An Eastern Border
When I wake up at 8 a.m. on the Polish-Ukrainian border, I'm surprised by the gray concrete. We have to get out of the bus, shivering, our passports in hand. Mine, navy blue. Nearly everyone else’s, maroon and emblazoned with golden Cyrillic. Don’t ask if it’s Russian – I learn that quickly.
Over the last three years I’ve gotten used to the questioning glances, the look in the eyes of the border official who often asks, Why would you want to be here? But then they still push ink against paper after hearing my accent damp with effort, giving me that coveted stamp.
It’s too early for speech; I don’t yet have to try out my game of fitting the Slavic language I’m learning, like a green plastic star or oval, into the wooden box of cut-out shapes, seeing where there is congruency. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, so we have to pass border control twice; first on the Polish side, then on the Ukrainian. There is no difference in their blank beneficence. Maybe because it’s first morning light, the wash of pale blue compared to the saturated orange of an evanescent day. It’s comforting. There are still boxes to check.
Back on the bus I lay my head on the smudged-glass window and wonder how much time I have left to doze. If you kidnapped me and brought me here, I might think I were still in Czech Republic. Countryside, one-story houses, the tell-tale orange roofing, the untamed green lawns. Nothing like my suburban American upbringing. It’s when you look over the roughed-up wooden fences that you see the clutter of rusting machinery, the chicken coops, the unidentifiably-colored rabble of a life lived in the garden. The Czechs wouldn’t like that comparison. They have chickens too, sure. And old machinery. But they have more money.
That’s why the Ukrainians come there to work and ride the red-eye bus back in bi-monthly shifts. You sleep as well as you can on your handbag or duffel bag in the corner of your fabric seat with its faded stars or green and purple geometry.
When we arrive in Lviv, I am sleepy-eyed and excited. I wander among the yellowed fallen leaves and I sound out the letters of angular Cyrillic I hurriedly memorized on the way here. There are cobblestone streets and treacherous tram tracks in the middle of them. There are local butcher and cheese shops, just like in my small Czech town, and I excitedly go in and point to what I want. I use Google Translate to tell the waitress in a dark alley café that I want the famed “coffee on fire.” She looks at me knowingly, smile cocked in the corner of her face.
I meet a local boy, Maxim, for pizza. In the same conversation, we touch on his graphic design work and the ambiguous deaths of political figures who criticize the Russian-leaning government. I think about the toilet paper I saw being sold in the main square as a souvenir with Putin’s face on it. Maxim shows me the black stone and concrete memorial to Jewish deportees in a quiet corner of Lviv. He brings me to the highest point in the city and we look over smoking chimneys and distant fields. As we spiral back down to earth, we talk about the Nickelodeon shows we both watched in our childhoods. He tells me he can move freely over the border because he received second citizenship through his Polish grandparents. When he drops me off at his favorite café, I ask him how I’ll pay him back for lunch, and he says, We’re sure to see each other again.
I try to stuff as many cheap, delicious varenyky, or filled dumplings similar to Polish pirozhky, into my gob as I can in 72 hours. In a buffet-style restaurant I ask a young counter worker how to pay. She doesn’t speak English and the only other language I speak is Czech, so we compromise with Polish. I haggle with a man in the Friday market over bee pollen and beeswax in plastic containers. He seems skeptical that I understand what I’m buying. I don’t, but I’m trying to give a different impression.
On the trip back to Czech Republic, the bus sits on the Ukrainian-Polish border. As an hour drags on as we sit parked in front of a trucker’s hotel and a hot dog stand next to the road divider, I’m the odd one out for sure, the sole face of panic staring at the calm backs of fellow passengers’ heads. Too nervous to ask the one woman who could speak some Czech. Too afraid the bus won’t be waiting there anymore if I run out to use the bathroom – having escaped over the border with my backpack. But it’s a misguided fear; we are stalled for seven hours.
I doze for forty-five minutes at a time until we are coerced out again with our passports in a cinderblock building with a dirty, freezing bathroom. I am only wearing my sweater; I forgot my winter jacket in the bus. We stand in silence, blinking suspiciously at each other. Thankfully the transaction is again language-less.
I can’t sleep with all the haphazard lurches of the bus, so I pull out the unexpected copy of To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960s Kiev, and even more surprisingly, in English) that I found in a church courtyard book sale. Its starchy pages and the imagery of an all-containing tree cubbyhole recall the high school years when I first read it. It seems an odd dovetail with the moment, but like Scout I have my doubts about others overturned. When we arrive, sleepy and followed by a cloud of exhaust into the whitewashed Brno morning, I disembark and try to find the two drivers who took turns through the night. The other passengers have gotten out to rub their eyes and stretch. Diakuju, I say to the mustachioed one who signed me in, thank you, Do pobachenya, goodbye. He gives me a brief condescending look and goes back to smoking his cigarette.
Chloe' Skye is an ESL teacher and avid traveler who moved to Czechia in 2014 on a Fulbright fellowship. She seeks the poetry in linguistic and cultural collisions and explores these themes on her travel blog Chlohemian.