It’s something I just can’t get my head around, but there are people in our country who want to leave the European Union. I feel it’s like me saying to our neighbours “We’re not moving house, but I just don’t want to live in this street any more.” Just doesn’t make sense. Taking the benefits but not bearing the costs? On Saturday I physically tried to leave the EU. This is what happened. Maybe it is a parable, or an allegory, or some other literary device I don’t know the name of.
We stocked up with food and drink at Grossman’s outlet in Warsaw station. When you’re about to leave the EU you need to stock up on food and drink. You never know what food and drink will await you on the other side. We sat in Costa for a last blast of free wi-fi. You never know how non-EU wi-fi will work: or not. Then we made our way to the platform and watched a number of weird and perhaps wonderful trains trundle by.
Our train pulled into platform 2. The sleeper carriage arrived in the middle of an otherwise normal passenger train. Its three-bunk layout was similar to the sleeper to Warsaw the previous night. We set off into the unknown. We were supplied with hot water, teabags, and cartons of what should have been milk, but turned out to be lemon juice. A sign of things to come. Outside the window were the increasingly familiar skinny trees, poppies, and farmers burning things in the fields at night.
As we pulled into Malaszevicze station I noticed goods trucks with Cyrillic writing for the first time. Felt like we must be getting close to the edge of the known universe. We trundled on. At Terespol, the Polish border guards boarded the train. They looked keenly at each of our passports and then at our faces. They made a reasonable attempt to pronounce S’s name. Then they left, satisfied.
The locomotive engine detached itself from our train and scuttled back in the direction of Warsaw. Another engine was attached and we juddered forward and crept across the river Bug. Then we stopped, in no man’s land. Belarus officers climbed onto the train. A short blonde woman in a uniform entered our compartment. Behind her were the scuffling of paws and occasional barking of working dogs working. I handed our passports to the woman but she refused to take them, pointing instead to the ‘Customs’ badge on her chest.
She pointed at V’s suitcase. “Open please.” I laughed at her, involuntarily, even managing a brief snort with it. She gave me a cold stare. “Open.” V leant forward and began to open her suitcase very gingerly. She eased the zip back along its track. At the first hint of released tension the suitcase lid sprang open, the contents jumping with unstrained joy to take up twice the space they had previously occupied. V made to take out some of the contents and hand them over to the officer for inspection but the woman knew when to make a strategic withdrawal. She shook her head, waved her arms in front of her face and left the compartment.
She was followed in by the border police, armed with forms to fill in and passports to be taken away. The passports were away for a long time. The train started to roll slowly forwards and there was still no sign of the passports being returned. We struggled with the forms. I wasn’t sure I had a Patrynomic to declare. When the police came back it was clear that our forms were not acceptably completed. The officers filled the remaining sections in with us, stamped the forms and tore them in two, telling us not to lose our half, or great complications would follow. Lesson? Leaving the EU should not be equated with leaving behind great complications.
We trundled forwards into our first Belarus station, outside the EU at last. The enormous neon sign over the station’s entrance onto the platform said “Varshaiski bok”. Didn’t ring a bell but we dutifully wrote the station’s name down in our travel diaries. The station itself had all the preening newfangledness of a border town trying to impress and say, “Look at me. Look what I’ve got. Who needs to be in the EU anyway?” We sat at the empty platform for twenty minutes. No one boarded the train and no one left.
Then we started to reverse back towards Warsaw. Where are we going? Back into the EU after all that effort? No, we were going into a workshop. As soon as we pulled to a halt an army of engineers in black and orange boiler suits and caps descended upon the lower reaches of the train and started banging and hammering at its undercarriage. They were fitting new wheels. EU tracks aren’t the same width as former Soviet Union tracks. Every night the train makes this journey it has to have this extended fitting for a new pair of shoes, or rather the fitting of an old pair of well-worn shoes again and again and again.
After another two hours, with our new shoes fitted, we rolled back into the preening station. Only this time, it seemed to have changed its name? The bright neon sign was still there above the station entrance, but this time it said “Maskoyski bok”? As we continued to puzzle over this we were over-run by an army of women selling beer, strawberries, pancakes, chicken… Jumping on and off each carriage they overran us completely, ignoring any attempt to repel them and were only defeated in the end by our lack of hunger and convertible currency.
Four and half hours since we first stopped at the edge of the European Union, we finally set off into Belarus towards Moscow. A third neon name on the station came into view as we left: BPECT. “Brest”, that was the name of the station we would have recognised. We even wrote it on our visa applications. A fourth neon light then went on in my head. Varshaiski bok and Maskoyski bok. Warsaw side and Moscow side. Simples.
The sleeper journey was pretty sleepless. Whether it was lack of (EU) investment in the track, the result of endless nights wearing forcing old and uncomfortable shoes on the train, or a driver who just had a particularly heavy right foot, we clattered and clacked across every ill-fitting joint in the tracks with the would-be sleeper sliding every which way across the shiny sheets of his bed, his only comfort being his lack of knowledge of any history of Belarus fairground or railway tragedies in recent years.
So, leaving the EU? There’s a lot to be said for being in it. Aside from seventy years of relative peace within it, most of the time, it’s just so damn easy to get around it. It’s probably stretching a point to equate our journey on a gauge-changing train with Britain’s political and economic future. But we have now left, if only temporarily, and soon we’ll be in Moscow. It feels like the journey is only really starting now.