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Border Control

I wake up and ask the Czech, my bunkmate, where we are, thinking we must have arrived already. “Plovdov,” he says. The name means nothing to me, other than that it’s not Sofia. His name is Thomas, and we both have to catch the 11:55 to Belgrade. It’s about 9am. “Plovdov is two hours from Sophia,” Thomas explains through a thick Czech accent, though he says he’s from Miami these days. Later, he tells me that he used to be a television producer, in fact, produced a German program that’s still on the air, an entertainment news program called Lufe-Hufe or something, basically a German entertainment tonight. He is about 10 years older than me, and reminds me of Colin Hay.
They wake us up twice during the night. At 3:30, at the Bulgarian border. I’d hearda bout thisbefore: how they made everyone get off the train, trudge up to a tiny passport control office where one clerk worked and nine others stood around, and you wait in line for the passport stamp. Since I’d never done an international train crossing I had nothing to compare it to, and forewarned is forearmed, so I had no complaints. The obnoxious Welsh college students standing behind me were another matter. The weather was FREEZING, this was STUPID, the traind was SHITE. The whole thing was over in about 15 minutes, and I go back to the train to sleep while everyone else finishes. I wonder idly what would have happened to me if I’d simply slept through it, hadn’t gotten off, hadn’t gotten stamped. Apparently nothing. I hit my bunk, fall asleep, awake when Thomas and the two Italian kids we’re rooming with come in, fall asleep again, then wake up again when a man in uniform and surgical mask asks to see our passports. Which he does, and looks for the stamp, and I realize I’d likely be in a Bulgarian prison right now if I’d slept through the border crossing. They wake us up again, feels like an hour or two later, dawn coming on, and again check our passports.
The give them back to everyone except me. Mine they keep.
“Where are you going?”
“Belgrade,” I say blearily. He looks at me suspiciously and walks away. After about 10 minutes, I start to get nervous. I don’t like being more than five feet from my pasport these days, and if I’m going to be locked up by immigration, I’d prefer to be imprisoned in a country where I could make use of the immersion course that is incarceration. I track down the immigration officer at the back of the train.
“You have my passport,” I say.
“Yes,” he blinks.
“Can I have it back?” I ask with a sarcastic edge, the lack of sleep making me surly.
He snorts derisively. “In about 10 minutes,” he says in a thick Soviet-era accent, the kind of accent that says: “Look, fucker, I’m the bureaucracy, and in this part of the world, the bureaucracy is god, and you’ll get your passportback when and if I damn well feel like it.”
“Right,” I’m too tired to argue, or even care much at this point, and if they’re going to cart me off to prison, I’m at least going to be well rested when they do. I fall back into my bunk, and true to his word, I get my passport back in 10 minutes, though I’m now undroubtedly on a Bulgarian watch list for who-knows-what. But by the time you catch me, copper, I’ll be safe in Novi Sad.

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