EUROTREK PART CINCO
BALKING AT THE BALKANS
(Originally sent to Friends Wed, 25 Sep 1996)
We now wanted to see our friends in Belgrade. That's Serbia, former Yugoslavia, folks, whose main exports are nationalism and insurgency to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country where World War One began, and where conflict after the longest period of European peace ever (45 years) had to begin again.
Go there and have a look? Go figure. But our friend Nick, former consul and head visa application checker (he hates it when I say that) in the Sapporo American Consulate, had departed these shores (to spite us, I maintain) only to be reassigned with his lovely wife and son all the way to places where people like Dracula hang out. The American Embassy in Serbia.
Go figure again. We would soon understand just what kind of people check visa applications and why they hate their jobs so much.
That meant we had to head straight across Europe. I studied the map and, to save time travelling, figured out the night trains. Barcelona to Milano (night train), Milano to Venice (tour daytime, stopover night), Venice to Vienna, Vienna to Budapest (night train), get American citizen visa (Aya, Amy, and Anna didn't need one) for Serbia (Yugoslavian Embassy in Tokyo said half an hour and twenty dollars would do), and finally take the night train down to Belgrade, to enjoy the luxurious digs and diplomatic immunity that US State Department officials are supposed to have (with great views of the Belgrade protests).
The best laid plans...
To get out of Spain was no easy tasque, especially since we were in the Basques. To go through France would be difficult and the most convenient station with night trains, Barcelona, was on the Mediterranean side of the Pyrenees, nine hours away by train. The bus was only seven hours, but it cost a hundred bucks or so, and Aya didn't think the kids would like to be cooped up on a bus the whole time. So we took a free train and that was that, giving up hope of seeing any sights in Spain proper.
The trip statrted as scheduled, but the trains in Spain are mainly just a pain. We were late getting into Barcelona, with thirty minutes to change trains. Pity I realized at the last minute we had to change stations as well. It was across town and there was no subway. So I mustered my best Spanish (ha!) showed a taxi driver our schedule, and stressed, "rapido, rapido!" He got it, and zoomed us across town in fifteen minutes. We already had our berths in the night train, fortunately, bound for Milano. We were going First Class--Second Class had been full. It only added $300 to our credit card bill. Ouch. But with less than two weeks left to our trek, we wanted to get to Belgrade as soon as possible.
So we made the most of it. First Class was, in its own way, delightful. We had our own compartment, ample luggage space, seats that folded down into bunk beds, toilet and shower in the room, and bottled water, towels, washcloths, and toiletries provided. We even splurged and had dinner in the nearby First-Class Dining Car, which was three courses, main being steak, salmon, and more, for about $50 total (they even offered us bread and then charged us for it). We departed 8pm, and arrived 9am in Milano to begin a new day. And we made sure, for the extortionate price we paid, to borrow the nice RENFE towels and washcloths as souvenirs of our hotel on rails.
WHY THE HELL DID AUSTRIA GET HUNGARY?
I forgot to mention one major wrinkle in our plans. I told you Americans need a visa to get into Serbia, right? But did I mention a phone call I fortunately placed to Nick just before we left Bilbao? Thought not.
Travellers' Alert: WATCH THOSE HUNGARIAN VISAS!
Predcedent: Visaman Nick and his wife Yukari, a Japanese, were travelling by train in mid-July to their new assignment in Belgrade. They departed Vienna, Austria, only a short distance from the Hungarian border when the notorious unsmiling customs officials stopped them.
Does your Japanese wife have a visa to enter Hungary? No, didn't know she needed one. Alright, she cannot enter Hungary. What? Wait, said Nick, I'm with the US State Dept, with a diplomatic visa into Serbia, on a diplomatic mission. That's fine, said the Hungarian, Americans don't need a visa for Hungary. Japanese do. You are free to enter but your wife is not.
So Nick, in what he terms one of the most humiliating experiences of his life, was forced to disembark from the train, luggage, wife, and one-year-old son and all, at the Hungarian border. Then they all had to return to Vienna, go to the Hungarian consulate, get Yukari's visa, then go on.
"Get a Hungarian visa for Ayako, Dave. Avoid the hassle." said Nick in his authoritative Visa Voice.
So sightseeing in Milano was now forsaken. We went to the tourist office in Milano station, where a very friendly older woman in fluent English gave us phone numbers, free maps, and information about the Milanese Hungarian and Yugoslavian consulates. It was 10am, and both places were close to each other and handling visas until noon. We thought, why not kill two birds with one stone? We put our bags in the ample storage space that major Italian train stations have and took the subway to the Hungarian consulate.
Arriving there at 10:30, we found ourselves in a green chamber about the size of a public toilet. It was dank, with stale colors one sees in aged prints of movies filmed in the late sixties/early seventies in COLOR BY DE LUXE--colors washed out, fluorescents lime-green, making shadows deeper and alien. There were five chairs and a table bolted to the opposite wall, and about five people fidgeting about. There was a penitentiary-screen mesh covering an empty reception window, and a door opened every now and again for business. We sat down and waited our turn.
When he appeared, the Hungarian consul was a tall man in a cheap shirt and brown corduroy trousers, wearing no tie. He had eyes that never moved from side to side, looking at nobody, and would respond only the the most extreme stimuli. Which meant that you had to thrust something in his field of vision for him to take any notice of it. I didn't want to antagonize or make a scene, so I just waited, thinking that this guy, with permanent frown, perennially knitted brows and bad hair, would remember who was next, and that the more aggressive Italians were not really jumping the line. Meanwhile, our kids, pretty grumpy from all this cross-towning, were making a fuss and getting underfoot.
After thirty minutes' wait, and the consul attending to somebody who had jumped the line, I stood up and spoke some English. He didn't understand much of it (his Italian seemed fine, but that's not a language I speak), but spoke enough back. I held up Aya's Japanese passport and said we needed a visa to go through to Belgrade. He glumly took Aya's passport, went inside, and came back out ten minutes later with three different application forms for us to fill in.
I did that, and waited with papers in hand. I kept politely trying to get his glance, but after another twenty minutes, I realized he only took the papers from those who practically threw them at him. He was in no hurry and had no need to take your documents, so if you really wanted something done you'd better put it in his hand.
When I even went so far as to put it under his nose, he took it, went back inside, then came out five minutes later to say, "You need a photo." We had a spare one, so we gave it to him. "No, you need three photos."
I started to seethe. That was just unhelpful--he could have told us that while we were waiting, and taken them in the interim. The children were crying--Anna was settling down to sleep, but Amy hated the place and wanted to get out. One of the waiting Italians told me of a photo shop down the street, so we woke up Anna and went. Ten dollars later, we had four photos. Now it was just a matter of getting the goddamn consul to take them.
When he did deign to take them, the consul said, "You need 104,000 lira for an entry visa."
I couldn't believe it, and asked him to write the figure. Yes, one with five figures. At 1300 lira to the dollar, that was close to a hundred dollars! Just to go THROUGH fucking Hungary! I was pleased only Aya needed the visa! The children already had American passports.
We had that much cash on us, fortunately, after a providential trip to the ATM at Milano station. He took it glumly and went inside. It was now approaching noon, and I realized that the Yugoslav Consulate would have to wait for Budapest. Trains to Venice, our next intended stop, left hourly, so that was no worry. But I was fast losing my patience with this officious official who cared so little about inconveniencing my family.
After about another 15 minutes, the Consul came out and gave me Aya's passport. "This is good for one entry into Hungary."
Wait a minute! "We are going through Hungary and on to Belgrade. Then we leave Belgrade to Munich via Budapest again." I took out my Eurail map to illustrate. "We have to go back the way we came. That means two entries." As I had stated on the forms I had filled out.
The Consul glumly kept the same expression. "Then you must pay another 40,000 lira for a double-entry visa."
Which meant that, all told, we were going to be spending around $500 or more, on night-train supplements between Barcelona and Milano, Venice to Vienna, and Budapest to Belgrade, and finally Budapest to Munich. Not to mention days spent on trains between Vienna and Budapest, and Budapest to Belgrade round trip, riding instead of touring. Plus I still had to get a visa into Serbia! Now an extortionate visa charge of well over a hundred dollars?
This was insult to injury, and hardly a way to treat guests. No way were they going to get our hard exchange after all this.
I said: "Fuck your stupid country. We aren't going. Give us our money back and cancel the visa."
The soul-dead consul made no reaction. He glumly gave our money and Aya's cancelled visa back in another fifteen minutes. They kept the photos. Sunk costs.
We realized what a neat little racket the Hungarians had. Get out your maps and follow me.
With the war in former Yugoslavia, all the rail services are down from Zagreb (Croatia) east to Serbia. So if you want access to anywhere north of Greece (Rumania, Bulgaria, Moldova, the Balkans), you can either take the long way north (though Poland, or through the Czech Republic and Slovakia--none of which will honor the Eurail pass), or you can pass through Austria and then Hungary (which will). The problem is that Hungary charges an arm and a leg for an entry visa. Yukari Hill had to pay $80 in Vienna. Do it or the Hungarians will throw you off the train.
Moral: Don't go to Hungary if your countrymen need a visa. They are taking advantage of their geography to screw tourists.
We left Amy and Anna's used diapers in the consulate waiting room and spent the visa money on a well-deserved lunch!
And there we were, sitting in an outdoor cafe in Milano, planning our next move on the Eurail map, suddenly finding we had an extra week open. We could go anywhere, do whatever we wanted in Italy. And that, dammit, is what we would do.
Sorry, Nick and Yuka.
(on to the next essay in the series)