Fragments from a War Diary, Part #91
It’s another one of those days when I am feeling distinctly out of place. Strolling through refined central Lviv in my trench boots and my camouflage jacket adorned with a variety of flag patches, I realise that the other people in the street aren’t dressed like this. Lviv is full of civilians, going about their normal business. Everything is totally normal, and I look weird. People are supping coffee, going shopping and getting on the tram. Only I look like I am straight out of the trenches.
I meet one of my new colleagues, who has been kind enough to find me an apartment to rent in Lviv. Am I really going to start living in a war zone? It is a minimum of three months’ commitment. That’s what everyone wants in Lviv, whereas on the front line you rent accommodation in periods of 24 hours (or less). That’s because you might be dead and there’s no point renting anywhere after you’re deceased. Whereas in Lviv these are normal people, who find gunshots and mortar rounds frightening, missiles hurtling into the sides of buildings terrifying and people walking around with assault rifles and surface to air missile launchers strapped to their backs more than a little peculiar.
The apartment is beautiful, right in the centre in an exquisite historical building and opposite what, in peacetime, is one of Lviv’s principal tourist attractions and city centre landmarks. The price is very reasonable by international standards, but very high by the standards of the front line where I have effectively been spending nothing - because there is nothing to buy. In Lviv you can purchase the latest iPhone, designer label brands or pistachio flavoured ice cream. All dreams come true in Lviv. This is a regular city. There are a few derelict corners, to be sure, and a lot of the trams and buses could do with a lick of paint. But this is decay left over from the Soviet period, not war damage. If Lviv could attract significant quantities of foreign investment, it would surely be all-singing and all-dancing. But nobody wants to invest in a war zone.
I am due to start an office job soon, in Lviv. Renting the apartment makes sense, if I am committed to staying here longer than the 90 days that I originally planned. My mind is tossing and turning. I don’t know what to think or what to decide. So I go for a walk. If I am to start an office job, I consider, then I am going to need a suit. So I am going to need a tailor. My colleague sends me off in the direction of Lviv market, where, she assures me, there is a fine tailor who will make whatever suit I require. But I don’t need a suit, she says. It’s not a necessity. Nobody wears suits in Ukraine. It’s a war zone. I scoff. Of course I need a suit. I will be working in an office and in offices people wear suits.
My mind soon drifts as I pace the streets of Lviv’s central market. It has an astonishing array of bric-a-brac for sale as far as the eye can see. A lot of it is ladies’ lingerie. That is big business in Lviv. Then there are the military surplus supplies. I start to look for the shops selling guns, and I suddenly realise that there aren’t any. Lviv isn’t on the front line. You can’t buy guns over the counter and wonder round with them in open carry. This is not Sloviansk. This is normality. Or kind of. It is far enough away from all that crazy stuff that it is a shock to the system and I am not quite sure why I am here.
My colleague has told me she is scared of being attacked by wild dogs. She wants to buy a can of industrial mace spray to keep them all at bay. I suggest she carry a .22 rimfire handgun in the pocket of her coat, to execute dangerous dogs on site. Of course this is a crazy idea, but it is the sort of idea you have when you have been spending too long around soldiers. On the other hand, carrying a giant can of mace spray to ward off dogs is also pretty odd. We laugh as we exchange our absurd suggestions.
I have lost all interest in the suit. Not even the President of Ukraine wears a suit. He appears on the television each evening wearing military fatigues, and that is clearly a precedent for how I ought to dress. Instead of reaching the tailor, I buy myself a padded military camouflage jacket ready to take some more colourful patches. The winter is coming and, if I am to stay here with lots of paperwork and that beautiful old apartment, I need a warm coat with a hood. It is already down to near freezing point at nights. The suits are bundled up somewhere at home, and I can worry about those later, when I get back home - if I ever do.
The problem with buying yet another military jacket is that in my favourite Lviv bar, they are not supposed to serve soldiers alcohol and therefore I have to take off all my various pieces of military paraphernalia before I order myself a beer. I like this bar. It is my kind of place. It is full of the same people every single night, and I am one of them. Mr Putin, if you’re out there and you’re looking to get rid of me, this bar would be a good spot for one of your long range hypersonic cruise missiles to strike. However it’s down some stairs in a secure structure, so you’ll need to use a high explosive warhead to get me. Those cheap fragmentation warheads you’re playing with aren’t going to do the trick. Otherwise I’m just going to keep writing these diaries for as long as I’m here.
Normal people don’t know about the difference between different sorts of warheads attached to missiles. Normal people live in Lviv. The city is an oasis of tranquil civilisation, and I can’t quite decide whether my heart is here; on the front line; or back in the real world outside Ukraine’s borders. In all likelihood, it’s in all three places at once. Ukraine is welcoming, cold, agreeable, frustrating, safe and dangerous, all at once. Living through a war throws up the most unusual and unique experiences and helps you reprioritise everything in your life. War zones rewire your brain.