I write this not to get your sympathy (there are millions of people more deserving of that right now) I may be writing it out of “survivors guilt.” But I am mostly writing it to make this more relatable to you. Sometimes foreign wars can feel far away (especially if the TV in your country doesn’t show things as they are)
You know me, this is my story.
January 1st 2022 Kyiv – We’re having New Year’s dinner with friends. (All Russian speaking Ukrainian friends.) It’s below freezing outside but we’re having BBQ and spiced Rum. The girls are all chatting away as usual. The guys talk about tech and music and art. It’s a great day.
January 8th Kyiv – We’re enjoying hot chocolate, mulled wine and the Christmas Tree outside the Presidential House in Kyiv.
January 9th – Our flights back to Rome are cancelled due to Covid. So we enjoy more of being back in Kyiv. I hang out in my favourite coffee shop where I wrote vol. 15. We’re loving the snow out whilst being warm inside. The shopping malls have all our favourite foods. I’m doing genki videos and lives. The tech in the city is insane, there are Teslas everywhere. It’s like Singapore. But snowy.
Tuesday 18th January – No one’s going to attack. Only a crazy person would even think of it. Even if they did we would have days notice in Kyiv. Then troops move into Belarus, an incredibly shorter distance away.
Wednesday 19th January – The American Embassy evacuates non essential staff. Ah, if the American Embassy evacuates it’s probably time to go. Our flights to Rome are still cancelled. There are budget air flights to Rome but they don’t take pets. My wife has to be back in Kyiv in March anyway so we consider leaving Mimi with grandparents. My daughter somehow persuades us that she can’t leave without her cat Mimi. The only flights back that take pets are an obscene amount of money and involve renting another car for a 9 hour trip back from Milan all to be completed before midnight’s deadline to go into 10 days quarantine.
Thursday January 20th: We went bowling.
Friday January 21st: We hear that tanks could be in Kyiv at not 2 days but 2 hours notice. Oh. Everyone is scared now. Our apartment is right on the river, right next to the bridge, a prime target for an errant tank round. My daughter wants to stay with us, we take her to her grandparents which is in a much more secure location. We eat a family dinner. On the way home my wife and I decided to go have a cocktail at our favorite date night restaurant. The atmosphere was charged, like everyone was fully absorbing and appreciating the beauty in everything. We never knew if we would be able to come back here again.
January 22 Negotiations were going on. Everything was calm.
January 23rd: Grandparents weren’t ready to leave everything (“It’s fine, nothing’s going to happen.”) I am paranoid by nature. I’ve travelled the world enough to know that to survive anything you have to be prepared for everything. I pulled out all the cash I could, both in local currency and also in Euros in case the local currency crashed. We hid it around the house. My wife left her credit card. We left them our car with a full tank of petrol and the boot filled with water and food. Having a car full of petrol means you can at least get warm if the power and gas shut off (which we expected would happen) Everyone thought I was crazy.
January 24th Fly to Italy. I still can’t believe my daughter persuaded us to take this flight. Renting another car from Milan was ridiculously expensive and we had to pick up our other rented car we left in Rome. ( Long story, we didn’t know if I would be able to drive in January in Italy so we had to rent a car before we left and pay to park it whilst we were away.) We arrive back home at 1AM, an hour after our quarantine was supposed to start.
February 7th: We’ve got Covid. Quarantine is extended for another 10 days. (Conveniently covering our birthdays and valanetine’s day) Being inside without being allowed out for exercise or even food shopping is not good with the news on our devices all the time.
February 15th: We’re out of quarantine!
February 16th: Things seem to be looking worse in Kyiv. We suggest grandparents come and visit us in Italy. They have 90 days visas, they could come just in case, like a (cold) holiday. “We’re fine” they say. But they do agree to update their passports just in case.
February 22nd: We realize that being in Italy just isn’t possible. Nearly every penny I earn is taken away in tax and there are so many limitations of how I can earn it back. I’m pretty down that the Italian dream isn’t working out. But going back to Kyiv in May, after everything has blown over, looks like the best option. It is a more European city than Rome, it’s business friendly, it’s high tech, it’s warm in winter, my daughter and wife have friends there. We’ll be sad to leave Italy but do actually quite like the idea of going back to live in Kyiv in May.
February 23rd 2022: At 4 AM I learn they have bombed Kyiv. No one imagined it could actually happen. My wife wakes up. I decide whether to tell her or let her sleep – it’s going to be a long day. But we expect the internet to be shut off straight away so I tell her so she can speak to her parents, it might be a while before she can talk to them again. My daughter walks in “My best friend has just told me they have bombed Kyiv! She’s telling me not to worry. How am I supposed to not worry?”
There are reports of traffic jams and lack of petrol. We expect tanks to come across the main Kyiv bridges in hours. Some friends get in their cars and leave. Where are they going to go? Grandparents ask what they should do. They wish they had flown out last week. Grandad doesn’t have his passport back yet. We don’t know if they can enter Europe. They haven’t packed. We tell them to stay put while we desperately try to find out what really has happened.
We calculate times and distances to the border. We try to find out about long term visas for Italy or Poland. It’s 650 kms to the Polish border. We google the petrol capacity of a Nissan Micra. It’s 600 km.
February 24th 2022: Curfew breaks at 7AM. At 5 AM they ring us asking what they should do. The internet is miraculously still working. We scoured it for news. Where are the tanks? Where are the missile strikes? Are the roads safe? There’s no way grandma could survive, never mind even get down to, the evacuation cellars. Are the apartment blocks safe? What’s the best choice. We tell them to go. They leave at 6:45 with a car full of food, water, blankets and whatever they can fit in the car. Everything else they leave.
(When we arrived in Italy a year ago we arrived with 3 suitcases. Everything else we left in Kyiv thinking we’d have time to move it later. My daughters toys, my books, genki t shirts, the suits you can see in my profile pictures, the note I wrote my wife the morning of our wedding day which she keeps on her make up stand. That was all now left behind.)
They get across the bridge faster than a regular working day. Stage one complete.
650 km to go. It should take 8 or 9 hours. They would be in Poland with my sister-in-law by nightfall.
Every thirty minutes grandma rings up asking which road to take. Which ones are open? Which ones are clear? Which ones are being attacked? We’re on google maps and bbc news trying to find out the best route, anything away from hot zones and Belarus. Grandmas and internet navigation don’t mix. Trying to relay exactly where they are so we can find the best route is proving tricky. I ask on Facebook how to track someones location on Viber. I find out it’s possible with Telegram. We start tracking them in real time. They are going backwards. I’m sure there is a sit com somewhere with grandparents arguing like crazy about road directions whilst fleeing from a war zone.
Friends are on the road a couple of hours in front of them, they are scouting for petrol and safe places to park if they have to stay over night. News comes through that men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave the country. My friends have to make the harrowing choice of whether to leave their families at the border, literally leaving them alone in a foreign country, or stay with them somewhere safe in country. No one really believes that Ukraine can survive more than a few days. They all head for safe areas in country.
We’re expecting grandparents to be at the border by nightfall. They are nowhere near. Grandad falls asleep at 1AM. Grandma is awake all night. Walking is hard for her at the best of times, being trapped in a car all day is not helping. It’s cold as they switch off the car to save petrol.
February 25th – We awake in Italy after sleeping in comfy beds. We check Telegram. Grandparents have been on the road an hour. They haven’t moved. They need to call for petrol. Petrol is rationed to 20 liters. They unbelievable luckily get the last 20 liters.
We check the news. Kyiv is miraculously still standing. This can’t be. But it is. For the first time we have the thought that Ukraine could actually win this. We follow the dot on Telegram, Grandparents are moving slowly. The tanks behind them are moving even slower.
I’m trying to think of what more I can do.
February 26th – Surely they must be there by now? It’s an 8 hour drive. They have been on the road for 2 days already. I see news that paratroopers have attacked the road just behind them. I don’t tell my wife. It turns out later to be a false alarm. My sister-in-law has been waiting on the Polish side over night too. There are no hotels available anywhere near the border. They sleep in their car. Her daughter, my niece, who is back at home with neighbors calls “Mummy I want you back with me.”
February 27th – It’s Carnivale time in Italy. We decide to take my daughter to take her mind off all the news and logistics. The Ukraine border have run out of EU “Green card” insurance documents. Without it they can’t take the car into Poland. We tell them don’t worry about the car, leave it if you have to but there’s no way grandma would be able to walk across the border. We’re looking everywhere trying to find online sites to get the EU insurance. Places in the UK want 350 pounds but won’t work from Ukraine. My wife rings her insurance broker. It’s Sunday. She’s in an underground bunker fearing for her life. Eventually we find an agent who is working on a Sunday. With bombs falling. We get the documents. We thank her profusely for being there to help. We arrive at the Carnivale. It has finished.
February 28th – An 8 hour trip is now taking 4 days. No hotels. No showers. No bathrooms. Luckily Ukraine elected a comedian who turned out to be a Lion. We expected columns of tanks to be blocking the roads. So many times we were fearful of rocket attacks on the vehicles leaving. But Ukraine fought back like a monster. The armed forces bought grandparents time to make it so close to the border.
I see a meme saying how to tell written Ukranian from other languages. You look at the letter “Ï” If it has two big balls it’s Ukrainian.
We get another call. The car is registered in my wife’s name. They can’t take it out of the country without a signed, notarized letter form her giving permission. They need it now. My wife handwrites a letter. She takes her photo holding it. She signs it “Slava Ukraini”
March 1st 2022 – It’s past midnight. We’ve stopped reading news in front of our daughter. She has gone to bed. We’re watching this dot on Telegram move closer and closer to the border. It moves backwards. Then forwards. And into Poland. We’re too exhausted to even cheer. We can’t imagine what it has been like for everyone in Ukraine. We thank Poland, we thank the fighters in Kyiv and every city in Ukraine.
And now we’re here, today. I always say “Family first” and, maybe selfishly, that’s what I’ve been focussed on for the past 6 days. They are now safe. Now we’re thinking of our friends. Their children. Being forced to fight or stay with your family, which would you choose? The family we had New Year dinner with, they have gunfire in their garden, there’s an explosion on the horizon. Many people I haven’t even had the courage to call. They are my friends. The people I have beers and rum with. The girls my wife gives my daughter’s clothes to.
You know me, you’ve seen me, hopefully at some point in your life I have helped you in even some small way, now my friends need you. If you can help, please help. And if someone is doing this evil in your name, please, please get them to stop.