As I write these words I am completely shell-shocked. I stood around for a couple of hours in that semi-derelict bus depot opposite the railway station in Lviv in the freezing weather this morning, before my wonderful clean bus showed up to whisk me off to Kraków in Poland. We spent a couple of hours at the border. I was asked “where have you been in Ukraine?”. I gave totally the wrong answer: “several places: Kharkiv, Sloviansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaïv”. So I was straight off for the special search involving sniffer dogs looking for guns and ammunition and all the rest. I told the border guard on duty that I wasn’t in the military and it was plain he didn’t believe me. It didn’t matter. They let me go. After the bumpy tired old roads leading from frozen Saigon, I suddenly found myself on a modern European motorway in Poland. I hadn’t seen one of those for a while. And then all of a sudden, after all these months of nonsense running around different parts of a war zone, the bus unceremoniously dumps you in the middle of a modern shopping mall. And it’s full of all these shops selling things like consumer goods and glasses of beer and designer clothing labels and there’s Christmas music playing and people are smiling and everyone’s going around their business in some completely normal way.
And I am standing there, in the middle of this shopping mall, feeling and no doubt looking completely out of place. I’m wearing a military jacket and carrying a military rucksack. I haven’t cut my hair since I went to the barber next to the place that was hit by the cruise missile with the fragmentation warhead in Kharkiv, so I guess I look rather scruffy and run down. I’m wearing these ridiculous trench boots and I’ll have to ditch those tomorrow. I bought a new Polish SIM card without anything going wrong and it works and there’s no problems and there haven’t been any Russian cyber-attacks here. And as I walk through the Old Town to some strange apartment I seem to have rented amidst the ancient streets and with a view of some historic church or other through my bedroom window, I realise I’ve come back to reality with a bump.
Kraków’s full of pubs and bars and people smiling and friendly. It’s a tourist town, not a war town, and I am totally out of place. Wondering glassy-eyed amongst the shop front windows, I felt I was almost about to cry. All I could do was hum the Ukrainian national anthem and memorise Joe Biden speeches about Ukraine. I got used to listen to horrid and harrowing stories about war and I’d got used to marching up and down the icy streets with a grim sense of determination every day and I’d also forgotten how much normal things cost because in Ukraine all the prices are back to front. Some things like beer and vodka are very cheap and some things like western brand clothes and regular cosmetic items are very expensive. And so now I don’t know how much anything costs anymore. I was virtually paralysed in that shopping mall, rooted to the spot, and I almost burst into tears. I wondered what I had been doing all these months, and how I might re-integrate normally into western society that I have been fighting and struggling for over these long months that actually have gone by like a flash.
I realise I have no idea. I have no idea about anything. I have no idea how much I have eaten into my savings while In Ukraine. I have no idea what everyone has been doing while I have been off in military theatre going army-barmy. I have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world and I have no idea what I think about myself or even who I am anymore. I found myself tramping through the streets of Kraków as though on a military march with a plastic bag with half a bottle of cheap vodka and some stale bread in a plastic bag, munching it for sustenance. And then I realised that Kraków actually has restaurants and shops and bars and all sorts of normal things. I am frozen and stumped.
I realise now something I realised when I first arrived in Zaporizhzhia all those months ago and I met a group of people who had all been there for too long, going crazy in the isolation and intensity of war. After every few months, three or four at maximum, you absolutely need a break. You must force your way out of theatre because the problem with being in theatre is that it’s addictive. It’s very addictive. You spend each day doing some crazy thing like chopping giant vegetables or shouting at someone or other about something or organising some strange tasks like delivering bags of bullets here and there or whatever crazy thing you do each day, and then you spend each evening with more army nutters talking about army nutter things like the latest Russian artillery shell or what have you: things that have nothing to do with real life. And you get addicted to all this stupid stuff and then you have no choice but to force yourself to go “cold turkey”, at least for a while, or you will go mad in the head and you will lose it.
It turns out that the people last night who sent me multiple messages calling me an “asshole” were some people I knew and they were drunk and they thought it was funny! We’ll sort all that out in the New Year. They may well have found it funny and that’s no doubt because they were drunk but the real world goes on even when you’re in a war zone and drunk on the vodka or the adrenalin or a combination of the two.
If nothing else today I learned the meaning of rest and recuperation. As I write these words I am decompressing and I am returning slowly to normal and I feel it and I feel the blood coursing back into my veins and the adrenalin levels falling and I might even get a proper night’s sleep tonight. It will surely help if I head out now to get thoroughly drunk, unimpeded by a curfew, which is exactly what I intend to do with my crazy military jacket and my disarming thousand-yard stare. I’ve no idea where I’m going to go but if you see me in the corner of some dingy Irish pub, looking strange and subdued, be sure to call out: Slava Ukraini! And I promise you I will roar back in patriotic pride, Heroem Slava!