I’ve always found border crossings to be fascinating places. Whether they’re the down-and-dirty ones we see stories about on TV, or the normal, everyday ones we most often come across. The first experience I distinctly remember happened when I was a kid – definitely 10 or younger, but I don’t remember the exact date. We were in southern Texas, and my great uncle took us to Brownsville, and on through to the Mexican border town of Matamoros. While I don’t remember or didn’t see any of the crazy shenanigans that go on there, I do remember this blast of foreign culture so close to home, the poverty just miles from the U.S., little Mexican kids selling Chiclets, and a whole lot of gringos looking for some cross-border debauchery.
That eventually led to more Mexican border visits to Tijuana when I was older, and then to all sorts of interesting adventures as I moved and/or traveled outside of the U.S. more and more. I’m not only interested in the seedy side of things that go on at border points, but I’ve certainly seen my share of that – the most surreal along the E55 at the Czech-German border. (I haven’t traveled in war zones or third world locales, so I can’t speak on those amazingly hair-raising scenarios that your imagination can certainly conjure.)
What really interests me is the dynamic of the people in these border towns, more often the country that is historically the poorest, or less-advantaged, or most oppressed, etc. I not only like to indulge in their cheap vices and delicious food, but to think about and observe how people in these places live. I often wonder about their language, how they see themselves in contrast to their richer or freer neighbors, and what they do or don’t like about living in a place that is so directly – socio-economically and culturally – affected by their neighbors.
I’ve never done any research about this, and certainly haven’t conducted interviews, but have definitely spent my fair share of time walking around border towns, interacting with local folks, sitting in cafes, and doing one of my favorite things: people-watching.
As we live in Berlin, we’re only about an hour away from Poland. A relatively inexpensive group ticket gets us to Frankfurt (Oder) in less time than your average American commute, and on the other side of the bridge to Slubice, Poland, in fifteen minutes. So, here we so often find ourselves standing on a bridge between two nations. The struggle and history and pride could not be stronger anywhere else in the world. And here it is. A bridge. With no border checkpoints, no passport control, nothing. People literally walk and drive and cycle between Germany and Poland every day. Whenever they want. I know this is not a new concept and I know it happens all over the EU. But I think it’s often lost on people how much that actually means, and how many zillions of stories could be told about what happened on that bridge over the last handful of decades.
Maybe I simply let my imagination run wild, but damn…I can literally intrigue myself as I stand between these two countries, staring out into the countryside surrounding the Oder River, wondering about all of the amazing, good, bad, mundane, and life-changing things that occurred here. If there were a café on the river (note to entrepreneurs), I could sit there all day, making up stories that may or may not have happened in the last thousand years. Who would have thought that anyone could do that, even twenty years ago?
Yet, on we go, to walk around what I honestly find to be a fairly boring pair of cities, doing our shopping and eating our food and drinking our cheap coffee. And thousands of Germans are crossing the border every day to get cheap groceries, cigarettes, knockoff brands, and maybe some less classy vices. Polish going the other way for work, or H&M, or whatever it is they want on the German side. Buying and selling from one another, taking advantage of each other’s situations, and living in relative harmony. It happens the world over, naturally.
But I can’t ever get over the history that may or may not exist, or what people think of the past, or what they think of their neighbors in this day and age. And I’ll always be intrigued by border towns, and the culture and dynamic, no matter where I go. Because, even when a border town is boring, it’s anything but.
See more about Frankfurt (Oder) here, and more about Slubice here. Check out our Facebook page for more photos from our most recent journey to these towns.
What do you think of border towns and crossings, their history, their culture, and their dynamic? Have any thoughts or anecdotes? Share them with us in the comments!