Midnight in Lviv: The Story of Ukraine’s American Exiles

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«The Americans in Lviv are looking for new ideas.» In a storied European city, American Lauren Spohn finds not a «lost generation» but a «shared melody,’ in contrast with widespread isolation in the USA.
Scenes from a Sunday soirée with Americans and Ukrainians at the LV Café Jazz Club.

Scenes from a Sunday soirée with Americans and Ukrainians at the LV Café Jazz Club.

By Lauren Spohn

LV Café jazz club, Sunday, fifteen minutes to midnight, in Lviv, Ukraine. The red-walled room is crowded, full of people drinking wine, eating cake, and chattering in Ukrainian and English. The lights are dim except for the yellow beams lighting up the stage, where five musicians are grooving. The saxophone flashes in the spotlight. He tosses the melody to the piano, who passes it to the trumpet, who flings it to the guitar, who throws it back to the saxophone.

The drums swing out the beat. Some people in the crowd chatter under the music, others gossip, some discuss philosophy, others argue about politics – all heads bob in sync with the rhythm. Every few minutes, a couple leaps up from their seats to dance.

No one seems to worry about getting up in six hours, going to work, and making a living. They’re too busy living life.

Like Paris in the 1920s?

«What Paris was in the 1920s, Lviv is in the 2020s,» Joe Lindsley, the American Journalist [and editor of Lviv Now], told me the evening before over a bowl of borshch, a traditional Ukrainian meat and beet soup. Joe came to deliver a lecture at the Ukrainian Catholic University in February 2020 and was locked in the city after COVID-19 broke out. He never left.

Some might call it Stockholm Syndrome. But after spending a week with Joe and other American expats in the city in October 2021, I think it’s less a sickness than a cure. We might even call it Lviv Life: great wine, stellar jazz, free conversation, and most of all, good people. It tells you something about the United States that a North-Carolina-native, ex-Fox-News journalist would have to fly to a country war-torn by Nazis and Soviets – and describe it in a hundred-year-old metaphor – to find that combination in 2021.

As an English literature major, I have an idea of what Joe means by «Paris in the 1920s.» I think of the film Midnight in Paris, when Owen Wilson’s character, a washed-up writer in search of inspiration, time-travels to post-World-War-I Paris and hangs out in jazz clubs with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. These were the stars of the «Lost Generation,» the group of expat artists who fled America to write some of the best American fiction of the century.

The end of Armenian (Virmenska) Street, home to galleries, music venues, and cafés that spill into the streets: Lviv’s artistic quarter.

Hemingway and his friends were all more or less disillusioned by the First World War – the carnage, the hyper-nationalist politics, the people too blinded by the politics to care about the carnage. They sailed back to the Old World in search of new ideas. They found them, it seems, in the smoky backrooms of coffee salons and jazz clubs.

I imagine the scene was near-identical to the one in the Lviv jazz club that Sunday night. Low lighting, high spirits, flowing wine and free conversation. Friends calling friends by name. Saxophone calling piano to improvise the next riff. Philosophizing, dancing, laughing, wine pouring out of bottles to water the ideas growing into novels, songs, stories, livelihoods, and revolutions.

Some of the domes and spires including the central tower of the city, in late autumn

This is what the Lost Generation was searching for in Paris – freedom, refuge, stimulation. What are American expats searching for in Lviv?

«Americans come here when they don’t know what to do with their lives,» a senior student at Ukrainian Catholic University told me as we stood by the hor d’oeuvres, chatting over the crooning sax. Her dark eyes, bright against her red dress, flashed in a way that made the judgement seem final. I gulped down my wine to chase down the angst climbing up my throat.

She was right, of course. Joe landed in Lviv after years of fugitive-style globetrotting and stayed, at least at first, because a pandemic gave him no other choice. Other Americans in the city are digital nomads – software engineers from Tennessee, designers from Texas, financial analysts from Colorado, all working remote, most unsure where to settle, unhappy in the U.S. but unrooted everywhere else. 

I came to Lviv with a broken heart, four months into a new job, three months into a quarter-life crisis, and two weeks into a hectic trip around the Atlantic to sit an exam in Oxford and run a marathon in Boston, because a friend I had never met in person asked me to. If that doesn’t make us seem like a «Lost Generation,» I’m not sure what does.

The author, right, speaks with a Ukrainian friend

But more to the point, the American expats in Lviv are, in one way or another, exhausted and disillusioned by the same thing Hemingway and his friends were: the carnage and the politics in our homeland. Cancel culture, Twitter wars of attrition, partisanship, loneliness, status-obsession, pleasure, profits. We all see the problems, but we’re not sure what to do about them. Do we fight or leave? Dig in our heels or take to the skies? The Americans in Lviv are, in an important sense, looking for new ideas.

But does this make them the new «Lost Generation»? I don’t think so. If 21st-century expats are searching Lviv the same thing their 20th-century compatriots sought in Paris, they’ve found something different. More than stimulation–more than the wine and jazz and vogue ideas – they’ve found friends. They’ve become embedded in a community. They’re not a Lost Generation, so much as a found one.

Looking toward the Rynok (Market) Square in the pedestrian-focused centre-city, a UNESCO recognized world heritage monument

Saturday night, a few hours after I stumbled out of the Lviv airport jet-lagged and confused by the Cyrillic alphabet, Joe took me and another American friend on a whirlwind tour of central Lviv. We dashed from café to restaurant, from art gallery to bar, Joe greeting each shop owner by name. He embraced them, asked about their kids in boisterous Ukrainian, and promised to come back later for a drink. 

As we walked, he spun off stories about each place we passed: the old Armenian club turned into a bar; the French café run by university students; the salon where dissident philosophers

schemed against the Soviets; the Cuban dive created by a world-renowned bartender with a portrait of Hemingway musing over the counter. The painting, the bartender told me, was hung in Joe’s honor.

For five hours, everywhere we walked in Lviv’s half-square-mile central historic district, people knew the American expats by name. In a different world, we could have been walking down main street in Joe’s mid-Atlantic hometown, waving to the neighbors and next-of- kin from their front porches and mom-and-pop-shop windows. It felt like home.

«Small-Town USA in Ukraine’s Most Vibrant City»

Joe wasn’t the only American who rediscovered small-town USA in Ukraine’s most vibrant city. My friend had an equally rich ecosystem of relationships. She knew the name of the woman who came down from the mountains every morning to sell fresh raspberries in the open-air market, knew where to find the one vendor among the dozens on the street corner who sold the right shade of red flowers for the jazz party on Sunday. 

We took an errand to the local natural wine shop and ended up staying for an hour, chatting over coffee. She gave hugs to all the café owners before we sat down to eat (and another one after dinner to thank them for the generous discount). She knew the WiFi password of every coffee shop in the city. We couldn’t walk half a block without saying hello to another friend.

«The Day Was a Shared Melody»

It felt almost like college – throwing our laptops in our bags, ducking into a café to work for a few hours, bumping into friends, grabbing lunch, chatting philosophy, popping into a different café to work for another few hours, jumping into spontaneous evening activities with more friends, serendipitously discovered. The day was a shared melody.

Every few hours, work shimmered into improvising. People joined, left, and rejoined the groove, but always stayed within earshot of the action. It was jazz as a rhythm of life.

Over the course of the week, I learned that Lviv’s dense web of strong ties extends through time, as well as space. The city’s roots drink deeply from the past, both its pride and its pain. A Greek Catholic monastery overlooks the city; memorials of the thousands of Jews killed during the second World War surround the neighborhoods now filled with restaurants and art galleries; Soviet-bloc apartments with blanched walls and stained satellites brood just outside the city center. The place is a living memory. You can’t walk around Lviv without bumping into the past, any less than you could walk around without bumping into a friend. No one, not even history, is a stranger.

What, then, have American expats found in Lviv? In a word, rootedness. They’ve found connection to a people, a place, and a past – a village in a city. They’ve found a reason to bless the tie that binds.

Why can’t Americans find this rootedness in their own country? By and large, the U.S. village has disappeared, cut up by highways, bloated by suburbia, swallowed up by the same conglomerate restaurant chains and supermarkets that colonize so much of world Culture.

It wasn’t always this way. As Richard Thomas writes in his classic study, «From Porch to Patio,»  the USA used to be a nation of front porches and small villages, Little League baseball games and neighborhood barbecues, where families lived in one place long enough to develop a web of high-contact relationships with neighbors, friends, and extended kin. But today, in most parts of the country, those strong ties have all but dissolved in a hyper-mobile anti-culture that splits us between suburban isolation and urban anonymity.

Lviv’s Opera House

Suburbanites leave their single-family homes in the morning, drive to work, and come back in the evening without once having to greet a neighbor. Young urban professionals move to a different city every few years, chasing career opportunities and saving time by never learning the name of the person next door. Squeezed between work and family, few modern Americans have the time or interest to develop relationships with people who fall outside their daily commute, or with the faces on the subway and in the apartment lobby who they might never see again. 

Even fewer people have the time and interest to dance and philosophize six hours before the workweek starts on Monday. If the rhythm of life is like jazz in Lviv, it’s become something of a silent disco in the United States: people move in parallel, not in sync, each person listening to their own music over their AirPods, wrapped in their own private worlds and deaf to the universe around them.


 

If anything, Lviv’s American «expats» would feel exiled in America – at least, in the America that has lost touch with its big-hearted, small-town rootedness. The America that has traded its strong community ties, walkable urban space, and local economy for convenience, advancement, and atomizing efficiency. The America that has forgotten that the real music of life isn’t in our headphones, but in the people around us.

 

The French restaurant Tante Sophie, central Lviv

Lviv in the 2020s might have the art and the wine to rival Paris in the 1920s, but for the Americans living there today, the city isn’t some Jazz Age escape. It is, at least for the moment, home.

But for all the strength, beauty, and nourishment of that rooted city, I still hope that one day, my compatriots and I will uproot ourselves one last time, return to our homeland, recollect our forgotten memories, and remind our American friends and family how to live life like we’re in the jazz clubs of Lviv.

By Lauren Spohn (follow on LinkedIn). Spohn, a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, is a writer, runner, and pilot in Austin, Texas.

Interested in visiting Lviv? You can message Joe Lindsley via Instagram or via Facebook.

Read more: 

For stories about trips outside of the city of Lviv, away from the clubs and bustle, you can read about Carpathian mountain adventures, including a horse-riding adventure to a mountain-top moonshine bar:  »Finding the Fantastic in District 13.»

Stories about music culture and community in Lviv: «The Music of Free People in Lviv,» «Adele’s Pianist Says Lviv is ‘Breeding Ground for Artistic Explosion«Sunrise Jams with the Legends: Lviv’s New Music Moment.»

Some jazz music from the LV Café:

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Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.


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