Travel can be glamorous, whimsical, magical, eye-opening, fun, adventurous, exciting, and life-changing. These are the parts of travel most people see. We lust after our friend’s Instagram posts of selfies they take in front of the Eiffel Tower, Facebook posts about the adventures they had while zip-lining through the rainforests of Thailand, and blog posts of meeting sweet, Italian men who take them on a private tour of Rome. And while travel is all of these things (and more!), travel can be frustrating, scary, overwhelming, uncomfortable, and awkward. These are the parts of travel most people don’t see. Your friends don’t want to hear about how you walked two hours in the freezing cold, your feet in extreme pain, just to take that selfie at the Eiffel Tower, that you got sick to your stomach while in Thailand and spent part of your holiday cooped up in your hotel, or that prior to meeting the man in Rome, you were ripped off by a taxi driver and had to pay three times the price you should have.
Yesterday, Celeste and I took off after work in our little rental car bound for Thessaloniki, Greece, anticipating our 3-day weekend of shopping, eating, and sight-seeing. Tired and stressed after driving through Albania at night, on two-lane roads, through mountains, dodging the potholes in the roads, hair-pin turn after hair-pin turn, and nearly getting in a head-on collision because of a maniac who passed a vehicle on a curve, we arrived at the Greek border. Passing through the Albanian border patrol with ease, we get to the Greek border patrol booth. Readying the car documents, and our passports, I went up to to the agent. Handing over our passports, she asks for the car documents. I pass over the envelope the rental car company told me I would need to show at the border.
“I asked for the documents. You gave me an envelope,” she says, her tone bordering on rude.
“I don’t read Albanian, so I’m not–” I begin.
“I don’t read Albanian either. I’m Greek,” she spouts.
“No, no, what I’m trying to say is that since I don’t read Albanian, I don’t know what the documents are. I was just told to give this to the border patrol,” I explain, trying to remain calm.
“I don’t care. As the driver of the car, you should be responsible and know which documents I need,” she says, while snatching the envelope out of my hand. She begins rifling through it and pulls out two documents, questioning why the names on the documents don’t match up.
“Ma’am, I’m not sure, as I don’t own the car. I’m happy to call the rental company, and I’m sure they can explain.”
“How do I know who you are calling? You could be calling anyone. I’m not talking to anyone on the phone. And where’s your green card insurance?”
“OK, so what should I do? This is what I was told to do by the rental car company. I was told in Albania that I can buy it at the border for 40 Euros,” I reply.
“Albanians don’t know what they are talking about. They are stupid! You have to have the green card, or I can’t let you pass into Greece. You should have it already. If we are willing to sell you one, which I can’t guarantee, it would be 180 Euros. Are you willing to pay 180 Euros?” she rudely shouts at me.
“Well, if I don’t, what’s the alternative?”
“Go back to Tirana.”
Frustrated beyond belief, I call the rental car company. The woman on the phone is helpful and willing to speak to the agent on my behalf. The Greek woman refuses, saying, “I’m dealing with you, not whoever’s on the phone.” Celeste decides to walk to the Albanian office to see if she can buy a green card there. I continue to be yelled at by this Greek woman, who is so obviously prejudiced against Albania (as many are unfortunately). I try to remain calm, worried that if I put her in her place, as I so desperately want to do, she’ll deny our entry completely. Deciding to go find Celeste, I ask for my documents back, and she doesn’t seem interested in giving them to me. After some cajoling, I get my passport and car documents back.
Documents, phone, keys, and wallet in hand, I begin trying to find out how Celeste is doing. Thinking she’s at the office 100 meters away, I am worried when I can’t find her there. Walking into the dark, silhouettes of men in the distance, smoking and standing in a huddle, I am worried. I call out “CELESTE!!!” My voice is swallowed up by the darkness and the music blaring from the open cabs of 18-wheelers. “CELESTE!!!” Nothing. Phoning her, I get some message in Albanian, meaning that her phone is either off or out of service. “CELESTE!!!” By now, as I continue to walk in the darkness, freezing cold from wearing too few layers, worry begins to really set in. I get to the Albanian side and the man doesn’t let me cross. “CELESTE!!!” I call again. At this point, a huge, aggressive guard dog, who is likely startled by my yelling, begins barking loudly, his leash taut as he lunges toward me.
That was it. The last straw. I crumble. Ugly-crying sets in. Between my tears and sobs, I tell the man who can’t understand me, “I can’t find my friend. I’m worried. The Greek lady is so mean. She’s not going to let us into Greece. I need to find Celeste.” Seeing this outburst of emotions, the kind Albanian border patrol agent, who speaks a bit of English, comes to my rescue. She pulls me into her booth, which is warm and toasty, and assures me it will be OK. She knows where my friend is, and she will take me to her.
Reunited with Celeste, we figure out how to buy a green card for 40 Euros. With the documents in hand, shivering, Celeste and I make our way back to the Greek border. I fill her in on what she missed, and we are both stressed about whether we will be let in. We make a plan. Celeste will do all the talking, since the woman and I are not on good terms. We arrive back to our car and the woman is not there. After much searching, another agent comes to help us. Whew! He lets us in. Beginning the two and a half hour drive to Thessaloniki, Celeste and I try to make sense of what just happened. The only thing we can figure is that the apparent tension between Greece and Albania, and the subsequent prejudice, is what drove her to behave this way. We felt caught in the middle, as Americans who work in Albania. After talking it out, we went back to listening to music and telling each other stories. We are determined not to let this taint our trip to Greece. Today is a new day.
Travel isn’t always easy. It’s messy sometimes, but the challenges you encounter when traveling, especially abroad, are worth it. They stretch you, and make you a better person in the end. Even though I was frustrated, it’s all of my travel experiences that make me love traveling across this big, vast world we all share.