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.