Border Crossings

“Much travel is needed before the raw man is ripened.” —Middle Eastern proverb

Over the weekend we took the train to Berlin to visit friends. It’s a mostly pretty, five-hour trip, half of it along the Vltava (Moldau) River, which quite mysteriously morphs into the Elbe just before the German border. Along the way, I read Tony Hiss’s 2010 In Motion: The Experience of Travel, a suitably meandering exploration of the notion of “deep travel.” More than the familiar distinction between “tourism” and “travel,” deep travel (or, as Hiss prefers, Deep Travel) involves matters as wide-ranging as time, space, and human evolution, and—if I’m reading Hiss right—can apply to anything from a global expedition to a trip around the corner to buy milk. Take yoga’s mindfulness and add it to travel, and you’re more or less there.

b1Among much else that got this traveler’s brain going, Hiss speaks of those moments on journeys “that take us out of ourselves rather than just away from the place we were leaving. Moments when something has shifted.” He likens such junctures to a “magic carpet,” which can elevate us to another platform of experience where we become “aware that we have somehow been jarred loose from pieces of our ordinary thinking; we are not quite sure what might happen next for better or worse. A threshold has somehow been crossed; a horizon has receded.”


As I sat there in the little six-seat compartment of our Czech train, watching literal platforms float in and out of view as we journeyed from one former Soviet bloc country to the other—a trip once unthinkable and now routine, like driving from Ann Arbor to Chicago—I thought of other border crossings. Back and forth from Spain to France in the 1980s, when the conductors had to noisily expand or contract the wheels under the cars to fit the differently gauged rail tracks in each country. (Spanish tracks were impossibly wide and slow, French narrow and slick—all of this, I was told, a defense strategy instituted by Franco.) Or my one visit to Berlin during those same years, the fraught crossings by subway and bus and on foot from west to east and back again, scenes out of a movie except that this was real—though far more real for the families I saw opening their bags for inspection in Friedrichstrasse station than it was for me, with my sturdy American credentials and plane ticket out of there.


b3Maybe because it was cold outside, and I’d brought a fur hat with me, and we were on our way to Berlin, I thought—as I sat in the Czech train, next to a heavyset Russian man whose phone kept emitting flutelike trills—of the movie Julia, and of Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in that big hat riding the train through the night into Hitler’s chaotic and terrifying Berlin. And I began wondering to what extent movies shape our experience of other places, provide what Hiss calls an “entry point” or “turnstile” that leads us out of ourselves into “the land of mystery.” Or story.


b4So there I was, absorbed in my cozy journey within a journey within a journey, when, just inside the German border, a uniformed man with Polizei stamped on his breast pocket knocked on our door and asked for our passports. Cavalier Americans that we are, accustomed to driving cross-country with just a driver’s license (and to a European Union that seems to have shuttered most of its border stations), we’d left them in our apartment in Prague.

We handed the policeman our Michigan driver’s licenses and smiled.

No passports? he asked. We shook our heads.

He frowned. Ungünstig, he said. Unfavorable.

b5The film that had been slowly unspooling in my mind now lurched from Julia to The Lives of Others, and I imagined us spending the night—the week, the rest of our lives—in a Stasi jail (I’d just heard our cop speak Russian to our seatmate, proof that he knew his way around the old regime). I imagined being dumped from the train onto a platform somewhere in the former GDR, snow falling, shivering in my unlined shoes.


The policeman was now telling my husband, in German, that the fine for crossing a European Union border without proper ID was 3,000 €. I looked at my husband. He looked away. The movie screen in my mind reverted to Julia, and I assumed a poker face—Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman parrying questions at the border, cool as ice. (Where was my cigarette?) The policeman asked how long we planned to be in Germany. Two days, we told him.

A small eternity—of the sort I’d just been reading about in Hiss’s book, in which the experience of travel can alter one’s perception of time so that a single minute feels like fifteen—passed. The policeman handed us our documents, wished us a good journey, and left. End of interlude; the turnstile clicked shut; we rolled on to Berlin.


b6Two days later we crossed back into the Czech Republic without so much as a glance from anyone except a young Czech conductor with a friendly face who asked to see our tickets. We reached Prague in time to celebrate Christmas in a city suddenly clogged by tourists from around the globe—a post-Soviet, post-Wall, 21st-century, European Union capital in a continent that still feels (even to this chastened traveler-tourist) deceptively, blessedly, borderless.

Veselé Vanocé!

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