The weather’s getting cold in Saigon. That unusual man from Colombia, who says he is from Florida but obviously he is not and he wants to buy a Colombian restaurant in Lviv, is always in the same bar as I am. I do not get paranoid. I am not a paranoid person. I am normal. Everyone in Lviv is normal. That’s what makes Lviv just like Saigon.
As the thermometers plunge, we all pile on more and more layers of clothes. The foreigners are starting to leave in droves; only the committed and the maniacs and the criminals and the psychopaths stay. In other words, all of us. We are all a little bit unhinged, staying here in Saigon, as the Ukrainian winter descends upon us. We huddle round our proverbial campfires, trying to find common solace in our cause in favour of Ukraine and her people amidst these Arctic wintery conditions. Those of us who remain become ever closer, tightly knitted in relationships of trust and confidence by virtue of our mutual experiences undergoing the beginnings of this wintery hell.
Like Ukrainians, we become suspicious of newcomers, we share our stories of visas and permits and apartments and hotels and restaurants and bars and all the things foreigners need and want to know between us, as if huddled secret spies and infiltrators working together in the most impossible of conditions. We glance at one-another amidst the fumes and the booze and the girls and the dark sullen lights of Lviv’s nightlife, tacitly acknowledging one-another and really bonding secretly and privately ever closer to one-another. Amidst these hellish wintery conditions, we are becoming increasingly like a cult, of trusting people admiring one-another for our mutual endurance. Winters in Ukraine are dark, gloomy affairs that create lifelong bonds.
Today I visited Nova Poshta, the local branch of the Ukrainian government’s postal service. I wanted to mail a giant military rucksack full of all my excessive paraphernalia that I have acquired in the last months back home. The process was agonisingly Soviet. Although the extremely helpful young attendant did his best to minimise the pain, every single item in the rucksack had to be displayed on the bench in the post office for inspection and record. As is typical in post-Soviet countries, those performing quasi-public service functions, such as working in a post office, are also tasked with quasi-governmental functions such as customs inspection. And of course they are on camera in the modern CCTV world and they are being watched there and watched by their bosses and they are youngsters and they must be seen to be doing everything right.
So the attendant had to draw up a list of every silly thing in my rucksack. He found a series of paper maps of front line regions in Ukraine. This caused particular consternation, and these maps had to be taken to one side for inspection and review by another lady of somewhat rotund proportions. After twenty minutes or so, she approved them for export - with photographs taken. The addressee details had to be recorded in nauseating detail, with emails and telephone numbers and physical addresses being recored into machines and on paper repeatedly. Every item of clothing, every book, was being recorded into a terminal for some or other reason impossible to divine.
The line behind me and my friend who had helped me with this bag was getting longer and longer. A Nun, standing behind us, asked me whether I knew which Saint it was whose icon I had bought in the Cathedral in Mykolaïv. Of course I did: it was Sveti Luka, the patron saint of scholars, writers and academics. She was testing me, as though I didn’t know. Then she gave herself away. She absurdly suggested that Sveti Luka had died in 1962. That is not quite right. Luke was one of the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. She turned out to be a nutter, like so many people in wartime Ukraine.
We finished all the paperwork, all the data entry, all these procedures, and then we waited for ten or twenty or thirty minutes or this and that time, and our attendant just disappeared to do something else while swearing silently under his breath. And then he came back and asked us to return tomorrow. There is a nationwide computer outage for Ukraine’s postal service. That didn’t seem to stop domestic orders being made. It just stopped us. Are my records and my customs list being deleted in advance of tomorrow’s encounter? Shall I go back tomorrow just to receive the same treatment again? Was there really anything wrong with the computers? Are we living in an environment of post-Soviet hysteria and paranoia?
I don’t know. I will just obey instructions. Every interaction with Ukrainian bureaucracy is frustrating and infuriating, as all Ukrainians and any foreigners who has spent any period of time here is all too well aware. You just go back and try again tomorrow. And you persevere, because we in the West need to persuade and encourage the Ukrainians to run their systems properly. The social sphere is not an anarchy. We need to run things properly, and Ukrainians need to aspire to and soon to achieve European standards or we may give up on them and lease them back to the Russians. Do they want that?
Honesty, integrity, commitment to public services and the greater good: these are all values that the Ukrainian state and her public servants need to embrace if Ukraine is to progress to the next stage of development and Euro-Atlantic integration. True, there is a war on; and hence it is easy to overlook public administration reform. But in fact these things are essential, particularly in Lviv, where it is as far as it is possible to be from the fighting and yet still the requisite reforms are lagging behind.
Whereas the bridgehead for advances into Russian occupied territory by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in somewhere northeast of Kherson, the bridgehead for dismantling Soviet-Russian ideas of public administration is somewhere in the centre of Saigon. In Lviv, the most civilised and central European of all Ukrainian cities, the cultural and administrative apex of European reforms must be inculcated. If this cannot be done then Ukraine has no hope. Yet I am confident that she does.
I leave my Colombian friend, obviously a deserter from the International Legion on the front line, sitting in my favourite bar in sub-zero temperatures in his shorts and his flip-flops with with zero-alcohol beer, talking to a colleague of mine about some rot or other. I wonder why he is here. I wonder why any of them are here. Maybe he will open up to me. He seems a decent sort of fellow, but here with a reason that I have yet to divine. Although he appeared on first glance to be intrinsically suspicious, I suspect he has a good heart and his main goal is self-preservation. That applies to us all in a war zone. Let us see.