Borderline

My adventure continued just when I though it was about to end as I made my way back to Freiburg.

My itinerary was to take the Eurolines night bus from Antwerp at 9.30 p.m., get off Strasbourg in France at 4.25 a.m., and take the first train out at 6.22 a.m. and arrive in Freiburg by 8.00 a.m. Prior to my departure to Spain, I have booked my train ticket from Strasbourg to Freiburg. Despite my two-hour waiting period in Strasbourg, little did I know that I would be in for a different ride.

I got to the bus pick-up point 15 minutes early. There was a light drizzle, but nothing that would cause any worry or discomfort despite my packed backpack and paper bag. I asked a guy waiting if it was the waiting area for my bus. He said yes. People started to trickle in a little later and gather on the side walk to wait for their ride.A bus plying the route in Antwerp stopped, picked up some passengers, and left.

One lady who was left behind asked for my ‘exact’ time. I chatted her up and asked of her destination. ‘Germany,’ she replied. I shifted our conversation to German, and we got to know where exactly each of us was headed to. She to Stuttgart, and I to Strasbourg. I told her I study in Freiburg. Stuttgart is the capital of the Baden-Wuerttemberg where Freiburg also belongs, but geographically speaking, Freiburg is nearer to Strasbourg in France. The bus arrived 20 minutes late. There were already some passengers on board, and there was a total of about ten of us on board who traveled from from Antwerp that headed to Brussels. Once we arrived in Brussels, some passengers got off, including the the Stuttgart lady to catch another bus, while some others filled in the bus. An old French couple sat nearby- the man right across my seat, while the wife sat behind his seat.

The trip was smooth although we made about four stops, quite a lot than what I expected for a supposed seven-hour trip. The longest bus rides I have taken were about 12 hours to my mom’s home province in Sorsogon, which included about three bus stops to relieve the bladder and fill-in the stomach.

I slipped in and out of dreamland as we made these stops. It was almost half past five when the driver announced ‘Strasbourg.’ The bus stoppped but I didn’t get off. From what I could make out of the faint light outside and heavy drowsiness, we could have been in the middle of a parking lot in an industrial park. From my seat by the window, I saw some people milling around and waiting to pick up some passengers on my bus. I think two passengers got off the bus.

As the bus drove away, I barely read ‘Citroen’ from one of the buildings on the opposite side of the street, a rent-a-car garage, I thought. But unlikely in an industrial park; most probably in a place where people could easily spot and make good use of car rentals- like a bus stop in the city center. What was I thinking? It was one of those many stops, like what we have taken en route to Strasbourg. Who would like to walk from this secluded area to the train station on a freezing temperature? That’s what I thought. The French couple were still there. I convinced myself they will get off the other Strasbourg stop. It shouldn’t be that far. I still had one hour to spare before my train leaves. I was fully awake by this time, ready to get off the next stop in Strasbourg. Half an hour passed and no next Strasbourg stop. The bus has not stopped since the car rental station for that matter.

Another half hour later, we approached a toll gate-like structure where I saw some vehicles coming and going. Our bus took the right-most lane and stopped. Ah, my Strasbourg stop, at last. I was seated on the right column of the bus four seats down from the driver, and from where I sat, I heard a man’s voice outside ask where we were going. “Zurich via Basel,” our driver said. “And via the second Strasbourg stop,” I thought. I haven’t given up yet, despite knowing that Zurich and Basel are not in France. Indeed we were on our way to Switzerland, and now checked by border control. As far as I know, my student resident permit in Germany does not allow me to travel to Switzerland.

The Schengen agreement allows holders of visas issued by ‘Schengen-member countries’ to travel freely through member countries for a limited period of time, one of which is Germany where I got a visa to study, and Spain and Belgium where I spent the holidays, among other countries. Switzerland is not a signatory of this agreement, although I have heard of a few occasions where students were able to get through for excursions without border control.

Two border patrol men have gotten on the bus and were asking for our IDs and passports. I fumbled with my backpack zipper, took and opened my passport on the page where my visa was placed. I nervously handed it to one of the patrol guys with my best poker face, like a foiled con artist. He must have smelled me reek of nervousness. He looked at my visa, turned to the first page where my personal information can be found, and put it on the pile of the other passports. He continued collecting identification documents from the other passengers. The two men got off the bus to check our documents. By this time I have banished the thought of my imaginary Strasbourg stop, and just prayed to get through the border without a hitch, and for the bus to stop in Basel where I could finally take the train to Freiburg.

My mind raced for the possible scenarios that could happen: I will be mistaken for an illegal immigrant and will be deported back to the Philippines. No, I am a student in Germany, and I have a visa to prove that. Or I can explain to the patrol guys and the driver about the other Strasbourg stop theory. The driver will just fine me an extra 40 Euros for my attempted free ride to Basel, ask me to get off his bus, and leave me in the cold dark morning to make my way back to the station in Strasbourg. My station in Strasbourg.

One of the patrol men got on the bus holding one passport and called out a name. It wasn’t my passport, and it was not my name. I heard a faint voice of a man with a middle eastern accent replied somewhere behind me, and the patrol guy approached him. I resisted to take a look to avoid any eye contact with anyone, although I was all ears to the forthcoming conversation.

“Where are you going in Switzerland?”, the patrol guy asked.

“To Zurich.” the man said.

“How long are you staying?” , the patrol guy asked.

“Just two days. I will be leaving on Monday.” the man said.

The patrol guy told the man that he cannot get through Switzerland with his type of visa, and the man reasoned out that he will only be visiting someone for two days. The patrol guy asked him to wait and approached the other patrol guy waiting by the door. He returned to the man, handed him back his passport, and told him he’s cleared. I waited for the patrol guy to call out my name and approach me next. Nothing. Instead, the driver started distributing the IDs and passports. I whispered to him I had a little problem when he came, that I missed my stop in Strasbourg, and asked him where his next stop would be. “In Basel,” he said. My mind let out a sigh of relief after I heard those two words. He gave me my passport. No extra fee was charged, and no eject button was pressed to kick me out of the bus.

We arrived at the Basel train station after five minutes. Four of us got off, including the French couple. I hurried to the station and checked the schedules. It was past seven in the morning, and the fast train to Freiburg is leaving in less than an hour. I tinkered with the ticket machine trying to look for the arrival point of the regional (slow) train from which I could use my semester ticket. This way, I could spare some money, although I can’t remember which station exactly. No, it’s not another imaginary stop. A classmate told me about it once, but she’s now in Canada. I thought of calling her, and attempted three times to connect my German phone via international roaming to a Swiss network, but to no avail. I sent an SMS to a couple of classmates who most likely knew of this stop with my other mobile phone on international roaming from the Philippines, but a reply was unlikely this early in the morning. I called my Canadian classmate through her German number, but only a voicemail answered. I finally connected my German phone, called and roused a classmate from his sleep, and told him of my adventure. He said the station is called ‘Auggen’, and I need to buy the ticket from the ticketing office; I cannot do it from the machines.

I got my ticket, and rushed to the train platform. I asked in German a guy if I am waiting on the right platform. I didn’t quite understand his reply because of his accent, perhaps Badisch, a dialect spoken in southern Germany. I asked again and figured out he needs to change trains to Auggen, and just asked me to go with him, perhaps thinking to just simplify our conversation turning to a complicated one. Our train arrived about ten minutes later. I followed him to one train after the next. A couple of girls in their teens spoke to each other as they passed by the isle. It was in German, although I didn’t quite understand what it meant. I didn’t have to. It didn’t really matter. It was comforting enough to hear the language in all its verbal bluntness. It was an assurance I am on the right track this time, on my way to home station.

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