Essays On War

Olena Pavlova. A Date With Home

A Date With Home

After being separated from my home for a long time, I’ve started to experience some sort of intimate relationship with it. I want to beautify myself for it, so my skin smells like cream, and my hair like orange blossoms. As I touch all my possessions with such tenderness, it feels like I am caressing them. When I lie in my bed, it’s like being embraced in a warm, loving hug. The garlands, lavender sachets, and rose-covered bed are all remnants of a time when I was incredibly happy.

It’s almost as if I’m going on a date with my home, because we don’t see each other very often these days. I’ve only been back home three times in the past nine months. Even now, the memory of February, when Russian rockets flew over Kyiv, lingers. But my home contains all times, both good and bad, including memories of long, warm conversations over wine in the kitchen, laughter, and walnuts scattered on the floor, nights spent with the light of screens, important text messages, open letters, gifts, breakfasts, and coffee, not to mention hours spent lost in the pages of a good book.

The last time I was home, I stumbled upon a dried lily petal on the floor, a leftover from the presentation of my collection in February. Now, it’s winter again, and missiles are flying over Kyiv. But this time, we’re different. Despite the chaos outside, everything inside my home remains as it was.

As I sort through the spices in the kitchen, I come across a bottle of tzatziki seasoning from Cyprus that I had bought back in January, which now feels like a relic from a past life. It’s a glass flask with a stopper, almost like something from an alchemist’s workshop. The dried garlic inside is incredibly sweet to the taste. I marvel at how the garlic has been skillfully dried, withered, and hung up in time.

Then, there are my heroic indoor plants, which have successfully withstood the enemy. They remain green and lush despite not having been watered for a month and a half. Their internal resistance was forged through surviving an entire winter and spring without water, and I’m sure they’ll continue to persevere even through a potential assault.

As I walk around the city, the air smells of gasoline, and the constant hum of generators fills the air. Life continues, stubborn and tenacious, unwilling to give in to the chaos around it. Despite everything, we keep going. We fall apart, but we get up again.

After the missile attacks there are mass blackouts. I don’t like it when they write, „light disappeared.“ The electric current disappears. But the light does not disappear; it is in us.

Alternative energy sources do not help. I try to wind up a lamp on a solar battery and cut my finger.

I’m getting used to this new way of balancing life in the city, where the current disappears chaotically. We adapt to everything. I now have a bicycle flashlight in my bag, and all my electrical devices are fully charged. But I feel worse without music at home than without electricity. I find several tracks on my computer, including „How can I not love you, my Kyiv.“ I listen to it on repeat for three days.

Without us at home, batteries in all devices die. We run out of batteries while away from home for a long time.

Home is not only a physical space arranged for oneself and loved ones. These details form the entire scenography; my dishes and every plate are there for some reason.  

My home is filled with memories, like Japanese porcelain cups I purchased at the Lisbon flea market, Opishnya ceramics, clay bowls adorned with Podil birds, and a Petrykiv painting I acquired at a festival in Poltava, where I was incredibly happy. I also have a copper Turkish cezve from the Istanbul bazaar, where the aroma of coffee with cardamom fills the air like thick oriental music. And then there’s a mug from the Orange Revolution and thin Czech glasses featuring an Art Nouveau lily design on the temples. All of these possessions have survived the war, but our homes and lives are fragile, twisted, and bent like cans that have been opened with a blunt knife. Our houses now have chambers of the heart and distill blood instead of rooms.

It turned out that in the 21st century, one must possess skills such as getting dressed in the dark and painting by candlelight. We must also learn how to schedule a dental appointment in between missile attacks while experiencing acute pain. I’ve grown accustomed to looking up in semi-darkness and selecting clothes by touch from the Bermuda Triangle of my closet. I have an extensive collection of flashlights, hiking gear, Carpathian coverlet, and ski pants, although I still haven’t decided how to keep my nose warm.

We are prepared for what may come. We adapt, we learn, and we build up our reserves. But the most important thing is to heal the wounds inside us over time, drain away excess anger, and extinguish inappropriate envy. Practicing zen fishing is important when plans go awry a hundred times a day. Sometimes it works better to scrape everything clean on the inside. We must take time to cry, hug others, and express our love.pastedGraphic.png

A new feeling has emerged in this November darkness and silence: the need to sing. I haven’t felt this urge in a long time, the desire to fill the space with my voice and singing. But what should I sing? It seems we’ve forgotten all the words. Yesterday, I was surrounded by good company at a coffee shop — soldiers and poets — and they began singing folk songs. They had experienced so much loss, pain, and sorrow. And I want to sing a song where it’s not us who are crying over losses but celebrating the defeat of our enemies. It’s time to write new songs.

It’s also time to discard excess baggage. Our attitude towards things has changed. We can’t pack the entire house into a backpack, nor can we fit our entire lives into a bug-out bag. After leaving home, we quickly realize how many things we could do without. I want to get rid of all the junk and not collect any new items, like those sentimental tickets from museums and maps from various cities. It’s time to throw things away, to get rid of anything and everything superfluous.

On the other hand, certain items are important, such as your perfumes, paints, or books. On the first night back home, I brought a dozen of my books to bed with me and tried to read them all at once. When packing up items for the long haul, do you take your perfumes with you? But how could I leave behind the new orchid and neroli-scented perfume gifted to me by my husband, knowing that it may fall victim to the war? Even my perfumes were not immune to the poison of violence. Now, they, too, will smell of my memories during this time.

I used to say, „Home is where my paints are.“ Now, my paints are spread across at least three different houses in Lviv, Rivne, and Kyiv. Nonetheless, I still yearn to create something beautiful with them. All my colors are out there in the world, contained within a single tablet that fits inside my backpack.

Ukrainian women no longer carry just any old backpack but a strategic one. The days of carrying a bug-out bag are long gone. This season, we have upgraded to nuclear backpacks, complete with shoe covers, raincoats, masks, and magic pills of potassium iodide. The contents of these strategic backpacks are constantly shuffled around, with painkillers being pulled out of first-aid kits prematurely for sudden toothaches or entirely expected hangovers. However, the essential compartment in all of these backpacks is the one reserved for the belongings of those we love.

I’m currently writing this from the comfort of my home, where I feel safe and secure. Unfortunately, I know I can’t stay here for long, as the threat of enemy missiles and drones looms over us all too often. The walls of my home are nothing more than cardboard panels from the Soviet era, and the windows are covered with tape that I wrapped around them with trembling hands on February 24th. Despite the uncertain conditions, the festive garland lights up the entire wall, and the only light source when the electricity goes out is the rough candles I’ve been using to paint Easter eggs for years. Ah, the romantic candlelit dinners that come with a date. If only every date came with a fridge defrosting – but I suppose that’s reserved for long-term, serious relationships.

As I finish my glass of wine and prepare to leave, leaving behind the uncorked bottle of Sicilian Nero d’Avola, a glimmer of hope flickers within me, like a fragile Bohemian glass on the brink of breaking. I wonder when I will drink this bottle to celebrate victory. What date will it be on? And most importantly, my dear home, will we ever be able to meet again?

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan