Sans frontières

22 January 2019 07:51 

“The more primitive a man is, the better he believes himself to be…Doubt and tolerance are the characteristics of civilised man.”
— Marill to Kern, in Prague

East Berlin

In January, 1984, one of the few places you could cross into East Berlin was at the Friedrichstrasse station, a transfer point for the U– and S-bahn, subway and tram. There you went through East German passport control, had your passport stamped, were several times informed that you could only stay for twenty-four hours, and last, but most important to the government of the ironically named German Democratic Republic, the required currency conversion from a Western currency (dollars, francs, lira, etc.) to the Mark der DDR; since I travelled with West German Marks, I converted those. The coins of East Germany felt so cheap that I could easily snap a coin in half.

Cheap and dingy and depressing was how East Berlin felt. It was a cold, grey winter day, perfect for shuffling around a once great city made anemic and pathetic, first by war then communism. East Germany was supposed to be the most prosperous of all the Warsaw Pact countries: if the Germans couldn’t make a political-economic system work, no one could. It wasn’t working. The streets were in poor condition with piles of junk and garbage, and buildings still showed damage from the war; a meal in a restaurant, served by an bored waiter, made MacDonald’s seem upscale; a book purchased at a bookstore appeared to be printed on cardboard and toilet paper.

But all of these little miseries were trivial next to the gash on the land that was the Berlin Wall. My first thought on seeing the wall was the not very intelligent, ‘They actually got away with it’. Not the most penetrating observation, but the reality of the concrete wall, barbed wire, guard towers, and hidden mines was startling to my relatively sheltered life. Later in the day, as I left to return to West Berlin, it struck me for the first time the implication of having an American passport: I did not have to stay. I could leave, but others could not. What accident of birth made me so lucky?

... an abyss separated them, nothing was the same for both; satisfaction for one was agony for the other, they were possessor and dispossessed, and the abyss that separated them was only a scrap of paper… [a passport]
— Kern about to be deported by an immigration officer in Vienna1Unless noted, all quotes are from Erich … Continue reading

Chaing Mai

In July, 2017, we were in Chiang Mai, Thailand. At the Gecko Bookstore I bought Eric Maria Remarque’s Floatsam; written in 1939, it tells the story of refugees from Germany in the late 1930’s, just before the Anschluss of Austria. Three of the characters, Kern, Ruth, and Steiner, are former German citizens, deprived of papers and passport, then deported for either their political views or being somehow associated with Judaism: Jewish, half-Jewish, or married to someone who was Jewish. The three become a part of a larger population of refugees: former university professors, judges, medical students, or small business owners, who move between countries—Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Hungary, then finally France—dependant for survival on sympathetic immigration officials, charities, each other, and luck. They cross borders illegally and cannot work. Some manage to get residency in other European countries, others move to Palestine, Australia, or Mexico. Others kill themselves, often by poison, after first poisoning their children.

One day we made a day trip excursion from Chiang Mai to visit the Hill Tribe people. The Hill Tribe people are not one, but many different ethnic groups. In the same way that Native Americans might be Crow, Ute, Navajo, and so on, so are the Akha, Karen, and Hmong, among others, a part of this group. While it’s not quite correct to call where the Hill Tribe people were a reservation, they were restricted in where they could live and what they could do. Ethnicity, national boundaries, and other concepts of the modern state have played a role in these groups’ lives. They have been driven from their homelands and neighboring countries for the usual reasons: war and oppression. The Hill Tribe people are permitted to live in Thailand, but otherwise their options are limited: they are not Thai citizens, and there is not easy path to this status. They have very limited work opportunities, and have become dependant on tourism for income.

We walked between the various tribe pavilions. The heat and humidly were oppressive. I watched men working in a field, which had standing, muddy water as high as the knees. The men, barefoot, in shorts and t-shirts, were fiddling with some farming contraption. I’d be dead in an hour, either from some disease in that field, or else working in that heat. Meanwhile, Annie was being useful: she was buying crafts from the women, or paying to take pictures of women in their native dress, sometimes Catherine posed with them.

“We live in a crude age. Peace is stabilized with canon and bombers, humanity with concentration camps and pogroms. We’re living in a time when all standards are turned upside-down, Kern. Today the aggressor is the shepherd of peace, and the beaten and hunted are the troublemakers of the world. What’s more, there are whole races who believe it.”
— Marill to Kern, again2p. 106.

Technology days

People come from all over the world to work in Silicon Valley; I’ve worked with engineers from nearly all of western Europe, Romania, Russia, Poland, India, China, Japan, Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and Tennessee. Everyone’s there to participate in the wonder that is Silicon Valley, build technology, and perhaps make a lot of money. Across a variety of companies and technologies, there’s not a lot of obvious differences: she’s an engineer, he works in sales, she started in technical support, but is now a project manager, he’s a code slinger. But how they got there, their backstory, is often different.

At one company I worked with a woman from Cambodia. She was born and raised in Phenom Phen, and was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Because her father was a university professor, and therefore suspect, her entire family was forcibly relocated to a labor camp for re-education and to work on state planned farms. Extremists abhor and fear thinkers. One day her father was taken away, and he was never seen again. The family’s first attempt to escape failed, but then the invasion of Cambodia by Viet-Nam gave the woman and her family a chance to escape—a risky and dangerous journey, at one point through a minefield. After a stay in a refugee camp in Thailand, the family gained asylum in the United States and moved to Sacramento. At first they could only work at Jiffy Lube and Dunk’n Doughnuts, learning English, going to school, then eventually moved to Silicon Valley.

At another company I met a man, who said that if he had known how hard it was going to be escaping from Viet-Nam on boat, he never would have done it. The exist was a rushed, confused affair: a boat, a minimum of instructions, then endless suffering and difficulty at sea until a lucky rescue by the U.S. Navy. He eventually came to the United States, was granted asylum status, graduated with a degree in computer science, became a citizen, and from this unusual background has established what appears from the outside to be typical Silicon Valley worker: a steady career, marriage, and children.

Add to these stories those of co-workers from former east block countries: Poland, Romania, and Russia, among others. Their conditions were not so life threatening as those from south-east Asia, but as mentioned above about my experiences in the former East Berlin, life behind the Iron Curtain was difficult and grim. At one company part of my team was made up of three Russian women: Tatjana, Natasha, and Olga. They all had advanced engineering degrees. They were competent and productive and more than that, there was a quality to them, an outlook on life, formed by their upbringing, that was not understood by me, a product of an easy and insular environment.

What is it like to have to leave your country? To leave where you always lived, until one day you can’t or won’t, and might not ever again?

“But you’ll find out, when you’ve been out in the world a while longer, unhappiness is the commonest thing there is.”
— Kern to another refugee3p. 49.

E pluribus unum: Schengen

Schengen is an agreement and a convention, named after the town in Luxembourg. Schengen refers to the twenty-six European countries that have eliminated passport and border controls.4It’s more complicated than that. For example, today if you drive from France into Spain along the autoroute you’ll only see a sign, welcoming you to Spain. It’s almost like crossing from Oklahoma into Texas—almost.

It wasn’t always like that. Making it easier for people to move around seems like a good thing.5No need for the obvious qualifiers, … Continue reading

Our first close friends in France were not French: Ferry was from Holland and Alex was from Germany. They met in Hyeres, both were interested in horticulture and had moved to the south of France to work in that field. They married, had two children (tri-lingual), and established a successful horticulture business. In time we met more Germans, more Dutch, and other nationalities: some had moved to France because they had a choice, others moved to France for different reasons. Sofia and Constatine left Greece after the economic meltdown. Sofia, a doctor of veterinary medicine, was offered positions by her firm in Toulon, which she immediately took, and they soon established a home in France.

In Switzerland I’ve met co-workers from different backgrounds. One was from Turkey; he works in research and development. He says that he began looking for a German tutor the day after the 2016 coup d’état attempt in Turkey. A medical doctor with progressive views, with a wife and child, he already spoke excellent English, but knew that speaking German, he could find work in either Germany or Switzerland, where there would more professional opportunities for him, but more important, where he and his family would be away from the vagaries of Turkish politics. There are others: a product manager, from a former French-colony in North Africa, she studied at prestigious French university, then obtained a PhD in bio-medical engineering; especially interesting is her being an Arab studying in chauvinist, Catholic France, in a male dominated field. There are more that came for a better life: a doctor from Serbia, another from China, a respiratory therapist from Columbia.

All of them left their homelands, and their ability, their intelligence, and determination, was as important as the opportunity. Certainly France and Switzerland benefited from having these people come to work in their country. The home countries are the poorer for having lost them.

Edith Rosenfeld was a delicate, white-haired woman of sixty-six. She had come to Paris two years before with eight children. She had found places for seven of them. Her eldest son had gone to China as an army doctor; her eldest daughter, who had been a philologist in Bonn, had secured a position as a servant girl in Scotland through the Refugees’ Aid; the second son had passed the French government examinations in law; when he could not find a practice, he had become a waiter in the Hotel Carlton in Cannes; the third had enlisted in the Foreign Legion; the next had migrated to Bolivia; and the two other daughters were living on an orange plantation in Palestine. The only one left was her youngest son. The Refugees’ Aid was trying to get him a job as a chauffeur in Mexico.6p. 373.

Nation tribes

Around the time we were visiting Thailand, touring the tranquil, idyllic green Kanchanaburi Province, not far away in Myanmar, Buddhists were busy killing Muslims. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in northern part of Myanmar’s western state, Rakhine. The Rohingya’s main sin is to have been a very different minority from everyone else in Myanmar. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Mukul Kesavan characterizes the acts of the Buddhist Myanmarans as majoritarianism:

Majoritarianism insists on different tiers of citizenship. Members of the majority faith and culture are viewed as the nation’s true citizens. The rest are courtesy citizens, guests of the majority, expected to behave well and deferentially. To be tolerated at the majority’s discretion is no substitute for full citizenship in modern democracies. It is a state of limbo, a chronically unstable condition. A polity that denies full citizenship to its minorities will, sooner or later, politically disenfranchise them or expel them on the grounds that, despite being residents, they aren’t citizens at all and actually belong elsewhere—in India or Pakistanor Tamil Nadu or, as with the Rohingya, in Bangladesh. Myanmar has three categories of citizenship: citizen,associate citizen, and naturalized citizen. The Rohingya are classed as foreigners.

Majoritarian politics results from the patiently constructed self-image of an aggrieved, besieged majority that believes itself to be long-suffering and refuses to suffer in silence anymore. The cultivation of this sense of injury is the necessary precondition for the lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing that invariably follow.7See … Continue reading

This is nothing new. It’s been going on forever. It doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Not quite so extreme, but along these lines in the United States, there is talk about a wall along the Mexican border. It doesn’t seem like a good idea. A wall would not have stopped Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including nineteen children, and injured almost 700. McVeigh was a U.S. citizen. McVeigh was from the white tribe, the majority. A wall would not have stopped the mostly Saudi hit team’s attack on September 11, 2001, killing almost 3,000; all of the terrorists entered the United States through airport passport control (mostly Miami, JFK, or Newark). A wall won’t stop the next mass shooting. A wall won’t help with climate change. A wall won’t stop corporate tax evasion.

If anything ever gets built, it will only be some variant of the Maginot Line. Recall that when the Germans invaded France, they simply went around the Maginot Line, outflanked the Allies, and trapped them at Dunkirk. The Mexican drug gangs are just as smart, and might have a sense of humor: in The London Review of Books blog, it was recently reported that in 2011, a few days after new fence went up along portions of the Arizona-Mexico border, Mexican gangs used a catapult to hurl bales of weed over the fence and into the United States.8See … Continue reading

We don’t seem to have made much progress. The twenty-first century is not shaping up well. President 43 started two wars that are still going on, 44 didn’t do much about it, and 45 is a third rate game show host. To be sure by this time a hundred years ago, 1919, the world had suffered a horrible war, but that was just a warm up for things to come twenty years later. Moreover, back then it was not possible for a small amount of individuals to cause the destruction of the world. The end might begin with any of the new axis of nationalistic, tribal governments: Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States. To be clear, nationalism is not the same as patriotism. Patriotism is different, and can come from anywhere on the political spectrum. Writing about a conservative patriot, Adam Gropnik wrote this about Charles DeGaulle:

The distinction that’s sometimes made between patriotism and nationalism is at the essence of his [DeGaulle] existence. The patriot loves his place and its cheeses and its people and its idiosyncrasies; the nationalist has no particular sense of affection for the actual place he advocates for (he is often an outsider to it) but channels his obsessive grievances into acts of ethnic vengeance. DeGaulle is a nearly perfect example of the right-wing patriot in power—of the constitutional conservative who accepts the modern order.9August 20, 2018 New Yorker

Although I don’t know how he felt about American cheese, and I didn’t always agree with him on issues, I feel certain that Captain- and Senator John McCain liked the United States—quite a bit. Best I can tell, Don Trump doesn’t like much of anything, except himself.

“Man is magnificent in his extremes—in art, in stupidity, in love, in hate, in egotism and even in sacrifice; but what the world lacks most is a certain average goodness.”
— Marill to Kern and Ruth, while visiting the Lourve

Frontières: imagined, real

A borderless map is a good thing to look at now and then.

In elementary school, Catherine learned that the French sometimes refer to France as L’Hexagon, that is, a country bordered on six sides. A stretched and perhaps slightly buzzed imagination might concede four sides: the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pyrenees, and the Mediterranean. But the last two sides are land facing and artificial: borders with Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and so on. These are drawings made by humans, that have nothing to do with the real geography. That Oklahoma has a narrow rectangle of land running west, or that Vermont and New Hampshire are sort of inversions, all of these are constructions of politicians, depicted by cartographers. Frontiers, passports, visas, letters of transit: these physical and administrative barriers are extensions of the inner frontiers, barriers, walls, fears, and prejudices of humans.

Or, perhaps the borders do matter: we have become conditioned by years of seeing ‘Welcome to Maryland’ signs, borders on maps, waiting at border control, presenting our identification. The reality of land is overlaid by barriers and bureaucracy of civilization

As Flotsam ends, Ruth and Kern have booked passage on a Portuguese freighter leaving Bordeaux for Mexico (they are unsure if Spanish or Portuguese is spoken in Mexico). Marill decides to stay in Paris. Steiner learns that his wife is dying, and against the advice of friends, and the wishes his wife, Marie, he returns to Germany to see her. As the train crosses the border, although the landscape is unchanged, the crossing is significant, and will be fatal.

Steiner lowered the window and put his head out. The damp wind of passage tore at his face and hair. He took a deep breath; it seemed a different air. It was a different wind, it was a different horizon, it was a different light, the poplars along the road swayed in different and more familiar rhythm, the roads themselves somehow lead into his heart.10p. 400.

He reaches the city, and visits his wife, but is betrayed to the police by a nurse. The police agree to permit Steiner to visit with his wife until she dies, and in return Steiner must reveal the names of those who have helped him.

On that last evening Steiner is with his wife when she dies. Immediately he is escorted by a police officer, one who has long antagonized Steiner, and is delighted to have re-captured him. As they walk towards the stairs, the police officer taunts Steiner, “I shall have such an eternity of time with you.” Steiner ignores him, and instead, because they are on the fifth floor, and the windows are open to the spring day, Steiner pushes the police officer out the window, and holding on to him, they both fall to their death.


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  1. Well, that was uplifting. The world is going to hell, currently being pushed there by buffoons sporting MAGA hats or their equivalents. But I enjoyed the memories triggered by your reference to our fair former colleagues.

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