Abigail Parry, former poet in residence at the National Video Game Arcade, traveled to Ukraine to meet fellow UNESCO Cities of Literature... and write a fascinatingly funny account of her journey East...
So, I am off to Lviv... quite imminently, in fact. I’m on the runway at Gatwick. I’ve been accidentally upgraded to Business Class, and the flight attendant – though just about maintaining a professional demeanour – seems quietly apoplectic about it. He has asked to see my boarding pass three times, and keeps narrowing his eyes at it, thrusting it back into my hand, and stalking off to the galley. He alternates with a second flight attendant, who is beamingly bringing me orange juice and pillows. Finally, resolutely, the first attendant returns to announce that that there has been a mistake, that I have been allocated the wrong seat, and that I will have to move. He does so while looking witheringly at my orange juice.
Ordinarily, I’d be out of the seat like a whippet, in a blowsy flurry of apologies. Yes, quite, sorry, of course, yes, sorry. Sorry. But this is an early flight and I haven’t had a great deal of sleep, and I’m sweating under the layers of extra clothing I’ve saddled myself with. All week, people have been warning me about the subzero temperatures of Ukraine
“Do you think I might… sit here anyway? There’s no one else sitting here.”
I’ve surprised myself, and we both take a moment to consider the question. “Also,” I stumble on, “I’ve never been on this side of the curtain before.” I gesture to the pleated bit of material separating my seat from the identical seats inches behind it. He looks at the curtain, then at me, then strides off to the galley again. I’m left alone with my forbidden juice, thinking about the phrase I’ve just used.
I was born in the 1983, and can remember believing – because it’s a belief I remember revising – that Europe was divided by a literal iron curtain. It’s difficult to think your way back down the mythic convolutions of your early childhood, and more so when the ontological stage is the 1980s, a decade of titanic mirages and bogeymen. I feel confident that my iron curtain sat comfortably alongside the other phantasms of the era. This was a time when we were invited to believe that our cellar – also our designated fallout shelter – would provide adequate protection in the event of a nuclear winter. Our cellar had a wooden door that didn’t meet its surround.
My early impression of Ukraine was indistinguishable from my early impression of the rest of the USSR. If you’d asked me to describe it, I would have given you a snowblown, industrial vista bristling with warheads and failing reactors. Had you asked me about its people, I would likely have described the pixelated figures dancing a gopak when you complete the B-Mode of Tetris.
I mention this now because this early impression has proved oddly persistent. While my perception of Russia evolved in the intervening decades, I learned next to nothing about Ukraine, or what differentiated it from its former Soviet neighbours. It has, in effect, been frozen and arrested in my mind in its mythical state. In the last few years, the country has made international news under the most torrid circumstances: for two protracted and bloody protests-turned-revolutions; for its proverbial corruption; and, most recently, for the ongoing armed conflict in the East. I’ve been aware of these events, but only in the abstract way that one is aware of two strangers at chess on a neighbouring table.
I’m chancing it with this florid display of ignorance, but I’m not alone in it. The night before my flight, I phoned my bank to let them know I’d be using my card abroad. When I mentioned Ukraine, the guy on the line became coy, and said:
“Oh! Oh – can I ask – uh… can I ask – are you going to the frontline?”
No, I told him. It’s a massive country – the second largest in Europe – and the place I’m going is about as far West as you can go without getting into Poland. I found myself saying these things, but had only learned them myself in the preceding days. Later, I’ll relate this story to Polina and Halyna from Kiev, and I’ll expect them to find the question as ridiculous as I did. They won’t. “It can be difficult to get people to come to Ukraine,” one of them will tell me. “Before the war, there was the revolution. Before that… There’s always something.”
The flight attendant returns, bends down to my level, and waggles a finger between us collusively. “Alright. We will have an agreement. You can sit here, and you can have tea and coffee. But –” his waggling finger stops dead and points at my solar plexus – “you don’t get an in-flight meal.”
“I won’t tell anyone, I assure him. This probably isn’t necessary, but the conversation seems to demand a conspiratorial flourish. He nods. I nod. We have an agreement. I have orange juice.”
The flight’s delayed, so my one-hour layover in Warsaw is reduced to just ten minutes. I’m not a particularly experienced flyer, and I have no idea if this is a serious state of affairs or not. I tear through the airport in a sweaty, over-layered panic, brandishing my passport wildly in case anyone wants to look at it. No one seems to be particularly interested in looking at it. Having run down the wrong tube to the wrong airplane, and knocked uselessly on the locked door, I (quite literally) run into another English-speaking passenger, Anna. Anna knows exactly where she is going, and is not running, or sweating. Anna is a small woman in her fifties, with a puffa, and an accent from somewhere near to Birmingham. Anna is now my hero.
We swap stories on the bus out to the plane. Anna’s parents are Ukrainian, and she is visiting family in Lviv, though she has never been to the city before. I should go to the Opera, if I get a chance, where there is a famous Hall of Mirrors. Anna’s husband, who loathes opera, went back to the Lviv Opera House three nights in a row. She helps me out with my pronunciation of hryvnia – the currency of Ukraine – and dyakuyu, thank you. I’ll need both of these at the other end, as Gatwick would not sell me any hryvnia. Possibly because I was so inept at pronouncing it.
At the other end, while we wait for our bags to come around the carousel, I test a few more on her: budʹ laska. Dobroho ranku. Dobryy vechir. She’s patient with my clunky efforts, and gives them back to me lovely and lilting. Anna’s staying somewhere close to my hotel, and I feel filled with goodwill and gratitude. I’m being picked up from the airport, I find myself saying. I’m sure we can give you a lift, if you like.
When I’ve travelled in the past, it’s been the hitchhiking, cabin-luggage-only kind of travel, rather than the kind where someone’s holding a placard with your name on it, and now that I’ve said this, an internal critic slopes out of the shadows, folds her arms, and hikes an eyebrow at this ridiculous display of largesse. Shh, now. Someone is picking me up from the airport.
No one is there to pick me up at the airport. It occurs to me that I have no money, no Ukrainian, no address or schedule for the festival, and no contact details for the organisers. Happily, Anna seems keen to set me on the right track. She helps me buy some hryvnia, finds a taxi, and suggests we share it. She guffaws ferociously at the price we’re offered. The driver wishes to be paid in euros, and is punching numbers into a Cassio calculator. After some merciless haggling, several more derisive snorts, and some impressive head-shaking from both parties, we’re nudged towards a nearby Volvo.
Anna’s knowledge of the commonalities and idiosyncrasies of the Slavic languages is formidable. In fact, her knowledge of just about every language is formidable, together with her knowledge of European history, architecture, and literature. While I privately concoct theories about what her career might be, she talks me through Lviv’s different names throughout history: Polish Lwow, Russian L’vov, German Lemberg. The name means City of Lions. She coaches me on the proper pronunciation – the L is slightly swallowed – and fills me in on the nuances of Ukrainian, which, she says, is softer and more sibilant than the other languages in the family. She recalls how, as a child, she learned embroidery and egg-blowing, both traditional Ukrainian crafts. The latter is a precursor to egg-painting, and the painted eggs – pysanka – are given as gifts and kept as good luck charms. Anna still has eggs blown by her mother, as well as several she has blown herself. She was, she tells, me, a champion egg-blower. She gives me a reading list, including the three most famous Ukrainian poets, Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka. As we approach the city centre, she points out buildings in the Habsburg style, and talks about the city’s Austro-Hungarian history, about changing borders and displacement of people. She tells me that Ukraine was known, historically, as the breadbasket of Europe, thanks to its rich black soil. And she tells me that the Ukrainian flag – a strip of blue over a strip of bright yellow – represents blue sky over wheat fields. I spend this journey steamrollering my mental image of Ukraine as snowblown, grey and industrial.
We reach my hotel, and find ourselves at that juncture where one would conventionally swap emails addresses. But I’m now completely infatuated with my companion, and the banks of snow we’ve been hurtling past, and the colossal wooden doors of the George, and the thought of emails seems oddly gauche. So I tell her she can find me at my hotel, should she wish to. Shh, now. I’ve read plenty of novels where they say this sort of thing.
The George Hotel is relic from the beginning of the last century, and is the building for which the term faded grandeur might have been invented. The entrance hall is all marble and neo-Renaissance plunging and swooping. A pair of broad staircases with amaranthine balusters rise and meet overhead. There are multi-plate mirrors, and an abundance of stucco, and gilt. Later I’ll explore gloomy, boulevard-like corridors with threadbare carpets, and doors that open onto mullioned glass pyramids, and a suite that Balzac stayed in.
There’s a girl with a pink-and-orange rockabilly quiff and horn-rimmed spectacles standing in front of the reception desk. I give my name to the man behind the desk, and say that I have a reservation, though a sly concern has crept in that I do not have a reservation at all, that no one is expecting me, and that there has been some kind of mix-up that is only hilarious anecdotally. When I say my name, the girl with the quiff spins around to me with a grin and an Aha! She introduces herself as Yulya, and explains that she’s been looking for me. There has indeed been some kind of mix-up, but it’s not as disastrous as the one my anxiety-mill has been gristing.
Yulya suggests we head into town for a coffee. Lviv is famous for its coffee, and holds an annual coffee festival to underscore this fact. We sit in a coffeeshop off the Market Square, surrounded by gleaming machinery with funnels, bright green coffee plants, and hessian sacks stamped with Nicaragua. The shelves are lined with coffee cups, and books about coffee, and books about liking coffee, and bags of coffee. A large glowing disc on the wall reads Svit Kavy. World of coffee. I chuck back a strong, sweet mug of the stuff while Yulya helps herself from a communal carafe in the centre of the table. I’ve never seen coffee served this way before, and when I look round, I see that every table has an identical carafe at the centre. Yulya is a fantastic raconteuese, and I relax as I listen to her talk. She tells me about her career as a tour guide, and a horror story about losing a guest in a foreign country. She tells me how much she would like to visit London, and about the difficulty (and expense) of obtaining a visa. We talk about poetry, and publishing, and languages, and the city, and the history of electric light. Yulya is an authority on all of these things.
After an hour or so, Olga dashes in. Olga is of the festival’s organsiers. She is quick, smiling, pixieish, and delighted that I’ve been found. She talks fast, and pushes several sheaves of paper into my hands, all in the festival’s red, white and black livery. Each is covered densely-packed Cyrillic, and I flip them round hopefully looking for an English translation. Or Spanish. Or Catalan. Or anything I can make sense of. No dice.
Olga produces a red felt tip, and quickly annotates one of my leaflets with a hectic series of circles, underscores and exclamation marks. This is your bit – and you’re coming to this – it would be good if you were here – here you give your presentation – we’ve got you a ticket for this! Here’s your ticket – oh – this is the welcoming ceremony – so you get up, give a quick speech –
Yes, she smiles. You know – she turns her gloved hands into crab claws and makes them chatter – I’m from Nottingham, I’m really pleased to be here, blah blah, blah, sit back down.
Right-oh. And – a presentation? A horrible thought occurs to me.
“Should I have… slides?”
Olga makes a face. She thinks that the delegate from Krakow, Anna, has slides, but I shouldn’t worry about it. I instantly start worrying about it. I want to ask more about this presentation, which sounds very ominous indeed, but Olga’s already on her way, a dervish of smiles and quickstep.
I stare at the programme stupidly. With Yulya’s help, I manage to locate my own name, identifiable only by a repeated character in the correct place. I’ve never seen my name in a different alphabet before. In some occult and poorly-thought-through way, I think I believed I’d recognise it anywhere; now I feel weirdly alienated, as if I’ve just walked in on it cheating on me. It’s in there carousing with a bunch of characters I don’t know, getting up to who-knows-what semantic shenanigans, no doubt running up a bar bill I’ll have to settle later. It is blithely telling all the others that I’d be delighted to give a presentation. Also, I’ve got stacks of slides. Really good ones. Just between you and me, my slides make Krakow’s slides look rubbish.
I make some painstaking annotations about where I am to be, and when, and what is expected of me. While I’m doing this, Anna herself appears. I can tell she has a kick-ass presentation, because she is very blasé about it when I ask. She definitely has slides. Schoolyard lore dictates that Anna and I should now be nemeses, but as Anna is instantly likeable, I’m not up to it. I am now very, very tired, and it appears I have a presentation and a winsome speech to write, so I say goodnight and leave.
Back in my hotel room, I try on the phrase back in my hotel room, and saunter round the room in it. The room is enormous, and I can saunter quite far. I try it out as a character in a GK Chesterton story, then as a character in an MR James story. I pillage every antiquarian yarn I can get my mitts on. In one version I have a microfiche, in another a phial of arsenic. I am waiting variously for my lover, my assassin, and my nemesis. I’m secretly a baddie. I am never going to get away with it. I do get away with it. Or do I? I spook myself, and have to turn on the light to the cavernous, white-marbled bathroom.
I’m also hit by a wave of tiredness so powerful it sits me down in chair. I write – and then score out – several dull variations of Good morning, my name is… I add an exclamation mark. I remove it, filled with self-loathing. I’m finding it impossible to elaborate on the platitudes that Olga made her hands say in the coffeeshop.
You can write it in the morning, pipes up the cheery, optimistic voice that always, always does this. Go on, you’ll be bright as a button in the morning. Morning you is cracking at this sort of stuff. This tinkerbell ought to be euthanised, but I’ve been seduced before, and I’m seduced now. The bed is the size of my bedroom in London, and I burrow down through the layers of covers, grateful, bewildered, shattered.
Fast forward three and a half hours. Very little has changed, but the room has curdled with mounting anxiety. I have been staring at the inside of my eyelids for three and a half hours. I have read (and snarled at) three different articles on how to get to sleep. The bed, which is – as we’ve previously established – the size of a small room, is covered, bafflingly, with not one but two duvets, both of which are slightly shorter and slightly narrower than a person. For the last two hours, meltwater has been dripping from the roof onto the tin surround of the balcony. It’s impressively loud, and maddeningly syncopated. About two hours back, I remembered the three or four cups of coffee I chucked back in Svit Kavy. I am an exhausted brain sitting at the top of a grotesquely overstimulated nervous system. I am a zombie.
To be clear: I’m not complaining. I’m caught in an odd limbo between insomniac horror and prodigious gratitude. It really doesn’t matter if the two duvets have to be configured very precisely to cover all of me, and I can’t move without disturbing this arrangement, because I’m in a fantastically opulent dream-hotel in an unexplored city, and tomorrow I’ll be getting to know something of its literary and cultural heritage. I have only been here a few hours, and already I have met several warm, sincere people with fascinating stories. I have a bathroom big enough to conduct a small opera in. But something, something must be done about the timpani out on the balcony. There’s an umbrella stand over by the door, and now I liberate one of the massive black umbrellas and tug at the stiff locks to the double doors onto the balcony.
The George Hotel is fabulously beautiful, and I would recommend staying there to anyone. It’s also huge, and old, and I imagine the upkeep is a nightmare. I don’t know what I step in when I step out onto the balcony, but it’s slimy, and sends me skidding into a sort of half-arsed splits. I have no clothes on, and a mean wind is up, so that I have to hang on to the umbrella very tightly to stop it being pulled from my hands. I am nothing at all like Mary Poppins, and the umbrella is clearly not up to the task of keeping the water off the balcony. You see, Parry? This is why people do not come and pick you up from the airport.
I finally solve the problem by laying the room’s dozen or so towels over the edge of the balcony. I also resolve never, ever to look at the floor of the balcony in daylight. Whatever I stepped in was Ancient Mariner-grade slime, and deep enough to squeeze up though my toe
“The ideas you have at three in the morning are one of two extremes: they are brilliant, or they are cataclysmically awful. You are gifted the thing, but not the wisdom to tell which kind it is. I’ve got an idea right now. Come on then, Google. As Roy Orbison says: we got a lotta, lotta, lotta, lotta work to do.”
Breakfast at the George Hotel is served in a low-lit, colonnaded room that is a little like being inside the skull of something massive and cartilaginous. A projector screen is showing a silent, black-and-white history of the hotel, and someone is playing Hallelujah on the piano. Waiters slip between the tables carrying gleaming tureens of tea, or appear silently at your elbow with a crumb scraper. Breakfast consists of three long tables, on which are spread cold meats, hot stews, an abundance of pickled vegetables, baskets of still-warm boiled eggs, cheeses, pastries, cakes, chocolates, seeds and sausages. I can hear several different languages, but none of them English. The value of the hryvnia has more than halved since the 2014 Euromaidan, and the breakfasters here range from the beautiful elderly gentleman with a cane who has clearly dressed for breakfast, to the twenty-somethings in strappy tops and slippers on the table next to me. You can either pretend that you are a Twenty-First Century time-traveller who is part of an oversubscribed package deal to the Victorian era, or that you are among a minority of Victorian time-travellers visiting a present day that has tried to make you feel at home by building an authentic Victorian biosphere.
I try and fit everything on my plate at once, then feel compelled to hide myself on a table behind one of the columns. Some shadowy point of etiquette demands that I position myself as far as possible from the man with the cane: I feel sure that the sight of my architectural feat of cheese and beetroot will offend his dignity. I also have a hard-boiled egg in each pocket, which makes me feel weirdly furtive. I unpeel these while looking over the piece of paper on which I’ve written – in huge, childish handwriting – my speech for this morning.
Today’s conference is going to be conducted in Ukrainian, and it looks as though I’ll be the only delegate from a non-Slavic language-speaking country. I’m a guest here. At three in the morning, it became blindingly obvious that I should to write my speech in Ukrainian. Directly after this revelation, I spent an hour and a half hunkered over my phone, tapping words and phrases into a Ukrainian dictionary, and jamming the tiny microphone icon. I transcribed the results phonetically, and this is what I now have spread in front of me, with exclamation marks over the particularly tricky bits. I am eyeing it with the same suspicion with which I would eye anything accomplished at half four the night before. I do not yet know whether this was a really good idea, or a really bad idea.
After breakfast, I’m met by Polina and Veronika, who will be taking me to the conference. Polina talks fast, wears a pair of Doctor Martens just like mine, and has a manner which, acrobatically, manages to be a mix of nonchalance and anxiety. If the two seem irreconcilable, imagine someone jigging up and down on the spot, while raising an eyebrow expertly. Polina is doing both of these things now, while repeatedly checking her phone and wondering aloud about the taxi. She simultaneously reminds me of the White Rabbit and the rabbit from The Magic Roundabout. Veronika is the quieter of the two, and wears a large pair of round spectacles that make her look a little owlish.
Polina will later confess that both she and Veronika were nervous about speaking English to me; they reasoned that, as a writer, I would be painfully sensitive to its misuse. To put this in context, Polina counts ouroboros and sociopathic in her vocabulary. I have a folded sheet of scrawled variations on thank you in my back pocket.
Anna joins us, and the taxi arrives, to Polina’s manifest relief. It’s another geriatric Volvo, and as it swerves and thumps over the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town, I ask if I can practise my speech on my guides. Polina alternately shrugs her approval, or corrects my pronunciation by phonic increments I cannot detect. But as she isn’t frowning at me in horror or perplexity, I’m going to take this as a green light.
The Palats kul'tury is an imposing, pre-Soviet building that once functioned as the social club for the workers on the nearby tramlines. In the 1930s it was known as the Red Fortress – in part because of its red-brick exterior, and in part because of the political inclination of the workers who built and paid for it. It was built to accommodate lectures and libraries, and an international conference in defence of culture was held here within three years of its opening. Local memory also holds that it’s the site of the loudest social dance the area has ever known. Polina now shepherds us inside, and into to a long, dark lecture hall, in which people are beginning to assemble.
The chamber fills, and the lights go down. There are introductory speeches. There are welcome speeches. There is a long – very long – prizegiving ceremony in which people from city are called up and awarded framed certificates. I’m going to hazard a guess that this presentation is for contributions to culture, but I’m afraid this is a guess only, as Polina’s rolling commentary – while valuable – is a little off-piste:
“This is a typical Ukrainian housewife. Look at the earrings. Typical.” “This is a typical Ukrainian librarian.” “This is a typical Ukrainian man after forty. They get married, and they get fat. It’s like Beauty and the Beast. Beauty, then the Beast.”
A lady approaches the stage with an orange meandros running around her black tunic.
“Ah, so this is a typical Ukranian pattern. After the revolution, everyone got really into wearing stuff like this.”
I have to do a small cognitive double-take here, because I’m unused to the word revolution being used in the context of recent history. For the English, it’s a history-book word. That, or it smacks of pop affectation. It’s Marc Bolan’s glam histrionics. It’s Lennon sounding very far away.
I’m also in need of some clarification, because Ukraine has had two revolutions in recent history. Both began as large-scale protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, and both focussed on the machinations of sometime President Viktor Yanukovych. The surface commonality means that, viewed in a nutshell, one looks very like the sequel to the other, complete with return of the villain, and his definitive dispatching. Or flight to Russia, in this case.
“I’m sorry,” I ask. “Do you mean the revolution three years ago?”
I think Polina catches my tone, but not my meaning, because she shrugs and says:
“Yeah, everyone still talks about it, because it was a big deal.”
After the presentations, we watch a short animated film featuring of Basia, Lviv’s UNESCOmascot. Basia is a girl whose hair is a ever-shifting tangle made up of the city’s skyline in silhouette, and who speaks in a series of squeals, by turns gleeful or disgruntled. The burden of the film appears to be that Basia is a voracious reader, who is not averse to small anarchic acts to feed her habit. An authoritarian figure in the form of a statue treats her with contempt at one point. Happily, however, Basia emerges as the moral victor. Next, we watch some interpretive dance. I’m not very good at interpreting dance, but once again the thrust of it appears to be the plight of the reader in the face of adversity. There is lots of stamping, and synchronised walking in a line like automata, and at one point the hero – marked by her white dress – is singled out, mournful, in the spotlight. She is holding a book.
Over the next few days I will learn that Ukrainian spectacles tend to be very, very long: this opening ceremony has gone on for several hours without an interval. On an unrelated note, foreign travel seems to ignite in me a perverse desire to inhabit British stereotypes – the less pernicious ones, at any rate. Now these two things, together that glittery sort of fatigue that comes from nerves and lack of sleep, converge as a very pressing need for a cup of tea.
The speech, incidentally, was well received. My faltering efforts were punctuated by indulgent ripples of applause, and afterwards, Olga came up to me, grinning, to throw her arms around me. Later, the lady with the orange meandros will grab me in the bathrooms and call me a hero. And at the end of the weekend, Sofiya will tell me that she cried. I’ll feel very humbled by these things. Vindicated, three-o-clock lightbulb, vindicated.
Over the course of the afternoon, I participate in a panel called What it is to live in City of Literature, and attend another chaired by Literature in Action, a Kiev-based group that advocates on behalf of writers. As predicted, Anna aces the first panel, with a devastating PowerPoint presentation, though I do manage a rousing – albeit slideless – speech about Nottingham’s status as a REBEL CITY. REBEL CITY is one of the bullet-pointed phrases in capital letters on the handy crib sheet I’ve been given by Nottingham’s City of Literature team. I talk about Spokesman Books, and Dawn of the Unread, and Five Leaves Bookshop. I get carried away by my own fervour. I pull up when I catch myself trying to use the word socialist. This does not mean the same thing in Ukraine.
At the end of the second panel, we are asked to fill in a form of suggestions for Literature in Action. One of the questions invites us to name people who might come and speak to the group, and I’m asked to suggest some figures from the UK. I frown at it for a while, so Polina helpfully says “Oh, you know, anyone. Like… Stephen Fry.”
There’s something slightly off about her off-handedness, so I hike an eyebrow. Polina shrugs. Is he popular here, then? “Well –” She pauses, and then, with her expert insouciance, says “I mean, I adore him. But I don’t know about anyone else.” Later, I’ll learn that Polina really does adore Stephen Fry, and, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I’ll find this indescribably touching. When we’ve all had a few drinks, she and the others will excitedly ask me if I’ve ever met Stephen Fry. Never in my life will I be more sorry not to have met Stephen Fry. Although, I’ll say, he and I did contribute pieces to the same art exhibition once.
“Do you realise,” Polina will say to the expectant group, “we are talking to someone who has breathed the same air as Stephen Fry.”
I fill out a long column of names, together with helpful epithets. It’s mostly made up of authors, together with a handful of Nottingham heroes. Tony Simpson: editor, publisher and activist. James Walker: literary champion and powerhouse. And, under Polina’s watchful eye, I write Stephen Fry: popular polymath.
After the workshop, I join an informal conversation taking place between some of the attendees. I want to thank the speaker – who is also called Polina – but I also have lots of questions. The conversation has, at this point, turned to the difficulty of persuading people that culture is worth paying for. We get around this problem in the UK by directing funds from the National Lottery into the arts: a form of voluntary tax for a sector that tends to attract public ire. I ask if Ukraine has a National Lottery: it does. I ask if the revenue is used to support the arts: it isn’t.
“So - where does the money go?”
The circle around me laugh dryly, or shrug, or shrug and laugh.
“This is Ukraine,” says someone. “Where does it ever go?”
I’m running on fumes at this stage, and I’m relieved that the only thing left in my schedule for the day is a glass-painting workshop. Glass-painting is, I think, all my shorted circuits can manage. But when Polina tracks me down, I learn that plans have changed, and that Anna and I have been asked to dinner with someone from the mayor’s office. She seems more agitated than usual. She has never been to dinner with someone from the mayor’s office before.
Anna, Polina, Veronika and I spend the next hour or so standing in the gloomy marble stairwell of the Palats, with Polina alternately talking into her phone and jigging up and down on the spot. When she is at her most exasperated, she makes a muted screaming sound – like a cartoon character with steam coming out of her ears – and stares wildly at Veronika, who smiles back at her reassuringly. I take several photographs while we wait, and in each of them Polina is either clutching her phone, talking into it, or frowning at it. We are presided over by several black and white headshots, all of whom, Veronika tells me, belong to people who have been martyrs to literature. I spot Lorca, and Salman Rushdie; Veronika points out the face of Georgiy Gongadze, the journalist kidnapped and murdered in 2000. Gongadze’s journal, Ukrayinska Pravda, investigated and published reports on corruption among Ukrainian politicians. It still does.
The taxi, when it finally arrives, tears across town with a combination of hazardous speed and poor suspension I’m coming to think of as typically Lvivian. As we swing around the Opera house, I remark that I would like to go, if I have the chance. Polina makes a face. “You’d better check to see if there’s anything good on,” she says. Once again, I do a miniature double take. She’s said this is the same way I might dismiss the latest cinema listings.
Over the course of the weekend, I’ll become accustomed to feeling like a philistine. While we waited for the taxi, Veronika asked me what I thought of the Soviet buildings in Pidzamche. And over black bread and dumplings and beer, while I try to string plausible sentences together, she and Polina will talk fluently and fascinatingly about psychology, history, ethnography and linguistics. In English. After supper, they will take me into nearby Armenian chapel, and give me a detailed tour of the fabulous wall-paintings within. “Although,” Polina will say, gesturing to the figure proffering the head of John the Baptist, “no one can tell me why his feet are on fire.”
From the chapel, Polina and Veronika will drop Anna and me off at the Lviv Philharmonic, where we have complimentary tickets for the annual jazz festival. The concert hall is beautiful, and the music very good indeed, but by this stage all my higher functions will be shutting down, and I’ll catch myself woozing in and out with the music. I’ll feel overfilled in every way – with information, warmth, gratitude and relief. Two hours into the concert, I’ll say goodnight for Anna and make my way home. And after this – as I’m fumbling with my key in the door – I’ll remember that I’m due to host a children’s poetry workshop in the morning.
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