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Poland—Looking East

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Looking East
Letter from Poland By Amy Drozdowska  16.01.07
 
This week's letter comes more precisely from the very eastern edge of the country, from the border between Poland and Ukraine.
I crossed that border not long ago, and in so doing flagrantly contradicted the advice of every Pole I talked to.
 
Poles are very much not looking east these days. They're determined to let you know that their eyes are firmly pointed west.
This is what I learned when I set out to see a bit of Ukraine. I've had this long-standing craving to see L'viv, one of the cultural centers of the country. And it's just a few kilometers from the border – an easy trip from Poland. It survived World War II intact, with influences from all the different ethnic groups who lived there still clearly evident. Including from Poles, who claimed it as their own for hundreds of years. And by the way, the city's called either L'viv or Lwów or L'vov, depending on whether you're coming from a Ukrainian, Polish or Russian perspective. All part of the intrigue.
I wasn't expecting the way Poles would react when I told them about my travel plans. I thought I'd get encouragement and approval, like ‘oh yes, that's such a lovely Eastern European city that most tourists forget about.' Or, ‘yes Lwów played an important role in Polish history and culture, well worth checking out.' Instead, people yelled at me. Actually, literally yelled. They asked me why in the world I wanted to go there. They claimed that there are so many other nearby cities that are much more worth visiting, like Prague or Vienna. But L'viv? The city still has streetcars from before the war; everything's old and broken-down. And my favorite, they told me that they don't have running water in Ukraine, at least not most of the time; the same with electricity. Others said they had absolutely no interest in going there because they had already lived through hard times, so why would they ever need to revisit the way Poland used to be?
 
I decided to go anyway. Despite the reprimands and raised eyebrows of my Polish acquaintances. And despite the fact that in looking into to crossing those few kilometers between the Polish border towns and L'viv, I learned that all sorts of peril awaited me: smelly, creaky Ukrainian buses that often broke down. Cigarette and alcohol smugglers trying to make mules out of the unsuspecting. Border guards that asked for outrageous bribes if you wanted your wait at the border to shrink from days to hours.
I couldn't afford the plane ticket that would have allowed me to avoid all this. And the Polish buses and trains that went there seemed hugely expensive and inexplicably long.
 
So I decided to get myself to one of the Polish border towns and find one of these Ukrainian buses I'd been hearing so much about.
It was easy to spot when it pulled into the station where a crowd of us where waiting. A rusty, dirty bus looking at least twenty years old lurched its way into the lot and brazenly parked itself next to the Polish buses. Maybe it was just by contrast, but those Polish buses looked like the brightest, shiniest specimens of automotive technology ever invented. But my choice was made.
 
The shoving began. I pressed myself into the bus, and saw that very single seat was stuffed with big plastic bags. The same with under the seats, the same with the narrow space overhead. I wondered aloud whose stuff this was. A young Polish woman, clearly a veteran at this, told me ‘this is the way it is'. She had already carved out a place for herself and her bag to sit. So I did the same. I found a spot at the back, balanced my bag between the seat and the wall, and nestled myself against what turned out to be a giant bag of fat Polish sausages. They were cold, and so was the bus. The heat was very much not working. Which was probably to my advantage, because all those sausages, not too mention all those people, would not have made great company on an overheated bus.
 
I arrived in L'viv after about 6 hours, at least 4 of which were spent sitting at the border. No bribes, thankfully, were necessary, though. My fellow travelers were prepared. Cake and vodka were passed around. There was even some singing. The keeper of those sausages – and about ten other heavy bags of food - got off with several others right after we crossed the border. Polish goods can apparently go for a lot of money, so Ukrainians go west to stock up and sell the stuff back home.
In that hour or so after crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border, I stared out through the warped windows of the bus at an incredibly black night. All lights had left us. I could barely distinguish where the line of the land broke with the sky. When L'viv finally appeared in the distance, it was like an imaginary city coming into focus on the edge of a very odd dream.
L'viv, it turned out, was very much real, and lovelier than I had imagined. Water did run and electricity was evident everywhere. And outside of all the obvious sites and structures to enjoy and marvel at, I found something unexpected to appreciate. How deep a line had been drawn between Ukraine and Poland in the last several years. The World Bank in 2004 measured the Gross National Income per person in Poland as $6,140. In Ukraine though? It's only $1,270. How very Eastern this place seemed in contrast, and how Western Poland has become.
 
In this large city attracting travelers from all over the world, virtually no signs were in any script but Cyrillic. There were no mega-malls, no multiplexes, and no hypermarkets. Draped across different side streets and along major avenues were some of the most beautiful holiday light decorations I'd seriously ever seen in a city – simple, elegant, and not a hint of advertising attached anywhere near. Very much unlike the giant Christmas tree in Warsaw's Castle Square that was draped with colored lights and a huge greeting from the candy company “Ferrero Rocher.” Or the holiday lights stretching down Nowy Swiat street, blatantly brought to us by the company Vattenfall.
 
Despite the fat, cold tubes of meat and thick bus exhaust accompanying me there; despite the lack of a few Western creature comforts like easy-to-get-groceries; even despite all the internal corruption and tight state control I knew was part of the picture, there was still something heartening about being in a place where globalization hasn't quite hit. To know that places in the world can still feel like themselves and not just like everywhere else. Because Poland, particularly in cities like Warsaw, feels less and less like itself to me. The sprawling malls, retail chains and supermarkets with more and more English appearing in signs are all making this country more active and accessible, but also more generic. It's globalization's Faustian deal, and I felt it full force. But then, given the choice between non-globalized Ukraine where life can be pretty hard, and having often more than I really need in the West, of course I'd pick my life of relative ease. And I know I'm lucky to have the choice.
 
A few weeks later, I was in Wroclaw, sitting in the “L'viv” restaurant. After the war and borders were redrawn, Wroclaw's decimated, mostly German population was replaced by the Poles who had to move out of the now Ukrainian L'viv. I stared at the pictures hanging on the walls, old Polish postcards from pre-war Lwów. The kind where they took black and white photographs and colored them in with pastels that somehow manage to be gaudy and delicate at the same time. These pictures held a palpable and poignant nostalgia for a place that Poles once claimed as theirs; and some Poles in fact still do. And though it wouldn't be at all wise to encourage a return to the country's imperial past, there's other reasons for Poles to look to L'viv. Because it's somewhere. A place with a particular, inimitable identity, albeit one in a country wrestling with an abundance of internal problems. Poland will need to figure out how, with courage rather than fear, to stay itself. Likely a long, uncomfortable journey lies ahead.

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