The girl was unremarkably pretty, but pretty nonetheless. I decided to enter her cabin not out of any romantic ambitions, but because her appearance was much less intimidating than the Eastern European scowls I had encountered while looking for a seat on the train that night.
Plus, in my short time in the region, I had learned that the younger generation was a safer bet to speak English.
I was on an overnight train from Prague, capital of the Czech Republic to Budapest, Hungary, and desperate for conversation. I gave a greeting in shaky Czech. Gratefully, she answered in seamless English.
Her name was Ramona. She was from Romania, studying in Slovakia and on her way back to Bratislava, the capital. She had short brown hair, a friendly smile, and clear, fair skin on a face with no makeup. She had just returned from four fruitless days at the Romanian Embassy in Prague, where she had tried to gain a visa to the United States. A shy yet fiercely intelligent person, her dream was to continue studying in Washington. But she had been denied repeatedly.
"It's because they think we are all Romanies [Gypsies]," she said. "I am not. I have nothing against Romanies. But it is impossible to live anywhere outside of Romania with this," she said as she lifted her red Romanian passport.
As if on cue, a pair of Slovak customs agents entered our cabin. They gave a quick, cursory glance at my US passport, then proceeded to question Ramona suspiciously. Where was she from? What was she doing? Where? Why? For how long?
When they finally left, she smiled and looked down at my passport longingly. "It must be nice to have one of those," she said. "It's like magic."
I looked at the passport, bent and dogeared from long nights stuffed in a back pocket, and stared at the eagle and the inscription - United States of America, as if seeing it for the first time.
It was the first of many encounters as a journalist traveling through this region that would point to the power held in that small blue book. Americans are not always welcome. At the height of the Kosovo war in particular, there were times it was dangerous to declare my nationality. But more often than not, a US passport is a ticket to the world.
Reasons for the harsh scrutiny of many travelers include efforts to curb international mafias, drug smuggling, and especially illegal immigration. When you have 22 countries crammed into an area little larger Texas, it isn't easy to keep boundaries sharp. And as travel among many European Union states has become more relaxed, border controls have tightened with the rest of Europe. "Breaking down internal borders in order to build up external ones," as one Czech official put it.
Western countries that once welcomed easterners fleeing the Soviet bloc now worry about a flood of migrants seeking generous social benefits. "It's a perception that the people are more of a burden on the government, not beneficial to it," says Simon Russell, policy officer for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
There is also an element of racism against Asian and African migrants. African-Americans are stopped and questioned in Europe much more frequently than white Americans, Mr. Russell says.
Once, on a bus crossing from Slovakia into the Czech Republic, customs agents carefully studied all other passengers' passports, double-checking faces against the pictures, but I didn't even have to open mine. We waited 30 minutes for three Czechs and a German man to be searched before departing.
Another time I was awakened brusquely in the middle of the night during a train trip from Spain to Switzerland. The Swiss border guard barked as I stared, shaking my head, for an uncomfortable five minutes, until I realized he was asking for my passport. When I pulled it out, he apologized in perfect English. "It's OK," he said with a toothy grin. "You're American. Return to sleep."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society