On the Road, Part II: A Tale of Two Crossings

(in which are exhibited certain national character traits
of Poles, Germans, Greeks, Americans, Brits, and Czechs)

We arrive at the Yugoslav border just after eleven a.m., coast to a stop behind a short line of Volkswagens, BMWs and Mercedes, and turn the ignition off. We’re a little short tempered after several times losing our way in Thessalonica, where no roads are marked, and outside of Thessalonica, where blacktop disintegrates at frequent and unannounced points into pre-Roman paving stones. And we are not happy with our host of one otherwise exceeding pleasant week on the beaches for announcing, at the point of settling accounts, that breakfast was not included in the price of the room. And we are still pissed about the bank strike, which made cashing American Express traveler’s checks almost impossible… and at this morning’s electrical strike, which shut off all the traffic lights in Thessalonica during morning rush hour, adding to the confusion of unmarked roads.

So okay, we are in a really lousy humor, and the hell with this goddam country, let’s get back to Mother Poland. We cut the engine and roll down the windows of the Skoda for a bit of cool morning air, and wait patiently, relieved finally to be out of the city and on the road home.

And we wait.

And we wait some more.

Since nothing seems to be moving, and I’ve sat in this car for six hours already, I volunteer to go see what’s happening.

“Not much,” says the couple in the VW Rabbit with the Austrian decal, lounging beside their car parked at the head of the line. A police vehicle blocks half the bus lane, and twenty or thirty trucks stand parked in the right hand lane. A few border guards drift in and out of the customs shed. “We’ve been here since about 10:00,” the husband says. “The electricity is off because of the strike, and they can’t raise the gate.” I mutter something about Greek hospitality, then turn to go back to Michelle.

That’s when I notice the sign on the window of the customs shed: “On: 20 and 21 September 1990 The Customs are in Strike.”

Today is September 20. I ask the Austrians about the sign, but they hadn’t seen it. “It can’t mean much,” the wife says; “Several cars went through around 10:00, just in front of us.”

I retreat to the Skoda, grumbling to Michelle that there is a strike here too, but not to worry, the front car has been here only an hour and several others crossed just this morning: this will probably be one of those off-again, on-again, off-again deals. Remember the electrical strikes? Power out for fifteen minutes during rush hour or the evening television news, and then back on? This will be over in no time. Michelle slips a pair of jeans over her swimsuit and we return to the crossing gate.

“So hier ist ein Strik?” I ask one of the guards in German.

He understands. “Ja.”

“Wie lange dauert dieses Strik?”

Taking a slow drag on his cigarette and striking a pose, he announces, “Perhaps a couple of hours, perhaps a couple of days.”

“If this is a strike, then you are doing no work.”


“Then the border is not guarded and the crossing is free today.”

He smiles and turns his back.

More people arrive, mill around inside and outside of the customs house. Questions are raised in Greek, German, and Croatian. Cars and buses pile up behind ours: Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Great Britain, Greece, but mostly Germany and Austria, big fast cars ready to blow our doors off on the Yugoslavian autobahn, big, fast cars which, like ours, have pissed and piddled around the back streets of Thessalonica this morning, inching their way through gridlock at intersections they did not even want to cross.

A couple from Great Britain pulls up to the front on a motorcycle. He is a football player—American football, mind you, halfback, quite popular these days in the U.K. They have been on a London-to-Istanbul race to raise money for muscular dystrophy, documents and visas all in place, notes of explanation in several languages about what they’re up to. They have returned from Istanbul through Athens, and now north to home, and “god, do not ever go through Bulgaria, only two petrol stations on the whole country, lines longer than this one at both places, and I had to work some black market deal just to get gasoline for me bike. And the restaurant, if you want to call it that, two sides, one just filthy and the other side filthier, foreigners eating on one side and natives watching them from the other, and they have nothing there, absolutely nothing, don’t ever go to Bulgaria, ever…”

The crowd grows. Nearly noon, and the line stretches far behind my Skoda, around a bend to who knows where. Exchanges between travelers and guards grow more heated. Greeks especially are unhappy, and the Germans, whose juices have marinated two or three weeks in Greek incompetence, who have a long and winding trail before they reach even the Yugoslav autobahn (longer still before the good roads in Austria and Germany), leapfrogging up the mountains over assorted trucks, ox carts, donkey wagons, bicyclists, tractor-drawn wagons, horse-drawn carts… and then tolls on top of tolls in Yugoslavia, and those long backroads of Slovenia with their endless villages, one backed up against the other, 60 kilometer limits throughout, and more bicyclists and tractors and donkey carts… and beyond that, on the psychological horizon, the traumas and uncertainties of reunification.

“Is this strike against us or against your regime?”

“Are we hostages here? Is this Iraq?”

“We demand to talk to an official.”

A Mercedes at the front of the bus lane explodes suddenly to life, and in a scene out of The Blues Brothers, swerves around the crossing gate, which does not entirely block its path, and disappears in a cloud of Macedonian dust up the road toward Yugoslavia. The crowd erupts in cheers, looks expectantly to the next vehicle in line, a Polski Fiat loaded to the roof and not likely to roar anywhere in a cloud of Macedonian dust. Embarrassed guards rush to block their escape with a car, and a police vehicle moves to fill the side lane of the bus and truck line. Then guards return to their smoking and tea, to their doing nothing.

“If you want to have a real strike, you should let everybody pass without inspection,” I tell one of them.

He smiles and raises his tea cup.

Michelle fiddles with the crossing gate. “Look,” she announces; “it’s not locked. It goes up and down by hand.” She demonstrates by raising the striped beam in front of her. “No, no,” shouts a guard suddenly no longer on strike, hustling her away from the gate and warning of dire consequences if she doesn’t behave.

“Go back to your tea,” she tells him in English. “You’re on strike.”

Recognizing, as they say, a photo opportunity, I fetch the camera from the car, shoot three quick ones before the guards are on me. “No photographs,” says the one with the cigarettes.

“Where does it say no photographs?” somebody else wants to know. “I see no signs. Are we in Russia here?”

“I do see a no smoking sign,” I tell him, pointing to the sign over his head.

“You want to take pictures here? This is such a beautiful place?”

“This is news,” I respond. “Tomorrow you will be in the newspapers.”

“You follow me,” he orders.

“Your pictures are okay here,” a Greek woman tells me.

A German van threads its way to the front of the line. A heavy set man with thick gray eyebrows gets out of the driver’s seat, pleading with the guards. “I have children back home and they are sick. I have been called back to Germany this past morning. I must get through for my children.”

The posing guard with the cigarette and three chevrons quits striking long enough to demand his passport.

“You will just take it from me and not give it back,” the German protests. “Take a picture of this guard taking my passport,” he asks me.

“Passport. Passport. Give me your passport.” I click off a few shots.

“You will not give it back,” the German cries.

“Don’t give it to him,” the crowd chants.

“Passport. Passport,” the guard insists.

“Come with me,” the guard demands, and the two disappear into the customs house, not to be seen again. Some of the crowd wanders into the Duty Free shop, others argue with various officials, most just churn about.

“Do you speak English?” one of the guards asks Michelle.

“Yes,” she answers.

“Then please return to your car.”

“Because I speak English?”

“No, I just told you in English so that you would understand. You must return to your car.”

“We return to our cars when we are allowed to cross this border,” she tells him.

“We’re going back to Athens,” the Brits on the motorcycle announce. They wrestle their bike around, rev it up, and blast off on the 600-kilometer ride back to Athens.

Imagining a newspaper piece—“Hostage situation at the Greek border”—I scribble notes conspicuously. The tea-drinking, cigarette-smoking guards are not threatened by this American pseudo-reporter.

The crowd gathers, the crowd disperses, alternately docile and angry. The Poles sit in Polish resignation in their Fiat. “Isn’t this stupid?” a Greek woman asks rhetorically. “Stupid of the Greeks. These people are not our problem.” All I can think is, “My problem is not having gotten here one hour earlier. My problem is the traffic, the signage, and the lights in Thessalonica. My problem is Greece, that’s my damned problem.”

It is nearly 2:00 p.m. This is not, apparently, an off-again, on-again strike. It will not be a two-hour strike. It just may be a two-day strike. “Border Guards Sip Coffee While Travelers Burn” runs the headline across my brain.

A kid with large dark eyes stands patiently by the curb in his red baseball cap.

Brits in a camper break out the awning and card table for high tea.

I drape a blanket across the rear window of the Skoda to shade the insides, and take a swig off the Pepsi we bought for this journey to nowhere.

We wait for whatever will or will not transpire.

The sun arcs slowly toward the west.

A thin breeze blow.

But the Germans have had enough of this shit. From somewhere far back in the line of waiting vehicles comes a wiry, animated man of about fifty, gathering followers as he heads to us and the gates. People turn, watch.

“Everybody who speaks German, come with us. Sprichst du Deutsch? Come with us.”

We join the brigade of angry Germans, marching toward the front.

Faced with this ugly crowd, the guards glance uneasily at each other. They are not quite as self-assured as they let on, Michelle observes, especially the young ones—not DDR killer-guards by any stretch of the imagination, just a group of macho Greeks in uniforms with chevrons and caps and cigarettes.

“We want an end to this strike,” the German leader demands of no one in particular. He is answered by a Greek out of uniform, a man who seems to be coordinating activities here. There will be no end to the strike until the strikers’ demands are met. But the strike is not against travelers, it is against the Greek government which is not inconvenienced even the slightest by their strike. Old arguments are repeated with new intensity. Still, there will be no end to the strike. “We are hostages,” somebody begins shouting. “Hostages, hostages, hostages.” Another begins a chant: “Wir wollen raus! Wir wollen raus!” The crowd surges toward the guards, closing around them. The pounding on windows continues.

The Austrians in the Rabbit start their engine, and somebody—not Michelle—raises the black and yellow pole. The crowd melts in front of it as the Rabbit moves forward. A striking customs agent positions himself directly in front of the Rabbit, inviting the driver to run him over. “Come, hit me,” he shouts. The Austrian disengages his clutch, but the crowd is in no mood for compromises. A dozen people, including my Michelle, push the Rabbit forward into the guard’s chest, once, twice, three times as he stumbles backwards. “Wir wollen raus!” the chanting continues. Crowds press against the windows and doors of the shed, threatening to break glass and plywood.

“Eine Stunde,” announces the head of the strikers in German. “The strike will end in one hour.”

“Now. We want to leave now.”

“People backed into a corner must find at least some small escape hole,” I tell Michelle. “Otherwise they get vicious. We better settle for an hour.”

“Halbe Stunde. The strike is over in half an hour.”

The crowd talks this over.

“Okay, half an hour,” the fifty year old German agrees. For all to hear he announces in German, “The strike is over in half an hour. Go back to your cars. If the line is not moving in half an hour, come back here and we will talk again to these men.”

Within minutes the yellow and black gate has been officially raised and cars are passing up the backroads of Yugo, toward the toll road, toward Austria and Germany far in the north.

*     *     *

We have been driving through Greece, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia now for two days, 27 hours of road and border work, sleeping overnight in the Skoda in some parking area on some backroad of northern Yugo, exhausted, twisted, smelly, sweaty, moss growing on our teeth, broke, bleary-eyed, nerves on edge from driving across the Czech mountains in rain I haven’t seen since last year’s mid-summer thundershowers in eastern Iowa. But we are now just one thin border and three hours of pretty good Polish roads from dear, dirty Łódź and home. We will be in our own beds by midnight, teeth brushed and warm-showered. This is gonna be okay.

Now the narrow road threads its way downhill, toward the Czech border town of Cesky Tesin, a small village crossing through which we passed with no hassles whatsoever ten days ago on our way south, a lot less tan and a lot less poor. Traffic is light, and the rain seems to have let up. A hand-written sign on a tree indicates border traffic to the right, center city to the left. We turn right.

At another sign we turn left.

Then we turn right.

Then we turn left again, alone on this road, threading our way, it feels, “out back by the river.”

Another left, then a right across railroad tracks where international trains pause for customs, around another bend in the road…

And right into a long line of cars, the Mother of All Border-Crossing Queues, their engines stopped, their headlights dead, their owners leaning beside the doors and talking to each other in low, hushed tones, mostly in Polish. A sign pointing left indicates “border 2 km,” but the queue extends far to my right, and I am too familiar with Polish etiquette of the queue to think I can get away with cutting ahead.

“This could be a bad one,” Michelle says as she turns right, finds the end of the queue—well down the narrow road—negotiates a tricky U-turn and pulls in behind a Polski Fiat 126p. The night is very dark.

“You think I should leave the lights on so as not to get rear-ended?” she asks.

“Until somebody pulls in behind you.”

In the darkened vehicle, my stomach sours at the thought of yet another night sleeping in the Skoda, awakening every ten minutes or so to push our car ahead (we will push it by hand, Polish style, to save gasoline) then falling back into sleep, then pushing…

“Maybe I could walk on down and see how long this line is.”

“You want your passport?”

“No, I’ll just see how things are going.”

“I’ll wait here.”

I mentally mark the Skoda’s location and strike off in the direction of the crossing, walking past Ladas and Fiats and a very occasional Mercedes with Polish plates. The queue of automobiles extends nearly three kilometers, past stands where enterprising peddlers sell food and drink, past a knot of Poles talking in low and patient voices, past the railroad tracks and the train station, around a couple of bends. The cars are loaded with Czech goodies headed for market tomorrow in towns like Łódź and Warsaw—if they arrive in time for market tomorrow, which seems unlikely enough at this owl-blinking hour. This is not the same crowd I saw at the Greek-Yugoslavian border, full of piss and vinegar, in no mood to take nothing from nobody. No, this is a different crowd indeed. I curse aloud: this is going to be one long motherfucker of a night, all right. Friday night—I should have remembered!

The rain begins again.

Past the railroad tracks, a small plywood shed with a coat of yellow paint, no windows, and a red light. A sign in German and Polish: “No cars beyond this point without permission from the border patrol.” None of the vehicles are moving.

Around the door of the shed, people converse in Czech and Polish. One woman pleads another case of sick children. The guard—no uniforms at all—just smiles and tells her no. Others ask questions about time delays. No definite answers, but plenty of resigned shrugs of shoulders. These Poles have been there before. “Spoko, spoko,” goes the old Polish saying. “Easy, easy.”

I am immediately recognized as an American, which, I blush to admit, was my purpose from the beginning, the reason I wore my denim jacket with the WYOMING patch on the breast pocket and the baseball cap with ROCHFORD, SOUTH DAKOTA across the front.

“You are American?” the guard asks in English.

“Yes, American. Is here a strike? Is border here closed?”

“Here is big problems. Too much work. You far back in line, big distance?”

“Thirty minutes to walk. Two or three kilometers, I think.”

“You bring passport, come back here in one hour. I take care of you.”

“Passport, this place, one hour?”

“Yes, here. You American.”

The Poles hanging around the shed shrug their shoulders. They know what’s going on, and they would just as soon, for themselves, wait things through. Easy, easy.

Sixty minutes later I am back at the wooden shed with my passport. The guard motions me inside, closes the door, examines the passport, asks a few questions which lead nowhere. Then a couple of minutes of embarrassed silence. “You have money?” he wants to know. “I am very sorry to have to ask, but tonight is very busy. You far away in line?”

Oh, for stupid, I think to myself; for very, very stupid. “Of course. I have $10 in the car. I bring the car and the money here.”

The guard smiles. “Bring car, park 100 meters down road, come back here with passport. American.”

I am smiling as I walk out, again, from the yellow plywood station with the red light, past the long lines of cars, to Michelle and the Skoda.

“For a change,” I tell her, “the USA sticker on this car is going to work for us. That sticker and $10. Remember Meridel Le Sueur’s line, ‘Money will get you into and out of anything’?”

We drive slowly past the line of silent Fiats, past the yellow shed with the red light. We stop about a football field down the line. I slip a $10 bill in my passport, return to the guard, who is now handing out white passes to the front fifteen cars in line, and wait respectfully. He motions me to the shed and closes the door. I offer my passport with the money. He pockets the ten bucks, asks my license number, writes it on one of those pieces of white paper. I thank him, he thanks me. Michelle and I and the Skoda are off to the border. In fifteen minutes we are out of Czechoslovakia.

At the other side of the crossing, a Polish official handles currency declarations: we list $1,500 in cash and $6,000 in traveler’s checks, all of it back in Łódź, although we don’t tell him that, and he doesn’t ask to see our money. Another agent, yellow band around the fourth finger of his right hand, peruses our passports.

“Where is your visa application?”

“Visa application?”

“Copy C of your visa application. Where is it?”

“We do not have them,” Michelle answers. “You took them from us when we left Poland ten days ago.”

“You must have application form C,” he replies. His English is very good.

“They were taken. Here, at this very crossing.”

“I do not have them,” he tells us.

“Neither do we,” responds my Michelle.


He walks away from us, returns in a moment with two applications for visa, copy A. “Pull over to the right side of the road, fill these out, and when you are done, bring them to me in the station.”

We do as the man directs.

Five minutes later, applications for visa all filled out, I join him at the desk of the border station, this one clean, well-lighted, substantial. There is no smoking of cigarettes, no drinking tea. Although they do not have to check the cars of Polish peddlers, these guys are serious and up to their ass in work.

My guard looks at me. “You teach at the University in Łódź?”

“Yes, at the English Institute. Here is my Legitymacja.”

“Do you have a flat?”

“Yes, I have a flat. Źródłowa 29, apartment 2. In Łódź.”

“I have no flat,” he smiles. “I am 24, I am married, and I have no flat.”

I would like to tell him that at his age I lived in a college dorm eating mostly rice and chicken wings. Alternately I’d like to say, “Look, I am forty-six years old. I have a Ph. D. I have published twelve books. When you have done that, you too will have a flat.”

Instead, I shuck and jive. “It’s the University’s flat actually. They just assigned it to me for the year.”

I can’t decide whether he’s waiting for $10, or is just young, or happens to be in a pissy mood. He fingers my application for visa, copy A, consults my passport, stares long at my 180-day, multiple entry visa.

“That’s last year’s visa,” I point out. “This year’s visa is toward the back of the passport.”

He finds it, copies the number onto my application, crosses out the A and writes in a C. He stamps my passport and the form A or C, puts the form in a box at his right, and picks up Michelle’s passport.

“You keep form C?” I ask.

“Yes, I keep it here.”

“Then I will not have a form C when next I leave Poland. The visa is a multiple-entry visa.”

Smiling, he turns to a thick pad of application forms. “How many do you want?” he asks.

“One for me, one for Michelle,” I tell him.

He tears off two complete application sets, copies A, B, and C.

“I hope you get your flat soon,” I tell him as I leave.

Five minutes later, Michelle and I are off in the Skoda, headed into the twisting and unmarked backroads of southern Poland, feeling our way toward the A-1 interstate, toward Łódź, and, finally, toward home.

Soviets Go Home graffito, Łódź, 1989