The Borders Are Still There, But Most of the Guards Are Gone.
My first trip to Europe was in the summer of 1954. The American Field Service ran an exchange-student program in those days, with American kids going to Europe to live with a local family for the summer and European kids coming to the U.S. for the full school year. I applied and requested that I be sent to France, my rationale being that I had studied French in high school, had an aptitude for the language, and thought that a summer in France would be a big step on the way to actual fluency. The AFS accepted me, but I was sent to Germany. I later realized that, because it was only nine years after the end of World War II, most of the kids in the AFS program went to Germany as part of some effort to restore reasonably good relations with the German people.By the way, I ended up in Schweinfurt and the head of the family to which I had been assigned, Herr Handschuh, ran the local brewery … so it wasn’t a total loss.)
That was my first exposure to train travel in Europe. I don’t remember much about those train rides, except that the trains were always crowded and the the border crossings took forever. Oh … and the seats were wood and awfully damn hard.
Years later — it was in the early 80s — my wife and daughter and I went to Europe and took several trains, including one from Vienna to Budapest. That was before the Iron Curtain came down and crossing into and out of a satellite country was a sobering experience. When our train stopped at the Austria-Hungary border, uniformed and armed guards came through the cars, scrutinizing our passports and checking our customs declaration.
Once that had been completed, we were politely asked to step out into the corridor while they searched our little compartment … one man removing the seat cushions and then shining a flashlight into the narrow space between the ceiling and the roof of the rail car. His companion stood watching, one hand resting casually on his automatic weapon.
Outside, armed guards were positioned every 50 or 60 feet on each side of the train while another team moved along the length of the train, one man using a mirror on the end of a pole to inspect the underside of each rail car; the other with a dog on the end of a leash. I remember thinking at the time that if the security was this tight going INTO Hungary, what would it be like when we came OUT after leaving Prague? (It was pretty much the same procedure, but with guard towers and a 100-yard no-man’s-land.)
I thought about those earlier trips last summer when I took trains from London to Paris to Switzerland, back to France, then across Germany en route to Denmark and Norway. No borders. No guards. No nothing. It was like driving across the U.S. and passing from Pennsylvania into Ohio and then crossing into Illinois, all without ever slowing down. Such is the result of the European Union growing out of the Common Market.
I wonder if the economic difficulties some of those countries have experienced can be explained at least in part by all those border guards being out of work?