It’s slish-slush-slish in sloshy Saigon. This is a warmer than usual winter, and today we were basking in sunny skies and glorious highs of -7 degrees. My new colleague has just arrived from the Balearic Islands where he lives. Is he insane? What’s he doing coming here when he lives there? He asked where’s the open-air pool, as he was stacking large glass bottles that probably once contained gherkins and I was tramping with a giant bag of carrot scraps destined for the pigs, themselves destined to be chopped up into giant plastic bags awaiting some further inglorious fate of being turned into cubed chunks of meat to be eaten by soldiers. The kitchen where I work was teaming today, and the atmosphere was superlative in every way. We’re all bouncing along amidst the melting snow drifts and the iced up water tanks, and laughing and joking about all sorts of nonsense. In fact the main room in the kitchen was so heaving you could hardly get in and it was standing room only. People were peeling garlic perched on refrigerators in the corridor, and various shouts and screams of horror or delight (it was hard to tell which was which) could be heard coming from all quarters of the building in an eclectic mixture of English and Ukrainian as we all become semi-bilingual. “Ya hochoo sheh carrots” is the sort of silly damn-fool thing people say to one-another, mangling Ukrainian grammar and adding in English words where they don’t know the Ukrainian word for the same thing. But somehow we all keep smiling.
Some elderly ladies peel garlic furtively in the corner. They stare at me as though I’m a KGB villain out of some 1970’s James Bond movie. I think they’re suspicious that I’m wearing a military camouflage jacket, which is the sort of thing unpleasant Russian sinister secret police types wear and it freaks them out. So I greet them with a broad smile and shout “Dobrey Den everyone!”, in the style of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson whenever he visits Lviv and who remains much loved for his enthusiastic support for Ukraine and her cause, notwithstanding his ignominy back home. This breaks the ice and the suspicious old ladies smile back warmly at me and go back to their garlic or their beets or whatever they might be doing.
The whole thing feels like a glorious Kibbutz or some sort of idealistic version of a collective farm, in which we are all working towards the greater good and generous spirits guide us all onwards together. It’s a truly special environment, full of eccentric and good-natured people all with the common aim of keeping the Ukrainian soldiers alive and well and ensuring that Ukraine is still independent and free.
Now a giant placard for the Ukraine Development Trust, in glorious blue and yellow, adorns the wall as you enter the building, and everyone seems to think this is very excellent whatever it means. It’s one of those examples of moral support which the Ukrainians really appreciate and shows that we are Emissaries of the West, showing our enthusiasm and backing for the Ukrainians and their independence and their culture and their nationhood both through symbolism, using western legal structures to help bring attention and much-needed financing to their cause, and showing that we will not let them down in this their darkest hour of need. We won’t do that because we too understand the nightmare of modern Russia and her brutal totalitarian instincts and aggressive foreign policy expansionism and we realise that the Ukrainians are fighting this war on our behalf to keep the Russian government at bay. I don’t hate Russian people and I don’t blame them for this war but I do loathe their system of government that has enabled a ruthless sociopathic secret policeman to rise to the top and rule the world’s largest country by murdering people arbitrarily. This is obviously a danger to world peace and that’s why the Ukrainians must and do have our unflinching and unreserved support.
This evening I’m going to the opera. That girl from Mano’s Bar the other night who promised to go with me wearing a blue and yellow dress, blue and yellow stilettos and a blue and yellow sash of roses round her neck has flaked on me; she completely disappeared after taking my number. Probably she was half-cut on a bottle of vodka; it’s a phenomenon I’ve observed a great deal in Ukraine but I forgive her nonetheless. I mention my dilemma to K—— in the Kitchen where I work and she promises me a long line of girls in blue and yellow dresses who want to go the opera with me. It seems I’ve found myself an ad hoc marriage agent. I asked my landlady: “for me a girl needs only two qualities: she likes the opera and she likes Mano’s Bar. Everything else is flexible.” She replied drily, “you should look for her in Mano’s Bar”. My response was: “Or I should look for her in the opera house!”. Tonight I’m going to try both. I’ll be in Mano’s Bar at about 8.15pm, in the event you are pretty girl wearing a blue and yellow dress with the aforementioned accoutrements and you’d like to meet a nice middle-ageing handsome man in dire need of a new and non-military wardrobe; you’re welcome to join me. Or if the opera turns out to be totally naff and I walk out in the interval, I might even be there earlier.
As I walked through the mountains of melting slushy snow on my way home, tramping through my local neighbourhood, it gradually dawned on me that I’m living in Lviv’s Red Light District. Everything is a sexy massage parlour or a shop selling sexy toys. I’d never realised that before; these details had all been hidden behind elaborate historical awnings of Lviv’s miraculously beautiful architecture and of course mountains and mountains of densely compacted snow. It seems all the excitements take place just behind the Opera House. By the way, it seems the Russians have been trying to buy up Lviv Opera House tickets en masse using bots, to make operatic performances empty; therefore the opera house website now has a host of new security features to stop bots from buying tickets. Only the Russians could think of something so bizarre as writing software to buy opera tickets for non-existent customers, as some form of cultural warfare.
I suggest the Ukrainians have a parallel opera house website for Russian bot traffic, that just takes their money and sells them seats for non-existent performances. The Russians are sometimes boringly bizarre and nonsensically ingenious; we should take advantage of that and think round in circles to take advantage of them. But not too much; or we might actually start thinking like them.