After spending a night in Lviv in a hostel, my main CouchSurfing host was Ira, a PhD student studying Croatian. Native to Lviv, Ira and her grandparents hosted me just outside of the city.
Within an hour of my arrival, Ira was pouring shots of Ukrainian vodka and homemade rose liqueur for everyone, which we followed with pickled cabbage with mushrooms her grandmother had picked in the neighboring forest. Before preparing borscht, potato pancakes, and pierogi for me over the next few days, Ira’s grandmother asked if everyone in the States was vegetarian.
Neither of her grandparents spoke English, but Ira was happy to translate and laugh along as her grandmother and I exchanged sleepwalking stories, and blushed as she interpreted her grandfather’s recommendation that I should start going to church. Behind their small house was a massive brick building, unfinished but close to completion. To avoid taking up debt while increasing their lot, Ira’s grandparents (with help from the rest of the family) built the huge new house themselves over the last summer.
But the bars of Lviv were the main attractions I saw there, as Ira and various friends we picked up along the way made our rounds through the kitschy post-Soviet nightlife. Old yellow and blue van-buses too short to stand in shuttled us between the house and city, past gray buildings and brightly flowered graveyards.
There was homemade horseradish vodka at Masoch’s in Lviv, a little dungeon cafe decorated with leather, chains and sculptures of genitals. Named after Lviv-born Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who ‘invented’ masochism, the cafe’s whip-yielding waitresses served breaded portobello mushrooms while a video of three mating frogs played on a big screen on the wall.
To enter signless Kryivka, a man in a Ukrainian soldier uniform required the password “Slava Ukrajini” (something like “power to Ukraine”), and a shot of strong apple vodka once inside to strengthen Ukrainian comrades and poison any Russian infiltrators. Downstairs through the gate, a Ukrainian cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pumped through the stereo to diners, drinkers, and shooters practicing their aim at the tucked-away pellet-gun range.
To access the Freemasons restaurant, we rang the doorbell to a nondescript upstairs room in an apartment building. A thin, bearded man in a bathrobe answered, revealing his small linoleum-floored kitchen complete with dirty dishes, old refrigerator and tiny television. He offered us a chair in front of the TV and our choice of leftover food, joking with Ira in Ukrainian before ushering us through a second door, into a glowing violet high-end restaurant with a view of the downtown center. For about $5 I enjoyed some of the best mushroom soup, salad and cake I’ve ever had, then said goodbye to Ira and her grandparents, and soon after to Ukraine.