‘Stormy where you’re from’. A smiling young border force officer greets me and I do a double take. Of course, he’s taking my new Irish passport at face value. I smile back, feeling something of a fraud.
‘You should have said, “Top of the morning to you,”’ jokes a friend when I describe the incident later. He is applying for his Polish passport – and wondering how he might cope with questions asked in his ‘native’ language.
Instead – enjoying the novel experience of a smiling border official – I put my brand new passport back in my bag and say something bland about the weather. Ophelia hit the west coast of Ireland hard the day before our journey, rocking us asleep and awake during the crossing from Newcastle to Amsterdam. We enter the city under a strange red sky. Ophelia, it seems, joined forces with forest fires of Portugal and Spain, stirring up dust from the Sahara and sooty particles, turning the sun into a hazy fireball, inviting a twitter storm.
A superstitious sort might see it as a Brexit-bad omen.
In two minds
It will take me time to get used to my new passport, and I keep wondering what my dad would have made of it. Fiercely loyal to Great Britain, he interrupted his Divinity studies at Trinity College Dublin, leaving the protection of the neutral Irish Free State to join the British armed forces at the start of World War 2.
Dad was born in 1919 on a hillside farm just a year before the Act of Ireland drew a wobbly line between North and South, assigning County Donegal (where his family came from) to the South and County Londonderry (where he grew up) to the North. And I was born in Coleraine after the Free State became the Republic which means I am an Irish citizen as the Republic makes no distinction. North or South, it’s all one island.
But the border dances a leprechaun jig in my mind. It’s a flirtatious thing, this borderline identity. On clear evenings, I remember sitting in Granny’s dining room watching the sun set in glory reflected on Lough Foyle. You can cross that watery border between North and South in a short ferry ride from Magilligan Point to County Donegal, where my Irish Granny was born and where my father would later make our family home when he was a Church of Ireland minister. My mother, though, was born in Ayrshire and my Scottish Granny lived in Glasgow’s Croftfoot which adds another tuneful reel to the family. Throughout my life those Anglo-Scots-Irish links have pulled complicated strands of loyalty, plucking a confusion of romantic emotional responses. Who the hell am I?
Neither one thing nor another. It’s actually not a bad state to be in but it highlights the terrible destructive carelessness of Brexit and the awful harm a new hard border could conjure out of the boggy landscape. Fintan O’Toole puts it beautifully when he describes the EU achievement of imagining Northern Ireland as a ‘different place’, where stopping the violence meant ‘creating an ambiguous space that is neither quite one thing nor the other: neither simply Irish nor simply British…’
This ambiguity is not just a possibility. It is a necessity: Fintan O’Toole in The Guardian
Brexit. It’s why I am now an official dual citizen of nowhere, trying out, or trying on more likely, my Irish passport for the first time, patting my identity into place – if not my wild hair. Here we are, Ray and I, on a long European train journey, Edinburgh to Weimar via Berlin and back through Paris. And that entails crossing many state lines: old, new and undecided.
On the train from Amsterdam, the Netherlands morphs into Germany without visible change in the green landscape. No delays, no difference, no passport checks. My Irish passport stays snugly put. So does the British European one I’m also carrying. Just in case.
Brexit hangs around the otherwise thrilling journey like a bad smell. Interestingly, we never see the word in German newspaper headlines. Catolonia, however, dominates the front pages. While we travel, thousands of people in Barcelona march for and against secession. My eye is caught by the words of Josep Borrell, a Catalan and former member of the European parliament.
What are borders? They are the scars that historia has left engraved on the world, engraved with blood and fire, let’s not raise more, because they have cost a lot to build. Josep Borrell
Borderlines leave messy smudges on the map. In Berlin we visit the German History Museum and stand transfixed in the first room of the permanent exhibition. At the start of 1500 years of history, there’s an extraordinary animation illustrating a seismic upheaval of human geography: constantly shifting borders as empires rose and fell, erasing old nations, drawing new boundaries, dividing loyalties.
Identities can shift too. In Weimar we meet Frank, an instantly likeable friend of a friend who gives us an eloquently potted history of the beautiful city where Luther, Goethe and Hitler have each left their mark.
When Brexit inevitably crops up, Frank asks what Brexiteers want. ‘Blue passports,’ is my too-glib response.
‘Oh,’ says Frank with a smile, ‘And we were thinking they wanted to stop Polish workers coming in”.
Then he adds an intriguing insight. He remembers ‘feeling homeless’ in 1989, when his world changed almost overnight and his identity with it. As a West Berliner he was a green passport holder. In theory it was officially recognised as a temporary status. He never imagined change would come in his lifetime.
Yet, almost miraculously, unification happened. And, though the 2017 election has revealed the simmering discontent in regions like Saxony, Germany adjusted peacefully and successfully to the change.
Ill winds don’t pause at borders. On the way home I carry a troubling image from the German History Museum. A bowl and spoon from the soup kitchens of the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of Germans were unemployed and hungry. The 1929 Wall Street Crash sent vibrations across the world, destroying the fragile economic recovery of the Weimar Republic, opening the way to Hitler. In 2017, foodbanks feed the hungry lowpaid workers of Britain, ten years on from the latest US financial crash.
After more than two thousand miles, having criss-crossed three European nations without passport checks, we reach the UK border at the crowded Eurostar terminus in Paris. Taking care to extract the Irish (not British) passport for scanning, I am slightly unsettled to be referred to a British border control officer for examination.
Just a technical error, it seems. My identity holds. She waves me through. Without a smile.