Olena is an English language trainer from Ukraine now living in France. She spoke to Garry Littman about her experience during the ongoing war. (Level B2 +)
I wake up every morning at around 5.30am. Bang. I’m awake. Falling back into a warm slumber is out of the question. The moment I open my eyes a little seismic shock of fear and stress ripples through me. My overworked adrenalin kicks in. Bang. I’m awake. A collection of hi-resolution images force themselves onto the screen of my consciousness. They have a life of their own. That’s what war does.
There’s me at my kitchen window, watching in silent disbelief as *russian military vehicles roll down Peremogha Ave in Kyiv.
Pandemonium on the platform
There’s the pandemonium on the platform at the Kyiv Central Railway station where the train to Ivano-Frankivsk is due to depart. The platform is overflowing with people, children, pets in cages, and bags. So many bags. Bags of all shapes and sizes, all overflowing, bursting at the seams with belongings. And then inside the dark carriage with the grey plastic curtains drawn and we are told to use only our phone torches. The conductor, a woman in her mid 40s, is calm and helpful. We listen and nod to her every word. On the underpass, a troop train with Ukrainian military equipment thunders passed heading to the east, Kyiv. We are travelling to the west.
The clouds of war engulf me every day. This is my life now. I am lucky, of course. I am a survivor living in exile in France. I had another life, and then on February 24, just over a year ago, the war broke out.
One of the few constants left in my life is my work. I am an English teacher. Let me say that again. I am a passionate English teacher. I have been working for language schools and independently for 25 years.
Today is Tuesday and my first lesson starts at 7 am, so there is plenty of time to prepare. My first student Katya works in logistics, and she really needs English. We’ve been working together for more than two years. I am in France in a small town near Geneva and she is now in exile in Spain in a small town near Alicante, and we have both electricity and Internet access.
Electricity is a luxury
We both know this is a luxury. In Ukraine, power cuts are a part of everyday life. It was Katya that told me this joke:
“Wikipedia says: ‘I have all the information you need!’ Then Google adds: “And I can find any information in a matter of seconds!” Finally, the electricity grid pipes up: “Well, well, well… only if I come to the party…”
Our teacher-student relationship has changed. We study English, but the discussion is much more diverse. A few grammar points and some exercises and a lot of sharing about our new lives in the countries where we are staying, and the peculiarities of receiving temporary status, the opening hours of the supermarkets, prices for food, medical aid and many other things.
My next lesson is at 9.30 with Aleksandra. She is a lawn tennis coach who works with juniors in a sports school. She lives in Kyiv which means last month we completed just two of eight scheduled lessons.
My heart skips a beat
I have enough time for breakfast, to look over the material for the lesson and to read the dense and depressing, daily load of war updates. Every day I scan Країна_інфо (Country Info) the national channel on Viber and the Telegram channel of Oleg Synegubov, the governor of Kharkiv region to get the latest information and then I go onto Facebook to read about current events detailed by analysts, witnesses, war correspondents or just other people, perhaps like me, who are willing to have their say. Kharkiv is my hometown. Every time a town and village in the region is mentioned in the news my heart skips a beat.
I have always been a bit of a news junkie. Now I’m trying to restrict myself to a few minutes in the morning and in the evening. It also reduces the panic.
Of course, half an hour before my lesson with Aleksandra, she sends me a short message on Viber:
“Good morning, Lena! After yesterday’s attacks, we are without electricity again :((”
And I answer: “Good morning, Aleksandra! I understand. See you next time.”
I’m so used to receiving such messages from Aleks on short notice. Once upon a time I charged the fee for the lesson if my student cancelled less than 24 hours before the class. Now, it’s out of the question. No talking about the money in this situation.
The war has put everything on hold
A couple of weeks ago she texted me, asking if it would be better to stop the lessons and put them on hold. But we continue. The war has put everything on hold. The fact that we manage to have an occasional lesson together is a victory for normality.
We go on, trying to live our life as close to normal as possible.
I began lessons with Aleks before the war. Her school is now closed, so she is out of work and stays at home. She jokes that she has more free time and that’s what she always dreamt of. She wanted to devote it to studying, but the lack of electricity has ruined her plans. Aleks doesn’t need English for professional reasons. I like that. She learns for her own pleasure, to travel again one day in the future, to communicate with other people, and to read in English. The wonderful news is that she’s going to be a mum, and last week she and her husband held a gender reveal party for their friends and family.
The russians have taught all Ukrainians time-management skills
Last lesson she told me that the russians have taught all Ukrainians time-management skills: now that we have 6-8 hours of electricity per day, if we are lucky, it means we do all the recharging, computer work and house chores much quicker than before.
I’m proud of my people. We are trying to live a normal life: go to work and school when it’s quiet, stay in shelters when the map of Ukraine is covered in red which is the color of air raids. And we return again to our working places, families, computer screens, to do what we have to do. We don’t only earn money to live, but we earn money to donate to numerous funds and organisations which help our soldiers, medical people, children in need and refugees. We all have boundless faith in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We know they can protect us.
Life goes on.
Photo above: Bombing of shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk
*We spell russia in Ukraine – with no capital R. Since the war began, the people and the country are spelt with a small r, even in official circles.