The first time I crossed a border, I was ten years old. I was in the back of my father's car, wedged in between a significant chunk of my family's earthly possessions, with the book I was reading at the time stored securely in the microwave oven at my feet. We were leaving Bulgaria for good. We were going to start a new life in Austria. I have a couple of very specific memories about that first border crossing.
I remember setting my watch to CET. And I remember my Dad telling me how he'd picked up some East German hitch-hikers in their late teens or early twenties and how crossing into Bulgaria had been the first time they had crossed time zones. He wanted me to understand what a privilege it was for me to be doing this aged ten.
I remember, in the lead-up to our emigration, my grandmother telling me how Bulgaria was the most beautiful country on earth. If you've never driven through eastern Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and western Bulgaria, there are some stunning landscapes and geographical features there. And if it wasn't for the queue and border guards and document check and strip of no-man's land and then another queue with border guards and document check, there's no way to tell whether a particular tree or rock or hill belongs to Bulgaria or to Serbia. I remember very clearly thinking how beautiful that landscape was on the "wrong" side of the border and wondering if it was okay to think that.
I don't remember crossing the Yugoslav-Hungarian border that day. What I do remember is arriving at the Austrian border at 9 o'clock that evening, July 31st 1991. My father had been living in Austria for a month already at that point, but my visa and my mother's didn't start until August 1st. The Austrian border guard was very nice about it (or at least he was the way my father translated him), but he wouldn't let us enter the country until midnight. We slept for three hours in no-man's land.
My early and mid teens were characterised by crossing borders bearing a passport that marked me out as the undesirable kind of immigrant. Travelling east, "home" ostensibly, was relatively painless. I don't know how many times I crossed those borders, collected the relevant stamps: Austria to Hungary, Hungary to whatever successor state of Yugoslavia was flavour du jour, that to Bulgaria. In cars and in coaches, sometimes relatively quickly, often after four or five hours of waiting. Travelling west remained a near-impossibility for years. Nothing came of the plan to go to Berlin to see the Reichstag wrapped by Christo - I would have needed a Schengen visa for that. I did manage to get a visa for a school trip to the UK, but not one for a yearbook editors' training event in Amsterdam. It was as if the Iron Curtain had simply moved a few hundred miles to the west.
And then I was Austrian: citizenship applied for with years to go before we met the minimum residency requirements, and granted - I suspect - based on some nebulous concept of "integration" and how well I in particular spoke the local dialect. (Thank you, former classmates who made me say "jo" instead of "ja" and wouldn't put up with my misguided attempts to speak Hochdeutsch.) I was a citizen of the European Union, of a Schengen member state. My passport gave me the right to be anywhere in Western Europe. The freedom was almost unimaginable.
Border crossings were different after that, yet for me no less noticeable. They stay with you, those borders you couldn't cross for years. There was the time I flew to Greece from Munich airport. Part of the journey to Munich involved a train that had started out in Slovenia. Schengen or not, you bet that train got checked at the German border. I was wearing branded clothes and had been on the train for two hours, rather than twelve like my fellow passengers. I was the only person in that carriage to not get asked for a passport. There was the epic "going home by train for Christmas - UK to Germany via Belgium, France and Austria" trip of 1999: only two years earlier I couldn't have dreamed of that! There were regular trips to Ireland to see my then-boyfriend, complete with getting sniffed for drugs when getting off the ferry at 7 a.m., not having slept in 24 hours. One memorable weekend shortly after the introduction of the Euro, I found myself, completely unexpectedly, going from Austria to Germany to the Netherlands and back to Germany in the space of a couple of days - no border checks and even more startlingly no currency exchanges.
Bizarrely, for a time going east became an issue. I needed a visa to study in the Czech Republic for three months. The Czech embassy in London was confused by the Austrian living in the UK with no entry stamp in her passport. In mid December, I withdrew my application in order to get my passport back, so I could travel to Germany for Christmas. A trip in person to the consulate in Bonn on one of those ungodly days between Christmas and New Year sorted it all out eventually.
These days, my more adventurous border crossings tend to be outside of Europe. I check my sense of humour at the US border. Russia - as expected - is not that different. Europe is still good for a few surprises though. Entering Schengen at Schiphol continues to be a bane of my life as I invariably get interrogated about what I'm doing there. Last time I cleared immigration at Newcastle, an Asian-looking woman got pulled out of the EU passport queue in front of me, presumably because people like her couldn't possibly be EU citizens. Perhaps my favourite recent border crossing though was an unintentional one: there is a length of road somewhere in central Europe one side of which belongs to Austria and the other to Slovenia. I like that the Iron Curtain has become a three-letter country code either side of a dotted line.