It Happened In Slovakia
03 December 2008
The one benefit of sitting in traffic every morning on the way to school is being able to listen to the World Service, so that the kids can learn from a young age just how stupid and fucked up our planet is. The little jingle that plays every five minutes or so during the morning news has the same first four notes as Mary Had A Little Lamb, which is a peculiar juxtaposition when contrasted with the news of terrorism in Mumbai, hundreds dead in religious rioting in northern Nigeria and the cholera epidemic sweeping Zimbabwe.
Last Friday morning there was a woman conducting interviews about the Mumbai siege, and she asked someone the question: Is there any clue as to why the Jewish centre has been targeted?
Tricky one that. Is there any clue as to why the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organisation targeted the Jewish centre? If the academic on the other end of the line had begun his answer with the words, Well, duh.... she would have had it coming.
We arrived in Warsaw on 7th July 2005, the day of the bombing in central London. We had been in Belgrade the previous week, then had driven up to Austria to spend a few days in the mountains playing at being the von Trapps, dressing up in curtains and charging over hills singing Doh-A-Deer. On 7th July I dropped off TPCKAM and the spawn at Vienna airport so that the kids wouldn’t have to put up with the long drive - or more to the point, we wouldn’t have to put up with the kids not putting up with the long drive - and headed off on the drive to Warsaw.
The main road, such as it is, takes you through Slovakia, into the Czech Republic and then into southern Poland. At some point in Slovakia the road was closed, or not yet built, and the traffic was shunted onto a B road, a single lane in either direction. I was stuck behind a large slow moving lorry for some time.
Approaching a wider expanse of road, a long downhill sweep with a turn off to the left and no cars coming in the opposite direction, I took the chance to overtake. I must have missed the No Overtaking Just Because You Have The Opportunity To sign. The police were waiting and I was nabbed.
The traffic cop didn’t speak English, my Slovakian is pretty non-existent. To be honest, there are times when my English is non-existent, so I didn’t really stand a chance. He seemed to be wanting money from me. An on-the-spot fine. Ah, we’re in Eastern Europe, I was thinking, this is really an on-the-spot bribe. He wanted an amount that equated to about fifty Euros. I lied and said that I didn’t have that much on me. I haggled. I never haggle over anything, but for this one time I haggled because I presumed I was being bribed. I had to go into the conveniently located petrol station to change my euro into the local currency. The traffic cop waited for me. I paid him about a third of what he was looking for, and I was ballsy enough to not care if he kept my passport because I had another one.
Then he completely threw me by giving me a receipt for the money I’d given him. A receipt? For a bribe? That didn’t make sense, and suddenly I thought, I must have committed a genuine traffic offence, he must have been charging me a genuine fine, and here’s me with my Tony Blair-esque British moral indignation. And then he took note of my passport number and I believe he told me I would have to pay at the border or else I would be locked in a cell and tortured for the rest of the year.
I drove off, then stopped somewhere along the road to get the map out. I found a much smaller road, which went straight into Poland through the back door, rather than along the main road through the Czech Republic. I’ll do that, I thought, give them the bodyswerve. I called TPCAKM to make sure she’d arrived in Warsaw, and that it was worth coming to. She told me about the bombing in London, as I stood on a sunny day in a layby in Slovakia eating ice cream.
I drove on, a bit nervous about what was going to happen at the border. Would they be watching for the car? Would they have my passport number? Looking back, I don’t know why I wasn’t just prepared to pay if they’d asked. But at the time, I wasn’t.
I got to one of those tiny little border crossings in the backwoods of Europe. There was no one on the Slovakian side at all. No one. Open border. I needn’t have worried. And yet I did. I was stopped going into Poland by three uniformed officers. Now, of course, they weren’t going to give a stuff about the fact that I had evaded two-thirds of a Slovakian driving fine, but I still wasn’t thinking straight. Crap in a crisis.
When they discovered I was British all they wanted to talk to me about was the bombing in London. However, I was so wrapped up in deceit and determined to lie my way across the border, I even lied when they asked if I knew about it, as if by acknowledging that I’d spoken to my wife, it in some way implicated me in a great criminal scandal. So I sat pretending that I didn’t know there’d been a terrorist attack in London, and acting surprised. Acting very very badly at that.
That’s the reason I was rejected for MI6. Crap in a crisis...
:So, Meester Bond, where ees the microfilm?
:It’s in the heel of my shoe... D’oh!
They let me in anyway, despite the fact that I was obviously lying about something.
And I’m still here. I can't go back to Slovakia though.