Games Without Frontiers

Well today is December 1, officially the “national day” of Romania and so I hereby give my official shout out to my adopted home country and wish everyone a lovely day of rest and celebration.

I am reminded however of something that happened seven or eight years ago. I was in a van (minibus) heading to Budapest when our vehicle crawled to a stop at the Bors border crossing (just outside the city of Oradea). Something was going on with the border police and so we all waited in the queue for an hour or so.

The driver of our van, wishing to economize on fuel, shut off the engine and so we all hopped out of the vehicle and spent a long time milling around. In front of me, I could see the line of cars and then the ugly architecture of the border crossing itself. Behind me was a snaking line of vehicles. And yet to either side was nothing but stubbly fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Overhead, a flock of birds zoomed past and I realized in an instant just how strange it was that they could cross the border effortlessly without delay while we so-called “superior” creatures down on the ground were stuck for hours. And it’s not just birds but all other creatures, whether a dog or a horse, an insect or even the seed pod of a dandelion blowing in the wind that can cross any border, not just legally but with no constraints on it whatsoever.

After all, a border like the one between Romania and Hungary is, after all, just an artificial line on a map. There’s not one shred of difference between the actual land, dirt, rocks, trees and air on one side and the other. If all the frontier police and control buildings were gone, there’d be no way in fact to even tell where the border was.

So why do people take borders so seriously?

It really has nothing to do with a person’s identity (or patriotism, as the news channels call it in their various articles on the subject for December 1). A person can be “Romanian”, speak the Romanian language, eat Romanian foods, dress in Romanian clothes and yet only be officially Romanian if they are born on the right square centimeter of land. After all, whats the difference between Botosani and Cernauti? A strong person could practically throw a rock between these two cities. And yet the answer, of course, is the “border”.

If you speak Ukrainian and eat Ukrainian foods and listen to Ukrainian music but you were born in Maramures like Stefan Buciuta then you’re officially Romanian but if you speak Romanian and dance Romanian dances but were born in Cernauti well then sorry, you’re officially Ukrainian.

Likewise there’s not a jot of difference between the Hungarians who were waiting for me on the other side of that border on that cold and snowy day and the Hungarians who boarded the van in Oradea. They look the same. They speak the same language and share the same culture. And yet, of course, only people born on one side of the border are officially Hungarian.

National and cultural identities have been around for thousands of years but strangely this fixation on hard and fast borders is only a recent invention. One of the most famous psychologists of all time, Stanley Milgram, who conducted the Milgram experiments (on obedience to authorities) was born in the United States and so was officially American. And yet his mother was born in Romania and his father in Hungary so how did his parents get to America?

They were just two of the 8 million immigrants that all arrived in the United States in days when no legal visa was required. It sounds like something fantastical, something that cannot be true and yet it was. Unless you were demonstrably “insane” or obviously dying of a disease then the American government allowed you to come into the country legally, not just for 90 days on a “tourist” visa but for the rest of your life. And there are thousands and thousands more stories of the daughters and sons of these immigrants going on to build and shape the United States just as Stanley Milgram did.

But here at the tail end of 2013, things are much different. I saw with great sadness last week that 8 Romanians in (the American state of) Idaho are going to be deported despite the fact that they’ve lived peacefully in the country for years, never committed any crimes and have set up prospering businesses. They are great people for America to have and yet because they were born in a different centimeter of land (Romania) they cannot legally live on another centimeter of land (the USA).

Over here in Romania I regularly get asked by desperate foreigners how they can (legally) live in this country. And it’s always a crazy, tragic story wherein ordinary good people have to jump through tremendous hurdles and spend a lot of money just to live on the other side of a border from where they were born. On a human level it’s just crazy that a good person from America can’t just live and work here or that a good person from Romania can’t live and work in the United States.

And strangely it’s not just birds and animals which can ignore these artificial borders but many human institutions as well. A bank or a company like Moneygram can shuttle money around the world without having to pay heed to sovereign borders. And most of the largest corporations in the world, such as Amazon, Apple and Google all avoid paying taxes via the technique of doing business in one country while legally saying they “exist” in another country. It’s apparently legal to sell a telephone in America, say you “live” in the Bahamas (or Ireland, etc, etc), send your profits there and then send them right back over the “border” to yourself back in America.

A human being can’t do that, of course, only a megacorporation. We’re all stuck behind borders based on the lottery of which centimeter of land we were born on. A friend of mine here in Cluj-Napoca had a grandfather born on a centimeter of land that’s considered Hungarian even though it was legally in Romania at the time and so a different country (Hungary) granted him citizenship and now because of this legalistic mumbo jumbo he now has a second passport which allows him to cross borders (such as working in the UK) that his first (Romanian) passport wouldn’t allow him to do. Meanwhile my friend is exactly the same person as he ever was, with exactly the same skills and qualifications.

There are many more examples of this everywhere around Europe. If my grandfather was born in Ireland then legally I have a chance at acquiring citizenship there (even if I’ve never set foot in the country) which would then give me the automatic right to live permanently in Romania. How does this make any sense? Or in a sadder case, I could be born in Latvia and yet not be a Latvian citizen which means there’s a chance I can’t cross any borders at all.

I truly do wonder what the world would be like if human beings were as free as birds and banks, able to freely cross borders at will without onerous paperwork, visas and exorbitant fees. Certainly there would be changes and upheavals in places as people arrived or departed but I think the world would be a lot happier place. What I do know is that there are at least 10.4 million human beings who are currently refugees, all of whom would be free if only they had the same legal liberties as a dollar or a dog.

I remember years ago standing in Marco Polo Airport in Venice, Italy watching as my girlfriend at the time was shaking and crying because she was nearly prevented from entering the country and I had to go sort out things with an immigration official before they would let her in. And yet the man the airport is named after journeyed 24,000 kilometers across dozens of borders all without needing a single visa or identity document. He became a famous traveler and yet millions of other people, including this poor Nigerian fellow, are trapped and imprisoned behind these suddenly all-important “borders”.

So Mr. Polo, what is the purpose of your visit?
So Mr. Polo, what is the purpose of your visit?

Ever since this blog started I’ve proclaimed that I’m “More Romanian than You”, sometimes a tongue-in-cheek sentiment and sometimes a more serious statement. But for now at least I’m officially less Romanian than a homeless Gypsy and more American than a Idaho businessman (even though I haven’t been to the USA since 2006) all due to the artificial bullshit of borders. And that right there is a sad statement because I think we should all be free to be who we are and the weird lottery of which patch of soil we were born on is an extremely poor metric in deciding the relative worth of a human being participating in any given society.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, I wish you a pleasant and happy National Day of Romania and I hope no borders ever intercede between you and the life you wish to live!

8 thoughts on “Games Without Frontiers

  1. Interesting topic.

    Reminds me of the ‘stateless’ people in the days of the Soviet Union, who had no official nationality at all (and thus no passport at all), either because they were denied their ‘logical’ one, or refused it. Not always enviable, mind you. Roma people led the way there.

    It also reminds me of the discussion wether nationality should be based on territoriality (where are you born, or where do you live) or on ethnicity (what do you speak, what’s your last name, what do you look like). Both simple and simplistic systems, and both are in use. A lot of Transylvanian friends now have a second Hungarian nationality based on their ancestry, not at all on territoriality.

    And it reminds me of nationalism. Those friends didn’t take a second nationality out of nationalism (pride, sens of belonging), but out of practical considerations (easier work permits).

    Finally, I have this strange hypothesis that’s very hard to check. The more the hard borders seem to vanish, the more cultural borders seem to arise. Travelling between Hungary and Romania used to be way harder than nowadays, and even then seven years ago. I remember being stuck in Bors/Hegyeshalom for half a day at least. But since then, people seem to retreat in their own culture: less marriages of mixed ethnicity, less bilinguality, people watch TV and read newspapers from one side of the border only. [to be honest, that last impression is not based only on experience here in Flanders, in between France, Wallonia and the Netherlands]. Hard borders do seem to challenge people. It’s an odd thought, one I’ve never tested.


  2. nicely written…bring on the new world order now! no countries…just a shitty flag we ll invent later on…one language…and a couple of overlords..and we re set. I like the idea except the overlords. in the meantime…being probably one of the last generations of Romanians i say…hai Romania!!!!! that s why!!…imagine in this lifetime me saying…yeah ..i used to be Romanian.


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