On the coast of the Black Sea between Odessa and Nikolaev lies the small village of Koblevo. It is where Odessans go to escape the more crowded (and polluted) beaches in the city, such as the pulsating Arcadia. Koblevo is also busy on a hot day in the summer, but less sardine-like.
Escaping to the beach can mean escaping to childhood memories - and for people of a certain age that means the idyllic impressions of the Soviet comedies like the charming satires of Ryazanov (in winter, these are also relived by drinking excessive amounts of vodka in saunas at New Year). The heroes of quite a few of these Soviet comedies, like The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, or White Sun of the Desert wear white flat peaked hats, and so it is that such hats have become a kind of symbol of a carefree holiday and a touch of nostalgia for a past that never existed. Or maybe a man just wants to be Captain of his own fishing rod.
The heat of the south Ukrainian summer takes no prisoners. On a recent anniversary of the founder of the US Navy, John Paul Jones, the US Ambassador came to visit Kherson on a blistering summer day, accompanied by a glistening honour guard of Ukrainian sailors. John Paul Jones finished his career as a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy based for some time on the River Dnieper at Kherson.
Just a couple of miles further up the river, the Soviet army carried out an assault against the German occupied city in 1943. This was part of the wider Battle of the Dnieper - which few in the West may have heard of, but is possibly the biggest battle in the history of the world, with nearly 4 million soldiers involved, and thought to be around 2 million casualties. The assault on Kherson was preceded by a bombing campaign which flattened much of the city.
A Ukrainian acquaintance told me how he escaped the bombardment as a small boy: he fell seriously ill, and a German army doctor fearing that he would die took pity on him and evacuated him to the neighbouring city of Nikolaev, and gave him antiobiotics. He believed this saved his life, not only in rescuing him from his fever but also from the worst of the bombing. He recalls passing through German army checkpoints lying with a fever in the back of a cart. He wanted to stress that, while not sympathising with the Nazi invader, even they could at times behave as human beings.
In the opposite direction from the US Ambassador, two or three miles further down the river, is the Hydropark, where residents cool off by jumping in the river, or floating with beers and vodka on a raft. Beer, being considered essentially a non-alcoholic drink, is a good chaser for vodka - and has the benefit of turbocharging it: "Vodka without beer is money to the wind". In Britain we call it 'snakebite', though we usually think of it in terms of a bit of vodka added to beer rather than a bit of beer chasing down volumes of vodka. In the post-Soviet comedy "The Peculiarities of the National Sport of Fishing" there is a scene where the Russian heroes float down the Gulf of Finland on a raft, together with a Finnish friend and 15 cases of vodka. After a few vodkas, the Russians and Finns have perfectly fluent conversations, understanding one another perfectly, despite not speaking a word of one another's languages. It's a kind of Russian Babel-fish.