PARIS, 1980 – Four stops west of the Arch of Triumph the Neuilly line of the Paris metro ends at a dark tunnel where weary subway cars sleep. For hours, for days – who knows? In this very tunnel I awoke one evening. I had slept through the final stop.
Fighting down the initial panic (are the doors locked? how do I get back without stepping on the electrified rail?), I looked out the window and could see a tiny catwalk leading to the lights of the station perhaps 50 yards away. Feeling like a clochard (the French vagabonds who find warmth in subway niches). It was a distinctly sheepish customer who emerged from the catwalk that night,
GENOA, 1963 – We were still in the era of the trans-Atlantic passenger liner. Settled comfortably in our quarters on the SS Atlantic, we congratulated ourselves for arriving 45 minutes early to avoid the bustle. "Passport check will be in 35 minutes," the ship's loudspeaker announced.
Oops! The passports for our family of six were in a bag that had been left a bench of the railroad station. Genoa sits atop a bluff but I set the existing world record for that particular sprint, helped in great measure by the ship's whistle blasting out the "all-ashore."
Fortunately, the bag had been picked up by an attendant, who saw me coming and handed it off as a relay runner would pass the baton. I was back in my cabin as she ship sailed. It was not such a relaxed picture as before.
HEGYSHALOM, Hungary, 1986 – These were still the very bad old days behind the Iron Curtain. We had been waved through the final border checkpoint out of Hungary and smelled the free air, red flowers and green fields of Austria.
Just as we reached the final striped barrier pole, however, the sentry's telephone rang. You could see him juggling the decision. Answer it or lift the pole. He opted for the phone. With a circling motion of his hand, he uttered a single word: "Zuruck." It means "go back" in German.
The green fields of Austria receded as we shakily drove 100 or so yards back to Hungarian border control. A large smile spreading across the official's face there revealed the steel teeth of East European dental work. And In his right hand was our license plate.
It had fallen off of rental car at his feet. We babbled profuse thanks in every language we could remember and some we couldn't remember.
Footnote: Somewhat shakily, we stopped for a cup of coffee in Austria. As we parked, a passerby noticed the missing license plate and advised: "It could be real trouble if a policeman spots it."
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