At The Border


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about borders.

Crossing from one place to another is, after all, the very definition of travel; the border is official notice that we’ve left someplace behind. On the other side, our senses are more alert, with the self-consciousness of the outsider.

I remember the first time I landed at the tiny, Soviet-era airport in Sofia, Bulgaria. With my wide eyes and naïve grin, I drew suspicious stares from the crowd of disembarking locals in the customs line. Over a picture of a handful of cash with a red line slashed through it was the airport’s only English signage: “No payments here.”

Bribery remains a huge problem in Bulgaria, but when the country joined the European Union, those signs disappeared. They were replaced by the proud blue E.U. flag — a symbol, surely, of the way Europe’s borders had expanded, but also of a shift in the way that Bulgarians saw themselves.

Europe has lately been the subject of an intriguing border experiment. A continent that only 30 years ago was dotted with armed-guard checkpoints — the most notorious being the Berlin Wall — now has completely open borders in more than a dozen countries, meaning the only indication you’ve crossed from Spain to France is that pastelerías become patisseries. (The first time I sped through an open border, I felt a pang of disappointment at the rusty, abandoned guard station. Like many Americans – for whom crossing an international line is an achievement no jaded European could comprehend — I still feel a thrill every time my passport is stamped.)

The very openness of some borders imbues others with greater metaphysical weight: witness the vast difference between our Canadian and Mexican borders.

In Europe, there are now three types of boundaries — from completely open to heavily guarded — that reflect not E.U. or national lines, but the progression from rich, influential countries to poor, marginal ones. Those excluded from the E.U. club (Albania, Belarus, Serbia) have lines of cars that stretch for miles waiting to enter their wealthier neighboring countries.

Perhaps inevitably, the mind wanders from the literal borders to the metaphorical ones: the fence posts that delineate phases of life, states of mind, ways of seeing.

Sometimes these borders are one and the same. I have a good friend in New York whose family is half Jewish, half Palestinian. In Western Europe, she bristles at open anti-Semitism and feels militantly, defensively Jewish.

But with her cousins in Ramallah and east Jerusalem, she — having crossed some of the world’s more controversial borders —crosses another one of her own, with a sudden outrage and sympathy for their daily hardships. And back in the U.S., she settles once more into the comfort of a hybrid identity, something we Americans do better than most.

Jews have a unique relationship with the paradoxes of borders. A people of diaspora, Jews have historically relied less than most others on territorial boundaries to delineate identity, relying instead on common language, tradition and community. Yet those very boundaries have often meant nothing less than life and death: witness the desperate crossings out of Nazi Europe — over the Pyrenees or across the English Channel — during World War II, or the flight of Sephardim out of Iberia to Ottoman safety a half-millennium earlier. It is no coincidence that the borders of Israel, disputed though they are, represent something of visceral, existential import for virtually every Jew.

Borders can be casual, a friendly separation of neighbors like Uruguay and Argentina. They can be fraught, like the one dividing the two Koreas, or tragic, like the 90-mile Straits of Florida, which separates one of the world’s richest, freest countries from one of the poorest and most tightly controlled. And they can be spectacularly beautiful, like the soaring Oresund Bridge that links Sweden and Denmark.

In our time, some of the most agonizing borders are neither physical nor metaphorical, but rather bureaucratic — the visas and passports that restrict some and admit others.

I understand why countries tightly control the issuance of tourist visas, green cards and other documents. But the logic of demographics seems to diminish, somehow, when considered alongside the tragedy of families separated for years. Some are denied visas, others wait in legal limbo for years to resolve an uncertain immigration status; meanwhile, far away, siblings get married, parents sicken and die and spouses raise children.

I know a lot of people with stories like these, just as I know there are millions more who by accident of birth will never cross the most significant of borders — from oppression to freedom, from poverty to possibility.

Every time I pull out my passport at the airport, I’m one of the lucky ones. And I know it.