchanged VK (ВКонтакте) accounts, Russian take on Facebook, the girl that danced with me took something off her arm and handed it to me, “Here, keep it. I got this rainbow bracelet in Italy last summer. I want you to have it to remember us.”
I returned to the States full of emotions and reflections, with a new bracelet on my hand. I kept up with the girls via VK until we slowly lost touch with each other. A few years later, a few Prides later, I watched the news that the Odessa Pride got stopped, the club raided, and everyone celebrating arrested. And even later, the club was converted into a neighborhood coffee shop.
Russian-Inspired Herring Salad
If herring just is not your thing, feel free to use smoked salmon or any other smoked, pickled, or salted fish instead. Just know that herring is stronger in flavor, so double the amount if using other fish.
- 1 cup Paleo mayonnaise (or more, depending on your personal preference)
- 1 sweet potato or 1 cup winter squash, cooked and diced
- ½ large red onion, finely chopped
- 1 avocado, diced
- 4 oz of pickled herring in oil or 8 oz smoked salmon, diced
- 4 large hard-boiled eggs, grated
- Black pepper to taste
- Chipotle pepper for garnish (optional)
- Arrange all your ingredients in small bowls in the order of layering
- Layer in the following order
- ⅔ of all the Eggs
- ½ cup Mayo
- Sweet potato or squash
- Herring or salmon
- ½ cup Mayo
- ⅓ of all the Egg
- Sprinkle with pepper and chipotle (optional) to serve. PS, this salad is best cold
Herring and my family go way back. Every night, I’d find my dad in the kitchen at the dinner table by the flowery curtains in our home in Moldova, eating a herring toast and slurping tea from the saucer – his daily supper ritual. So in my mind, obviously, tea pairs perfectly with herring :) This Assam black tea is similar to the one my dad enjoyed in his Soviet days.