A Travel Vignette

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From an Italian Travel Diary (1990)

The Italian Green Card

Different Strokes for Different Folks... and Different Cards

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, May 1990

TRIESTE, Italy - From the travel logistics point of view, my trip to Europe in May-June of 1990 was an abortion! By that, I don't mean abortion as NOW (National Organization of Women) sees it. I mean abortion from Pope's point of view. And I am not even Catholic! Meanwhile, the travel agency got all the benefits of not bearing a child for nine months. I got stuck with the "morning sickness," with "changing of diapers," not to mention the "privilege" of paying for the "fun of it all!"

You see, the fact that JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) never answered its phone in Los Angeles, and that I turned down PanAm's charter (because it was a charter, i.e., I thought not reliable enough) from New York to Rijeka (I had to attend a business conference in Opatija, Yugoslavia), forced me instead on TWA flights from Phoenix to New York, from New York to Brussels, from Brussels to Munich, and on a Lufthansa turbo-prop from Munich to Trieste... That's where I was supposed to get a rental car and drive to Opatija, Yugoslavia.

 All this to save some money? You'd think, wouldn't you? ... A reasonable person would assume that you wouldn't be asked to do this kind of globe-trotting just for the sake of getting tired or wasting time. But, I didn't save any time. In fact, I added several hours to the trip. And I got dog tired.

My ordeal not only took longer that the "would-be" charter flight, but it cost almost twice as much as did a similar trip to Europe five months earlier! So, for the "privilege" of paying more, I was "rewarded" by a longer trip! By the time I reached Trieste, more than 24 hours after I'd left Phoenix, I still had to look forward to at least a two-hour drive to Opatija...

By this stage, I am sure, you can figure out what my frame of mind was... Add to it that I had no instructions of how to get across the Italian border into Yugoslavia, and you'd get a pretty good assessment of why even "man's best friend" -- my dog Prince, let alone my travel agent, my assistant, or my wife -- might have had a hard time wagging their tails fast enough...

And then things got worse, yet... "I am sorry, Sir, but I don't think that you'll be able to change your money today," said the Italian car rental agency clerk politely, albeit in broken English. "Today is Sunday. Everything's closed." I had visions of having to wash the dishes or change peoples' tires so as be able to get across the Italian toll highways.

Once again, I had the unhappy visions of my Phoenix staff and the travel agent who had planned out this trip... "Never On Sunday"... About the only thing good about the situation was that over 7,000 miles and nine hours' of time zone differences separated me from them... Besides, lucky for them, I had no Italian liras for a phone call... It was a Sunday, remember?

But, there was at least one good piece of news when I arrived in Trieste, a silver lining to an otherwise stormy cloud. All my bags were there! Amazing, I thought, considering what they'd been through. Two of them had had the name tags ripped off as a result of the five-airport ordeal. But, at least the contents had survived...

"Your car is in the parking lot just back of this building," said the helpful Italian rental car agent. "You'll find a map in the glove compartment," she added. I knew I would surely need it, so I thanked her for it.

My car was in the parking lot, all right. Trouble was it seemed destined to stay there... at least until such time that a big tour bus, which was blocking the way out, moved. I locked my baggage in the trunk, and took a trek on foot back to the airport rental car counter. "So, sorry, Sir... Would you please talk to that driver over there. I think that he is just picking up some passengers here and will leave shortly..." He did. After about 15 minutes...

It was now my turn to screw up... I looked at the diagram on my car's stick shift handle, and do you think I could figure out how to put it reverse? I kept trying and failing several times. Each time I'd follow the diagram for the reverse, my car would jump forward, not back!? Meanwhile, it was my car that was now blocking the exit for several fairly frantic Italian cab drivers!

I decided that the best thing for me to do was to try to put on a Sofia Loren act. So, I got out of the car, walked over to the first cabbie, who seemed the most irritated, and smiling innocently I asked him in English if he could, please, show me how to put my car in reverse. He got out his car, looked at me pitifully as if I were an imbecile, and proceeded to take my place behind the wheel. He followed the same diagram on the stick shift I had. And with the same result: instead of reversing itself, the car lunged forward, even further blocking the cabbies' way out of the parking lot.

"Aha," he finally exulted triumphantly. "You must lift the stick shift handle, before moving it to the right!" "Grazia," is all I could think of saying. But, "welcome to Europe!" was what I was contemplating. Why make things simple, if you could instead test the customers' intelligence?

But, this was only the beginning...

It was hot and sunny, and the car had been sitting in the parking lot all day. I turned on the air-conditioning. Trying to cool it down quickly, as I was leaving the parking lot, I tried to open the windows. But, I could not see any handles. "Aha," I thought to myself, "this car must have power windows." But, as I checked all around the door, I could not find any power window knobs. After about five miles or so, I finally stopped the car, pulled over to one side, and launched a determined search for the power window knobs.

You see, it wasn't the heat that bothered me anymore. By this stage, the air-conditioning had cooled things down quite a bit. But, can you imagine an American driving an Italian car to the Yugoslav border and having to explain to the border guard why he is having to shout from behind closed windows? Or get out of the car to hand him the passport?

Finally I found the knobs! Want to know where? Behind the gear shift, in the box between the driver and the passenger seats! I'll spare you repeating what I've already said about the European car designs.

After an hour or so of driving through the fairly poorly marked Trieste streets, I finally found myself at the Italian-Yugoslav border. I had no idea what crossing it was. I just sort of stumbled into it. "Hi, there" I said to the Yugoslav border guard, as I handed him my passport. I found it odd that the checkpoint was positioned on the passenger side. You see, one had to bend down to be able to see the officer, not to mention the fact one had to reach over to show the travel documents. Maybe it was so as to make the passenger bow to the authority, I thought, just like Napoleon's tomb in Paris, which is designed so that visitors have to bow in order to see the grave.

"Do you have a 'green card'?" the guard asked. I was baffled. "A 'green card?" I replied. "You've got to be kidding. I am an American citizen! In any event, what do you care whether or not I have a 'green card?'" "The green card, please," he persisted, starting to sound agitated. "Zelenu kartu! Zelenu!"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said in Serbian this time, "but, help yourself." I opened the rental car's glove compartment and handed him whatever paperwork I'd found there. "See if there is anything green in there." "Aha," he replied with a sense of satisfaction and relief. "Here is a green card..." I was happy for him. And for myself, too. Later on, I found out that it was a customary "green card" for cross-border car insurance between Italy and Yugoslavia.

A few days later, on my way back to Italy from Opatija, I was stopped by a traffic cop, just outside Pula (YU). As I was passing another car, I must have been doing about 120 km/h in a 60 km/h zone. "And where are you in such a hurry to?" the policeman asked me. I could sense that he was about to give me a lecture. In a split second, I decided that I'd better not play dumb, i.e., speak only English. "To Milan. How much?" I replied in Serbian, figuring this may ward off a lecture. It did. The cop asked me for my passport.

Curiously, he never asked to see either my driver's licence, or the car registration papers. As we stood by the roadside, he finally mumbled, "Twenty dinars" answering my earlier question. "Twenty dinars?" I said trying to cover up my disbelief. Back home, I wouldn't be surprised if they even booked me for going double the speed limit. "What's the matter," he snapped back. "you don't have that much?" I counted out the money. He took the cash and folded the notes neatly along with a fat wad of other bills. He even gave me a receipt. But, seeing all that cash that the Yugoslav traffic cops evidently carry around, I couldn't help but wonder how many times traffic cops themselves get robbed... A perverse North American mind...

I was approaching the Yugoslav-Italian border crossing just north of Portoroz (YU). Since there was no other car ahead of me, I thought I'd apply the experience I'd gained from my entry into Yugoslavia. I drove up to the booth so that my car's passenger side faced the Yugoslav border guard. The stone-faced guard looked at me as if I'd fallen from Mars. "What's the matter?" I asked in English. He made a circular motion with his arm, signaling that I should have driven in facing him through the driver's window. I shook my head, backed up my car, and drove up as any "normal" American would have in the first place. I thrust my passport at him. He took a cursory look, and then motioned me to go on with his head.

Neither of us had spoken a single word. Yet, it was clear that each of us must have thought about each other: "what a weirdo?!"

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