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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #371

Taking a tourist tour through downtown Odessa on a freezing misty Tuesday morning is somewhat less than thrilling. The streets are empty and barbed wire clings around every building. The cold weather gets up your nostrils and fills your clothes and you wonder why you are doing this. In my case it was to go back to see all the classical sites of Odessa that I remember from times past, to see what they look like now. The opera house is as glorious as ever, decked out in gold even through the freezing mist; the imitation Habsburg buildings thrown up on the insistence of the Russian Tsars at the end of the nineteenth century are also impressive in a way, I suppose. But the charm of the place all seems lost in the mists of war as well as the icy weather. The world-famous Potemkin stairs, that once marked a glorious promenade down to the waterfront from the Old Town, are now cordoned off with barbed wire and extremely difficult to reach. You have to go round a corner and down some jagged steps, past a few military installations and the entrance to Odessa Port which is brimming with stern soldiers. Aggressive hastily erected street signs tell you that some road or other is cordoned off and use of it is strictly prohibited. You can only see the stairs looking upwards from the bottom, and the funicular railway is inoperative.

Perhaps most depressingly, the waterfront area that the Potemkin stairs previously lead to is now some military-industrial zone, in which there are cranes and shipping containers and railway tracks and not a drop of water in sight to be seen. So now the Potemkin stairs lead nowhere in either direction. The large Old Town square at the top of the stairs is indefinitely blocked off, while the bottom is a bunch of industrial garbage. The sad remains of an Irish pub with all its windows boarded up nestle into the side of a concrete monstrosity that forms part of the militarised port buildings. None of the former seafront charm of Odessa is left anymore, amidst the chaos of war. I wonder whether it will ever return to how it used to be, or it will forever remain a grimy industrial wasteland. I notice the remains of the Hotel Odessa, formerly a formidable five star structure on the waterfront at the end of the Potemkin stairs, now with severe structural damage as the result of several Russian cruise missiles. I see the grain silos with holes in them. The area is a war zone, and it’s just ten minutes downhill from a beautiful historical city centre.

I tramped back up the hill to check on my sweet K——, who was waiting patiently for me smoking her electronic cigarette on a bench outside my apartment. She had survived her overnight experience locked in a bathroom amidst air raid sirens and explosion sounds, and she had wondered over to see me in the morning with profuse apologies, a beaming smile, dressed up in some beautiful clothes I had bought her, and determined to make me breakfast. As I write these words she is making me coffee and she has just telephoned the hospital in Lviv that provides liposuction. Apparently they are ringing her back. So. I am for liposuction., I suppose I can live with this. But it’s no substitute, I tell myself, for drinking less beer.

Nevertheless K—— is one of those easy-going people who is no hassle, no drama, no complications, just good old-fashioned nice and honest and decent and these people mean a lot in times of war. She tells me she is so happy that I have given her the opportunity to come here, and that I have shown generosity and kindness to her. And it has been a pleasure to be able to do that for so nice a person.

People are like shadows of whispers, vaguely visible in the interminable mania of ongoing life as everyone interacts with everyone else endlessly and with their own short-term interests in mind. When you find one of those whispers that moves without trace, and you catch a glimpse of its shadow, hang onto it, because these are the most important people in life. With nourishment and cherishing they will deliver thrice what you may have invested in them. K—— is one of those people who will add value to my life no matter in what direction I see it going in the future. From unusual and inauspicious beginnings - a fumbled trip to the opera and a chaotic “no sex” spur-of-the-moment trip to a freezing gloomy beach resort under relentless daily attack from Russian missiles, comes a special person and I already feel myself falling in love.

I wonder what will happen with the rest of the day. We have almost eight hours until our train, and Odessa looks unrelentingly bleak in every direction in this freezing fog in which the city has been immersed. Maybe we will wait a while in each other’s company, walk somewhere thinking of the same music, or pickle our collective brains in the corner of some bar, talking nonsense about sex and drugs and rock and roll. Whatever we do, it will be relaxing and funny, and it’s the last day of my admittedly very unusual vacation from the buzzing excitement of frozen Saigon. I’m still staring at my body armour, wondering why I do it all and what all this interest and excitement in war is about; but drifting through the day with a fellow soulmate almost makes me forget all about it. Vladimir Putin, do your worst: there’s a little corner of happiness, stretching from London to Luhansk, that you have joined up through your wickedness, and there’s nothing you can do to take that away. So, I thought I’d never say this, but thank you Mr Putin. You have inadvertently contributed something to my private life.


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