It’s been a tough couple of days. Lviv is an unrelenting icebox. Those soldiers who stand in the courtyard of my building, 24 hours a day, are still there as I write these words, shivering, shaking, thick gloves, thick hats, stamping up and down, clutching their Kalashnikov rifles to their chests and tightening their rifle magazine belts round their chests as a way to keep warm. It’s several degrees below zero out there at the height of the day, and there’s snow or anything else - it’s just ice and cold. I said hello to one of them as I stumbled home tonight, almost tripping and breaking my face on the freezing icy veneer that covers every street. He was goofily swigging a bottle of vodka. How can I blame him. The whole thing is hell.
Last night I went to a classical musical recital at Lviv Opera House. It was somewhat ropey but highly enthusiastic. After a delectable performance of Samuel Barber’s Serenade for Strings, something rather local was performed involving a quasi-symphony in which the conductor was also the solo clarinetist. It was apparently all about the conductor’s father’s love for Japan. The conductor’s father, a burly old fellow who grumpily humped the orchestra’s stands and equipment around the stage with a scowling face, was I was informed the composer. Nevertheless the whole thing was good-natured, and in a stunning concert hall upstairs in the Opera House, and it was rounded out with one of those unmemorable Haydn symphonies (45? 47?) that we all forget about but we all sit round enthusing about romantically over expensive bottles of red wine at dinner parties in north London of the kind you don’t find in Ukraine because it’s all bombs and bullets and drones and missiles and explosions and amputations and deaths and hell and war.
Today I worked in my kitchen, as per usual routine, chopping and peeling and all the rest. It was a breezy crowd today, and my friend P——- and I exchanged nonsensical verbiage while we undertook our laborious physical work. P——- looks like a crazy man, with wavy mad white hair hanging down under his Ukrainian trident woolly hat, talking all sorts of nonsense from medieval history to the military strategy of the Confederacy in the American Civil War to different sorts of rare and extinguished tortoise on remote Indonesian islands to who knows what else. I always enjoy his nonsense. He calls me the Oligarch and tells me I should be executed and I tell him I love the late Henry Kissinger and this really winds him up for some reason or other I never quite understand and that’s why I keep doing it. It’s all silly and ridiculous but we such different people from different avenues in life, pushed and pressed together by force of circumstances in our common desire to help the Ukrainian people and committed in our resolve to uphold Euro-Atlantic values, whatever our positions on different political spectrums: this holds us all together and it makes the working atmosphere relentlessly convivial.
I must say that this is the most pleasant working environment I have ever encountered in my life. Yes there are various crooks and idiots and bullshit people dotted throughout the international community in Ukraine, and I have had the misfortune to meet more than my fair share of them and in some cases I have taken it upon myself to be the international policeman so as to try to deter these sorts of people and others who might follow in their footsteps from taking advantage of Ukraine with their dirty commercial plans or their otherwise sinister intentions. But in this group of people, for all the nonsense we talk, we are friends and we are mutually committed and we are good-natured and we somehow manage to put aside all those differences that might otherwise divide us in the normal, real world.
Someone told me that P——- teaches English at Sunday lunchtime English conversation classes! I wonder what the Ukrainians, with their limited English language skills, think of his talk of Confederacy Generals. Even I find that sort of silliness difficult to follow. Nevertheless the international community here in Ukraine is a mosaic of often eccentric, silly and well-intentioned people willing to give up their time and money out of a sense of commitment and duty above all else. And those are qualities I admire in all people.
Tonight I went to Lviv Opera House again. It was something totally ludicrous: simulated sex on the theatre floor while men in space suits stood round and watched; men banging long sticks on the floor in time to strange and tortured Shostakovich screechings; a woman’s pair of arms inexplicably sticking out of a bush; men and women rolling around on the floor dressed in dark blue. I think they were supposed to be waves in the sea but really God knows what it was all about. It was apparently a world premier. A cynic might observe that it could be the first and last performance. Nevertheless it got me chuckling inside: so much so, in fact, that I had to leave during the interval lest I burst into raucous laughter in the second half. That would never do. I glanced at the lady sitting next to me with her teenage daughter, who was asking Mummy what the hell this was all about. We exchanged amused glances. What a preposterous spectacle to be sitting through in the middle of a war, as the tannoy announces the air raid shelter procedure for guests of the Opera House in the event of a mid-performance siren. By the time we were half way through this palaver, I think the house would have paid for someone to turn the sirens on, just to finish the agony.
I staggered off from this hilarious spectacle to my new favourite bar. A gloomy young lady sat next to me, not amenable to conversation, flicking through images of a military man on the front line who I presumed to be her husband or boyfriend. She sat alone in the corner of the bar, her eyes drooping and tired with emotional exhaustion, sadness, frustration and dismay. I could sense the tangible and radiating pain and suffering she was going through, thinking of her loved on. There was nothing I could do, so I decided to numb my senses with another glass of vodka.