A Border Town
Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
Drinking wine in a cramped and smoky bar on a late night in Sarajevo a few years ago, a friend startled me with a question, and I found myself wavering. Here is one of those times when the words won’t come, when you have a slightly vertiginous moment, when you’re caught without a foundation underneath your feet. The question was perfectly reasonable after my previous sentence, yet every response that struck me felt incomplete, somehow misleading, even evasive. My friend was a resident, born and raised in Sarajevo, while I was a foreigner in this hushed bar two blocks from the Miljacka River. Although I had spent only a few months in the city, this was my second visit, and we were discussing my impressions, what grabbed me, what drew me back, what were the elusive, nearly ineffable qualities that I saw? Eventually I ended up calling Sarajevo a border town and she seemed to both nod in agreement and ask the justifiable question: what makes a border town?
For my purposes the term border town wasn’t a geographic designation. And she implicitly understood that my point wasn’t based on map lines or political boundaries, even though, ten minutes from that bar, you can cross and recross and cross a border again, all within a few minutes and without leaving a single road. That was not, however, relevant to my meaning, nor does it explain the atmosphere in Sarajevo that triggered my description.
Of course the territorial reality of a port city or a train station before a frontier does hint toward my point. That’s why she recognized the connotation underneath my words, even if she wanted the specifics justified. Implicit to the designation is the sense that border towns are places that straddle cultures. Even though they are clearly in one country, they are close enough to another to feel its wind, breath its atmosphere, relate to its customs.
To most of a country, the border is unmistakable, it’s the spot where there begins because here has ended. Sharp lines that slice across the map and tell the story. Nevertheless, in many towns nestled alongside a border, the porousness of geographic markers is visible on the streets. In the languages spoken. By the travelers who pass through. From the character of overheard conversations. So you end up with geographic features that reveal a mentality: as every resident of a beach town knows the tides and defines their neighborhood by the shoreline, border towns are defined by what’s just beyond. These are the places where people find a passage, where outsiders always occupy at least some seats, where the regulars have the fluidity of the seasoned traveler.
Perhaps it’s best to consider these personal designations, contingent on your own experiences. Trieste, for me, is the first spot that comes to mind, with its winding hills and narrow alleys and bora winds from the Adriatic. Trieste’s history as the playground of warring states, how it has been captured, relinquished, and recaptured, isn’t accidental to its mentality. In Trieste there’s sometimes a little stutter when strangers meet, a slight poke of curiosity that comes with an exhale: are we speaking Italian, German, or Slovenian today? In some places it would be simply ridiculous to dislike the outsider. Most large cities give you that same sensation—New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong—but that experience is almost expected once the city is large enough. Perhaps I might describe a border town as a place that enables a cosmopolitan sensation in a city of any size.
History is certainly a prompt for this mentality—a fact that forever haunts Sarajevo. When this mentality goes astray, a feature of both recent and distant times, the consequences are dreadful, stressing how the atmosphere in border towns is a bit more precarious than any quick glance will reveal.
Lisbon is another port city that’s inseparable from centuries of trade and travel. If you had spent the last few centuries only interviewing those who disembark from its docks, you could piece together most of world history during that time. But all of that movement, in the end, washes up on actual city streets, with the city changed by its arrivals, and the arrivals finding themselves changed. There’s a description early in José Saramago’s “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” that touches this point:
Lisboa, Lisbon, Lisbon, Lisbon, there are four different ways of saying it, living aside the variants and mistaken forms. And so the children come to know what they did not know before, and that is what they knew already, nothing, merely a name, causing even greater confusion in their childish minds, a name pronounced with the accent peculiar to the Argentinians, if that is what they happen to be or to the Uruguayans, the Brazilians, the Spaniards. The latter, writing Lisbon correctly in their respective versions of Castilian or Portuguese, then pronounce it in their own way, a way beyond the reach of ordinary hearing or any representation in writing.
Even though there’s just the slightest suggestion of withdrawal in these words, of exclusion, of the ridiculed outsider, the people continue to arrive. For those in any border town it becomes the difference between working as a bartender in a small village, and working as a bartender across the street from a train station. Saramago soon asks the most relevant question of border towns, however, which isn’t about the town, but about those just passing through:
The taxi drives off, Where to. This question, so simple, so natural, so fitting for the place and circumstances, takes the passenger unawares, as if a ticket purchased in Rio de Janeiro should provide the answer to all such questions, even those posed in the past, which at the time met with nothing but silence. Now, barely disembarked, the passenger sees at once that this is not so, perhaps because he has been asked one of the two fatal questions, Where to. The other question, and much worse, is Why.