I woke up this morning and everything is totally normal. I’m in a normal Polish city in a normal European country and everything is as it should be. Only it’s not and I’m lying to myself. I’ve become profoundly odd, and spending the last three and something months in Ukraine has made me that way. I am an incontrovertible convert to the cause, and it’s going to take a long time to adjust if I can return at all to some normal civilian life. Speaking personally, I doubt it’s possible. Ukraine has taken an irreversible toll on my psyche, and I love it.
Everything in Poland seems to me rather bland. In Ukraine they are anarchistic crazy lunatics of people, a land in which everything is strange and odd and here in Kraków I keep listening out for the air raid sirens and I can’t hear them. Where are they? What’s wrong? There’s all this old architecture and something to do with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Second Polish Republic and last night I went out drinking myself to death in the Jewish district of Kazimierz and I got thoroughly drunk. But still it was nothing like Lviv and I miss the frozen Saigon and I want to go back. I feel like a wild man and it’s going to take some readjustment to my three-piece suit and my shiny leather shoes and my cufflinks and my tie and all of this and all of that. I don’t know whether I can do it. Maybe Ukraine has left a permanent mark upon my soul. Maybe I need a glass of vodka for breakfast. I don’t know. Maybe I’m mad. I don’t know. But Ukraine has marked me.
I’m so uncivilised. I walk into the corridor of my apartment building with no clothes on. Why bother? It’s a war zone and decent sartorial standards don’t apply. Only I’m not in a war zone anymore, and I can’t yet quite get used to it. Now everything is normal, and I don’t know what my place is. I’ve become reduced to the animals, and I don’t yet know how to dig myself out of this pit. I have become an unrelenting ruffian, devoid of all civilised values. I am reduced to the beasts. This is what the constant jaw-jaw or war-war in Ukraine has done to me.
Ukraine is just a couple of hundred kilometres away, but it is a world away in terms of the misery and suffering of the people and the impact that war has had upon the collective psyche. It’s a dichotomy I’m still coming to terms with.
Everyone I meet here is Ukrainian. Last night I went out with a colleague from Ukraine. The apartment building I’m staying in is staffed by Ukrainians. The girl who cut my hair today - an exercise long overdue - was Ukrainian. She smiled coyly at me as it was obvious I had just returned from her home country, with my roguish demeanour and my hearty laughter as she accidentally sprayed the hair gel up the mirror. She hadn’t had much practice at cutting hair and it took ages but she was so keen to get it right that I gave her a healthy tip, even though I was sitting there for two hours in the end waiting for various types and clippers and scissors. I’m sure she liked me but maybe I’m just a vain old man.
I went to some place in some old square with all these old buildings you’ve probably seen in the adverts, and I had some breakfast in some restaurant with some sort of coffee and some sort of waiter who spoke some sort of English. It’s all taking remarkable efforts on my part to accept readjustment. Kraków itself displays its own curious schizophrenia, because on the one hand it’s all genteel old Polish ladies taking tea and historical cathedrals and symbols of Polish historical grandiosity and on the other hand there are pro-Ukrainian street demonstrations beneath the ornate baroque arches and then there are gangs of British street hoodlums on cheap stag weekends with RyanAir, apparently on a mission to drink as much beer and vodka as they can in the shortest possible period of time and act thoroughly objectionably to everybody. Then there’s me, wondering through the Christmas market wondering what on earth I am doing and slowly reacclimatising to normality.
What shall I do with the rest of the day? Explore some old churches? I saw enough of those in Lviv. Join the stag weekend vomit parties? That doesn’t appeal at all. I suppose I could sit here for the rest of the day writing and ranting about Ukraine and watching talking heads on Youtube with all their crazy theories, or I could read the newspaper and try to work out what else is going on in the world aside from this wretched war in Ukraine. Or maybe what I should really do is lie down and get some rest. As the adrenalin levels slowly drop in my body, I realise an oncoming wave of fatigue. It’s been over 100 days of all this crazy action in Ukraine, and by any standards that’s a lot. Maybe I should just lounge around and watch a bad movie. Tramping the streets in this exotic outdoor museum in a surprisingly mild winter is quite agreeable really and if I hadn’t just exited military theatre I would probably find it all tantalising and enjoyable. As things are, it seems somehow strangely faded.
Just to demonstrate to you that I’m still feeling quite unusual, I went out on a route march to the military shop in Kraków on the outskirts of town today. It was all guns and hammers and knives and body armour and all this crazy stuff so I felt right at home as the store attendant explained the latest sort of grenade or something. It turns out they like this sort of thing in Poland almost as much as they do in Ukraine. The only difference is, there isn’t a war on in Poland - yet. Maybe the Poles are getting ready, in case Russia wins in Ukraine. But we’re not going to let them do that, are we? We’ve got something called NATO, and it’s working, and we’re keeping the Russians at bay.