I was a US citizen just back from my first visit to Europe, but I had little to prove it. I officially entered the continent in Zurich, Switzerland, and I crossed into and out of France eight times in three places over my two week visit. But my passport was only stamped once when I arrived. I never had to fill out a form or declaration. No one asked where I had come from or where I was going. If officials checked my documents at all, they looked at the date or the photo or some thing unknown to me and blandly returned my little blue American passport book.
If an official checked my documents at all. When my host and I drove a rental car from Geneva to France on a rainy night, the border guard stood under the shelter of the bright checkpoint, talking with a colleague and rhythmically waving cars through. Driving back into Switzerland we did pause for a moment. The Swiss guard peered into our back seat, then gestured us on.
Even more striking was the train station. We rode the Swiss train to Basel, a large border city, then changed to a small French local which would take us into the farm country of Alsace. It was 7 p.m. Laden with suitcases full of gifts and hiking gear, we shuffled into a cavernous room leading out of Switzerland. There were no immigration officers behind the counters where such persons might have stood. We banged our loads through grey metal doors inscribed “FRANCE” and there was not an official soul in sight—just a few other travellers and a young worker in a neon blue jacket who helped us pick the right train.
Clearly we travelled between France and Switzerland as part of a bustling international traffic in wine, cheese, honey and chocolate, but there was no searching of baggage, no agriculture or liquor control. Switzerland and France both pride themselves on the high quality of their produce, their wines and cheeses, yet these standards are apparently enforced somewhere other than in the hands of consumers.
France is a member of the European Union and Switzerland is not. The two countries have different currencies, different laws, different forms of government, different immigration policies. Switzerland shares borders with Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, and Italy as well as with France, and France borders Belgium and Germany, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain. Historically, relations among some of these nations have been quite strained. Yet I was passing back and forth between two of them in an atmosphere of benign nonchalance that struck me as the truest kind of security and of peace.
I travelled in Europe for two weeks and never had to fill out a form, I said. This was not literally true. To get on my flight out of Zurich, I was ushered down a special corridor which ended at screening portals and suitcase x-ray machines familiar to anyone who has travelled around the United States. The US officer who checked my ticket and passport handed me several forms. I was going home.
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Have you had experience with surprising forms of
security or peace?
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!