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My first day at Lviv Volunteer Kitchen

By David Elley

It was my first day in Lviv. Late in the morning, I met Yorkshire at his downtown digs and first walked 25 minutes north to the Kitchen, a two-story building in the suburbs. We arrived at about 12:15pm

I was pushed into a crowded room with the washrooms to the left, a small coffee shop and then a desk at the back under the windows. In the center was a large work area surrounded by 12-15 people. There were a few international people there, but today it was mostly locals, older grandmothers and two older guys. All over the table were boxes of beets and carrots, some raw, some peeled, small white cleaning buckets, cutting boards, knives and cleaners, one set for each worker. There was almost no room at the edges, we were packed in between Julia to my left and Yuri, a man of few words, but a lot of peeled carrots, to the right. And ….. go!

Ukrainian banter mixed with English filled the air, ebbing and flowing as conversations rose and fell. The buckets of skins were gone, as were the peeled vegetables, new piles of fresh vegetables arrived almost constantly. Every now and then a carrot would fly across the table, bounce off the pile in the drawer, and land in my lap when I was near the middle on one side of the table. Faster than a Sicilian can say "Omerta" - the mafia from across the table affected intense innocence as I searched for the culprit. This went on all day.

Behind me San Luis Obispo asked me what I did last night. I said I had borscht in a quiet cafe and then wandered off. I entered a crowded bar to the sounds of yelling. Apparently I came across a volunteer bar known locally as Mano’s Bar after one of the volunteers who is always there. And then I told Obispo that I was propositioned by a very drunk woman in a leopard print dress. Again, obviously this happens to everyone. The fact that I found Mano and got hit on by, we assume, the same woman as everyone else before I was even told where it was, is considered a celebrity move.

At about 1:30 San Luis Obispo and I were working on remembering the words to the old Stan Rogers song Barrett's Privateers. We struggled with the melody. So I just sang "Whale Fishing in Greenland" from memory. After a few appreciative notes from the Mafiosas across from me, they moved on to a series of lovely Ukrainian songs that everyone knew.

A break was called after cups of borscht came from the kitchen, followed by small plates of barley, greens, and a light cheese and mustard sauce. Next I sang "Bones of the Ocean" by Longest Johns, then "The Colors" by The Men They Couldn't Hang and "Flower of Scotland". Duelling singing went on for a good couple of hours. I would light one up and the locals would respond. Then Yulia, who was next to me, a silver fox in her 60s, promised me coffee if I sang Elton John. I tried to warn her off, but she rolled her eyes at me, so I went down the Yellow Brick Road. "Enthusiastic, but talentless", the epitaph of my university acting career, accompanied me to LVK. After one verse I stopped. So Yulia entrusted Abba. Many people joined Mama Mia!

I threw in the towel with the old rugby song The Doggies Meeting. Carrots kept flying from the other side of the table - critical praise or just a failed toss?

We met a three-legged carrot. These are free-range carrots, so anything will do. I wanted to break it, but screams rose from the table. Yulia grabbed it, turned it over and told me that it was a Ukrainian trident. So we made a photographic record and I helped him travel to his destination in the stomach of a Ukrainian soldier somewhere in the South and East. The next three-part carrot was, shall we say, simply pornographic. There's no photo record of this lavishly gifted carrot, but it was a lot of laughs.

Quick as a flash, Yulia threw another carrot at me: a fat woman with gravity-defying breasts, like a Sumerian fertility goddess. So I sharply cut them off under horrified looks from the other side of the table. We continued to work at a lower intensity until about 4:00 p.m., and then the numbers started to taper off. I have never had so much fun peeling carrots. Knowing that everything we did today went directly to helping the soldiers in the trenches eat well to keep them whole during this long, dark winter for Ukraine warmed me as I walked through the cold, dark evening.


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