The Border Run (2 of 2)

PREVIOUSLY: PART 1

I slowly walked down the car line. Most were filled with several passengers, though some had lone drivers. I brought extra money for bribes, hotel, or a chance apocalyptic border event; 2,000 zloty (about $700) in total, all in 100 zloty bills fresh from the ATM. These people had to have a price for taking a chance on a random bearded fellow. In countries where average wages are $2 an hour, I’d make an offer they couldn’t refuse. I just had to find someone that would be just as scared of me as I would be of them.

I saw a woman about 45 years of age smoking a cigarette with her window cracked. I went up with a smile and in Polish said, “Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon,” she said.

“I have a problem. I’m American and I want to get across the border but I need a car. I don’t have a car. I live in Lublin.”

“That is a problem.”

“Can you help me get across the border? I don’t have any contraband.” I showed her the contents of my laptop bag. “I can give you 100 zloty [$33].”

“100?”

“Yes, 100.”

“Okay.”

I got into the car and thanked her. I asked her where she was going and she said Lublin. She was willing to drive me all the way back for the 100. There were over fifty cars I could have chosen to approach, and my first pick was a nice lady who was going to the exact same city I was.

We settled into a Polish conversation as the car inched towards the Ukrainian border. “Why did you come to Ukraine?” I asked.

“In Ukraine, gas and cigarettes are cheap. I come once a week to fill up my tank and buy a carton.”

“Do a lot of people do that?”

“Yes, things are cheaper in Ukraine. People smuggle mostly cigarettes and vodka, and then sell them in Poland for a higher price.”

“So everything in Poland is more expensive?”

“Everything except meat. People smuggle meat into Ukraine.”

I found it hard to believe that she would take an entire day of every week to save money on gas and cigarettes. She must have another hustle going. Perhaps the reason she didn’t seem to care if I had contraband was because she was loaded with it.

When we finally approached the border, she put 30 hryvnia [$4] in the back of her passport.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“It’s tradition. The Ukrainian agent takes it.”

“Tradition? You have to do it every time?”

“Yes. Everyone does it.”

“So the agent makes a lot of money.”

“Yes it’s a good job.”

“Do you have to do this in Poland, too?”

“No, only in Ukraine. Oh and don’t admit you speak Polish or Ukrainian. Only speak in English.”

A lot of NGOs deride corruption, but if you’re rich, corruption is great—you can buy your way out of anything. It’s nothing more than a regressive tax. If you’re reading this right now you probably make enough money to where some corruption would benefit you.

The Ukrainian agent looked at me weird while my Polish smuggler did all the talking. We got through without problems, and then blazed through the Polish border.

It started raining soon after we crossed. Her three cell phones kept ringing and she would always answer. While she was taking one call, the windshield made a loud pop and then a constant screech as if a hundred nails were being dragged against a chalkboard. The right wiper came off and the metal was stroking the glass. She was on the phone while this happened and kept yelling “Fuck” in Polish while actually speeding up. I double checked my seat belt. I tried to see through the window but it was almost impossible with the rain and wind. Just when I thought I should probably say something, she pulled over to the side of the road. She looked at me and yelled, “You’re paying for this!”

I stepped outside with her, not saying a word. She had spare wipers in her trunk. I used the flashlight app on my phone to help her replace it. She did it so fast that I assumed this was a common problem.

Once all was fixed, she calmed down and talked about her daughters, who were 24 and 21. They both had kids, so there was no hookup for me. “I’m a grandmother,” she said. She’d often interrupt the conversation to moan in pain every time she went over a big bump on the road. She kept saying “Massacre, massacre” in Polish, which made me nervous.

It took less than two hours to arrive in Lublin. She didn’t ask for the wiper fee but I gave her 120 zloty anyway, about $40. Considering the bus ticket to Łuck was $22, I was satisfied with the price and speed of my private car hire.

At 6:30 I walked into my coffee shop. While ordering my first cappuccino, the barista told me a meeting was about to start. There was an organization in Lublin trying to throw a marathon and once a week they meet to go over plans. A month before I crashed a meeting to hit on one of the organizers who had huge Bambi eyes. She took my email address under the guise that I would volunteer to translate their web page to English, but she never got back to me.

I sat in the back room because the marathoners monopolize all the front space. About half an hour later, the Bambi girl came to check out the back room, which had just been renovated a week earlier.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hi, I’m just coming back to check the room.”

“I thought you heard I was back here and wanted to say hi.”

She laughed. “I didn’t know you are here. How are you?”

“Ask me what I did today.”

“What did you do today?”

“I woke up, took a bus to Ukraine, got off at the border, and then paid a grandmother to drive me back here.” I took out my passport and showed her two Ukrainian stamps with the same date on them. I was still buzzing from my little adventure.

“Wow! You know, I have never been to Ukraine before.” She examined my passport carefully since she had never seen an American passport before. My photo is decent, when I was young and broody, and she complimented it.

She looked better than the last time I saw her. She was wearing makeup and had on a stylish outfit with modest two-inch heels. I could only imagine how her tight runners body would feel between my hands. I wanted to grab her right there, but societal norms prevented me from doing so.

When I first met her, I was indirect because her fellow organizers were spying on my game, but now I didn’t waste time. I asked her if she was single, if she likes going out, and if she likes foreign guys. She giggled and stuck around. I took that as a green light, asking for her plans the upcoming weekend.

She said, “On Friday I’m going to the club with my friends. You’re welcome to come.”

After I got her number, she brought me a piece of cake that was for the meeting. I devoured it and then went to order my second cup of cappuccino from the barista.

“Sorry, I can’t,” the barista said.

“Funny joke,” I said.

“No really. The coffee grinder makes too much noise and it will disturb the meeting.”

That’s the first time in my life I asked for a cup of coffee in a coffee shop and was told I couldn’t have it.

Next to the coffee shop is a mall that I like to do walk-throughs and sometimes make the occasional approach. I left the coffee shop to do my walk. There I spotted my real estate agent, who was with two young people. Both were overweight and wearing hipster outfits. My agent introduced us and I asked where they were from.

“Wisconsin.”

“USA, represent!” I said, excitedly.

“Ehhh not so much,” the guy said.

“Well you’re in Poland. They love Americans here.”

“I don’t know about that. I was just yelled at for speaking English. I don’t like telling people I’m from America.”

I wanted to blast this fool. He’s in a country where the American passport opens doors and he’s hiding it. I’m sure he’s one of those types that says he’s from Canada or South Africa. I bit my lip and said goodbye to my agent.

I went home and made myself dinner at my usual time, reflecting on the day. It had a mix of adventure and routine, but something else was at play. I approached the girl at the bus station, in the cold, when I didn’t have to. I made an announcement on the bus asking for English speakers, when I didn’t have to, getting into a chat with a possible dream girl. I got off at the border without having a way back, which I’m sure Lonely Planet wouldn’t have advised. I went direct on a girl who had softly rejected me in the past, and got her number. I broke rules, and by rules I mean I behaved in a way that most others wouldn’t have behaved.

What was holding me back from days like this wasn’t my environment. I didn’t have to make a border run every day or proposition a girl every day, but I had to stop craving those two cappuccinos. I had to kill the routine. Because nothing interesting happens within your routine.

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