This weekend I had to go to Serbia. It’s something I have done many times before, only this time I knew that I was at the last day of my 90 day grace period for staying inside of Europe before I needed to leave.
I was very tense as we approached the Hungarian border crossing. I thought it was because we had already had an unbelievably busy week–organizing a contract ceremony and trying to finish a 140-page engineering document translation in 4 days.
The border guard looked at my passport. And he looked again. And then he started flipping through the nearly stamp-full pages.
Gyorgyi and I both knew something was wrong.
He asked how long I had been in Europe. I said almost 90 days. He then informed me that while I can stay in the EU for 90 days, it can only be in six month increments. I didn’t know. Then he took our passports and asked us to pull the car over to the side area and wait.
As we were waiting at the side of the border station I couldn’t stop shaking. Gyorgyi sent a text message to everyone that we knew, asking for help. I don’t recall ever having this reaction to stress in my whole life and for some reason I just couldn’t stop myself. It was as if I had been outside in the snow all afternoon.
Fifteen minutes later the guard called us into the office.
Seeing that we were visibly upset, he said a common Hungarian expression to Gyorgyi, that “he wanted the cabbage to remain and the goat to still get full.”
See, he had just come on duty. He didn’t want to have to do too much paperwork. The kind of paperwork that would be required for the deportation van to come and pick me up and drive me to the airport and send me on the first plane back to America. Or maybe just drop me off in the wheat fields near Belgrade.
Then he gave me a $15 fine and sent me onto the Serbian border. I was, after all, out of the EU in that dead zone that separates the two borders.
Gyorgyi’s brother, Zoltan, was the first to respond to the text message. It was 8 a.m then. He was on the other line with a Hungarian Admiral. We were 10 cars from the Serbian border and he told us that no matter what, do not go into Serbia. That he wouldn’t be able to help if we crossed the border.
I don’t know if the move was quite legal, but Gyorgyi did a U-turn in the dead zone and we headed back to the Hungarian border where a different guard stamped my passport and I re-entered the EU.
Ultimately the whole thing is my fault. After I stopped teaching, I should have started my residency application again. Because I never spend more than 3 months in the EU at a time, I thought, incorrectly, that I didn’t need to do it. I was wrong. The printer is currently spitting out the residency forms again.
I guess the point of all of this is how even in Europe, which is essentially borderless, the border as both a real thing and as an idea is still very scary. When I was a kid, the border was the wall between East and West Germany. There were good guys and bad guys and a border was something that people snuck over at night amid gunshots. Now, perhaps, to most Americans the “border” is the line that separates Mexico and America, the difference in many cases between living and dying, being with your family or being alone.
I won’t compare my situation to those. But the truth is that Gyorgyi can’t live in my country and it’s difficult for me to stay in hers. No matter where I go or what I do, the border is always in my mind.