Kurt probably did have a point, Ernst thought, as his BMW lost speed on the poorly lit Polish roadway that led to the Ukrainian border. It hadn’t been worth it to come here by car. Not only was the road badly lit, its state of repair also left much to desire. Ernst’s car, pampered by the impeccable German autobahns, bounced and wobbled weirdly from time to time. By Ernst’s calculation, it was only fifteen kilometres to the border.

He was driving to Ukraine, led by a light. A woman’s name – Zoriana, meaning “star” – was that light. He had already exchanged letters with Zoriana for seven months, since March 1996, and had been cultivating serious intentions toward her. And here he was, travelling to see her at last, excited, chewing over the possibility of disappointment. Yet Zoriana’s letters were sensible and smart, and she sometimes responded to what he had written with irony and wit. No tense resistance could be found in her correspondence. Her German was quite decent. Ernst perceived in Zoriana the mother of his children. He thought about this with a warm thrill in his chest.

Of course, Ernst had never been to Ukraine. A year ago, he had not even realized that such a country exists. For him, just like for ninety-five percent of Germans, the immediate neighbour to the east of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary was Russia. And even though the Soviet Union had collapsed five years earlier, the place it had claimed in the minds of West Europeans had now been taken up by Russia. Only through Zoriana had he learned, with astonishment, that there was a language called Ukrainian, spoken by thirty million people. She insisted that Ukrainian was not a dialect of Russian, that it was as far from Russian as Dutch was from German. Ernst had discovered an entire world about which, until then, he had not had the faintest idea.

He learned that many of the things around him that were taken for Russian, were actually Ukrainian: Cossacks in wide trousers, embroidered women’s clothing, soup made from red beets (he had forgotten the name), and even the world’s largest aircraft, Mriya, as well as Serhiy Bubka, whose athletic accomplishments Ernst had long followed.

For his acquaintance with Zoriana, Ernst was indebted to Oksana. Oksana was beautiful and energetic, she loved to dress elegantly, and she was a good mother to her three-year-old daughter. She was the wife of Joerg, a friend from Ernst’s school days. They had married four years earlier, about a year after Oksana had arrived in Heidelberg from Lviv, in order to work on her graduate research at the University Library. She had been awarded a scholarship for young researchers. Their daughter had already been born when Oksana travelled back to Lviv to defend her dissertation.

Joerg was happily married, and Ernst wanted the same for himself. Loneliness bore down on him, he had just turned forty-four, and he wanted children and the comfort of family life. Alongside that, the modest restaurant on the ground floor of their building, a family business, required more attention, and his mother, who had just turned seventy-five, no longer entered it. For Ernst, relationships with women had somehow never worked out. His last girlfriend, to whom he had proposed marriage two years earlier, turned him down, saying that they could date, but she did not want to marry because she had good career prospects in her company. In a year, she could head the department in which she now worked. Her boss would soon retire, and the company director had hinted that, if she did not get married, she could prepare to take his place.

So, once during a visit to Joerg and Oksana, Ernst jokingly asked Oksana if she perhaps had a good-looking and unmarried female friend in Ukraine, one who might know German. The question was, in fact, a serious one, even though Ernst had framed it with a pretend playfulness. Oksana responded with enthusiasm: she did have a friend, from her cohort at university. She was thirty, lived in a small town, and dreamed of a family, but there was no man in sight with whom she could make plans. Did Oksana have a photo? asked Ernst, trying as much as possible to appear neutral. There was a picture, Oksana found it in an album she had brought with her from Lviv. Dark-brown eyes, large and smiling, peered out at Ernst. The woman’s face radiated joy, and a faint trace of flirtatious provocation. This might be her, Ernst thought, feeling his heartbeat quicken. Maybe, if she likes…

Oksana noticed Ernst’s interest, and offered to send a photo of him to Zoriana. She said she would do this herself, he just needed to bring a picture. Two days later, everything had been arranged: Oksana had written to Zoriana that Ernst would like to meet, and that he had serious intentions. About two weeks later, when he had already begun to forget about it, Oksana called to say that Zoriana had sent a letter: she did not mind meeting. Oksana gave Ernst her friend’s address, saying that he could write to her himself.

That evening, Ernst sat down to write a letter. How to begin? Dear Zoriana? No, perhaps something more neutral: “Hello, Zoriana.” And then? But the letter finally emerged. It was natural and friendly, and also … very open. Ernst had an instinct for when honesty was appropriate. This was just such a case. The response came without delay. The correspondence continued, and after ten letters Ernst already knew that this woman had been sent to him by providence.

He lived in an old three-storey building, which belonged to his family, on the market square in a small town in central Germany. The building had been built by Ernst’s great-great-grandfather, and his grandfather had opened a restaurant on the ground floor. The regular patrons of the restaurant were locals, mostly Ernst’s neighbours. In recent years, the number of tourists had grown. Not long ago, the entire business had passed suddenly into Ernst’s hands, and it brought in a decent profit. On the second floor, above the restaurant, was his mother’s apartment, and on the third floor, his bachelor apartment. He dreamed that the light of his Zoriana would begin to shine within those walls.

Ernst smiled while imagining their meeting. He had a feeling that it would not be a disappointment, and his heart brimmed over with love and happiness. He would invite her to his home for Christmas, in order to acquaint her with his world, and he would do everything to satisfy her. They would take trips together, go to concerts in the evenings, and have dinner in Ernst’s favourite Thai restaurant. Perhaps they would even go to the Alps: in one letter Zoriana had confessed that she dreamed of them. And, through their correspondence, it had already become clear, too, that Zoriana was not without practical attributes: she had made several astute observations about the management of the restaurant. And now Ernst was on his way finally to see her, to get acquainted with her, and to learn about Ukraine.

His friend Kurt, the owner of a hair salon across the square, almost directly opposite Ernst’s restaurant, had suggested that Ernst travel by train or rent an old car. But Ernst had not followed his advice. There could be no question of going by train, since Ernst did not know a word of Ukrainian, and renting a car did not seem necessary since, after four years, he had grown quite used to his BMW.

Apart from that, it did seem to him that Kurt had had a point.


A long line of vehicles perambulated toward the border, soon slowing to the point where a quarter of an hour was needed to advance just a few metres. Interruptions in the forward flow sometimes grew especially long, with the column not budging from place for as long as forty minutes. Both ahead and behind Ernst, people got out of cars and buses, smoked, chatted briefly, some looking over with interest at the outsider, but no one tried to make conversation. The darkness was cut only by the headlights, and it was chilly and damp. A drizzle of rain turned into snow. Finally, after two hours of driving at a snail’s pace, Ernst saw the flags, first the Polish, and then behind it, in the distance, the Ukrainian.

But getting to them was tortuously slow. Ernst’s thermos bottle was empty, and the sandwiches he had prepared for the road were finished. But more than hunger, he was fixed on the need to use a restroom, the vicinity of which was uncertain. So he had to meet necessity in simple fashion, by the side of the road. He was not the only one to do this. At close to ten o’clock in the evening, after a period of nearly three hours, during which he had managed to transit a kilometre of road, Ernst stepped out of his car at the building of the Polish passport control. After opening his passport, a Polish border guard with white gloves looked across at him, and then toward his car, with an interest that was more genuinely human than professional. He did not ask a thing, simply put a stamp in the passport and said something in Polish, smiling faintly. He probably had wished Ernst a pleasant journey.

In their last telephone conversation, Zoriana had said that she would come to meet Ernst at the border, together with her cousin, who owned a car. She said that finding the way to her town without help, a one-and-a-half-hour drive, was something their esteemed guest was not likely to manage. But there must be street signs! Ernst had exclaimed with astonishment. At this, Zoriana had only laughed. Now he saw that she was right. They had planned to meet at six o’clock, and it was already almost eleven. A man finally appeared behind the small window of the Ukrainian border post. There were no white gloves on his hands, and he looked inquisitive and unfriendly. Opening Ernst’s passport, he said a few words that Ernst, of course, could not understand. Having not received an answer, the border guard gave him a look that promised nothing positive and, perhaps, he repeated what he had said.

Ernst responded in English. “I don’t understand.”

“So, so?” the guard said with surprise.

Not waiting for a further response, Ernst repeated himself in German, just in case:

“Ich verstehe nicht.”

“Shit,” the guard softly blurted in something vaguely like German, and spat in disgust. Ernst was quite unsettled by this. “Wait here,” the guard grunted in Ukrainian, and went off somewhere.

Naturally, Ernst had not understood, but he remained standing, concluding that the border guard had gone for help. He looked around. The light was dim, and a sort of grey pallor, quite strange to him, lay over everything, stirring up a feeling of terrible despair. Two young men appeared from somewhere in back. They wore leather jackets and track pants with white stripes down the sides, and, openly examining his vehicle, spoke with one another, not looking at him the entire time, as if he were not there. They spat once in a while, and one even kicked the toe of his shoe repeatedly into the rubber of a rear wheel.

“Nice car, eh?” Ernst said in German, addressing them in as friendly a tone as possible, but he received no answer. The men in the track pants crushed cigarette butts under their feet, and ducked into one of the cars that stood further back. Just then, an official came out through the door of a building with Ernst’s passport in his hand. Another, older, official was with him. Seating himself in the passport control booth, the second one looked over at Ernst.

Speaking in Polish, he asked, “What is the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” Ernst said in English.

“Oh, bloody hell,” the official said in Ukrainian. “He doesn’t speak Polish, doesn’t speak Ukrainian. He’s talking something there, but what … who knows?”

“Well, it’s probably German. Can’t you see? He’s German. Tell Yurko to make a good sweep of his “beemer,” what he’s driving there, and then he can go to hell.”

One border guard remained seated in the booth, and the other one went off somewhere with Ernst’s passport, gesturing sideways at the foreigner in a way that was probably meant to encourage him to drive forward, to free up a space in front of the booth for other cars. After all, what more could they want with Ernst?

After five minutes, a customs officer appeared with a German police dog on a leash. He was a heavy-set man who considered Ernst with interest. Asking something, and receiving from Ernst the answer, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” he motioned for the car door to be opened. He said something to the dog, who quickly sniffed through every corner of the vehicle, and afterward stood calmly next to its master. The customs official indicated a bag that lay in the trunk. Ernst opened it, the customs official began to sort through its contents, and, removing one of four packages of coffee, said in Ukrainian:

“You are allowed to bring only 500 grams, and here you have a whole kilogram.”

Ernst did not understand, and so the official demonstrated what he had said with gestures.

“Alright,” Ernst said, since he wanted finally to be on his way.

The customs official confiscated half the coffee and left satisfied, while Ernst received his passport and sat down behind the wheel.

Zoriana had said that she and her cousin would wait for him one hundred metres from the border crossing. But there was no possibility to stop there, and he was forced to travel on in the current of traffic. Ernst came to a stop only when the opportunity arose, parking at the roadside, and he decided to return to the border on foot. He was hopeful that Zoriana and her cousin were still waiting for him, even though it was already past twelve. He stepped into the darkness and, having walked a hundred metres from his car, suddenly heard the sound of its alarm. Without a thought, he rushed back, and, on arriving there, saw a dark silhouette at the car door.

“Stop! Stop! I’ll call the police!” he yelled in German.

The silhouette abandoned the car, and, moments later, the roar of an engine could be heard from a few dozen metres further up. Luckily, Ernst’s car door opened without effort, and, in light cast from the car, he saw on the ground the pick-lock that had been used by the thief. Wrapping it in a napkin, he slipped it into a pocket and sat down behind the wheel. He felt that he should proceed with an undivided focus and deliberation, since the situation had become unusual. It would be impossible to find Zoriana and her cousin here, even if they were somewhere nearby. It was even darker on this side of the border, and the street signs were barely visible and written only in Cyrillic, which it took Ernst time to read. The person who had tried to break into his car might try it again, so it was not worth it to leave the car. He had Zoriana’s home telephone number, but to look for a pay phone just then would have been unwise. Assuming there was even a public telephone here… His pager had been silent, but only for the last little while. It seemed there was no network here, as Zoriana would have already sent him a message. Ernst started the engine, and set off into the night.

After several hundred metres, he saw a road sign, but he would have had to stop in order to read it. The name of Zoriana’s town, it seemed to him, had not been on it, so he decided to drive on to Lviv. Even if there were a shorter road from here to his destination, finding it would be impossible. It was a forty-minute drive from Lviv to Zoriana, but he could always also spend the night in the city. The clock showed half past twelve.

Wet snow fell. The road was even worse than in Poland. His car jolted over the potholes, and Ernst was afraid of damaging it. He drove slowly, and was passed even by Soviet-made “Moskvitch” vehicles. At some point, he noticed that a Volkswagen Passat had been trailing him for a while, even though it would have been able to pass him long ago. Out of caution, Ernst reduced his speed, but the Volkswagen doggedly remained behind him. So, he was being followed, tailed, presumably by the person who had tried to break into his car half an hour earlier. Ernst pressed down on the gas, passed two vehicles, and looked in the mirror. The Passat had also fallen behind.

Forty kilometres remained to Lviv. Ernst had no idea where to go from there, but he was determined to break free from his pursuer. He did not reduce his speed, and increased the distance between himself and the Passat. And then, at some point, Ernst saw a sign that showed the name of Zoriana’s town. The town was thirty kilometres away, and, without hesitating, he circled around, switching to the direction shown by the sign. This road was still more dark and narrow. Looking in the mirror, he did not see his “tail.” The pursuer had evidently lost the trail, having failed to notice where the coveted BMW “7 Series” had turned off at the junction.

Ernst would eventually learn that, here, his car cost as much as an apartment in the centre of Lviv, and that it was an object of delirium for those criminal elements with high ambitions. He was later told that the bosses of serious criminal groups travelled in “beemers.” Higher up in the hierarchy, there were perhaps six hundred Mercedes.

When, after entirely circling the town, an exhausted Ernst finally found the desired address, well known from the exchange of letters – 7 Silver Springs Street – the clock showed a quarter to three. The house lights were on. The door that faced the late-night visitor opened immediately once the doorbell had been pressed, and there appeared in its frame the astonished, brown-eyed, beautiful Zoriana. Her pretty eyes smiled. Standing behind her were her parents, her cousin, and a cat.


Ernst was awakened by the smell of cooking meat and a quiet but intense bustling in the kitchen: frying pans sizzled, dishes occasionally clattered, and water burbled. For breakfast, there were cutlets with fried bread and omelettes, milk-rice kasha with raisins and honey, and crêpes with cottage cheese and jam. Ernst tried to explain that, for breakfast, he usually had sliced bread with cheese, washed down with milk coffee. They immediately brought him sliced bread and cheese and coffee, but they did not forget about the rest. His plate was continually replenished with cutlets, fried bread, crêpes. They discussed the previous night. It turned out that Zoriana and Pavlo – that was the name of her cousin – had waited for him at the border from six until twelve o’clock, and that meant while he had been passing through customs and later looked for them in the dark. The entire time, they had been somewhere close by.

Now, looking into Zoriana’s eyes, Ernst forgot all about the troubles of the previous night. Zoriana was just as he had imagined: she was as if from a dream. They communicated well, and they were never short of things to discuss. The next day was dry, and they decided to take a trip to Lviv. But they left Ernst’s car behind, so as to avoid unwanted attention, and instead took a train in which Ernst felt as if transported back in time. The effect of Lviv, by contrast, was of a different order. Ernst discovered a wondrous world. They ascended the gloomy Citadel, from which they had a beautiful view of the city centre. Ernst took hold of Zoriana’s hand.

“You’re not disappointed?” he asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said, looking into his eyes and smiling, “I’m definitely charmed.”

“Me too,” he said, and, for the first time, he leaned in toward her lovely lips.

From this moment on, they were a couple, and there was no force by which they could have resisted this.

Ernst’s vacation lasted two weeks. He had prepared in advance, bringing with him an official police invitation for Zoriana, and they agreed that she straight away submit an application to the German embassy for a guest visa. Here was the plan: Zoriana receives a visa for one month, Ernst introduces her to his mother and friends, and they celebrate Christmas together. He shows her his surroundings, and if she likes them, she becomes the queen of his world. They would make a home for themselves in Germany. Zoriana liked the plan, and she set about preparing the necessary documents.

The plan was not immediately fulfilled. Zoriana worked at one of the three schools in her town, and her salary was adequate. The embassy would need a certificate from her workplace that confirmed her salary. A small income heightened the risk of suspicion at the German embassy that the applicant did not intend to return home. Similar grounds for suspicion were family status – an unmarried Ukrainian woman. But nothing could be done about this.

The school principal’s suspicion was piqued by Zoriana’s request for a work certificate, and when the principal discovered that her teacher was, more generally, preparing an application for the German embassy, she became upset. Zoriana knew that for her work colleagues, ninety percent of whom were women, the fact that she was collecting documents for a visa would cause a sensation the next day. Finally, after three intense days of rushing around, through which she was accompanied by Ernst, who was astounded by the bureaucratic maze, everything was ready. Having gathered together papers translated and certified by a notary, Ernst and Zoriana sat in the train to Kyiv on Wednesday evening. He did not understand why it had not been possible to mail the documents into the embassy. In order to get a visa for the West, why did one have to endure a 500 kilometre passage to the East?

But the real test awaited them at the embassy. When, at close to eight o’clock in the morning, they finally found themselves near the building, they saw a colossal line, in which they had to stand for three hours. They were among the last to be allowed in that day, with the many people further back having stood in vain. Finally, just before noon, they left the embassy with a slip that gave them the right, after three days, to retrieve the passport with a visa. Or with a refusal. Travelling another 500 kilometres in three days? thought Ernst. Maybe they could ask a friend in Kyiv to pick up the passport? But Zoriana had no friends in the city. Waiting for three days in Kyiv? Also not the best option. So, they wandered around the city, and then boarded the train that evening, arriving in Lviv the next morning.

On Monday of the following week, the couple once again prepared themselves for the road. Return tickets for a sleeping berth cost almost as much as Zoriana’s monthly salary. The trip took the entire night. Travelling with them in the compartment was a tight-lipped middle-aged man in a necktie, and carrying a black briefcase. Throughout the evening, the man watched his neighbours attentively, but said not a word to them.

When, after lunch, they finally retrieved the passport at the embassy, and opened it, instead of a visa they found a stamp of refusal. When they asked for an explanation, the official at the window responded dryly, saying that the consul makes decisions on the basis of the documents submitted by the applicant. The visa section reserves the right not to disclose the reason for a refusal, but if they did not agree with the decision, they had the right, within a week, to submit an application, and then…

Zoriana was distraught, Ernst seething with anger. He asked when they could speak to the consul, and he was given a time – the consul reserved the last workday of each month for citizens. But December had just begun. It should be understood that an inquiry will bring nothing. They walked out into the street and Ernst said:

“Don’t worry, darling. I won’t let them ruin our plans for Christmas. We’ll think of something.”

On the return journey, Ernst quizzed Zoriana: where does one get a passport for international travel, and how long does it take? what happens when a passport has been lost or damaged? and similar things. Zoriana responded, saying that cases where an embassy refuses a visa application from a single, unmarried woman were common. Once they were at home, Ernst asked Zoriana to give him the passport, and he covered a table with old newspapers. Onto the papers, he laid down the passport, opening it to the page with the refusal stamp. Taking an ink bottle from the writing desk, he poured some of its contents over the stamp.

“What are you doing?” Zoriana asked with a burst of laughter.

“I like your reaction,” he said. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll get you a nice, new passport.”

“But, darling, I’ll still have to go back to them for a visa, and they already have a record of my application in their database, not to mention that they also rejected it.”

“Don’t worry, Zori, we’ll manage without them. Tomorrow we’ll request that a new passport be issued. How long will that take?”

“At least one week, and it’s really expensive.

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs. The only problem is that I’ll be back home in five days. But that’s not such a big deal. We still have three weeks until Christmas. We have enough time.”


The next day, after standing in line for a long time at the migration authority’s passport office, they submitted a request for a new passport, paying a modest penalty for the old, damaged passport that they had included with the application. The couple spent the next four days travelling, as well as visiting with Zoriana’s relatives. On two evenings, they dined by candle light, though not entirely of their own free will. In Ukraine, there were breaks in the power supply. In order to conserve electricity, the supply was simply interrupted, according to a schedule. But these peculiarities cast no shadow at all on Ernst’s happiness. And Zoriana’s family were also delighted with their future son-in-law. The fourteen-year age difference between the betrothed no longer struck Zoriana’s mother as an obstacle.

One evening, Zoriana and Ernst attended a concert by the Lviv philharmonic. The ticket price for the concert was, Ernst declared, absurdly low, and when Zoriana explained that the salary of the musicians barely reached forty dollars a month, he thought he must have heard her wrong. The performance was of a professional calibre, and, on top of that, Ernst discovered Ukrainian composers, being especially moved by Vasyl Barvinskyi.

On the eve of Ernst’s departure, the family decided that their guest’s car would be escorted to the border by Pavlo and his friends. Zoriana’s mother supplied Ernst with a package of road food that suggested her future son-in-law’s trip home could last at least a week. And then they said goodbye. For the first time, Zoriana sat in the car next to Ernst, and he thought with pleasure that her presence would soon become the most important daily attribute of his life.

Zoriana and Pavlo decided to remain at the border until Ernst had crossed it. The line was once again long, and the wait took almost three hours, but they were together.

“I’ll call you as soon as I’ve arrived home,” Ernst said, hugging her as they parted.

And he called the next morning.

A week later, Zoriana received her new passport.

“Terrific!” said Ernst into the telephone. “What do you need to be able to travel to Poland?”

“I’d have to buy a tourist voucher, it’s not expensive. With one of those, I think you can stay for up to a month.”

“Perfect. Get one of those vouchers and, on Friday in a week, use it to travel to the city of Zgorzelec. It’s on the border between Poland and Germany. Its German part is called…”

“Görlitz,” said Zoriana.

“That’s it, sweetheart. You’re very knowledgeable.”

“I’ve been diligently studying the geography and history of your country.”

“I love your diligence.”

“And I … you.”

“Also terrific. You’ll arrive at the station in Zgorzelec. I checked the time table of the Polish railway, there’s a night train from Przemyśl that arrives there. Bring enough things with you for a month…”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Trust me. You know I’m an adventurer, but an honest and sensible one.”

Zoriana laughed and decided to trust her honest and sensible adventurer.


 Zoriana felt excited as she prepared for the road. Until then, she had crossed the western border just once, and that had only been on a trip to Kraków. Like most pupils of the Soviet schools, she was wary of the border, having a persistent, deeply ingrained feeling that what lies beyond the frontier is hostile. For “homo sovieticus,” this feeling could not be entirely overcome. On the border, in one way or another, you find out who you really are. So, crossing the border is like a litmus test, it reveals your degree of intrinsic freedom. Yet, on the official scale of values used by Soviet people, the grade for “personal freedom” was below zero.

That was roughly how Zoriana felt when she opened her bag in front of the imperious Polish customs officer, with his white gloves. When asked by the border guard about the reason for her visit to Poland, she tried to answer with as much confidence as possible, saying, in Polish, “visiting friends.” No one ever believed such an answer. Ninety-five percent of Ukrainians who travelled to Poland were “shuttles,” a name given to small-scale traders in whisky, cigarettes, and other modestly sized items. The customs official was surprised to discover that there was nothing typical for a “shuttle” in Zoriana’s bag, and he even asked her if this was really all of her baggage.

Just in case the immigration authorities had wished to inquire more concretely about the friends she was intending to visit, Zoriana was prepared to name her father’s relatives, who lived in Kraków. Before Zoriana’s departure, her father had called them and asked that they, if need be, confirm that they were expecting Zoriana as a guest, and guarantee her accommodation for the length of her stay in Poland. But, luckily, she was not asked any questions about this.

The bus was crammed full with the wares of “shuttles,” a portion of which was confiscated by Polish customs officials, who shut their eyes to the fact that thirty-five to forty of the bus passengers were suspiciously stout, dressed in broad coats and long skirts. The officials already knew that, under those coats and skirts, cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whisky had been tied to bodies. But if one of them had tried to frisk the improbably wide bodies of one of these women, an extraordinary fuss would have erupted. So, as was usual, everything had been arranged such that the wolf was satisfied and the sheep left intact.

After customs control, which had eaten up two hours, Zoriana’s bus arrived in Przemyśl, well behind schedule, and it was only through some miracle that she made her train to Zgorzelec. She was full of disparate feelings: uncertainty and fear of the unknown, alternating with excitement, and then joyful euphoria – tomorrow morning, she will see him again! Ernst was the kind of man with whom Zoriana would gladly go anywhere in the world, it made no difference, to the east, to the west, the north, or south. She would have preferred that such a man had been born in her own country, and spoken her own language. But things had turned out differently.

In Zgorzelec, German border police entered the train. Zoriana’s heart almost sprang from her chest. But, because she was getting off on the Polish side of the city, they left her alone, not checking her documents. Stepping down from the train, she saw Ernst’s solitary silhouette. His calm embrace revived her optimism and composure.

“Let’s go, darling,” Ernst said. “I’m not here alone. My friends Otto, Doris, and Kurt are with me. They’re waiting for us in a cafe nearby. Let’s go drink a coffee, and get warm.”

“Friends? What do you have in mind, Ernst?”

“You’ll soon find out, sweetheart.”

The train station was on a hill, and they had to descend to the river to reach the city centre. The river, the Nysa, divided the city into two, and one of its bridges served as the border crossing. On the opposite bank lay the miraculously preserved old city of Görlitz. Here, Germany began.

It was cold, with snow lightly dusting the rooftops of the houses, and smoke billowing from the chimneys. After fifteen minutes, they were down at the river. Zoriana admired the Gothic dome on the opposite bank, near the ancient bridge.

“That’s the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. We can take a look at it today, if you like,” Ernst said.

“I don’t have a visa, and the church is on the German side, isn’t it?”

“It’s on the German side, but Mrs. Vogel doesn’t need a visa,” he said with a laugh.

“Who is Mrs. Vogel?,” asked a bewildered Zoriana. In German, the name Vogel meant bird. “What sort of bird?”

“You’re about to find out,” Ernst replied enigmatically.

They entered the cafe, and were met by a cheerful group, who rose from a table.

“Let me introduce you, Zoriana. This is Otto, my friend from school.

Otto, a slim man with pleasant features and a prominent bald spot, affably gave Zoriana his hand.

“Doris, Otto’s wife, she’s a designer.”

“So nice to meet you.” Zoriana gave her hand to the smiling, red-haired Doris.

“And this is Kurt Vogel, my neighbour, and the owner of a hair salon across from our restaurant.”

“Kurt’s wife is named Beatrice. She’s not here, but this name will be of use to you, darling. Remember: Beatrice Vogel.”

They all had a good laugh, but Zoriana did not understand why.

Ernst ordered them coffee and some toast.

When they had finished lunch, the friends rose from the table. Ernst paid for everyone, and they went out to the square, where their three cars were parked. Otto and Doris got into theirs, Kurt opened the door of his Opel, and Ernst invited Zoriana to take a seat in Kurt’s car. Ernst’s BMW stood next to it.

Together with the general merriment, Zoriana felt a certain unease.

“Zori,” Ernst said, looking into her eyes. “Don’t be worried.”

He brought out a small bag from the rear seat of the car, and opened it.

“We’ll now drive to the border point on the bridge, the German-Polish border. During these few minutes, you’ll need to be Beatrice Vogel. Here’s your passport. You’re Beatrice Vogel, the wife of Kurt Vogel. If they ask you anything, stay silent. Kurt, your ‘husband,’ will speak for you. Here’s a wig. Kurt made a copy of his wife’s hair in his salon, just like in the passport photograph. Put it on!”

Still feeling off balance from what she had heard, Zoriana put on the wig.

She was frightened, but it flashed through her head that this was the one possibility to save her love and future from a dependency on the German embassy.

With his right hand, Kurt adjusted the wig on Zoriana’s head and, taking out a makeup case, put some powder on her cheeks, and brushed shade onto her eyelids.

“All done,” he said. “Overall, it’s even pretty close. Beatrice’s eyes are a bit lighter, but that’s minor. The face is a little more oval. But, yeah, let’s just say that this has improved her a bit,” he said, laughing.

“Zoriana, Otto and Doris will go first, you and Kurt will go after them, and I’ll take up the rear. The border guard will collect our passports. Kurt will hand over his passport, as well as the passport of his wife, Beatrice. I doubt three vehicles with German plates and German passports will attract any extra attention from the border police. They’re just checking. So you don’t have any reason to be upset. You don’t have to do anything, don’t have to say anything. If things head toward a confrontation, just keep quiet, you can pretend that you have a toothache. Kurt will do the talking. Okay, sweetheart?”

“Okay,” Zoriana said, as cheerfully as she could.

Otto and Doris set off, and Ernst got into his car. Kurt started his engine.

About one hundred metres separated them from the border crossing on the bridge. There were only two cars ahead of their motorcade. The border guard greeted them, took their passports, and peered briefly into the interior of each car, amicably remarking that the noble gentlemen were, presumably, on their way back home. “Beatrice Vogel” moved not an eyebrow.

Her self-control astonished even Kurt.

After three minutes, the border guard returned their passports. They drove on.

And after another three minutes, the procession came to a halt in the parking lot of the German Görlitz.

An occasion like this should be celebrated

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Halyna Petrosanyak (1969, Ukraine), poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator, grew up in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains, and now lives in Switzerland. A poem from her 1996 debut collection won Ukraine’s Bu-Ba-Bu prize for the year’s best poem. She has since been awarded the 2007 Hubert Burda Literary Prize for East European Poetry (Austria), and the 2010 Ivan Franko Prize for Literature (Ukraine), and she has held residencies at KulturKontakt (Vienna, 2001), Villa Waldberta (Munich, 2011), the City of Graz (2013), and the Lyrikatelier Biel (2022). In addition to numerous essays and translations, Petrosanyak is the author of four poetry collections, one novel—Villa Anemona (Vydavnytsvo 21, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Don’t Keep Me from Saving the World (Dyskursus, 2019).

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Jeff Kochan is a Canadian-Swiss writer, translator, and academic from Alberta, now living in Switzerland. His poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and translations have appeared in several Canadian literary journals, and his scholarly writings can be found in diverse international academic journals. He has translated into English the Bernese Swiss German poetry and the German postcard stories of, respectively, the Swiss writers Kurt Marti and Franz Hohler. He is currently translating into English portions of Ukrainian historian Zhana Kovba’s 2009 book, Compassion in the Depths of Hell: Conduct of the Local Population in Eastern Galicia during the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” (Kyiv: Dukh i Litera).

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