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02.17.2009

Borderlands

There is nothing distinctive about the Polish border with Ukraine. This part of the world sits on an endless, invasion-friendly plain crisscrossed by rivers that meander around without a clear sense of purpose before giving up in exasperation and draining into the Baltic or Black Sea. Historically, borders here have not counted for much. If you had horses, archers and an acquisitive nature, you could pretty much go where you wanted.

Part of the border follows a wadable little river called the Bug, while the rest is just a notional line drawn across indifferent potato fields. Yet despite appearances, this is one of the hardest-working borders on the continent.

To the west lies the European Union, a land of gingerbread cities and rolling fields made of spun gold. Cross the border here and you can drive to Portugal, Germany, France, or even Switzerland without even having to show your driver's license. On the other side is Ukraine, a struggling country whose economy has not been seen in some weeks, hasn't been answering the phone, and whose neighbors fear the worst.

From the Polish perspective, the border with Ukraine is the only thing separating a God-fearing people from the Wild East, a land of car smugglers, bandits, traffickers, Gypsies, Turks, Mongols, and other con men scheming to drain the country of its modest wealth. During the early nineties, there was an impressive flow of stolen cars from Germany that crossed Poland from West to East like a trail of ants returning from a particularly sumptuous picnic, masterminded (of course) by the remaining Soviet troops stationed in Poland, in a powerful demonstration that the entrepreneurial spirit as applied to theft could survive seventy years of communism. It used to be routine for trucks to spend from three days to a week waiting at the Ukrainian border, their various illicit cargoes banging at the walls of their prison, or else softly irradiating their surroundings with gamma rays.

From the Ukrainian point of view, the Polish border is another example of self-important Poles trying to lord it over everybody. Historically, Poles in the east were landowners, nobility and gentry, while Ukrainians and Ruthenians were the ones who actually tilled the soil, while being denied their own language and culture. Those resentments simmer on. The great villain of one of Poland's most popular works of historical fiction is the Ukrainian national hero.

Lviv is only 340 kilometers away from Warsaw, but travel options between the two cities are grim. Panzer divisions can make the journey faster than the Odessa-Warsaw train, which has to make a prolonged border stop in order to be picked clean of smuggled cigarettes and have its wheels resized to fit the narrower European track gauge. Buses must contend with two-lane roads that were never designed for the level of traffic they see, and that feature all the entertainments of the Slavic road network - bad pavement, frequent accidents, a roundabout in every village, drunken bicyclists, the occasional horse-drawn vehicle, and underpowered, overloaded old cars blocking everyone else's way. A few dozen kilometers of limited access, divided highway have been built in Poland over the past decade, but none of it leads to Ukraine.

The train and bus station in Lviv resembles a Serengeti watering hole in time of drought. Buses of all shapes and sizes eye each other warily, emitting great clouds of steam while trying to squeeze into the same small paved area. The arrivals area looks like a traffic jam frozen in time. Most of the buses are local, including an inordinate number of pink striped boxy buses headed to mysterious "SAMARA". Around the edges of the frozen traffic jam extends a portable service economy of kiosks and tents selling the necessities for a long trip like this: cookies and biscuits, hamburgers of the second freshness, breaded mystery cutlets, bottled water and juice, hot tea, Armenian cognac and a veritable United Nations of vodkas.

The morning bus to Warsaw is scheduled for 10:15, but it is nowhere to be found. The temperature on the platform hovers right around freezing, and the sky cannot seem to make up its mind between snowing and shining down a kind of pale, imitation sunlight. There are no signs among the bewildering chaos of vehicles to suggest where the Warsaw bus might be expected to arrive, so I wander around until I hear some Polish on the platform and ascertain from other stranded passengers that this is the correct place to wait. Then, in the proud tradition of Polish travelers stuck anywhere, we start bitching.

Centuries of ineptitude, misrule, corruption and outright chaos have not dimmed the Polish zeal for bitching. Listening to the cries of indignant exasperation and appeals to logic and reason on the bus platform one might think that we had lived all our lives in Switzerland, and had only this morning been thrust into a situation where a public service did not run smoothly or provide us with timely, accurate information.

In fact, the Lviv-Warsaw bus schedule is designed to make it impossible for the bus to arrive on time. The coach comes straight from Warsaw, with no allowance in the schedule for the four-hour border delay, and the drivers don't carry cell phones to communicate with the central office. The only way to know roughly how far away the bus is is by calling a spotter at the border, who can report on whether or not it has passed through customs.

Nerves are a little bit taut. It is the day before Christmas Eve, the day when all of Poland will shut down for a week. The people stomping their feet to stay warm are anxious about getting to Warsaw tonight, making connections. I talk for a while with a Polish woman who is making her way home from Georgia, where she serves in the European equivalent of the Peace Corps. She has to make a train connection in Warsaw and can't be late. After another forty minutes with no sign of the bus, we confer and decide to put her on the little minibus known as a marshrutka that runs to the nearby border crossing at Sheheni, where pedestrians can cross on foot. She has a better chance of getting from there to nearby Przemysl and catching a Warsaw-bound train.

This border crossing used to be infamous for its overwhelming foot traffic. Cigarettes are far cheaper in Ukraine than in the European Union, and locals colloquially known as 'ants' would make dozens of trips a day, bringing in the maximum allowance of cigarettes each time. These could be sold cash in local bars and cafes. This cross-border trade was the province of Ukrainians, until the black day when Poland imposed a 35 euro visa fee. Then Polish old ladies and young ne'er-do-wells took over. It was one of very few ways to make a decent income in the least-developed part of the country. In December, Poland reduced the duty-free cigarette allowance from one carton to two packs, bringing this form of entrepreneurship to a halt. There were furious protests, complete with thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails, at this knife thrust in the back of small business. But it at least made the border passable.

When the bus arrives, it is briefly the happiest place on earth. We settle in and a bearded Ukrainian agent takes roll call. The drivers are two older Polish men, one with an enormous paunch and the other with a faint resemblance to the late John Paul II. They have driven directly from Warsaw, spelling each other, and are now going to drive directly back. The bus rolls slowly through the heart of Lviv - a lovely city that merits its own post - and within a half hour has reached the monotonous tank country that makes up western Ukraine. We drive past men still picking late cabbages in one field, one of them cutting off their heads and throwing them up to a second, positioned in the back of a cart. The sun is shining from the highest point it will reach that day, just above the trees on the southern horizon.

In an hour or so there is a blooming of kiosks and billboards advertising the last chance to buy Ukrainian before the Polish border, and then we pass a very, very long line of passenger cars. The bus parks and one of the drivers goes off to find a customs agent. This is how we spend our first hour.

A vast gulf of fashion separates Polish and Ukrainian border guards. The Ukrainians favor bulky camouflage fatigues with a big Red Army-style fur hat, which for some reason they color blue. The outfit looks very military, as though the border patrol has just parachuted in and taken the crossing by force from the enemy, and my mind spins trying imagine a landscape where green camoflauge and giant puffy blue hats makes the perfect disguise. The Poles favor a drab green military uniform with proper coat, slacks and cap, looking like they stepped out of a documentary about wartime Bletchley Park.

There are differences in bedside manner, too - the Ukrainian officer, a strapping blonde woman borrowed from someone's dominance fantasy, processes us with a tone of aggrieved indignation. Each irregularity in documents strikes her as a personal affront. To her eyes, the bus is sick with sin, from my venal lack of an immigration card (a document that has been given to every foreigner who has ever entered the Ukraine except me, she is expected to believe) to the unforgivable lack of notarized papers from the aunt trying to take her underage nephews home for the holidays. The scared woman is forced to leave the bus, her children in tow. The older one is twelve and gets interrogated at length by another guard. He looks white as a sheet. The younger child is around six, and bawls uncontrollably. Merry Christmas!

The Polish officer a hundred meters down the road prefers to affect an ironic skepticism, and I experience a brief and unusual swelling of love for my country as he smirks his way through the stack of passports, smiles, and leaves. The bus only has to wait a few minutes for us to get passed along to the customs hall. This is a smallish room containing a customs officer, a metal detector, an X-ray machine, and thousands of cigarettes. Some of the packs have been taped together with electrical tape into a kind of bandolier, suggesting they were found hidden around the waists or legs of smugglers.

Our bus is hit hard by the news. Very few of the passengers were aware of the new two-pack limit. The stash on the table grows rapidly as each person in turn surrenders a carton. To my shock, no one tries to sneak cigarettes from the large table of contraband, which sits completely unattended whenever the customs agent looks at his X-ray screen. I feel disoriented. Is this the same Poland I remember?

Once everyone has been scanned, we are released back into the bus, which can now start its long journey to Warsaw. The border crossing has taken us over four hours. Near Lublin the bus makes a short stop at a roadside diner, where the passengers are efficiently served a three-course hot meal in twenty minutes, and in another few hours we are passing over the Vistula, with the merry spire of the Palace of Culture and Science twinkling off to the north. Elapsed time: 12 hours. Average speed: 28 km/h

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