Some time ago we visited Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia and on one day we planned a visit to nearby Vienna. After an excellent breakfast of ham and eggs we left the hotel and took the short walk to the railway station for an early train to Austria. It was a lovely crisp autumn morning with another promising blue sky. The city roads were busy but not uncomfortably so and we enjoyed the brisk walk to the trains.
Purchasing the tickets was straight forward enough and at only €6 was a real bargain, there was some confusing and contradictory information about the platforms but we found the right train without any difficulty and settled down for the one hour journey to travel the sixty kilometres to the Austrian capital.
I stress Austrian because today we were visiting another country and this involved crossing a state boundary with border controls.
What a good idea it would have been therefore to take a passport!
Shortly out of Bratislava two men in black military uniforms wandered through the train requesting documents. I naturally assumed that they were checking tickets so was surprised when they showed no interest in these whatsoever and demanded travel documents instead.
OMG! This simply hadn’t occurred to me, and just when I was thinking ‘we’re all in trouble now’ Micky, Sue and Christine produced their passports and waved them in the air like flags with a self-satisfied smugness, while Kim and I sat there in a state of extreme shock! And I wouldn’t mind but I should have known better because I’ve had a passport cock-up before when I attempted to travel from Paris to Calais on the Eurostar and wasn’t allowed to do so because I wasn’t carrying my documents.
They towered over us, dressed in commando style uniforms with lots of belts and zips and velcro pockets and loops holding torches and batons and radios and they looked very much as though they could handle themselves in almost any situation from disarming a nuclear submarine to dealing with people without documentation.
As we looked nevously at the loop with the handcuffs we had to confess that we hadn’t got the necessary paperwork and the policemen asked if we had any alternative forms of identification and Kim optimistically offered twenty year old photographs of her children, perhaps hoping that a family resemblance might be acceptable to them.
This didn’t work of course and the options began to look bleak, at worst a concrete prison cell and some explaining to do to staff from the British Embassy and a solicitor, at best being dropped off at the next station in the middle of nowhere before the train crossed the border into Austria and having to find our own way back.
According to the official Web Site, the Slovak Police Force is an armed security force that performs duties in the field of maintaining public order and security, combating crime (including its organised and international forms) and other tasks resulting from Slovakia’s international obligations in the field of policing. These are tough professionals and they deal with organised and serious crime and are the main points of contact with Europol, the Organised Crime Bureau, the Judicial and Criminal Police Bureau and the Border and Aliens Police Bureau.
I was fairly certain at this point that we were going to become a Eurostat crime statistic but luckily the men with guns eventually seemed to find our embarrassing situation just as amusing as our travelling companions and on the basis that Micky was able to vouch for us and to confirm that we were neither refugees nor international terrorists they agreed that we could proceed with our journey. They seemed surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing even though this was two months before the Schengen* ‘no borders’ agreement was due to be implemented in Slovakia. I doubt it would be so easy right now!
They added a chilling warning however as they moved on; ‘Of course we cannot guarantee that the Austrian police will be so understanding on the way back’, which left us weighing up our overnight and return journey options. No problem, we could get a hotel for the night while Micky returned tomorrow with our documents. Then we rather pessimistically remembered that you usually need a passport to book a hotel room! A night on a chilly park bench seemed to be a distinct possibility.
Upon arrival in Vienna we feared that there might be a frontier post to negotiate without our passports but there was no sign of officialdom and we alighted the train and left the station without incident.
For the rest of the day it was difficult not to worry about getting back to Bratislava and on the way back to the station for the return journey a nervous Kim kept a watchful eye out for the border police but I was less concerned now because I couldn’t imagine that they have too much trouble trying to prevent people slipping over the border into Slovakia from Austria.
Anyway there were no police and once we were over the frontier we felt safe to sit back and relax and enjoy the rest of the return journey. Now that we were securely on our way it seemed almost James Bond like to be dashing across Eastern European borders and sneaking like fugitives through custom checkpoints without identification, but next time I shall try and avoid this sort of tension and definitely remember to take my passport with me.
Have you ever forgotten any important documents when travelling?
*The Schengen Agreement is a treaty signed on 14th June 1985 between five of the ten member states of the European Economic Community. It was supplemented by the Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement five years later and together these treaties created Europe’s borderless Schengen Area which operates as a single state for international travel with border controls for travellers travelling in and out of the area, but with no internal border controls.
The Schengen Agreement was implemented on March 26th 1995 and by 1997 all European Union member states except the United Kingdom and Ireland.