Ok, I’m going to talk about it. I was trying to resist, but temptation got the better of me. My favourite bar - and everyone in Lviv knows it - is called Mano’s Bar. It doesn’t matter who Mano is, you understand. He doesn’t own the bar and manage it or work there or anything else. The only thing he does is go there. And his name’s not really Mano. But none of this is important. The entire international community in Lviv now calls this small eccentric and unassuming bar Mano’s Bar, just because Mano is always in there. And so am I. And if you want to find me, then that’s where you come.
It’s all a bit silly, because the real name of the bar is something else and you won’t find the real name on Google or on Google maps. However you will find Mano’s Bar on Google Maps, and on my version of Google Maps it is the first thing that comes up when you open the App. Don’t ask me why. The fictitiously named Mano’s Bar has acquired a life all of its own. In the words of one Dutch rhyme about this hallowed institution:
Mano’s Bar, ah Mano’s Bar
The bar with the highest drink consumption
The only place in Lviv where I’ve seen fire eaters
Bluffing fake soldiers hurling money
Naked men’s butts
People doing sexy time in the back of the bar
Drunks sleeping by the door
Women yearning for love (men too for that matter)
The only place where you can get a double gin tonic for 230 Gryvna
The only place where after 11pm Sssshhhh is whispered by the bar staff
Ah Mano’s Bar, Mano’s Bar
Here in frozen Saigon, everyone knows of Mano’s Bar. It is where every lunatic hangs out, every fringe character from society is present, a long thing snake of a bar with only a single toilet and a constant queue of beer-sodden drunks lining up to use the cubicle. They don’t have much in the way of food, but they do have a lot in the way of different craft beers, and a bunch of thoroughly disreputable characters, including me, tend to line the shaky bar stools each evening as throngs of half-dressed youngsters pass in and out and scrabble around tiny tables supping glasses of beer and the famed local limoncello. The whole thing is rather ridiculous; music pumps out from this tiny place and everyone is cheery. It is the epicentre of international community nightlife in Lviv, and the inspiration for a great deal of what I have written since I arrived properly in Lviv about a month ago.
Mano’s Bar is also a language lab for the youth of Lviv. It’s as cheap as chips, which keeps everyone happy as they scrum in like a particularly dense game of rugby. Young people who want to practise their English language skills can always find some willing goofy foreigner to pass the time with. Men and women, boys and girls, locals and foreigners, can pass in and out of its portals alone or with friends, and make new friends, without feeling awkward or embarrassed. Women will not be bothered even if they are on their own. The bar staff keep smiling and grinning and shouting in English and hammering the bar and inviting you to ring a bell which means you have to give them tips. They scream offers of limoncello to anyone who will listen, and bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle of the stuff gets drunk by the various cartoon characters in there, particularly when there is a birthday or some other crazy event to celebrate. For the international community volunteers in town, it doesn’t take much to have a celebration. We’ll celebrate anything. We’re all well-meaning nutters.
This pokey little bar is one of the smallest, least glamorous nightlife venues I’ve ever been to, but I absolutely adore it. Everyone is so friendly; you can approach anyone you want and speak to them. They have live music in this tiny place on Sundays and Mondays, some local students or somebody, with beautiful voices and exceptional skills on their musical instruments. On Fridays and Saturdays it is packed to the rafters and it sways with all sorts of crazy people and crazy conversations. It’s all so good-natured - well, almost always - and yes there are often some seriously drunk people staggering and swaying and swinging and jigging. One some dark nights sunglasses seem nonetheless virtually compulsory, for no apparent reason, and everyone is humming and thriving and the atmosphere is beating and pulsing. It’s an amazingly positive atmosphere and a wonderful respite from the daily toil and grind and horror of war just outside, and the clientèle often spill out onto the streets, even in the midst of winter, girls in their tiny dresses and boys in their t-shirts, seemingly undeterred by the arctic weather, like a typical Friday night in Newcastle.
At 11pm, the Police often arrive and stand there at the door with dark and scowling faces, assault rifles in their hands, and the music goes off and we all tramp home. But until the men with guns arrive, we are all swinging and swaying and enjoying ourselves and chatting and making new friends and acting like prats and smiling and laughing and we get to put the war out of our minds for a while. You meet the world in Mano’s Bar. You can talk about anything from the latest battle tanks to Iranian drones to Russian cruise missiles to tourniquets for the military to 24-hour train rides in third class to shelling in Kherson. It’s a wonderful place to pick up the latest gossip and to meet the latest loony passing through town. It seems I’m always the loony, because I’m always there. I virtually have my own personal seat at the bar, even though as everyone knows I don’t like limoncello.
The mercury’s rising in frozen Saigon. The sloshy slush on the cranky cobbled shambled streets is now half a foot high, with piles of dirty frosty pools of brown water around every corner. Snow is melting off the roofs of the historic buildings, and suddenly collapses in a massive roar and bang onto the pavement below, threatening to break the neck of any hapless passer-by unlucky enough to be standing beneath. It’s early Saturday evening, and the alcoholics are all out in force, swaying through the streets to the street musicians and the funky fruity vibe of this crazy city that has become the hub of international activity in wartime Ukraine. The drunks laugh riotously as the snow goes bang onto the floor of the streets, and everyone just carries on like before. Health and safety regulations? There’s none of that. We all just carry on, and it’s time for a fun, flaky, faulty, fantastic Saturday night in Lviv. I’ll see you there, in Mano’s Bar.