Irina Potanina. English notes from a Ukrainian woman

English notes by a Ukrainian woman. Part 1: “War and Coffee.”

09.06.2022Irina Potanina

After Russia's attack on Ukraine, saving her two sons, Irina Potanina - a Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer from Kharkov, author of more than 30 works of fiction in various genres for children and adults - moved to the UK at the invitation of relatives. Now she works in a small cafe, believes in the imminent victory of her country and keeps a personal diary. Excerpts from it Winter will be sharing with readers. This one - the first - is about how life can change in a single day and why you can't prepare for war in advance.

It’s 7am on the clock, and my feeling is that it’s at least noon.

I had already baked croissants, baited the first visitors with flavorful bacon, scattered the street tables on the grounds, glimpsed the news, and just like that half-eyedly cried in haste….

Now you can wrap it up nicely, say, that’s what I have become collected (in my pre-war life such things would take me forever, and now I manage in an hour), but in fact “such things” took me before 0 hours 0 minutes, because I never worked in the service industry, and to cooking treated as a nice (and not always harmless to others) hobby. Now my role – an assistant in the cafe that every day, wearing a uniform apron and a smile, opens its cozy, similar to both paradise and a mental institution.

“Own,” naturally, not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense of kinship. In the two months I’ve been on the job, I’ve really hitched my wagon to the place. Mostly because of the people.

– It’s nice here,” says an older, bulky man in a municipal worker’s vest, sipping a cappuccino. – You won’t find another town like this – quiet, pleasant to live in – in the vicinity of London. Although… No, well, there are idiots here too. The kind of, you know, real assholes that get drunk and get really violent. But there aren’t many here.

– So few that I haven’t met one yet,” I assure him politely.

– Of course I did! – he protests. – After all, I am one of them.

Laughing. He goes on for some reason:

– They’re ruining everything, the bastards. But you could write a book about their debauchery… Yeah?

I nod curtly, not realizing if this is a coincidence or if my interlocutor is a bit of a clairvoyant. I’m really going to write a book, aren’t I?

About how I evacuated to the UK with two children (the youngest is 6 and the oldest is 17), how it turned out that I don’t know English at all (and he didn’t know me either), how on the second day of arrival, after walking around the town with an unsure “are you hiring?”, I found a job (they took me out of pity, but they quickly taught me everything and now they seem to be happy with me), how I found a place to live (thank you very much!).

The title of the future novel is already ready: “War and Coffee”. But, to be honest, it’s a total deception: I don’t make coffee, and I haven’t really seen the war.

Another problem is that I can’t figure out where to start.

There is a story of how we drove two cars for 56 hours, sleeping on the roadsides, through traffic jams and bypassing shelled areas, to more or less safe areas. I was behind the wheel of a vintage Tavria that I had never driven before and, in order to engage reverse speed, yelled to my older son “It needs power, push on!”. The picture is colorful, but nowadays it is a classic refugee-story, so banal that it is even indecent to divert the reader’s attention with it.

How about we use a funny episode to kick things off? In my haste to pack, I forgot a lot of necessary things, but… I took two swimsuits. Later it turned out that I was not alone: many people’s subconscious refused to accept reality, and believed that if we pack our suitcases, it means we are going on vacation, that is, to the sea. It’s funny, isn’t it?

No. Probably not funny. And, most importantly, normal people don’t understand.

I’m going to tell my municipal friend about this, and he’ll probably twiddle his thumb:

– Swimsuits?! – will exclaim, “What’s so stupid? War, evacuation, bombing, and you, bathing suits. And didn’t you know you were going to England in winter?

– I knew it,” I sigh. – My relatives from the UK have been writing to me for a month insistently, saying that I must take my children to them at the first danger. I promised…

– I mean,” the interlocutor grimaced. – You knew you were leaving beforehand, but you packed at the last minute?

This is where I will of course try to explain myself. I will say that we, as the majority of citizens accustomed to a peaceful life, although we knew about the possibility of war, we did not believe in it to the last. After all, the 21st century, after all, the Internet, after all, we are all people… The plan for the terrible day, of course, had: the distribution of duties – who takes the children out, who defends the homeland, who makes the parents of my husband who do not want to leave their hometown – was agreed upon, and even a carrier for the cat was found in advance. But it never came to packing a suitcase.

And even when, the night before the war, my husband, in consultation with some of his friends, said that it was better to go right away, I was against it.

– Igor has art tomorrow, Ivan has school,” I said. – We are in our own land, truth is on our side, why should we go anywhere else? It’s humiliating.

I left like a sweetheart, as soon as the panes in the windows shook from the first air strikes on my native Kharkiv. Fear for children is stronger than pride and any sense of justice.

– Hey! Are you all right? – a municipal friend pulls me out of my musings.

All right?! My country is under attack. My countrymen are being killed, tortured and raped right now, several of my close friends are dead, parts of my city have been turned into ruins.

– Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry…

– What do you mean, “don’t worry”? – the owner of our cafe materializes nearby. At 63, he looks 40 and energetic as a 20-something, and everyone around him is a little bit in love with him. – If no one worries, everyone will relax and do nothing. Excitement is the engine of commerce, by the way. Not only that. Now I can look calmly into the distance, and I can worry about why Irina does not go to wake up her son? I won’t be bothered, and my young blond friend Igor will wake up alone. Chop-chop, Irina! Chop-chop!

Yeah, I should really get going. I grab my bike and freeze for a second, mentally preparing myself to pedal hard. We don’t live very far away, but on a pretty steep hill. It’s tough going back and forth, especially with a baby, but what can you do. Especially after dropping Igor off at school, I always have a couple hours to rest before my next visit to work.

– I’ll meet you later! – waving to everyone as I go.

– Oh, man! – And you have a bicycle… you know there is a bicycle route from here to the sea? It’s only three hours. You won’t regret it! Don’t try to swim, it’s freezing. But you could use a tan. I hope you brought your bathing suit.

You can read the continuation here.

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