26 October 2007

The allure of the edge

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 27/28 October 2007

yborg was not to blame. We should have brought a map. As we drove north through the last city in Russia before the Finnish border, the road signs failed us.

Midnight had come and gone. The summer sky bathed the world in a strange northern half-light. Tinted in cobalt blue, sleeping Vyborg wore a sad expression on her face, pockmarked by darkened factories, concrete blocks and grim little discos.

We trawled through vacant streets, guessing at junctions, doubling back when the way ahead looked doubtful. With no one awake to offer directions, we succumbed to the spell of the bordertown.

One is easily lost in such places, with or without a map. Truer to say, one feels a certain displacement, the dimensions of which transcend geography. The gain and forfeit history yields everywhere are magnified where nations meet to turn their backs on each other. Mutual admiration, fear and longing colour the scene.

Even the name, Vyborg, hinted at such displacement. My knowledge of the place was sketchy, but the name looked Germanic. Clearly this had not always been Russia. Indeed it was Finland once, yet the landscape surrounding us was purely post-Soviet urban provincial, with its dreary buildings, crumbling streets and crooked street lamps.

Then we found a road leaving the city and the scene suddenly altered. A bridge lifted us over smooth waters – the eastern extreme of the Gulf of Finland. Glancing over a shoulder, I briefly spied an astonishing castle rising from a small island and, dimly in the background, a row of fairy-tale fa├žades.

The vision vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The road bent away and soon we were passing through thick forest towards the border.

Between the pines, the night was black. But when the road emerged along the Saimaa canal – where ships cross the border – navigational lamps on the water’s surface glowed green and the natural half-light penetrated the wood, faintly revealing the shapes of Russian soldiers standing among the trees. We had stumbled upon a place that truly fit the description “neither here nor there”. Later, looking into its history, I understood this was no surprise. Vyborg and the Karelian Isthmus have long defied mastery. The spell of the frontier is strong.

I have known this since making a fleeting visit to the Iron Curtain as a boy. As we neared the end of Austria, sign after sign warned US citizens against proceeding further but we carried on towards Czechoslovakia until, across a fence, we could look with fear and wonder into another world. The border was delimited as much within ourselves as it was across those fields.

Erasing such inner borders can be difficult. The borders that more often matter to us run through ordinary places, along man-made frontiers.

They run by places like Daugavpils, Latvia, near the Belarusian border. In Soviet times, visits by outsiders to Daugavpils were rarely allowed. In today’s independent Latvia, prejudice still sets it apart. Nationalists deem this, their country’s second largest city, “not real Latvia”, sneering at its Russian-speaking majority.

Yet reality discredits bigotry. Daugavpils bears many scars but it is not the occupied wasteland its detractors describe. Wars have often wrecked it but today the city is a surprisingly pleasant riverside settlement. Vast parks vie for space with a massive fortress and architecturally jumbled streets. Concrete blocks blight many areas but, elsewhere, timber and brick constructions remain, an echo of early modern times.

The chatter in streets and shops is Russian, Latvian, Polish and Belarusian. Once prevalent, Yiddish is sadly absent, as almost everywhere in central Europe.

Love the jumble or despise it? I thought it better to admire Daugavpils and mourn it all at once. She is broken, yet she is beautiful.

The world is full of such places. Some go forgotten for a time until conflict recreates them, and then they may disappear again. Witness Brcko, Bosnia, a town sometimes cursed, sometimes blessed to exist in the crotch of borders between Croatia and Serbia – peaceful in the Yugoslav era, wild thereafter.

When I first visited Brcko, its location between the borders had made it a haven for retail pirates and smugglers of all stripes. Townsfolk I met bragged openly about their illegal exploits. Their sprawling market, nicknamed “Arizona” by US soldiers, was an infamous mecca for Balkan pirates. Crushed by conflict, the town was defaced by bullet holes and blast craters, and yet in the leafy centre square it felt remarkably cosy. Not all was ill.

Since then, Brcko has blossomed into a success story much of Bosnia would like to emulate. Arizona is cleaned up but continues to thrive. The wealth it generates gets reinvested locally. Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia may all be rivals but for the moment seem to see the surrounding borders as an asset.

Perhaps such borders, in a growing European Union, will someday vanish altogether. I shall not hold my breath, yet far stranger things have happened.

At least twice, during a period of residence in Berlin, I felt a chill of delayed recognition while walking down the Friedrichstrasse. My mind elsewhere, I had strolled blithely across the Zimmerstrasse without paying any mind. I turned around to look at an empty intersection. There within recent memory had stood Checkpoint Charlie, epicentre of a political, economic and ideological schism that gripped the globe not long ago and haunts us still.

Once diminished, can such a border reappear? Surely it depends whose memories are at stake, and whose futures.

This summer, my wife, children and I packed into the car and drove to Coldstream, Scotland, for an annual cavalcade. A handsome bordertown, Coldstream hugs the edge of the River Tweed – a fine place to spend a summer day.

From the raised riverbank, a tourist looking south sees graceful slopes leading towards the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland National Park. But local eyes see something more: one of those slopes is Branxton Hill, from which King James IV of Scotland led a suicidal charge against English troops at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, a mythic moment of desolation for the Scots. Do not imagine it is forgotten.

We followed as the cavalcade paraded through town in a hail of cheers. It crossed the river and retook the hill, where they prayed for the battle dead. Their lead man cut a piece of turf from the hilltop with a sword. He wrapped it gently in the Saltire, the Scottish flag, and they rode off.

Back in Coldstream, when the riders returned, a woman sang a riverside lament. The turf was unwrapped and placed on the ground. The act suggested Scottish blood returning to Scottish soil. Onlookers watched silently. When most had walked away, two witnesses stayed behind. They approached the turf, crouched beside it and gazed at it. One took out a digital camera. Zooming in, he captured an image.

Some borders are more easily erased than others.