Breathe In: Travels in the Narrow Regions of Europe
This is ‘book’ 1 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.
What sort of book is it?
A travelogue with a modest amount of personal quirkiness but an underlying seriousness.
How likely is it that I will write the book?
I would certainly love to travel to the places discussed in the book, and writing the book would be an excuse to do so. The likelihood of me having the time and resources to do so is slim at the moment, although I live in hope. A retirement project maybe?
Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?
I can’t deny I’d be pretty jealous if someone wrote the book, but I guess it’s unreasonable to expect people to wait for the unlikely event of me actually writing it. Vitali Vitaliev has already written the books on enclaves and on the small states of Europe that I wanted to write.
Dieveniskes, Budjak, Neum — I yearn for you.
I can’t get enough of maps and I’ve often wiled away an evening browsing through an atlas or (latterly) Google Earth. Maps are a pretty common obsession amongst those of us of the geeky persuasion.
Although I’ve been drawn to maps since childhood, in recent years my attention has been drawn to one particular kind of place — borders. Borders are of course the sites of conflict and tension, but it’s not this that attracts me so much. Rather, it’s the possibility of human variety and diversity that tantalizes me.
Borders suggest that a line on a map can mark the separation of humanity into distinct varieties. As a sociologist — and as someone who has travelled fairly widely — I know that life isn’t as simple as that. I know that borders exist for historical reasons and often represent the arbitrary and sometimes cruel operation of power. I know that human cultures can rarely be neatly separated into discreet political units. But I also know that borders can be self-fulfilling prophecies and the act of bordering can turn kin against kin. And something in me thrills to the possibility that the crossing of a line can result in a different human landscape.
So the regions that catch my eye on my imaginary travels are usually those where the wonderful, absurd and frightening reality of borders are accentuated. I’m drawn to ‘narrow’ places, places that are hemmed in by borders, places where it looks hard to breathe. Places like:
- Neum: Bosnia’s tiny sliver of coastline, sandwiched in between two sections of Croatia.
- Budjak: The most westerly end of Ukraine, almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country by the lower tip of Moldova.
- The Dieveniskes ‘Appendix’: The local term for a bulbous section of Lithuania that protrudes in Belarus.
- The Karst plateau in Italy: A narrow strip of Italy loomed over by Slovenia.
- This point on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland
These are, of course, all in Europe. It’s not that there are no narrow places elsewhere in the world, but the borders of Europe are the ones that fascinate me most. Europe is where the great experiment started: turning sprawling multilingual, multiethnic kingdoms and empires into nation states. It’s also the place where a new experiment is unfolding: turning a collection of nation states into a multilingual multiethnic ‘Europe’ in which borders will be little more than lines on a map. And Europe is also where this new experiment has reached its limits, in national conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Breath In asks the question: Do borders really matter in Europe these days? If there is an answer, it can perhaps be found in regions of narrow borders. Do these narrow places feel constricted? Is there a yearning for some contemporary version of Lebensraum? Or are these places narrow only on a map? Have we left a Europe of borders behind in favour of pan-European homogeneity? Do places on either sides of borders blend slowly into each other so that the act of crossing a border is barely perceptible.
In Breath In I travel to the narrow regions of Europe, crossing borders as I go. I talk to their residents, listen to the local controversies, compare the map with the territory.
Although I ask big questions in the book, this is also a personal journey. Will I be disappointed to find that the narrow regions I yearn for are more mundane than extraordinary? Or will I find in the persistence of borders a depressing reminder of the divisions that have caused so much conflict
The answer cannot be known until I travel to the lands of narrow borders and breath in the atmosphere.