Tag Archives: travel

You Just Keep on Having Tantrums Over the Borderline

Right around Christmas of 1993, for reasons I don’t fully remember and still don’t fully understand, I traveled with a friend from Albania down to Athens, Greece. I remember that she was heading back the USA for a vacation but I don’t remember why I was tagging along. (Let’s just say there was some history there and a novel would be required to explain it.)

The first trouble occurred when we were crossing from Albania to Greece. We had to depart the bus and stand in line at a passport office. When it was my turn, the Greek border agent looked through my passport with contempt (remember, I was coming from Albania and no one in the Balkans likes their neighbors). He then found two visas from Macedonia (now the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) which I had visited earlier in the year. That’s when things got absurd.

The Greeks didn’t (and still don’t) recognize Macedonia, partly because they are convinced that naming it after a region in Greece implies ownership. The closest parallel I can give is if Mexico suddenly declared that Northern Mexico was now called Texas and that its natural capital was, and would some day be again, San Antonio. The Greek border guard then proceeded to have a temper tantrum in my passport. He crossed out with ball point pen all references to Macedonia in my passport and stamped the visas with “This Crappy Bullshit Fake Country Not Recognized by Super Awesome Greece” (something like that). He tossed the passport back at me and sent me on my way.

After my friend departed, I decided to visit Istanbul and caught a train to Thessalonika. The part of the city I was in was beautiful but because I was only there overnight I didn’t get much of a chance to explore. I did wander around the coast a bit and see the White Tower, but then, as I was wandering around, I found a cinema that was playing Sliver and I bought a ticket.

That’s right, boys and girls; I was in the area that received Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonians and I watched a crap Sharon Stone thriller because English.

The next morning, I took a train and a bus to the Greek/Turkish border. This one looked more like a gas station and I expect that some of the Greek signs actually said “Last Gas for 1000 kilometers”. The border guards came on the bus and collected our passports and then went back in the gas station. A few minutes later, a guard returned and asked me to step off the bus and led me into the gas station. I was then subjected to my second official interrogation by the police (the first happened on my 21st birthday.)

Now keep in mind that I was tired and cranky and that my mother has always cautioned/cursed me that my mouth would eventually get me in trouble and there I was at a gas station/border crossing facing a border agent who barely spoke English and his translator (a fellow passenger) who spoke only a little more. The cards, therefore, did not look to be stacked in my favor.

The agent first asked why I’d visited Skopje (Greece’s word for Macedonia). I explained that I’d lucked into a free ride there. (He looked at me as if I’d just explained why I’d killed his dog.) That was strike one. He then asked why I was in Albania. I explained I was working for the US Government. Those were strikes two and three. I explained about the Peace Corps, the whole time thinking “Do you know what Greece would be without my country? The shittiest part of Turkey.” Miracle of miracles, I didn’t actually say that, though, and the guard finally sent me on my way.

A few minutes later (with my passport back in hand) I was standing next to the bus when the guard came back to get me. I just waved him off and got back on the bus. He didn’t follow and I never went to jail. I eventually got across the border and into Istanbul.

I had a great time in Istanbul, even though I celebrated the ringing in of 1994 by myself. My hostel was halfway between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque and every place I wanted to visit was within walking distance. (Ironically, given where I now live, I had no interest in crossing the Bosphorus into “Asia”.)

To get home, I climbed on board a bus to Albania and got ready to face the frightening legend of Turkish border police. Keeping my mother’s caution/curse in my head, I kept replaying the most brutal scenes from Midnight Express over and over in my head with a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack. I was convinced that something I’d bought would turn out to be an antique and I’d go to jail. And because I was thinking that, I’m pretty sure I looked guilty.

We had to take our bags off the bus, set them on the ground and open them up for the guard. When he got to me, I couldn’t help but tense up. He asked if that was my bag. I managed to say only “yes” instead of “Yes, and the two kilos of hash taped to my body are mine too!” He nodded and moved on and that was the end of my Turkish border guard encounter.

I still don’t know if I should be disappointed in that or not. I still kind of wish I’d tried to smuggle something out, though.

Neither Blood Nor Cannons Nor Something to Set Your Watch By

After I finished my first three years in Japan, various confusions and misunderstandings and regulations required me to leave and surrender my work visa and then come back to the USA and get a new work visa. Instead of going straight home, I decided to complete my trip around the world and go home by way of Europe.

Luckily, Eddie, an old Peace Corps Albania friend, was doing a Fulbright Fellowship in Slovenia so I stopped off to visit him and his wife (who may or may not have actually been his wife at the time. Long story and lack of long term memory). Ljubljana was great and a pair of young journalists introduced us, over cheap beer and plates of meat, to everything there was to know about both the band Phish and Northern Balkan Politics. Having been in Albania, we weren’t surprised to learn that Northern and Southern Balkan Politics were  identical:

1) Every country hates the country it shares a border with.
2) It’s always the other country’s fault.

While I was in Slovenia, I decided to take a day trip to Zagreb, Croatia. Zagreb had a lot more to do but wasn’t as picturesque as Ljubljana. Zagreb is a busy mall; Ljubljana is a quiet coffee shop.

I started wandering about aimlessly, taking pictures here and there and enjoying the old Gradec district and the surprisingly tacky St. Mark’s Church in St. Mark’s Square. Eventually I stumbled across Lotrscak Tower (which apparently means “Lacks Vowels” in Serbo-Croatian).

Every day at noon in Zagreb, as a way to scare the crap out of tourists and thus identify them for census purposes, a cannon is fired from LacksVowels Tower. The tourists jump and the locals use it as a version of a talking clock (At the KAPOW! WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! the time will be twelve o’clock) and set their watches by it.

I remember reading about this cannon when I was in elementary school, and vaguely remember a line drawing of one person jumping and another checking his watch. When I realized what LacksVowels tower was I was actually kind of excited and went inside to see the cannon room. That was all cool but what wasn’t cool was that, for the first time in hundreds of years, the cannon would not be fired because the cannon man was on vacation. Basically, if the story I was told was true, one man had been firing the cannon for decades. The only time he’d taken a vacation, his replacement had somehow injured himself/lost a hand firing the cannon. As a result, he hadn’t taken a vacation in over 20 years. When I was there, he’d apparently agreed to take a vacation only if the cannon went unfired until his return.

I remember feeling kind of mad, and to this day I’m still disappointed. It’s the equivalent of going to London and not hearing Westminster Chimes or the ear splitting screech of taxi brakes.