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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #372

Yesterday afternoon turned out to be a delightful booze up with “no sex” K——, as we traipsed round central from Odessa from one bar to the other in the icy mist and soaked up the final remnants of the holiday atmosphere by essentially going on a pub crawl. NSK, as I shall now call her, is a true character with lots of opinions and enormous fun, bursting to escape some of the more conservative constraints of Ukrainian society and I am there to help her. I have bought her a series of “Bond girl” outfits which she wears with joy and abandon in different restaurants and bars and even onto the night train we eventually ended up taking to Lviv: something the miserable attendants on the train didn’t think much of at all. We smoked ourselves silly on these giant shisha pipes so popular in southern Ukraine and drank beers and cocktails and ate great piles on mussels covered in garlic sauce: in short: the sorts of normal funny things that you do when you’re on vacation. The places we went were mostly empty or full of sullen people, and that might be the season or it might be the war or it might just be south Ukraine more generally. Anyway none of this miserabilism was going to deter us from enjoying ourselves and NSK looked genuinely relieved to be have a break from it all. As an internally displaced person from Luhansk living in Lviv, I get the sense that she is terribly bored of things to do and tries to fill her time with nonsense. She needs good work, a vocation, something to fill her time, and in the mean time she seems to be becoming my semi-personal assistant and general wonder woman who keeps me happy when I’m having a bad day. So that’s good enough for me.

We hurtled back to the railway station where we had left our bags, half-cut and in a bit of a mess but these things are forgivable when you’re on holiday. The luggage office where we’d left our belongings was going on a “technical break” at 7pm so we had to run panting to the desk to get our bags before the crooked shack closed its doors. There are no proper signs in Odessa railway station so we almost boarded the train to Kharkiv. Eventually we found our lumpy old first class carriage in the dark with NSK still in her Bond girl dress and clambered on board amidst demands for identity documents and general unpleasantness that accompanies Ukrainian long-distance train rides at night. NSK had promised all manner of quasi-fornicatory activities once we were on the train and locked in out compartment but ultimately we both fell asleep immediately upon boarding and I woke up at 3.30am wondering where the complimentary coffee was and listening to the relentless rattle of the railway carriages slicing through some unknown tundra out in the darkness in central Ukraine. At the time of writing the train is due to arrive in two and a half hours which is nothing by Ukrainian standards, but the staff are asleep and I feel like we’re on a ghost trip. NSK has buried her head deep in the pillows, trying to sleep but it’s hopeless in light of all the rattles and bangs, even in first class so I have elected to give myself a writing class by typing out these words.

Odessa is one of the most unusual tourist destinations one could conceive of. It is too cold to lie on the beach for the greater part of the year; much of the city centre is a Soviet monstrosity; the remainder is faux Habsburg designs from the nineteenth century that have been permitted to decay during decades of Soviet and then post-independence misrule; there is a giant ugly industrialised port in the centre; there isn’t much to do; half the city is cordoned off by the military with barbed wire and guard posts; there is a huge giant ugly port slap bang in the centre of the city criss-crossed with ugly railroads and concrete truck lanes; and all the bars and restaurants are completely empty. Nevertheless in wartime Ukraine Odessa has struck a note of defiance as a party capital without the parties, the place where people are going to go to enjoy themselves notwithstanding the war and people are here, in their own miserablist Ukrainian way, to enjoy themselves. It has a fun vibe, although in truth the atmosphere on the streets is deathly silent compared to the frozen Saigon which in truth is far more kicking a party town than Odessa. The sheer concentration of young people and foreigners all mixed up in a small space allows for that.

The constant Russian missile attacks make spending any time in Odessa slightly unnerving, and you realise that the city is being bombarded most nights by the Russians as a means of trying to strike the port which I noticed is basically functional as the only way for goods in bulk to get in our out of Ukraine even if the shipping numbers are substantially diminished. Obviously the Russians want to impose a stranglehold over the economy in Ukraine and closing Odessa port completely is a key principle in doing that. We ought to guarantee the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea more robustly with our western navies, in participation and cooperation of course with Turkey, our NATO ally. Turkey seeks to maintain a role as a key mediator in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and although she has seen her own Black Sea grain deal torn up by Russia brazenly before her, she keeps talks going with Moscow and has not sanctioned Russia, presumably because she takes the view that somebody will have to end up talking to Russia eventually and that party might well be Turkey, with one foot in the east and one in the West in the NATO alliance. So Turkey says she won’t let NATO military vessels into the Black Sea but I wonder whether she would in fact yield on this if pushed.

Anyway these musings do nothing to detract from my wonderful afternoon with my Bond girl, and I hope NSK and I will have the chance to return to return to the quirky, unusual, strangely empty party town of Odessa together soon, perhaps when the city isn’t immersed in a murky freezing mist.


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