Letters from Ukraine: 24/03/2022 – The Kiss

In his next dispatch from Kyiv, George Gittoes recalls the love which grounds and guides him and Hellen Rose through their experience of conflict.

Our apartment is within a couple of hundred meters of Maidan Square where the Orange Revolution occurred in 2004 and the bloody Euromaidan protests of 2014. Possibly not a smart place to be as it is the symbolic centre of opposition to Russian rule, its alternative name being Independence Square.

Up until now, the most romantic kiss I have shared with Hellen was when we were in Kabul, and she had to go back to Australia as things had gotten very dangerous and I needed to stay on to finish our film. In Afghanistan no one kisses in public, and while men walk hand in hand, a man and woman can never do so. The guards at Cedar House, where we stay when not at the Yellow House in Jalalabad, are former Mujahideen tough guys with a background history as Taliban. Hellen was in the street outside the compound walls, her bags in the car, and I had arranged to take her to the airport, when the impulse came over us. We ran to each other in the street and kissed – not a peck on the cheek but a long passionate Hollywood Kiss hugging each other tightly. We looked up to see the guards all smiling from their lookout posts, and knew they approved. Every time we return to Cedar House, they talk about the kiss as they frisk us for weapons and check our bags. The kiss has become a legend of Cedar House.

We had planned to catch a train from Przemysl Glowny Rail Station (after a four-hour drive up from Krakow) to Lviv and then change trains to Kyiv. It seemed simple, so we enjoyed the drive through the Polish landscape chatting with our handsome young driver, Mateusz, as we cruised at 140 km/h. But when we arrived there were no tickets for sale, as the refugee trains had stopped the previous day due to Russian forces damaging the tracks. The situation seemed grim. I suggested we discuss our options at a nearby restaurant. Hellen was painfully tired, pale, and not herself. I began to question the ethics of bringing her into this war. I considered going back to Krakow and heading home to Australia and the safe paradise we live in at Werri Beach. But something kept me positive. Our now non-existent train been scheduled to leave at 7 p.m. I told Hellen she should sleep in the car while Mateusz went to the station on my hunch something was still possible. The people at the station were still grimly negative, but there was a tunnel under the platforms. I said, “Let’s see where this leads.” We came to an open area and in the distance, there was a local track with a train on it, and I could see a small gaggle of refugees being processed by Polish immigration soldiers. We ran over and a beautiful young woman officer who spoke perfect English told us that if we hurried we could get this local train to Lviv. We ran back to the car, drove around to this other line, and pulled our bags out of the car. Hellen felt refreshed by her sleep, so we ran to the carriages as they were about to move out – quickly getting our passports stamped by the officer who said, “But aren’t you afraid?”

Her question made my heart stop. Should I tell Hellen to go back to safety or risk her life with mine? I turned to her and said, “Are you sure?” She said “Yes, hurry or we will miss the train.”

After a few hours we were at Lviv Station waiting in a huge dark railway terminal, on a platform waiting for the train to Kyiv. There were about ten women, some with children, waiting with us. We asked them why they were going, and they said that they left their husbands and lovers to escape to safety but have decided life without them is not worth living, so they are going back. The station was unlit and had the atmosphere of the past – a gigantic, curved roof from an era when steam symbolised modernity. The ironwork rails and doors were all in an art nouveau style, and the atmosphere was steamy, and with the smell of burning coal. Hellen felt we had been transported in time to the Nazi era, and had become characters in a black and white movie – that we were like Bogie and Bacall in a scene from Casablanca. I pulled her tightly to my chest, crushing the ripples of her blue puffer jacket and we kissed. That kiss went on and on and on, outdoing the one in Kabul. We heard some shrieks of joy from the women around us. One said,“That was the most romantically beautiful thing.” 

When we eventually reached Kyiv, the women were ahead of us as we needed to show our passports to security police. As we stepped into the tunnel leading to the city, the women had been reunited with their partners and were kissing and hugging. All turned to us and smiled. One tall young couple not only kissed but danced ballroom steps and swirls as they entwined around one another.  

After a night’s sleep we headed down our lane to Maidan Square. There were no other pedestrians – but a lot of heavily armed and nervous-looking soldiers guarding it. We had not eaten for about forty-eight hours and asked an old man, who was mumbling to himself as he picked his way along with two thin walking sticks, where to find a supermarket. He pointed underground. We followed his direction down some dark steps, and were surprised to find a well-lit supermarket hidden away from view. Many shelves were empty and there were only a few other customers – mainly buying bags of potatoes. Our credit card worked, and we headed out heavily laden with what foot we could find. 

We have no idea of whether we will survive this or not, but we are in it together, and as my mother always said, “What is for you will not pass you.” Personally, I think it has all been worth it for that kiss on the Lviv railway platform.

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