On the banks of the Dnieper River, parents sunbathe on the beach as their children splash in the cool, refreshing water.
A girl dances, twisting and twirling in the sand as a busker on the boardwalk beats his drum to the rhythm of a pop tune.
With bars and cafes humming with activity, the vibe feels similar to that of countless European summer hotspots.
Yet this would be a strange place for a vacation. These are snapshots of life in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, barely 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the front line in the war with Russia.
It is a stark and disconcerting contrast to the scenes I witnessed on a visit to this city three months ago.
Back then, Russia’s invasion was two months in; most of the city’s businesses were shuttered and much of the population was on the run.
Gone now are the convoys of cars fleeing westward across Ukraine, many with the words “children” taped to the windows.
Instead, despite the closeness of the front lines and the ever-present threat of long-range artillery fire raining death from above, life in this country at war can appear deceptively peaceful.
People still go to work, walk their dogs and play with their children in the park.
“We’ve gotten used to this. And it is horrible that we’ve gotten used to it,” said ballerina Katryna Kalchenko, as she limbered up for a performance at the 135-year-old opera house in Odesa.
Here too, in this port city on the Black Sea, there is that jarring dissonance between the madness of war and the mundanity of every day life.
Odesa was once known as Ukraine’s “Pearl of the Black Sea,” a holiday spot popular with poets, writers and musicians. Even today, it retains much of its charm, though its tranquility is occasionally punctured by Russian strikes – such as the two Kalibr cruise missiles that hit just hours after Moscow had signed a grain export deal with Kyiv brokered by the United Nations.
Ballerina Kalchenko was forced to do her warm-up in the basement of the opera house, because an air raid siren had sent the entire orchestra and dance troupe rushing for shelter just half an hour earlier.
And yet, Kalchenko and her fellow dancers emerged for the first act a few stretches later with enough poise and serenity to leave their audience spellbound – until, that is, the threat of another Russian missile attack forced a premature closure of the show.
A victory of morale
It is as if, five months into the war, many Ukrainians have come to accept their new reality.
This is partly a reflection of confidence in those fighting on their behalf.
Ukrainians are fiercely proud of how their soldiers beat back the attempted Russian blitzkrieg on Kyiv in the north of the country in the spring.
Many now hope there will be further successes as their forces fight a grinding war of attrition on the eastern and southern fronts, where they hope to regain cities and towns lost to the armies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s a fight that takes a heavy toll. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky at one point said the country was losing up to 200 soldiers a day on those front lines.
And yet it is clear that among those brave defenders there is a willingness to endure whatever it takes.
Take Serhii Tamarin, for example.
I first met him in March, when he had recently emerged from a military hospital and was recovering from a spinal injury and broken ribs suffered while commanding a Territorial Defense battalion of some 400 troops, battling northwest of Kyiv.
“It’s not so scary to die, it’s much more scary to lose,” he said at the time. Within days, he had returned to the front.
When we reconnect, he is back in hospital, this time for injuries sustained as a special forces operator fighting in the south.
Is there a word in English, he asked, for when something blows up near your head?
A near miss from a tank round left him heavily concussed, and he now has trouble thinking straight, he said.
But he insisted he was feeling well enough to return to the fight.
“I think in a few days, they should send me back to my platoon,” Tamarin said.
But the embrace of Ukraine’s new reality is not only about confidence in men like Tamarin. It is borne of defiance, too.
Soldiers describe the war in existential terms, an invasion ordered by a Russian president who questions Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country.
“They came to capture our territory,” said Senior Lt. Andrii Pidlisnyi, who commands a company of around 100 men in the Mykolaiv region.
“To kill maybe my parents and just destroy my house and live here and say it was historically Russian territory.”
Civilians often express their seething anger by using Russian rhetoric – that it is “liberating” Ukrainians from their own democratically-elected government – and flinging it back in the Kremlin’s face.
“Thank you for ‘saving me’ from my home, from my family, from my child who is in another country and who I miss every day,” said Anastasia Bannikova, another ballerina I met in the basement bomb shelter of the Odesa opera house.
Like so many others, in the early days of the war Bannikova fled Ukraine. Now she has returned to work in Odesa – though she has left her daughter in the relative safety of Moldova.
Nearly everyone you speak to in Ukraine has lost something due to the war. Many have buried loved ones. Others have seen their businesses fail, houses destroyed and futures upended.
How does a farmer plant next year’s crops or a high school student consider enrolling in university while this war rages with no end in sight?
One answer may be that many have concluded that, amid all the death and destruction, simply continuing to live as normal a life as possible is the biggest victory there is.
The Ukrainians I met all accepted their hardships with a quiet stoicism; rarely did they complain or wallow in victimhood.
Sergei, a cargo ship captain who has been unable to go to sea since the Russian navy blockaded Ukraine’s ports, said he was raised on the stories of sacrifices his grandparents suffered during World War II.
“Now it is our turn,” he said.