There were nine of us when we departed from Krakow well before the dawn, so that we could be in Lviv for breakfast. Now, 15 hours later, seven of us were in Przemyśl and two in Rzeszów. Things did not go well. We were very much still on the wrong side of the Polish-Ukrainian border. But perhaps it was Przemyśl and Lviv that were on the wrong sides of the border. In another parallel universe, we would’ve been sitting in this pub in Przemyśl, enjoying our first stop on the Ukrainian side; admiring the picturesque town with its historic buildings and trying to decipher the menu in Cyrillic. In yet another universe, we might’ve had to push to Lviv and stop in this easternmost Polish city for the night, before continuing further east to the border with Ukraine.
These universes are not so impossible; they needed only a small bifurcation in the current of history to redraw the borders of Eastern Borderlands. Look at the history of Przemyśl for example, and you’ll see what I mean.
Przemyśl is the second oldest city in the region, after Krakow. From at least the 9th century, Poland, Kievan Rus and Hungary fought for the region until it became Polish in the 10th century, or at least belonging to the warlord who was about to establish Poland. Then Kievan Rus took the city, then the city was returned to Poland and again retaken by Rus and we’re still in the 10th century. In 11th century a Polish king took it back and even resided there for a while (the region was considered more interesting then than now) building some catholic things in it. Then, guess what, the city was incorporated into the Kievan Rus state again near the end of the 11th C, this time getting some orthodox buildings. Then the city was added to a new local superpower – Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, created by a prince of western Rus with the help of a Polish king in dire need of friends. But in the 14th C the city of Przemysl was again recaptured by another Polish king.
A suspiciously long period of trade, peace and prosperity followed, and the city got some Jewish buildings. In the meantime, Poland ran out of heirs and entered a union with, briefly, Hungary and then, for centuries, with Lithuania. It all ended in the middle of the 17th C, with, weirdly, Sweden of all places invading the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The city declined but its strategic for trade location meant it wouldn’t be left alone tucked away in the corner of history.
We left it down on its luck due to the Swedish invasion, but it would be Austria who annexed it in 18th C after the first partition of Poland. Neighbours, right? As part of the Austrian empire, Przemyśl grew in cultural and military importance, and the city spent a century or so turning itself into a great big huge fortress. Then Russians came and obviously destroyed the fortress in 1914, then Austro-Hungarians came and recaptured the city in 1915. The World War I ended and the interwar iterations of Poland and Ukraine, theoretically independent, practically fucked and soon to be non-existent, both greedily eyed the city. There was a brief attempt at an idealistic democratic solution – forming a local government representing mostly Roman Catholic Poles, Jewish, well, Jews and Eastern Orthodox or Greek Catholic Ruthenians (let’s call them Ukrainians and hope no one gets offended). Well, that progressive solution lasted exactly two days. Ukrainians took over the east part of the city, Poles organised the defence in the west part. Neither could cross the river in between to control the whole city. Both waited for reinforcement, and Polish units got there first and so Przemyśl remained a Polish, not Ukrainian, city because that’s how history is made.
I mean until the Germans and Russians turned the region into the WW2 theatre, effectively disposing of both Poland and Ukraine. During the German invasion in Poland, Przemyśl got its own battle. It didn’t go well, Polish defenders lost – a sentence which encapsulates most of Polish history, really. Two invaders divided the city in half between themselves – Germans on the west side of the river, Russians on the east, soon to be incorporated into Soviet Ukraine. Then the Nazis came to take the city in 1941, leaving death and terror. The Red Army retook it from Germans three years later. In 1945 the Soviet Union signed an agreement with the Polish government (effectively established by the Soviet Union), placing Przemyśl just inside the eastern Polish border, while most of its eastern hinterlands stayed in Ukraine. And so it remains until this day, the end.
But we weren’t in Przemyśl to appreciate its history. We were there to forge documents – our only chance to cross the damn Polish-Ukrainian border this weekend. Perhaps forgery is too strong a word. It’s not like we were fabricating visas or passports. It was much more innocent than that – our minibus rental documents needed a little tweak, that’s all. Just one of those post-soviet glitches in reality processing, when actual life doesn’t quite match the bureaucratically proscribed reality. The grey zone in-between these realities is a space of creativity and initiative. Those two realities are grossly incompatible, and the process of trying to innocuously work around the law to align them would be better described as an action of załatwić than forge. Załatwić means to arrange a matter, to do the trick, to make things happen despite the prevailing forces of bureaucracy and the law.
It didn’t help that it was late Saturday and it was going to be bloody hard to załatwić anything more complicated than finding a pub to watch the England-Belgium third place play-off match. But we were determined, and we were resourceful. We needed a good quality scanner to scan printed out documents, with all their stamps and signatures, then change a few details in photoshop and then print them out again to show at the border. Scanner, photoshop, printer. Doable. We managed to find the scanner straight away, by invoking the first rule of załatwić – knowing someone who knew someone who could help. In this case it turned to be a guy from Przemyśl that A used to study with:
‘How are you? Yes, yes, long time—but do you happen to know somewhere with a scanner in Przemyśl? You are in Przemyśl? And YOU HAVE A SCANNER?! We’ll be there in 30 mins.’
So now we were waiting for A to catch up with her old friend and meticulously scan our minivan rental documents page by page. While she was having tea and home-made cake prepared by her friend’s mum, we were parked outside, sharing the last can of lukewarm beer, contemplating alternative solutions.
‘Maybe Croatia? How about Croatia? We’re already packed and in the car. No borders, we could pass with ID only. They don’t need a translated pile of papers proving that the car’s not stolen. We could start driving straight away. It’s nice there. Hot. Beaches. And it’s raining in Lviv. It’s supposed to be raining tomorrow. Everywhere in Ukraine—maybe not in Odessa—but how about Croatia?’
‘We could just drive there right now, collect this fucking moron from Rzeszów and go without any passports. Europe. Sun. Cheap’.
‘Yeah. And what will we do with the wads of those bloody hryvnias I bought?’
‘Not my problem, I still have pounds. What I also have is a flight from Ukraine next Sunday. I would like to be in Odessa next Sunday. Fuck Croatia.’
‘Four of us have flights from Odessa next Sunday.’
‘Not Croatia then.’
How did we end up here? Well, as Brexit proved, it’s not that easy to leave Europe after all. Our experience of trying to enter Ukraine from Poland seemed to confirm it. After around seven hours of queuing for the crossing, we were further from leaving the borders of the EU than in the morning. That probably happened only because Poles made Ukrainians queue even longer to enter Schengen – yet another example of the brotherly love between the two countries. We weren’t out of options, really. However, all of them involved illegal activity: forgery, drunk driving and bribing border control officers.
It started pleasantly enough. We were prepared to endure a reasonable amount of waiting to leave the EU and Schengen zone. When we joined the queue of cars waiting to cross the Polish-Ukrainian border it was still early in the morning. Yes, granted, the queue looked rather long and rather stuck but hey it was holiday and after all we were trying to leave some money in Ukraine rather than smuggle something into Schengen. It was unlikely people in this queue were trying to smuggle things to Ukraine, so how long could it take?
We haven’t even moved for the first half an hour. Not a single car. We opened some beers and A woke up ready for more after overdoing champagne at 5am. Guys relaxed into being boys, took out the volleyball and started playing, pretending they were again those 15-year old sporty maniacs back in their high school volleyball team rather than out of shape and drunk 30-year old office workers. They quickly went from 15-year olds to 6-year olds, racing each other up and down high stone banks. Five minutes later MW came back with a deep gash in his elbow, blood streaming. He huddled in the middle row of seats and started whimpering in pain. God, how much longer?
A lot longer.
It started to rain. We moved maybe 20 metres, which in yards is… well, not many yards at all. A few cars joined behind us and turned off their engines. A car whizzed past us on the left. The fast lane. Someone in the two front rows opened another beer. MW stopped whimpering and fell asleep. Or died. Another van passed us on the left. It was inevitable that someone was going to suggest:
‘We should try the fast lane.’
‘Yeah. We’ve got nothing to lose – still only a few cars behind us.’
And so we tried the fast lane. Fast lane, we were informed at the end of the fast lane by a border officer, was not for private cars going on holidays.
5 minutes later we were back at the end of the immovable lane.
An hour later we started running out of alcohol. Beer was gone, bubbly was just a distant memory. Whisky was gone. There were nine of us and we didn’t take nearly as much alcohol as we usually did. It’s one thing that our countries have raided and killed each other for centuries, that we continued to devastate each other’s statues of national heroes and hurl racial abuse, but one did not bring their own beer and vodka to a country that made good (and cheap) beer and vodka. Basic Slavic decency. So it was just a matter of minutes before someone requested:
‘El. give us that bloody gin.’
‘Nooo! Not my giin!’
I was particular about my gin, having got used to the good stuff in London. When visiting Poland, I was repeatedly disappointed with drinking Lubuski Gin with a shitty tonic and, with a bit of luck, with a bit of lemon. Interestingly, the only other place where I came across Lubuski Gin – the first traditionally manufactured Polish gin – was a hidden restaurant in a village in Cuba. Go figure. So this time I brought from England a bottle of Hendrick’s to avoid having to drink whatever terrible amber-coloured (and it is always amber-coloured) local alcohol we would at some point late into the night be left with (in case you wonder, in Ukraine it was koniak). So I had planned ahead. I brought my favourite gin. I brought tonic. I even brought limes. 10 minutes later some of my favourite gin was on my favourite yoga pants; a result of trying to make a g&t from 0.7l gin and 1l tonic in a 1.5l mineral water bottle. Precise calculations were never my strength. And I badly needed to pee.
‘You can walk to the border, probably they’ve toilets there’
‘It’s far away. And what if they don’t. I’ll go to the forest, there is a gap in that fence along the road.’
‘It’s probably illegal and patrolled’
‘Why would it be illegal? I’m still on the right side of the border. In Schengen! I have the right to pee anywhere in Europe, in Schengen’
I hoped no one with dogs and Kalashnikovs would prove me wrong. But just to make sure I took A and O with me. No military power was gonna stop three girls reinforced with champagne from peeing where they wished. The escapade was pleasant; the forest smelled like rain, the walk chipped away at the monumental wait. I even managed to clean the sticky tonic from my hands by rubbing them against wet grass.
‘I just peed here, you know?’, helpfully informed me A.
We returned to the car that moved 0 meters during that time. Covered in mud, blood, tonic and apparently piss, we patiently crawled nearer and nearer, passing the time by passing each other a plastic bottle of warm g&t. A few hours later we were getting near the buildings on the Polish side of the border. Maybe 30-40 minutes more and we’ll start the crossing. But then it started happening – the Brexit level of mess. Suddenly, S, our driver, swore loudly. And then swore again.
‘Kuuurwa. My passport is out of date. Invalid. Expired a few weeks ago and I didn’t notice. No kuuurwa no.’
I will spare the reader the description of the conversation that ensued after S’s exclamation, because it involved a lot of words and phrases difficult to translate for Westerners. I’ve always thought that English is surprisingly un-English in its directness and simplicity of swearwords, which seem to just straightforwardly describe a few crucial body parts; say cunt, dickhead or asshole, a few crucial acts in which those body parts engage – the key one being fuck – and consequences of such actions – a whore, motherfucker or cocksucker. Quite literal for a nation that tends to refer to actual fuckups as “things have gone a bit pear-shaped” or “being in a pickle”. I want to think that due to the complexity of the Polish language in which parts of words can be creatively tweaked to change their meaning, Poles are rather more poetic in their swearing repertoire. But of course there are also those Polish zen masters of the art of cursing, whom one can sometimes overhear when passing a construction site in any Polish or British city. Those zen poets can distil the essence of quite complex messages by replacing almost all verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs with strategically placed kurwas. But I digress.
In the meantime, our conversation boiled down to two conclusions:
- S was a complete moron and it was the first and last time we took him on a road trip.
- There wasn’t really anything to do but to wait and hope no one would notice.
Oh they noticed all right, in case the reader was wondering. But it would be another hour before they informed us that our driver couldn’t cross the border; an hour we all spent in relative silence, wondering if S was not only a moron but also a dickhead who realised his passport had expired a tad earlier than he admitted. This fuckup was weirdly out of character for him -usually sensible guy embarking on a political career and having his shit together. At least when sober.
The border officers on the Polish sides were very friendly and very understanding. But also very clear – the eight of us were free to go on to the Ukrainian side of the border crossing and S was free to go back where he came from. There were a few problems with that however:
- It dawned on us that S was the only one sober. So if he wasn’t to continue with us, someone else would have to drive the minibus drunk.
- Which wasn’t actually the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that S was even a bigger idiot than we thought and nominated himself as the only legitimate driver for this rental car. Apparently, Ukrainian bureaucracy was very particular about the ownership status of cars driven into their country and required solemnly written and painstakingly translated, signed and stamped documents certifying that although the car was rented, the driver would treat it as his own and would love it and cherish and not share it.
- Even though S was a double moron, he was after all our companion and one does not abandon an idiot in need. Even if he totally deserved it.
So we asked a suspiciously polite and empathetic border patrol officers to give us a moment to consider our options.
‘You need to talk to them; tell them you’re a moron.’
‘Tell them you’re an important politician and you’re going to Ukraine on an urgent business trip’.
‘Urgent family trip’.
‘Just bribe them. Politely, I mean. Ask them if there is anything that you can do to załatwić it.
‘Just cry. Beg them’
He went. After 20 minutes or so he was back. Begging, crying or hinting that bribing was not entirely out of the question didn’t work. He had to go back to Poland. It was time for plan B. We had very different ideas about what plan B should involve:
- ‘go back to talk to them and try bribing them again’
- ‘pretend you go back to Poland, take your backpack and try to cross through the forest. If they catch you, just pretend you’re trekking, got lost, thought you were still in Poland’
- ‘go back to Poland and try to get a temporary passport’
- ‘go back to Poland and let us forget you exist’.
The boarder officers came back to our minibus. I opened the sliding side door, greeting them with the smell of half-digested alcohol and the racket of broken glass. An empty wine bottle rolled from the car and shattered right in front of them. I cleaned the biggest pieces of broken glass and started looking for toilets. It turned out peeing wasn’t allowed in this no man’s land unless we had a sound plan for who and how was crossing. However, there were nine of us and the officials cared more about those passportless than those taking the piss, so me, A and M sneaked out and entered a promising-looking building.
We found ourselves in the temple of bureaucracy. There are many such buildings, in many cities and many countries. When you enter, you just know it, even though the details vary, and the actual description is hard to pin down. The smell; it could be either dust or must or chemical cleanliness. There will be some cold shabby surfaces; gleaming terrazzo floors, corridor walls with oil-painted dado in sickish yellow or green. Old windows. Bad lighting. There is usually a sign or two of attempts at a bygone era grandeur; the imitation of marble, grand staircases, stucco decorations, old candelabras. The places can, in short, look very different. Nothing you can put your finger on, but when you enter, you can feel it. I’ve felt it in hospitals that remembered a pre-soviet era, in brutalist schools, in city hall behemoths. And I felt it here; the certainty that this building was not there for humans but served something bigger. The state. The idea of the state. It was there to protect state’s borders. Not resembling military posts in the slightest, the building looked more like a dentist clinic in a provincial town. It had no need for a militaristic look; its mission was to divide Polish land from Ukrainian land by an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy.
The corridor was empty, narrow and covered in yellow bathroom tiles. We dashed for the first staircase, as staircases always led somewhere. From the floor below we could hear female voices and the unmistakable roar of a hand drier. The toilet was full of women. But not just any women. These were women in transit and women whose business was transit. Most of them had long bleached hair woven into braids and updos. They wore heavy makeup, tight jeans and cheap colourful blouses and sweaters. Around their feet were checked bags made of woven polypropylene, undoubtedly the reason why they were in this outpost of a toilet that morning. We did what we had to do, not bothering with makeup or hair – it wasn’t going to get any better. After all, contrary to the ladies around us, we weren’t on a business trip.
When we came back to our marooned car, the debate seemed to have been brought to a conclusion. S was going back. His plan was to go to a town of Rzeszów, where theoretically he could apply for a temporary passport. It normally took a few days and it was weekend after all, so S had to figure out how to come up with some political or business emergency that would speed up the process. But that was a problem for later. Now, the friendly officer was telling him to hurry. If he wanted a lift, they had a bus going to Rzeszów, leaving now.
And so S and his loyal other half O gathered their suitcases and hurried off to the waiting bus. We tried to persuade O there was no need for her to suffer for S’s stupidity, but she was adamant she couldn’t leave him alone. Commendable. Five minutes later we were watching the military bus departing with S, A and what I imagined were other poor souls caught trying to illegally cross the border.
You can read part 2 of our adventure here.
More posts featuring bits of Ukrainian culture, history and politics:
On waiting, stillness and the pace of change
On tasting Eastern European history