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Source Photographic Review - Back Issue Archive - Issue 22 Spring 2000 - Feature Page - At the Border  - Feature Article by Colm Tóibín.

At the Border
by Colm Tóibín

Source - Issue 22 - Spring - 2000 - Click for Contents

Issue 22 Spring 2000
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View photographs from: Europe Between the Lines ▸

In the middle of the night, they snaked their way down the mountain. There must have been twenty or thirty vans and they were smuggling cigarettes and whiskey from the principality of Andorra, still a duty-free zone, to the villages in the Catalan Pyreness. They had their headlights turned off and they stuck close together, their life made much easier by the mobile phone. It would be easy for look-outs to alert them to the presence of police or customs officials. This is an easy route in summer, if your suspension is good and you know the road. In the winter, it is impassable.

Andorra is a great reminder of an older Western Europe, where borders were heavily guarded and where smuggling was a way of life. It is easy to drive into Andorra now, and all summer vast numbers come by coach and car from as far away as the coast to snap up duty-free bargains. The main supermarket is like a vast modern cathedral, dedicated to the saints Visa and Mastercard with special side altars devoted to cash and cheques. Whole floors are awash with coffee-making machines, hoovers, huge cheeses, twenty-five types of yoghurt, massive bargains in water and wine. Duty-free shopping has become a modern pilgrimage, and space is so valuable that there is barely headroom to stand up in the multi-story car park. People stock up as though a long snowed-in winter were looming or the world were coming to an end.

And then the drama of leaving Andorra. The queue of cars. Ahead are officials, police and customs men, both Andorran and Spanish. They wave you by, or they motion you to pull in. It is like the old days, they can do what they please to you, and they decide just by looking at you or your car. If you look nervous, they'll stop you; if you don't look nervous, they'll also stop you. But maybe they'll let you go. And if they stop you, they may just open the boot and close it again, and put a considered look on their faces, and gesture you to go. Or they may go through every single thing you own, looking at books as though they might be serious contraband. Or they could even charge you duty on the ghetto blaster you bought. You're in their power.

In the 1970s all trips in and out of Spain were like this, and if you lived in Spain without a residence permit, as most foreigners did, then every three months you had to travel from, say, Barcelona to Port-Bou on the French border by train, have your passport stamped, wait for a few hours and then have your passport stamped again. And if this was before 1976, when things began to liberalise in Spain, you could get any amount of forbidden pornography in Port-Bou and you could see the serious art-house films which were still banned in Spain. Port-Bou became a reminder for Spaniards of what the future was going to look like.

It was also a reminder of the past. In 1939, this was where those who lost the civil war fled. This is the territory where they remained homeless and without hope, often digging in the sand of the nearby beaches for a place where they could find shelter. Some of them were sent back to Spain and executed or imprisoned; many of them never crossed the border into Spain again. Here, too, to this border crossing, came many fleeing from the Nazis, including the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide when he finally realised that he would not be allowed to cross. He is buried nearby.

In the 1970s you had plenty of time to ponder all of this, as the night trains from Paris or northern Italy arrived at the Spanish border in the early morning and then you always had to wait an hour or two, unshaven and unslept in the grey dawn, for the connecting train on a narrower railway line to take you into Spain. That was before Spain joined the European Union.

The Union has made the border crossings into sadder, stranger, half-used places. Nowadays, you must go east to find serious, heavy-duty border guards who mean business. Once during the war in the former Yugoslavia, I was the only one getting off the train which left Venice in the early afternoon and arrived in Zagreb late at night. Two policemen, all pomp and circumstance, accompanied me to the police depot where they inspected my belongings, my dollars and my person as though this were Lilliput and I were Gulliver. And they then did the thing that officials relish more than anything in the whole world: they sent for a more senior official. And when he came they stood back gravely and explained me to him. And then he looked at me and my belongings and my dollars. And then they held my dollars up to the light. Neither Beckett nor Pinter - this was too light for Kafka - could have done better.

And in the former Yugoslavia, the country that got away is called Slovenia. It did not take part in the war. Instead, it concentrated on building up its economy, the happiness of its people and its record on civil rights. Its only problem was that no one took it seriously. As a way of establishing its gravity, it employed vast numbers of beautifully-dressed and incredibly handsome and polite customs officials to man the main train lines and charm passengers. They told you each time they represented the independent republic of Slovenia. They smiled at you. It was only when I crossed the border from Slovenia into Croatia on a smaller branch line and saw no Slovenian customs officials that I realised they were only on the main line for show.

The Hungarians have a lot to learn from them. The thing that depresses Hungarians most is that Romanians have been free to travel into their country. Their revenge is to make the border-crossing by train so slow and so full of the ominous and the fearful that it might discourage Romanians or at least put the fear of God into them. The customs officials and border guards are clearly trained by being shown infinite numbers of movies full of barbed wire, Alsatian dogs, jackboots and beamed lighting.

One Sunday night in 1990 as I came from Bucharest to Budapest, the train stopped at the border for an hour or so. Suddenly, it started again, and went backwards, it jolted, and then stopped again. The officials arrived in their peaked caps and grey uniforms. Passports, they wanted passports. Quickly. One of them watched you, while his colleague looked at your passport. My Irish passport was too much for them. They studied me and it carefully and then disappeared with it.

And then a horde of other uniforms arrived and their job was to search the attic of the train. I didn't know that trains had attics, but this one had small openings into an area between the ceiling and the roof. They brought in ladders and torches and looked at us all as though they had discovered our dark secret. It took hours.

A man in uniform returned with my passport and asked me in German where my visa was. I told him in faltering Eurospeak that I didn't need a visa. He asked me again and I told him again. And then he let a massive roar at me in German which reminded me of every movie I'd ever seen. He disappeared again, and later he sent back a minion to hand me my passport.

Soon, with prosperity and Europeanisation, this will all go too, and the border crossing between Romania and Hungary will be a small, neat, modern building, and the guards will wave at you as you drive by, and wish you a pleasant journey. Slowly, Europe as we knew it is coming to an end.

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