There have been many borders in my way as I made my next tentative steps in one direction or another. Each one usually presented some difficulties, and none were without their story to tell. For a while Switzerland was the country I most detested entering. Then I entered a few more, with the accompanying bribes and probes, but after some time, my memories of Switzerland came back to the fore, with the rudeness of its border guards, who on more occasions than not used to shout ”shut up” in my face when I translated for tourists who did not understand their barks, or who weighed bottles of alcohol purchased outside their borders to see if they really were within the allowed amount, or even challenged me as to why I had made other kinds of purchases, such as cassettes, CDs and the such outside of Switzerland. The bottom line was they despised the cheerfulness of foreigners, much preferring them to be dour and obedient. So entering Switzerland was a lesson in culture clash, with these true godsons of the Gestapo, in their long black leather coats in the rain, and stone grey shirts in summer.
But most of the time the British passport I carry presented no such reaction. It is true that sometimes it is the visas inside that worry officials most – travelling compatriots on the border of both Honduras and El Salvador were refused entry with Indian and Greek stamps in their passports, deemed much too socialist. But in Venezuela it was my legs. I was forced to return to the city and buy long trousers, as Venezuelans find shorts offensive at certain places, including border crossings. Earlier in the journey I made to Central and South America, it was my money that was of interest, and on the Mexican border my bank notes were held high in the sunlight and examined, while I held my nerve, in a similar way to Azerbaijan, where bribes must be volunteered before commanded, as the outcome is less USD floating magically into their hands for some sudden thought-of transgression.
Kazakhstan was a trade centre - the first officer asking me if a I had small bank notes in USD, and the last wondering if I had large denomination bank notes in exchange for his USD bank notes. I changed all and back happily.
In Canada, and border guard stamped my passport with gusto and a ”howdy”, it being Calgary, while on the train at the Hungarian border the Hungarian border guard ripped my passport up, informing me it was toilet paper, before sending me back, a fate I accepted with good grace when I saw what their fists were doing to some hapless gypsies of uncertain origin.
Nicaragua was like coming home, down a soft path to a small shed, where we were welcomed by young weaponless Sandinista rebels manning the borders, and facing a barrage of rifles aimed at their wooden hut by a selection of Honduras’s finest, in thick polyester uniforms, shiny sunglasses and large wet patches under their arms as they aimed, waiting for an order.
Albania was perhaps the most entertaining in the very early 1990s, where it cost less to buy Albanian nationality and passport than to get a visa. I still have not done my Albanian national service. Nearby Serbia did not offer such choices, and my passport was kept until the next train out, while my false journalist card was viewed with the suspicion it deserved, but allotted me the attention I didn’t from a gracious and attractive young woman on the train, who fortuitously assumed me to be a famous journalist, braving the gunshots of the ex-Yugoslav conflict.
In my own GB I was detained for a while as a IRA suspect, with events conspiring against me as I travelled through the channel islands, and in Germany I managed to get in without the right documents. But in France, beautiful French, I have never been checked; always arriving, as I did, in aperitif, or breakfast, lunch, dessert, or siesta time of the border guards.
Bahrain has been smooth and pleasant each time, while Saudi Arabia a little inconsistent, depending on who was on duty: the Bin Laden supporter or not, and also depending if the boss was in his office or not when I was apprehended at the border for a while. If a high-ranking official was there it was a matter of a signature scrawled on a torn off paper, a cup of tea and back on the road. If he wasn’t, negotiations were tortuous.
Departing Italy for France is best done in French buses, as their drivers invariably used to hide all excess bottles bought by lifting the bus ‘floor’ and depositing the bottles in a hidden compartment which seemed to be designed for such an operation. Italian drivers never offered to do such obviously nefarious activities, and one suspects if they did it would have cost something.
With the EU that is a thing of the past, as are the long queues and time spent in trains at various borders of Eastern Europe, with bottles, mushrooms and apples littering train platforms and the bequest of some East European border guard or another.
One gets a glimpse of the past now and then though. Entering Bulgaria past the immaculately mini-skirted Bulgarian border guard, all eyelashed and fingernails, is a rare pleasure. Exiting via Turkey is not. Apologetic Bulgarian bus drivers explain that yes, the Turkish border guards do want every single bag out of the bus on up on some table, where they will attempt to demolish them.
But still, for pure rudeness, the Swiss beat the others.