When I was a little girl, my family travelled a lot around Europe. That meant crossing a lot of borders. Some you could just step over. Others were long lines of creeping traffic, and producing documents to customs officials who shook their heads. Some came in the form of a harsh knock on your train compartment in the middle of the night. A journey from Brussels to Basle had three sets of customs officials banging on the compartment.
When we lived in Geneva the French border was just a stone’s throw away. I went to school in France. My family shopped in France. Each time we were stopped at the border. Documents were presented, the trunk was inspected. When we lived in Belgium, you could hardly swing a cat without hitting a border, though in the Benelux countries they were often just a line on the pavement. You could hop on a tram and be in Holland at the next stop. We would go shopping in Lille and smuggle our new shoes in by wearing them and leaving the old ones behind.
Borders were where things changed. The uniforms changed. The state of the roads changed. The railway carriages changed. The language on the signs changed. The money changed.
As a child I found borders exciting. My over active imagination loved the dramatic potential. When the knock came on our train compartment, I would pretend that we were fleeing to Vichy France. When the soldier with the gun holster leaned in the car window to check the passengers against our passports, I imagined I was a spy trying to escape back to the West. I remember a restaurant that spanned a border crossing. The main dining room was in France, but the toilets were in Italy. A dotted line marked the border. I must have driven my parents insane, popping up every few minutes and declaring: “I’m off to Italy. Ciao!”
The most exciting thing about borders was the space between them. It was called: No Man’s Land and to me it sounded like a sort of geographical Narnia. It was a place with no flag, no rules, and generally, no people. It evoked battle fields, and daring escapes to freedom. Sometimes it was only a few hundred yards long. Other times it might go on for a mile or more. No Man’s Land was topped and tailed by barriers, manned by armed border guards and always felt slightly off kilter. The definition of No Man’s Land is: land that is unoccupied, or is under dispute between parties that leave it unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty, and there was still a lingering feeling of conflict and war in those barren stretches.
As an adult borders were nothing but a pain in the backside, adding hours and forms and hassle to both doing business, and going on holiday. And then the border controls were lifted, and I forgot all the wasted hours and reams of paperwork it took to get things through customs. I forgot that sense of danger land that a soldier with a machine gun could evoke, when passing from one country to a foreign land.
Europeans under the age of 30 (the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985) have never known borders. On a trip to Southern France last year, I amused myself by trying to figure out if we were in Italy or France as we drove down the windy road to Nice. The road signs and shop fronts were the only clue that we had indeed crossed a geographical border. Young Europeans, like my children, have grown up in a world where they could travel, study and work anywhere in the European Union. It is as much a part of who they are as the country that figures on their European passports. That is only a part of the picture, which because I took advantage of the free movement of goods services and people, includes Ireland. I asked one of my daughters if she felt Belgian (the country on her passport), Irish (the country she grew up in and still calls home), or Scottish (the country she has lived in for over a decade). She answered that she felt a bit of each, but totally European.
The shock of the Brexit vote has yet to sink in. What it will mean for us in West Cork, and what it will mean on the international stage is yet to be seen. Let’s hope that it does not include a return to the borders of my childhood.