12 June 2022
We have had more cause to think about borders over the past 5 years than we might ever otherwise have done but never more so than over the past year.
Whilst the UK remained in the EU, travelling around on Pintail only sometimes meant contact with customs and immigration. Checking in and out of the EU to enter countries like Turkey, Albania and Tunisia felt like part of the adventure, albeit a sometimes longwinded, shoe leather busting adventure.
But after the 31 December 2020 we found ourselves suddenly stripped of our free movement by a democratic process that had, for us, very much shifted Europe’s borders. And as 2021 rolled on, we found ourselves pondering the migrant experience from a very different and much more personal perspective. But our travels through Europe have taught us that borders have constantly shifted.
As we journeyed around countries whose shapes we thought we knew, we discovered their borders to be far less ancient than we supposed, having almost constantly moved with rise and fall of empires or of royal houses. We really started to ponder what a country actually is and when and where national identities are formed.
Arriving in Alghero on Sardinia, Italy we were confused to find the Catalan flags we thought we had left behind in the Spanish Balearic Islands flying everywhere and discovered that Sardinia had been part of Spain for four hundred years from 1323 to 1708 and that the Catalan language was still spoken in and around Alghero today. Evidence of a campaign against unification with Italy continues to this day on this island with its own very distinct identity.
In Ajaccio, Corsica we discovered, at his birthplace, that the great French Emperor, Napoleon had actually been born to an Italian family not long after the island was ceded to France in 1770. Having conquered half of Europe, he put his siblings in charge of various far flung kingdoms. Joseph became King of Naples, Louis became King of Holland and Elisa got the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
In Nice, France we thought it strange to bump into a statue of Garibaldi, the Italian patriot and architect of a united Italy whose final home we had visited in the Maddalena Islands off Sardinia. Turns out he had been born in Nice in 1807, fifty four years before the border of France and Italy moved to make it the town so synonymous with the French Riviera actually French.
In Vlorë, Albania we learnt that it was only the slow decline of the once enormous Ottoman empire that saw the country emerge again to independence in 1912 only to very firmly close its borders to just about everyone for the entire second half of the 20th century. The bunkers remain a constant reminder of Hoxha’s desire to keep foreigners out and his people in.
Greece and Turkey, as we now know them, also only emerged in 1923 from the final collapse of the same empire which had once ruled almost the entire Eastern and Southern Mediterranean. At Kayaköy, Turkey and on the Greek islands of Tilos and Crete, we saw the brutal evidence of the compulsory population exchange which saw millions of people displaced by a sudden imposition of new national borders.
In our lifetime we have seen Montenegro born from the break up of the former Yugoslavia and vote for independence from Serbia in a referendum as recently as 2006. In the museum at Cetinje we found the country’s constitution marking its birth as a new nation.
And then as we waited for our immigration appointments, the fragility of Europe’s borders was again brought into much more current and brutal focus with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia at the end of February.
And so on 9 March I found myself queuing for my appointment with SEF, the Portuguese immigration agency, behind a man from Ukraine. Suddenly any concerns about our immigration status paled into insignificance. Here we were migrants by choice, able to safely return to our country of birth at any time we wanted. Whatever happened between us and the immigration official behind the perspex, our lives did not depend on it.
After months of preparation, weeks of anxiety that the authorities would not recognise our marina address as a permanent one and no small amounts of money, our residence applications were granted. The kind woman dealing with my application also processed Stefan’s even though his appointment wasn’t until the next day.
Half and hour later we found ourselves sat in a shopping centre coffee shop with coffee and pasteis de nata. We felt an enormous sense of gratitude on one hand and yet anti-climax on the other. No one had busted out the Portuguese flags for us. There were no sardines grilling in celebration. We were still terrible at Portuguese. A simple paperwork transaction had been completed with the promise of residence cards to follow in the post.
Just like that we could stay here in Portugal with Pintail. No longer limited to only staying for 90 days of every 180. Regaining what Vote Leave had taken away from us.
And without hint of irony, on becoming better acquainted with Portugal’s history, we discovered that the country we had chosen to become residents in is actually the oldest in Europe. Portugal’s borders haven’t shifted since 1139 and we’re hoping they stay that way for a while longer yet…