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Memoirs of New York City Brighton Beach

It's a warm spring day and I am standing on a beachfront promenade, called "the boardwalk," watching the gulls dip and soar over the gentle waves. In the distance, an oil tanker slowly makes its way toward the harbor, and to my left a group of pensioners -- elderly men -- some with medals bearing the Hammer and Sickle of the Soviet Union on their lapels, joke and argue as they play cards or checkers under the roof of an open pavillion.

I turn, and behind me, the young waiters and waitresses stand under the umbrellas in front of the promenade restaurants and coffee houses, waiting for customers. I spell out the Cyrillic letters: PECTOPAH. With my limited command of the Russian language, I know this is pronounced "restoran." I sound out "MOSKVA" on the awning - "Moscow," I murmer. I tell my friend, "We'll have lunch there."

No, I'm not in Odessa - on the Black Sea. The body of water is the Atlantic Ocean and I'm in "Little Odessa," the latter-day nickname for the community of Brighton Beach, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York City. But the ambiance is Russian, or, more correctly, reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. For many who lived or vacationed in Odessa, in the Ukraine, the ocean is a reminder of better days.

In the 1970s, more than 90,000 immigrants from the Soviet Union entered the U.S., and about 12,000 settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York. Here, they joined relatives, friends and friends of friends who had preceded them and settled in the waterfront community on the south shore of Brooklyn. Connected to the rest of the city by four subway (elevated in south Brooklyn) lines, these immigrants made new lives for themselves. Many prospered and moved out of Brooklyn, but were quickly replaced by the trickle of immigration that continues today.

Although many come from Russia, many others came from Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and the other Central Asian former Soviet states. Linked by the Russian language imposed on them by the rulers in the Kremlin for many years, they are comfortable in an environment where most stores have Russian signs, most people speak Russian and the familiar foodstuffs are available to them.

Visitors to New York City can taste, smell and hear the Russian presence. Bakeries and coffee shops, redolent with sweet pastries, fresh bread and Rolls, seem to be on every block. The cafes on the promenade serve "native" meals and desserts, and the conversations are in a language unfamiliar to most Americans. I have been here many times before, and every once in a while I try to eavesdrop on the conversations. However, since my command of the language is limited, this is a difficult task.

I brought a friend from overseas with me on this weekday to show her a tourist attraction too few tourists know about. We boarded the NYC subway system's south-bound D train at 42nd Street and the Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue to most New Yorkers). After crossing under the East River, the train took us through Brooklyn, at one point emerging from the tunnel and climbing to an elevated structure. We got off at the Beach 6th Street, the Brighton Beach stop, and walked down the steel stairs to the sidewalk.

We were on Brighton Beach Avenue. The New York Aquarium and Coney Island were within a 10- or 15-minute walk, but we wanted to see Little Odessa by the Sea. Most of the signs on the stores are either bilingual or only in Russian, in the Cyrillic alphabet. Walking along the avenue, we stopped at M&I International Foods, at 373 Brighton Beach Avenue, famous for gourmet foods. Entering the store, we were treated to sights and smells that stimulated our salivary glands, including sausages, cheeses, meat and poultry, caviar and chocolate, and crusty fresh breads. Service was informal, and the women behind the counters, with starched lace hats and uniforms, handed over "tastes" to help their customers make their selections.

Within the three or four blocks of concentrated shopping we passed several night clubs and restaurants, including the popular Restoran National at Number 273. Some of the clubs are said to be patronized by the "Russian Mafia" - criminals who entered the U.S. and established crime "families" here - but we see no sign of anything unusual, nor is there anything other than a friendly greeting when we look in to see the ornate decorations. Later that day, the tables would be filled with heaping platters of food, carafes and bottles of wine, and rich. Every night in these "Russian" clubs was like New Year's Eve and a birthday party, wrapped up in one celebration.

Small shops, indented into the storefronts of larger retail establishments, will remind visitors who have been to Moscow of the Arbat, a street where kiosk vendors offer an incredible assortment of merchandise. In addition to these small business establishments, Brighton Beach street vendors also sell everything from used electrical appliances to new clothing.As we walked, we saw a sign in English and Russian, marking the headquarters of an organization of disabled Soviet World War II veterans, and on other buildings, we noted signs offering discount airline tickets to or from almost every city that was once behind the Iron Curtain. Other storefronts and second floor offices advertised English lessons, driving lessons, assistance with immigration problems and assistance in obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Lunch on the promenade/boardwalk could be an all-day affair, so I tell my friend that unless she has something else to do, I'd like to sit and watch the passing scene. She is already reading the menu and ignores me. Customers around us are ordering soup, hot and cold entrees, pastries and coffee. Many are working their cell phones, eating and smoking at the same time. (We're outdoors, so smoking is permitted.) Like the other patrons, we watch the pedestrians on the boardwalk - many still donning the native clothing of their former homes.

Women with side-laced high shoes and hair tinted with metallic colors push folding strollers with small children. Older couples or singles walk slowly, the men with hands clasped behind their backs and the women clutching purses large enough to hide an encyclopedia. Many of the older men wear medals or small replicas - our waitress tells us they are proud of having served in the war. However, most of the young men and women are wearing the same unisex casual clothing preferred by young people around the world.

I order fruit soup - a cold, refreshing brew made with several kinds of fruit and cheese blini. My companion orders a "house" salad, even after I warn her she will receive a huge portion of cold vegetables, with dabs of sour cream and caviar. A basket of warm rolls is put down in front of us and a dish of butter is placed on top of the basket. Our waitress advises us to wait until the rolls have warmed the butter, and we do. A pot of coffee comes without asking, and we are set for a leisurely lunch.

Three women in colorful coat dresses come by, accompanied by a man wearing a pair of baggy pants, a tunic and the square, brimless hat worn by the Uzbeks. Following them, we see two women with Asian features dressed in trousers and matching collarless blouses. Olga, our waitress, is informative - yes, the first group are Uzbeks. The two women following them are probably from Kirghiz, near the Chinese border. And the three boys kicking a soccer ball down the boardwalk? She smiles. One is her son, a student at a local high school. He is trilingual, she tells us with a grin - he speaks English, Russian and hip-hop. He waves to us as he scoots by.

We finish lunch at about 3 p.m. I pay the check and we head for the elevated station on our way back to Manhattan. The Aquarium and Coney Island will have to wait for another day. I drop my friend off at her New York City Hotel and she thanks me for hosting the tour. "That's the closest I may ever get to Odessa," she tells me, "but I feel as if I was there."


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