213. Borders

I don’t need to remind you what Europe is like today. Everyone knows her troubles. Refugees, and terrorists disguised as refugees, are flooding in, and once they arrive, they can move more or less freely from country to country. BREXIT came largely as a result of this crisis, with the threat of terrorism and economic dislocation driving the vote.

It was very different in 1989, the year in which the novel Raven’s Run (see Serial) takes place. There were no open borders, even between friendly countries. When my wife and I traveled from Switzerland to Italy during that era, the train crossed the Italian border at 2 AM. It stopped and a cadre of officials came aboard, moving from car to car, waking everyone up and checking passports. Of course, as Americans, it was a formality. Our passports carried us through without strain, but if there had been an irregularity . . .

There was an irregularity later, coming back from Hungary. A young and carefree European, French as I recall, had gotten into Hungary – God knows how –  with a passport, but without a visa. He confessed his lack to everyone in the coach, and laughed about it. Some very surly individuals took him off at the border. I never saw him again, but I had to wonder how funny it seemed a few hours later.

I had my own irregularity, harmless but thought provoking, earlier that same summer. My wife and I were camping at Innsbruck, Austria. When you camped or stayed in a hotel in those days, the owner confiscated your passport when you checked in and returned it when you left. It was the law throughout most of Europe.

We took a day trip from Innbruck to Reuthe, also in Austria. We did not know that the train passed through Germany on the way. As we crossed the German border, some very severe guards, with automatic pistols at their hips, came demanding passports. My wife had hers; I didn’t.

I took German in high school, which is very close to not taking it at all. I tried to ask why, but my one word “Warum?” (Why?) got me nowhere. The border guard repeated his demand for my passport. My weak German “Ins camping.” (It’s at the campground.) must have made sense to him. He had to know that holding passports at campgrounds and hotels was the law. It didn’t melt his icy stare.

Now I have met many people traveling through Germany, both before and after this incident. They were universally friendly and helpful, and they all spoke English, especially after trying to deal with my attempts at German. Not these guys. They just looked pissed. It was probably an act, but they had me convinced at the time.

Those of us with passport irregularities were taken to another car, without explanation, with just gestures and an intense glare, where we were sealed in. We passed through a piece of Germany and back into Austria, and were released.

It wasn’t life threatening, nor the stuff of spy novels, but it was very much a part of the system the Eurozone was designed to overcome. Open borders did away with a lot of annoyance, and allowed a freedom of movement that helped bring prosperity to Europe.

Today, new circumstances are bringing Europeans to reconsider that openness.

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