LVIV, Ukraine — When war broke out in Ukraine in February, Helen Polishchuk made some adjustments to the six-story bar she runs in central Lviv.
The Mad Bars House in Lviv’s historic main square remained open, but served coffee and hot food instead of alcoholic drinks. They turned off the rock music. And when displaced Ukrainians poured into the city from places devastated by Russian attacks hundreds of miles away, she had instructions for wait staff.
“When guests leave the restaurant, we normally say ‘have a nice day,'” she said. Instead, she said they could say something else, such as “Glory to Ukraine” or “We wish you a blue sky.”
“Because it’s stupid to say ‘have a nice day’ at this time,” said Ms Polishchuk, 33.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, Lviv, a historic city just 65 kilometers from Poland, was a popular European tourist destination, attracting 2.5 million visitors a year and the largest jazz festival in Eastern Europe.
Now, instead of tourists, there are displaced Ukrainians fleeing the war-torn east of the country. Lviv and its residents are learning to live with what most now believe will be many months, if not years.
Several Russian airstrikes have targeted infrastructure here, including a rocket attack on a military training base last month that killed more than 30 people. Air raid sirens warn several times a day of Russian fighter jets breaching the airspace. However, this small city is still a long way from the active fighting that has devastated entire cities in eastern Ukraine.
The biggest challenge for Lviv was to survive a wartime economy and to contain the flow of displaced, traumatized people that swell the city’s population.
“We have learned to live in wartime,” said the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, who recently lifted some municipal restrictions, including allowing bars and restaurants to sell wine and beer, though not spirits.
Mr Sadovyi, a former businessman, said he had ordered city officials six months before the Russian invasion to find a way to keep the water supply flowing in the event of a power outage. They started buying diesel generators, stockpiling medical supplies and replenishing blood banks.
“If I hadn’t prepared my city for this situation, we would be in a catastrophe right now,” Mr Sadovyi, wearing a black hoodie and black sneakers, said in an interview at the 19th-century Viennese-style town hall. The expansive stone balcony of his office overlooked the market square, where displaced children were screaming with laughter and chasing giant soap bubbles blown by a street performer.
Mr Sadovyi said civilians fleeing the fighting entered Lviv within hours of the invasion — 60,000 of them a day for the first three weeks. With another Russian advance expected, about 10,000 a day are arriving.
While many cross the border into Poland and other European countries, about 200,000 remain, double the number expected by the city government and nearly a third of the city’s pre-war population of 700,000.
Those with money rent apartments or stay in hotels. But tens of thousands more are in shelters depending on aid. The Polish government has donated container homes for 1,000 people to be set up in a city park. Others are being diverted from Lviv to other communities in western Ukraine.
“This is a huge burden on our city,” said Mr. Sadovyi, 53. “Actually, we have another city in our city.”
The war has sparked remarkable patriotism, and when some locals find they can’t find tables in their favorite cafes or restaurants because they’re full of displaced people, they tend not to complain. Guides lead displaced families on free city tours. Passengers on the tourist trolley leaving City Hall today are not foreigners but Ukrainians.
It makes for a strange juxtaposition. A significant proportion of the soldiers who die at the front come from western Ukraine and there are regular funerals in churches in the city center. On a recent day, the sobbing relatives of a steelworker and his factory colleagues stood outside a cathedral wreathed with flowers.
Along the edges, old residents try to maintain a semblance of pre-war life.
Lviv’s National Opera recently resumed limited events, featuring snippets of ballet and choral performances. The number of tickets sold is limited to the capacity of the building’s air-raid shelter, approximately 250 people. An air raid siren sounded at the first performance, sending spectators and dancers to the shelter before the show resumed.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Russia is preparing a renewed offensive. Ukraine braces itself for a Russian attack along the eastern front, where Ukrainian officials have warned civilians still living in the region that time is running out to escape. But the road to safety is fraught with danger, with reports of Ukrainian civilians being killed while trying to flee.
“We’ve reopened because we’ve received so many calls and emails from people,” said Ostap Hromysh, the opera’s international relations manager. The messages were apologetic, saying “Of course we understand there is war”, but asked if they had any performances anyway.
“When people are confronted every day with sad news about death, about blood, about bombs, they must be feeling different emotions,” he said.
At the Mad Bars House, Ms Polishchuk said they were planning to open a rooftop terrace next week, perhaps offering non-alcoholic cocktails, as well as wine and beer. They are bringing back more of their original 111-strong staff.
She said the bar, which has a dance floor during normal times and serves increasingly potent drinks as customers climb the six floors, is losing money but determined to stay open. On Sunday afternoon the first and second floors of the bar were packed.
Management has replaced the classic rock entertaining beer drinkers in the ground floor bar with Ukrainian songs before the war, though Frank Sinatra on the floor serves wine to customers at tables.
“We don’t want to pretend that nothing happened, we understand it’s war,” Ms Polishchuk said. “But we want to create an atmosphere of a safe place.”
On the menu is borscht, the beet soup that had few fans before the war, is now the biggest seller. Ms Polishchuk said it was patriotism and stress. “We understand that people want comfort food,” she said.
“Have a nice day” isn’t the only thing that doesn’t feel right these days.
“Now is not the time for carrot juice and green salads,” said Ms Polishchuk.