he woman I love — one part Ryszard Kapuściński, another part Michael Herr, a third a dirty blonde Brenda Starr driving a late model BMW — just recrossed into Poland after a madcap, zigzagging foray into that oasis of chaos known as Ukraine. Permission slips? Who needs them! From Poland, embattled Ukraine is something of an open city — at least to war scribes, comic heroes, and the reckless hero of this unreliably narrated but thoroughly passionate story. Once you’re in, locals greet intrepid Poles, and my friend qualifies as intrepid. At times like these, she seems like a wildebeest in disguise, as eager to run as to tease the lions of fate.
Ask outsiders about her little foray and most call it provocative, foolish — particularly the adventurer has a history of depression and a flair for the wildly dramatic. They shake their heads and pass out the death-knell words. Ask BMW Brenda, and she’ll tell you instead about emerging markets, and how driving into a combat zone does wonders to shake off the post-plague urban blues.
Go East, young woman, and you come back with stories. Many involve the smiles of locals when you tell them, leaning out from your driver’s side window, that you’ve come to help, even if that isn’t entirely true — after all, you’re driving a car, not 007’s rocket-launcher. But the declaration of solidarity might just get you some toilet paper, in short supply, when you gas up at a pristine (yes) service station.
The conventional notion of how a war works has much in common with how a hurricane swirls: Media attention is so fixated on death and wreckage, the conveyed sense is of all war, all the time — which has never been how it works. War is the outburst between lulls, but lulls are frequent, and live, vibrant life, goes on.
In Lviv, taken by Russian troops but recaptured by Ukrainians, hotels and restaurants do brisk business. Wildebeest Brenda had to work to find free parking — there’s a conference at the hotel, said an employee. Sure, troops and weapons abound, but so does laughter, and banquet-sized dinners are all the rage (as they were and are in Israel, even in the worst of war times). Living hard and fully is war; it’s the best counterpart to its otherwise dark side, and that makes a war zone an ideal spot for a zealous depressive with nothing to lose but tricks up her sleeves.
She knows, or senses, as most astute observers do, that post-war Ukraine will be the site of America’s next Marshall Plan. Billions will head this way, ostensibly to help rebuild shattered infrastructure but also to create a massively pro-West, Central European fortress, a commercially and militarily sound state capable of dominating Crimea and the Black Sea’s assets (think wheat, ports, pipelines, natural gas) as well as furnishing bases to American aircraft eager to get closer to Iran and, yes, China — which, for now, is reeling but will not reel indefinitely. Then there’s Russia, of course, which Washington is eager to formulate its way when the post-Putin finally arrives, as it will.
She, my 21st-century internationalist Brenda, met sleek and sleazy men alike, many interested in what she has to offer — alternative energy — and greedy to spend the non-military cash they know will sooner or later come their way. No one called her crazy for coming. On the contrary.
And to think she’d billed this, at least to intimates, as a suicide mission, a trek into a dead-end twilight zone, a killing field. And the intimates gasped, of course. Rightly so, since, again, it’s lovely playing wildebeest until the lions have you cornered and leaping skills are neutered.
But she met no lions, aside perhaps from her inner depressive growl, which, in her case, reminded her only that she is more animal than human and has no need of or interest in many human conventions. If in doubt, pop a Valium.
Listening is a craft, and over the years I have learned its ropes. All I need is a good storyteller with keen observational skills. Though Brenda never gives away too many details, she’s an astute student of human nature. As when she tells you about the behind-the-scenes Greek mogul who set up her Ukraine meetings, all the while warning her that, at least in business, Ukrainians are con artists, so beware. Add to that a key bit of recent European history — that many Ukrainians and Croats were ardently pro-Nazi not so long ago — and you know to tread lightly on Eastern promises.
Still, says Brenda, her melancholy voice charged with adrenaline, who exactly would think to try to enter a missiles-bashed country in a BMW, looking to firm up war-aftermath opportunities? Who? Not Elon Musk. Not New York or London businessmen and traders. No. They’re made for the sidelines, fodder for CNN’s endless war footage. They love themselves for being behind the curve because it’s more prudent.
Try talking prudence to the wildebeest called Brenda. Each time I try, I fail abjectly, but find the failure rewarded with tales only she can tell — largely about how to live life to the fullest when you’ve reached the conclusion, or think you have, that you don’t want to live it at all — until you cross both inner and outer borders.