Saturday, October 27, 2012


"Borders are scratched across the hearts of men, by strangers with a calm, judicial pen, and when the borders bleed we watch with dread the lines of ink along the map turn red." Marya Mannes.

I knew of the border before I had ever seen it. In his reveries, Petros Petranis, president of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia was fond of constantly quoting a prophecy pronounced by Saint Cosmas the Aetolian upon his arrival at his village: "One day, this village will be cleft by an iron chain." Some one hundred and fifty years later, at the very spot where the fearsome Saint stood, the Greco-Albanian border was drawn, cutting the village in two and leaving Petros Petranis family home in Albania and his fields in Greece. Petros Petranis had also shown me an early black and white photograph of the border - a barbed wire and concrete construction obscuring any view of the mysterious lost homeland. In this tattered and frayed depiction, the king of Greece, marked by a mannered self-revelation, almost self-betrayal that comes to those who continually return to and often display anxiety and self mistrust in the midst of his most assertive and overbearing of public displays, is just putting the final strokes on a message across the concrete barrier that expresses the pious and now abandoned hope: «Τα σύνορά μας δεν τελειώνουν εδώ.»

It was Steven Covey who mused that: "We are limited but we can push back the borders of our limitations." Petros Petranis' life was spent fenced in behind that border by a totalitarian regime, risking his life crossing it with his siblings in order to escape certain death and then, for the rest of his days, in the freedom of Greece and Australia, wondering what was transpiring in his homeland. Borders therefore are fences for the mind and evermore so, the heart.

Returning from a summer holiday prior to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, my cousins regaled me with harrowing tales of them playing soccer near the Greco-Albanian border. According to their account, in a feat of superhuman strength, they managed to levitate their ball over the border and into Albania. Using only their hands, for they knew not the language, they managed to convince the unsmiling Albanian border guard to forgive the border violation and kick the ball back over into Greece. The story is of course, a total fabrication, the formal state of war between the countries which existed until 1987 precluding the capacity of any eleven year olds to come into any sort of proximity to the border, but it is apocryphal and illustrative and, well at any rate, I believed it right up until my twenties.

My first own border related experience was far from apocryphal but equally illustrative of border zeitgeist, taking place as it did, in 1997, by which time the Greco-Albanian border was as porous as a Swiss cheese. I was on a bus, travelling from Ioannina to Athens. Engrossed in my copy of Pouqueville's 'Travels in Epirus, Albania and Thessaly' I did not notice that the bus has pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. As its pneumatic doors opened with a sigh, two uniformed men bounded on to the vehicle, their grey epicanthic eyes relentlessly scanning the aisles of passengers. When they came to me, they looked at my face carefully and then my brutally vermillion shaded corduroy pants and brilliantly verdant jumper. "Show me your ID," one snarled. Before I had managed to complete my enquiry, I found myself suspended by my ear over my seat, my face, chameleon like, matching the hue of my most questionable pants. As flecks of spittle projected themselves from his yellowing teeth onto my skin, he demanded to see my papers, applying to my personage the appellation of «κωλοαλβανέ.» My protestations of Hellenism and references to an Australian passport left him unmoved. "What, with those clothes?" he scoffed. "You may think you can steal across the border, but tell your mates that you will not get very far."

Irresponsibly, I had stowed my passport in my luggage and was therefore compelled to alight from my mode of conveyance, the howls of anger and frustration of my fellow passengers ringing in my ears, rummage through the suitcases stored in its bowels until finally I was able to extricate it from between the thoroughly wrapped gifts destined for Australian relatives and wave it in my persecutors face. Instead of admitting defeat, he wanted to take me to the nearest police station to verify the authenticity of Her Majesty's travel document, that is until this caused a steady and uncharacteristically neohellenic stream of expletives from the bus driver, whereupon I was released, continuing my journey to the not so dulcet tones of the irate and by now delayed bus driver and fellow passengers lambasting me for my choice of attire, my place of birth and everything else in between.

My second border entanglement occurred while travelling towards the Greco-Albanian border, in order to attend a meeting. Three of us were halted by a patrol at Delvinaki, the legendary place where the invading Italian army was trounced in 1940 by the Greeks and compelled to produce passports, contemporaneous with my performing an impression of the Albanian border guard who, a few years previously, would not let us proceed to the Greek border unless we bought him some raki. We complied with his request, despite my attempt to guide our interlocutor through a hypothetical that would see little sense in trying to detain persons already trying to leave the country. Looking at me, and then my passport carefully, he ventured: "This is not you. This passport is fake." "Is the passport fake, or am I fake?" I responded in turn. Furrowing his brow he stammered, in a state of perplexity. "I don't know. There is something funny going on here. I'm sure I heard you guys speaking in Albanian."

It was then that I explained to him, in the words of Rabindranath Tagore that "Languages are jealous sovereigns, and passports are rarely allowed for travelers to cross their strictly guarded borders." I further pointed out that the passport he was looking at was my friend's and that mine was immediately behind it. Our proper identities being established and he affirming that he had never heard of Tagore and was unaware that Indians wrote poetry, we continued on our way to Kakavia, on the border.

Returning to Greece from Albania, I was in the company of the heroic, uncompromising and absolutely brilliant mayor of Himara, Vasilis Bolanos. After deftly dodging Albanian border officials who posed pertinently the poser as to how I entered the country without stamping my passport (the bored guard was having a cigarette and merely waved us through), we were stopped in Greece by a rather truculent official. Snatching Mayor Bolanos' passport from his hand he snapped: "You've been in an out too many times this month. I'm not letting you in." "Do you understand who you are talking to?" I screamed, swept away by the unstoppable current of bile flowing from within me. "This is the mayor of Himara. Of course he would be continuously coming and going as he is in constant consultation with the Greek government. Even now, he is due in Athens for talks with the Prime Minister."

"I don't care if he is the Virgin Mary," he sniggered. "He is not coming in, and there is nothing you can do about it." As it happened, there was plenty I could do about it. I made a great show of taking down his name and other details, advising him as I did so that I would be submitting his details along with a detailed account of his conduct to the various powers that be when I got to Athens. I alluded to circles within circles, hidden and vested interests convincingly enough to give him pause for thought. He stood up and walked into another office, Mayor Bolanos' passport still in hand. After a few minutes, he emerged, crestfallen and contrite, superior in tow. Offering profuse apologies and cigarettes, he waved us through.

It was that year that my best ever border experience took place, at Athens airport. Presenting my passport for stamping, the office asked me whether I had enjoyed my time in Greece and I related my various border adventures to him. "Never forget that this is your home and come back as often as you can," he stated with a broad smile. Just buy yourself a decent set of clothes."


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 October 2012.