Push the Panic Button
My heart sank into my stomach as I walked towards the man at the desk in uniform. Why was he stamping passports? Would he stamp mine? But I wasn’t leaving the EU! Ker-PLUNK went the stamper. Usually a joyous sound for my ears, but the opposite this time. Inside I shrieked with horror but tried to maintain my cool on the outside. I’d been gallivanting all around Europe for the past week, skipping effortlessly from country to country with no passport checks. Americans weren’t allowed in these countries, but there was no passport control between all the amazing stops: I’d just been toured through Germany to Lithuania to Latvia to Finland to Estonia to The Netherlands…I was bouncing around seeing awesome city after awesome city without having to hand over my passport to anyone. Nothing could stop me! I was invincible! But now I was just stamped out of a country, which means when I landed in Bulgaria, I’d need to be stamped in. This wasn’t good. Not at all.
I immediately fired off a text to one of my well-traveled friends and asked him if he could figure out why the heck they just stamped me out of Amsterdam.
“Bulgaria isn’t Schengen,” Andy replied.
Crap. I’d made a fatal mistake. I’d not only been in the EU for the past week, but specifically, inside an area called “The Schengen Zone” – a zone consisting of 26 European countries who had essentially abolished their internal borders, for the free and unrestricted movement of people. Once you enter the Schengen area, it’s like you’re in one big country, and the nations within are kind of like “states.” Bulgaria was outside this area of free movement, which was the reason I was stamped out of The Netherlands – I was exiting the Schengen Zone, and that was not good news for an American like me.
I quickly Googled Bulgaria’s travel restrictions, and sure as shootin’, Americans were not allowed to enter due to the pandemic. I had but two hours until my flight from Amsterdam to Sofia would leave and I had a lot of thinking to do. Should I cut my losses, forget Bulgaria, and head straight to my next destination of Montenegro? Montenegro was not in the Schengen Zone either, however it was wide open to American tourists like me. I’d saved two “open” countries for my last: Montenegro and Albania. They were indeed welcoming Americans, unlike most of their neighbors. I thought it might be smart to just head there now, since I was already at Amsterdam‘s Schipol Airport – it would be easier to just head their at this point, rather than chance spending the day traveling all the way to Sofia just to get turned around and sent back. But what if I could get into Bulgaria? What if I did manage to charm my way in? After all, I had made appointments at radio stations there, so technically I was coming in on “business.” And I was only planning on staying two nights – maybe they’d have mercy on me and let me slide in for a couple days. I’d been lucky this entire trip so far, and scored a 99% on my trip in June – succeeding at bucking the odds and entering over a dozen countries that didn’t allow Americans. It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it. I’d come this far – I went ahead and decided to take my chances. Here we go.
(Cue Rod Serling) You Are Now Entering…(err, leaving)…The Schengen Zone
I emailed everyone I could think of before my flight to Sofia left: the Bulgarian Foreign Minister‘s Office, the Bulgarian Health Authority, The Bulgarian Border Police…even a Bulgarian immigration company I found on Facebook. It was a last attempt at a Hail Mary and frankly, I’ve gotten lucky before. My hope was that someone was in the office and would respond with an invitation, exemption, or some kind of “permission slip” to enter by the time I landed in Sofia. It was time to board. It was now or nothing.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Bulgaria…Now Leave!
Two hours and 40 minutes later we’d touched down. I wasn’t feeling good about this. It said right there, in black and white on the travel website: Americans are not allowed to enter. I took a deep breathe, grabbed my backpack and headed down the aisle, out of the plane, and into the immigration line. I picked the booth with the woman, hoping I could charm her with a smile and some old fashioned manners. It didn’t take long before I knew that my old tricks weren’t working. She was now on the phone calling someone and told me to wait to the side while she took care of the next person in line. Oh boy, this didn’t feel good.
Soon, a male officer arrived and asked if I had permission to enter; an invitation letter. I admitted I didn’t, and then came the dreaded, “Please come with me” – those famous last words from Locked Up Abroad.
I actually kind of wish that what happened next would’ve been even a little more exciting – maybe a more interesting story to bring home, but it’s probably best that it wasn’t. I was simply asked to sit on a bench outside the office while a trio of uniformed men and women took my passport and documents. They returned shortly, confirming that I indeed could not enter. Before they even suggested my options, I’d offered to them that I would happily exit on the next flight to Serbia, which was leaving in 90 minutes. They agreed, I got on the phone and booked the ticket, and 30 minutes later an officer was escorting me back into the international departures terminal of the Sofia International Airport.
It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye
I guess it could’ve been so much worse. There could have been no flight options out that day and I would’ve had to sleep in the airport…or worse, on the floor of the immigration office, or worse, a cell! This big mistake thankfully only wound up being a minor inconvenience. The flights out worked out perfectly, almost to the second. I’d leave in an hour for Belgrade, where I’d change planes and start my Montenegro trip two days early. I’d planned this exact route anyway, so I didn’t have to take any detours or fly anywhere that I didn’t need to go anyway. While I was a little bummed I’d miss Bulgaria, all in all, I say I got pretty lucky. Soon it was wheels up, and I was saying goodbye to the country that didn’t want me. It’s okay, I’d be back.
Almost Doesn’t Count
Us 193’ers (the crazy folk attempting to visit every country) all count our visits differently. Some count airport visits and transits – I certainly don’t. I did not and will not add Bulgaria to my “seen” list until I actually have time on the ground there, outside the confines of the airport.