I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that Ukraine would be less developed than Poland. Still, some experiences early on surprised me.
At 9 am yesterday, our driver, Vitali, picked us up in his van at our Cracow hotel. He didn’t speak much English, but he was friendly fellow. More important, he knew the way to Lviv, Ukraine, and was going to drive us the 600 or so kilometers to get there.
We did our best to communicate with Vitali, my father relying on the bits of Polish he remembered from his childhood (his parents spoke to him in English, but to each other and their friends in Polish, not Yiddish). Turns out Vitali spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian, after living in Hungary for six years serving with the Red Army. We stopped at a truck stop for lunch, which had a grill with only female servers and only male customers. I had some kielbasa, the first real kielbasa I had all trip. It was delicious, and didn’t need any condiments.
There is no main highway between Cracow and Lviv. We took small roads, sometimes only with one lane in each direction. Sometimes, the roads had a half-lane/shoulder on each side. If you wanted to pass the car ahead of you, you pulled into the other lane (of potentially oncoming traffic) and any car coming must drive half in their lane and half on the shoulder. This struck me and my dad as pretty scary, but Vitali handled it without difficulty.
Crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine was an amazing experience. When we first pulled up to the border, we saw a huge line of cars and anticipated an enormous wait. I’ve waited upwards of 2 hours at the Canada-US border, so this wasn’t exactly novel to me, but I was still disappointed. We were stopped behind a long line of cars, and ahead of us was a traffic light, turned red, ahead of which was a similarly endless line of cars. Many in our section actually turned their cars off, and Vitali did so as well. My father stepped out to take a look, I stepped out to pee by the side of the road (public urination is a form of reparations). We feared the worst. The Vitali walked off ahead to try to speak to someone. A few minutes later, he came running back, as the light had turned green and others were starting their engines again.
Still the line moved slowly. So Vitali decided to simply veer to one side of line and drive up ahead, passing car after car. Eventually, he encountered a guard. He spoke to him jovially, and handed him our passports. We heard him say something about my father being a professor from Canada. A few minutes later, we were allowed to pass.
It turns out that that guard had been Polish. Apparently you have to go through/customs security on the way out too. We then drove up to a Ukrainian soldier, who Vitali approached with same jovial manner. We gave him our passports, and a few minutes later, he returned them and we moved on. Vitali was clearly a veteran border crosser. Apparently, he simply told them we were from Canada, and didn’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, and off we went. We’ve heard that is easier for Canadians to cross the Poland-Ukraine border than it is for Ukrainians.
Once we entered Ukraine, the difference seemed immediately apparent. Like in Poland, we drove through small roads, with a similarly treacherous way to pass cars ahead of you. But the scenery was rather different. We drove by old women with rakes, wearing handkerchiefs, plowing fields. Groups of horses with no fence to hold them in. And then cows actually walked in the middle of the road, forcing us to stop until they went by.
I thought of India first. I’ve never been, but have heard that this was a frequent occurrence there. But then I thought of Borat.
I couldn’t help it. I remember a travelogue we read in my eastern European history class, from the 18th or 19th century, written by a Frenchman visiting Poland, who thought he had travelled back to the medieval era, only to be amazed that Warsaw was an actual city. If my demi-Orientalist prejudices had emerged in Poland, they doubled in the Ukraine. And sure enough, when we got to Lviv, I was a bit surprised to find a modern city. But there it was.
The roads around the downtown square are almost all cobblestone. It creates a very charming effect, but is murder on car suspension, and I suspect, on women or men in high heels. Lviv, like Cracow, had been a Polish city under the Habsburgs, and it had something of the same aura. But it also felt different. It wasn’t just that the cars were more run-down and the buildings more dilapidated.
Ukraine was the birthplace of the pogrom. One of the country’s heroes, Bogdan Chmielnicki, had led the butchering of thousands of Jews in the 1600s. They still have a statue of him (below). There are no statues of Hitler in Germany. My father’s father, born, raised and educated in Poland, a veteran officer in the Polish army, visited Germany after the war. But he would never set foot in Poland. And he would not have dreamed to going to Ukraine. I thought about that. I felt uneasy. I felt bad for feeling this way, but I felt it nonetheless.
Needing a bit of a break, my father and I ate at McDonalds that night. The food was cheaper, a bit over 8 American dollars, for a Big Mac, Quarterpounder with Cheese, a large fry, a Coke-Light, and a bottle of water (no gas). It tasted good, like I remembered it. But I knew that the next day would be radically different than the one before. More on that in the next post.