Last week, we started a two-part series where I tried to wrap my feeble mind around an evolving fixation on borders. We started with grandiose adventures across the somewhat meaningless boundary between Queensland and New South Wales, followed by the thoroughly underwhelming frontiers in Europe and the more exciting crossing further east.
We landed at Tehran at four in the morning and before we’d left the plane, my girlfriend had to put on a hijab. She had practiced in Istanbul, and make sure she was wearing a coat that hung below her bum and didn’t hug her body too closely.
We took it all very seriously. After all, we had just dropped out of the sky into a strange city. A huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini lorded over the baggage hall. The inflation-riddled currency felt strange in our hands. It was four in the morning, freezing and snowy outside, and we had just slept in a cylinder in the sky. We were like children — nothing made sense. So when strangers in brown uniforms demanded to see the little books that somehow proved our identities, asked deeply personal questions and assumed the right of admittance to this corner of the world, we didn’t question any of it.
Three weeks later, we left Iran over the northern border into Armenia. In terms of contrasts, this is one of the best I have encountered. To the north, Armenia is the first nation state that embraced Christianity as its official religion — around the turn of the fourth century AD. It spent much of the 20th century as a far flung province of the godless Soviet empire and is now a democratic republic. To the south, Iran is an authoritarian, somewhat-democratic theocracy governed by god and a “Supreme Leader,” with a cultural mosaic firmly rooted in the Middle East.
A customs agent stamped our passports at two in the morning, and then soldiers in balaclavas and desert camouflage ushered us outside. A dimly lit bridge hovered in the night and snow glowed in the riverbed beneath it. The lights of the Armenian border post shone at the bridge’s far end. When we were ordered to walk, we passed Iranian soldiers crouching behind sandbags on the bridge and fingering Kalashnikovs.
Once we had crossed the line marking the centre of the bridge and the international boundary, my girlfriend stopped, turned and pulled off her headscarf. She whipped her bleached blonde hair around for the benefit of the watching soldiers of the Islamic Republic. She even stepped briefly back onto the Iranian side — where such actions are highly illegal — to shake her free hair and pull some rather provocative dance moves before slipping back into the safety of Armenia.
Back to Europe, 2019
This summer, nine years after my first solo trip, Hailee and I flew to the Netherlands to meet up with the Dutch side of my family. We loaded into two cars and drove to a campground in distant south-central France. In one day we passed through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. This was high summer, when northern Europe migrates south for its summer holidays, and peering at license plates revealed the highway as a river with origins all over Europe. There were loaded station wagons from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark. There were semi-trailers from Spain, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
Lately I have taken an intense interest in the era surrounding the French Revolution, mainly thanks to Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions” podcast. The revolution in France — whose causes and course we do not need to get into here — sparked a series of conflicts collectively known as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Between 1792 and 1815 (with the exception of a single year — 1802), much of Western Europe was engulfed in war. As we drove south, we passed the sites of many of the crucial battlefields from those years, including Valmy, Neerwinden, Austerlitz and Waterloo — to say nothing of the even more destructive conflicts of the early 20th century.
Now, in terms of daily life, those once-contentious borders have been all but eliminated. Languages and cultures still thrive, but a generation has grown up taking it for granted that they can move, study, work and marry across those old battle lines — and largely without paperwork. Friendships forged in the boozy haze of Erasmus student exchange programs now span the continent — and help to bind it together.
The world we live in is heavily influenced by the ideas first put into practice during the tumult of the French Revolution. One of these, dubbed “nationalism” by historians, helped bind a loosely affiliated constellation of regions and cities into something bigger: a French national identity that allowed tens of millions of Parisians, Provencals, Normans, Bretons and more — all with unique cultures, customs, languages and dialects — to cooperate on a huge scale and coexist in relative peace.
I have been very fortunate to be able to travel as much as I have, and I have crossed more than a few borders in my time. And while my better stories come from the trickier crossings between the likes of Iran and Armenia, I now realise that they are a modern anachronism. Ideas, information and capital move freely around the world at high speed, but we human beings are still hamstrung by the rules and regulations we’ve built around imaginary lines. Despite this, some world leaders still ascribe a kind of mythological sanctity to their borders. In recent years I have been harassed by U.S. border patrol while camping in the shadow of the wall near Tijuana, and witnessed the extravagant nationalistic rituals around the closing of the Wagah crossing between India and Pakistan. Both made me deeply uncomfortable.
“It’s an administrative boundary organized by bureaucrats,” I wanted to yell at the American border agents, or the wild crowds of Indian patriots. “You’re taking this all far too seriously.”
As the pop historian-turned-philosopher Noah Yuval Harari has pointed out, so much of human advancement and cooperation depends on our collective belief in fictional entities like corporations, religions, nations and laws. And while I can see how each of these inventions have been very useful in helping human cooperation throughout our history, I think it’s important to remember that they aren’t actually real — just a river or a mountain range or, even stranger, an imaginary line — and we should take them just a little less seriously.