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As the ancient bus chugged the 60 feet from the Belarussian end of the customs shed to the Polish end, a tense hush descended on my fellow passengers.

"Sit down," hissed one nervous-looking woman at a young man who had made an impromptu decision to change seats as we waited for a Polish customs inspector to board the bus and check our luggage. "Just don't move."

Through fogged windows I could make out uniformed figures moving around in the rain outside. Cars and trucks stood backed up along the highway, cut through a pine forest, waiting to cross the border.

I understood the mood. I was the only passenger among the dozen or so aboard our bus who was not smuggling cigarettes to sell in the market in Bialystok, just inside Poland, where the taxes on legal cigarettes are higher.

If they were caught smuggling in more than 400 cigarettes, these women - and they were mostly women - would be turned back.

Not a very serious punishment for not a very serious crime. But a trip or two a week like this, with five cartons of 200 cigarettes apiece, means the difference between poverty and a tolerable life for the families of these women.

The economics of this business are marginal: Taking the 9:10 a.m. bus for the three-hour journey from Grodno, Belarus, to Bialystok (return ticket: $6), getting a one-time visa (cost: $7), smuggling 1,000 cigarettes past Polish customs, hawking them pack-by-pack around the market, and going home in the evening earns a profit of about $7.

But three journeys like this earn Natasha, a vivacious, round-faced housewife, more than she used to make in a month at her old job as a teacher. So she quit.

The customs man mounted the bus, and as he stood by the driver's seat and sized up the passengers it was clear from the look on his face that he knew exactly what was going on. Slowly, he made his way up the aisle, staring hard at each bag. We all stared back at him, innocently.

He was in a good mood. Without having uttered a word or touched a single piece of luggage, he turned and stepped back off the bus. Natasha and her friends would make their $7.00 each today.

Where East meets West

Their hometown, Grodno, is a featureless collection of five-story apartment blocks and ill-stocked shops. As I strolled through the town that morning, the half-empty streets seemed pervaded by a sense of drudgery and aimlessness. Bialystok, by contrast, 40 miles away on the Polish side of the frontier, had a charge to it, a vigor in the air of people busy with purposeful activity.

The contrast was startling, and a clear hint that I had crossed more than an administrative border stop. I felt I was in a qualitatively different sort of country, and the first difference was apparent from the market by the bus station.

The only local produce that Belarussian markets had offered were a few cabbages, some of last year's tired carrot crop, worm-eaten and broken, and cucumbers. The stalls in Bialystok were piled with cherries, strawberries, radishes, and baby beets.

The reasons for the difference had been apparent on the road from the border to Bialystok.

On one level, I had left behind the huge fields of Belarussian collective farms, endless swaths of state-owned crops stretching to the horizon or the forest edge. We were now driving through a patterned landscape of small fields divided by hedges and fences - plots of private property that the Communist regime in Poland never collectivized.

Here was a hallmark of Europe: a chessboard of different shades of green and gold, changing from crop to crop.

On another level, the border between Belarus and Poland means a good deal more than that. For me, crossing that frontier brought an enormous sense of relief at entering a country where the rule of law more or less holds its own.

That is not a feeling I had in Belarus, nor in Russia. In these countries, citizens and foreigners alike are constantly on their guard against arbitrary behavior by the authorities. Any policeman, any bureaucrat, can make your life miserable, and bribing him will get you much further than lodging a complaint with his superiors. The authorities are the enemy, the cops the robbers.

Natasha and her fellow smugglers saw the border in a different light. "In the West, if you need something like a pair of slippers, you go to the shops especially to buy them," pointed out Tanya, who was traveling to Bialystok to buy secondhand clothes from Germany to resell at home. "In Belarus you go to the shops to see what they've got, and whether there's anything that you want."

If Eastern eyes often look West with envy, Western eyes are as likely to look East with suspicion. And if borders mean different things to different people, the one I had just crossed had a very specific meaning to Sixt, the German branch of Budget Rent-A-Car.

When you rent a car from them in Berlin, it comes with a map entitled "Information on Theft Prevention." On Sixt's map, Belarus - along with Russia, Ukraine, and every other former Soviet Republic - is shaded black, signifying: "Entry forbidden for all cars and trucks"

Poland, on the other hand, is shaded gray, as is the Czech Republic, Romania, and other formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe. That means "Entry only with Opel, Ford, FIAT, and Renault" cars - cheaper models that are less likely to be stolen.

Only in Germany and other Western European countries is one allowed to drive Sixt's Mercedes and other expensive cars.

And at a deeper level, I had crossed another sort of border, exemplified by the architecture of the roadside churches. Traveling West, I had moved out of the sphere of the Russian Orthodox Church, with its onion domes topped by barred crosses, and into the Roman Catholic realm of steeples and multiple statues of the Madonna.

This too marked a clear step into Europe, across a historical-cultural divide. But not necessarily a step into mainstream, modern, and liberal Europe, for the Polish Catholic church has exercised a strongly conservative influence on national affairs in recent years, out of step with Poland's Western neighbors.

This, complained Kazimiera Sczuka, a young lecturer in gender studies whom I met in Warsaw, was dragging the country backward socially. Jolanta Banach, a female minister in charge of womens' issues, had been replaced by Kazimierz Kapera, a male minister responsible for family issues; an equal rights bill had died in parliament; Poland's anti-abortion law is the harshest on the Continent.

But in Warsaw I felt as if I was in Europe.

Kazimiera, when we spoke on the phone to arrange our meeting, asked how she would recognize me: anywhere farther East I would have stood out sufficiently in a crowd - by the cut of my clothes as much as anything else - for that question to have been redundant.

And in the Old Town district of Warsaw, painstakingly restored to its 18th-century mercantile solidity after the destruction of World War II, the atmosphere in the pavement cafes was relaxed but restrained in a way I associate with Europe.

Warsaw does not vibrate with the savage energy that drives Moscow, where life often is precarious and intense. Nor does it bask in the opulence of Paris.

On common ground

But Warsaw struck me as a balanced city, sharing with Europe a sureness of its identity and a confidence in its future that gives the city and the Continent a settled air.

The West has recognized that Poland has a place at the European table and within the NATO alliance. Remarkably, in a country and on a continent that has torn itself to shreds within living memory, killing millions and uprooting millions more, the prevailing sense of solidity and prosperity in law-governed, liberal societies is strong.

Poland, emerging from half a century of communism and domination by Moscow, is clearly not like Western European societies. But it can draw on enough common cultural ground from the past, and enough common political ground in the present, to find itself on the same path.

Poland, I felt as I walked the cobbled streets of Warsaw's Old Town, is in Europe.

* The first two articles in this series ran Tuesday and Thursday. In Monday's paper, staff writer Peter Ford stops at the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland for a glimpse of Europe as it might have been 8,000 years ago. For an interactive version of this series, see the Monitor's Web site (www.csmonitor.com).

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