Almost Albania; Our run in with the Law

16 June 2011

Both of us were excited about the fact that we were headed for a country we had never been to. We wondered about Albania. The Greeks we had met along our way were luke warm at best toward the Albanians. A couple of mechanics we stopped to talk to in Igomenitsa (yes, even after two hours of work in Thessaloniki, the wheel was still leaking gear oil), had warned us to watch out for Albanians. “Don’t leave the car alone; don’t go to any mechanics (they don’t know what they are doing!); be careful of Albanian people. . .” It seemed as ridiculous as the Turks in Istanbul telling us that the Kurds were not to be trusted. Every time we are warned about a culture by its border mates, the stories are not only false, we find the people to be even more lovely than their negative neighbors.

That was the topic we were discussing when we passed a police car parked by the side of the road, less than 5 km from the Albanian border. We were still talking about it when the police car pulled up behind us and flashed its lights. Aurel slowed down and got over to the right, thinking that the police were interested in getting ahead of us on this curvy one lane road. But the unmarked car that passed us and then slid right out in front of the Combi, forcing us to come to an abrupt stop made it clear that we were the ones they were interested in. Two more cars pulled out of nowhere on the tiny street.

Aurel cut the engine and we looked at each other for a few seconds, about as long as it took for eight police officers in sunglasses and full gear to exit their vehicles and surround the bus.

“Passports, car papers!” one said as he approached the driver’s side window. “Where are you going?” They inspected the outside of the bus.

“Albania,” was Molly’s answer. “To the border, then to France.”
“Why? What is this plate?” he asked raising his eyebrows when he saw the Dari writing on the cryptic paper work. The rest of the police were speaking to each other rapidly in English outside the bus, discussing whether the AFG on the plate could mean Albania.

“We came from Afghanistan,” he looked at us like we were nuts.
“You drove this thing from Afghanistan? How did you get this through the border?”

We both shrugged. That was still a question in our minds as well. The policeman continued to inspect seriously the hand written documents and the plates.

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Another officer came to the passenger side window and asked Molly to open the double doors of the bus, while another one motioned to the rear hatch. Once the bus was open, they went to work, pulling things out and inspecting them.

“You have drugs?” one asked.
“No!” Molly almost laughed. “Just a bunch of stuff. Too much stuff”
“What are all these paintings?”
“What is that trunk?”
“What’s in this box?”

We answered their questions, one by one, knowing that we had absolutely nothing at all that could be incriminating. “My husband is a painter, he had a show in Istanbul, we used to live there.” “That trunk is a Turkish wedding box, traditionally a woman paints it and fills it with things for her new life. It’s like 150 years old so we just couldn’t give it up.”

The shear number of people picking through our things was amazing. One asked to open a duffle bag full of clothing. He fished through it, looking at shirts and pants as if they might be harboring something dark and dangerous. He found Molly’s other passport, the one with her maiden name that she had to bring to Turkey in order to prove that she was still herself so she could close the last of her bank accounts (a passport with her married name would have caused an Afghan worthy amount of beaurocracy) and asked why she had that when it clearly stated inside her new passport that it was a replacement for a LOST passport. “I found it again.” Was the only answer she could come up with without an extreme and in-depth explanation. He nodded, but he didn’t seem to be listening. He pointed to the maroon box with a small lens stuck to one side as he handed her back her illegal passport. “What is that?!” he said with his forehead wrinkled up to his hairline. He was a young, soft eyed man who didn’t look Greek. He motioned to another officer and spoke in a language that surely wasn’t Greek.

“That’s a camera obscura—a pinhole camera with a very primitive lens. From Afghanistan. Actually we are traveling from Kabul to France taking pictures of people,” He seemed interested so she kept talking. “Portraits of people in black and white—Do you want to see?” She went to the front seat to retrieve our laptop where we keep digital copies of all the photographs. By the time she returned to the back of the bus, six out of eight of the police officers were opening and closing the camera, looking at all its various parts and speaking in English.

Molly showed them a group of pictures that were taken in Turkey and Greece, the officers crowded around the computer. They had totally lost their curt, business like manner and they were excitedly exclaiming about the pictures.

Molly ventured a question in their direction, “How far is the Albanian border from here?”

The tall, soft eyed officer shrugged, “I really don’t know, you’ll have to ask one of the Greek police.”

Molly was puzzled, “Aren’t you all Greek police?” He bent down and showed her his shoulder, on which there was a blue band.

“We are working for a European police company, we send police all over the European union for a month at a time as part of a unification program. I am from Slovakia. They are from Austria” That explained why they were speaking to each other in English. And why there were so many of them.

The group of officers retreated toward one of the cars. They were still discussing the camera. The other two officers were talking to Aurel about the VW, wondering if it had made it this far without any problems. He insisted that there had been lots of problems.

Molly had an idea suddenly. “Ask them if they want to have their picture taken,” She whispered to Aurel. He smiled devilishly.

“Would you and your colleagues like to have your picture taken with the camera obscura?” He asked. The officers looked at each other and shrugged humbly, then confirmed with the rest of the group. “Sure, why not.” Came their response.

So the search and seizure part of the meeting was over. It was picture time. The officers got together in groups of two (six out of eight wanted to be photographed) and sat for pictures while the others watched, learning about the process as we went. They even got out their own digital cameras and documented the occasion. They laughed, joked, asked questions, and enjoyed themselves fully.

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At the end of about an hour, we took their email addresses and names and asked them if they were ok to be part of our exhibition of faces, which miraculously they were. We drove toward the Albanian border with huge smiles, shaking our heads. That would never happen in the US, nor in France. What a way to remember leaving Greece!

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