Cold War Games:
Polish Cousins in Lwów

Danuta Lwow 2017

I call the city Lwów because that is what we want to see, the remains of the old city that once was a center of art and culture in Poland. After the Second World War, borders were adjusted to punish the German losers and reward the Soviet victors. This was the agreement made by the Allies, and the Iron Curtain fell between the capitalist West and the communist East. Polish people from the east were relocated to the west, and they left behind a city filled with monuments to and memories of the glorious Polish past.

We are on the road to Lwów from Zamość, my Polish cousin Danuta and I. Although we are first cousins once removed, she resembles my mother to a startling degree and that has pulled me closer to her, as if she were the sister I never had. Her growing resemblance aside, little about Poland surprises me anymore, after more than three decades worth of discovery of family, language, and history.

Danuta planned this day trip, and when she plans a trip, she does it old-style–that is, reminiscent of the communist era. She has finagled a good rate on a stuffy old van packed with people and does not plan to waste a złoty on nonsense like restaurants, taxis, or hotels. She has stored bread and water, kielbasa and cheese in our backpacks along with a big thermos of coffee.

Danuta grabs my diary to write down where we are, sitting at the kontrola graniczna, the border to Ukraine, where the city now called Lviv is located. The young, buxom tour guide, her thumbs in the pockets of her tight blue jeans, has rattled on for more than an hour, her Polish so fast that even though I have a modest knowledge of the language, I simply cannot keep up with more than ten percent of what she is saying as we pass sites where thousands of people were murdered w czasie wojny, during the war.

Danuta pulls on my arm and says she will translate, although she seems unwilling or unable to use the English she learned during her twelve years as a cleaning lady in Chicago. Her idea of translating is to repeat what the guide says in Polish only louder.

When the van pulls over for a break, a cluster of people light up cigarettes, and another bunch stand in line at the toilet.

“What are you writing?” Danuta asks impatiently. She has been listening intently to the rules about how many packages of cigarettes and how many bottles of vodka she can bring home for herself and her family. She repeats in Polish what the tour guide says, while noting the incredibly low price of flowers and pizza in Ukraine. Everything is barter, intrigue, and bribes in her book. It sounds to me like the guide is saying, “You can even buy yourself a mother-in-law.” I cannot stop laughing, even though Danuta keeps grabbing my arm and telling me to control myself.

Now the intrigue is about a special Ukrainian vodka. Dobrze się wypije, says the guide, Polish for ‘good stuff.’ Danuta is grabbing my notebook and scribbling down the recommendations while condemning some lousy vodka she bought in Zamość. “We are in Ukraine,” she confides, lowering her head and staring upward at me as she tells the story of a niece who was trafficking in cigarettes and booze and other commodities she could “wholesale” and make a buck. “The penalties are severe,” Danuta whispers, then shouts “Bim-Bom” when the guide starts telling us what candy we can buy cheap.

Past the Polish border, we come to a second stop, where several uniformed Ukrainian officials gather around the bus, chatting. Now the guide is talking about some sort of koszula that people will no doubt want to buy. Why anyone would want to go all the way to Ukraine to buy a shirt is a mystery to me. Then the guide mentions pierogi. Same question. “Cheaper,” Danuta explains.

Chernihivske,” Danuta orders me to write down. No idea whether she is saying “Chernobyl” or “interesting soup.” When I repeat it, she says in Polish, “Not soup, silly, alcohol.” When I note that we have all this stuff available in Poland, she punctuates all my observations with, “Cheaper.” She has a Cold War mentality about wasting money like Americans during the Great Depression. Save string. Clean up your plate. Waste not, want not.

Other passengers are now asking questions like, “How is the ice cream in Ukraine? How is the coffee?” Despite the fact that the guide has been talking for about a half an hour about the bargains in Ukraine, people have more questions about the coffee and the candy and the chocolate. The bus is getting warmer and warmer until finally they come for our passports. “Close your book,” Danuta says, “they’ll think you’re a spy.” Then she adds, “A million Ukrainians have moved to the luksus of Poland from the turmoil in Ukraine,” she declares, the luxury.

The driver says something about “restaurant” and “free,” but Danuta clarifies that the toilets are free, not the food. She tells me to stop laughing and then laughs loudly, reminding the guide that she has not yet identified the store in which to buy the best Bim-Bom.

As the border guard is passing out passports, Danuta says she must get off the bus. “You know why,” she says impatiently. The official looks at me and at my passport. “The American,” I say to him. “Quiet,” Danuta advises. “But it’s printed on my passport,” I protest. She shrugs her shoulders and without waiting for the official to move on, tells me the story of how she bribed her way onto an airplane. “They weren’t bribes,” she corrrects, “they were presents.”

Our first stop in Ukraine is a row of shacks where you “change money,” where one hrywna is worth about four cents U.S., and it takes over seven hrywna to equal one Polish złoty, which equals about thirty cents U.S. The little gas station and convenience store has toilets, but only one is working, so some 30 people form a line. I disappear behind one of the old shacks. Danuta wants to know where I have been and when I tell her I went siusiu in the bushes, she approves, waving her hand at the line. “Now I have to go stand in line,” she says. “It’s not fair.”

Back on the bus, the guide starts yammering again, and all I can pick out sounds like she is saying “they made pâté out of the church.” “Why are you laughing?” Danuta says, looking perplexed and wanting in on the joke. Then from the front of the bus come sobering tales about the ugly history of the region and explanations of the war monuments to the various slaughters that occurred here.

Once in the city, we head immediately to the Lychakiv Cemetery. The first thing we are told is that there has been much renovation done here after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, but the Soviet residue is not far beneath the surface; graffiti, a swastika that no one has bothered to remove, are, in fact, still on the surface. Although many ceramic face plaques have been smashed, tombstones and vast areas where Polish soldiers are buried have been restored.

Down the hill on a large staging area, a funeral is underway, with several dozen people in attendance, including a chorus of beautiful voices. Danuta announces for me in Polish, “They are singing.”

The cemetery toilets mark the first reappearance of another communist phenomenon, the toilet lady. Bucket in hand and babushka on head, she lets no one pass without a couple hrywna trading hands. When I emerge, Danuta scolds me for not sticking with the group, even though most of the group is waiting around the toilets. Then she wanders off and is the last to get back into the van.

At the central cathedral in Lwów, we all pile out of the van and the guide begins her droning. “This is a church,” Danuta announces loudly in Polish. “Cicho,” quiet, I tell her. Danuta tells me she is embarrassed that it never occurred to her to get an English-speaking guide, but “don’t worry, it’s all on the internet.” Inside the cathedral, the guide is passionless, robotic, her enormous front teeth making everything she says that much more unclear.

We pass a man spinning sugar. He looks like Augustin Magaldi as portrayed in the movie Evita. We pass a gaggle of gypsy children working the crowd, demanding money, then four girls playing violins with a tin cup before them on the cobblestones. More restoration is in progress as we reach the central city. As the day grows hotter, we enter a second church for another lecture. After that, there is a third church and then a fourth, the opera house with its gilded grandeur, then a climb to the top of what was once a castle for a ładny widok, a view of the city of 800,000 people and acres of post-World War II block houses, dull and characterless under the blazing sun. Everything new then is old now and grimy. Yet another toilet lady is screaming at me because I do not have small change and use the toilet anyway. Danuta intervenes, reprimanding the baba for being ungracious who finally gives in: “Well, why didn’t he tell me he would pay on the way down the hill?”

Once class is dismissed by the tour guide, we are finally on our own with our backpacks full of food and drink that we have been lugging around for hours. “For later,” Danuta says. We gobble our way through an inexpensive lunch at a “milk bar,” a Polish-style cafeteria with homemade food—pierogi, salads, fish, meat, bread, and apple cake.

Then we are off to the targ, the open air market, and we are both in high gear, reminiscing about our Chicago days of bargain hunting. The next thing I know, Danuta is bartering over a wooden spoon as if negotiating the purchase of the Taj Mahal. “Chodź,” she hollers when she is done. “Come on.” She’s doing some serious bargaining with a tiny old Polish lady who is peddling strings of granite and corral. “I’m not lying to you,” the lady says, “yes, it is corral, yes the other one is stone not plastic.” The dear thing tugs on her babushka, smiling, and I can see a glimmer of recognition that her customer knows the old ways and bargains because that is the way it is done by everyone but fools.

The quest for alcohol and candy involves Danuta stopping half a dozen locals and asking where they buy their best liquor and candy for the lowest price. Once inside the store, Danuta invariably asks, “If I buy two will you give me a discount.” And they do. I buy a roll of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin’s face printed on it.

We stop for a beer in the town square and Danuta has something else on her mind. “Teepee,” she advises, and after wondering why she is talking about a historical Indian dwelling, I realize she has said in Polish, “Ty pij. You drink. I’m going over there.” She is making a last-ditch effort to find the elusive Bim-Bom for her granddaughters and niece and nephews.

Our backpacks stuffed with bargains, a bag in each of our hands, we head back to the van with the rest of the group, many of whom are also loaded down with Ukrainian delights.

The driver takes a different route back to Poland, and the road is so full of potholes that we can hear the axle banging against the frame, throwing us around in our seats. Danuta reads from roadside signs more information about who was murdered where and by whom. Apropos of nothing, the driver turns on the radio and some tune familiar to Danuta comes along and she some of the other passengers sing along, happy with their bags full of booze and candy. Then comes Engelbert Humperdinck singing “Quando, Quando, Quando.”

Before long we are facing a gleaming new building with big letter at the top saying, “Welcome to the European Union.” Dolhobyczow/Rzeczpospolita Polska. I pull out my cell phone. “You can’t use that here,” Danuta advises. We are at the Ukrainian customs and border patrol. All the signs are in Ukrainian, Polish, and English. No Russian. And the bathrooms are clean and free, no toilet ladies.

Although there is no line, no traffic at the border, we are ordered to pull over. There is no love lost between the driver and the Ukrainian border officials. When they order him to open the luggage compartment, which is empty, he complains loudly. “Why are we sitting here? Thanks to you I’ll be driving all night.”

A uniformed blonde woman climbs into the bus and demands passports, but nobody asks to see what is in all our bags. We think we will be on our way shortly. An hour passes, then another. By now the three young children who have been relatively quiet for the whole trip are emboldened. Everybody encourages them as they giggle up and down the aisles, then outside the bus teasing the guards. They play a game, asking us “Do you like…and filling in the last word with whatever pops into their head. “Do you like chewing gum?” the eldest of the three girls says to me. They act as if they are keeping score, then jump off the bus and start asking the border guards what they like. Everyone on the bus is now laughing and egging them on while they dart back and forth from the bus to the office, buzzing around the idle guards.

The driver laughingly tells everybody to have their two bottles and two bottles only to show. A man in the back shouts, “If we have to wait much longer, mine will all be gone!”

Three hours after we pulled up to the border stop, they release our passports and we push forward to the Polish side of the border. The girls jump off the bus and ask the Polish officials what they like, and they laugh, wave them back into the bus saying do widzenia, bye-bye, and move us along. “This way,” one points. After that we face two more gates, both unattended. The driver throws up his hands in mock despair, laughs, jumps out of the van, and forces the gates open, and we are on our way, back into Poland, the EU, and the post-communist age.

Passengers ridicule the Ukrainian guards for wandering off while our passports sat on a desk for three hours, for doing it on purpose. “Nobody trains them,” the driver explains, “nobody teaches them how to do their jobs.”

The sun is setting, and Danuta has pulled out our supplies. It is as if she knew and is prepared for this senseless delay at the border. Fresh bread, tasty smoked kielbasa, cheese, water–all that we need for fine supper. Sheepishly, I agree when she says “I told you so.”

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