Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school?

Eyes up, down, up, down. Eventually, impossibly, he demands another form of photo ID. I missed the trick of how he speaks, with that down-turned mouth. It’s like he’s operated by a ventriloquist.

This photograph is even older: I’m clean-shaven, with short hair, thick eyebrows and no glasses. Who is this boy staring back at me from my own driving license? What else can I show to prove this is me?

The man compares the two photographs with each other, and with the suspect in front of him.

The other passengers are shuffling up behind me, offering sympathetic smiles, while wondering whether I might just be an enemy of the state.

After an eternity, the man hands back the documents and, with a flick of his wrist, I am passed into Hungary.


This is the end of the world.

Eight lanes of traffic nudge into queues. Horns blare out, as one driver vies with another for a place ahead. Litter blows in the wind.

We arrived here at dawn and it’s now well into afternoon. Machine coffee is 50 cents and, by my reckoning, the woman in the toilet booth has cleared over 1,000 Euros since we arrived.

It’s the same for all the number plates: Germany, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Netherlands. If any of the drivers had plans for brunch in Budapest, they’ve watched them turn first into lunch, and now into dinner. Breakfast is whatever they can find in the glove compartment.

A man opens an icebox. His hand lingers over the beer, but he pulls out a can of pineapple juice. An entrepreneur on the central reservation sells fruit from crates.

Drivers throw open their doors and stroll companionably up and down the corridors of cars. Passengers pass the time shrugging shoulders.

A lorry driver scrambles under the chassis of his vehicle, making the most of the wait to do running repairs. Men piss behind the bushes. Women join the queues within queues for the toilets.

A man cycles past us on an old sit-up-and-beg, back to Serbia. One family hauls luggage up the road, hoping to cross the border on foot instead. A man and wife join forces to push their stalled car as we creep forwards.

‘It’s always like this,’ one passenger says. The bus driver’s record here is 9 hours.


Is nine hours a long time for a coach to travel three kilometres? More than one fellow passenger asks why they didn’t just pay the extra €30 for a flight.

But something in the border guard’s stare makes me reconsider the concept of ‘travel delays’.

Crossing the border is easy for those of us who have the privilege of certain documents (even if the photos are 10 years out of date). The harmless, fastidious scrutiny is to keep out those who travel without such papers, those who most need to cross.

Eventually, that down-turned mouth, skin standing up where his razor passed this morning, eyes of practiced pattern recognition, must (for now, at least) let me pass. I have blond hair and the protection of the Queen.

The grimness of his inert expression is such a caricature of humourless state functionary that I can’t help but smile as his eyes burn into mine.

For the refugee friends I made in Athens, Chios and the camps in Thessaloniki, that man’s dread expression decides future or failure.

What travel delays are these, when you must wait years for the passport I hold so lightly in my hand?

In no man’s land the wind blows and the clouds fall heavily for the first time in months.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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