The sauce is getting spicy in frozen Saigon. The problem with having predictable habits is that other people can predict them. Unless I’m going to the opera - and you can usually read about that here - you can pretty much take a guess where I’m going to be on any particular evening in Lviv. Plus I am, I suppose, quite distinctive in appearance. Looking older than many volunteers, relatively well turned out, usually wearing something quasi-military in appearance, but more refined than a lot of volunteers and in relatively good shape for my age. I usually sit on my own; I always sit at the bar; everyone knows my name and what I like to drink (it’s not a Martini shaken not stirred, but a vodka and a beer served separately, the former in a shot glass; everyone who knows me knows that this is what I always drink in a bar, including all the bar staff of Mano’s Bar who always have this curious combination waiting for me by the time I take my usual seat). However I am also very perceptive, even if predictable, so I spot the unusual. And the unusual last night was extremely patient.
As I walked in, she was already there. She is younger than me but older than she looks. She was exceptionally beautiful. She was on her own - well, we’ll come to that. She was with a man she didn’t know and exchanged no conversation with. She was siting obliquely opposite where I always sit, so as to be in my line of sight. She was watching me, but in such a way carefully so as not to make eye contact. She had no friends. She is a loner, like me. And she was watching and waiting, watching and waiting.
The evening wore on. The usual cast of crazy characters wondered in and out. A——- came and went with his girlfriend, backwards and forwards, and the usual table of relatively subdued international community volunteers filed in at the due moment and sat at the back. I decided to keep things relatively calm last night, having suffered a particularly gruelling day. The lady who was watching me through the corner of her eye was drinking but moderately: a noticeable event in Ukraine in which people tend either to drink heavily or not at all: one of the qualities of Ukrainian anarcho-authoritarian culture in which you either do exactly what you are supposed to or you go crazy, a quality that makes Ukrainians hilariously bipolar in their cultural attitudes. Usually on Saturdays in Lviv everyone goes crazy and drinks themselves as close to death as they can achieve, and this was the usual mayhem that was unfolding around me. But not with the case of the lady we will come to know as M——-. She remained cool, controlled and in command of her situation, with her solitary, sullen male companion, throughout the evening.
I had never seen her there before, whereas I am familiar at least with the faces of all the hoary alcoholics who strike that venue on a Saturday evening, so this markedly attractive and distinctive lady, replete with tattoos up her arms and a punk rock style, sat effectively alone all evening.
She had to make her move eventually, but she was waiting for me to have had enough to drink to be receptive to a cold call approach, and perhaps she was waiting for the dutch courage on her part to take effect too. Remember: she arrived before me. At about 10pm she approached me directly, something very unusual in Ukrainian culture, and spoke to me in flawless English. She started on the subject of her education, which is intriguing if only because it’s seldom an opening line in any conversation in Ukraine. People usually start talks with conversation about family, friends and hobbies; seldom with talk of education of careers. People define their own identities in a different way from those in the West, something a lot of westerners who travel to Ukraine seldom understand.
She has a background in philology, she told me. She has spent her life studying the history of the English language. That’s why, she can speak various different dialects of English, including from around the British Isles, the United States and even India, better than I can. She presented me with a monologue about British medieval history and how it shaped the language. She didn’t bother asking me what I was doing here, which is the opening line of 99% of Ukrainians who come to speak to a foreigner: what on earth are you doing in our country at war? Perhaps the reason why she didn’t open her approach with this line is because she already knew. However what she was interested in are my travel plans. Yes I am going to Kharkiv, I told her in response to her prompting. And it turns out that she would like to come with me. Now Kharkiv is under relentless Russian missile attacks at the moment, and Kharkiv isn’t the most dangerous place I’ll be going on my next adventure outside Lviv, as I explained to her. Nonetheless she thinks nothing of a 15-hour train ride with a total stranger, plus living through a disaster zone in which body armour and tight security precautions are necessary. She wants to come with me and she knows nothing about me at all - at least not from me.
While we were chatting, the man approached. She dismissed him with a quick and casual flick of the wrist, understanding in her perceptive eyes that she was charming me. And so we agreed to meet again today, amidst frankly a busy schedule, in order to plan our trip to Kharkiv together tomorrow. The agreement having been sealed, she promptly exited the bar, goon in tow, and left me to contemplate the situation in my rainy walk home back in the snow. Now I might be Walter Mitty; this might be shitty; but alluring mysteries are frequently risky and quite likely frisky in the melting, pelting, heating, beating, frozen Saigon.