Geography suggests it should take no time at all to make the trip between L’viv, Ukraine and Przemysl, Poland. They are neighboring cities. Nevertheless, if you’re traveling by train, you spend more than an hour at the border (longer by car), thanks to a longstanding tradition of smuggling Western things (from cigarettes to clothing) into Ukraine. I understand the proess used to take much longer than it takes now. (Small mercy…). I got on the Wroclaw train at 6 a.m. I booked a berth in a first-class apartment. A little closet and a sink take up one wall. Three bunks are stacked against the other wall.
My reserved place turned out to be the top bunk. Up there at the top of the photo where you can’t see anything. There was a very large man sleeping in the bottom bunk. I took off my shoes and put them in the closet. I hoisted my knapsack up onto the bunk. Then I pulled the ladder from the closet, attached it to the bed rail as well as I could, and hauled my creaky old self up to my bunk. Once up there, I had about two feet between the bed and ceiling. I tried to get comfortable on my side. Before we left, though, a second man arrived in to take the middle bunk. He put his hand up into my bunk and squeezed my knee a couple of times. Squeezed it like he was testing a pillow. I still can’t figure out any reason for that squeeze. I turned onto my back, put my pillow on my knapsack, pulled my knees up, stared at the white ceiling, and tried to get a bit of rest.
Hardly an hour out of L’viv, though, Ukrainian immigration officials board the train, take each passenger’s passport, and leave the doors to each compartment wide open for further inspection. Customs officials move through the cars interviewing each passenger. The train doesn’t move until the customs and immigration process is complete.
A uniformed guard arrived at the door of my compartment. I could tell he had arrived even before he spoke, because I could see the brim of his hat over the edge of my bunk. His hat was one of those I remember from photos of Soviet officers, with such a large round crown compared to military hats in the West. He was dressed in a camouflage uniform. He said good morning in his loud deep voice and provided we three passengers with a customs declaration. It was in Ukrainian. I have made great strides in understanding spoken and even written Ukrainian, but my strides have not yet entered the area of bureaucratic language. I understood the line that asked for my first and last name, but I was hopeless after that.
The guard said something. I should have had a tape recorder… I told him I was sorry, but I didn’t understand what he asked. I understood what happened next. He made a joking (derisive?) aside to the other two passengers about how I couldn’t understand him, but how I could say it in good Ukrainian. (You see, I can understand some things. However, his joke did not make me laugh. At least he did not single me out for further questioning at the border. After all, I was on my way out of the country.)
I pulled myself up on one arm to try to see what was going on outside my door. One big-hatted camouflaged customs officer walked briskly through the train with a cocker spaniel. I know this was a serious exercise and that the dog was sniffing for contraband, but the dog was too cute and the sight was too funny. Two more officials trailed the dog. They were well past my door before I started to giggle.
Then an officer came in the room to rifle through bags. He went through the bags on the ground floor. He did not ask for mine. Then another official came to collect the customs declarations. I tried to explain that I could only understand the first question. The official was understanding and told me not to worry. She collected the empty declaration. I was surprised and thankful.
Finally, our passports were returned. Moments later, the train lurched forward and we crossed the border into Poland. We stopped again almost right away. This time Polish customs officials boarded and they rode with us as the train continued on its way. Byy the time the train arrived at the next stop, the customs and immigration check was completed. The Polish officials performed the same drill, but a little more thoroughly. This time, I had my bag searched. I think I looked eager to get off. I was planning to get off at Przemysl, the next stop. When the train rolled to a stop, I followed the agents down onto the platform.
The train would spend another half-hour or so changing undercarriages. The kind of rails in Ukraine are different than the kind of rails in the rest of Europe. The changeover takes place after the border guards leave and the train carries on toward Wroclaw. The train carried on but I stayed in Przemysl, a pretty little town with lots of stories to tell.