I weighed up my options:
Flee to Turkey
Risk it for the biscuits
3.Become a Hungarian
It’s summer in Budapest.
I’m drinking more beer than water and occasionally working at a Hostel in return for free accommodation. It’s 40 degrees with a constant hot breeze. Like sitting in an oven and opening the door, only to find out the oven you are in is actually inside a larger, slightly hotter, oven. It’s uncomfortable. There is this American backpacker with a ridiculous sized map sprawled over the common room table. I overhear him talking with some other Aussies about the usual hostel small talk bullshit;
“Bullfrogs?… I would have called them chazzwazzas.”
But I overhear them blasting on about the ‘Shenzhen Zone’. I had heard this expression a few times before but ignored it; I wasn’t going to China.Yet, I was intrigued. Where are these fellow travelers heading to in China?
I sparked up a conversation with them and quickly realised that I’d fucked up.
What I thought was just poor pronunciation, was actually just a completely different word. Everyone had been talking about the ‘Schengin zone’ not ‘Shenzhen’ the Chinese province. Turns out that the Schengen zone is the group of countries in Europe with no internal borders and free movement. And Australians are allowed to stay for 3 months at a time without a visa.
But, the thing is, at that point in my trip I had been in Europe for more than 3 months already and I’ve made plans to stay longer, much longer. Plus I’m meeting a mate at a festival next weekend and is bringing me a pack of Tim tams. This Schengen shit is a major buzz kill. I panic, heart is pounding, anxiety rising and the other Australians are ridiculing me about the whole Shezngin Visa situation. I need to make a plan.
I rubbed my three haired chin.
How can I stay in Europe and leave without getting a massive fine and or blacklisted from Europe?
I weigh up my options:
A. Flee to Turkey or B. Risk it for the biscuits.
I had always wanted to go to Turkey, but if I do, then there would be no returning to the Schengen Zone for another 3 months. The easiest option was to just ignore the past 15-minute conversations about the Schengen zone and continue to backpack around Europe. Just sweep the whole situation under the rug, ignore it, and chuck it in the glove box like a parking ticket. I tell one of my friends who is also working at the hostel with me. He presents an interesting solution:
“If you become a resident in a Schengen country, like Hungary, you can get an extended visa and stay for another 6 months.”
“So, how do I become a Hungarian resident?” I pondered aloud.
“Head to the Hungarian version of Centrelink and fill out all the forms. Just say you are a volunteer working here at the hostel. You’ll get it easy!”
Just like that hey! Like changing a light bulb, an easy task (Unless you’re a minority). I now have option C) Become a Hungarian resident.
I jump on a bus early in the morning while the fog is lingering over the Danube. I head over to the other side of the city and jump off at the Hungarian immigration offices.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto,” I mutter.
The old Hungarians just look at me. They either didn’t understand what I said or they are just befuddled at the sight of a longhaired Australian riding a bus in the suburbs of Budapest to the immigration offices. The queue is already snaking its way out the door of the building. I prepare myself for a long wait. I shuffle along in the line and finally reach the teller. It’s far from a joy, trying to convey my situation to a Hungarian only speaking immigration officer with little to no patience. But with some help, I manage to get the forms I need to fill out. The visa is going to cost 5000 forints ($25 Australian). But it isn’t as simple as handing over the cash, I have to complete a small quest in order to submit my application. I have to fill out the forms, walk across the road, purchase $25 worth of postage stamps from a questionable post office, stick them on the back of the forms and then return the postage stamp papier-mâché forms back to the immigration office.
I complete the quest. I hand in my forms and wait for my ticket number to be called. I wait. And wait a little longer. My phone dies so I start counting the little dots on the ceiling. Flick through a couple of Hungarian versions of New Idea; Grant Denyer is in both of them. It is now 7pm and I am the 3rd last person waiting. The Centrelink comparison is uncanny. I lose count how many times I have asked myself;
“What the fuck am I doing here? This is never going to work!”
But I persist and my number eventually flicks over on the analog display at the front of the room.
I follow the directions of the puzzled Hungarian lady through a corridor to another room with a string of desks and a photo booth on the back wall. We all looked as confused as each other. I hand over my postage-stamp papier-mâché forms to the lady on the opposite side of the desk. After we share a number of broken English phrases to each other, what I assume is the manager, comes over to help. The only Hungarian I know is: ‘thank you’ and ‘one beer please’. I appear fluent when I ordering at a bar but I’m pretty useless in this situation. They tell me to get into the photo booth. Within a few minutes, they print out a piece of cardboard that looks like a drivers license with my mugshot on the front. They hand it to me with a bunch of other forms.
I get up out of my chair, thank both of them in Hungarian, walk out and jump on a bus back home with a cheesy grin.
Did I just become a Hungarian resident? Yes. Yes, I did.
Fast-forward a couple of months after traveling around Eastern Europe. I receive a message from my friend who is still working at the hostel in Budapest;
“Ryan, we just received a letter from the Hungarian immigration centre and it says that you were meant to bring back a bunch of forms. Your visa wasn’t actually approved; they just gave you a temporary one until you returned all the other forms.”
To be honest, I’m not completely surprised. It did seem way to easy and they did give me a bunch of forms, which I assumed I was meant to read. But they were all in Hungarian. I chucked the forms in my metaphorical glove box just like a parking ticket. So now I am back to where I started, except now, I had overstayed my visa by 3 more months.
A few weeks had passed since that call and it is now the final leg of my European journey. I jump on a ferry from Estonia over to Finland because flights are dirt cheap to London from Helsinki. And if I do get arrested and chucked in a jail for a night for two I’d rather be locked up in Finland than Estonia. It is now the time to fly out of the Schengen zone. I’d also like to mention that at this time, it’s the peak of the European refugee crisis and border control is tight.
What is going to happen to me? A fine? Blacklist? Multiple cavity searches?
I pass through security sweating bullets. It looks like I’m muling an 8-ball by the fierce darting of my eyes, looking out for immigration officers and border security. I’m internalizing hypotheticals of what may come and psyching myself up for some serious shit-talking. I decide to run with the ‘oblivious tourist’ excuse. The immigration gates are staring at my soul. I’m scoping out each booth, trying to find the friendliest looking Finnish officer to plead my ‘oblivious tourist’ case too.
It’s my time to shine.
“Passport please,” demanded the Finnish equivalent of Vin Diesel.
I’m trying to make eye contact, but not too much eye contact at the same time. Maybe I should make small talk. Act casual you fool! My hands are awkwardly rising from my sides. I feel like Ricky Bobby from Talladega nights trying to do an interview: mumbling, unsure what to do with my hands when I talk.
“When did you get into the Schengen zone?” Fin Diesel asks.
“What’s the Schengen Zone?” I replied.
He doesn’t believe me… Fuck
He tells me to follow him to the security office. I sit down in the cubical and revaluated my life. I try to maintain the ‘oblivious tourist’ look. “Act clueless you fool!” I mutter. The room is full. I sit there while the immigration officer is in the back room with my passport. I sit and wait and internalise hypotheticals again. Maybe I should give him the Hungarian resident card and not mention that it isn’t actually valid? What if…
The sparkle of Fin Diesel’s cranium catches the corner of my eye as he returns to the room. I jump up off my seat.
“Don’t worry. We have a good relationship with Australia. Just make sure you stay out of the Schengen zone for 90 days before returning,” Diesel says.
I didn’t notice until then, but a salty oasis had formed between my legs from the nervous sweat dripping from my body. He hands me my passport, we make eye contact and both look over at the shimmering reflection of the fluorescent light in the pool of gooche sweat accumulated on the seat. They call my name over the airport PA so I begin to walk to my gate; I give Fin Diesel an awkward thumbs-up, board my plane and get the fuck out of Europe.