No more ‘Have a nice day’: Lviv learns to live with war

LVIV, Ukraine – When the war came to Ukraine in February, Helen Polishchuk made some adjustments to the six-story bar she heads in central Lviv.

Mad Bars House on Lviv’s historic central square was open but served coffee and hot food instead of alcoholic beverages. They turned off the rock music. And as displaced Ukrainians began pouring into the city from places devastated by Russian attacks hundreds of miles away, she had instructions for the wait staff.

“When guests leave the restaurant, we usually say, ‘Have a good day,'” she said. Instead, she told them they could say something else, such as “Honor to Ukraine” or “We wish you blue skies.”

“Because it’s silly to say ‘have a good day’ during this period,” Ms. Polishchuk, 33.

Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, Lviv, a historic city just 65 km from Poland, was a popular European tourist destination with 2.5 million visitors a year and the largest jazz festival in Eastern Europe.

Now, instead of tourists, displaced Ukrainians are fleeing the war-torn east of the country. Lviv and its inhabitants are learning to live with what most people now think will be many months of conflict, if not years.

Several Russian airstrikes have targeted infrastructure here, including a rocket attack on a military training base last month that killed more than 30 people. Air raid sirens warning of Russian fighter jets breaking the airspace sound several times a day. However, this small town is still far from the active fighting that has destroyed entire cities in eastern Ukraine.

The biggest challenge for Lviv has been to survive a wartime economy and deal with the flood of displaced, traumatized people who are swelling in the city’s population.

“We have learned to live in wartime,” said the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, who has recently lifted some municipal restrictions, including allowing bars and restaurants to sell wine and beer, though not hard alcohol.

Mr. Sadovyi, a former businessman, said six months before the Russian invasion, he tasked city officials with finding a way to keep the water supply afloat if electricity failed. They started buying diesel generators, as well as stocking up on medical supplies and filling up the blood banks.

“If I had not equipped my city for this situation, we would be in a disaster right now,” Mr Sadovyi, dressed in a black hoodie and black sneakers, said in a 19th-century Vienna-style town hall interview. . His office’s large stone balcony overlooked the market square, where displaced children screamed with laughter and chased giant soap bubbles blown by a street artist.

Mr. Sadovyi said civilians fleeing the fighting began entering Lviv within hours of the invasion – 60,000 of them a day for the first three weeks. Now, with a new Russian advance awaited, about 10,000 arrive a day.

While many are crossing the border into Poland and other European countries, about 200,000 are left, double the number the city administration expected, and nearly a third of the city’s pre-war population of 700,000.

Those with money rent apartments or stay in hotels. But tens of thousands more are in shelters, dependent on help. The Polish government has donated container housing to 1,000 people being set up in a city park. Others are channeled from Lviv to other communities in western Ukraine.

“This is a huge burden for our city,” he said. Sadovyi, 53. “Basically, we have another city in our city.”

The war has sparked remarkable patriotism, and if some locals notice that they can no longer find tables at their favorite cafes or restaurants because they are filled with displaced people, they tend not to complain. Guides guide displaced families on free city tours. Passengers on the tourist car leaving the town hall are not foreigners these days, but Ukrainians.

It gives a strange juxtaposition. A significant number of the soldiers who die at the front are from western Ukraine, and there are regular burials in churches in the city center. On a recent day, the sobbing relatives of a steel worker and his factory colleagues stood outside a cathedral with wreaths.

Around the edges, longtime residents try to preserve some hint of pre-war life.

Lviv National Opera recently resumed limited events with excerpts from ballet and choral performances. The number of tickets sold is limited to the capacity of the building’s bomb shelter, about 250 people. At the first performance, an air raid siren sounded, sending the audience and dancers down to the shelter before resuming the show.

“We reopened because we received so many calls and emails from people,” said Ostap Hromysh, the opera’s international relations chief. The messages were apologetic and said “of course we understand there is a war” but asked if they had performances anyway.

“If people are facing sad news day in and day out about death, about blood, about bombs, they have to feel other emotions,” he said.

At Mad Bars House, Ms. Polishchuk that they planned to open a roof terrace next week, perhaps with non-alcoholic cocktails as well as wine and beer. They are bringing back more of their original 111-person staff.

She said the bar, which in normal times has a dance floor and serves increasingly potent drinks as guests ascend its six floors, loses money but is obliged to remain open. Sunday afternoon, the first and second floors of the bar were filled.

The management has replaced the classic rock-entertaining beer drinkers in the bar on the ground floor before the war with Ukrainian songs, however, on the floor and serving wine to the customers at the tables, Frank Sinatra croons.

“We do not want to pretend that nothing has happened, we understand that it is a war,” Ms. Polishchuk. “But we want to create an atmosphere of a safe place.”

On the menu, borscht, the beet soup that had few thanks before the war, is now the biggest seller. Ms. Polishchuk said it was patriotism and stress. “We understand that people want comfort food,” she said.

“Have a nice day” is not the only thing that feels off these days.

“This is not the time for carrot juice and green salads,” Ms. Polishchuk.

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