By Evan Linden
Before I begin this story, if any readers are involved in Eastern European law enforcement, it’s probably best you stop reading here. If not, let’s get to it.
When most people think about collegiate spring break, they picture beaches, margaritas and scantily clad women. However, instead of frolicking on some Caribbean island and taking advantage of my youthful metabolism, I was donning several layers of jackets touring Eastern European cities and sites like the Polish concentration camp, Auschwitz.
It was my Junior year of college, I was studying abroad in Prague, and one of my history classes required a slew of trips throughout other Eastern European countries, like Poland, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. It was a semester of scheduled tours, museums, pre-selected restaurants, and a mixture of gut-wrenching emotional experiences with the feeling that that it was all kind of blending together.
And spring break, like my entire semester, did feature a commonly held trope of the more typical spring breaks: bad decisions.
During one Eastern European border crossing, our group faced a mandatory passport check, a standard procedure that even clueless college students can usually handle. My program director, a curt man with curly hair wrapped neatly in a ponytail, demanded we take out our passports and exit the bus for the inspection. As I blindly pawed through my bags, not feeling the indented lettering of a small leathery passport, I felt my heart running sprints in my chest, my body getting warmer.
After minutes of searching, interspersed with internal moments of “Perhaps this tissue packet is my passport!” and “This heavy book feels vaguely like my passport!” I concluded that none of my items had shape-shifted, and I did not actually have my most important document on hand.
I remember packing, but it was unclear whether my passport remained in my Czech flat or if it had fallen out along the way. My 20-year-old brain began to panic, and I imagined life in an Eastern European prison for lack of proper documentation. Or even worse–getting left behind at the checkpoint.
I rushed to the front of the bus to ask my program director for advice. I vaguely remember him telling me to remain calm, but he might have also just called me a dumbass and to hope for the best. In his defense, I was a dumbass, having forgotten the most essential item for international travel. And my dumbass-ery simply continued as I stood on the rotting grass with my classmates. The Hungarian (or Slovakian or Polish—who knows?) police force, decked out in matching uniforms and guns, started reviewing everyone’s passports. I hung in the back of the pack, trying to formulate my next move.
I decided my best chance at survival—or at least, a successful border crossing—was to have one of my classmates surreptitiously hand me their passport once they had gotten through security. I studied the officers and it looked like they were not closely examining the passports, and were instead merely checking for their existences. So, I figured I would be able to flash my second-hand passport and mosey my way back onto the bus.
The only problem was that no one would help me. This group, full of drunken classmates, who promised me how cool and awesome they thought I was at our nights out at Czech clubs, now just looked at me with pernicious glares, as if I were trying to lure them in as accomplices to an elaborate world-ending plot. But I wasn’t—I was just desperate.
I tried to stay positive, but my mind kept jumping to what kind of jail cell I would be held in and if, like in America, I would get one phone call.
I only found solace in the knowledge that there were other people in their teens and early 20s that traveled abroad, making decisions as dumb as this, if not dumber. So, when no one would agree to my scheme, I had to move on to Plan B. I didn’t really have time to think about my Plan B, because if I did, I probably would have retreated.
As one of the officers moved his body in the opposite direction to check a passport, I shifted my frame sideways and glided up the stairs onto the bus. Like the story of Sodom and Gomorra, I knew I couldn’t look back. I had to appear cool, calm and collected, despite being none of those things, and I certainly couldn’t give up the fact that my nonexistent passport had not been checked. I slid into an available seat next to my incredulous and still wary classmates, and held my breath until the vehicle started moving again.
I survived crossing international lines without a passport, a feat that I am both proud of and hope to never try again. Although it probably would have been a better story had I ended up in that Eastern European prison…