The Black Sea

Sochi, 2014. What a strange Winter Olympics! I was glad when the events got underway so the journalists would have something to do other than whine about the hotels. It all worked out wonderfully from what we could see. Well, if Shaun White hadn’t cut his hair it might have come out a little better for the USA.

And the weather! It was so warm that between events, people were swimming in the Black Sea. It was probably a little chilly for swimming, but it’s a thing to do. At the beach near where we used to live in Southern California, the tourists would go in the water on winter days for the novelty of it. They would stay in for a minute, then come out and run for a towel to dry off and sit shivering in the sun, saying “How about that! February and it’s warm enough to swim!”

I swam in the Black Sea too. It was in summer though, years ago, when I was helping run a summer camp for boys. It was on the shore directly across the sea from Sochi, in the Bulgarian town of Balchik. I remember it as a time of volleyball and sunbathing, swimming and long talks about life. I remember too, feeling like one of those California tourists marveling at the delights of waves and salt water.  From the book. . .

The weather was agreeably warm for enjoying the beach most of the days we were there, but about the fourth day an afternoon thunderstorm stirred up the sea so that the deep cold water was brought to shore. The water was too cold for all but the hardiest for the rest of the week.

With the water affected as it had been, the temperature varied sharply from one spot to another. Little streams of cold and warm water swirled around silently in the shallows. If you moved a few meters one way or the other it would change from warm to frigid and back again. [My friend and fellow volunteer] Justin said he had read that at the lower levels of the Black Sea there was cold fresh water, from its ancient origins as a lake fed by the Danube and the other rivers going into it. Riding above this cold layer was the salty seawater from the Aegean (or in Bulgarian, “The White Sea”) across the Dardanelles where treacherous currents form at the boundary of the two large seas.

Since salt water was heavier than fresh water, it was a bit of a mystery why it was this way instead of the other. It was as if the seawater were balanced precariously atop the lighter fresh water, and had been for a long time, since the channel between the two seas opened up. Some scientists saw a danger in this seemingly unstable situation, that something could cause the two water masses to flip over, destroying the ecology of whatever lived in either zone. As I moved from one stringy stream of cold water to another I wondered what intricate balances there might be, that we were completely unaware of, in things we see and experience every day.

A Breeze in Bulgaria, p. 211

Lately we read of trouble in Ukraine. I think of instability and balance. Halfway between Balchik on the west shore and Sochi on the east, the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol has installed a pro-Russian mayor, staking claim to the strategically important Crimean peninsula. It sits between the pro-European demonstrators in Kiev to the west, with its ruins and bloody confrontations and smoldering fires, and the Russian-leaning eastern half of Ukraine. In the east, the ousted president is hiding out from criminal charges pressed by those in the western half, taking refuge with the Russian majority. Mr. Putin, coming off his successful run as scowling emcee of the Sochi Olympics, wields a bludgeon comprising, of all things, economic threats.

map, black seaThe map (click to embiggen) shows Sevastopol on the big peninsula resting in that unstable Black Sea, balancing Ukraine above it precariously on a point. It looks like a seesaw, a child’s teeter-totter. The Black Sea, where that fulcrum rests, has Bulgaria and Romania on the west shore, both members of the EU albeit in a marginalized status with limitations and contentious conditions. On the east shore, Russia and its other little problem, Georgia. In between, literally and figuratively, geographically and philosophically, Ukraine.

I hope the idea that the Black Sea is potentially unstable is a baseless worry, and that nothing will ever cause the two water masses to flip over and destroy the ecology of the sea. And I hope the dangerous instability in Ukraine will resolve itself without damaging either side. If one kid falls off a seesaw, the other one gets hurt too.

5 thoughts on “The Black Sea

  1. Developments in Ukraine are as changeable this week as the currents you describe in the Black Sea. I hope there is more balance than instability in the coming weeks on see-saws, the Black Sea, and Ukraine.

    • Changeable, wow, you’re so right! When I wrote this article it was a days before those uniformed but unmarked troops moved in with their presumed Russian affiliation and quietly started their blockade, or positioning, or threat of attack, or whatever it is. Things moved fast and big for a few days, then positions stiffened, and now we see small feints and jittery moves. It’s like watching a game of Tetris, or the breakup of ice in a river. From the west, hollow and impotent threats. From Kiev, what, nothing? Oh, of course. . . it’s not really a government, is it? Not yet anyway. It seemed to be in the process of becoming one when all that was interrupted.

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