Lviv – A City of Irresistible Charm
Lviv Today Editor, Andrew Lewis, reflects on his 18-month stay in the cultural capital of Ukraine
Leopolitans love their city, and are very proud and knowledgeable about its history and its place in modern Ukraine. However, many times I am asked the same question: “Why would you want to come and live in Lviv?”. People I meet often find it hard to understand their city’s appeal to foreigners, when in fact, I am yet to meet a foreign visitor who has not instantly fallen in love with Lviv – its unique charm, achingly beautiful architecture, relaxed pace of life, and abundant traditions. My question in reply would be: “Why would anyone not want to come and live here?”.
As far as my story goes, I was taken in before I even reached Lviv. In 2008, on crossing the border into Ukraine for the first time in the middle of the night at Sheheni , my friend and I were taken across a dark field for an interview at passport control. When we entered the room and saw the stunningly beautiful female border guard, complete with high-heels and a gun strapped to her slender waist, I knew I had entered a very interesting part of the world. I was immediately curious to find out more, and all it took was a few days in Lviv to convince me that I wanted to spend a lot more time here. My decision to live and work here for 18 months has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
For me, the most fascinating and enjoyable parts of Leopolitan life are the traditions, in particular the major religious holidays, which combine Orthodox customs and pagan rituals. Easter in Lviv, for example is simply a wonderful time of year. In the UK, most people don’t celebrate Easter, and it means little more than two days off work, chocolate, booze and traffic jams. Here I have been lucky enough to take part in many of the regional traditions – preparing baskets of food and taking them to church, a morning service and breakfast with a Ukrainian family (thank you to the Vorobei family!) and witnessing some of the most dangerous games I have ever seen (‘hajivky’) at Shevchenkivskij Hai!
Christmas is another very special time to be in Lviv. I enjoyed it so much in last year, that I actually extended my stay so that I could be here for one more. Including two English Christmases, that means I have had four Christmases in the last 13 months! Again, a time of great traditions – eating delicious Ukrainian dishes (thank you to the Hud family!), singing carols, watching (or performing) Christmas plays (‘vertepy’), and of course, drinking mulled wine by the New Year tree in the centre of town.
But my trip has not all been about celebrating, and like everyone else, I had to work during my time here. I was fortunate enough to find a job that I absolutely loved – teaching English at Language Express, a school that works within the fantastic institution that is the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). It was a real pleasure working with such a variety of interesting and enthusiastic people in my lessons. In my groups I had lawyers, air traffic controllers, astrophysicists, to name but a few. From our discussions, I learned as much from them about Lviv and life in Ukraine as (I hope) they learned from me about the English language.
Lviv is a city that is changing fast, and over the past 18 months there have been many significant developments, further adding to the city’s appeal. The steady increase of new bars, cafes and restaurants opening in and around the centre (the opening of ‘The British Club’ on Nalyvajka St. was particularly important for me!), the aesthetic improvements made to Striyskiy Park, new cobbled roads in the centre, and of course the new stadium ‘Arena Lviv’. Watching the Ukrainian national football team beat Austria 2-1 in November , with a last minute winner, to the sound of the crowd singing the Ukrainian national anthem, was one of the highlights of the year. Lviv, it seems, will continue to change rapidly over the coming years, and I hope all of the changes continue to be for the better.
There have been a number of things that have surprised me about Lviv, its citizens, and their way of life. Before living here, I had no idea that Leopolitans operate one of the strictest floor cleaning regimes in Europe, if not the world. At UCU, at train stations, even in nightclubs, teams of cleaners are tirelessly washing floors from morning till night. And God help anyone who tries to walk on one of their freshly cleaned floors. And the armies of street cleaners, who get up at the crack of dawn to clear the pavements of leaves, snow and litter simply amaze me. Hats off to them for their sterling work. Also in Lviv I have that found kiosk cashiers have a love of small change, the likes of which I have never seen before. Many times I have been refused service because I didn’t have the right amount of ‘kopieky’! Finally, if there was ever a ‘World’s Strongest Grandmother’ contest (perhaps a new event for the London 2012 Olympics?) then I think Ukraine would win easily, having witnessed the ‘babtsiji’ carrying huge sacks of cabbages, onions and potatoes on and off marshrutkas by the markets. Phenomenal feats of strength and endurance from the older generation.
No doubt I will return to Lviv in the not-too-distant future, but in London, I know I will miss the warmth and cheerfulness of my friends and colleagues here, and I regret that I will the final stages of the city’s transformation as it prepares for Euro 2012. But most of all, I will miss Ukrainian language, which after 18 months (and thanks to my friends and fantastic teachers at UCU Ukrainian Summer School) I have nearly got the hang of. To me, it is a beautiful, melodic and fascinating language, and I hope its use continues to spread. I will be continuing to practise at the Ukrainian Institute in London when I return.
Not even in the bleakest mid-winter, not even in a Leopolitan summer downpour, and not even after countless vodka-induced hangovers, have I regretted my decision to stay here for this extended period. Thank you Lviv, for making my time here so interesting and enjoyable. This is not farewell – let’s just say ‘do zustrichi’!