I’m chatting with my cousin (who runs the family lumber business) and he is telling me that he needs to visit a “business associate” across the border in Ukraine. Wanna come? he says. Of course, I say. We will be visiting a hospital, so Carolyn might be interested, he adds. Done, and done, I affirm.
A little background here: my cousin lives in a town in northern Romania about 45 minutes from the Ukrainian border. Way back when, parts of southern Ukraine used to be apart of Romania, so there are plenty of Ukrainian-Romanians in the area. My cousin runs the family business and needed a raw wood supplier – whom he met via the owner of the potato hall. Raw wood is about 2-3 times cheaper in Ukraine than Romania, so a mutual friendship grew between my Romanian-family-run-lumber business and a Ukrainian-timber-cutting-family business. The businesses are run by the eldest sons who are in their twenties and have a knack for wheeling and dealing in international wood.
So my cousin, who we are going to call “Steve” (just in case the Russians read this blog and interfere in his trans-national wood cartel), gets a call that his friend’s dad is in the hospital for pneumonia (this is the dad that actually does most of the tree felling out in the Ukranian forests). As the savvy businessman that he is, he plans a one day visit to check-in, give moral support, and ensure that all is well with his Ukrainian supplier.
Wanna come to Ukraine for a day? he says. We’ll visit a hospital and eat some good food. Sure I say.
Carolyn and I get into his Audi and start our drive. We make sure we have our passports and relax in the back seat – did I mention that I’ve never ridden in an Audi before? I let my cousin know, and he’s shocked since he thinks everyone in America drives gold-plated Teslas. We are both in the back seat because there is another dude in the front seat who is hitching a ride back to Ukraine. We find out that he’s crossed illegally multiple times while he was dating his now wife (talk about a “long-distance” relationship). He got caught once and arrested, but managed to climb out of the prison cell window and run back across the border to Romania. He tells me everything is okay now and that he plans on getting a diplomatic passport. I don’t think he actually knows what a diplomatic passport is.
Off to Ukraine, we go. Nothing unusual. If you have never crossed an international border in a car, it’s pretty interesting. We’ve already done it 4 times, so we are pretty much experts. (Hah) It’s mostly waiting in lines and getting your passport looked at by different people. Sometimes they look in your trunk. Sometimes they ask if you have contraband, which in this part of the world, is usually cigarettes.
The Ukrainian border was a much different experience than our past crossings. Our cousin and his escape-artist friend argued over how much money to put in the passports (to ensure “no trouble” as they crossed). Apparently, this is a Ukraine thing. I have never seen (or partaken) in any bribing of border official, but it was very matter-of-fact for them. We had three different officials approach us, each getting their 20 Ukrainian hryvnias or so (about 72 cents). I must say that it did feel weird. The bribing itself wasn’t as jarring as was the ease with which various custom agents accepted these small “donations.” It’s part of their salary I’m told. And if you give nothing or too much, you make yourself look suspicious, so just fall in line, I’m told.
But it didn’t work.
Just when we were at the last checkpoint and about to enter Ukraine, the customs agent points back to Romania and says, “Go back, you must turn around.” Her serious Slavic features covered in bright red lipstick (just the lips, not all the features) accented her stern command. But her terse commands were undermined by her THICK Ukrainian accent as she spoke in broken Romanian. So what was the problem? Not enough “donations?” Did the Americans in the back look suspicious? Did Putin say something on the news that altered all foreign policy in Eastern Europe? Nope. My savvy business minded cousin had entered the country a few months back and left his car (a small mercedes) and totally forgot about it. Ah yes, that’s something we’ve all done before. Forget my second car in a foreign country!?!?!?! What is wrong with these people???? Apparently, some well thought out Ukrainian laws prevent you from entering the same country with two cars – something to do with car smuggling I’m told. By the way, the customs agent didn’t refund any of our “donations” after we were denied entry to the country. Bummer.
So what does one do in such a situation? How does one get past the convoluted anti-car trafficking laws in an Eastern European country?
One switches drivers. It’s that simple. If someone other than my cousin is at the wheel, then we can get into Ukraine.
And who else in the car had a driver’s license? None other than yours truly. Yes, that’s right. I’m going to drive a motley crew (my wife, a lumber businessman, and a random guy who escaped a prison at some point) over the border into Ukraine. Did I mention I drove an Audi? So many firsts.
The rest of the drive was uneventful. We got through customs, I drove for about an hour in Ukraine – we dropped off a guy, picked up another guy (why not) and parked on a curb outside a hospital. We’ll save that story for the next post.