Lviv, January 2009
No Ukrainian apartment is complete without an eccentricity or two. The clean, stylish place on vulytsya Fedorova in Lviv, which Ana and I had rented for two days in January, was no exception. It played its first couple of tricks on us even before we had unpacked our suitcases.
There was no hot water when we arrived after a night spent in a stuffy train carriage, so I freshened up in the en suite shower pod by pouring water from a long-since-boiled kettle over my head from a tin saucepan. As I dried myself I realised that the pan had only been half-clean: I had stepped into the bathroom smelling of tea and blankets and emerged reeking of mackerel.
I soon cheered up. The living room was a warm collection of contradictions: gorgeous landscape paintings of Lviv province hang from the walls in cheap frames; the cupboards are stocked with run-of-the-mill tea and expensive mugs; a humble grey television set is pointed at a luxurious black leather sofa. The building’s entrance – a chipped ceramic tile floor, dusty blue letterboxes, an echoey wooden staircase – is blissfully rustic. The courtyard is guarded by chilled-out pigeons.
After a stressful year working in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, it was the rustic side of Lviv that I wanted to experience. Colleagues had mentioned its tasty food and bright buildings, as well as the European atmosphere that hints at its proximity to Poland.
It was a beautiful winter day. A sprinkling of snow sat on top of the town’s streets, and a watery sun hung in the sky. The temperature was ten degrees below zero; as we walked towards the Theatre of Opera and Ballet in the centre of town, the freezing air pinched our cheeks and tickled our lungs. Having bickered over the best way to see all the town’s sights while leafing through the pamphlet of events that our landlady had left for us, we agreed not to stray far from any of the cosy cafes on Svobody Avenue. That way we could keep our noses warm, our stomachs full, and meander at a pace befitting a provincial town during the New Year’s holidays.
On one square, Ploshcha Rynok, there is an outside market, which was busy even in the bitter cold. On all of its four sides there are buildings with pretty baroque façades, and a Russian Orthodox Church sits in one corner, its golden dome wrapped in snow. Stalls offer woodcrafts, fur valenki boots and oil paintings. The scene would make a fine painting itself.
In Ukrainian it is Lviv, a name I associate with the nationalist Stepan Bandera and his fight in the twentieth century to oppose Russian culture in this part of the country. The Russian version is Lvov, a word that reminds that it was once – despite Bandera and many others’ struggle – one of the westernmost tips of the Soviet Union. It is Lwow to the Poles and Lemberg to Austrians – every nation that has ever wanted Lviv for its empire has left a name behind
The mood in present day Lviv is timelessly European: shops are stocked with homemade jams; ladies in fur coats gossip in the queue for bread or stamps; a rickety tram totters from square to square on its way to the train station. There is no Russian brusqueness among its people, and street names – vulytsya Krakivska, vulytsya Serbska – tip a wink to kindred spirits further west, although our speaking Russian was never met with hostility. I only spoke Ukrainian once, an unimpressive stab at ordering a plate of pasta that drew a sympathetic smile from the waitress.
In a park near Ivan Franko University, children push sleds up a hill and then whizz down the snowy slope at impressive speed. One boy misses my shinbone by inches: I puff my cheeks in relief as I exhale, sending a cloud of frozen breath into the air.
After dark we went back to the apartment on vulytsya Fedorova and brought the feeling back to our frozen feet with a bottle of vodka and Valery Meladze music videos. It hadn’t been a spectacular day, but Lviv’s charming streets had made an impression on me.
Lviv photographs: Lviv photo set.