The first time I crossed the border of my birth country I was 19. My best friend and I squashed into a bus heading for Vienna from Bucharest to spend three days in the city of Strauss, before two more days on the bus.
We tried to stay awake to witness the moment we crossed the border. We expected it to have some instant magic to it. The air to have a different scent, the trees to have different colours, it’s foreignness gently hitting us over the head. It didn’t.
A customs officer walked through the bus, inspecting everyone’s faces and looking at our passports. We skipped a few heartbeats, fearing something could still go wrong.
I have been living in Australia for the past 15 years, jet-setting between my two home-continents almost every year. The distance is not always comfortable, but it’s certainly made easier to take by knowing that I could board a plane on any day if my family needed me, or I needed them.
Except during a pandemic.
I could never have imagined that there would be a day when I wouldn’t be allowed to travel to Romania. Even if I could by some miracle find a flight to take me there now, my Romanian passport has expired and my Australian one forbids me to enter my birth country.
I was eight when the communist regime fell, but its legacy stayed with us for a very long time, perhaps to some extent still is.
I was eight when the communist regime fell, but its legacy stayed with us for a very long time, perhaps to some extent still is. It goes without saying that having a passport, let alone travelling to another country was almost unthinkable.
The Outside, as we still sometimes call it, carried an enthralling mystique. We dreamed about it, we shared what we knew or heard of it, we made up stories about it, and we coveted anything that was smuggled in from there, from chewing gum to pirated Chuck Norris movies.
The strict communist travel ban allowed only a lucky few to step outside the borders. There were the sailors who brought back blue jeans and denim jackets. As a kid, I dreamed of marrying one when I grew up. There were also the few workers or professionals who lent a helping hand to countries with similar political regimes, like Syria, Iraq or East Germany. And the diplomats, of which I knew none, so they didn’t count.
And then there were those who escaped by swimming the Danube at night in cold weather under the threat of bullets.
Leaving Romania and its confines was hard to imagine and yet The Outside busied our imaginations. We had no choice but to live and plan our lives within these restricting limits. The imposition, the lack of choice and of an end in sight, was the hardest limit to endure.
As an Australian, I have inherited a freedom of movement that was still hard to grasp for my grandparents. I could go anywhere, anytime, the only things between me and the world: money, time and my own inclination. And I know these can still be huge obstacles, but not as hard as those hard borders.
I could go anywhere, anytime, the only things between me and the world: money, time and my own inclination.
When the first whispers of closing borders because of COVID-19 started, I laughed and lashed at the fear-mongering, as I perceived it at the time. What a completely ridiculous, straight-from-a-dystopian-film idea it seemed.
And yet, with each new piece of information and each day that passed, it became clear that was the way we were heading.
I spent the first few weeks of the travel ban and impending lockdown in panic, not unlike everybody else. What if my family back in Romania got sick? Should we have left before the bans took effect. We dismissed it as a riskier decision, but had we been wrong? How long would we be prevented from leaving Australia?
But having experienced the communist border restrictions helped me look differently at the current travel ban. Even though the restrictions are much tighter now and they apply not only to the country, but to my home and my neighbourhood, there is a different feel to them. Apart from being a necessary act in the process of controlling the virus, it also feels like a contribution, a way of taking positive action by playing by the rules.
While the strict travel restrictions are nowhere near over, there is already a glimmer of hope. It may take six months, a year even, but this will be over. We will be free to go wherever we please again one day.
It may take six months, a year even, but this will be over. We will be free to go wherever we please again one day.
Post-communism, we Romanians became resolute travellers. I guess that’s not unusual, but whether consciously or subconsciously, our thirst for travel has something more to it: a don’t-waste-this-chance, you-owe-it-to-your-communist-ancestors kind of eagerness to know, touch, claim a place as seen.
I am reminded during these times to appreciate my democratic right to travel. I feel a renewed responsibility to not take lightly my right to move freely once it becomes the norm again.
Antoanela Safca is a freelance writer and editor. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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