My memories of that first evening in Lviv are bathed in a golden glow. My dear friend and clown colleague Diane Thornton, who has extensive experience working in conflict zones as a theatre practitioner, had told me to expect the unexpected. And it’s true that I hadn’t expected to find Lviv so unspeakably beautiful. I catch myself looking for signs of war around me, on the faces of people passing by. The streets are busy - bustling even - but the atmosphere feels like the bit of a funeral wake where everyone has done their crying and now have to tidy up the old sandwiches and plates before they go back home. Sadness and resolve permeates everything, on a backdrop of stunning renaissance architecture and a vibrant cafe culture.
We pass advertising boards that praise Ukrainian soldiers for their compassion and solidarity. The occasional government building is surrounded by sandbags and defences that I recognise from Saving Private Ryan. Occasionally we pass Ukrainian men wearing army fatigues who must be on leave from the front line. I hesitate to call them soldiers - they look just like my friends back home, wearing the wrong clothes.
When we arrive at our hotel, there is a photocopied paper sign on the wall saying ‘Shelter’ with an arrow pointing to the basement. Nobody points this out to us, or explains the protocol. In fact we miss our first air raid siren, absorbed in writing and listening to music. Igor receives a message saying ‘are you afraid?’. He replies with a long message about finding Lviv beautiful and welcoming. ‘No, Igor - because of the siren’. ‘Oh’.
When we hear the next one - a sound at once totally familiar from films and intensely anxiety-inducing - we go downstairs. The ‘Shelter’ is the hotel basement. Next to the entrance there is a storage room filled with old paint cans and turpentine. There are no lights, no water, and no other people.
I’d been following the news closely before we left, so I knew that the risk of Lviv being bombed were relatively slim. I’d also read that locals had long stopped responding to the sirens - in a choice between functioning on a daily basis and diving into a shelter because you believe you will die, this makes total sense. Cognitive dissonance reigns.
In the morning when I ask the guy at reception if he ever goes to the shelter he laughs, ‘if a rocket hits us here we are dead - that shelter won't save you’. Gotcha.
I am a therapeutic clown and performer. Writing here is part of my wider practice and maybe some of my thoughts will trigger some thoughts of your own and I hope that helps.