The Bus from Przemysl

Note: The author is an American of Ukrainian descent currently living in L’viv Ukraine. His ancestors had fled that country to escape the Bolsheviks. Przemysl is a city just on the other side of the Ukrainian-Polish border.

The Bus from Przemysl

I.

Yogurt. Juice. Mandarins. A bicycle chain repair machine. Coffee creamer. Goods tightly bound in plastic bags, or placed individually in the overhead compartment.

Constant, frantic noise of middle-aged women, like walking into a chicken coop. rows full of boxes. seats piled high. windows blocked. boxes and bags.

The business of clearing seats, of ladies reminding each other what belongs to whom.

Diapers.

The doors close. The driver climbs over some bags to find his seat. A woman calls for the man sitting in front. He pulls a roll of packing tape from his coat pocket, steps over bags. he seals a torn-open box, returns to his seat, resigned to the duty of his labor, completely silent, unlike the women. A woman hands him a bag of vacuum sealed sausages. Some tumble to the floor. He kneels to retrieve them from under a seat. He will hold them in his lap for the rest of the trip. Another bag of sausages goes to the lady across the aisle from him.

The driver insisting the under compartment is full, unpacking a bag of thermoses — each is boxed, ready to be shelved in some store — and placing them individually in the overhead.

Boxes of powdered milk under the seats.

Slowly, things settle to private conversations. There are big snowy fields and villages in the distant forested hills.

What a vulgar, vile idea it was to reduce all this to the brutality and ignorance of a post office.

II.

I see the traffic before I see the border. Three lanes of vans and cars. All still. People stand among in their coats. So many. Later, I’m told they will mostly be crossing on foot.

I’m happy to see the bus steer into the lane for opposing traffic. We skip almost the entire line, then the driver stops and cuts the engine. We wait. There’s a 100 zloty note prominent on the dashboard.

One of the women speaks to the driver. 150 zloty. A quiet conversation. Another 40 zloty. I am a bystander to this world. (my ticket cost only 25.) A shuffling of documents.

We wait beside a flatbed trailer with two cars chained in place. I think they have no tires, but then see the tires laid flat. The frames rest upon the tires. Perhaps these aren’t cars at all. Perhaps in this moment they are merely scrap metal. A different thing entirely.

I watch my travel companions. Fascinated by their world. They know this trip well. I imagine their lives, look into their bags: Kiwi. Mushrooms. Butter. Seeds.

The Polish guard collects passports, looks, each of us carefully in the face. No smiling. Soon they’re returned.

More waiting.

The Ukrainian guard does the same and then (rejoice!) we are through! Breathe again.

At a gas station, the flurry of activity, the frantic clucking crescendos. One woman can’t find her bag. Two men carry crates of juice to the gas station. A woman exits the bus and six bags are unloaded onto the curb beside her. The two come running back from the gas station, arms swinging. The driver yells hurry. Boxes go into the trunk of a waiting car.

Such intricate chaos. God bless it, I think. God bless these people, this system.

At the next stop, numbers — forty yogurts, no sixty. Counting. Such hustle and precision! Nothing like US Army logistics. Ha.

A box of yogurt and a box of butter become two boxes, half-full of each.

Now, there are hryvni on the dashboard.

A lady unloading the overhead places a large box of chocolate snacks in my lap without asking permission or speaking to me. She clears a space on the seat across the aisle and moves the box there. I feel . . . accepted.

Boots, crackers. Someone needs something from beneath the seat adjacent to me. I begin to help. The boxes of butter are heavy.

Men await our arrival beside one grocery. The women hand them boxes through the door. They stack them in the alley in the spots where snow had melted away.

Now, the hryvni are gone.

A microwave gets passed from the from to the back of the bus. They yell at the driver to open the rear door. They call him by his first name.

Four bags go beside the traffic circle where a taxi waits.

The stops get quieter, less frantic now with fewer people and fewer goods. It is dark when we finally reach L’viv. I am one of only three passengers when the bus parks beside the train station. I exist with my suitcase and walk home.

III.

Snow is falling lightly. Everything is calm. Freshly returned from the west, L’viv’s poverty is clear. I carry the suitcase because its little wheels can’t handle the disastrous sidewalks, the snow and slush, the trolley tracks buckling the cobblestone streets. Yes, Ukraine is poorer that the west — run down in many ways. The roads and sidewalks, a disaster. But still, it’s very beautiful. Everywhere, under dustings of snow, in the shadows cast by electric lights, there are hidden treasures of architecture, history, religion, faith.

1 Comment

  1. elmer

    Ah, yes, the old conundrum, much agonized over in Zookraine – Zookrainians are great and huge drama queens.

    Do you pay the border guards a bribe, and get “expedited treatment,” in the process supporting corruption? Or do you wait in line for several hours, and take a stand against corruption?

    Great story, Roman.

    Barter and trade like this have been going on a very long time, even during sovok times, although at that time, not so much in the open.

    One example – it was absolutely verboten to engage in “speculation,” during sovok times, which included walking up to tourists and asking to buy their jeans and other clothes, or offering 9 or 10 rubles for their dollars. The official exchange rate reflected how proud the sovoks were of the ruble, which noone wanted – it cost about $1.20 to buy 1 lousy ruble.

    And yet, despite the criminal sanctions, people did it.

    The sovok system was, obviously, a huge failure.

    So people took matters into their own hands.

    Great story, Roman. Very well written.

    Reply

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