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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #268

There’s no doubt it’s a bit quirky living in frozen Saigon. As I was working today, chopping and peeling uncooked and boiled carrots, I noticed that the rules as to whether you was them are strangely back to front. The uncooked ones must be thoroughly scrubbed, whereas the cooked carrots, brown as mud and thick with dirt, get peeled without being washed. I have no cognisance of the genesis of this rule; I just got on with my duties. It could have been worse: as I passed to go to the lavatory, I saw my good friend and colleague E———- stirring something in a giant steel churn. It looked like a cross between a pile of murky faeces and a liquidised compote of slugs; but in fact it turned out to be thick honey jammed in the bottom of an old-fashioned milk container. I had no idea what he was doing but his casual remark to me was “there are some bad jobs here” and he certainly had one of them today. I also spent a substantial part of my working hours lifting huge bags of garbage to the bins but I suppose it’s good for the physique and it means I don’t have to go to the gym today. (As though I ever go.)

Aside from that, we spent the day in a glorious collection of American, Irish, Scottish and Ukrainian sing-songs as dozens of us worked around the table, an eclectic mix of Ukrainians and international people from all round the world, and each and every song was thoroughly out of tune. At times it felt like a rugby scrum in there, as we all jostled for space with our various culinary duties. Nevertheless it remained good natured virtually to a fault, and I learned today that our manager actually speaks some English. She was wonderfully welcoming to the new volunteers, even my new friend D—— who mysteriously dislocated his fingers ostensibly out on a frozen bridge in Kraków during a drinking session with a British soldier before coming to Lviv but the whole story sounds highly suspicious to me. I fear it has more to do with a red-headed Ukrainian lady called T—— who lives somewhere or other in a warm corner of Europe but he wasn’t letting on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However he had, we discovered, found Mano’s Bar on the very first night he arrived in frozen Saigon which is quite a feat. He said he just walked towards the place where he could hear lots of drunk people shouting and then he stumbled in and was accosted by an amorous lady called S———- which had already happened to the rest of us that evening. So it seems that he’s going to fit in just perfectly. The various carrots he was peeling today, he was very fond of pointing out, looked like different shapes of genitals. All the elderly Ukrainian ladies in the room found this hilarious and we dissolved in laughter.

The weather is not exactly warm - that would be an overstatement - but it has risen to -2 and it’s stopped snowing at least for now and somebody has swept the main streets of snow at last. So I’ve decided I’m going to try to change the way I dress to look a little bit less like a military nutter. It’s off with the Russian trench boots from the grimy market in Kharkiv, out with the big puffy jacket with “SAS” written on it and in khaki green, and on with some more normal black running shoes. I’m still a study in black, because black clothes are least likely to get stained with beetroot juice and other horrors while working in a military kitchen. But I like to think that I am starting to look marginally more respectable.

There’s a dinner tonight for a dearly beloved colleague, L——-, who is leaving tomorrow. As usual, our group of friends and colleagues want to go to this very specific vegan restaurant that I don’t mind occasionally but really I’m a carnivore. Some damned fool has engaged in internet graffiti (a regrettably common event these days) and given it the description “Gay Restaurant”, as though this was an alternative to “Italian”, “Lebanese” or “Turkish”; and has listed the food options on Google as “Anal”, “Handjob” and “Blowjob”. If this weren’t a war zone this sort of raucous military humour would be frowned up or offence might be taken - or, at the very least, the restaurant proprietors might change the restaurant description on Google back to something normal. But in the middle of downtown frozen Saigon we all seem to find it hilariously funny and when you have Kinzhal hypersonic missiles flying in from Russian air launches thousands of kilometres away of a nightly basis these things just don’t seem to matter. You get everything in perspective. These are just silly jokes. The restaurant isn’t “gay” at all (whatever a gay restaurant might entail); it’s just a regular restaurant full of regular people and nobody cares what it says on Google.

Alas I probably can’t make it to dinner tonight, because I’m meeting my friend who is in town from Kharkiv. She’s a wonderful young lady who I just got to know because of her fantastic photography that she was kind enough to share with me while I was on my travels across the front line. She is the lady that the regular reader of these diaries may recall was from Saltivka, the northern suburb of Kharkiv that the Russians mindlessly shelled in preparation for their ultimately abortive attempt to seize the city of Kharkiv, causing untold destruction, suffering, horror and trauma to the civilian population of what used to be Ukraine’s second city. I saw all that destruction for myself face to face and we’re meeting up to discuss her extraordinary photography and to catch up on how life is going now in Kharkiv. Unfortunately I can’t remember her name. Her username on one of these daft messaging Apps is “Sexy Patriot”; mine is “Ukraine Development Trust”. With a bit of luck she won’t be able to remember my name either and we will sink a few beers together in Mano’s Bar avoiding the mutually embarrassing problem of not having the slightest idea what each other’s names are.

Like so many things in a war zone, it just doesn’t matter. You find fun amidst the horror whenever you can, and you seize each moment for the joy you can get. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go. I’m working on a new project, which is a “Lonely Planet” style travel guide for travelling up and down the front line. This is strictly for the adventure tourist, you understand.


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