Only 80 kilometers from the Polish border you’ll find the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Easily reached from Kraków by train, it is one of the most accessible cities outside of the European Union’s eastern borders.
The history between this part of Ukraine and Poland goes back centuries as Lviv – to the Polish, Lwów – was once part of the Kingdom of Poland.
Today the closeness is visible through the long winding queue leading up to the passport control at the border crossing. Except for the estimated 1 to 2 million Ukrainian migrants worker who make use of the accessible border crossings between the two countries, Poland has also accepted over a million Ukrainian migrants since the war between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014.
I missed the connection in Przemyśl, and then spent three hours in the winter cold waiting for my turn to cross the border. Once in Ukraine, I grabbed one of the many non-official cabs. Heading towards the city center, the driver told me how, for the last ten years, he has had made use of the easy border crossing to sell cheap Ukrainian tobacco in Poland. I was amazed over how easy he made it sound, including the fact he learned to speak Polish this way.
At first glance, the city center of Lviv looks like any other old European city centre: palaces and churches from the Renaissance and Baroque epochs. While beyond the centre, bland, brutal Soviet architecture dominates the landscape, the tourist industry is built around the city’s pre-socialist history.
Lviv reminded me of my home in Kraków, but messier and less comfortable. At the accommodation, the heating was non-existent, and inside wasn’t much different from outside. Because of increased gas prices since early November, the authorities have been failing to provide heat and hot water to their citizens, leaving many homes unheated for both the autumn and winter months.
Fans of the Maks Ptashnik (the Ukrainian Ed Sheeran) gathered at coffee manufacturer Kopalna Kavy for a winter concert. To my satisfaction heating was not an issue this evening, thanks to the vibrant audience.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, it’s visible even in the most touristy parts of the city that the country is at war; on the facade of the Black House, now housing the Historical Museum, there is a banner with a pledge to free all Ukranian political prisoners in Russia. Since the passing of a new law in the Lviv-region Russian books are banned from public use and bookshops are putting up signs informing the buyers that they are purchasing books published in Russia.
Signs on storefronts spell out conflicting visions of the future of Ukraine: half of them are written in a Ukrainian variation of the Cyrillic alphabet, while many use Latin characters.
On the train back, the passenger next to me checked, double-checked, and triple-checked her and her dog’s documents; they are entering Poland for a job opportunity. Outside a young man kicked a football endlessly, in his shorts, like there was no tomorrow.
Petronella Dahl is pursuing the impossible task of mastering the Polish language. Therefore she recently moved to Kraków, after having spent the last seven years in London chasing careers. She dreams of a future where she can combine her art and documentary photography, making into something more than a lifelong hobby.