On the Rock, on a roll

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Risking sounding old, I want to say they just don’t make them like that anymore. You can’t fabricate the decay. I’m in a sailor mood, so I want to say is “she’s lovely on the foreyard, but she’s not lovely down below, boys”. I’m not talking about a ship though. Can a hotel be a she? I guess she can; with her inviting receptiveness, literally accommodating, providing a safe haven inside her. But I’m getting too Freudian. I’m only talking about the façade and the tarnish of the Rock hotel in Gibraltar.

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Cream upholstery, warm wood, French windows. The interior has a colonial vibe, even though this British protrusion of Spain is not referred to as Crown colony anymore; a term which has a displeasing slavery ring to it. British Overseas Territory – this is what the Rock is now, and it whispers of other dark secrets. This once prominent Royal Navy base now mostly serves as a tax haven, accommodating murky flows of money rather than soldiers.

The hotel is large and feels empty, but there are perhaps 10 guests lounging in the sea-facing lounge. All look retired. I want to think one of them might be called Rudyard or Winston. Or at least Bernard or Errol. But such a name would demand donning something more than a t-shirt and shorts to attend the afternoon tea. The glamour of the past doesn’t seem to rub off on the clientele, but the history has seeped into the walls, like cigarette smoke.

You can’t really see it in the lounge and revamped guest areas that much. But climb the stairs instead of taking the lift and you’ll have a chance to wander through what feels like miles of old corridors. The hotel is very narrow and very long, to maximise the seafront exposure. All guest rooms are on one side of very narrow corridors, while all the doors on the other side lead to storage and utility rooms. I peer into one that was left open – linen cupboard. All windows face this side too – it would be foolish to waste the seafront wall on a corridor window – and they’re all covered by opaque linen blinds. I lift the corner of one and peer out at the exposed underbelly of the hotel, which is cutting right into the hillside. While the façade of the building is surrounded by lush exotic gardens, on this side there are only shrubs parched by heat, roughly hewn surface of the Rock, exposed pipes and rusty old boilers. I love these layers – the manicured façade on the left-hand side, the shabby guts on the right-hand side and the ghosts of the heads of states walking the empty corridors in between.

I like smelling the dust of history that has settled on places. And I love hulking buildings that had bigger, and darker, dreams once; communism, imperialism, colonialism, but have diminished in importance, leaving behind concrete behemoths. The Rock goes on the list. The list of grandiose hotels to disappear in during important birthdays. There will be a snowy night in the Hotel National in Moscow, listening to the chimes of the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Clock Tower. There will be a hot night in the Hotel Nacional in Havana, watching as the city prepares to celebrate yet another anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. And now I think there will be a mild night in the Rock hotel, doing whatever Gibraltarians do to celebrate New Year’s eve. Last minute tax evasion?

Back to the lounge. I’m watching a Spanish waiter carrying a bowl of home-made crisps to the table nearby. No riojas and olives here. Crisps and lagers. I love the ridiculous Britishness of it and would gladly follow suit but after a huge serving of fish and chips in town, the only thing I can manage is a Negroni. It might be cheaper than a pint of lager in London. This shouldn’t matter but it adds a weird sense of holiday achievement. Like when you find a hidden gem of a restaurant, run and attended by the locals, who behave as if their only purpose that evening was to create a memorable night for you. I feel like a content reptile. Overstuffed, overheated, tranquillised by humid heat, early morning flight, and walking around the city. I can only stay still and I can stay still only rarely.

***

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We’re sitting on the balcony, literally watching ships that pass in the night. I’m wondering where they’re going and what they’re carrying. We think we can see the lights on the African coast across the strait. We’ll be going there soon. I wonder what are the chances of dying when crossing and what is the most likely way to die – being crushed by a tanker? Slipping and falling overboard? Hit by the boom? Swept by a wave? Each of these ends with easy to imagine panicked drowning. Eaten by a shark perhaps? The end seems nigh this night, inducing ruminations on the meaning of it all. Once again, I get to play the libertarian to his socialist as we debate the responsibility of the individual and the unfairness of the system, in which we both thrive. It dawns on me that this might be a pinnacle, that it might not get any better than that. Perhaps we should make sure that it is the pinnacle, that it might be time to start thinking how to slowly detach from the trappings of a career, from the city rush, and the commute to the office. From the perception of the inevitability of it all, of climbing higher, working longer, earning more. Doing more.

From what I can see there are only two corner balconies in the hotel, and we have one of them. I want to think this is the room Churchill stayed in. The cable car that goes to the top of the Rock passes very near this corner of the hotel, taking the tourists to see the monkeys, which everyone insists are apes, and succulents. Churchill liked the monkeys. They were imperative, he apparently thought. The legend has it that when the monkeys are gone, Gib will cease to be British.

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We’re smoking a Montecristo cigar, a leftover from our Cuban stash, in the memory of the old man. I want to write it complemented well the rich vanilla tones Anejo 7 anos Havana Club. But we won’t buy it until tomorrow, to take with us to the boat as it’s bad luck to sail without rum, I’m sure it is. The memory it’s doing its work, glossing over the factual to create a more perfect account of that moment. But that night we had only a bottle of Tempranillo, which was souring the flavour of the cigar, which was weird to start with anyway. Due to our ineptitude, I’m sure. Too young, to dry and tight. There is a cringy sexual metaphor there, no? Maybe the ghost of Churchill is hovering in the smoke over us after all, the old bugger. Mortified by our irreverence toward the phallic ritual. It’s the gesture that counts, old man.

***

We take the breakfast on the terrace, facing the busy waterfront. It’s far from the idyllic white beaches and the Caribbean-blue sea. There are marinas full of yachts and boats, tankers anchored in the harbour and container ships coming and going from the strait. Then, there is the airport with airplanes flying low and loudly. But my favourite ugly element is the sea platform Sleipnir; a floating crane vessel standing on eight huge pillars, named after the eight-legged mythical horse. Not long now and we’ll be rolling with the waves that meander between its legs, avoiding getting too close to its wind-stealing corpus. Another way to die – trampled by Sleipnir. It teaches you perspective, reminding that you’re a tiny squishable human on a tiny squishable boat, dancing with the elements, fathoms below, hulking hulls around. There isn’t much one can do to prepare for it on land or even anticipate how it will be. There is ropework though. A useful skill, at least as far as keeping anxiety at bay is concerned. So I spend the morning practicing my knots on a thick bathrobe belt. Despite being good at manual crafts and artsy stuff, my mind finds it difficult to recreate the sequences of twists and loops from the sailing manual. I blame it on my left-handedness and give up trying, opting instead for breakfast and sea gazing.

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The water is steel grey, the air smells of marine fuel, jet fuel and bacon. There is something real in it. The waterfront that lives, works and prospers rather than exists to be admired for its fake pristineness. The same can be said of the hotel. It feels like refuge, this place. There are no overdressed influencers draped over balustrades, instagramming the glorious sunset, making sure the immense platform doesn’t make it into the frame. There are only sunburned well-off pensioners, doing sod all, exuding calm.

The breakfast is also far from instagrammable buddha bowls and remarkably close to the fare that was served here during the war, as described by an American correspondent who stayed here in 1941: “I dropped off to sleep in a comfortable room at the Rock hotel to the thunderous lullaby of the dynamite blasters. The next morning, after a breakfast of bacon, tomatoes, toast, butter, orange marmalade and coffee – a remarkable breakfast for wartime Europe – I set off on a tour of the passages.”[1]

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The passages. In Gibraltar the past is literally set in stone. Bored into the Rock are miles and miles of tunnels and underground halls, the first of which was created during the Great Siege of Gibraltar in the 18th century, and the system was expanded during the Second World War[2]. The passages don’t let us forget that Gibraltar is a fortress. This defensive capacity isn’t really put to use these days. The military action is limited to occasional skirmishes such as capturing a tanker[3], but this natural fortress continues to serve a symbolic function. A monument marking the divisions that Europe has overcome, a warning of the divisions in the making; the perennial East vs West, North vs South, or the latest variation on the theme of internal European divisions. The Rock is protruding so far from the mainland of Europe that it feels like the crumbling of European unity will not penetrate here, but this heir of post-colonial divorces will be the first one to be affected. You can’t sense it yet, especially as the hotel feels like a shelter; nestled between the feet of the Rock, this place is designed to guide guests’ minds away from military measures toward leisurely pleasures. But an overactive mind can imagine that the ghosts of old royalty, forgotten dignitaries and dead soldiers are awakening, watching and waiting for the geopolitical fissures to shake the fortress again.

El.

Inspired by a trip to Gibraltar in 2019

On crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border: Part 2

And so there were seven of us left, suddenly feeling very sober, trapped in between the borders without a roadworthy driver or roadworthy vehicle. As far as the legal side of things was concerned at least. One option was to wait, but then the ‘driving’ that was required at the moment comprised of 30 meters of crawling toward the queue to the Ukrainian side of the check point. Border control officers were eyeing us suspiciously. It didn’t help that we seemed to have parked in some limbo zone, a longer stay in which risked unsettling the balance of the universe so we better be on our way. Also, there was a chance that the next 30 meters would mark the end of our escapade if the Ukrainian officials were to find our car paperwork wanting. It would be nice to know sooner rather than later, to start planning. Or despairing.

This is the second half of the story of us trying to cross the Polish-Ukrainian border. You can read the first part here.

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A building on the Polish-Ukrainian border, the sign reads: “Ukraine welcomes you”

After damage control negotiations, a driver self-nominated and approved by others as risking the least and looking passably respectable was ready to resume the crossing. I started googling fines for drunk driving. Five meters later we resumed queuing. The spirits were low.

Another five meters [oh just learn to think in meters people] later we realised we didn’t have the green card. Obviously, that too was the task S was responsible for.

T and MW started cursing, knowing they should have done it themselves, as they always did. But not all was lost. P and MC volunteered to go and buy it. You could always buy green cards at the border. So off they went. And then there were five of us.

The queue was actually moving now, and we were getting close to the Ukrainian check point, which at this point we couldn’t cross because P and MC were still gone and we didn’t have the green card. So we left the queue and parked a little to the left of it, waiting for the guys to come back. Minutes pass and finally we get approached by a female Ukrainian border officer, asking us for bila karta. We explain, in Polish, that yes sure green card, we’re getting green card. It won’t be a moment. All good. She leaves us alone.

P and MC are still not coming back. We call them. They don’t answer. M and A decide to go to the toilet again. And then there were three of us. Out of nine. In a crucial moment of crossing. And obviously that was the moment when another border control officer appears, this time male. He starts talking in rapid Ukrainian. We understand bila karta again. We try to explain that we’re buying a green card this very moment but that doesn’t seem to satisfy him.

It’s beginning to dawn on us that probably they don’t mean the green card, especially as the word for green is almost the same in Polish and Ukrainian [zielona/zelena]. And so is the word for white [biała/bila]. Clearly, they want some sort of a white card from us. What white card? They keep asking how many of us there are in the car, as if it was somehow related to the mysterious white card.

‘9. Sorry, no, 7.’

‘Siedem, siem, Sieben, seven!’

Just to be on the sure side, we also show them on fingers. Seven fingers, still three people in the car. But then luckily A and M join us. Seven fingers and five people looks slightly better. We try to explain there are two more morons somewhere trying to get us the green card. Seven people, seven fingers, one bloody important card, can we just forget about its colour?

They ask for our passports. We give them the passports. There is a tiny white note inserted into one of them with a handwritten 7 on it. In the whole confusion caused by having our driver turned back, we forgot the polish border official gave us this slip of paper when crossing. The Ukrainian guards’ looks suggests we’re not doing well to represent our nation to our neighbours. But as far as our trip is concerned this is progress! They leave us alone.

Finally, our green card scouting party are calling. There are… complications.

‘Where the fuck are you!? Come here or they will turn us back, the Ukrainians are already annoyed with us, we can’t wait in this zone!’ – MW is shouting to the phone, losing his cool. – You are doing what?! What do you mean you’ll cross in another car?! What Portuguese man?!’

Well, it turned out that on their way back to our car, they were stopped, as this crossing was car only and one couldn’t simply walk between the checkpoints. They were stopped in some sort of no-go zone, not far from our car, but the Polish border control official, after listening to their predicament and laughing at them, explained it’s illegal to cross this zone by foot. They needed a car and as our minibus had already crossed the zone, they needed another car. The helpful guard said not to worry, they simply needed to wait for a half-empty car in the queue, get in, cross 10 meters, get out and get back into our minibus. Logical, right?

The first suitable car turned out to be a white Mercedes driven by a lone Portuguese man. The Portuguese man, as P and MC described to us when they finally joined us in the minibus, seemed to be only slightly perplexed when a border control officer told him to take those two Polish men and cross the border with them. In fact, he considered himself a connoisseur of Eastern Europe and had probably seen stranger things. He spoke no English and P and MC spoke no Spanish or Portuguese so it’s surprising how much they managed to learn about the friendly, but sleazy, middle aged man on a lone trip in foreign lands. Apparently, this wasn’t his first time either; he came to Poland and Ukraine when the two countries co-hosted the UEFA Euro in 2012. It seemed his love for the region was mostly related to football and sex tourism. He described, in words and gestures, how fond he was of beautiful or, as his hands seemed to suggest, chesty Eastern European women. Then the conversation turned to Spanish football and then they crossed to the Ukrainian side at last and P and MC could escape from the white Mercedes and the overfriendly Southerner.

Right, all seven of us together, having important bits of paper, white and green, we’re back in the queue to the Ukrainian check point. It doesn’t take long before an older dissatisfied looking official asks us for passports and car documents. We hold our breaths. He’s peering at the name written on the car rental documents. He checks through passports. He looks at our current driver.

‘Where is S? Are you S?’

And we know it ain’t gonna happen. We don’t give up, but pleading doesn’t work with this guy. He turns us back, so our driver decides to look for more sympathetic ears in the checkpoint building. We equip him with a mint chewing gum and convenient packets of currency in Pounds, Euro, Polish Zloty and Ukrainian Hryvnas and start praying they don’t arrest him for a) drunk driving b) bribery.

He comes back with no success. Where is this famous post-soviet corruption when one needs it? Well, at least he comes back.

We get told to join, surprise, another queue; this time for those waiting in no man’s land to enter Poland. W, getting restless, spots a young border control officer and decides to try his luck again. We’re slightly hidden now, in between official queues, and it seems that the argument that we could pay a fine for the error in our documents is not immediately dismissed. But then another officer appears and we are directed to the queue to the Polish checkpoint. W gets irritated, the officer gets irritated, then W gets aggressive trying to prove he’s not aggressive after the officer told him not to be aggressive. We’re watching and waiting for him to get arrested. The bickering escalates and culminates with W jumping in frustration like an agitated rabbit, showing the border officer the universal sign of fuck you with both his hands – a double fuck. He finishes with sharing his passionate thoughts about Ukraine. Surprisingly, he doesn’t get arrested, the young Ukrainian keeps his cool.

But he gets told to stay in the car. We’d rather he didn’t as his anger is catching. Aaand so we queue again. To enter Poland, which we’ve not even left. A young Polish officer approaches us, noting our Polish plates. We explain the situation and that the only reason we weren’t allowed into Ukraine was a wrong name on a bloody car rental agreement.

‘Well why don’t you scribble another one on your knee? It’s just a piece of paper’.

We get quiet. We’d not thought of that. Until then our only hope was to try to get another car or new rental documents, both of which would be difficult before Monday or without going back to Krakow. Now, new avenues have opened before us. If the border control officer thinks it’s not a big deal to forge documents, we might just as well give it a go. Handwriting is out of question; Ukraine requires all documents to be translated into Ukrainian and none of us can write in a Ukrainian, or any, Cyrillic. We need to amend the printed version then. That means a scanner, photoshop, printer. A plan is forming. We’re going to the nearest town to get the documents in order. The Polish checkpoint waves us through without even stamping our passports. But, Ukraine, we’ll be back.

And so, an hour later, here we are, waiting for A to scan the documents at her old colleague’s house in Przemysl, contemplating going to Croatia instead of another attempt at breaching the impenetrable Ukrainian border. The scanning takes more than an hour, by which time the rest of us is almost as bored as you, my reader, who must be wondering when our ordeal will finally end.

Well, we’re only halfway there. We’re off to the centre of a sleepy city of Przemysl to watch the England-Belgium third place match. On the main market square, we find a half-empty restaurant that’s pretending to be an English pub. We order beers and dinner involving different combinations of potatoes, meat and cabbage and crack on with the forgery. Photoshop in hand, we realise we don’t quite know what the document is saying. It’s written in Ukrainian Cyrillic and gives us no clue where we should be erasing and changing information.

‘Anyone knows anyone who speaks Ukrainian?’

‘I know a girl, Sasha!’ – P, uncharacteristically for him, saves the day. No one is surprised he knows a girl, but everyone is surprised this has some utilitarian value. P calls Sasha who luckily agrees to translate it on the fly for us. She’s either a lovely person or desperate for P to get her another modelling contract, either way, thank gods for all the Ukrainians who’ve recently migrated to Krakow.

Energy levels get low. C is working on making sure the scanned document and the stamps on it don’t look scanned. The rest is falling asleep, watching the least interesting football game that season – Belgium destroying England in the third place play-off. In the meantime, S (the idiot) is getting all his ducks in a row for a temporary passport in another sleepy town of Rzeszów, 80 kilometres away. Somehow he’s pulling it off. He found a fake urgent business need that would take him to Ukraine, got in touch with someone from the firm to procure documents certifying the urgency and businessnes of said trip, and managed to find an open passport bureau to process it in two days, over the weekend. Suspiciously lucky, probably involving favours from the gods below.

It’s time to leave the pub and wake up our driver, who’s been sleeping off the tiredness and hangover in the minibus. I doze off and wake up in the underground parking lot in a shopping mall. The documents are printed out and we just need to make them look more legit; fold them in half, staple and put them in an old clear wallet to discourage everyone from looking too closely.

And then we’re off, driving into the sunset and toward the border again. Just to be on the safe side we choose another crossing to get to the Ukrainian side. Before we even get a glimpse of the border, we spot the queue. We forgot about that part. The queue of cars looks just as immovable and long as the one in the morning.

The feeling of victory starts to dissipate. It starts to rain. Evening turns into the night. On the positive side, the driver has time to get completely sober and we have time to get drunk. It will be another five or six hour-long wait, but we don’t know that yet. For now, we settle into the routine of waiting. In the moments when the rain eases off, the souls in transit emerge onto the road to engage in small tasks that break the expanse of time into manageable chunks; walks, cigarette breaks, phone calls, trips to the beginning of the queue.

An hour or so in a Ukrainian woman approaches our car and starts pleading to allow her to go ahead of us as her child is sick and she wants to get to hospital, or was it home, as soon as possible. We agree of course, feeling all decent and human. Another sick child request half an hour later makes us realise we’re suckers. No one else gets to jump the queue. There will always be those who cross the line when crossing the border, but all must suffer their due when facing the all-seeing eye of the state.

It’s near midnight when we finally get to the crossing. It’s dark, it’s raining, and the border control officer looks like he couldn’t care less. We give him our home-made car rental documents. He doesn’t even take them out from the clear pocket. We get waved through, into the night. Gradually, as we’re driving away from the border, the street lamps disappear, the darkness descends, the road surface deteriorates, the rain intensifies. Ukraine welcomes you. It doesn’t feel particularly welcoming, but we’re in.

Living in interconnected Europe, it’s easy to forget those barriers. To dismiss how real they are when you’re entangled in one, trying to surmount the unmetaphorical walls that separate what stays inside, what stays outside. To forget their many layers; the barriers spun from language – with confusing half-familiar words that make you feel inadequate, reduced to using pantomime. The barriers built from bureaucracy, with its paper walls and stamps and forms. The barriers constructed through architecture, with barbed wire and imposing buildings where you are always watched. There are barriers set by law, history, money, custom, force and politics. All conspires to convince us that the things on both sides are so very different. Or is it that they’re so fragile that without the borders to contain them, to bound them into identities, they would cease to exist?

Some social scientists argue that boundaries don’t separate things; it’s how things get created in the first place (see article by Abbott, 1995, “Things of boundaries”). I like that view. The view that things come into being as a result of how we draw the lines and set boundaries between, around and across differences. And so, this border is not here to keep Poles and Ukrainians neatly apart; without this border there would be neither; those identities wouldn’t be distinct enough to warrant separate names. The border is there to make those who live in this corner of the world into Poles and Ukrainians, to create tensions that pull those two populations into difference. Perhaps this is what the critics of the EU worry about; about not being a thing anymore but slowly dissolving, spilling over the lands of sameness. Not here though, not yet, at least. In this corner of the world, in the Eastern Borderlands[1], the boundaries might be spun mainly from memories, but they feel insurmountable, the edges of identities sharp. Ukraine welcomes you. Come in, shut the door.

El.

On crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border

przemysl map

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[1] 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?

Long.

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:

  1. S was a complete moron and it was the first and last time we took him on a road trip.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. ‘go back to talk to them and try bribing them again’
  2. ‘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’
  3. ‘go back to Poland and try to get a temporary passport’
  4. ‘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.

El.

More posts featuring bits of Ukrainian culture, history and politics:

On waiting, stillness and the pace of change

On tasting Eastern European history

Questioning Russia: from the White Sea to the Black Sea

russian vodka

So how was Russia?

Big.

Yeah, but you’ve seen only a small part of it.

Well yes—no actually, it was only the Western part but we travelled all the way from the North to the South. From the White Sea to the Black Sea even!

Very Game of Thrones. How was it?

Western.

What do you mean?

Proper. Civilised. Affluent.

And everyone spoke English?

No one spoke English.

Really?

Yeah. Ok, two people did. There was this young guy on a train who tried to convince T. to join a street protest in Moscow and one waiter in St Petersburg who tried to explain the origins of vodka to us.

Join a street protest? Did he?

Not interested in the origins of vodka? OK, no, he didn’t join the demonstrations – we had tickets for Swan Lake for that afternoon.

Very bourgeois of you. So how was Swan Lake?

Swanky! Great! I expected to be bored to death, but it was actually like a magical fairy tale. Shamed me into renewing my commitment to barre.

Did you?

No. Anyway… We were talking about Russia, not my exercise regime.

Speaking of regime – have you seen the Orwellian signs?

Not really, no. That’s probably the scariest part. The invisibility of it to a Western visitor.

You’re hardly a Westerner?

It’s all relative, isn’t it? In Russia I’m totally a Westerner. Someone even asked us if we’re from America. ‘Ameryka?’ I like how Russians pronounce America. But to be fair, yeah, before we went, some people warned us to be cautious. That Russia is not particularly friendly to Poles at the moment.

Isn’t it?

Well there’s unfriendly and then there is unfriendly. They kinda occupied our country in the past, so the bar was low. But no – we experienced no unpleasantness there and some of the locals – especially our hosts in the north and some of the carriage attendants (provodnitsas) on our trains were very friendly. The only difference was in how they treated us after their initial questions (are you French? Moldovan? English? American? No, we’re from Poland) is that they assumed we should understand their rapid Russian without a problem.

Did you?

No. Not without a problem. Or without vodka.

Ah, vodka. How was vodka?

Regimented. They sell alcohol only from 10am to 10pm. In Russia. Imagine that.

Preposterous.

Right? One has to be really well-organised to binge drink. Once I was even refused a cocktail during the day!

Why? Were you that drunk?

No, that young! It took me a while to understand that the waitress was explaining they had a policy of not selling alcohol to under 18s. I had to show the passport! Highlight of the whole trip, really. This and excellent pelmeni.

What are pelmeni?

Relatives of Polish pierogi and Ukrainian varenyky.

Right, that clarifies it…

Dumplings! Surely everyone knows the delights of Eastern European dumplings! Boiled, fried, served with cream or sauces, or smothered in fatty fried onion or even pork fat.

Pork fat? Really?

Yes, really. It’s actually a thing on its own. It’s called salo in Russian. But there are national equivalents in the whole Slavic region. Slabs or slices of cured pork fatback, seasoned, quite delicious.

Doesn’t sound delicious.

Trust me.

I thought you didn’t eat meat, especially pigs?

Well, shush. It’s rude to be fussy and refuse to try national delicacies when you’re a tourist. Normally I don’t eat meat so once in a while… Anyway, we’re getting side-tracked. Ask me a Russia-related question.

Metro in Moscow. Is it impressive?

It is when you’re a Londoner used to scurrying like a rat through tiny shabby corridors and perching on the edges of overcrowded narrow platforms, every morning risking my life­­–

We get it, you live dangerously.

Yes, well and Muscovites? (Is that the word for the inhabitants of Moscow?) They travel in style. Granted, the style resembles a mausoleum of soviet grandeur but still. Impressive. Some stations are like ballrooms. No tube station in London even remotely resembles a ballroom. There is an urban legend that the Circle line (brown colour) was a result of Stalin placing his coffee mug on the map of proposed metro lines, leaving a round brown stain that was then added to the plan.

Grand.

Yes, grand is a good word. A lot of the things in Russia were grand. Their monumental scale, the audacity, the lavish decor!

Do you think they’re trying to compensate?

What, in a Freudian way? Wait, that wasn’t Freud, Freud was all about sexuality, it was the Austrian psychologist Adler who explained shady behavior as an overcompensation for feelings of inferiority.

Right. And this is what Russia was doing? Is still doing?

Perhaps! This grandeur is not only visible in the historical relicts of the bygone era. Look at Adler.

The dead Austrian psychiatrist?

No, Adler near Sochi.

Sochi – the Black Sea resort? Where Putin has a villa? Where the Winter Olympics were?

Yes, there. Actually, not quite there – Adler is right next to Sochi. And it’s actually where the 2014 Winter Olympics really were.

Ok, so what about Adler near Sochi?

The Olympic village is crazy – Russian grandeur on acid. Neon lights, fairytale hotels, singing fountains and electric vehicles of all shapes and sizes. The venues, everything, constructed from scratch.

Putin’s folly.

Putin’s diversion.

You’re about to get political.

Yes I’m tempted but perhaps that’s not a place for discussing Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Intervention you mean?

No, I mean invasion and that’s part of the problem; how it’s presented. But yes, let’s not go there this time. Let’s talk about the sea, the sand and all things grand.

The Black Sea. Is it actually black?

Well, actually it is. Greyish. The water is greyish and dark too.

Doesn’t sound like a paradise.

They have banana trees and fried fish, what else do you want? Ok, fair enough the seaside has a soviet type of shabby glamour to it. Adler specifically – it’s cheaper than Sochi proper, more run-down, family friendly…

You hate family friendly.

Yes, I didn’t say it was my favourite place on earth, did I. It’s a bit like my home town district, Nowa Huta, which I talk about here. But I find most seaside resorts actively depressing, so…

So let’s leave this controversial confession for another post.

Already on it. ‘Seaside tantrums’ coming soon.

A postcard from Georgia (the country): pissing on snakes

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Too vast. My eyes have nothing to rest on, sliding over rolling landscapes. With no point to hold my gaze, I’m afraid of tripping over the horizon. The road doesn’t look like it was designed to lead anywhere but merely to serve as a metaphorical symbol of the journey into the unknown.

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There isn’t much to know in the unknown, it seems. It looks unfinished and bare. Only in places the ground is covered with withered grasses, sometimes leafless shrubs. That’s about it. It’s been a while since we saw the last cow. Or statue. Or dilapidated industrial or military building of unknown purpose. It’s been a while since we saw anything breaking the monotony.

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It started with crumbling asphalt giving way to a dirt road. On the left statues, on the right cows. The yellow-brown plains seemed to be pastures, because once in a while we would pass a flock of sheep. Then there were occasional concrete monstrosities of what looked like a metal shredding plant, then  a power plant. Then even those gave way. The statues disappeared next; the last vestiges of civilisation. Huge, brutalist, weathered, they stood on the sides of the road, guarding the passage to nowhere.

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For the first time in my life I’m in a foreign land without knowing where I’ll spend the night. But that’s a problem for later. Now I have literally a more pressing one. But there is nowhere obvious to stop; both sides of the road now covered in thick tangled mass of weeds and shrubs.

But we stop. When we get out, it only gets worse – both the biological and existential pressure. I suddenly become very aware that we’re the only vertical objects that can be seen around, standing on and standing out from flattened horizontal surfaces. If IKEA were assembling landscapes, this half-desert of Kakheti[1] region of Eastern Georgia was left half-unpacked from its flatpack.

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The guys start to piss, one by one, standing on the edge of the road, facing the vastness and pissing on it, knowing that mother nature can’t detract them from their direction. Lords of the wild, surveying the landscape offhand, cock in hand. They left the civilisation, the need for decorum. Me and A. – the only other girl – look at each other. This is not an option.

You go away, you hide in the bushes, squatting low to the ground, feeling like an animal; not to be seen, not to be noticed. Hurried, threatened, uncomfortable. We’ll go then, venture deeper into the wild. But most of the shrubs are not even reaching above our knees, so we’ll have to go further, 40 paces of so down the gentle slope toward a clump of bigger bushes. But even the first step off the road proves problematic. The desiccated shrubs have barbed stems or prickles, and after a few steps our trousers are covered with some round weed seeds; their surface covered with hooked hair that clings to fabric. I get annoyed that the call of mother nature gets interrupted by mother nature. We stop. The heat envelopes us, the sky is now clearer blue but leaden in its heaviness, thick air pressing hard on everything beneath it. I can imagine the landscape was once completely flat and even, but the constant pressure from above crinkled it into undulating plains. Another careful step, more of brittle twigs crushed under my foot.

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We’re maybe five paces from the road when we notice an old grey car coming closer, dust billowing around it. To make things worse, it slows down when it passes the guys and our parked jeep and then stops completely when it reaches me and A. You must be kidding me. Two men get out in a hurry and start shouting at us in Georgian, pointing at something, agitated. Or is it Russian? We have no idea what’s going on. Their message doesn’t sound hostile but it sounds urgent. And then they start hissing! I think I recognise one word, they keep repeating one word between the hisses.

Змея [zmeya]. There is a very similarly sounding word żmija [shmeeya] in Polish. Viper.
We wave something that’s supposed to mean we’re ok as well as mind your own business; if we want to piss on snakes, we’ll piss on snakes. But we start retreating toward the dirt road nevertheless. They drive away. We don’t have much choice; this landscape looks empty only to the naïve; those who know the land know it to be filled with sunbathing snakes.

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Nature’s not my friend. It doesn’t want to be. You stay on the road, she says, stay on the dirty scar you made on my surface, and only there, little humans. So we do. A. and I start walking along the dirt track, so that we can be hidden behind the crest of the slope. We’re not hidden from anything, really; we’re still in the middle of an exposed road in an exposed land. We’re hiding for comfort, tricking our minds into thinking that if we can’t see anyone, not even our own car, then we have privacy.

We slide trousers down to the knees and squat, naked arses hovering over dirt. It doesn’t help knowing that I don’t think the vipers were informed about this unwritten social contract – humans keep to your road, snakes keep to yourself. I expect something to slither between my legs any moment and bite me in the arse. Unmetaphorically speaking. I keep listening for another incoming car and I don’t really feel like I need to pee anymore, but after all the hassle I feel like I should. It dawns on me I’ve put myself in this situation and this is how road trips are like. And that now I need to somehow reconcile the part of my self who likes being on the road, or likes the idea of being on the road, with the part of my self who doesn’t like pissing on the road. Or on snakes.

They taught us—it was one of the first lectures in anthropology—they taught us about this cliché nature-culture distinction; how we tend to imagine nature as wild and female, culture as male and in control. It doesn’t feel like a cliché now though, and on my way back to the car I keep enviously ruminating on penises and hotels.  I look at A. She gets it.

El.

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Inspired by a road trip to Georgia in 2015

Polish wedding on a not completely serious note. Part 1: getting married

We’ve known each other for ages. Grew up in the same neighbourhood, went to the same school. Now she’s getting married and I’m flying back to my hometown. I’m having a chance to go back in space and time and get a glimpse of the life I chose not to live.

08:00

Woken up by the old, and clearly half-deaf, lady who lives the flat underneath, and most specifically by her habit of listening to extremist right-wing religious radio at all hours of day and night. She used to do that when I was little too. I grew up here, on the first floor of a large block of flats, in what Britain would call a housing estate. In Poland there is no stigma attached to that. The majority of city inhabitants live in tiny flats in huge block of flats. When they were building this district of Krakow, the soviet housing estates were a sought-after modern lifestyle choice. Everyone around here was relatively poor, and most men, including my father, were employed in a huge steel mill a few tram stops away. I wonder if the steelworks still work. Probably not.

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50 shades of post-soviet grey

The radio stops blaring. I can hear the birds outside and my mum in the kitchenette. I’m strategically not hungover this time and all is well. The morning light filtered by layers of heavy cotton curtains and sheer net curtains promises a suede shoes-friendly day in Nowa Huta[1].

“Nowa Huta [The New Steel Mill] is one of only two planned socialist realist settlements or districts ever built and “one of the most renowned examples of deliberate social engineering” in the entire world. Built as a utopian ideal city, its street hierarchy, layout and certain grandeur of buildings often resemble Paris or London. The high abundance of parks and green areas in Nowa Huta make it the greenest corner of Kraków”

Clearly, someone who wrote this Wikipedia entry has never been in Nowa Huta. It’s quite green, sure, but Paris or London it resembles only when—well—never.

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my neighbourhood on the peripheries of Nowa Huta

08:20

Breakfast with my mother. There is bread, ham, sausage, eggs, cottage cheese and bickering. I drink some black tea. (Yes, I’m sure I don’t want anything to eat. I never eat breakfasts anyway. No, I won’t die. No, don’t want any cake either, thanks. Yes, I already had tea and no, don’t want another—and too bad you want grandchildren—I need to leave in 5 minutes. We’re not talking about children again, I’m serious—do you have some polish currency; I don’t think they take cards there?)

09:00

At the hairdresser. The décor makes me feel like I’m back in the post-soviet 90s. The smell of perm lotion is formidable. I ask for Mrs K. Only Mrs K., older than the rest of the salon crew, is brave and skilled enough to do wedding updos. I sit in the chair. I get the dentist feeling. Another customer walks in, another hairdresser gets her seated in the chair next to me. For the next hour we’re having a conversation about the damaging effect of social media on children and about the dangers of buying them expensive materialistic gifts. I can’t see what Mrs K. is doing to my own hair, so I’m watching the other hairdresser smearing, pulling and torturing her customer’s bleached wisps of hair. Every 20 seconds she stops in her tracks to add a few sentences to the conversation:

‘There are, what, 6 of them with cousins and everything. I won’t be buying them all presents, who has money for that. What I’ll do is I’ll take them to the cinema, to have a good time, you know, instead of buying them each a present for Kids’ day’

‘It teaches them the importance of spending time together rather than spending well… money’ – I pronounce, nodding sagely, having spent the previous evening buying shoes, handbags and jewellery. I’d hate to be offered cinema tickets instead.

The customer next to me cocks her head suspiciously and winces as if she could smell my hypocrisy but then I realise the wincing can be explained by the hairdressers still savagely pulling the strands of her hair.

By 10:00 my updo reaches Elizabethan proportions. When Mrs K. begins to take photos of it to immortalise her creation, we proclaim the importance of taking photos of children (they grow up so quickly!). The extra weight of hairspray and hairpins makes my nodding even more vigorous than intended.

When I leave, a cautious inner voice tries to point out that I dislike taking photos even more than I dislike children and I’m somewhat allergic to family values so wtf just happened. I get reminded of the quote from a classic ethnographic book I read when studying anthropology, written by the father of Social Anthropology[2] who nota bene was born in Krakow as well. The signs are unmistakable: I have gone native:

“…it is good for the Ethnographer sometimes to put aside camera, notebook and pencil, and to join in himself in what is going on. He can take part in the natives’ games, he can follow them on their visits and walks, sit down and listen and share in their conversations. I’m not sure if this is equally easy for everyone – perhaps the Slavonic nature is more plastic and more naturally savage than that of Western Europeans – but though the degree of success varies, it is possible for everyone”.

(Malinowski, Argounauts of the Western Pacific, 1922 (1984): 21).

After this ceremonial hairdressing, my Slavonic nature is puffed up and ready for a Catholic church wedding and a full-blown onslaught of traditional family values that comes with it.

14:00

Love is in the air, crosses are on the walls. The church is nice enough; painted in pastel shades and decorated with white ribbons and flowers, but the whole transept, where we sit, is surrounded by stations of the cross. I’m trying not to think of the symbolism of this – of marital commitment being encircled by the Way of Sorrow; the symbol of sacrifice and suffering. Right. They really do look nice together!

Aaand we start. Pipe organs are joined by an otherworldly female voice singing from somewhere above us. A jovial-looking priest in ridiculous white and gold vestment appears in the apse. It’s been a while since I was exposed to a Catholic mass with all its trimmings. Something in me gets uneasy, possibly Satan. This time you’re here as an ethnographer, not a sinner, I remind myself. Enjoy it. Let’s hope it will be short and sweet. The mass, not the marriage.

The ceremony actually has its moment and in the more boring moments I entertain myself by watching my high school friends and total strangers, disapproving of black dresses and assessing slutty dresses, smiling at naughty children and frowning at loud children. Life, love, community and how lovely is everything! The next pronouncement from the altar brings me back to earth:

“Love, sanctified by the sacred bond of marriage, will overcome all. Love doesn’t get old. How many of you who are here, have been married for years, so tell me, has your love got old? No!”

I try to quickly analyse how statistically insignificant his theory is. Sample – around 120 of us. The average divorce rate? High. The average unhappiness in marriage rate? Cheating rate? Also high. I don’t think the priest or the bridal party would appreciate my theory that there is very little overlap in the Venn Diagram of Love and Marriage and we’re bound to be standing among many examples of out of date love.

Something in me gets uneasy again. By this point I realise it’s probably not Satan but Social Scientist. While my inner sociologist tries to calculate the average rates of love failure, my inner anthropologist scrutinises the promise and premise of marital commitment. I’m sure there would be something relevant to quote from Malinowski again, from his creepy observation of (and participation in) sex and romance in an exotic indigenous community. Something about the transcendental universality of marital naivety. Yeah, here we go:

“Jealousy, with or without adequate reason, and adultery are the two factors in tribal life which put most strain on the marriage tie. In law, custom and public opinion, sexual appropriation is exclusive. There is no lending of wives, no exchange, no waiving of marital rights in favour of another man. Any such breach of marital fidelity is as severely condemned in the Trobriands as it is in Christian principle and European law; indeed the most puritanical public opinion among ourselves is not more strict. Needless to say, however, the rules are as often and as easily broken, circumvented, and condoned as in our own society”

(Malinowski, The sexual life of savages, 1929: 114).

Ffs happy thoughts. Romance. Her dress is amazing. Their children will be cute. There is something ridiculously beautiful in the whole thing. There is, really. Moments like that do hold some transcendental truth about the human condition. Our willingness to disregard all evidence and fiercely believe that love will overcome all and death will never take us. We’re a magnificent species.

I give holy matrimony a break and move on to thinking about another suffering of the womankind; the stilettos I only bought yesterday are starting to take their toll. On the positive side, the pain is of the numbing kind, so one more hour and I’m bound to lose any feeling in my feet. Can make it. The comment from an old high school friend who with genuine awe asked how I could walk in heels so high is worth a bit of suffering.

Shallow thoughts in the house of God. I look at St Mary of Something, overseeing the procedure from above the altar. But she looks like she gets me and sympathises. She too was a woman after all. My eye catches the portrait of pope John Paul II, hanging in a less prominent spot. The pope sneers at me.

Jesus eating time. It’s been more than a decade since I gave up on Catholicism, but I still feel a bit guilty about not taking our Lord Jesus Christ in my mouth. No one else in our pew does either. All of us catholic school alumni. I glance up. The pope disapproves from his wall.

The priest tells the bride to smile. I tell myself not to cringe in case photos are being taken.

14:50

And they’re married. We’re done with the sanctified by God part of the ceremony; it’s time to get this marriage sanctified by vodka. I’m more than ready. I haven’t eaten anything today in fear of my cinched dress paralysing my diaphragm. Please give me food. And alcohol. And let me take my shoes off. What do you mean the wedding venue is an hour away?!

Polish Wedding part 2: Getting Wasted – coming soon.

On freedom to roam

cuba libre-2

“Libre de que?”, I wonder, looking at the intimidatingly pale cocktail standing before me. The ratio of rum to coke seems to be inversed, as in Cuba rum is the cheaper ingredient. At least that’s what I want to think. Ordered to provide respite from oppressive heat and thirst, my Cuba Libre provides also food for thought. The legends surrounding the origins of the cocktail connect it to the Cuban independence movement, dating back to times when Spain was an oppressor, America a friend.

As will be explained to us later, over another rum concoction, by Pedro, a local musician, Cuba no es libre. Not quite. Not in a sense that someone from a Western democratic country takes for granted. This is something that’s easier to relate to for someone coming from a country with a similar history of abusive relationships with alpha players in the region. Cuba had its brutal marriage with Spain and an unhealthy affair with America. Poland’s neighbours were known for similarly imperialistic streaks.

And then there are freedoms that can be taken from within. From the top, but without any foreign influence. Ah, you see, my Eastern European gloom got better of me. Here I am – drinking an exotic cocktail, sitting in the shade infused with sounds of mambo and scents of fresh mint, thinking about historical slights and wicked dead empires. I mean—just look around—isn’t all going well? American tourists are off guard, walking around in their flip flops and baseball caps, buying overpriced souvenirs from boutique shops set up by entrepreneurial locals. Commerce and tourism – peace and love 2.0 – rebranded for the globalised times.

It could be argued that Cuba is in fact freer than ever; free from the colonial yoke, free from slavery, America, and the strict Leninist-Marxist doctrine. Slowly, the people are gaining new liberties; access to international communication – internet and mobile phones, the right to run a small private business, sell a house and travel abroad. It seems then that Cubans are catching up with Western freedoms.

But the right to come and go as you please and cross the borders with ease is not something that can be simply bestowed with a presidential signature. Granted, the legal and political barrier has been somewhat removed in Cuba. But from talking to those who go and those who stay, I know there is more than the government and closed borders holding one back from travelling. I think of the freedom to roam as tethered threefold:

  1. Travelling as something one is not allowed to do.
  2. Travelling as something one can’t afford to do.
  3. Travelling as something one can’t imagine doing.

I come from a stock of those who stayed for all the above reasons. My family roots can be traced to generations of farmers who all settled in neighbouring villages in one region of south-east Poland. My cousins from both sides are still there and still farming. My ancestors weren’t like the gypsies who were always on the go, periodically setting up their caravans on the borders of my grandfather’s farm or the Ukrainian labourers who came and went with the seasons, following the crops. They were farmers who only sometimes and always begrudgingly went to the nearest town or to send off potatoes on their international journeys. They themselves would never go that far, very rarely even staying one night outside the house.

Travelling was not what we did, not only due to the lack of imagination. It’s hard to leave a house that houses the young and the old that need to be taken care of. It’s hard to go away when there are humans and beasts to feed, bread to make, hay to turn, wild dogs to fend off, calves and foals to deliver. True, there are many cultures and peoples who have been doing that on the go for thousands of years; dwelling in movement. Well, we just do the dwelling part.

My ancestors stayed in the same villages and watched the tectonic shifts of empires, advancing and receding, moving over their lands. In the late 18th century the Prussia[1], Habsburgs and Russia came, imposing new administrative barriers, visas, permits and suspicions that those who crossed the borders were likely to be involved in insurgency movements. And there were no roads anyway, so even the trips between major cities were a huge undertaking.

Then the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century, then the German Reich in the 20th, subsequently replaced by the Soviets who frowned at passports and ideas, especially if they were to be used to mingle with the West. While people still travelled and emigrated and, with a bit of creative gumption, conducted international business back then, my parents only managed to migrate from their neighbouring villages to the nearest city. And they stayed there for the rest of their lives. When we move, we move to settle, not to roam.

In the 80s and 90s, the Russian influence ebbed East again and my generation grew up in a post-soviet capitalist frontier, in the Wild West of democracy. Suddenly, Poland had independent borders with a sovereign bit in the middle. But then the opt-in empire of European Union came, and the borders were thrown wide open. That was 15 years ago but I’m still the only one in my family for whom international travel, and transnational living, is an obvious thing to do.

Perhaps that still sits uneasily with me; makes me wriggle on my bar stool while my friends and colleagues compare Toronto, New York and Sydney over a glass of wine, simultaneously planning to vacation in Thailand in a few months, complaining about the drudgery of an incoming business trip to Chicago, and musing on a temporary career relocation to Singapore. Perhaps it will take another decade for me to feel that I truly belong to such a global class of citizens. It might take another uprooting and repotting myself in a foreign soil to dismiss the suspicion that freedom to roam is merely a temporary privilege rather than an irrevocable right. It doesn’t help that the world seems to confirm this suspicion; that such rights can be snatched by those in power. Borders can close, quotas be imposed, the free flow of dreams reduced to a trickle of luck. The freedom to roam is likely to be frowned upon by those who derive their identity and the little of power they have from forgetting the settling of their own families. Enough of you have come, they say. Or enough of you have left, depending on whether the river of human movement looks like a drain or a deluge from their perspective.

It’s either a bout of Eastern European negativity or this fixed farming genotype of mine that makes me dwell on those who dwell; especially on their juxtaposition to my newly acquired political, economic and mental freedom to travel.

So, over a bottle of Cristal, I think of how we get whizzed from a champagne bar at Heathrow to a coffee lounge in Mexico to the family-run restaurant in Havana, where we eat a meal that costs roughly the annual salary of our young and talkative waiter. When we head back to our air-conditioned condo in Havana Vieja, our neighbour roasts a whole pig right on the street, preparing for the new year eve fiesta. Next day more air-conditioned restaurants, airy galleries and secluded cafes in cul de sacs await us, while our neighbour boils the pig’s head with some corn right on the street. The following day I begin to grow weary of the kaleidoscope of places to taste, of thoughts running ahead of schedule to new destinations from the catalogue of possibilities. But we keep moving on to see more of the dissimilar before the procession of sights, scents and sounds takes us back to the airport, to the air and across the earth while our neighbour will proceed to bake some yams from his vegetable stand. Every day he places his makeshift barbecue on the same street corner and guards it late into the night, sometimes poking gently at a baking yam. He’ll put on some salsa CD to pass the long day of anyone buying hardly any of the guavas arranged from the greenest on the left to the reddest and ripest on the right. But by the time the green ones ripen exposed to the heat and sun, we’ll be on another continent.

cuba libre

El.

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Inspired by a trip to Cuba in 2018/19