There can be no internationalism without nationalism, no interdependence without dependence
The train crossed the border while I slept. I woke in another country. This time there was no midnight inspection, no bullying border guard. I remembered past ordeals: a U.S. official who squeezed out my toothpaste tube on the train from Montreal to Philadelphia, another who hauled me off a bus for a lengthy interrogation that culminated in his shouting that the friend I was visiting in Boston could not be American if she had a Hispanic name.
A French border guard in the Pyrenees had stuffed a sniffer dog’s snout into my backpack so hard that the creature whimpered, and a Czech official, eager to record the Czech names in my address book, had pulled me back after I had crossed into Poland. Moldovan guards removed most of my clothes searching for dollars; a Peruvian soldier stranded me for hours on a strip of sand by refusing to stamp me into Peru after I had been stamped out of Ecuador.
These experiences evaporated into the morning light as the train rolled into the capital. The southernmost region of the country where I got off the train was called “the Borders.” Daily parlance insisted on the boundary’s significance. Scotland had defied nearly three centuries of political union by retaining a different legal system than England, different religious traditions, a different school and university curriculum, different banknotes, different names and accents.
Most intangibly and tellingly, Scotland felt different. I remembered how, in my teens, when I briefly attended a Scottish school, the sense of entering an unfamiliar atmosphere enveloped me the moment I saw the bulging cliffs falling away below the sheer stone ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. The feeling returned on the morning of my arrival in Edinburgh from London in December 2003. Postmodern stylization had made the restaurant food more palatable and given the tourist attractions a slick veneer. Scots had embraced the new era as an opportunity to consolidate their borders. Cranes and scaffolding were visible everywhere as the Scottish Parliament and its attendant institutions took shape. Eons from Braveheart, Rob Roy or Bonnie Prince Charlie, today’s Scots have modelled themselves less on warrior chieftains than on the self-assured distinctness of efficient European welfare states.
We do not need tyrannical or racist border guards, but we do need borders. The current cant about “the borderless world” overlooks the obvious: there can be no internationalism without nationalism, no interdependence without independence. As Mark Abley wrote in his recent book Spoken Here: “No one has yet figured out how to be a citizen of the world and only the world.” International experience—all experience, in fact—rings hollow if the planet is undifferentiated and no exertion, adaptation or personal growth is required to stretch oneself between cultures. Besides, the differences that borders foster can be delicious.
In August 2001 I used the last day of my Eurail Pass to board a train that crossed “borderless” western Europe from Amsterdam to central Switzerland. South of Frankfurt, the castles of the Rhine paraded past. At the Swiss border the train left the European Union without an immigration inspection. We passed through Basel and Zurich and rode along the edge of the Zürichsee, where swimmers frolicked in the water at fenced-in resorts. The mountains seemed to bleed greenness until, at the end of the lake, they grew taller, stretching into huge fractured- looking boulders. At 7:00 in the evening, the train reached the end of the line at Chur, in international jet-set country: local trains departed for expensive resorts like Davos and St. Moritz.
I had stepped out of my price bracket. Hotel rooms in Chur started at around $225 a night; I could find no pensions or bed-and-breakfasts. In search of a place to sleep, I returned to the station and hopped the next train back to Zurich and Basel. Night was falling. The waters of the lake, containing fewer swimmers now, had absorbed the greenness of the mountains. The train emptied in Basel at 10:00 p.m. Basel’s hotels, too, proved to be beyond my battered budget. Even the sleazy place over the strip joint cost $150 a night. I returned to the train station, approached three young backpackers and asked them where they spent the night.
“Across the border,” they said.
Basel (Bâle, in French) lay at the junction of Switzerland, France and Germany. The train station straddled the border between Switzerland and France. By moving to the French end of the station, travellers left regimented Switzerland for a more expressive culture that accepted sleeping in train stations. As I watched, American and Asian backpackers showered in immaculate Swiss bathrooms, deposited their packs in vault-like Swiss lockers, then walked along the platform, displayed their passports to the official seated beneath the blue sign that said “France,” and disappeared through the double doors of the border to bed down on the benches of the French end of the station.
I was so charmed by this solution that I nearly adopted it myself. In the end I chose a third option, boarding the last train of the night to Freiburg, Germany, where I found a pleasant, affordable pension. As I fell asleep, I murmured praises to cultural multiplicity and the borders that enabled it to flourish.