My French Connection

This happened almost 30 years back – in 1980 to be precise. That was the year in which myself and my wife set out on our first ever foreign trip for further studies. We settled down at a small and beautiful university town – Namur near Brussels. Enjoying the academic freedom we set out on a small holiday tour of Europe during that summer itself. Our first destination was Italy where we planned to spend at least 10 days. We had an enjoyable tour of Italy which of course is not the topic of this post. This blog is about a nightmarish experience we had on our way back from Italy.
Not being familiar with the rules of international travel,we almost paid the penalty. I say ‘almost’ because we barely avoided landing in Jail. The offence we committed was that we did not bother to take ‘transit’ visas of any country through which we were to pass during our train journey. Although it was merely an overnight journey,the train would pass through as many as 3 countries enroute – Austria,Switzerland and France – before touching Belgium.
We got into the train in Rome in the evening and happily settled down to sleep for the night. As we were in deep sleep, we were rudely shaken up by some strong and well built uniformed men,who,we were told later,were the French police. They had one good look at our passports and asked us to disembark instantly. On our part we did not have a clue as to where we were or what these gentlemen(are they?)were after. As we got off the train,they muttered some gibberish in French and we had to depend on some good samaritan who managed to translate their words into some broken English. It turned out that we were at a station called Basel in Switzerland which is the border town before entering France. The police ordered us to stay on in Basel for the night,dash off to the French consulate in the morning,get a transit visa to France and then push off to whatever was our destination. They also told us that we were in danger of being put in jail since we were in Switzerland without a Swiss visa. They advised us to say our prayers and hope that no Swiss cop would ask for our passport for verification. We did not need the piece of advice on prayers because we had already started our prayers the moment we encountered the French cops in the middle of the night! On their part the police assured us that they would remain neutral and not report us to the Swiss authorities(the first indication that our prayers were being answered).
Needless to say,we had to spend the rest of the night on the platforms of Basel. We had to shuttle from one platform to the other just to keep the cops at bay – the cops who are supposed to keep the platforms free from vagabonds,antisocial elements and so on. The reason why we did not look for a place to stay overnight was to minimize chances of contact with Swiss cops and partly due to our shoe-string travel budget! In any case we successfully spent the night free from the glare of the law enforcing authorities. Early in the following morning we refreshed ourselves in some make-shift facilities available on the platform and proceeded towards the French Consulate. We reached the consulate office well before time. Having waited for an hour or so we finally got the audience of the officer in charge who asked us to fill a few forms for submission. The officer was decent enough to instantly stamp the passport with the transit visa for France. Quickly realizing the danger of overstaying in Switzerland without Swiss Visa,he advised us to get out of Basel by the next available train. And we were lucky enough to make an uneventful escape from Basel.

Back home in Belgium,we were told that the French and Swiss police were known to be the toughest lot and they would mercilessly put illegal immigrants behind bars. Only then did we realize how fortunate we were and thanked our stars(and Gods who answered our prayers)for all the invisible help that came our way!

Reflecting on the incident,I still can not understand why transit visas are insisted upon when one travels by train but the same is not required when one flies over a country. The logic (or the lack of it)still beats my simple mind.

There is another bizarre but interesting experience we had during our stay in Europe but that is for another day and another blog.

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Published in: on May 30, 2009 at 8:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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