THIS is a travel column. Well, it’s a column that contains a cautionary tale that involves travel and this season’s hottest political topic: A hard border.
A week ago, my husband and I arrived at Zagreb airport, on the outskirts of Croatia’s capital. We were to be met there and driven to Banja Luka, in Bosnia, where he was speaking at a conference. I decided to go along and see a country, Bosnia, I otherwise would not have visited.
We sailed through Dublin Airport, having downloaded our boarding passes beforehand. But at passport control in Zagreb, the alarm bells began to ring: The woman kept frowning repeatedly at our documents and wouldn’t hand them back. What we didn’t know was that the scanning machine had told her that my passport was three weeks out of date.
The use of the term “we” is deliberate. As most couples will tell you, there is a delineation of roles in every house; passports never have, and never will, fall under my bailiwick.
However, there is a slight proviso to that. The fact that my official travel document was going out of date had indeed been noticed by the domestic passport overseer (my husband). I had been repeatedly advised in recent months to get it sorted. This I eventually did, using the new online facility. I sent it off, non-smiling photos and all, on a Friday evening, around 4.45pm. I was stunned to receive it, and the new passport card that I’d also ordered, lying in an envelope on the doormat the following Wednesday morning.
I told all and sundry about the incredible efficiency of the passport office. But what I neglected to do was employ the same efficiency myself and actually move the new passport from my desk, down to where the passports are normally kept.
And since I hadn’t had to encounter a human being in the new digital renewal process, there had been no-one to cut the corners off; you know, the two corners snipped off at the side to indicate it is now simply a memento of journeys past. So when it came time to gather the passports on the night ahead of our departure, the DPO never thought to check that it was the new one in his hands.
In terms of what happened next, this sharing of the blame would prove crucial. Who knows what might have occurred if one spouse was to blame? But it’s best not to dwell on that. To make a long story even longer, I was allowed that day to enter Croatia, and also told there would be no problem returning home to Ireland on Sunday morning.
We were met outside by our driver, Vladimir, and a Polish guy, who was also speaking at the conference. As we all set off, we decided it best to tell Vladimir, who was Bosnian, about the passport situation. He said we’d see how things went.
Looking back, we were ridiculously naive. Croatia, although not in the Schengen Agreement, is an EU country, which is essentially why I’d been allowed in. But as we drove down that motorway towards the Bosnian border, we were heading towards not just a border, but a border that was right on the edge of the European Union: in other words, a hard border.
About an hour-and-a-half after we left the airport, we came to the Croatian side of that border. There were a few queues of cars: People going about their daily business; others, like us, there for the first time. We waited. Once we got to the window, we mentioned my passport problem and were immediately asked to park, and go into the side office.
The official there had a little bit of power and was determined to exercise it as painfully for us as possible. In texting friends afterwards, I made sure, for dramatic effect, to attach a photo of the jail cell there, which I had snapped with my phone. But I did then tell them that despite the major hassle, I was never in any danger of incarceration, and that he was fully within his right to stop me.
After all the rigmarole, he fined me €100. At first, I thought this was a scam, but I was given an official receipt. Vladimir then translated his instruction that we should all drive back to Zagreb to the Irish embassy. I was horrified at the prospect of making everyone endure this.
Anyway, at that point the embassy was closed for the day. It turned out that Vladimir was travelling back up to the Croatian capital later that night to collect another speaker who was flying in. I suggested he find me a café and leave me there. Within five minutes, we were in a little roadside café in a small Croatian village.
“I’ll be just fine,” I insisted to my husband, who looked around at the collection of five local men, sitting at separate tables, who had obviously knocked off work a short time earlier and already had me surrounded in a haze of cigarette smoke. No, I wasn’t imagining it: they did stare. Oh, and there was no mobile signal.
My poor spouse was given little comfort by Vladimir getting back into the car and saying: “We leave Ms Alison back there, with those five guys.”
I ordered a coffee, pulled out my computer, and worked for three-and-a-half hours straight. Meanwhile, my husband and Vladimir went on to cross that border, before arriving a short while later at the Bosnian one, where travel documents had to be shown again. Then, they arrived in Banja Luka.
A few hours later, it was with great relief that I spotted Vladimir pulling up. He was a really lovely guy.
As we sped back to Zagreb, we chatted about borders and, yes, he’d heard about Brexit and the North and our own prospect of a hard border.
WHILE Croatia was in the EU club, Bosnia, he said, essentially had a wreck of an economy and not much hope of improvement. The legacy of the Bosnian War, between 1992 and 1995, could still be felt. For instance, Vladimir’s accent immediately identified him as Bosnian. He could easily enough mix it in cosmopolitan Zagreb, but if he continued on to a less metropolitan part of Croatia, he would not be welcomed.
I felt huge relief when I spotted the same Ikea sign I’d seen as we had left Zagreb airport earlier that day. Within ten minutes, I was at the hotel that had been hastily booked.
A very quick and very necessary visit to the bar was had, before I went up to the room. The next day, I contacted the Irish embassy and, after getting some more of those non-smiling photos taken, I went to the embassy and got a temporary passport, which would allow me to get home. I was taking no more chances. The experience there was exceptionally efficient and friendly. It was no hardship to spend the weekend in Zagreb, a cool and vibrant city, where I was eventually joined by my other half. In summary, there were lessons learned.