Sunday, April 21, 2013

Border Crossing

Billy pushes on the door marked "pull" at the Midvale School for the Gifted
24 hours after I left my passport at the bank I was in police custody at the border. All because I couldn't figure out how to open a door. 

Actually, the entire semester I lived in Budapest, Hungary I couldn't figure out how to open a door. Living in a country where you don't know the language is challenging. It's not the big stuff that's hard. There are guidebooks to get you from point A to point B. There are phrasebooks for medical emergencies. But in all the tourist literature, there's nothing that tells you which bathroom to use. (For the record, női is women's, férfi is men's. You're welcome.) In my case, I spent five months unable to read the push/pull signs on the door. So regardless if I was entering or exiting, I did it wrong. Standing on the street I would pull and pull until I finally realized it opened inward. And when I left? I'd automatically push, and wind up walking right into the door. BAM!

I have an excuse. In the States, by law, all business doors open outward. This way in an emergency folks can easily stampede through the exit rather than piling up like cattle and dying of smoke inhalation. It happened. We fixed it. Eastern Europe, however, was either fine with a little population control or figured they'd behave better in a panic situation. Either way, throughout Budapest the doors opened inward, and I couldn't get used to it. 

Anyway. The day before we went on a weekend field trip to the Czech Republic I exchanged some American dollars for Czech koruny. Now, I'd walked smack into the big glass door every single time I left that bank. Glass doors are the worst, not just because passersby laughed as my whole body smushed up against the glass, but because that kind of door makes a particular ringing sound that draws the attention of everyone in the room. I'm pretty sure -- after seven or eight incidents -- that the bank tellers were taking bets on if I'd make it out okay this time or knock myself completely silly.

Thus I was concentrating so hard on which way to open the door -- and hoping that for once I'd get it right -- that I forgot to pick up my passport.

I still got it wrong.

That evening as I was packing my bag I realized what I'd done. I called the embassy to report my missing passport. The nice Marine there told me they'd been expecting my call, and I could pick the passport up from the bank on Monday when it opened again. Distressed, I phoned my professor and explained the situation. Pepi was a happy-go-lucky guy, and he wasn't really concerned. "You have a photocopy of your passport, right?" he asked. I confirmed. "Just bring that. It'll be fine."

I didn't believe him. But what was I supposed to do? I couldn't NOT go after he told me to.  So the next day at 5 a.m. I met my classmates and Pepi at the train station and we boarded the express to Prague.

Eastern European border guards were not friendly in the 1990s. I can understand. They'd been through a lot. Soviet occupation, the cold war, insane amounts of pickled vegetables. Foolish American college girls who attempt to cross the border with a photocopy of their passport? Apparently that's even worse. They waved large rifles in my face and yelled loudly in Hungarian. My Hungarian at that point was limited to nouns including "dentist" and "hippopotamus" and "figure skater". (We took Hungarian language lessons every day, but the teachers had been hired from an elementary school. Can you tell?) I cowered. They pulled me off the train.

Fortunately I had a guardian angel. My classmate Maria spoke near-fluent Hungarian (she was living with relatives that semester) and she volunteered to stay with me. Not that her services were really needed. The police didn't speak to us again for six hours. The train chuffed off and we were walked at gun-point into a small dim cinderblock police station. They pointed toward some chairs and we sat. 

Nothing further happened.

I lie. I actually underwent excruciating torture at the genial hands of a nice elderly Australian couple who also had been pulled off the train. I'll get to that.

As far as Maria could tell, we were going to be returned to Budapest on the next train headed that way. We just had to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

We chatted a little. It turns out the Australians also were on their way to the Czech Republic, but they hadn't gotten a transit visa through Slovakia. Oops. After a while conversation dwindled, and we waited some more.

We grew hungry. Neither of us had any food, and we had no idea when the train would come. Our stomachs growled. We fidgeted. The guards stared stoically at us. Time didn't pass.

Mrs. Australia sensed our discomfort. She was a kind woman, and she suggested that we share her meager meal. We gratefully accepted her offer.

There have been millions of debates about which country has the strongest, toughest citizens. Russian Cossacks are said to be fearsome. The Zulu held off the British using only cowhide shields.

None of them compare to the Australians.

Mrs. Australia handed each of us a piece of bread smeared with Vegemite. She cheerfully ate hers, and started prepping another. I ate mine.

My tongue died.

Friends, Vegemite is a salted yeast paste with other savory additives like onions and celery. Eating it is akin to rubbing your tongue vigorously with a beef bullion cube until it bleeds, then holding the whole mess in your mouth. Forever. Except worse.

My mother raised me well. I choked down my "treat", smiled and said "Thank you." But I had to avert my eyes as that sweet old lady made another, and ate it. My respect for her ratcheted up with each additional bite. If Australians can handle that, they can take over the world. I no longer worry about nuclear annihalation. I have nightmares about being forced to eat Vegemite.

My tongue began to revive. That's when the real torture began. Remember how I said salted yeast paste? I had nothing to drink. There was no bathroom in which I could rinse my mouth. The savory bloody yeasty taste lingered and grew. It transformed repeatedly, sometimes highlighting a metallic aftertone, other times bringing out the onion. And through it all, salt. Dry, dessicating salt. My mouth was parched like the Sahara. I felt like I'd eated the Gobi desert. My eyes began to sink into my head. My fingertips shrivelled. I hallucinated fountains and bathroom taps.

Still we sat, waiting. I could not longer speak -- my tongue wouldn't function properly. I covertly eyed Mrs. Australia looking for horns or other signs that she was the devil. Vegemite still coated my teeth.

Finally the train came. It was a local, stopping at every town. Somehow Maria was able to find us each a soda. I have no idea what I paid. However much, it was worth it. 

I have been in some scary situations. I've done some stupid things. I've given birth twice. Nothing compares to four hours of sitting in a foreign police station with no water and the taste of Vegemite on my tongue.

Oh, and when I got back to the States? I went to the bank and made an ass of myself trying to pull the door open. Apparently I'd finally gotten used to Hungarian doors. Yep. It's the little things that are hard when you travel.


  1. I have tasted that stuff and your description is dead on.
    What an interesting life you have lead.
    I am enjoying the reads.

  2. What a great story! You know, I heard a long time ago that Australians think PB&J is disgusting. A matter of perspective, I guess.

  3. This was an entertaining story, and I do not want to leave my house more than I didn't want to leave it before I read the story.

    Btw, I tasted Vegemite, didn't think it was that bad. But I've also tasted preserved eggs and didn't think they were that bad. Tasted candied bugs too. Wasn't up for much of that. Vegemite was better. ;p