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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #365

Last night I didn’t have to tramp very far round the centre of Mykolaïv to find the black dress I had promised to buy K——; it turned out there is a shop selling such things on the top floor of a shopping mall adjacent to my hotel. Nonetheless I knew that; I know this city like the back of my hand from the pre-war years. So after finding a suitable dress - and I hope she likes it or I might have to buy her a second! - my friend and I strolled into town for dinner. We weren’t going to sit amongst the rancid dumplings cafe downstairs in this unusual place where we’re staying in lopsided rooms with no internet above a greasy spoon cafe. Rather we wondered into town and I was pleasantly surprised that the Mykolaïv I knew and loved is gradually coming back to life. We went to one of the better restaurants in town, and I devoured a huge pizza after a hungry day’s driving while my friend bit into an enormous steak. We were overwhelmed and the restaurant was full and the staff had that glum and moody southern Ukrainian demeanour to them but they did speak English. So quite a few things have changed in Mykolaïv - English is now widely spoken by young people - and that never used to be the case.

Then we went to a bar that amazingly stayed open until 11pm, openly, on the high street, an hour after the official curfew time of 10pm. It was. Heaving with pretty young things, some of whom were wearing those little black dresses. Everything felt normal and even cheery. Some young men and women were drinking (heavily) by the bar; people were smoking shisha pipes; music was playing. In the back room there was some atrocious Ukrainian karaoke that I did not participate in. Again the staff spoke decent English and the environment was merry. I also noticed that people, young people, were spending money again: this was not the cheapest place in town and it was fairly full. So slowly but surely, life is breathing back into this eccentric southern Ukrainian city and my heart is warmed to see such things.

We forget now the horrendous stories of the Battle of Mykolaïv in the early months of the war in which large parts of the city were without water, Russian paratroopers occupied parts of the city as far west as the zoo (they didn’t shoot the animals, mercifully) and the population fled in their tens of thousands or even more. Now Mykolaïv has a new life. A number of young people have returned, and others have made their lives in the city from elsewhere in occupied or damaged Ukraine, such as in the Kherson region to the east. Furthermore it seems they have found jobs and commerce is starting again. The shops have customers and there is a semblance of normality returning to southern Ukraine.

These things give me cause for optimism. There was a time when southern Ukraine was the unknown black hole of the country; nobody knew anything about these cities and fewer people still actually travelled to them. Travel between the cities was difficult, on narrow unlit highways with dirty old buses. Now there is a sense that Mykolaïv is having a renaissance. Having withstood the horrors of war, it is blossoming again, rising once more from the ashes like the Phoenix. Ever more nightlife and hospitality venues are opening up and the shopping centres are full of people. There is still ample poor quality accommodation in the city and efforts need to be made to improve that and to develop the infrastructure. But the roads that were damaged during the Russian assault upon the city have been repaved, as have the pavements. The city is starting to sparkle just a little bit more.

I am reluctant to leave it this morning, after my no doubt revolting breakfast that I am about to endure with my colleague in the room downstairs. I am particularly annoyed with this hotel because last night when I came home they had locked the place up and left me to stand out in the street in the cold. It took multiple phone calls and thumping on windows to arouse anyone, and then I just found the night porter lounging on a sofa; he hadn’t been bothered to get up although he must have heard me. I had needed to get the hotel proprietor out of bed. This is the sort of sloppy thing you still find in Ukraine, unfortunately; modern hotel standards are particularly absent, and indeed most people don’t stay in hotels at all when they travel round Ukraine: they stay in apartments. A handful of old Soviet era hotels have been purchased by German and Austrian hotel chains and turned into tolerable three- and four-star accommodation but they are the exception not the rule.

So this morning, after my greasy breakfast, I will take a final walk round Mykolaïv before I leave the city for good, for now, and take a few relaxing days in Odessa. Who knows what I will find there. Maybe I’ll fall in love with a new Odessa, stripped of Russian tourists and suddenly full of English speakers in Irish pubs which iw what I hear has happened to it. Maybe I will be enchanted by its historic opera house or maybe I will be pulled into teaching English, a threat that awaits me tonight after the ballet for which I have a ticket. I am a little sad to leave Mykolaïv, but plans must move on. Last night I spoke to a military official who confirmed that it is highly inadvisable to enter Kherson right now, although he wouldn’t say why - but he wouldn’t demur either when I told him my theory that the Russians are going to attempt another occupation of the city. However he has agreed to set me up with some soldiers to work with the Lviv Herald, and my colleague and I are going up to the Bakhmut region in a couple of weeks. So there is positive news this morning, and I feel a renewed sense of purpose in what I am doing.


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