Two Lives To Live — Blackouts on the Black Sea

"Mama has no lights too…"

Living in Ukraine during the blackout nicely bifurcates existence between two centuries, sort of.

When the electricity comes on, a feeling of elation strikes, and for us it sounds like the beeper on the fridge, which exist solely to alert us to the fact that the power was out, and you have to press the lightning bolt light on the control panel to shut the beeping up. It does this because the temperature dropped, and also because it is too stupid to just reset itself.

So that is typically the thing in the middle of the night that lets us know the electricity is back on. But it is more than that, you can physically feel the power surge into devices and the wiring, a change in the vibe of a space that only electrification can provide, even when all devices are turned off.

A normally very bright part of OdesaA normally very bright part of Odesa

Right now, I write this, of course, with one foot into the 21st century, a fully charged MacBook, but by candlelight, like our great-grandparents used to do. Keeping fully charged is one of the things we all do now out of habit, but it wasn't always this way. In the beginning, when the evil empire to our east decided to be total dicks and knock on the power grid, we had to dig out the old power banks, find all the extra charger plugs, and head over to the very cool modern mall that we are fortunate enough to live next to, and plug in.

We were not alone. Everyone from the neighborhood searched out every mall plug to charge up and stay glued to their devices, sitting on the floors. While I was only there for work purposes, glancing at the other patrons of the mall, they watched TikTok, scoured Instagram, and played Solitaire, things I always assumed you could live without, but for some, it seems the urge to do these things is just too strong. Life must go on!

The mall is a three-floor affair with free Wifi, but most people stuck to the first two floors, not knowing that climbing the huge frozen escalator steps to the third floor delivers you to a pretty decent restaurant, that even in an age of blackouts still goes about its lonely existence.

The kind restauranteurs at Pizza Space set out power strip extension cords (don't leave home without one!) for people to plug in, put some extra tables to fill the empty floor outside their entrance to provide working space, and it indeed seems this space has become a de facto co-working space for many; I've seen coders, stock market traders, writers, even a video editor at work.

Of course, we go there to deal with our online stores, preparing labels for shipping, etc., or for the boys to take the online school exams. The pizza is very good, and the staff doesn't seem to mind that you finished your beverage hours ago, they don't push you to order anything more (even though we don't stay there that long).

Unlike many others in Ukraine, and even Odesa, we are very fortunate to have this island of electricity just a short walk from our house. On the ground floor, there is a Merry Berry cafe, it is always full of social media addicts, but there are only two plugs for charging, not located near any seating. That still doesn't stop piles of people from plugging power strips into daisy chains of electric juice so they could keep their Solitaire games going.

After a couple of weeks, almost everybody has their rhythm set. People know to keep charged up when the power is on, to keep the power banks full always, and to download movies to their devices to watch offline when the power is out. The crazy "I need a rozetka (plug)" days have basically passed.

The powers that be have sort of stabilized the situation, even publishing a handy cascading schedule with white, grey, and black sections, for when you will have power, could have power and for sure won't have power. This thankfully brings some sense of sanity to our lives and is much better than random chaos at the beginning where you could have power for an hour, then not for two days.

We were fortunate in the very beginning, that our apartment is located between the substation and the nearby hospital, so we had lights 24/7. That lasted just a week or so, then men working at the substation changed it, and we began sharing the darkness with the apartment blocks across the street we used to feel so very sorry for.

My wife's sister, her building had power this whole time because they were on the same grid as a major medical clinic. It seemed to have been too much for the people in the building across the street because they went to the authorities to complain, and instead of adding them onto that grid, they took my sister-in-law's building off of it. It created some bad vibes in her intersection…

Now she calls us constantly to tell us her power is on or off, even though she lives in another part of town. Hopefully, she will adjust.

It's amazing how much our life evolves around technology and electricity. If you've ever watched that 2012 series "Revolution" you can see what it's like when the lights go out. But unlike that series, there are workarounds, the all-buzzing generators that keep things going. According to one business survey, only 1% of Ukrainian businesses have stopped operations, the rest have all adapted, which is why Putin's feeble attempts at terror are pointless.

So, I started off talking about the double lives we live. While we don't have it as bad as in the trailer above, let me share it for you to compare.

Life with electricity: When the power is on, you live life, as usual, cooking with the electric stove, taking hot baths, working, watching TV, surfing the web, the possibilities are endless. The elevators work flawlessly, and at the stores, the escalators do their thing. The downside is, all these things kind of take your mind off of reality, people get lost in their devices, and computer work takes away your attention — you sit around more. The whole family parked in front of the TV watching movies while we eat our meals.

Life without electricity: When the lights go dark, you slip into another age. The first thing we do is light all the candles, the light of which gives your world a different hue, and provides some warmth that the horrid blue-LED battery lights cannot do, even if they are brighter. When the electricity is off, the options of what you can do change. For starters, you bring out the gas camper stove to cook on. You can read printed books. You can clean or organize. I tend to clean/prep items for our shop, or pack orders to go if there is daylight. The family sits down together to eat meals, with candlelight it has a more intimate feeling. Or play dominoes! If you want, you can take a nap. You also tend to go to bed earlier (and also wake up earlier). You talk to people more. You can also go for a walk, being sure to time returning home during those windows when the building generators run the elevators, in our case, three times a day. Best of all, you seem to have more time to meditate on life, the flame of the candles is mesmerizing!

A couple tips for life in blackouts:

1) Use bottles for candlestick holders, but cut out a round cardboard disk as a collar to put on the neck to catch wax drippings (a neat little trick I learned after an accident with a red candle on a white shag carpet back in the states).
2) Keep a couple of full water bottles in the freezer to keep the freezer cold, you can rotate them in the fridge part if the power is off for an extended period of time. If you're lucky, no annoying beeps when the power comes on at three in the morning.
3) Get a Youtube Premium account, you can download videos to watch offline, a bonus tip is to turn on smart downloads and whenever you have Wifi, it will download recommended videos for you automatically in the background.
4) Keep big water bottles full for the bathroom for when the water pressure drops, we have almost two dozen.
5) Get some books. Books are cool and still have a place in the world.

It's rather sad what Russia thinks they can do, they hope that since they fail militarily against the determined and brave Ukrainian defenders, somehow, ruining everyone's day will cause the Ukrainian population to demand their government surrender to Russia. They think this despite the fact that in all of electrified history, this has never worked, not in WWII, not in Afghanistan, not in Vietnam. It has only hardened everyone's will to resist. Everyone is getting stronger actually, I climb the stairs so frequently now my iPhone Health App sends me congratulatory alerts. I'm not the fastest climber, there are people now that sail past me both up or down. Putin is doing nothing but creating a fitter nation of Ukrainians.

And going forward, Ukraine will rebuild. The engineers working around the clock on the energy sector really are the national heroes President Zelenskiyy declared them. When victory comes, and come it will, Ukraine will have one of the most modern power systems in Europe, thanks to their will, and the generosity of spirit of the many nations around the world that will ensure that the light will extinguish the darkness in this world in the rebuilding phase.