TBILISI, Georgia – The Greek border guard’s unibrow contracted in consternation and then annoyance as he thumbed through my well-worn blue passport. “What is this? This isn’t a passport! This is shit!” He spat out the words as he held the threadbare document with the tips of his fingers as if it had some communicable disease. I tried a friendly smile and stifled a laugh. The seven-year-old passport is in pretty poor shape and I’d been prepared for a few hard questions.
“Don’t laugh! It’s not funny!” the Greek barked. He was really working himself into a lather at this point. “I am sorry, mister. I am sorry. If I came to your country and showed this – would they let me in?”
The source of his rage was perplexing. I wasn’t trying to get into Greece. Rather, I was trying to get out and over to Turkey. Perhaps that’s what he found so infuriating. For we were on the last third of our journey, overland, over water from Barcelona to Georgia. The country Georgia. We weren’t piloting a 40-year-old Volkswagen across the Atlantic. Though at times the 3,000-plus mile slog seemed no less foolhardy.
It all began in Barcelona. The 1972 VW Super Beetle had been garaged for years and had a musty odor. Fortunately it was a convertible and with the top down and wind in our hair the old car smell dissipated. But it was in northern Catalonia, just a few miles shy of the French border that we we were forced to call for rescue: the starter failed and we were parked precariously making it impossible to push. We didn’t make that mistake again and were careful to park perched on slopes or at least roads with enough runway to push-to-start.
It was in northern Italy that mechanical problems became dire. Driving down the motorway just north of the ham capital Parma, the oil pressure suddenly dropped to zero. We swung into a rest area and found to our horror that the oil pan was gushing though we managed to cut the engine before blowing the motor. To my delight the Spanish Auto Club not only dispatched a tow truck but put us up in a four-star hotel for the evening while the car was being repaired. More than five hundred dollars later we were back on the road, though still pushing-to-start.
Such was the image of me pushing the Volkswagen around the ancient city center of Bologna shouting at poor Maria Jose who sat hunched behind the wheel. “Pop it! Pop it!” The Bolognans watched with amusement as I huffed around the block pushing the small car in circles as it sputtered yet the motor failed to catch. Of course in front of a professional mechanic it purred like a house cat and the mechanic advised us not to linger in his presence lest we start racking up billable hours.
The ferry from Ancona, Italy to Ignoumenitsa, Greece went without incident. But in Greece the first thing that struck us was the lack of reliable road signs. Pointing ourselves in the direction of Turkey we began motoring up the brand-new highway. After about 30 miles the car began losing power – we suspected the alternator – and we managed to pilot the Super Beetle into the corporation yard of a hydro electric plant before the engine died altogether. Another ride in a tow truck – our fourth, but who’s counting? – and we found ourselves on a desolate clifftop auto shop. Shepherds drove their sheep past as I counted more dead cars than living in the auto yard – an ominous sign.
The shop owner referred us to an electrician who sourced the problem to a bad circuit box and in less than an hour – and about forty five euros (65 bucks or so) – we were back on the road. We spent the evening getting extremely lost. It probably would have been a good idea to pack a map but to be fair, a sign or two pointing the way to Turkey would’ve been useful.
The next day brings us to the Greek frontier. We’d expected this border crossing to be tense, Greek/Turkish relations being what they are, but the Greek’s anger was nothing short of puzzling.
“I am sorry, mister – I am sorry!” he kept repeating. I was sorry too. We had about a dozen bottles of wine hidden in the car and no proof of insurance. I didn’t want small things like a tattered passport to complicate our crossing into Turkey. After a few more reproofs in which he held up Maria Jose’s immaculately new Spanish passport in which he praised: “Now this – this is a passport!” and a few more “I am sorry, mister” and a few “This is toilet! Bacteria!” aimed at my travel document, we were free to cross into Turkey. The successors to the Ottoman Empire didn’t even raise and eyebrow, pointed us to the kiosks where we bought our visas, and we were through.
After a two days in Istanbul spent with friends old and new it was time to cross into Asia. The city is divided between the two continents (that is, if you consider Europe to be a bona fide continent – which I don’t) and there’s a bridge spanning the Bosporus.
We pulled up to the toll plaza. Other drivers were waiving their pass cards at us but I was too thick to take the hint. With no pass card in hand, the toll taker pointed at the sign that demands 50 Turkish Lira ($27USD) to cross. We scoffed. Nearly thirty bucks to cross a bridge?! A driver behind us leaped from his car and swiped his pass card. The gate lifted for us and we sped onward. Saved by Asian hospitality.
The roads through Turkey were straight and true. Two days later we were crossing into Georgia. The city of Batumi had changed in the past two years. Bucketloads of money had been shoveled into erecting monuments and all kinds of gaudy lights. Imagine Monaco, after 50 years of Socialist-Realism development, 15 years of benign neglect and then renovate what remained in the image of Branson, Missouri and you get the idea.
We wandered around in disgust looking at empty-looking cafes and restaurants that had been designed as playgrounds for the rich. Finally we came across a basement restaurant with cigarette smoke billowing out the entrance. The stairs led to a dimly lit eatery with very drunken looking clientele: perfect. I made a point of catching the eye at one of the nearby tables. As we sat down we could hear them practicing a few English phrases. Several minutes later the waitress brought us a liter of wine, courtesy of our neighbors and things descended from there as our new friends slid into seats next to us.
In no time at all there were toasts to friendship between Georgia, Spain and the United States as we found ourselves happy prisoners of Georgian hospitality. It was good to be back.