Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

There’s a time and a place for patriotism…but my passport ain’t it September 29, 2008

So I have this memory from my original solo European journey back in 1992. I’m 99% certain that I’m recalling the details accurately, but it’s so bizarre to me now that there’s a small part of me that thinks maybe it was a dream or something. Anyway, here’s what I (think I) remember: I was crossing into Hungary from Austria, and the border guard came through the train. He stopped at a young couple a few seats in front of me, and made them completely and totally empty their bags so that he could search them.

This was – and remains – one of my ‘nightmare scenarios’. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I have so much stuff crammed into a 30 liter space. It takes FOREVER to pack the thing, and I’ve never even endeavored a full unpack/repack. Shudder to think.

Anyway, as he got closer to me, I was sweating bullets that he’d want to do a deep dive. Instead, what happened was this:

  • He looked at my passport

  • Looked at me

  • Looked my passport

  • Looked at me

  • Looked at my backpack

  • Looked at my passport

  • LICKED THE PHOTO ON MY PASSPORT (and when I say licked, I don’t mean like you’d lick a stamp. I mean LICKED like a full-on Gene Simmons photo op moment)

  • Gave it a stamp (I can still remember exactly how the stamp looked – kind of like fireworks with some printing in the middle)

  • And moved on.

Now I’m no expert on foreign relations (although, from the little bit of news I’ve picked up, it appears I am an expert on foreign relations when compared to Sarah Pallin), but this strikes me as a bit unprofessional.

On the other hand, I’ve been brushing up on my customs and etiquette for the brave new Eastern European leg that lies ahead. Thus, you can imagine my dismay to learn that the Bulgarians and the Turks have got it all wrong. From what I’ve read, in both countries they shake their head side to side to say “YES!” and nod up and down to say “No.” It’s permanent ‘opposite day’ (a game I never liked and which always annoyed me) in Bulgaria in Turkey.

Seriously though, talk about the Tower of Babble! It does make you notice (and wonder) about language and what we’re taught (and eventually communicate as second nature) and how it all evolved so differently all over the world. For one thing, I’m going to have to endeavor to channel the Tin Man during my time in Bulgaria and Turkey. This will be a challenge, since so much of my communicating consists of pointing at something and nodding enthusiastically when they grab the right thing, or shaking my head from side to side while frowning a little if they’ve got it wrong. Now I”m just gong to have to rely on Jedi mind tricks.

Meanwhile, it turns out nothing is open on a Sunday in Croatia during the off-season – and this includes markets, grocery stores, and restaurants – so I was pretty hard up for food yesterday. I had an orange and an apple and a tin of anchovies (don’t ask), but by dinner I was down to the emergency rations.

The emergency rations are three packages of instant soup (now just one) purchased all the way back in England. The first soup consumed was lentil, and it was horrific. I ate about three spoonfuls, poured it down the sink, and decided I’d prefer to be hungry that night. The second was potato leek (last night), and either my standards have gone down or it wasn’t half bad.

Anyway, I was reading the instructions (in English! Hallelujah!) on the back of the package, and they started with, “Empty contents of package into a pot, add 800 ml of water, and place on the hob.” Wait. On the WHAT? The hob? Do you mean stove? And it seemed so ridiculous that they would call a stove a “hob” (which is kind of a funny word, and may even make you start giggling like a dumbass if you repeat it to yourself enough times). Anyway, once I calmed down, I started thinking, “Well, what makes STOVE such a good word? Why not a hob?” But all this deep thought leaves you wondering (or at least if you’re me). So it’s only in the last 100 or 200 years that all these people that migrated over the ocean from England and Ireland and everywhere else, and eventually adopted English as their language (at least in the majority of cases). Why did they transition from ‘hob’ to ‘stove’? And from ‘torch’ to ‘flashlight’? And ‘lift’ to ‘elevator’? And where did our cool accent go along the way?

Like I said, Tower of Babble, baby.

At any rate, back to the original thing about the customs agent in Hungary: Maybe that was just a sign of approval of the United States or a coded threat: “We’ll let you into Hungary, but don’t outstay your welcome or things are going to get sticky”? I was reminded of this because on Saturday, on the bus from Italy to Croatia I had my first real border crossing passport check. Usually you just ride across borders like they’re states. Bus from Lithuania to Latvia? Didn’t even stop at the border. Train from Germany to Poland? No one ever even asked to see a passport. Flight from Ireland to Portugal with nothing to declare? Just walk on through. In a way, I’m bummed because I’m missing out on all kinds of cool stamps.

On Saturday I was near the back of the bus, and the guy got on and started making his way toward the rear. Those passports I’m guessing he recognized as Italian or Croatian he barely glanced at. For the Australian family I mentioned yesterday, he stopped and gave each of them a stamp. Then he got to me. And he looked at my passport. And looked at me. “Here we go….” I thought.

Then, he proceeded to flip very slowly and deliberately through each of the pages, studying each of them and maybe looking for stamps or visas from countries that would cause me a problem? This went on for what seemed like forever, and as I and the rest of the bus watched him do this, I remembered that the new passports have all these ludicrous patriotic pictures on every page. I renewed my passport in 2007, and I was dismayed to get it back looking like a souvenir you’d buy at the White House. Plus, they ruined my cute picture by plastering a stars and stripes hologram over my face. When you look at it in the right light, there’s a big star right above my lip – like the Cindy Crawford mole, only much, much larger.

An hour later, he finally stamped it and gave it back. At that point, I decided to look through and see what was so interesting. It was then that I actually tuned into the quotes on the top of all the pages. Nothing is blatantly WRONG with the quotes. They’re mostly from Presidents of yore, plus a token comment from the Native Americans (about the value of animals and the hope we don’t kill them all off – keep hoping, guys). However, I have to stop and ask myself, “Was this really NECESSARY?”

The pictures are bad enough. On pages 16 and 17, one finds a lovely bit of Americana – a scene of a steamboat chugging down the Mighty Mississippi. No harm done. Pages 18 and 19 feature a farmer plowing his fields the old fashioned way, with the aid of some bulls. In case you wonder what he might be farming, there’s a big ‘ol closeup of some wheat on page 18 to help you out. But then, blazoned across the top like a manifesto, is the following quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, a president about whom I know nothing because my high school U.S. History teacher was obsessed with the Civil War, and we never made it past 1890.

That aside, Dwight apparently said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world, must first come to pass in the heart of America.” This I see as a problem. Probably not when he said it, but in light of recent events, I’m not too keen on flashing a passport that talks about America going out and doing stuff/enforcing our values/protecting our oil interests/WHATEVER in the greater world. Everyone knows it…do we really need to plaster it all over our passports? That’s the kind of sh*t that gets your American @ss kidnapped in some countries.

In the big picture, I suppose I should be grateful my passport doesn’t play “God Bless the USA’ when you open it. You know it, right? I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free… That would go over big in the Middle East. Open your passport, and hear the sound of 50 semi-automatic weapons being cocked, as you hum along to that terribly catchy little ditty.


Yesterday being Sunday, I got nowhere with BofA. However, I also didn’t spend any money, so I’m holding strong and – with any luck – will get this fixed before things become critical. Here’s hoping!!!