By Rebecca McCourtie
I consider myself to be a relatively well-composed individual. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get excited at times. I show happiness and sadness. I even show anger on the odd occasion. However, as a general rule I would say that my emotions are always in check and relative to the situation at hand.
In having said this, I also know that life can sometimes throw you ‘knicker-s***ting’ moments, whereby ones ability to internally compose oneself flies right out the window. While not often, I have certainly been victim to these instances. For example, the time I booked a hotel online in Stockholm and ended up on the outskirts of the city in a refugee camp. Or the time I boarded a heavily congested train in a multicultural area of Gothenburg. Five minutes into the journey the cabin started to smell like burning and petrol, which subsequently led to 90% of the train getting off at the next stop. It’s sad and unjust when minority actions taint the broader perception of ethnic and cultural minorities, including the perceptions of those very minorities about themselves. Or my encounter with the drug fueled tourist sherpers in Cairo who mounted the bonnet of my taxi, whilst simultaneously yelling ‘ride my f*cking donkey,’ in protest to me opting to tour the pyramids in the safety of a cab. Or the time a man walked away from a suitcase at the Marrakesh Menara Airport and failed to return during the entire twenty minutes I spent staring at it, praying that it didn’t explode. Like I said, ‘knicker-s***ting’ moments when you really feel for your safety! These moments hit you when you least expect it and leave you feeling shaken well after the incident is over.
I am sitting in a plane right now destined for Tel Aviv. I’m taking a few moments to draw in a few deep breaths and count my lucky stars that I actually made it onto the flight. You see, I just had one of those ‘knicker-shitting’ moments. To be specific, I was just detained by the Polish police and interrogated by border protection officials!
‘I’ve already told you, the Swedish Government didn’t issue me with a tangible visa in my passport… they are electronic. I have all the paper work here!
‘What do you mean if it’s not in my passport you wont accept it? Obviously this paper work is proof that I’m not illegal! HERE, this is my housing lease and my tax number… MY TAX NUMBER… aka: I AM LEGAL and on the books…
OK, can’t you just call the Swedish authorities and ask then? My flight leaves in forty minutes’
I chose to stay silent after this. I was starting to feel terrified. My attempts to explain myself weren’t getting through.
‘Maybe that’s in Sweden, but this is Poland!’ With this statement the border control official shook his head and pressed the insides of his wrists together, indicating that I would most likely be arrested and taken off to Christ knows where. I turned my head to look at the doorway. A number of policeman were now standing in the doorframe, overzealously blocking it JUST IN CASE I decided to do the runner (the runner to where? It was a freaking airport!)
‘This is Poland!’
‘What the hell did that mean?’ I thought to myself. I knew I was in Poland… I also knew that I had a Swedish Holiday Working Visa and was WELL WITHIN my legal right in the Schengen Zone. I looked back at the border control man blankly. It was unprofessional of him to indicate that I had an impending arrest on the horizon. I got the feeling he wanted to stir hysteria in me, like he wanted to see the young woman from Australia cry. Well, I wasn’t going to give it to him! I nodded in response his physical suggestion that I was about to be cast in iron. What else could I do?
Absurdly enough, he looked a lot like my deceased father. I had been in Poland for over two weeks and had not come across one red head… but there, as I sat at a bleak brown desk with little more than a telephone and out-of-date looking computer on it, my father’s doppelganger looked at me with furrowed brows. It almost felt like a reenactment of my childhood, except this time I wasn’t going to simply be sent to my room, I was going to be sent to a dirty prison cell!
All I wanted to do was get the hell out of the country. It wasn’t like I was trying to get IN!
It was such a shame. I had had a wonderful time in Poland and now my attempt to depart was wrecking it all! The country had challenged every single stereotype I had held. Contrary to my preconceived notions of bleak skies, sad faces, and depressing post-Soviet surroundings, I was met with sunshine, smiles and beautiful natural and architectural surroundings. Poland was everything BUT the negative stereotype that seemed to follow it post-iron curtain.
I guess in a way the bleak sky, sad face, and post-soviet surrounding did catch me though, it had caught-up with me in that little office facing the man who bore a freakishly similar resemblance to the father I had lost five months earlier.
I continued to sit in silence. There was evidently nothing more I could say to support my case. What would be, would be! Besides, if I got deported it meant a free flight home. I could sort out any ‘life ban from Europe’ issues when I got back to Mum’s place. I wondered if a deportation flight would include my connection from Sydney to Canberra? Always look on the bright side right?!? This is what I was trying to tell myself as the border control official tapped the desk pointlessly and flicked through my paperwork for the tenth time.
‘You have overstayed in the Schengen Zone.’I made another futile attempt to explain that I had NOT overstayed my welcome.
The Schengen Zone was all well and good if it ran smoothly, but what happened in situations like mine? Those that are a little more complex than the average tourist backpacking around during their three month Schengen allowance. Surely I wasn’t the first Australian to be travelling through Poland on a Swedish Working Visa.
Specifically, my issue was this: I have a 12-month working visa for Sweden. On the 16th of April I left Sweden and decided to travel around Europe. Unable to get a definitive answer as to whether my Swedish visa allowed me to travel freely throughout Europe for the remaining seven months of my visa, or whether I was subject to the Schengen three month limit (applied to Australians) from the date of my Swedish departure, I decided to play it safe and leave two days before the three months was up. Better safe than sorry right? One would have thought so, but apparently not! This Polish border control official was trying to tell me that I didn’t have a valid visa, which subsequently meant I had over-stayed in the Schengen Zone by SIX months, in other words time including my entire stay on my Swedish visa. If this was deemed to be the case then my next destination certainly wasn’t going to be Tel Aviv, it was going to be JAIL! I ask again, what happens in situations like mine when there is a breakdown in communication between countries? You end up in a post-Soviet interrogation room, THAT’S WHAT!
I wondered whether this situation would have occurred if I had been departing from another Schengen country like Germany, France, or Italy. Specifically, I wondered whether Poland’s relatively recent entry into the European Union meant that their administrative processes weren’t quiet up-to-speed with the rest of Europe. I had NEVER had any issues in any of the other countries I had visited, and now Poland was busting my balls over nothing. I WAS LEGAL! What is the point in having a Schengen Zone if the countries who are party to it don’t, or can’t, communicate imperative information! Poland should know that Sweden issues electronic visas! They should also have a means of checking the validity of a traveler purporting to be in receipt of one.
It took twenty minutes, multiple policemen, and countless border control officials, all thumbing through the same paper work that I had presented to the first official, to eventually deem me to be valid. In the end I don’t think they were so much convinced of my validity, as they were befuddled by the issue, and dare I say it, embarrassed that they had no way of checking.
I am not going to lie; I was scared! I kept on thinking about what my poor mother was going to do when I called her from jail… would I have even been allowed a phone call from jail? It would have been an absolute disaster had I been detained.
Desperate to catch my flight I attempted to snatch my papers from my Daddy-look-a-like and make a swift move for the door. Clenching the bundle and stopping me from my intended sprint, Daddy-doppelganger looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘You tell Sweden this is not OK!’ I nodded my head and shot a confused look back at him: OK dude, I’ll tell Sweden the Polish are pissed-off and I’m sure they’ll listen to me! RIDICULOUS!