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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #288

To be frank with you I’m feeling rather rough. I stepped off the train this morning having had a net total of four hours’ sleep during an 18 hour trip. The door of the compartment kept banging and thudding all night and the train was constantly screeching to a halt in lots of silly little places in the middle of the night so sleeping any significant period was impossible. I asked the carriage attendants for three cups of coffee to try to get myself going when I woke up for the last time at 4.30am this morning which they happily obliged, overcharging me double for each and every cup. That’s fine; at least they brought the sugar. I ploughed on with various pieces of work, perched on my laptop over the small table, trying not to wake my companion opposite but by this time she was brazenly snoring like a hog. The internet faded in and out, causing my laptop to shriek and my mobile phone to blink furiously. Nevertheless the lady opposite slept through it all. I find it extraordinary that people undertake these fiendishly long journeys so frequently but they do, and actually if I am honest I do too. You just get used to them.

The train finally lurched into Lviv railway station and as I stepped off my de luxe class carriage I scrambled over a beggar in a pile of vomit. A series of thoroughly unsavoury unofficial taxi drivers had arrived at the door of my carriage - the most expensive one on the train - shouting in Russian and offering mysterious journeys to places like Warsaw. I think these people prey upon refugees fleeing the fighting in the south and the east which is why they are waiting for trains from places like Kherson. The Police don’t seem to do anything about them but I suppose it can be very disorientating if you are fleeing fighting and you have never been to Lviv before and suddenly you are hit in the proverbial face with all these men shouting and yelling the minute you get off the train and before you’re even off the platform. Ukrainian railway stations ought to introduce ticket barriers or something. Actually there are a lot of things they ought to introduce but none of it seems to happen. I dread to think how much a taxi from Lviv to Warsaw costs with a Russian taxi driver but these things are terribly exploitative. Your average refugee from Kherson may not speak more than a smattering of Ukrainian, if that, and then they are bustled away by these harassing folk simply because they speak the Russian language. Lviv can be an alienating shock if you are from the East and you’ve never been here before.

It’s always important to recall how little most Ukrainians know the interior of their own country. Although they may have flown off round the world on vacations at the slightest whiff of money - Ukrainians love foreign travel - it is seldom that they have ever wanted to or be forced to travel around their own country. Now there is war, suddenly they are finding that they have to do this and they are using these long-distance trains and buses and it’s all pretty unpleasant.

The hilariously rickety tram was waiting for me to take me into town with my gigantic military rucksack with all the body armour and everything else it was full of that I never needed but you never know. That’s the thing about body armour or expensive medical kits. You’ll probably never need them and you certainly hope that you’ll never need them. But they’re expensive and they’re cumbersome to carry around and you have to take them anyway because war is a law of averages and by taking - and wearing - this stuff you reduce the averages in your favour. Everybody in wartime thinks they are invulnerable until suddenly they are not. Obviously I thought I was invulnerable in going to Kherson for a city break but maybe I didn’t. I did understand that the whole situation was getting dire when my entire street had been bombed out overnight and I did leave. I didn’t wear body armour all the time when I should have done but I won’t make that mistake again.

The tram dropped me off at the wrong stop again - a common occurrence in Lviv where the traffic is too bad in the city centre for many of the designated public transport stops to function effectively - and I was somehow reassured to see a Friday morning drunk approach me and try to stumble into me muttering something incoherently about my giving him some money. This is the sort of reassuring event that makes me feel at home in Lviv because it is a semblance of Ukrainian normality that in the East and the South, where there is active war every day, you no longer see. People are too frightened to go drinking vodka on a Friday morning which is considered more of a leisure time activity.

I have the ballet tonight, but as I write these words I stink from the train and the war and I am in desperate need of a shower and a shave and a fresh pair of clothes. The sensible side of me would tell me to take the day off and rest, and ready myself for a cultural evening tonight. But like the Friday morning vodka drinker, I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to go straight into the military kitchen where I work and retail them with crazy stories of body armour and Kherson. Somehow that feels more appropriate in the whacky, windy, wonky, wounded, whirly, whiny frozen Saigon.


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