Posted August 24, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured

One of the great joys of driving from Hungary to Italy is the absence of border controls. You don’t have to slow down and show your passport. You don’t have to worry about waiting in a queue with commuters and vacationers and truckers. It’s just a straight shot from Budapest through Slovenia to Trieste.

But then if you veer just slightly from this path and dip down into Croatia, suddenly you discover that not every member of the European Union shares the same visa regime. There is the pesky matter of Schengen. Croatia became the EU’s most recent member on July 1. But it not yet a member of Schengen.

Schengen is an agreement among 22 EU member states – plus four European Free Trade Association members – to abolish visa requirements and passport controls. Two EU countries have opted out of Schengen (the UK and Ireland) and four others are obligated to join after meeting certain requirements. One of these countries is Croatia.

Driving down the Istrian coast last week with my friend and former colleague Michael Simmons, we encountered no problems at the border between Slovenia and Croatia. We waited a maximum of 10 minutes at the two checkpoints. But we noticed that the line of cars going the other way from Croatia to Slovenia was enormous, with a wait time of what looked like a couple hours. Later we found out that our trip coincided with the end of vacation for many Italians, who had to drive home that weekend.

So, on the advice of the person we interviewed in Croatia, we decided to avoid the coast road and go inland for our trip back to Trieste. We stopped for dinner in the charming walled city of Motovun and then continued to the border. We came up to the Croatian side and discovered that the gate was up. I thought that perhaps they didn’t care so much about the strict regulations at this small border crossing, especially so late at night. So I just waved at the passport control as I slowed down but with the intention of just driving through.

The border guard motioned me to stop.

I said, “If you wanted me to stop, why is the gate up?” She just looked at me rudely and demanded the passport. She didn’t give us too much of a hard time, but neither was she pleasant.

At the next gate, to pass into Slovenia, there were two green arrows and I took the one on the right. But it soon became clear that there was no one in the control booth at this lane. I saw a border guard standing outside the lane on the left basically just waving people through. He saw me but didn’t indicate that I should back up and move over to his lane. Meanwhile another car pulled in behind me. We both had made the mistake of assuming that green meant “welcome.” Eventually I managed to indicate to the car behind me to back up, and we both moved over to what turned out to be the single functioning lane. This second car was waved through.

I drove up to the border guard, and I said, “The other lane had a green arrow, why is it closed?”

“It’s for buses, you should have seen that.”

“Then why didn’t you indicate to me to come over to your lane,” I asked. I was not belligerent. I said these things lightly.

“You have eyes,” he said. “You should have seen. Give me your passports. Now give me your driving license.”

I handed over both.

“Now give me your international driving license,” he said sharply.

“An international driving license is not necessary,” I said. “So I don’t have one.”

“Who told you that?” he demanded.

“The car rental place,” I said.

“It’s not true,” he said. “You need one.”

“I don’t have one.”

“You’ll have to turn around,” he said. “I won’t let you into Slovenia.”

Then he went away with my license and our passports.

It was about 11 pm. We didn’t have a map. I wasn’t sure how to find our way back to the coast. The gas stations we had passed were closed. And there was no guarantee that we would be able to get through the other border crossing if this guard had the capability of putting out an APB with our license plate

Michael said, “Oh, man, you should never piss people like that off.”

He was right, of course. But there’s nothing I hate more than arbitrary authority. “He’s just making us sweat,” I said, though I was not entirely certain of this.

“I don’t know,” Michael said. “He can jerk us around as much as he wants.”

Michael is a veteran of the American civil rights movement. We’d just been talking about some of his experiences driving at night in the Deep South in the 1960s. They were not good memories.

After an interval of perspiration, the guard came back and returned our documents. “You rented your car in Austria. That’s the only reason I am letting you go. If you rented car in Croatia or Slovenia, I would make you turn around.”

“Thank you,” I said, though I really wanted to tell him he was a Nazi.

Later on, I learned that Slovenia is one of the few European countries that require an international driving license. However, it’s rarely enforced – unless you piss off a border guard or policeman.

One part of the world is tearing down walls while the other part is building their walls higher. The unpleasantness we encountered at the border crossing was nothing compared to what refugees face in their flight from oppression or poverty. It was nothing even compared to what most Poles still face to get a visa for the United States (all EU citizens, except for those from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus, can travel for 90 days to the United States without visas).

The European Union has taken a tremendous step forward by eliminating internal borders through the Schengen process. To quote just one example: Polish has become the second language in the United Kingdom, after English, as a result of the movement of Poles in the newly open European space. Contrast that with the experience of Poles in the UK during the Cold War, as depicted for instance in the film Moonlighting. Schengen is making Europe an even more multicultural space.

Soon the border controls separating Croatia from its new EU colleagues will be gone, and some day after that so will the border controls with Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. Schengen is an exhilarating peek at what a borderless world might one day look like. Lucky the Europeans who can take advantage of this experiment. My experience at the Slovenian border only made me more appreciative of all the non-experiences I had at all the previous borders on my recent road trip.

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