Friday, July 24, 2015

Border crossings

After the medieval museum and a tasty milkshake in Korçë, we were on our way again for a fairly quick and easy drive over to the border of Macedonia, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, if you prefer. Hopefully any angry Greeks who might stumble across this blog will have bigger things to worry about, as I'm just going to call it Macedonia from now on. We actually got very close to the Greek border too; it would have been fun to pop over there as I've never been, but that will have to wait for another time.

I've been over international borders by car, of course, but I don't think I've ever crossed a non-Schengen border by land, other than between the US and Canada, which was quite the ordeal. Actually, that happened pre-blog, so I'll tell that story quickly. I flew from NZ to Toronto, with a stop in LA all the way back in (I think) 2004. Things might have changed now you need to register electronically to get into the States, but back in the day, they would process you through immigration at LA, even if you were just changing planes, and give you a 90-day visa (or actually a "visa waiver", apparently, but I'm not sure what the distinction is). The visa came with a green piece of paper that you were meant to give up when you left the country, so you could prove how long you were in the States.

Like so. Source
I duly got on my flight to Toronto a couple of hours later, relinquished my departure card since I was, you know, leaving the country, and thought that was that. However, my cousin went to university in upstate New York but was home for (American) Thanksgiving when I arrived, so we decided to drive her back to college a couple of days later, stopping by Niagara Falls on the way, because, hey cool, Niagara Falls! (I unfortunately have almost no memory of the actual visit to Niagara Falls, which is sad, especially since I can remember every fricking detail of this border crossing. Apparently depression can inhibit memory formation so that it's not so much that you forget things, but that you never really stored the memory to begin with. Yay.) 

Anyway, there we are, me, my aunt and my cousin, two Canadian citizens and a New Zealander, all with the same last name, trundling across the border. But wait, why do I have no little green card in my passport? Um, because clearly, I had to have left the US in order to be here in Canada, trying to get back in. Apparently, I should have magically known to keep it, even though that would obviously have been a great strategy to get into even more grief if some other guard wanted me to prove that I ever left the States.

Here's what I wrote in an email back home at the time:

We got stopped at the border because I didn't have this departure card which is meant to go along with my visa - they took it off me when I left LA (duh), so all I had to do was fill out a new one of those and pay $6 US, which you would think would be easy enough, but with waiting and everything it took an hour. I was terrified of the border guards - they have guns and everything, and you know how paranoid americans are with security and stuff*. In the end, they weren't too bad, but they take your passports and then you have to wait for them to call you up. Meantime the room was full of indian, mexican and arab-looking people (surprise surprise**) who they were interrogating. This one couple had come to the wrong bridge, and didn't speak english very well, but they had the list of the different bridges on a card or something, and the customs guy was going on "didn't you read the card? it says right here, this bridge, mon-thurs, 9-11 only! I don't know how much clearer we could make it, it's written right on it! Everyone can read, right? I don't know why you came to this bridge" and on and on, and he had to write them a letter to go back through the border to the canadian side and get back to whatever damn bridge they were meant to be at in the first place. And this other indian-looking guy, he was asking him where he was going - "Buffalo" (American city not far from the border) "Where in Buffalo", "Downtown", "Where downtown?", "To the mall", "There is no mall in downtown Buffalo. Where are you going? You don't even know where you're going, do you? Why would you come over here if you don't even know where you're going? What's your business in America" etc.**

*Strange as it may seem to some, police don't routinely carry guns in New Zealand, so it used to really freak me out when I saw them. Plus, generally when you see encounters between US cops and unarmed citizens it never seems to end too well for the one without a gun. Brussels has been on fairly high alert since the terror attacks in France and on the Jewish Museum, so I see plenty of armed people these days, so it doesn't phase me as much, but I still don't like e.g. being in Gare du Nord with all the soldiers with machine guns.
**This was meant to be a comment on the racism of immigration officials, by the way, in case it just sounds like me being racist.
***Also, "THERE IS NO MALL IN DOWNTOWN BUFFALO" is an excellent rejoinder to any argument, and also the only thing I know about Buffalo. According to TripAdvisor, there kind of is a mall in downtown Buffalo, only it's full of empty shops and crackheads.

It's quite funny to read that email, since it was my first major trip overseas. I was, as always, mainly focused on the "exotic" food, which lived up to all my dreams fostered by American TV and the Babysitters Club books (other than Twinkies, which are the most horrific abominations known to man) :

Didn't get up to much yesterday, pretty tired. Did go to the supermarket though, to stock up on foreign chocolate. I got tootsie rolls, caramel-filled hersheys kisses, this stuff called almond bark, which is like a slab of thin almond-filled chocolate, caramello aeros mmmm, and junior mints - just like on seinfeld! sweeeet. can't wait for the chocolately delights of england etc. you would like the range of chips ger, there's all the ones like cheetos, doritos, lays etc. like on tv, but I didn't get any.

Evidently didn't worry too much about proper sentences and capitalisation in my emails home back in the day... It was also my first and only visit to an American college, which was also a novel, TV-esque experience for me:

Anyway, didn't spend long in K's dorm - tiny rooms and they have to twin-share. Seems very like american TV - there were hand-done posters on the walls on the evils of marijuana use, and people had dumb posters on their doors and stuff, communal bathrooms etc. Big sports stadiums on campus, free gym etc.

Finally, I also reported back on homeless people. I sound like a real hick, but you never really saw too many back home when I was growing up, so it was quite strange for me to see, odd as that seems now!

Homeless people sleep on vents right on the footpath in the middle of the day here. Apparently it's too cold to sleep at night, so they'll sleep in the day then roam around or whatever at nighttime. They look like big bundles of clothes left on the side of the road. And they beg in subways.

They *beg* in *subways* . I suppose that's quite nice that I wasn't used to it then though!

Anyway, this was supposed to be about crossing the Albanian-Macedonian border, not the exotic wonders of Canada and America. The border crossing took a wee while, as we had to stop and buy some kind of extra insurance or something for the rental car. Jules took care of that, whereas I was able to get out and wander around taking photos of the lake (not as strict as on the US-Canada border, clearly). We saw people going over the border on pushbikes and even on foot while we were there. Presumably the pedestrians were dropped off nearby by a bus or taxi, since there wasn't really much within walking distance.

The border, on Lake Ohrid, is really quite a picturesque spot to wait around at
Once that was sorted out, our passports were checked (but not stamped, dammit) and then checked again, by the Albanians and the Macedonians, presumably, and then we had to let them search our stuff. The Macedonian border guard was really quite friendly, and when he asked "do you have drugs? Not even marijuana?" I giggled, which is officially the last thing you're meant to do when a border guard asks you about drugs. I mean, I giggled and said no, so that's a step up on giggling and saying yes. He just asked it in this twinkly tone that sounded like if we did have drugs with us, he'd just call us a couple of young scamps and ruffle our hair. Probably not, but at least he didn't take my giggle as warranting anything more than a quick rifle through our suitcases, and we were on our way.

So my second-ever proper border crossing passed with less incidence than the first (would the US guards have be so forgiving of the giggle?) Makes you glad they got rid of them in most of Europe, though, right?


  1. Border crossings into the US are stressful. Even as Americans, sometimes we get the third degree. And when J came with me (before we were married), he got so many questions after he said that he was visiting with his American girlfriend. That raised a lot of red flags!

    1. They are so rude! I didn't realise they were horrible to you guys too though.


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