A Trans-European experience without any travelling documents by Lexi Fleurs
JERUSALEM, JULY 2019
As I was sitting on the dusty road just right out of Jerusalem waiting for a car to stop in the burning heat of the middle eastern summer, I realized that waiting wouldn’t get me anywhere. As a spiritual practice, waiting and giving myself into the countless possibilities of the world has always helped me discover layers of myself, my ego, my soul, that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But this time I felt a strong urge to follow another path. I felt the sudden urge to take the path of another fellow Jew, and unlike him I would begin where he found his end and stop where his life started. The walk from Jerusalem to Bethlem is 10km, it could be done in half a day. Or at least it could have been done before the Zionist regime and the Mossad came up with the idea of separating the land with a wall, the same way their ancestors were isolated from the rest of society solely for being of a different ethnicity. Jews were called evil as they were “the rich who rule the world” or were an ”impure race” and were even the murderers of that same person whose path I wanted to follow. It’s interesting to see the oppressed become the oppressor. The walk takes half a day but in 2019 the walk is nearly impossible to take. I sat down 500 meters before what some people call the apartheid wall. I took out my softcover copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and started reading: “But was it not true that there were people, certain individuals, whom one found it impossible to picture dead, precisely because they were so vulgar? That was to say: they seemed so fit for life, so good at it, that they would never die, as if they were unworthy of the consecration of death.” I re-read that paragraph two, three times. I’ve always thought of myself as immortal. I kept searching for these countless encounters with mortality only to find myself winning. Winning in the vulgar game of putting my life in the hands of others, in the hands of murderers, the hands of abusers, the hands of evil, the hands of the unknown. A stream of vulgarity that I have based my whole life around, thinking that no matter what happened I would come out alive.
“But was it not true that there were people, certain individuals, whom one found it impossible to picture dead, precisely because they were so vulgar? That was to say: they seemed so fit for life, so good at it, that they would never die, as if they were unworthy of the consecration of death.”
(Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain)
The hot air of the middle eastern summer was blowing in my face, I had no more water left, there were no more shops around. The closest source of water was in Palestine. As a Jew I believed that it was my duty to question the occupation, not only in my own mind but in the minds of others, especially those who considered themselves sworn Zionists. And as I was thinking of the Zionists, Zion in general, an orthodox Jew dressed up in black top to bottom as if the weather was predicting a thunderstorm rather than the heat the asphalt was emitting, came up to me. “Hey Lexi, do you remember me?“ I had no idea who he was and I was puzzled by the situation. An orthodox Jew approaching me on the road right before the wall, he obviously knew who I was as he addressed me by my name. “Oh, I see that you don’t remember me. Its me, Marco. We met last year at the Dead Sea. You were living next to me.“ I still couldn’t recall. “We were singing together.” I don’t remember meeting a Marco at the Dead Sea. But I knew it was possible.
The Dead Sea attracts all kinds of people, wanderers from different parts of the world, souls hungry for enlightenment, hippies, and I guess orthodox Jews as well. People always came to the Dead Sea with the intention of staying a few days but the pull of gravity of the lowest point on earth made them permanent inhabitants. Ben, from Australia, who I met 3 years ago at the beach had planned to stay for a month. When I met him, he resembled more like the wild hyenas that inhabit the few green bushes at the beach. His address was his sand construction next to the mineral spring on the Palestinian side of the Sea. He was a Zionist who believed in the Israeli army the same way the orthodox Jews worshipped The First Temple. He would run on four legs through the whole he had carved through the barbed wire dividing Israel and Palestine. The only sweet water near his home was in Palestine. If he wanted to stay alive in the hostile conditions of the Dead Sea he had to pass through the two countries even though his ideology denied the existence of one of them. Ben insisted that Palestine didn’t exist as he was trespassing into it to wash his body from the toxicity of the Israeli waters. Ben reminded me that Marco’s existence at the Dead Sea was a possibility, so I assumed I had made friends with him years ago at the limbo land of salt.
“Where are you going Lexi? What are you doing here all by yourself?” I told him I want to go to Bethlem. He tried to convince me that its dangerous, that he can take me somewhere nicer where the soldiers of the Israeli army can protect us. I insisted. “I am going to Bethlem with or without you. You are welcome to join me, but I am not going anywhere else.” He said its dangerous for him to go. That it was forbidden for Israeli citizens to go in “the occupied territories”. Ten minutes later we were at the checkpoint. Surrounded by a dozen of soldiers, all who had freshly turned 18 or 19, Marco was panicking as I kept my assertive position. He was translating from Hebrew to me. “So they said we can’t enter.” “And what happens if we do?” He would translate back to them. “They said they will shoot us.” “Lets see.” “No, lets go back to Israel” “No, lets see.” Marco hesitated. “Are you sure? They have big Kalashnikovs”. “I am certain.”. He tried to say something in Hebrew as we were walking away from them into the city of Bethlem. They were shouting, trying to exercise their power, waving their massive guns around, sweating in confusion and heat. After a certain line, they cannot shoot us. They cannot pass. They cannot follow us. From here on our existence depended on the Palestinian authorities. And as the danger of the Israeli army escaped us, a group of men shouting in Arabic circled us. Or to be more precise, circled around Marco. He was terrified, dressed up in his Orthodox outfit. Once they realised that we didn’t speak any Arabic, one of them said in English “You cannot be dressed like this in Bethlem. Its dangerous for you. Here is a t-shirt and put this cap on to hide your curls. Give me your clothes, I will hide them.”
GENEVA, JUNE 2020
There is a famous Bulgarian song that goes like “Mommy, I am coming home from the big ‘abroad’ I would give anything to cross the barrier, give him [the border police], daughter, 200 Deutsche Marks after all he is human and he needs money both for cigarettes and for building a house … Mr. Border Police let me pass so I can get back home from abroad.” Needless to say, this song has become a part of the contemporary folkloric repertoire, not so much for its melody but for its narrative relevance. Have you even worked abroad if you didn’t have to beg the border police to let you back home? But do you even have compassion if you don’t understand that he needs money for cigarettes? Streams of westward migration has turned this guard into a mythical creature that collects the price to pay for abandoning the homeland. The concept of good and evil becomes blurry in the land between dream and reality, the checkpoint in between the EU and the non-EU. Five kilometres of tax-free cigarettes and alcohol, no commission banks and a meeting point for Gastarbeiters who have found their lives to be more worthy than the ideal of serving the nation. As if ever the nation existed. Knowing all of the mysteries which weave our national identity, Aaron and I were staring right into the Lac Leman, sharing a bottle of Troyanska Slivova rakia (bought in one of those shitty duty free shops at the Sofia airport) under the 40 degrees heat and shoving in all our luggage into the truck of my black Alfa Romeo. People keep saying that nations are made up, that borders are imaginary, that we are all the same race – the human race, but clearly those are people who have never left Schengen. Once you cross the last “imaginary” Schengen border that divides the Former East from the Former West, everything changes. Suddenly the value of your life is worth either less, or more, your community either becomes the most valuable constant, or it disappears, the value of your Versace belt keeps fluctuating. It was time to go back home. A few months earlier all my documents burned down along with the house of Vidya. We watched the light eat away the insides of her home. It was raining. We sat in front and contemplated the green fields on which litres of water were pouring from the gray skies, gray as the house which had turned in a fiery tongued dragon.
Covid-19 closed down the Bulgarian Embassy or at least gave them an excuse to not perform any bureaucratical activities. I didn’t get my ID renewed, nor my driving license or the papers for my car. There I was surrendering to life, being stripped down of all stability, security and legality. The rain that poured over Vidya’s house, the rain that poured down all winter long washed away my identity and I melted into a nationless state. March, April, May. June was calling me back to my nation, across all the European borders, a test on swiftness, a purposeless journey, a question on politics, a question on morals, a question on migration. An artistic experiment. And the question took the shape of a quest. Can I drive across the whole of Europe, straight out of the arcane portal of Schengen into the paradise lost of the East, without any documents? The quest was decided. Aaron joined me. He had a passport, no driving license though. But why limit the quest to “can I cross a border“? It felt like the wrong question. “How many borders can I cross without any documents?” seemed more exciting. And so we left.
We arrived in Milan. I lost Aaron in the night. Found myself in Greta’s house. We took cocaine and talked about Judaism. She told me that .םייחל is the most beautiful way to say cheers because it meant “to life.” To life because as a Jew you never know if tomorrow will come. To life because it was the biggest gift in the uncertainties of a persecuted identity.To life because it is the most sacred, a constant feast of horrid meals and spectacular drinks, saturated with questionable chairs and unwanted table cloths, loud noises that your body ecstatically aligns with, dance moves born out of abomination, and candles lit by the monstrous guests who you find out are not even your guests. But it’s a feast because the beauty of the party is its diversity, the grotesque ambiance is a mystery, and no one remembers how they got stuck there. Lost, confused and in love. L’Chaim – םייחל.
A moment later Greta tattooed םייחל on my right foot in red ink. I found Aaron near Navigli early in the morning and we drove on towards the verge of the land of Schengen.
There is a certain pull that the cement veins of Europe have on me as long as I keep drifting east. As if the heart knows it has been unrooted, divided, cut up in a united Europe and the closer it is to its other half the faster it pushes the walls of its ribs, impatient to reunite. But when does it arrive? Is the other half the border police telling you “Хайде по-бързо, нямам цяла вечер да те чакам да минеш на първа” [Come on faster, I don’t have time to wait for you to start driving]? Or is it destroying the wheels of your car on the newly built “highway Europe” that connects Istanbul to London? It looks more like a science fiction film set, craters bigger than you, deeper than your height, dim lights and orange workers sipping on rakia as the EU funds go down your prime minister’s throat. Yes, the smell of corruption, the strongest longing of the lost heart.
Geographically the river Ljubljanica is the official division between Balkans and Central Europe. Slavoj Zizek says that on the East side is horror, oriental despotism, women get beaten and raped and like it and on the West side – civilisation, women get beaten and raped but don’t like it. We stopped at that same river, right in between civilisation and orientalism. I was terrified of the consequences of getting caught. How would I explain – driving a car without documents, no proof that I own it and as a bonus I couldn’t even prove who I was. I ordered a beer and two shots. All for me. It was the only way I could keep my calm during the transition.
The lady checking papers was stopping every passenger, drivers were getting out of their vehicles to get searched, it looked like a scene from the dark Balkan 90s. I opened another beer, already boiling from the heat. As I was downing it, I was calculating the bribe which would be fair to propose. Small blue buildings, long blue barrier, square blue sign with little yellow stars on it. It was my turn. Crimson red hair, assertive posture, dark sunglasses. She looked at me and just shouted “hajde hajde”. She pulled up the barrier and said “dobro dosli u hrvatska.” The adrenaline rush didn’t give me space to comprehend that I just entered Croatia without any documents, that the border police didn’t check us. Accelerating down south as the seaside sunset bathe us in its orange rays we realised that the social construct “Europe” would be effaced from our perception as long as we kept moving.
We arrived in Split. The cops stopped us.
Policeman: are you aware that you are driving in the wrong way of the street?
Lexi: oh shit. I was just following the directions of google maps.
Policeman: right. I would need your driving license and car documents. Quick check up
Lexi: mmm. I don’t have any.
Policeman: driving licence?
Lexi: I don’t have a driving licence.
Policeman: oh ok. Have a nice evening then!
We stopped in Bosnia to fill up the car with the cheapest diesel of Europe. No one checked us at the border. We sang “ I am from Bosnia, take me to America. I would really like to see statue of liberty” with the people at the gas station.
We got lost on the road to Durres and ended up in a small village. Around 20 kids gathered around my Alfa Romeo and were waving and shouting in joy. We got out and gave them all the objects we could think of as being gifts – hats, stickers, pencils, paint, canvases. The parents invited us home. They played chalga music and we danced. After a while one of the families asked me to come to their home. They had a packed bag and grim faces. Their daughter [of about 3 years of age] jumped on my laps. The family wanted me to take her because they couldn’t afford to raise her. “Bring her back after 10 years, she will be old enough to work. We can’t afford to buy her food. Please take her”. We spent the evening crying in their living room and left without the child.
Border Policeman: you need to buy a montenegrian insurance if you want to enter.
Lexi: but look. I have a green card for the whole of Europe. Im insured. It says it works in Montenegro
Border Policeman [agitated]: you need to buy a montenegrian insurance if you want to enter.
Lexi: but I have a valid insurance
Border Policeman [shouting]: you need to buy a montenegrian insurance if you want to enter.
Border Policeman [shouting]: listen little girl. You have 3 choices. You buy the insurance, you go back to Croatia or I take you to jail.
Lexi leaves to buy insurance. Lexi enters a small room with two men chain smoking in between piles of documents. They sip rakia from small glasses. One looks at Lexi with his cigarette still in his mouth. He speaks in Montenegrian to Lexi.
Insurance Guy: its for the insurance? [he passes her a paper] just sign here. 15 euros.
Lexi: can I read it first?
Insurance Guy [calmly]: no , you pay first. 15 euros.
Lexi: come on man
Insurance Guy: where are you from? Macedonia ?
Insurance Guy: ah ok. 15 euros.
Lexi gives him the money. Storms out of the smoked room quickly.
Insurance Guy: Don’t worry, everyone has to pay it
Lexi goes back to the borderpolice. Shows the insurance.
Border Policeman: Hajde, have a nice trip!
Lexi and Aaron are in the Alfa Romeo. They look at the insurance. It’s written: “two week insurance valid only in Belarus.”
the border between Kosovo and Serbia. Serbs don’t believe that Kosovo exists even though the job of these borderpolice was to guard the frontier between the two countries. As I strolled past the Kosovar side of the checking I felt worried. I felt that this is where the trouble is going to be.
Serbian Policeman: Hey, you can not enter Serbia. Get out of the car
Serbian Policeman: Don’t ask questions. Get out of the car. Give me your passports.
Aaron gives his American passport. Lexi pretends she didn’t hear the order.
Serbian Policeman: Get out of the car and open the trunk. Hm, amerikanets! Ha- ha
Lexi gets out of the car, opens the trunk. Policeman goes through the trunk. Lexi leans in the trunk with him.
Serbian Policeman: you know you are in big trouble.
Lexi: how much do you want? 100 euros?
Serbian Policeman (hesitates): no, this is too much of a national problem. Money doesn’t work.
Lexi: we can give you 200 and two bottles of rakia?
Serbian Policeman: ah bugari, bugari. It is true in the end what they say of you. That the Bulgarians always think that whatever you can’t buy with money, you can buy with a lot of money.
Lexi: so we have a deal?
Serbian Policeman: im going to need you to come with me.
Lexi calls Aaron to join. Border policeman stops her.
Serbian Policeman: Only the girl comes with me.
Lexi and Border policeman go in the room. There is just the two of them, dim light and smoke.
Serbian Policeman: you know what you did is punished with 3 years of prison. You can not enter Serbia through Kosovo. Kosovo doesn’t exist.
Lexi: but we are at the border between the two countries.
Serbian Policeman: It doesn’t exist. Its not a country, it’s a region of Serbia. We would have to take you to prison for 3 years with your little American friend. What is he doing here anyways? First they bombed us and now he wants to make a political scandal?!
Lexi: how much money do you want, we will give you everything.
Serbian Policeman: its not a question of money, sestro, it’s a question of national dignity.
They sit in silence in the room. The border policeman lights a cigarette.
Serbian Policeman: you know, im tired of this conflict. Every day I come to work and I see my Albanian colleagues, we never speak to each other because we are ‘enemies’ but its been ten years we’ve been together here. I know their names, I see them grow old, they see me grow old and we can’t fucking talk to each other. I hate this conflict.
The border policeman scratches his head. He stays silent for a moment.
Serbian Policeman: Fuck it. Come on, turn around with your car and go back to Bulgaria. I will call the border police at the Macedonian border, they are my friends. They will let you pass without getting checked so you don’t have to wait. Come on little girl, go before my colleauges see.
Lexi runs to the car makes a U turn and goes back to Kosovo. The border police in Kosovo stops her.
Kosovarian Policeman: Hey, you are back. Can we take a photo together? I want to show my wife. I didn’t expect you to make it.
THE EUROPEAN UNION
The story of Bulgaria shouldn’t really matter to the rest of Europe. Bulgaria is too small to be important for the French, or the Brits or for that matter anyone else in the European Union. But the story of Bulgaria is a tale that turns out to be a metaphor that clearly demonstrates what is happening in the rest of the Union. Not so much because it’s a special story but because the politics of Bulgaria resemble more an art performance for dummies that demonstrates all the flaws of capitalism and modern day democracy, thanks to the inability of the post communist mind to hide its atrocities unlike the eloquent western diplomacy that has evolved over centuries of dominance. The tale of Bulgaria is very special in the sense that unlike Yugoslavia, the country was a satellite state of the USSR and unlike the rest of the satellite states, it never fought the Russian dominance, and it’s the only country that is now part of the European Union. To be clear, Bulgaria did not enter the EU because it had demonstrated outstanding democratic values. It was desired by the union because of its geographical position and because of its undemocratic governance. Cheap labour was also a bonus point that helped it get in the union.
Therefore Bulgaria has been assigned the mission of “guard of the fortress Europe” while itself not being completely assimilated to the notion of Europe. Culturally, a semi oriental nation, politically, a mafia state, its people – lost between the notion of East and West, of communism and democracy, of nationalism and anti nationalism. The nation divided between those who have lived “abroad” and those who hang onto whatever memory they have of a national identity. A fight for power between black leather jacket and dark 90s sunglasses mafiosos, ex-football players, corrupted border police, MMA fighters running the police force, juridistiction system based on bribes and institutionalised misogyny, islamophobia, homophobia and other forms of white male dominance. Migrant hunters on ATVs sponsored by the EU , residing in secret “Gotham” headquarters, receiving medals for bravery , receiving one out of ten refugees caught as a gift, receiving tanks in which they drift around the most south eastern border of the EU. The most south eastern border of the European Union, protecting the fortress by turning that little zone of no mans land into a gravestone of all the unnamed voyageurs looking for safety.
“Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, leftwing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. When it comes to the foundations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, things are not so straightforward. And I am afraid I am not going to make things any easier for you by saying simply: these are the angels, these are the devils, you just have to support the angels and good will prevail over evil. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep and convincing claim and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim. […]
This is a battle between fanatics, who believe that the end, any end, justifies the means, and the rest of us, who believe that life is an end, not a means. It is a struggle between those who think that justice, whatever they would mean by the word, is more important than life, on the one hand, and those of us who think that life takes priority over many other convictions, values or faiths. The present crisis in the world, in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine … is about the ancient struggle between fanaticism and pragmatism. Between fanaticism and tolerance.”
(Amos Oz, How to Cure a Fanatic)
Srecko Horvat and Slavoj Zizek, What does Europe want? The Union and Its Discontents, 2014; Columbia University Press
Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, 2008; Big Ideas Small Books
Yanis Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy, 2013; Economic Controversies
Amos Oz, How to Cure a Fanatic, 2010; Princeton University Press
Leonard Cohen, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974; Columbia Records
Abigail Thorn [Philosophy Tube], Antisemitism: An Analysis;
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1973; Mariner
Unknown, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1903; unknown publisher
Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, 1993; éditions Galilée
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, 1924; Heritage Press
Igor Zabel, Body and the East: From the 1960s to the Present, 1999; MIT press
Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, 2017; Graywolf Press
Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, 2006; Verso
Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957; Penguin Books