Everyone has one. You offer them over coffee, they come to you by phone. Some are amusing, some bizarre, and a few are downright scary. They're Austrian Horror Stories. I became aware of them after running afoul of Austrian authorities myself and being "handled" in a manner that elsewhere is reserved for criminals.
Last fall I made the mistake of slowing down instead of stopping at the railway crossing between Wolfstahl and Hainburg. My car was bonked by the lowering barrier and the train went safely by, end of story. On the way back, Austrian border police took my passport away for twenty minutes before accusing me of failing to report an accident. During the ensuing two-hour ordeal I was asked four times by three uniformed men how much money I had with me. They took everything in my wallet - 1500 Shillings.
In some places they call this extortion. Insult to injury, a month later I received an insurance claim from the railway for damage to the barrier and causing a delay to the train. What?! The damage was on my car, and the train only slowed so the driver could shake his finger at me and note my plate number. The insurance company said they receive these outrageous claims from Austrian officials all the time.
I started asking around and this is what people are telling me:
An American woman with a diplomatic passport was stopped by the same officials at Berg for using the wrong approach lane. She was also asked how much money she had. Being smarter than me, she refused to hand over what little she was carrying. A Canadian banker was fined for 'speeding within 30 meters of the border zone.' A British banker had to pay for not having his insurance papers in the glovebox.
Another Canadian, driving his new official car with diplomatic plates, was refused entry into Austria on the grounds that the vehicle was not yet insured despite papers -yes, in the glovebox- to the contrary. Had he been willing to give them several thousand shillings, they would have wished him a pleasant journey.
These nasties were all done unto card-carrying diplomats. Real horrors are apparently saved for Slovaks: a stewardess was thrown in jail for three days because she entered a Metro store with a previously-bought handbag and no receipt to prove she hadn't stolen it. A taxi driver was arrested in the Hainburg Billa when the men in front of him set off its electronic alarm. He was fined ATS 500 to cover the store's call to police despite being innocent of any charge.
Even Austrian citizens who have the nerve to live in Slovakia are abused. Renate Pammer, wife of the former Austrian ambassador to Slovakia, told me she and her husband were also rudely treated at Berg. Beat that for border bravado.
Mrs. Pammer guardedly blamed new, poorly-trained, arrogant personnel. Looks to me more like systemic bad attitude. Hey Austria! Wake up and smell the coffee; we're increasingly getting our Eduschos in Bratislava, Brno and Gyor. Schengen, schmengen, this loss of good will is going to cost you more than just schillings.
Double Takes appears monthly.
16. Jan 1997 at 0:00 | Double Takes