I suppose I can say that today is a good day by relative standards. Tramping against the horizontal high winds with snow blasting against my face past the grim giant Cross adjacent to the railway tracks carrying a freight train one kilometre long full of coal presumably from the Donbas to somewhere or other, fumbling to find my gloves in the -15 celsius temperatures, almost slipping and sliding in my grotty Russian-issue trench boots bought in a dumpy market in Kharkiv some months ago and now starting to have the cheap Russian rubber wear down to the bone, I felt positive about my work in the newly installed military kitchen on the outskirts of Lviv. It’s a positive step up from our prior home, a converted freezing garage in the back of an old school building somewhere near some haunting churches up a hill near a cemetery and a home for abandoned dogs. This place is next to a music school, and while we peel and chop and slice all day we can hear the dull groans of careless teenagers torturing their electric guitars.
Nevertheless the atmosphere was friendly, and everyone was smiling and actually the place was packed. When there aren’t enough foreigners in town to help with the massive culinary effort, the Ukrainian managing staff draft in huge numbers of almost exclusively female voluntary staff to help with the work that needs doing. I have no idea how they do this but they are very effective at it, so today when I arrived there was a huge table of old ladies peeling and chopping and doing all the work the foreigners typically do (when the weather is better and there aren’t Russian bombs raining down on the city which might be putting a few people off). A lady called K—— gave me a huge hug and sat me down tearing up platefuls of mushrooms with a lovely young lady called Y——, whose young daughter, the age of one of my children, ran around the kitchen with a mobile phone and a video game while we got on with the work and taught one-another English and Ukrainian respectively. The environment has the culture of an amiable language exchange class and it’s all very agreeable.
I got pulled into the job of carrying giant crates of spinach from a freezing cold outhouse in the 12 inch solid frost into the relative warmth indoors, apparently because spinach doesn’t like the weather when it gets below -10 or something. I wasn’t entirely sure of the purpose of the exercise but suffice it to say that you can hardly now get inside the door of the building without falling into a giant pile of spinach. At about 4pm some guy from the fields showed a bottle of the most mysterious deep brown liquor that I was assured was home made - as if that was suppose to reassure me of anything except the fact that there was no way I was going to drink it. Y—— seemed very impressed with the fact that I didn’t want to get drunk on free moonshine in the middle of the day, so I guess I earned some brownie points there. Anyway I like this new place where we’re working and it’s all a lot of fun. I hope, if you’re reading this, that you will come and work with us, giving whatever time and resources you can and we will show you joy and appreciation in return for your contribution to Ukraine.
My Ukrainian language skills are getting better. When a lady, lost in the relentless snow, asked me for directions to the supermarket, I was able both to understand what she wanted and to answer her. I don’t really find Ukrainian a very difficult language to pick up, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had experiences of a number of other Slavic languages. It seems to torture most foreigners who come here, but it has rather a melodic tone to it and the grammar isn’t too tricky. Ukrainians adore it when foreigners speak their language; you become a minor hero in a matter of minutes and the typically grim stares of Ukrainians as they go about their wartime labours soon crack into joyous smiles of appreciation.
I stumbled back through the same arctic weather on the way home, getting lost again amidst the blizzards which is becoming pretty routine by now. And then I had a moment of joy. Just round the back of the Opera House, down a side street I never normally take, I found some special shop apparently selling military jackets and I want a new one in snow leopard colours to match with the freezing snow and mud. I didn’t find one of those, but I should have been more observant that there was a mysterious curtain across the windows of the store. I went inside to find a full range of mounted assault rifles, sniper rifles, general purpose machine guns, stick grenades, ammo clips and the other sorts of casual item you might want as accompaniments for a quiet night at the opera. One item particularly caught my eye: a “tactical pen”, which as far as I could tell fires a solid steel dart straight out of the end of the pen at short range into the neck of your opponent. I think it would be a mistake to carry this thing in your pocket, in case it went off by accident.
I didn’t know you could buy these sorts of crazy thing in Lviv, but it turns out that you can. I’m not going to tell you where this unusual shop with its gruff and moody staff are, but I will tell you that it’s right next to what I discovered to be a sex shop cum brothel, another insalubrious institution with curtained windows. Lviv is full of these strange sorts of place and I haven’t yet had the courage to venture into one of them. Selling sex does seem to be a recurrent theme in Lviv, with sex toys and other unusual items available sometimes it seems on virtually every street corner. Maybe this is a legacy of Lviv’s most famous historical resident, Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, but it always makes me smile. It’s just part of the whacky, weird, wonderful and wonky city of Lviv that I have come to love.