Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Lviv, Ukraine – Rzeszow, Poland
In the pitch dark a lone security guard appears and tells me I can wait for my Poland-bound bus on the third floor of Lviv bus station, which is rather reminiscent of the 1970’s Sci-Fi serial Space 1999’s ‘Moon Base Alpha’. Up on the third floor a dozen or so punters try to sleep but none dares – it appears – to lie down on the benches. After 15 minutes of surveying the scene for potential nutters, I slip my shoes off and curl up in a ball on top of my bag on the bench. I am just drifting off to sleep when I feel what seems like a punch in my back. I turn to see a moustachioed security guard. “Nye mozhna” he growls having just given me a small taster of his truncheon.
It appears that the rule is you must have at least one toe touching the ground at any given time. So, if you can pull it off, you can actually lie on the bench provided that a toe connects with terra firma. All around the ‘waiting hall’ Polish and Ukrainian transit passengers are stretched out like performing sea lions while the guards that are supposed to be here to protect us, patrol the room like prison guards ready to pounce on anybody committing a misdemeanour.
By around 5am, 15 hours after leaving Brovary, I drift off to sleep in a seemingly impossible upright position and awaken with a start just minutes before my bus leaves. All 46 seats on the bus are taken and with my near oversleep my award is one of the five crammed seats on the back row. Twenty days on from when I travelled here in the opposite direction the villages close to the Ukrainian border seem considerably more modern and affluent than I remembered them to be on the route in. I guess that is how you assimilate to your environment. I am pretty sure that I am actually going to suffer from a culture shock when I re-emerge on the other side of the Ukrainian-EU Stargate.
We spend two hours at the border leaving ‘Borderland’. Every bag is meticulously searched and each passport and visa closely scrutinised. It is difficult for most Ukrainians to leave their country, even for a foreign holiday. Visas are costly and approval by no means certain, particularly EU/Schengen visas.
I must admit to feeling rather sad leaving Ukraine. I have had a fantastic three weeks here and, as I mentioned previously, I now regret that I never lived here for a short period of time after considering that option a decade or so ago. It is a place where everything feels possible and impossible; where the air seems charged with electricity. Yes, there is a madness here; life is often extreme and harsh yet, it is also uniquely ‘real’. In many ways Ukraine feels like Europe as it once was, without the bullshit. Weren’t the summers like this when we were kids? Didn’t the vegetables and fruit taste this fresh and delicious? Didn’t we use to party without being told what we can wear and what time we have to go home? Dyakuju Україна
Re-emerging from the Stargate vortex in the European Union, everything in Poland feels, shall we say, ‘boring’. In Rzeszow it is the back end of the morning rush hour and the city is chocker with commuters and western cars. It is Poland but it could just as easily be Germany, the Czech Republic or Austria. All these places are beginning to look the same. It is all so…..so normal.
Just to add to my EU culture shock, the weather is also as cold and wet as an English summer’s day. For the first time in three weeks I reach for my jacket. The temperature didn’t dip below 23 degrees morning, noon or night during my time in Ukraine.
Pod Ratuszem hotel, just off Rzeszow’s main square, only has an expensive double room left. I am so tired and travel worn that I take the hit but am slightly compensated by them bringing me a complimentary breakfast to my room. I scoff it down, slurp back the coffee and spend the day sleeping, snoring like a bear and occasionally hallucinating.
In the evening, slightly recovered but definitely spaced out from my time travel, I meet my friend Ania, who lives near Rzeszow. We have a top night out taking in the bars and cafes of central Rzeszow, partying through till about three, I guess. Ania lives a good way out of the city so with a double room going begging I suggest she crashes down at my hotel to avoid an expensive taxi.
Just drifting off to sleep in the hotel there is a knock on my door. “I am sorry; your friend cannot stay here. She must leave.” Like I said, welcome back to the EU.