Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Travelblog 5: Crossing Borders

I don’t know what I expected. While we were “camping” in Dinkelland, we were only a few kilometers from the Dutch-German border. One afternoon, we decided to cross over into Germany just to see what we could see. Part of our motivation, I have to admit, was to able to report to family and friends that Diane and I saw something besides the Netherlands. Part of us was curious how different Germany would be. Mostly, though, it was something to do. It didn’t take long before we had left Holland and slipped into German territory. You would never have known it except for the signs, “Leaving Dinkleland,” and “Welcome to Germany,” the first in Dutch and the second, peculiarly enough, in German. Otherwise, everything seemed pretty much the same. The farmhouses looked similar; the terrain was just an extension of what we had left. The roads were pretty much the same, too – no autobahn out there. I felt cheated, somehow. I wondered at the openness, as if I was crossing from Idaho into Montana, not one whole country into another. I don’t know what I expected: barbed wire and armed guards patrolling? Checkpoints with officious border guards checking papers? We had our passports with us, just in case. But there was no barbed wire. There was no check point. There were no patrols or guards. It was, just, simple, easy, welcoming. I admit to a certain inherent prejudice against Germany, a certain expectation. My image is born of stories from a terrible time long ago, before I was even born. I have fought all my life to control those feelings, knowing they have no relevance in the modern world. And on that late September afternoon, I could see for myself how much the world, or at least Europe, had changed from the place my parents knew. It was refreshing. And yet, I hovered over a different memory, from 2004. We crossed a border then, and were stopped by a border patrol several kilometers in from the border on the main road. The soldiers were polite but grim. We noticed that there were men in the tall grass on either side of the road with heavy machine guns pointed at us. We asked the young soldier who approached us what was going on and he answered, in sparkling English, “Just routine, Sir.” He then looked us over and apparently decided that two middle aged Americans and an Englishwoman (our friend Candida) were no threat. He waved us through. That was in Northern Ireland, crossing over from the Irish Republic on our way to Belleek. The soldiers were Irish in the British military. Nine years later I puzzled over the fact that the Germans felt safer at their border than the Northern Irish did at theirs. In 1922, Hendrick Wilhelm van Loon wrote that change does come. It can be painfully slow, but it does come. Just crossing a border, I saw that he was right, and I began to feel a change within myself.

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