Sunday, 5 April 2015

Vienna-Bratislava or how I ended up undocumented for a day

Sitting with Miro in the University of Vienna
Now this is another one of my travel accounts, or rather about a specific part of my trip to Vienna and Bratislava. I don't want in any way to compare my short experience of losing my documents in a foreign country to the actual difficulties of the millions of undocumented migrants in the world, but I just thought it would be fun to frame it like this. This story, like some of my other stories, has important conclusions (well for me anyway), so keep reading :) 

So at the end of September 2008 my friend Miro invited me to join him for a short trip to Vienna. We were going to fly with a low-cost airline on Wednesday evening and return to Sofia on Monday morning around 8 am in order to go to work. The plane ticket for the return journey was something like 30 Euros, including luggage and we were going to couchsurf in Vienna. The whole trip was supposed to cost us not more than 150 Euros, food, transport and souvenirs included, which, considering our Bulgarian salaries, was a great deal! This was my first ever going abroad for a fun long weekend and I was super excited.

Schönbrun Palace
Our couchsurfing host in Vienna was great and left the next day for the Oktoberfest in Munich, so we were alone in her apartment in the city centre. In the next three days we walked around in Vienna like crazy, went to the Schönbrun palace, the Freud museum, Belvedere, gay bars and discos, the Prater and what not. We had a great time and I loved Vienna. On Sunday, our last day, we decided to go for a day to Bratislava (or as it advertised itself - Bratislover:) - it was one hour and ten Euros away by train. We were supposed to come back in the evening and leave for Sofia the next morning. "Supposed to" being the operative word here. 

We arrived at Petrzalka station in Bratislava around 10-11 am and headed towards the city centre. Not even ten minutes down the road, however, I realised that I don't have anymore my wallet with me - along with my credit and debit cards, my last 20 Euros and my ID card. Now I should mention that part of the fun of being recently accepted in the EU was the ability to travel abroad with our ID cards and not passports, so out of principle I hadn't taken my passport with me. And so I found myself undocumented in a foreign country. Luckily, Miro was always more ... composed and experienced in strange situations than me, so he dragged my sorry panicking ass back to the train station and we found a police station there. The plan was to report that I've lost my ID card and ... well take it from there and see where it goes. But reporting a problem at a police station at a train station in Bratislava on Sunday turned out to be a challenge. We tried to speak English to the first police officer we saw, who then started fretting and going around every possible room to find someone who actually speaks English. After about half an hour of sitting and waiting, I started losing my patience, went to the police officer and explained in what can only be described as a "Slavic language" (so no particular language) that maybe if we use Russian, Bulgarian, Slovakian and hand gestures, we would understand each other. So using such (para-)linguistic mediums, I explained that I've lost my wallet with my ID card. He kept suggesting that it was probably stolen and finally I agreed, considering that you don't pay a fine for a stolen ID card but you do, when you lose it... He gave me a paper stating that I've reported this to the police and told me to go to the Bulgarian embassy, where they can help me. We found a map from a travel agency at the station and headed there. 
Miserable in the centre of Bratislava

I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting from the Bulgarian embassy - I think I had seen too many Hollywood movies where the American hero runs towards the embassy chased by hundreds of baddies shooting at him/her, the embassy opens the gates and he/she then receives care, nourishment and a helicopter to take him/her back home the next day. The harsh reality was that the embassy guard came to the gates and after hearing my story said "I'm sorry but I can't help you, it's Sunday, the consul isn't here, she'll be back tomorrow, so come back at 9 am". So this was a bit of a disappointment but ... better than nothing. Miro and I went to the centre, called the banks to cancel my credit and debit cards, sat on a bench and made a plan - we'd walk around to see Bratislava, he'd give me 100 Euro and go back to Vienna to catch his flight the next day and I would find a hostel to spend the night and go to the embassy in the morning, get a temporary identity document (like those I knew they issue to victims of human trafficking) and take a bus back to Bulgaria. 

Sucker for statues
Now that there was a plan I could finally relax a little (yeah I'm one of those people). Bratislava is a small city, which can be described as "cute". It has a little Czech, Austrian and German spirit but also its own post-communist, recently-EU face. In the early evening Miro took the train back to Vienna and I found a little hostel to spend the night. Then I went to an internet café to check what buses to Sofia there were on the next day and to inform my colleagues at Animus about my predicament and that I won't be able to come to work as planned. I told them that I'd go to the embassy in the morning and hope to travel in the afternoon and be back at work on Tuesday. I checked in my hostel and went for a drink in a gay bar called Apollon. I had a couple of beers and chatted with some guys there and then went to check out a club/disco also called Apollon. To my surprise, a little person opened the door of the club and told me they were having a naked party and I had to undress in order to get in. Or I could stay in my underwear but pay 200 crowns (about 7 Euro) entrance fee. Needless to say, naked Slovakian boys were not my priority at the moment, so I went back to my hostel, had another beer, socialised a little with other hostel visitors and went to bed. 

At 9 am the next morning I was in front of the Bulgarian embassy. Just as I was explaining my situation to the consul and trying to figure out with her what to do next, an embassy officer came in and said someone called to say they found my wallet and will bring it to the embassy around 11. I felt more than relieved and went back to the city centre to take some more pictures, explore some more and kill two hours. I came back at 11, took my wallet with all my things still inside but soon it dawned on me I had another problem now. The bus I was planning to take in the afternoon passes through Serbia where I can't enter with my ID card - I needed a passport. The consul confirmed this and said I could take a bus on Wednesday, which passes through Romania, so I wouldn't need a passport. "But what am I supposed to do until Wednesday, I don't have enough money?", I asked. She said now that I had an ID card, I could call Bulgaria and ask someone to send me money via Western Union. I could use the embassy telephone to make a call, she offered. A PHONE CALL? Not a helicopter, not a bed and a warm meal - just a phone call... Such a banana country! I told them I'd be fine without their phone call and went off to find other ways to get home. 

By now the only way of getting back home seemed to be a flight from Vienna for 180 Euros - three time what we had paid for our return flight! But since my credit card was cancelled I couldn't even pay for it myself, so I had to text Miro again for help. Miro had lost his own credit card a week before but luckily found a friend who could buy my ticket. Finally there was a plan again, I took the train back to Vienna, spent the night at the airport and returned around 8.30 am in Sofia, so happy to be back, unlike all other Bulgarian travellers. Needless to say, after all this, I wasn't a Bratislover at all! 

I thought it was also worth mentioning how my wallet actually found me. When my colleagues from Animus went to the office on Monday, they saw my email about being stuck without documents and then they saw this email from a certain Zdenek from Bratislava. 
With their long experience in coordinating the return of victims of human trafficking, my colleagues immediately called him and told him to take my passport to the Bulgarian embassy. Then they called the embassy to inform them to expect Zdenek. Once back home, of course I sent a thank you e-mail to him too. 

And finally, the promised conclusions. First and most importantly, I now always travel with as many identity documents as possible, and of course, I keep them in separate places. Second, I never choose the cheapest vacation options, out of fear that, like Vienna-Bratislava, it would end up costing me dearly (in the end, I had borrowed an additional 280 Euros!). If I book a cheap flight, I try to book a not-that-cheap hotel. If both are cheap, I just splurge on other things - kind of to appease the gods of travelling abroad. Third, I always keep a business card of my work place in my wallet - the business card of Animus, which was in my wallet for no particular reason, had saved me. Lastly, if in trouble, I would try to rely first on my friends and then, if absolutely necessary, on (Bulgarian) institutions. 

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