Ich bin ein Berliner – A Greek Saga, Pt III (Story Time!)


And now for the thrilling conclusion of our Greek saga.  It is Wednesday, October 4, 1995. 


Husband, you will recall, is in Frankfurt, Germany (where he is not supposed to be) on his way back from Bangor, Maine, USA (where he was not supposed to be).  He is supposed to be getting his ass back to Skopje, Macedonia, but the borders have been closed until further notice.


map of Macedonia, pin in Skopje


He is, for those of you who cannot be arsed to read the previous two stories(1 & 2), utterly fucked.  And we haven’t even gotten to the part where he negotiates with shady characters, gets bartered away like a Rölexx watch, and bluffs his way past certain death under bright lights and the watchful eye of a half-dozen itchy trigger fingers.



Husband’s exclamation caught the attention of a concerned flight attendant, who rushed over to help him adjust his seat back and/or tray table.  Husband showed her the paper and explained the situation; not that the bomb was a problem (and not that it wasn’t!  Assassination attempts are bad!) but that he was reeeeally supposed to be in Macedonia, and now there was no way to get there.


She shrugged and offered him a packet of roasted nuts.[1]


And so, in the absence of any sympathetic ear, Husband spent the flight trying to figure out what he could do.  The problem he kept coming back to was this: he was allowed to cross the border (probably… from a legal standpoint it was fine, it’s just that border guards get jumpy when their President is almost turned into confetti) but trains and busses still wouldn’t be heading way just for him—even if he could somehow convince them that it was okay.


With no better plan, he arrived in Athens and stood on a street corner screaming “Train station!” at the top of his lungs until a cab pulled up to take him to that neighborhood.  Not to the actual station, mind you—we covered all of this in the earlier section on Greek cabs, so if you missed it you’re already behind—but to that general neighborhood.  Close enough, anyway, and Husband figured he knew the approximate direction.


Gandalf "I have no memory of this place"


He’d walked a bit when he decided maybe he didn’t know quite where the station was after all, and decided to ask for directions.[2]  So he stopped an older Greek gentleman nearby and asked him for directions to the train station.




Husband thought this was an issue (not an uncommon one, particularly in Greece) of perception: he was clearly American, and therefore might be coming across as rude and entitled.  He tried again, more politely.  “Please, can you tell me how to get to the train station?”


“NO!  No English!  No!  No!  NO ENGLISH!”  All of this was shouted in surprisingly clear, unaccented English. 


So Husband tried again in German: “Wo ist der Hauptbahnhof?” 


Bist du ein Deutscher?


Ja, ich bin ein Berliner


JFK's "ich bin ein Berliner" speech

We have been assured that we all are.


Old Man’s demeanor immediately changed and he was now eager to give directions: the train station was just down that street, around the corner and to the right.


Husband set off in the indicated direction before the devil on his shoulder (who I like to think looked a lot like me) convinced him to turn around and offer a cheery wave (and a very American, “Thanks!” at top volume.)


Old Man fumed and stomped off. 


grumpy old man

There’s just no pleasing some people



I don’t know what he was expecting at the train station, but the schedule board couldn’t have been more clear if someone had actually flipped the letters to GTFO


train schedule: all statuses CLOSED


he wasn’t  getting any closer to Macedonia by train.  While considering whether busses would at least run him as far as Thessaloniki, a cab driver sidled up and asked, “Can I take you somewhere?”


This was clearly a sign of the End Times.


Husband explained to the unlikely cabby that he needed to get to Skopje, and why, with no expectation that it would result in an actual solution. 


The driver listened to his story, nodding, then offered, “I can take you as far as the border.”


human silhouette lit by sun flare

This was a miracle on the order of loaves and fishes, even if Husband did have to pay up-front.



About halfway to the border, Husband’s cab encountered another coming from the opposite direction; his driver laid on the horn, flashed the lights, and rolled down his window, waving and shouting at the other driver. 


It is at this point in the story that I became convinced that the cab drivers weren’t just criminals, but organized criminals, and Husband was about to witness the settling of a “Family dispute”.


So, you know, maybe good thing he doesn’t carry a camera?


They pulled off to the side of the road and proceeded to have an… animated… discussion (picture me talking to me—lots of shouting, arm-waving, and probably a few vulgar threats) at the end of which some money changed hands.


I have no idea how Husband stayed calm through this exchange, but when his driver came back he opened the door and said, “You ride with him now.”


You read that right: my husband had been not only sold, but haggled over. 


Showing a degree of trust that I would never have advised, had I been there, Husband switched cabs without complaint and continued on toward the border.  And, since no new cabs appeared to take Husband off the relief driver’s hands for an outrageous sum, it was in this second cab that they arrived at the border sometime after dark.


Husband showed his UN identification at the Greek side of the border and they let him through without any issue… leaving him to walk some 200 well-lit but empty, perilous meters alone.


sphynx gate scene from Neverending Story (first gate of the Southern Oracle)

Everybody remembers this scene from Neverending Story, right?  Because it was basically this, but with guns.


Suddenly very aware that he was in a no-man’s land where he could get shot for looking suspicious (read: foreign), Husband did what any trained military person learns to do early in their career: looked confident and walked a direct, purposeful line.


wally looks busy

All he was missing was a coffee cup, maybe a binder.


He reached the Macedonian gate without the gift of additional holes, and there he again showed his UN identification, along with his military ID.  The tense guards handed him a log book, noting the date and time of his signature.  While he was doing this, they stamped his passport and issued him a tourist visa—yeah, that seemed strange to him too but you know what?  They hadn’t shot him yet and he was feeling like they could stamp any damned thing they wanted as long as they kept all their bullets inside their guns. 


Then they sent him out the Macedonian side to wait, assuring him that a bus came by every few hours.  This being 1995, the smart phone hadn’t been invented yet (and he wouldn’t have been able to get a decent signal, anyway) so he pulled out a book to wait it out.


Minutes later, a Humvee pulled up carrying four men in blue berets he recognized.[3]  They recognized him right back and greeted him with only a little confusion before marching sharply to the gatehouse and asking for “the border book”.  The border guards shook their heads and pointed at Husband.


 He’d just signed it.


Turns out, what’s supposed to happen in a situation like that (and let’s face it, how often does someone decide to put a bomb in the President’s car, prompting the government to close the borders?  This is not an annual event, or even one they drill for) is that scouts from the UN Preventative Deployment Force in that area(the 550-not-10,000 mentioned previously) come ‘round to each border crossing, sign the book to “officially” close the border, and stay put until it is reopened. 


The Macedonian border guards, being efficient, handed their border book over to the first UN soldier they saw.


UN soldier

This guy.  The one who welds in foxholes for funsies.



And that, lovelies, is the story of how my husband—the man who had, only one month previous, invaded Albania all by himself—single-handedly closed the Macedonian border.


An Army Of One slogan

I think I mentioned before, but they came up with this slogan just after he got out.





[1] He cannot say for certain whether he took the nuts or whether they helped.  But more importantly, remember when airlines offered snacks?  Now you’re lucky if they’ll pour you half a can of flat soda, what’s with that?  I used to fly a lot as a kid (my parents were always fighting over who’d get stuck with me) and I remember getting hot towels even in coach.  Twenty years later and I have to pay extra if I want to have somewhere to put my feet.


[2] A skill he has since lost.  Seriously, he’ll even argue against me pulling out the phone to get directions, like the phone is going to judge him?  I mean, my phone totally will, but it’s judging him anyway.  Because it is in every way better than his phone.


[3] The men, not the berets.  Although, he tells me now, the berets got to be pretty familiar too—apparently there’s this thing that happens when everyone around you is wearing the exact same uniform: you learn to recognize individuals by the way they stand, walk, and the little details like just how sharp they keep the angle on their beret.  I’ve quizzed him on it, with old photos of men whose faces are teeny blobs in the distance; he and his friends can name every blob.


9 comments on “Ich bin ein Berliner – A Greek Saga, Pt III (Story Time!)

  1. Arionis says:

    Single handedly closed the border. That’s something for the resume. I enjoyed that three parter immensely. Remind me to tell you about the time my Navy buddy and I decided to do some mountain climbing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We were not considered a few good men.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. josypheen says:

    This is such a cool story! I love that he managed to close a boarder by himself…by mistake!

    It is really weird about airline food and drinks isn’t it. I remember when I’d be full (or tipsy) from all the snacks and drinks, but even on long flights you don’t fed these days. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right? I mean, the food wasn’t good (I remember having to order a vegetarian or kosher meal in order to get something that resembled food) but it was there and the drinks were plentiful. We got stuck on a runway for three hours a few years ago and the flight attendant wouldn’t even tell me to my face that there would be no alcohol—she hid at the front of the plane and waited until my poor husband went to find her!

      Liked by 1 person

      • josypheen says:

        Bwahahaha it is pretty funny that she had to hide from you! silly lady! I get so bored when I fly I am considering taking sleeping pills and just Zzz-ing my way through my next one. Then at least I won’t miss the food!


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