In 1989, what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and other countries composed one Communist entity, the Soviet Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I had been invited at the last minute to travel with a friend I was visiting in Austria. The train would leave at 6:30 p.m.; it was an overnight trip to Dubrovnik, where we would catch a “hydrofoil” ferry, and then another ferry to an island. The resort was on an island in a lake on the island.
Katje, an Austrian, and Julie, a New Yorker, both worked for a multi-national corporation. Julie had colleagues in Italy as well, which is how we were all invited.
An Austrian conductor checked our tickets and bid us good evening. I enjoyed watching the mountainous countryside go by and dreamed of soaking up the Mediterranean sun. A new conductor—Yugoslavian this time—opened the door to our compartment and asked for our passports. Mine he paged through, frowned, paged through again. And again. And again. He said something to me in a language that was not German. I hadn’t considered that.
His expression soured when he could see that I was going to be a pain in his ass. An American pain, the worst kind.
“Your vi-sa,” he said in exaggerated English.
I blanched and blushed at the same time. Visa? The whole thing had happened so fast. No one said anything about needing a visa.
He rolled his eyes, grunted and slammed our compartment door shut.
“He took my passport,” I said, shocked. I turned to my companions, who shrugged.
“How come he didn’t take your passport?” I asked Julie. She was a dual-citizen and had used her Irish passport.
“He can’t do that!” I said, rising.
“Sit down,” said Katje sternly. “Arguing with them is not going to help.”
I stared out the window, numb. How could he take my passport? How was I supposed to go anywhere without it? Was I under arrest?
A couple of hours later, the train stopped in Zagreb for a ten-minute break. The conductor came and told me to follow him.
The conductor ushered me off the train and into a small office, where another man in a uniform was sitting at a desk. He tossed my passport on the desk and said something, cocking his head toward me and rolling his eyes. They laughed, and the conductor left without explaining a thing. I directed my panicked stare at the clerk, who returned it without expression. He looked at the clock, sighed. Looked at the clock.
I’ve since heard others tell of “Protokol,” the Soviet bureaucracy that involved oodles of paperwork and moved at a snail’s pace. This man was not going to rush for anyone, let alone a tiny American girl who hadn’t bothered to get a visa to enter his country. He considered his desk, slowly moved his hands to the pulls on the drawer in front of him. Grasped the pulls with both hands and slowly opened the drawer. Looked in the drawer. Removed a sheet of paper from the drawer. Put the paper on the desk. Closed the drawer.
Meanwhile, the platform was filled with people who had briefly left the train to buy a snack or stretch their legs. The train hunkered in the darkness, groaning and snorting. I could see Katje and Julie in our compartment, chatting. If the train left without me, I would lose all my belongings. All I had was a bit of money in a travel wallet around my neck. This guy had my passport, and he was in no hurry to give it back.
The clerk regarded the visa form, looked at the clock. He opened another drawer and sighed. He contemplated the pens, picked one and then rejected it. Picked another. Took the cap off. I shifted from one foot to the other and tried not to scream.
The warning bell rang on the train platform and people started shuffling toward the train. The clerk did not even look up. Thankfully, he allowed me to pay in Austrian currency. He opened another drawer, located a stamp and validated my passport, and then slowly pushed it across the desk to me. I have never been so happy to have something in my hand as then. I raced across the platform, leapt from the ground straight into the train, and rushed back to my seat before they could change their minds. As Katje and Julie snored peacefully in their bunks, it took hours to calm my racing heart. — Kristy Athens is much more careful about getting her visas now. She is a freelance writer and editor who lives on a small farm near White Salmon, Washington.