White Rock school teacher – and avid traveller – Audrey Painter shares a summer adventure that began with an invitation from a former student.
(Third in a three-part series)
Special to Peace Arch News
We were on the daily train between Prague and Belgrade.
Getting on the train for the five-hour return trip to Serbia – with my former student from Semiahmoo Secondary who was accidentally travelling on her mom’s passport – was terrifying.
“What now?” I asked, after four hours of small talk about Budapest.
“Mom says they have a plan,” Kristina, 19, said.
She seemed unsure.
I knew that if a Serbian family had to get their child home from Hungary, they would have a perfect plan. There was a problem. I did not know what the plan was. Neither did Kristina.
(I actually wanted to jump off the train, run via the fields of Hungary to the Ukraine and all the way to Serbia. Instead, I stayed with the child I was responsible for.)
Kristina’s passport crisis would be the station at Kelebia. We had imagined more than a million scenarios, and we were both petrified when the train pulled into this station.
“I could fake sleeping again. You can give them the passports…,” Kristina stuttered.
“No. We each have to give them our own passport. If they arrest you, I have to be able to get off the train to get you some help,” I said.
It sounded like a good idea.
I looked out of the window from the train hallway in Kelebia. They were there: Hungarian Border Patrol.
Back in the compartment, Kristina sat like a statue.
The train stopped. The officials climbed onto the train at the end of our first-class coach. I put my head out of the window to breathe because I was sure I was going to faint.
“Audrey!” Someone yelled from the platform.
It was Kristina’s aunt, Dusica, who spoke no English.
She ran to me at full speed shouting in Serbian. She had a plastic bag in her hand and was franticly talking. Oh, I desperately wanted to understand what she was trying to say.
“Kristina!” I called.
The Hungarian officials was about 20 large steps away from me and the three compartments between us were empty.
“Yes,” Kristina yelled.
“Stay where you are.”
I swung around and looked into Dusica’s eyes. She stood on the tips of her toes and waved the plastic bag to me. I stretched, grabbed it with my right hand and she vigorously nodded.
The bag had a ‘feminine product’ cover. Tampax. I knew it was Kristina’s passport. Oh, what a brilliant plan! (I knew it would be great?)
But, it was too late.
The Hungarian officers were behind my back and one of them tapped me on the shoulder. He held out his hand and accidentally kicked my leg with his large leather boot – he was that close.
I turned my head but not my body and transferred the ‘tampax’ to my left hand, gave one large step and reached into our compartment, holding out the package to Kristina, who grabbed it.
Within a second, I slapped my own passport into the waiting hand of the officer. I blocked the doorway to the compartment to conceal Kristina, and smiled sweetly. My hands were dripping with sweat.
The Hungarians stamped my passport. I walked back into our compartment. Kristina smiled. She had her own passport.
They took it.
The officers flipped through Kristina’s passport and frowned. They tapped on the empty pages. Where were the stamps?
“I do not speak Hungarian,” Kristina said, giving them the sweet smile both of us had perfected by then.
They stamped the passport and left.
Dusica yelled on the platform.
Kristina ran to the open train window and said, “We have to get off of the train here. Now!”
We threw our bags and ourselves off the train at the last minute. I stood in the platform of Kelebia with legs shaking so much that I had to hug Dusica to keep standing. The train disappeared.
It was raining softly.
Kristina and her aunt talked in rapid Serbian. They laughed, hugged and talked some more.
“She is taking us across the border with her car,” Kristina said.
• • •
I will summarize the stress of the next hours. We stopped at three border patrol points where agitated officers from Hungary and Serbia asked why Kristina had no stamps in her passport.
Neither Dusica or Kristina answered. They sat like statues and did nothing. It was marvelous to see.
The more the officers yelled, the more they tapped on the empty pages, the more they demanded answers – the less movement came from the car.
We sat. We waited. There was no talking between us.
Finally, we cleared the final border patrol where a big blue sign said: Welcome. Republic of Serbia.
We were safe!
We arrived in Mokrin late that night. The entire family waited for us. Neighbours and friends gasped, laughed, frowned and looked both bewildered and relieved as Kristina told them about the smugglers and the passport dramas.
Kristina’s mom, Zorica, took me out of the house and thanked me, like only mothers do.
I had no sweet smile or bravery left. I hugged her and cried.
• • •
Early the next morning, Zorica and I attended the morning service in the Serbian Orthodox Church.
I did not understand a single word.
It was an unique old church – closed for 30 years, during the Communist rule. The choir sang. I cried.
Zorica asked if I wanted to light a candle in a church where I knew nothing about their rituals.
“Two, please,” I said.
I lit the candles, to humbly thank God for keeping Kristina and myself safe, on those complicated two days on a train.
I walked out into the quiet streets of the picturesque village of Mokrin. The sun shone and the sky was cobalt blue.
It was summer in Serbia.