Participants: Vanessa Serbul (V.S.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022

N.M.: So, Vanessa, please tell me your story. What do you know about your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents… Tell me about your city and what happened on the 24th of February. How did you get here?

V.S.: Ok. So, the first question, about my parents. My father is from Odesa, and so are his parents and his great grandparents. They were Ukrainian, Polish, Moldavian and German.

N.M.: So you have mixed heritage?

V.S.: Yes, mixed. Jewish. In Odesa there were a lot of Jews in the 19th century, and it was a very big city… And because of that, in Odesa we speak not only Ukrainian or Russian, but a dialect with Jewish influences. My mother’s parents are from around Odesa area, from a Moldavian. My mother speaks Moldavian, not Romanian. Now I know some words in Romanian and I tell them to her, but so many words are not the same. 

N.M.: In Banat, if you go to villages and speak Romanian, they will understand the literary language. But if they speak to you in dialect, it will be difficult to understand them if you are born and raised in the city. 

V.S.: My husband is still in Odessa. I am here. Our friends, they are a couple, they first went to Kishinev, and then to Timisoara. This was in February. I was scared at the time and we decided I should go to Romania. I wanted a new experience, I wanted to see how people live here, what they eat, what they cook, what they think. And when I go back home, I will use it. (she smiles) 

N.M.: Were you born in Odessa?

V.S.: Yes. Do you need the date? 18th of September 1996.

N.M.: Did you study there?

V.S.:  Yes. I studied there and in Kyiv as well.

N.M.: So you graduated high school and then you moved to Kyiv to study? Or to work?

V.S.: Just to study. I am an actress, I studied acting. Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to act in films and theatre plays. I like musicals and musical performance. I like it when music is mixed with art.

N.M.: So you like to perform.

V.S.: Yes, something like that.

N.M.: How was Kiev? What was your first impression? How was life there?

V.S.: I came to associate it with very romantic city. And it is a big beautiful city. 

N.M.: What is your favorite place in Kyiv?

V.S.: Andreevskyi Descent and the Dnipro riverbank. There are always a lot of couples there. A lot of restaurants. And, of course, I like Khreshatik, it is a big avenue, and I also like some streets in the historical city centre, where there are a lot of reconstructed buildings. And it is very quiet there, so you can walk and look at the buildings. Kyiv is very dynamic city and sometimes you want to be in some quite places.

N.M.: Did you live in a flat? Did you rent?

V.S.: Yes, in a flat.

N.M.: Did you work there?

V.S.: No, I just studied.

N.M.: For how many years?

V.S.: I haven’t finished an education. I stayed there for three years. 

N.M.: What are your favourite places in Odessa? Tell me about them.

V.S.: Ok, let’s do it. (she smiles) I will show you some pictures. This building is on Deribasivska Street. It is an avenue without cars, there are a lot of restaurants. It is named in honour of Deribas, the son of the founders of the city. He was French. It was during the time when Odesa was built, in 1794.

N.M.: Yesterday Jane told me a bit about it. It was Ekaterina II who founded the city, right? 

V.S.: Yes. She brought a lot of foreigners to the city, architects, intellectuals, Italians and French. Cardinal Richelieu had a big influence. This is called The Passage, it is a very nice building. It is an old hotel, built in 1950s-1960s, for the military. This is very nice square, it is like an Italian square. These are traditional Odesa courtyards with clothes lines. In the 19th century, several families lived in one courtyard, and they would gather together in the evenings, have dinner, talk about life. This is the lighthouse. This is now a hotel now 1,000 people. Here you can see the stairs: this is the Potemkinskaya Staircase. Here is the statue of a woman saying goodbye to the sailor. In the past, the last stairs reached the water, but now it is not like this anymore. There are around 200 stairs. These are the catacombs, they are really long. This is the Vorontsov castle, which was reconstructed and The Museum of Science. I was born in Odessa, but I have never visited this museum. (she laughs). Earl Tolstoy owned this house in 19’s century. 

N.M.: How big is the city? Is it bigger than Timisoara?

V.S.: Yes, it’s bigger, Odessa population is something like 1 million people.

N.M.: Is it still multicultural?

V.S.: Yes, of course. It is multicultural, there are a lot of tourists, hotels, touristic objectives, a big choice of different places, some luxurious, some cheaper.

N.M.: Ok, when the war ends and I go to Odesa as a tourist, what will I eat? What is the typical food for Odesa?

V.S.: The first thing that comes to mind it is bychki (a small fish from Black Sea). I Romania a lot of families eat eggplant salad. In Odesa, the traditional food is eggplants caviar, it’s made with onions, tomatoes, garlic. And forshmak, which is made from herring and onions, and served with butter.

N.M.: What about desserts?

V.S.: Ok, this is very interesting. We usually make sharlotka, with apples, and “vertuta” with apple or cheese. It is like strudel, but different. This is the cake called Napoleon. It is like mille-feuille, it is very tasty. It’s not crunchy, it is softer. 

N.M.: And for important holidays like Christmas or Easter, what do you cook?

V.S.: In Romania what do you eat for Easter?

N.M.: We are lamb.

V.S.: In Ukraine it is kulich or paska. It is like a cake with raisins and dried fruit, like the Italian pannetone, but different. Our paska is made in a different way. We present them as gifts to each other. 

N.M.: And what do you eat for Christmas?

V.S.: We make kutia. It is grains of wheat cooked with raisins, dried apricots, poppies and honey. It is delicious.

N.M.: We have something similar. It is called colivă. And when somebody dies, the people who go to the funeral receive this colivă.

V.S.: Yes, but kutia is like soup. Different women cook it in different ways. Some put dried apricots, some don’t. But it’s sweet and tasty. And it has a nice milky taste.

N.M.: It is like baby food?

V.S.: Yes, something like that. Some people like it, some don’t. 

N.M.: So these are traditional dishes.

V.S.: And pancakes. But not like the American ones, our pancakes are big and flat. We put poppy, cheese, jam, then toll them. It is a traditional Ukrainian dish. It looks like Ukrainian Japanese rolls. (she laughs) And this is another traditional dish form Odesa: it is made from small fish called tulka, they are 5 centimetres long. You add some egg and make cutlets. It is cheap to make. If families didn’t have a lot of money, they made this.

N.M.: So was this the main occupation of people?

V.S.: Yes, in the 20th century there were a lot of fishermen in Odesa. And there were so many types of fish. Not just fish, also mussels. This is also a very popular dish in Odesa. There are a lot of them in Black Sea. I don’t like them, but my parents love to eat them with rice. In restaurants they cook them in cream sauce, with garlic and white wine. 

N.M.: What do you prefer? What is your favourite food?

V.S.: I like more European food. 

N.M.: Does your generation like other types of food? Do you prefer other things?

V.S.: I can eat Napoleon. I don’t like mussels. I like pasta and pizza.

N.M.: Do you enjoy that more than the traditional food from Odessa?

V.S.: Yes.

N.M.: So, you told me you went to Kyiv to study and then you returned to Odessa, right? How many years ago was that?

V.S.: 10 years ago. 

N.M.: And then you got a job?

V.S.: For 6 years I worked as a fitness trainer, I worked both with adults and kids—stretching, Pilates, Latino dances, flying yoga. I continued studying vocals, I changed teachers and coaches, and I developed, I got more skills. I very much wanted to work as a musician. I worked to train my voice all the time. I worked with a band. But then war started. First it was the pandemic and then the war. And people didn’t want to start something new. Restaurants weren’t working, there weren’t that many clients, there weren’t many tourists. My husband works in car service. He lost some clients as well. People didn’t want to spend money anymore. 

N.M.: Let’s talk about the evening of the 23rd of February. How were the things? What happened?

V.S.: It was a strange night. I woke up to get some water and I heard the first explosion. Our house is near the park and all the car alarms started at the same time. We have a dog, and she also woke up. My first thought was that ice was falling from the roof, but then I realized there was no ice, it was the 24th of February, spring was coming. Bur the sound was very similar. I started scrolling through Instagram for news, and I realized that the war had started. After a few minutes I heard explosions again. My husband was sleeping, and someone called him from work. He woke up and started panicking. There was a feeling that you had to do something, but you didn’t know what to do. There were so many people in shops, in stores— I have never seen so many people in shops and stores at 6, 7, 8 a.m in the morning. But they were not panicking, that was strange, they were waiting in queues, buying food, as no one knew if there would be any food or not. We left the store and I went home with my husband’s brother. My husband went to the gas station to get some gas. There were also huge queues for gas, you could wait for three hours, four hours to get some gas. And this situation lasted not days, but  weeks. When we left the store (I had to go back for a bit), we saw coming across the beach a lot of tanks. It was so scary. And you couldn’t take any photos, as it was military equipment. Later, check points appeared in the city. You know what those are, right? You have to show documents to pass.

N.M.: Was there anything at sea?

V.S.: No, I didn’t see anything.

N.M.: Did the authorities say anything about that? 

V.S.: No. We heard something, but nothing of relevance.

N.M.: When did you decide to leave?

V.S.: In March. I think three weeks after the war started. Those were scary weeks and scary times. I wanted to leave. So we decided I would leave with the parents of some friends. 

N.M.: Had those friends left before you?

V.S.: Yes. A few days earlier.

N.M.: Had they left by car?

V.S.: Yes, by car.

N.M.: How did you cross the border?

V.S.: We lived in Kishinev for a week and then we crossed the border at Leușeni. Then we went to Brașov, then Timișoara.

N.M.: Were you with your friends or with their parents?

V.S.: With their parents. In a car.

N.M.: How did your friends decide to come to Timișoara?

V.S.: The headquarter of their company is here, in Timisoara, that’s why they came here. I arrived here in March. After three days of being here, I found not only a job, but something that help me understand Romanian people better.

N.M.: What did you know about Romanian people before coming here?

V.S.: I knew about Bucharest and about the Carpathian Mountains because I had watched some travelling videos about them. I like such videos. They help me to see a lot of countries. I also knew about Cluj and Brașov. I knew that Constanța was by the sea. That’s all. I found a Facebook post that someone was looking for a girl to take care of her children.

N.M.: Like a nanny?

V.S.: Yes, a nanny. I called her, she spoke Ukrainian, because she was born near Odesa. When she was a child, she first moved to Moldova, then to Bucharest, then to Timișoara. Now she is married, she has a husband and two cute kids. When I called her, she was pregnant with the second child. In May she gave birth to the second child and now she has two kids. So I helped her with her newborn. I also told her what I did in Odesa, that I was a singer, and she supported me, she put me in contact with some musicians and a cover band. We performed on Vyshyvanka day—you know it, right?

N.M.: Yes, Jane mentioned Embroidery Day. 

V.S.: So I first sang at the Easter picnic, then on Vyshyvanka Day. On the 6th of May I sang at a charity event organized by The Lions Club. There were many representatives of authorities, there was an auction to raise money to recondition buildings for the refugees. It was in the Ballroom. It is near the Banat Museum.

N.M.: Yes, I know it. It is a nice place. 

V.S.: On Vyshyvanka Day there was a big concert, and I sang a lot of songs. And so many people understood what I sang, what I was trying to tell them. There was another big concert on Refugees’ Day. I sang there as well, but I try not to be a refugee, but an ambassador. I don’t want to just ask for things, I want to give something back. It is like an exchange. If people give me something, I want to give something back. 

N.M.: What is your plan for the upcoming months?

V.S.: My plan is to return to Odesa. On Vyshyvanka Day, Maria, one of the volunteers, gave me this T-shirt. I wanted to wear a white dress, but when I saw this T-shirt, I realized I need it. 

N.M.: So you’ve had concerts and interviews. You are famous now.

V.S.: Yes, but I didn’t think of it as being famous. I just wanted to do something that I could do, something I enjoy. I wanted to do something positive for Ukrainians, to show Romanians that Ukrainians are intelligent, talented people. 

N.M.: I wish you all the best here or in Ukraine. I wish you to be successful. 

V.S.: Thank you very much! Yes, I want to be involved with music. And I want to go back to Ukraine. I have two feelings inside: on the one hand, I want to stay here, because I like Timisoara and the people here, on the other hand, I want to go back to Ukraine. I miss my mother, my dog, my cat, my husband.

N.M.: Are your parents still in Odesa?

V.S.: Yes, and I miss them.

N.M.: I am grateful that you talked to me. Thank you very much!

Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska

Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov

Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu