I must admit that I’m starting to become a little bit Ukrainian. Heading out to the Lviv Opera House last night, I found that the sub-zero temperatures were just a little too much for me so to warm myself up and to brace myself for the night’s cold, so I popped back home to have a quick shot of vodka to warm myself before stepping back out into the street. Now this is typically Ukrainian behaviour, and as long as I don’t find myself doing this at 9 O’Clock in the morning it should be alright. In any event the ballet went swimmingly. It was an exceptional performance of La fille mal gardée, one of the oldest and most distinguished ballets in the operatic repertoire, and it was obvious that the orchestra knew it exceptionally well. The performance was dazzling, but I couldn’t help feeling that the lead orchestral conductor, usually on top form, had something else on his mind last night. He began by shuffling onto the stage before the lights had dimmed, and seemed to be bickering with the lead violinist both before the performance started (just before the National Anthem began) and then again during the interval. Perhaps he’d had a row with his wife that morning. Whatever the problem, the orchestra more or less continued impeccably as though he wasn’t there, and the performers exhibited the most exquisite pirouettes and coordinated perfectly in delectable costumes amidst extraordinary stage management and background dramatic effects. To be able to pull all this off in the middle of a war zone is nothing short of extraordinary.
I almost wasn’t able to show you the photograph of the ballet that accompanies this essay, because a Soviet-era babushka-like lady snapped at me loudly in the middle of the performance when I was trying to take a photograph. And I was sitting on the front row; she was far more disruptive in her interruption of my discreet attempt at a photograph than the act of taking a photograph herself. All I could think of to penalise her was to say to her “do svedanya” (the Russian for “Goodbye”) on the way out; the whole event struck me as peculiarly Stalinist, particularly as lots of people take photographs in there. I mean, why not. It’s beautiful.
I am planning to travel to Kramatorsk, a city on the front line, all being well, on Monday. It’s another gruelling 20 hours but by now I know how to survive these sorts of trip. As usual, I’ve bought multiple tickets on the same train, one in “de luxe” class and two in second class. I may have a travelling companion, you see, who says she wants to come. I met her in Mano’s Bar and I asked her specifically, “are you drunk?” She replied “no”. So I asked “do you want me to book the ticket now?”. And she said “yes”. I told her she needed body armour, and she said that is no problem. I can lend her a set; I got a two-for-one deal on lead breastplates when I bought mine. All she needs is a good helmet. This morning she’s disappeared, so perhaps she’s thinking again. Or maybe she’ll pop up and agree to the trip. This is a war zone, and everything is chaotic and, as I keep saying, you need to be flexible.
There is another problem. My preferred hotel in Kramatorsk is full on the days I want to visit. This is a serious inconvenience. I asked them for a recommendation, and they suggested a place that only rents rooms if they come with a pre-paid prostitute. This seems to me rather unsatisfactory, and as my friend pointed out to me it has the potential to be extremely unhygienic. They have two room rates: one for a room with an ugly girl, and one for a room with a pretty girl. I suppose it’s market economics. Anyway I suppose I could stay there and just ask the girl to go away, or just to sit and have dinner with me or something; but really the whole arrangement strikes me as highly unsatisfactory not least because this lady could rob me; she probably doesn’t speak a word of English; and I’ll be busy there, staying alive and visiting places in the vicinity. I don’t have time for all this sort of damned nonsense.
So as I write these words I am looking for a third hotel in Kramatorsk - not the one that appears to be on a map of Kramatorsk but is actually up in a civilised ski resort in the Carpathian Mountains. I don’t think those people want to hear from me again; I bothered them a few weeks ago on my last attempted trip to Kramatorsk. Needless to say, contacting a hotel in Kramatorsk is exceptionally difficult and requires language skills; nobody seems to have email addresses or use instant messaging up there. No proper records are kept of anything on these front line hotels; you pay in cash, you are not registered anywhere, and your visit simply didn’t take place. That’s what it’s like, travelling on the front line: everything’s a bit rough.
I also have to work out the local bus and marshrutka (minibus) services, because that’s how everyone gets round in the Kramatorsk region. I’ve been given a hint that the place to visit right now is Sloviansk, where the greater majority of the International Legion are based. Apparently it’s rather hot there right now - or, as the Ukrainians would say, “loud”. The last time I went there it was intensely boring and I ended up doing little except walking around the municipal park which had some pleasant farmyard animals but otherwise was absolutely ghastly. I wonder what’s going on there right now. And I wonder about the backroad to Bakhmut. I wonder whether people are still able to cross between free and occupied Ukraine in the Bakhmut region, as I understand they once were.
These are all interesting questions for journalists, and now I’m the Editor-in-Chief of the Lviv Herald, www.lvivherald.com, it’s my duty and responsibility to go and check these things out and report to the world, to the best I can, on what’s going on. If I can find a proper hotel, a project to which I must now return.