Odessa Is Like That

Catherine the Great received some boxes of freshly harvested oranges in the dead cold of winter. The note that came with it said they were from a distant port. The note said, ‘See what we are capable of bringing to you? We need your help to grow even more.’ Impressed, she sent a massive amount of money so that this port could develop further.

However, the oranges had been brought from other countries through the Black Sea. Without telling lies, the note to the empress did not explain the whole truth, as I learned when I disembarked there. The phrase I most heard during my 90 days of aimless travels was ‘Odessa is like that.”

When I decided to travel, I knew I needed at least one official commitment each week to help me resist the temptation to return to Brazil too soon. In this case, I agreed to come to Ukraine at the invitation of the government to attend the 20th anniversary forum of the disaster at Chernobyl. The event lasted only one afternoon and the wind was telling me to stay, so I decided to stay another week there. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I explained that I wanted to have some surprise meetings with my readers, giving them only two or three days notice that I was there. Many asked where I wanted to hold these meetings.

“Odessa,” I responded, without hesitation.

Everyone seemed very surprised. They wanted to know why. I told them I chose it because of Sergey Kostin, who had a project selected by the Schwab Foundation (of which I am board member). During meetings in Davos (the foundation is linked to the World Economic Forum) I was impressed with the Ukrainian men who, without speaking English, were able to not only show their projects, but also raise awareness of their campaign to the business people who were in attendance. Sergey insisted that I should know his city, and since I was being driven by impulses at the time, I felt the time was right to take him up on his offer. In keeping with a tradition that began in Puente la Reina, the local bookseller there organized a party/book signing for 50 readers, chosen by lottery.

A friend of mine lent us his plane. When we landed, my representative in Russia asked to see an invitation for the party to make sure that everything was on schedule.

“It doesn’t have the date, time or place on it!”

“Odessa is like that,” answered the bookseller, “those who received the invitation will phone the number on the invitation 3 hours before the event and receive the necessary information. Otherwise, we will have many counterfeit tickets.”

We did not think there would be many people there, but I asked my representative not to worry since we didn’t have any expectations. I visited the staircase from the movie Battleship Potemkin,” the only reference I had to the city. Since ‘Odessa is like that,’ the party was a success and there were many more people there than we expected. The bookstore owner introduced me to a gigantic man that he said wanted to make a sculpture of me.

I never accept these offers because they usually mean standing and posing for days at a time, and I intended to return to Kiev the next morning, but the bookstore owner insisted.

“You will only need to stand for one hour, Odessa is like that.”

It was Easter, and Orthodox Easter is an important day for Christianity. I felt like I should accept just to give the man pleasure, as my need to return to Kiev would be a real excuse to limit my stay in his studio.

I went there with some friends. Alexander Petrovich Tokarev, the sculptor, says he spent a sleepless night praying (a custom in the Orthodox Church). Even without sleep, the work begins. I’m a little anxious; I don’t think he will achieve anything in such a short time. His hands were sweating profusely, and though they were moving quickly, his movements were precise, a kind of spiritual ballet. The other works in the studio surrounding me showcased his genuine talent and love to achieve the impossible. I began to feel sad because I would soon have to tell him to stop working because I had to leave.

However, exactly an hour later, the sculpture was finished! I was reminded once again that if you wish to do something, the universe will conspire in your favor.

Why should I have been surprised? After all, Odessa is like that!

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author who has sold more than 100 million books, which include 14 short story collections and the novel “The Alchemist.” He has been a fan of the Internet since the early 1990s. He spends at least three hours a day online, writing e-mails back and forth with his readers and posting photos on Flickr, MySpace and a blog.

Coelho’s online activities also include promoting pirated copies of his own books. Since 2005 he’s been directing his readers to an online site where they can download his books, in languages from German to Japanese, for free. “I always thought that when, at the beginning of your career, you strive to be read, you can’t change your mind later and become greedy about it.”

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