Here at Hotel Reikartz Medievale in Old Lviv, you can hang a cute notice on your door handle:
This serves a dual function: alerting the Ukrainian people both to the fact that you do not wish to be interrupted and that you are writing your blog in the bath.
This morning I have plenty to think about and a little time to report on what happened yesterday since I don’t get a call before 10.45 today.
At 9 o’clock yesterday, Kateryna, my minder, Dep Ed of Old Lion Publishing and mother of two, arrived panting and all aglow, the traffic having caused her to have to sprint to whisk me from the hotel to the tv studio. We arrived mid-programme and so were sucked into it in medias res by two very attractive young women and their loud, fast-talking male side-kick.
We batted about Qs and As which focused at first on my infant work about a dead cat in a box and mine host’s illustration of same on a whiteboard. I was then challenged to create a story concerning a panda with a sugary sports’-drink habit.
It was a family programme.
There followed a whistle-stop tour of churches, starting with the oldest,
moving on through the glitteriest to the most sombre – the Armenian church which, though ravaged by the Soviet Army after the revolution, remains darkly impressive, especially with the lone figure of the priest kneeling before the altar singing the morning service to the lady in the shop in that swooping way that Jewish cantors have: it can’t fail to bring a lump to the most heathen of throats.
Down through the narrow street, past a courtyard where toys come to die,
past the once royal palace to the new Palace of Arts and Culture. The joint is HEAVING with children in fancy dress , hundreds of them in the yard enjoying a dance-routine performed by 9 year-old schoolgirls armed with brooms doing a version of Jailhouse Rock kitch enough to rival the King’s himself in the flick of that name.
Inside, you can’t move for princesses and folk-heroes but somehow I manage a trawl of the bookstalls.
This has the usual, slightly lowering effect on me that all bookfairs have: you may be getting the star treatment with radio and tv presenters poking batteries of mikes under your nose,
but all these thousands of books restore a sense of reality.
Our presentation on stage involves me, the translator of Little Wolf into Ukrainian and the illustrator of the cover; Marjana, the boss; a bloke dressed up us the Old Lion of her logo; my translator, Kateryna and a packed audience of kids and teachers. Only the wardrobe is missing, I hear you cry, or you could do the musical right there. The kids pile in and are eventually installed two to a seat. Cheerfully they sing the Lion-song, admit that they much prefer playing on computers to reading and bombard us with literary questions: How old are you? Do you like Lviv? What is your best book wot you av rit?, etc. One little chap comes up on stage and explains why he hates reading. Why? “I’m too lazy.” But if you had a copy of The Book of Badness, would you read it to your mamma? “No way. She can’t even be bothered to read to ME.”
A Sobering Interval
Lunch at the Trout and Wine proves to be memorable on two counts.
Firstly, the trout with spinach and cottage cheese:
This turns out not only to be delicious but, though it looks like a trout and stares at you with the resentful eyes of a trout, it is in actual fact entirely boneless. I swear, there is not one hairy little rib to test the tongue and threaten death by choking. As I marvel at this, and speculate on how the boning was achieved, somebody suggests that I may have been served Truit a la Chernobyl.
We all snigger a bit and I am moved to ask how things are in that part of the world. My fellow lunchers shrug and mention that some people refused to move from the danger zone and that others have moved back to nearby villages in defiance of warnings.
Then the guy who has illustrated the cover for the Ukrainian editions of the Little Wolf books drops a bigger bombshell. He was there. He was 21, doing service in the military police not much more than 40k from the town. He was ordered to get in and direct the evacuation of as many of the population as could be persuaded to leave. He describes how he made himself a helmet and a privates-protector out of sheets of lead; how all the men, officers and other ranks had to step out of their contaminated clothes on cold evenings so that they can be removed for destruction; how they have to stand naked in the fields near their camp before being doused down and provided with fresh uniforms; how they had to return again and again to the central danger zone and how his dad cried when he came home.
After another presentation back at the Palace of Arts and a long signing session, I’m taken back for a lie down and told to meet later than arranged, at nine, for a little party with fellow writers and book enthusiasts. At the appointed hour, Kateryna (who has been home to attend to her family) takes me to a place not far from the hotel which doubles as a cultural centre and a place to eat in the open. There’s a great exhibition of photos, slightly reminiscent of Diane Arbus in their focus on the bleak and bizarre and black and white – though instead of being exploitative, which Arbus sometimes is to me, these were simply bleak, sometimes darkly comic, sometimes sad and angry.
Dinner was a noisy affair when I ate and everyone else (who had eaten already) plied me with honeyed vodka spiced with cinnamon. Nuff said.
It was midnight when I hit the sack – luxuriating in the knowledge that my next call of duty would not be until 11 o’clock on Saturday.