Tatjana and I bonded over a love for literature, romantic movies, food and our sense of humor. She prefers not to talk about the war, she doesn’t want to think about it, but since I am so interested in it she opens up about it from time to time. My Russian isn’t perfect, so sometimes I can’t ask what I really want to ask, but still, talking to her is very enriching.

She is from Berdyansk, a city under Russian occupation at the time of writing.

Here are some things I found out:

  • Tatjana speaks Russian, not Ukrainian. She understands Ukrainian and when pressed can and will communicate in Ukrainian, but her native language is Russian. This does not mean she identifies as Russian, she is 100 percent Ukrainian
  • It sometimes happens that her fellow countrymen berate her for communicating in Russian, as if the language itself is now the enemy
  • salaries in Ukraine are incredibly low, lower than I expected. In Ukraine Tatjana made about 200 euro working at a supermarket as a pastry chef. Her rent was 100 euro. She could get by on… 200 euro. A single mum with a 8 year old son. This may sound very odd, but for a second I was tempted to move to Ukraine and teach online classes and live like a king. She said I could. (I won’t of course)
  • she had to pass almost 20 checkpoints to flee from the occupied zone to free Ukrainian territory, she had to pay about 1,000 dollars to do that. A small fortune since you can rent a decent apartment for about a tenth of that.
  • the supermarket she worked at was Russianized. Her manager was told: either you work for us now, or we shut you down. They changed the name of the supermarket and the staff got different uniforms. There was a lot less work after the invasion so she and several of her colleague were pressured to quit their job. So they were fired, but it looks like they decided to leave. This way nobody owed them any money. Tatjana doesn’t like to talk about any of this, so I don’t know who exactly own this supermarket now.
  • It’s not something one normally thinks about, but her stories made me wonder where the bomb shelters are located in my city. She mentioned several times how she hid in a bomb shelter with her son. She didn’t have to go far. I have absolutely no idea if there even is a bomb shelter in my area. Am pretty sure Tajana also had no idea where the bomb shelters were located until the bombs started exploding. It just made me realize how surreal everything can get in an instant.
  • I am comfortable listening to all the war news, processing the info almost as if am playing one of my beloved strategic boardgames and am then surprised Tatjana doesn’t know where the latest offensive is taking place. I mentioned places in Ukraine she had never heard of. When I was surprised, she said something profound: ‘For you it’s easy to listen to all that news and study the maps, etc. You didn’t have to sit there and hear the bombs drop and wonder what to do with your child.’ Touché.
  • Mariupol – which as many will remember saw some of the worst fighting – is only 70 kms distance from Berdyansk. I think the sight that impacted her the most was seeing people enter Berdyansk on foot having trudged all the way there from war torn Mariupol. She said all the cars she spotted with a licence plate from Mariupol had no more glass. She described them as ‘graves on wheels’.
  • When I hear ONE story from ONE refugee it makes me realize there are millions of stories out there, all of them sad and some worse than others. The full disruptive nature of this war will never be captured in any one book or movie. We can just take in one story and then try to multiply that story by a few million. The hurt this war has caused and for absolutely no gains is staggering, maddening, unfathomable.
  • It made me realize how, yes, I play the armchair general at home, looking up places I have never heard of, thinking what their capture or recapture could mean, but there are people living there like Tatjana and the fighting is uprooting their existence.
  • Tatjana is about as apolitical and neutral as they come. Even now she doesn’t feel any hatred towards the Russians. The whole affair is just an utterly pointless catastrophe to her. Her reaction to it is to just get on with her life and make the best of it for her and her son. Sometimes I don’t know what is better. To think we can influence these events and to study them in detail and rack our brain over them or to be like Tatjana and just try to be happy and not think about it. Followers of this blog will already know that I often struggle with this dilemma. To care or not to care… In the end I always care…