It happened so quickly it took me a minute to process. The vodka bottle was pulled into the car and the cash was grabbed by the person inside and then the car took off accelerating at high speed. Only moments earlier I had been asked by a Polish border guard to unzip my coat. He had been searching for vodka and cigarettes I might have taped to my body in a smuggling attempt. Welcome to the border between Poland and Ukraine.
As soon as you cross from western Ukraine into eastern Poland you start noticing the differences immediately — the roads are better and the standard of living is higher. Poland is a member of the European Union while Ukraine is not. Selling alcohol and cigarettes near the border is a job for some Ukrainians. In Ukraine, vodka and cigarettes are much cheaper than in Poland so people will cross the border daily and sell them in Poland and then buy food products and electronics (which are much more expensive in Ukraine) and cross back over. Of course all of this is illegal, hence the coat check. Approximately 300,000 Ukrainians are estimated to be working in Poland and Ukrainians are the largest group of non-European Union member migrants applying for residency in the EU. The border is a stark illustration of why Ukrainians want to see a dramatic change at home. It was also the first time in my life I had crossed a border between two countries by foot.
So why did I cross the border and have to deal with unzipping my coat to prove I wasn’t smuggling vodka? For a long time I had wanted to see the town my maternal grandmother grew up in which is today in eastern Poland. The border between eastern Poland and western Ukraine shifted many times over the past several hundred years. My mother knew that her mother was from the town of Medyka where the family owned vast farm lands. Apparently there was so much to harvest that Hutsuls from the mountains in Ukraine would come to work. My grandmother went to school in the town of Przemyśl (the majority of photos in this post).
So while on my reporting trip to Ukraine (read the other stories I wrote here, here, and here), I set out from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to Przemyśl. My friend Areta came with me. She’s a pro — she knew which bus to get on, where to run to once the bus stopped (let’s just say everyone gets off the bus and tries to get first in line), and which line to get into at the border as American citizens. Plus as a fellow Ukrainian-American, Areta and I both share a lot of curiosities about the past and the lives of our families — check out her wonderful blog on the past and Ukraine here. Areta had visited Przemyśl several times before and knows a lot about her family’s life there. I on the other hand, don’t know very much and just wanted to wander and see the city:
Walking around was both foreign and familiar. Like Lviv, Przemyśl has that fantastic Austro-Hungarian architecture that many people will recognize from the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I understand very, very, very basic Polish and some words I grew up saying, sklep – store and trystavky – strawberries, are actually Polish and not Ukrainian. It just shows how people moved and intermingled between and before the two great wars.
Areta and I had some lunch on the main square (sorry Poland, Ukrainian varenyky are better) and rubbed this man’s nose for some luck:
Areta has a great eye for all things from another age. She pointed out the street numbers from different eras to me:
As well as this cool little metal dragon that was meant to prevent carriage wheels from bumping into buildings while they pulled in way back when:
1970s building ad:
If grad school has taught me anything, it’s use your network. Before leaving for Ukraine I asked Victor’s aunt who is Ukrainian but grew up in Poland if she had any contacts in Przemyśl. Let’s just stay through the network of Ukrainians in the US and Canada, Areta and I were greeted that afternoon in Przemyśl by the sweetest young couple. They insisted on taking us to see the top of the city and showed us the town’s ski hill.
They also drove us to see the nearby Krasiczyn Castle, which is beautifully restored and can be rented out for parties — anyone? After showing us around, they of course insisted Areta and I come over to their house for dinner — did I mention that these people were complete strangers to us both and they just knew that some uncle in Canada and had called and said someone was coming? This is why I love travel and the kindness of strangers — we could do with remembering that a bit more everyday in the States.
When someone invites you for dinner, it’s a good idea to always say yes. Areta and I enjoyed dinner and it was really interesting to meet Ukrainians who had been born and raised in Poland. The difference was also even more stark between Ukraine and Poland — the young couple has good jobs, but with those jobs in Ukraine there would be no way they could have the beautiful home and nice car they have living in Poland. So when people ask me why everything has happened in Ukraine, it’s not really that complicated. Everyone around this world wants the best life possible for their children and when so many Ukrainians have been to Poland and seen that better life so close by, they held their corrupt government accountable when it didn’t sign an Association Agreement with the EU. That’s how a revolution started.
As for the title, I am now three for four. I still have to go see the town where my maternal grandfather grew up. To me there is something deeply powerful about knowing where you’ve come from. It’s all about the roots.