I remember visiting the International Peace Gardens, a multi-colored, scented oasis, seemingly in the middle of nowhere of my small 6th grade world, connecting North Dakota to Manitoba, the United States of America to Canada. I straddled the border, a line etched in the stone ground in the middle of the garden, my right half in Canada, my left in the States. I felt super cool.
The next year brought me to the Four Corners Monument, the only place in America where one person can simultaneously be in four states, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico; four states containing four totally different ideals, people and ways of life within their invisible, yet very real borders.
My friend Michelle does this weird thing where she thrusts her body forward in the car when driving across the I-94 Hudson River bridge, announcing that she beat me to Minnesota. I know the line is invisible. I know that Minnesota and Wisconsin look relatively the same and I know life doesn’t completely change when I cross that invisible line, but the simple knowledge you are exiting Wisconsin and entering Minnesota trips a trigger. Because borders are more than just outlines on a map.
As any Canadian will quickly inform you if you mistake them for an American abroad, Canada is totally different from America. And most Americans are highly aware of the difference between not only the four corner states, but between most states in the country. Even similar states in the Midwest: Minnesota and Wisconsin have a friendly border rivalry; and while I happen to love all things Minnesota, I know some Minnesotans who openly hate all things Wisconsin (naturally, because we are better at sports and life) but I understand their irrational disgust, because that’s how I feel about Illinois (even though they are terrible at sports and life). And everyone loves Iowa, because Iowa doesn’t really have anything, and you can’t hate on that.
The power, the meaning, the differences invisible lines all over the world harbor is fascinating, and traveling through Europe exemplifies this.
Last weekend I hiked through Karkonoski Park Narodowy, starting and ending the day in Poland, but wandering in and out of the Czech Republic. I could see the trail markers, C on one side, P on the other, as I zigged and zagged between the two countries. Without those visual aids, it would have been impossible to tell which country I was in, until I came across a huge lodge, Labská Bouda, lured in by the hikers enjoying cold beers overlooking the mountains.
And all of a sudden, I was in a different world. People were speaking a different language, using a totally different currency. How would I pay for the beer (pivo in Czech, piwo in Polish) I just ordered? Though Czech and Polish aren’t radically different, they aren’t totally the same. And when you know so little of one language, so little about one country, you cling to the ball of knowledge you’ve picked up. A different spelling, word arrangement or accent can kick that knowledge ball right out of the park, and you’re left playing a ballgame without a ball. My cherished Polish phrases – dzień dobry, dziękuję, proszę, przepraszam, tak, nie – friendly phrases I had relied on for the past few weeks, were no good here. I’ve never even walked across the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, but there I was, hiking across the border of two countries, with enough differences to make purchasing a beer a wee bit of a challenge.
And I loved it. And it stirred up all sorts of complicated, semi-related thoughts about travel, and America, and Americans who travel and those who don’t, that I’ll attempt to articulate next post. But for now I’m just trying to wrap my head around how nuts it is that some borders represent small differences between short distances, while others can represent huge, irreconcilable differences, religious, cultural, political differences, war-invoking differences.
All because we’ve made borders more than just lines on a map.