The first time I drove into the country of my birth it was still a Communist dictatorship under Joseph Broz Tito, the man who had declared my family enemy aliens. The very thought of it made my father fear he would never see me again. But I was a confident young American, determined to be afraid of nothing.
It was 1973 and I was working in France, near Geneva. I had a few days off and drove through beautiful Alps and Italian countryside that would in later life captivate me for years. But I drove nonstop — blind to scenery, culture and food — determined to arrive at my aunt’s house in Zagreb, Croatia.
I remember little of the trip, and didn’t even bother pausing in Trieste, heading straight for the nearby border. I pulled up behind a long row of cars at the border station. I had anticipated this checkpoint for weeks, but by the time they were clearing the car in front of me, I was tired and bored and anxious to be at my destination. The guards made that occupant get out, and checked every inch of his car’s interior, dismantling everything that was easy to remove.
Finally they finished, the guy got back into that rattletrap, and the border gate opened. It was a long metal white bar with globally understood red symbols that meant ‘STOP.’ He painstakingly got his ancient car into gear, and it backfired as he slowly stumbled into his country — as his license plate indicated.
To my surprise, before this maneuver was complete, the guard energetically waved me forward and through the border into the country of my birth — as my passport indicated.
My car performed far more efficiently than the previous entrant’s and I sailed through — to sudden shouting, something slapping at the back of my car, people running at me, perhaps a siren.
I braked hard, turned my head, and realized I had misunderstood his gesture. Adrenaline and fear kicked in hard. What had I done? Were my father’s worst fears about to come true?
I threw the car into reverse and stepped on the gas pedal to correct my error.
Once more, the car performed. It tore backwards and stopped in front of the now red-faced and furious border guard.
On its way back my car had ripped the border gate off its hinges.
A crowd of officials gathered, waving and shouting and asking if I was out of my mind. Two of them walked away, carrying the now broken barrier. The line behind me grew longer. Tensions were high. I fought back tears.
I don’t know what saved me in the end. Whether it was my American nationality, my gender, my youth, my visible terror, my knowledge of their language, my apologies, or the sheer lunacy of what I had done. All I remember is that they handed me my passport, shook their heads, and waved me through the now permanently open border to a once frightening place.