Friday, December 6, 2013

Living Near an International Border

By Manfried Rieder Starhemberg

For more than two thirds of my adult life I have managed to live near an international border and as a former pilot had the dubious pleasure to deal with hundreds of customs officials on three continents, While this makes me no expert on the mostly historically arbitrary lines which divide the globe, it has shown me one thing: Wherever you go across a border, even in today's unified Europe, you are "in a foreign country". There is an initially almost imperceptible aura which strengthens with every step you take into that "other" country and it does not matter if you cross from Austria to Germany or from Italy into Slovenia. You instantly are a foreign intruder not always as welcome as their tourism officials make you believe you are.
I feel this every time I go back to my old home in Sutton, Quebec or over to Knowlton which we are supposed to call Lac Brome. From the French speaking border officials to the road signage, you now are "abroad". It matters little that I know most people on the Quebec side by first name, having been there for more than 18 years. While before I was a displaced Austrian, now my old friends are amused that I have turned Yankee in my old age and suddenly there is a subtle change in my relationship with them. It is no longer acceptable for me to voice an opinion on local politics even though the current franchise of town management is held by some of my best friends. You have to be a Quebeccer to speak about Quebec affairs.
Coming back through Highwater into Vermont its the same. Nobody here speaks French or at lest very few do and I must admit that the people in the Eastern Townships at least make every effort to speak English to American visitors, My friend, former Mayor Bourque of Montreal paraphrased this well when he told me that "every well bred person in Quebec is bilingual". While applauding my efforts to speak his beloved French, he often chided me in not making more of an effort at being good at it. He is right - I had 18 years and did not apply myself as well as I should have.
My first international border was not a border at all but a demarcation line. My town, Linz, Austria, was divided into the American occupational zone south of the Danube and the Russians held the northern part of Upper Austria. My school was in the Russian zone and every morning, together with a few dozen other kids we had to cross into "enemy territory". On our side, the US Army had built temporary shelters so we could stay warm until the Russians deigned to open the gates at the other side of the bridge. Coming back, the Soviet soldiers made us stand in un-plowed snow, sometimes for more than an hour before they grudgingly let us through. I am sure that in some of us certain resentments were formed that possibly influenced our later choices and opinions in life.
Our southern border was with Italy and my family owned a house there in what originally was called Suedtirol, South Tyrolia, until it was given to Italy after the Great War. Most people in what became known as the Italian province of Alto Adige were German speaking and huge resentment built over the years and in the 60's it blew. Austrians flocked to an association that was known as the "Berg Isel Bund", the "Mount Isel Society", determined to re-take the province. Border stations were blown up and bridges spanning the Austria-Italy line. The Italians retaliated and suddenly we had to have visas to enter our own property which lies just a few kilometers south of the border. Well, it all worked out in the end and the Italians granted autonomy to the region and now it looks a little bit like Quebec with signs in both languages, bilingual schools and municipal administrations. The removal of all European borders makes all this hoopla now look like a bad play but the old people still remember and there are families living across the street from one another who may never speak one word to each other in either language.
Vermont also has a separatist group whose great idea would be to secede from the Union. They have been around for a long time and thankfully are not as boorish as their Quebec separatist counterparts. In Vermont they are considered an amusing bunch of patriots who actually sometimes manage to be heard by the state's legislators when they offer sound advise on regional issues. And they are not at all militant or try to repeatedly hit you over the head with single minded asinine proposals. If there were any, Vermont Muslims could wear whatever they want as long as they hold a valid hunting or fishing license.
Here along lake Memphremagog the border is subtle. If you own a boat in Newport and wish to take it into Canada, a friendly customs official will actually come to the marina or the East Side restaurant docks and the city pier to check your papers and give you permission to sail forth. It cannot get any friendlier than that. In my experience, this courtesy extends all along the Eastern Townships border stations. Unless you have a criminal record and are not allowed to cross into Canada, you will never have a problem. Just don't try it - their computer systems are quite up-to-date. There are issues of course that could be ironed out. A friend of mine owns a restaurant in Newport and recently sent an employee across the great divide to buy some Poutine sauce as her chef wanted to experiment with this Quebec staple and add it to the menu for her many Canadian visitors. Big mistake! They held the poor woman for almost an hour because she was smuggling food stuffs across the border or some such nonsense. She could have had three immigrants with Uzis in the trunk and a kilo  or two of cocaine in the glove compartment - nobody asked about that. But to illegally take poutine into the United States? Unheard of! The way I feel about poutine I might actually have some sympathy with the sentiments of our Homeland Security. There is the remote possibility that poutine could be used as a weapon of mass destruction...
Back to the border. Living in Sutton since 1994, I used to be able to cross the border most of the time without stopping. A friendly wave from the guards in Richford and I was through. I used to deliver bread throughout the Townships and sometimes, Claybank road or the evil old road from Abercorn to Frelighsburg was impassable and, even loaded with a truck full of bread, the friendly border guys who knew me for years never bothered me and the old truck. I did occasionally deliver pizza or croissants on my way.This is all gone now, as are the days where we took a pickup truck complete with pipe organ and a diverse group of revelers across the Valley Missisquios border in Glen Sutton to Richford to supply more beer for the annual Glen Sutton Pig roast. Bummer. I blame it all on BinLaden.
Then it was all over. America wanted passports, Canada retaliated in like and now we have this well defended computer and drone controlled line between our two beautiful countries and I sit on my back porch and look over the lake where I can see the distant hills behind which my old house still sits in Sutton, but now, as a newly minted American immigrant, I need a visa, a passport, my special enhanced driving license and possibly a note from my wife that I am allowed to venture forth into a foreign nation for breakfast with my friend Eddie.
However, for all of us living along this beautiful lake with our hills and vistas and the easy access to points north and south it does not matter very much. We are historically and geographically linked, we eat fish that spawn in Vermont or in Canadian waters and do so without government approval, we do lunch in either country or shop there, from Derby Line to Sherbrooke or from Magog to Cowansville, and to no small degree do we, on both sides of the border, enjoy the subtle differences in our environs that enhance the visit even if it is only a few kilometers for Canadians or miles for us Yankees.

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