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In early July I decided to go and do some volunteering in Ukraine. I had been following Lviv volunteer kitchen on Twitter and had been wanting to help in person for a long time. Like many people, giving money no longer seemed enough, so I decided to give something more precious, my time.

At the kitchen, volunteers prepare fresh fruit and vegetables that are either donated by shops, farmers, or the public, which are then dehydrated, packaged, and sent to the soldiers on the front lines.

Thursday 21st September 2023

I left home at 5am and drove to Luton, at this point I was more nervous of driving on the M25 for the first time than I was of travelling to Ukraine! However, I quite enjoyed it and had nothing to worry about.

My flight was due to take off at 8:15 am, it finally took off an hour later. I do not particularly enjoy flying and it finally dawned on me what I was going to do and contemplated getting off the plane for about 10 seconds, then gave myself a mental talking to. Just under 2 hours later, I landed in Krakow, Poland. Navigating buying a train ticket was interesting to say the least, despite there being an English option there were so many tickets options and no one to ask for help, so it was fingers crossed and hope for the best. I was struck by how cheap the tickets were and then by clean trains that ran on time!

The train only lasted 20 minutes and took me to Krakow Glowny, here I had booked into a hotel to get a few hours’ sleep and a nice shower as I had a 6 hour wait for the next train which would take me to Przemysl, some 3 and a half hours away, which is near the Ukraine border. Following many people, I ended up towards the front of what turned out to be a very long queue which initially went nowhere, for an hour I just stood there. Thankful that it was a really warm evening, when the queue moved it led to customs, it was in reality a small room with 5 booths. Once through customs it was onto the Ukrainian train. By the time the train left it was midnight and was an hour late, for the next 1 and a half hours, I had nothing but paw patrol in Ukrainian on the tv!

What no one mentions and what I was not expecting were armed guards and sniffer dogs on the train, my passport was again checked and I was questioned by passport officials as to why I was going to Ukraine, after informing them I was volunteering she thanked me, as did the Ukrainian lady beside me who then kept offering me her food – sandwiches, fruit, biscuits, sweets, it felt like being sat next to Mary Poppins, I hope I did not offend her as Ukrainians as I soon learned are very generous and hospitable people.

Finally, at 2am Ukrainian time (2 hours ahead of UK) I arrived in Lviv. My first hotel was by the train station, and I wish I had not booked there but I was not aware that some taxis still legally operated after curfew (midnight).

Friday 22nd September

Thankfully, there were no air raid sirens during the night, and I managed to get 6 hours sleep. Then, I got an uber to my next hotel, I must have had the grumpiest uber driver, who drove like a maniac, I was glad to get out of the taxi!  After checking into my 2nd hotel that would be home for the next 6 days, I decided to go to the kitchen to work. Despite being late September, the weather was unseasonably warm (at least 26 degrees each day), I was glad I packed shorts, t-shirts, and my sunglasses. The kitchen was situated halfway up a cobbled, steep hill, so at least I got some exercise, almost all roads in Lviv are cobbled.

There were only a couple of volunteers when I arrived, 3 of whom would become friends that I will stay in touch with. (Scottish, American, and Australian). I stayed there for about 5 hours peeling and chopping carrots, onions, and apples. we worked outside under gazebos and everything that is prepared is put into crates and stacked outside – no food safety here! Later that evening the 4 of us went out to dinner. We decided to go to a themed bar/restaurant which was in an old underground bunker, for which you have to give a password to gain entry!

What struck me was how cheap everything was in Lviv, I felt rich for the first time in my life and realised I had saved way more money than I would need for this trip.

Tonight, I was introduced to cherry liqueur which is a popular drink in Ukraine. What surprised me was you are able to drink outside in the street, so we took our drinks and went walking towards the opera house to listen to the nightly buskers and to watch the younger locals sing and dance. Their carefree way of life surprised me, for which they have criticised for considering the front line is only 500 miles away and the war raging in the south.

Saturday 23rd September

Just after 1am I experienced my first air raid alert. The hotel had said I was okay to stay in my room if I wished as it was on the first floor, (I chose a hotel that had converted its basement into a shelter and had a generator). Being a brit, I made a cup of tea, put the tv on and waited for the all clear siren which arrived about 40 minutes later, then went to sleep!

As the kitchen does not open until midday on weekends, with the help of Google maps I decided to a little sightseeing. Lviv has a lovely European look and feel to it, I even discovered a man playing his guitar on a balcony overlooking Rynok square (main square in Lviv) just serenading passers-by. Today I spent another 5 hours at the kitchen, it was a tomatoes, peppers and garlic day. I discovered that peeling so much garlic makes your fingers burn and after a while, you do not feel the burning. Again, there were not many volunteers, but some local residents turned up to help, they even tried to teach us Ukrainian but gave up as we kept getting it wrong and it sounded like we were massacring the language, Cyrillic is difficult!

Sunday 24th September

 I met up with my new friends and another volunteer who had flown in from America. We went for lunch in a Georgian restaurant, it was the first time I would taste Ukrainian/Georgian food.

We decided to have a day off today from the kitchen. We decided to go to Potocki Palace, we were delayed entry as there were some military weddings taking place. Once inside the palace, it was amazing. It’s not a palace as we know them, more like a stately home that was home to beautiful architecture, paintings etc. they even allowed one of our group to play some music on their 18th century Piano, despite it being a little out of tune!

I finally found a Roshen store, it is Ukrainian chocolate and very lovely. I bought a box of chocolates to take home and they actually made it! That evening we went to Dr. Faust’s restaurant for borscht, the restaurant is very popular as it serves to borscht (Ukrainian beetroot soup and a traditional dish) in glass skull bowls. The evening was finished with yet more cherry liqueur, I just made it to the hotel before curfew despite getting lost! There was an amazing thunderstorm that lasted for a few hours, the rain was just like being at home (torrential at times).

Monday 25th September

I was back at the kitchen by 10am. Today was pumpkin day, I have never seen such huge pumpkins! I had the tedious job of helping to sort the seeds as they are dried and used in the new energy bars they make. We also prepared carrots, tomatoes, apples, and pears. The kitchen is situated next to a school and the children kept throwing Lego and crayons at us!

I decided to go and find some lunch which took a while as there was an air raid alarm. I discovered how useless the app was as there was no English translation and no signs of where the nearest shelter was, no one appeared to be heading for shelter and were casually walking around, so we decided to get a croissant and sit outside in the sun. The croissants were huge and the best I have tasted, filled with fruit and cream I will definitely need to go on a diet when I get home.

That evening we went to another Georgian restaurant; the food was amazing and lovely red wine that tasted like Ribena but definitely packed a punch. I do not drink red wine, but a few bottles were consumed between the 3 of us, I was glad it was downhill to the hotel!

Tuesday 26th September

Back to the kitchen today, it was another hot day spent preparing more pumpkins, onions, garlic, and apples. I left early as several crates of walnuts were delivered and having a nut allergy decided it best to leave!

That evening all the volunteers went out to dinner, as a couple were leaving later that evening, there were 15 of us in total. We decided to go to a themed restaurant that resembled a dungeon! The restaurant was again in a basement, just as well as there was another air raid alarm. After dinner three of us decided to go looking for a dessert café we had been told about, it was in an old chemist that had bottles of poison on the shelves, they did have contents in them but what it was exactly, I did not ask! Despite it being past 10pm it was still very warm outside; my dessert was a lovely tart with vanilla cream and topped with fresh fruit and was the only one left which was just as well as I would have been tempted to have more! Tonight, was bittersweet for me as it was my last full day in Lviv, a place I had fallen in love with and friends I was sad to leave!

Wednesday 27th September

My last time at the kitchen today and it was spent preparing pears and carrots, they have some really weird, shaped carrots in Ukraine. I was given a couple gifts from the owners of the kitchen as a thank you for volunteering, which was unexpected but very much appreciated.

I left at about 3pm and went to my hotel to pack, I met up with my friends at about 5pm and went out for an early and last meal with them. This time we went to a lovely Lebanese restaurant; I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the food. There were tears when I had to leave and by 6:30pm I was starting the mammoth journey home and would finally get there at 7:15pm on Thursday!

I am proud of myself for what I done and have enjoyed every minute of my time in Lviv, the plan is for the 3 friends I made to meet up and go back in late spring, only this time for longer and to go to Kyiv where another volunteer kitchen operates!