Crossing borders can always be a bit of a hectic experience. There are long lines, scam artists, customs officials, new currencies, people offering to expedite your visa process for a fee, screaming children, rogue livestock, and occasionally people with guns. Dirty and dingy, border crossings are never the favorite part of my trip.
Luckily, however, I was once aided through a particularly tense border moment by of all things, an American politician. As any American traveler who spends copious amounts of time out of the country will tell you, divulging the fact that you are an American frequently involves being buffeted by a hailstorm of opinions/questions/debate over American foreign policy, war, clothing, oil, health care, politics, and lately, Justin Bieber.
This is because–and excuse me as I fabricate completely random statistics to argue a point–it’s becoming apparent to me that about 70% of the globe knows more about American politics than 70% of Americans do.
Evidence? I offer three examples:
-A particularly smelly hitch hiker I once picked up in New Zealand was able to tell me how many seats the state of Hawaii has in the House of Representatives (2).
-The Kathmandu shopkeeper from whom I was purchasing a $1.50 plate of dhal bhat discussed with me the geopolitical ramifications of Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Burma.
-A mate from Sydney writing me to express his concerns about the upcoming vote in Congress to once again raise the debt ceiling.
The list goes on.
Although flashing the blue cover of an American passport will frequently lead to this uninvited political joust, I would like to thank one American politician for effectively waving me across international lines.Prior to Slovakia being an EU member and part of the Eurail network, the border crossing by train from Slovakia to Austria was not exactly warm and rosy. Perhaps it’s because it was the depths of winter and the whole of central Europe seemed to collectively huddle beneath a fog of frozen breath and post-Communist-era gray, but the passport control was cold in every way.
Instead of having all of the passengers depart the frigid rail car, two chiseled specimens of angry looking police officers toting unnecessarily large automatic weapons boarded the train and checked the passports of each passenger row by row. From the truncated grunts in German and the international sound of pleading it was apparent that for some passengers the proceedings were going less than swimmingly.
Finally, with a stone cold glare and a heavy thudding of boots the two officers made their stop in front of my assigned seat. Brandishing our shiny, navy blue passports my college girlfriend and I handed over our international identity and awaited what the vibe of the car was telling us might be a hard-fought entry stamp.
Scrutinizing the details of my girlfriend’s passport, a thick, monotone voice came from within the border patrolling giant.
“You are from California, yes?” he stiffly questioned.
“Ummm…yes, California” was the meek reply she could muster.
Moment of truth. Friend or foe.
Then, with a smile that could bridge the Iron Curtain, the gun-toting guard slapped his companion on the chest and jubilantly exclaimed, “the Governator is better yes!”
What followed can only be described as the laugh performed by the alien characters in “The Simpson’s” who carry on with a guttural belly laugh for so unbelievably long that after the first 40 seconds have passed it becomes hilarious in its discomfort.
At no point while boarding the train to Austria did I expect the fact that the Austrian-born actor turned California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would ultimately expedite my passage through the border.
The guffawing agent–obviously pleased with his joke–nonchalantly stamped the passports and flipped them back into our stunned laps. only to unleash a throaty gumbo of syllables on a dreadlocked hippie behind me who, apparently, was not a California resident.
So thank you Arnold for getting me into Austria, and for allowing me to use my passport for more than political banter. Schnitzels on me.
Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here…
[Photo: Flickr: Toprankonlinemarketing]