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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #189



Today was another frustrating day. It started well enough; the clear crisp sunny winter weather looked quite appealing. I wrapped up warm and I stepped out onto Lviv’s cobbled streets. I had planned everything meticulously, and I thought I had worked out the public transport to my destination which is a language school just outside the centre of the city. I was going to speak to them about enrolment in Ukrainian language classes, which begin next year. It’s an exciting prospect and I wanted to meet the team and meet the people I would be learning with.


Unfortunately, as is often the case in wartime Ukraine, things started going wrong. I did locate with some accuracy the bus that I thought was going in the right direction. However I got off at the wrong stop and I had the wrong address written down. I meandered around my imagined destination and I asked a lady in the street who was trying to help me whether there was a language school here, in this building that looked like a cow shed. She did something very unusual for chance encounters with Ukrainians: she laughed, and threw her hands up in the air. We fiddled around with some information on my mobile telephone but it was no good. I couldn’t find the right address and I tramped off, defeated, back to the bus stop. By now the sun had gone in and an icy gloom was descending across this Lviv suburb. I noticed the long lines of miserable faces stationary in the wind, and the tall grey concrete blocks on every side that serve as typical Soviet cityscapes.


I decided to make a dash for the marshrutka, one of the ubiquitous Soviet-era private minibuses that ply much the same routes as the public buses but for a slightly higher fee. By now it was hailing and I was very much coming to regret my misadventure. I had to stand in the marshrutka, buffeted by gloomy faces in puffy jackets, all of us trying to keep out the shocking Ukrainian winter weather that has suddenly descended upon the city. The vehicle veered into the snarling Friday afternoon Lviv traffic jam, as I was bounced around between the puffy coats. As I emerged onto the street, the hail was horizontal. This morning I had just booked another three weeks to stay in Ukraine as the winter becomes ever more hellish. Am I nuts? We already know the answer to that, and the answer is yes.


This evening I went to the Opera, at Lviv National Opera House. It was a superlative performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, the best I have ever seen. The costumes were superlative, the music was to die for, and the performances were outstanding. Once again I sat in the middle of the front row of the Stalls, and I was proud to be the first person standing for the Ukrainian National Anthem. At the conclusion of the Anthem I initiated the audience’s chorus of Slava Ukraini! I could tell that the orchestra was amused that it was a foreigner, with his stilted Ukrainian accent, that initiated this show of patriotism on behalf of the concert hall. But it was well received. Back came the reply, “Glory to the Heroes!”. The audience was alive with patriotic fervour. The performance was so exceptional that it initiated an immediate standing ovation upon its conclusion, and I was proud to be there and to be part of it. Although my imagined friend, due to come with me, had cancelled upon me (a regular theme familiar to the frequent reader of these diaries), another near and dear friend and colleague came in her stead and was enthralled by the display of colours and music that gripped the audience for three full hours.


The only dent in this operatic tour de force was a rather silly moment when the lead character, Violetta, supposed to be dying of tuberculosis at the beginning of Act IV, coughed, apparently terminally, then proceeded to sing the most extraordinary and miraculous of Arias. This was a little silly, as well as a translation from Italian to Ukrainian on the surtitles of a critical part of the script that I myself translated into English from Ukrainian as meaning “Holy Shit!”. This made me almost snort with laughter, and sitting on the front row I had to repress my belly laugh. I don’t think the surtitles are entirely perfect, but in every other way the opera this evening was just extraordinary.


In rather less agreeable news, an elderly Canadian gentleman who I had previously written to in responsive to his intrusive and unpleasant questions, asking him not to contact me again, sent me a piece of hate mail by SMS tonight. He had been sitting just down the row of the front Stalls with his young Ukrainian wife or girlfriend, perhaps a third of his age, and after I had asked him not to contact me he had nonetheless written me a revolting message explaining how much he hated me and what I stood for. I had never met him before. I don’t know how he knows what I stand for, but I think I know what he stands for and it’s not good. I lament the tradition of sex tourism in this country, particularly on the part of elderly western men, and it is something that as Ukraine accedes to Europe it needs to stamp out.


Also tonight, a meticulously unpleasant man with an American accent approached the staff in my favourite bar, obviously completely drunk, and demanded in aggressive terms that they serve him with alcohol well beyond the witching hour of 10.30pm by which all bars in Lviv are required by law to finish service of alcohol. After his berating the young and charming female bar staff in aggressive and nasty terms, and their politely refusing him, I felt bound to intervene. I asked him why he was here, if not a volunteer to help the Ukrainian people, and why he should be asking Ukrainians to break the law. He replied that he was not a volunteer and he did not care about the Ukrainian people. He had been here for ten years, so he told me, but he would not tell me why. He was certain to tell me that I knew nothing; that the Ukrainians would do what he told them; that I was nothing; that my work was nothing; that he would kill me; and he threw expletives at me of the most offensive kind.


In the end the Ukrainian bar staff led him away from me. Obviously this appalling man is going to have an encounter with the Police fairly soon. Whatever he is doing here, Ukraine does not need these violent psychopaths, attracted by war and violence just for the sake of it, and it does not need elderly sex tourists either, here to abuse the young women of Ukraine. These sorts of actions are disgraceful, and the West must wholeheartedly condemn them. Western people who come to Ukraine with these sorts of motive are unwelcome here, and they should leave.

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