By Jared Manasek 9/20/2002
I have to admit that my favorite scene in the "Battleship Potemkin" is probably everybody's favorite scene. And even if you haven't watched the movie, you probably know the one I'm talking about. It's a baby carriage rolling down a broad staircase that leads from the city of Odessa to the harbor below. The Tsar has sent his troops to put down a popular uprising, and they end up opening fire on the people gathered at the top of the steps. A mother falls against her baby carriage, and it starts to roll down the stairs. The scene has been copied countless times. It was in "The Untouchables," Woody Allen has made fun of it. It has pretty much become a cliché. But the powerful thing about the original is that it's absolutely silent. It's pure film. There's running, shooting, falling, screaming, fear -- all those things. But you hear nothing -- not even the squeak of wheels or the boing of baby carriage springs.
It's a defining moment for film, and for Odessa. More to the point, it's a defining moment for a radio producer who tends to think of things in terms of the sounds they make: Just what are those squeaks and bumps that are the sound of the Potemkin steps?
Well, I should probably fess up right now: I still don't know. The obvious solution was to borrow a baby carriage from some young, unsuspecting Odessan parents, and then just give it the old heave-ho. This did not, however, go exactly according to plan…
After a couple of tries, I pretty much gave up on that approach. It wasn't going anywhere, and I suspect that's because all the parents I talked with had babies in their baby carriages. But I was still feeling that need for instant gratification, so I reached for the closest thing at hand: spare change. (sound of coins falling)
This was an utter failure, and helped convince me that although the Potemkin Steps are a majestic symbol for a city with relatively few major landmarks, they make a second-rate tourist attraction. Yeah, they're big and they're broad, and you get a good view, but they're also rutted and uneven. Fact is, they worked better in the movie.
At the top of the steps is a broad promenade, and if it weren't for the cheesy souvenir stands and the blaring East European turbo-pop coming from the cafes, you might think you were back in the same down-at-the-heels port town of 80 years ago. There's even local hucksters trying to take your picture with some flea-bitten exotic animal. Of course, these days they speak English.
Well, sort of...
A ping-pong ball from a local sports store was my "fail-safe." And it worked, rolling and bouncing most of the way down the stairs. But after playing with that a couple of times, I kind felt like I was cheating: I mean, it's a ball. It's designed to do that.
As a foreigner, its easy to make certain assumptions that turn out to be totally unfounded: like, how cheap everything must be in a country where the beer costs less than a dollar and comes served with a snack of dried fish. Disappointed by my nonauthentic ping-pong ball dalliances, I figured I would just buy a baby carriage. How much could it cost, really? Well, Odessa may be a beautiful old city on the sea, replete with shady squares and Baroque architecture, but it's no paradise, especially if you're in the market for a baby carriage. I swung by a store with the promising name of "Baby's World" in the hopes of picking up a stroller on the cheap. But get this: it wasn't just that they didn't have baby carriages -- they couldn't even hazard a guess about who might. They sent me to "Chicco," another carriageless baby store, and the Chicco people redirected me to "Antoshka," one block over.
Antoshka had baby carriages, but they were also ridiculously expensive. Even their cheapest model cost the equivalent of several hundred dollars, which is fine, I guess, except that you have to keep in mind that the average Ukrainian earns something like $80 a month. I don't know who was buying these things, but I sure wasn't going to lay out that much money for a radio prop.
This is not a baby carriage -- it's a luggage cart I borrowed from one of the guys selling postcards and film. Not bad, huh? Well, at least good enough that when I first tried it out, I seriously had the urge to just say it was a baby carriage and call it a day. You know, some sort of vintage Soviet carriage with bad ball bearings.
Going vintage did, however, seem like a good idea. I headed over to Privoz market, which is sort of like a cross between a department store, on one hand, and a recycling center, on the other. There's caviar, there's shoes and accessories, there's food, toiletries, perfume, and the like. And then, there're the guys selling things like rusty old tools laid out on moth-eaten blankets, or the old-school 51/4 inch floppy disc drives. There was even somebody selling wheels -- just wheels, including a matching set of three that were obviously taken from a perambulator at some point. But nowhere could I find a complete, usable baby carriage, until I came across Inna. Or, rather, she came across me. She was going around the market from vendor to vendor, selling tea, coffee and cappuccino.
It's a modest business, but the overhead is low: a couple of thermos, bottles of hot water, some tea bags, and various instant coffee powders. She had all that loaded into a baby carriage, which served as a little mobile coffee bar.
I guess it really shouldn't come as a shock that imported Western baby carriages are outrageously expensive in a country like Ukraine. What did surprise me, was the utter lack of alternatives -- and not just because I think that a baby carriage would make a fantastic radio prop -- because, in reality, the question isn't what the sound of the Potemkin steps are when a baby carriage rolls down them...We already know the answer to that one, and we knew it from the start: it's silence. The real question is why there are no alternatives: Why it should be so difficult to find even a used baby carriage that your average Odessa couple could afford?
I suppose that Inna might represent part of the explanation. Demand is high, and not just among parents. There's no law saying that you can only use a baby carriage for babies, and anything that bears weight and has four wheels has any number of applications. I, personally, would have loved to have given her baby carriage just one push. But for Inna, this object that was originally designed to cradle new life had another practical application as the source of a new livelihood.
I'm Jared Manasek, in Odessa, for The Savvy Traveler.
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