Thursday, September 02, 2010

Borders And Borderlands

Apart from the crossing from Finland to Estonia border crossings have so far led to only very subtle changes. Not so coming to Ukraine. First of all there actually was a border crossing, as they have all but disappeared from within the Schengen Area. Not only is this the frontier of Schengen, but also of "Fortress Europe", and the Slovak border guards were pretty thorough, going so far as to check the level of petrol in the tank (I was given a ride by a Ukrainian anaesthesiologist who works in Slovakia - just as eastern Europeans from the EU go west in search of better-paid jobs, so too do Ukrainians, who fill the void left behind by the departed Poles, Slovaks and Czechs). The checks in the other direction, heading into Schengen, are far more stringent, and waits of several hours are the norm. (As a slight aside, I've met a few non-EU nationals on this trip and all have commented on the difficulty of getting a simple tourist visa to visit. The process can take months and may require multiple days at embassies, extensive financial statements and interviews. All this for a simple week or two's holiday in Poland or Spain. And it's not just people from poorer countries, I've also heard of Japanese travellers - who are not known for their lack of means - being refused entry because of the unbending rules.)
Crossing borders isn't always as easy as in the Biesczady mountains where the border between Ukraine and Poland is pretty porous (here my bag is in Poland whilst I'm taking the photo from Ukraine).

The road (and pavement) conditions have also deteriorated, which exacerbates the already-dangerous driving by causing drivers to swerve to avoid the numerous potholes. Zebra crossings are regarded as aesthetic road decorations, rather than markings with any significance, especially by drivers of SUVs with tinted windows, who are, to all intents and purposes, above such petty things as rules of the road. Shops have also remained mired in the past, with most of them retaining a Communist smell (I swear that there's a very specific, slightly musty, odour to Communist-era shops). I'm loving the shops though, which are strangely quirky: grocer's shops are simply called produkty (products); in supermarkets you can buy sugar from large, open crates (just shovel as much as you want into a flimsy plastic bag and get it weighed); and my favourite was a shop called Univermag (Univerzalni Magazin - universal shop) which sold everything from dog food to 50kg bags of cement via lampshades, paper cups, hammers and shampoo.

Border regions are always the most interesting as this is where cultures merge and mix into curious hybrids, and the same is true of Ukraine's western border (an odd term in itself, as the name Ukraine means "borderland"). Over the past 100 years the region around the towns of Uzhgorod and L'viv has been alternatively ruled by the Kievan Rus, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Western Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland again, the USSR and finally independent Ukraine. Historically there have also been significant minorities of Jews, Romanians, Germans and Armenians. 100 years ago it would have been difficult to find a more liquid melting pot, though sadly today the only witnesses of those heady days can be found in graveyards where multilingual tombstones speak of bygone days. Another border anomaly is the existence of the Greek Catholic church, to which many people of western Ukraine (as well as the eastern fringes of Poland and Slovakia) belong. To the uninitiated their churches look very much like (Russian) Orthodox churches with icons, perfumed candles and iconostases, although they go slightly less heavy on the onion domes and general interior bling. The church arose when the area was controlled by the Polish (who are Catholic) who were continually fighting the Russians (who were Russian Orthodox), whereas most of the people were Russian Orthodox as well. Fearing a fifth column the Poles forced the locals to convert to Catholicism (i.e. accept the Pope and reject the Moscow patriarch) whilst allowing them to maintain their Orthodox traditions.
A statue of a young Ferencz Rakoczi, the Hungarian national hero, with his mother, in Mukachevo's castle. A wreath with a Hungarian flag shows that it is a pilgrimage spot for Hungarian nationalists and is evidence of the region's colourful history.
The jewel in the crown of western Ukraine is undoubtedly L'viv, whose sizeable old town survived WWII more or less intact with a treasure trove of Secessionist, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, with a few bits of Baroque thrown in for flavour. Whilst walking around your eyes are torn between gazing upwards at the multitude of statues and stucco-work that adorn every facade, and the ground where a myriad potholes await to trip you up. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be enough will or money to fight the effects of time and preserve these wonders and most buildings are in various stages of disrepair. Despite this the town is currently undergoing something of a construction boom as it is one of the host cities for the upcoming 2012 UEFA football championships. However, given the permanently jammed roads, overstretched public transport and the skeleton of a stadium, tended to by some nervous-looking cranes, in a field on the outskirts of town, I'm not too optimistic of the outcome. When the time comes I'll be curious to hear the match reports from my friend Jean-Marc who has not missed a European or World championship since 1996.


Anonymous said...

Communistic world had, in some ways, a fascinatingly simple approach on labels. You got a shop, then you call it "Shop". What does it sell? "Products" of course.

The same goes for company names. You got a plastic factory, then it's Plastic, or the more creative "Ro-plastic". You make beer, then of course the factory is called "Berea". etc.

You do metal work, then obviously you're called "Metalica" (a factory not far from my house in Bucharest).

Anonymous said...

I remembered one thing which I read in some wise guy's book. "Communism did not fell because it was oppressive, rather because it was boring and eternally grey". There is some truth in this.

Nothing beats the East European/Russian communism in its monotony, dullness and lack of creativity.

Not surprisingly, what people sought for immediately after its fall were images, a huge thirst for images and diversity.

Big Bule