Illustration: A person sits on a German passport and flies over a barbed wire fence.

Freedom of Movement or Razor Wire?

Europe in the Covid age: is the European Union now merely an economic entity rather than a shared identity? When a European passport suddenly no longer guarantees freedom of movement.

Passports Change the Perspective

I also hesitate to look back at the past to find a wish or even a recommendation for the future. What was is often easier than what is. But I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the early 1990s. At that time, I marvelled – yes, truly marvelled – at the superpowers that an Austrian passport suddenly gave me. As soon as I was old enough to have one of my own (when I was a kid you travelled on your parents’ passports) there were no more borders for me. I had unfettered access to all the countries that surrounded the one in which I was born and raised.


Map of the countries of Europe.
Going to foreign countries is a 'superpower'” granted by a passport, illustration: Pfüderi via pixabay

Even ones that were further away, to which I had to travel by boat, such as Albania, were still easily accessible. I boarded the ferry in Trieste and after two days landed in the port of Durres. I walked a few hundred metres across the dusty terrain, paid a small fee for a visa – a little more because I was from ‘rich Europe’ – and I was in.

Later on, a stamp testified to my presence in Albania in 1992, a few months after the statue of the dictator Enver Hoxha had been pulled down in the main square. Despite its massive exterior, it was revealed to be hollow. Other stamps quickly followed, confirming that I had been to Iran, Russia, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nepal and Greece. In Colombia I also paid a ‘rich person’s’ surcharge when entering the country. Everywhere I went, I was made welcome.

In 1995, when Austria joined the EU, my passport had as many stamps as a spy (or diplomat). When applying for a visa to visit the US, I was specifically asked about all the different places I had been. But I got the visa. Today, I still possess the superpowers bestowed on me by my Austrian citizenship and, for the last 26 years, by my citizenship of the European Union.

I have a little book. I don’t own it because it belongs forever to the state. 36 thin pages, most of them empty, but on the first one it (currently) says ‘European Union’ in twenty languages. Thanks to this little burgundy book, I can be brave. Because I have never, ever, been denied entry into any country. Just think what that means! Being welcome everywhere. When I was a kid, I often wondered why they wanted us all. I still do from time to time.

Oh. No, that’s not quite true. Last year, at the end of April 2020, I was turned back at a border. As an Austrian, I wasn’t allowed to take a shortcut home to Vienna by entering Germany from the Vorarlberg due to pandemic restrictions. I was already home, but I was still shocked. My superpowers were failing. Politely but firmly, the border official told me I would be allowed through if I was transporting goods, but not just because I wanted to drive home.

36 thin pages, most of them empty, but on the first one it (currently) says ‘European Union’ in twenty languages. Thanks to this little burgundy book, I can be brave.

Zuhause, daheim – in German we have two words for home. The French do too. Is it a place or rather a state, closely linked to feelings of being safe, and hence forever denied to some people? Simply by chance? Because you were born at the wrong GPS coordinates: à la maison, chez soi dans un pays hors de l'Europe. An Albanian woman says: Në shtëpi, meaning Frankfurt. It worked out for her – she married a German. Like a blood group, a hereditary disease, a passport is passed on within the family. Coming home – does that mean coming to a place where you don’t have to think about what you do? Where you can do and say whatever you want? Where no one sees you eating soup naked? Where only you have the key and are pretty sure people can’t simply walk in unannounced?


Lithuania seems to interpret it that way, a state inhabited by people who, seventeen years ago, managed to rupture the circulation of the hereditary disease of citizenship. Overnight (so to speak) they received the 36-page booklet that I also have; in practice they probably waited weeks and months for it, but they got it in the end.

They want to enjoy this well-deserved happiness – but who are they? The eighty-year-old farmer interviewed in the weekly newspaper? The mayor of a village that suddenly has three times as many refugees as inhabitants? They don’t want to share their happiness with the thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who are looking for a new home, who have crossed the 680-kilometre border they share with Belarus. A green border. Because it consists of forests and fields.

A person stands in front of a fence in a cleared patch of forest marking the green border.
Country borders are used for political demonstrations of power, photo: Joni Rajala via unsplash

Алекса ́ндр Лукаше ́нко, a 66-year-old despot and Belarusian citizen, ordered his border guards to make the green border semi-permeable, transparent. This meant not preventing migrants travelling through to reach the European Union. This gesture by Belarus officialdom was meant as revenge for the EU’s sanctions and turned into a flailing. It was this attempted blackmail that gave a shred of hope to individuals as they froze in the Lithuanian mud – far from home and even further from a new home – yet they were still alive and close to the Europe of their dreams. Close, but not yet there. Because, for many people trying to reach it, Europe means Germany. Before a glimmer of hope is sparked, the European Union – this Union as an institution, but someone has to carry it, lift it, transport it, bring it, I think robots can’t do that yet – so we, the European Union, provide razor wire to turn the green border silver.

In the dictionary I discover that barbed tape or concertina wire is also known as NATO razor wire because this type of barbed wire was introduced by our NATO ally, the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, the advent of razor wire prevented many escapes from US prisons. Today it is even more effective, coming in a one-metre-diameter roll that can easily be stretched to cover fifteen metres. Its razor-like blades cause more serious injury than the spikes of conventional barbed wire. Mano namai – tavo namai – in Lithuanian, this means my house is your house; and namuose means ‘home’.


In Italy With an Expired Passport

Because I have the undeserved luck to be Austrian, this summer I visited Italy with an expired passport. I didn’t get my new passport until the day after I got back, because I had to show it to be allowed to ride the Wildalpenbahn under the Ferris wheel in Vienna’s Prater. You’re tossed into a yellow plastic boat from a height of 25 metres, spun around like a top and finally splosh into a waterfall – soaking wet, even your shoes, but hey, there’s a full-body hairdryer at the end. Because I’m Austrian, I could show my Green Pass everywhere instead of the official travel document, no questions asked, unlike at the Prater amusement park.

And unlike the green border, there’s nothing green about the Green Pass. Yes, everyone has a different idea of how it looks, said the pharmacist who printed it out for me, though in fact it doesn’t have to be in paper form to be valid. 


One hand holds a smartphone on which the QR code for the vaccination certificate can be seen.
The condition for the Green Pass is a vaccination against covid, photo: Bezanger Jeremy via unsplash

For some months now, the black-and-white QR code has been the passe-partout for doing just about anything fun across much of the EU. And here we see a promising feature of the Green Pass – unlike the green border, it is not concerned with your place of birth or family, but simply where you live.

Even if you don’t have an EU passport, you can still get a Green Pass, which gives you ‘uncomplicated access to places such as restaurants, cafés, pubs, theatres, cinemas and hairdressers’, as I was informed by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection (located at Stubenring 1, 1010 Vienna) when it wrote thanking me ‘most sincerely’ for getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Unlike getting a normal passport, I actually had to do something to get the Green Pass. I had ‘actively helped to protect myself and others’.

The good thing about the Green Pass is that it’s a constant reminder of what it’s like to not have a passport. We say: your freedom ends where mine begins. We could add: What does it actually mean to be free? We are talking about gesture-responsible-freedom à la Jacques Derrida (the same Derrida who was ashamed to be seen naked by his cat). And yet Green Passes mean different things to different people. For some, they allow ‘almost unfettered freedom to travel’, whereas others have to satisfy their desire for freedom by visiting the hairdresser.

On the Adriatic, about fifty kilometres north of Pescara and at the foot of the Gran Sasso, I had an opportunity to demonstrate the superpowers bestowed upon me by my expired Austrian passport. I was standing before a seemingly endless, four-lane, pale blue water slide. It was steep. Water was pouring down it. To get down, I had to sit in the water and let it carry me along. Faster and faster and faster and faster and faster and faster and faster. I plunged down blindly, water splashing in my face and eyes. I lost control of my body, was catapulted into the air and splashed into the depths, submerged and resurfaced. Such fun! My companion, who turned six two months ago, immediately wanted to do it again. Slide number eight!

We say: your freedom ends where mine begins. We could add: What does it actually mean to be free?

In the land where lemons grow, unlike in Vienna, he was young enough to enjoy such pleasures without a Green Pass. Only I had to show the QR code. The lemons were already hanging heavy on the trees. We climbed back up the hill. Waited in the four-lane queue for our turn. Via! That’s the code word. Not difficult to understand. But all the same. How would someone say it at Austria's Wolfgangsee? Uuuuand, owe middia? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that the Blue Wave, the Onda Blu, comes at eleven, three and four o’clock; it rolls along like a glittering, liquid crystal monster that lifts you up and renders you weightless. The ground under your feet disappears, then you’re set down again, surprisingly gently; but before you've rubbed your eyes, before you’ve really caught your breath, the next one comes, and then the next, or is it all the same one wave, as defined in the dictionary: 'the part of moving water that temporarily raises above the main surface of the water' or, somewhat less frequently, 'a wavy part of the hair'.

Without a word, the young superhero told me we can also communicate with gestures. After sliding down, he suddenly found he could swim. For the fourth time, we stood at the top looking down the sheer, blue waterfall. By now, we were recognised by the woman who decided when we could go. Her shout of via! was accompanied by a vigorous wave of the arm. Is there even a way to say via! in German? Maybe los? But how do you feel when you think los? Doesn’t the word contain a balloon that inflates when I think about it, pressing on my stomach, making me feel I will burst if I go now?

And doesn’t via catapult me to the Via Appia Antica, 312 BC, sending a laser beam through my body, making me long, elastic and invulnerable?


Hesitation Before Happiness

‘Thus the German-Austrian learned to translate everything he thought and said in relation to the entire state into so-and-so many other languages, and in doing so encountered the mysterious fact that every sentence in his own language, even if it is the same in the foreign language in terms of meaning, nevertheless has a different sound in the latter, not only phonetically but also mentally. Thus he became a man who could think himself into, indeed had to think himself into, foreign national worlds of feeling, into foreign national souls; thus he became a connoisseur of nations, a connoisseur of men, a connoisseur of souls, in a word, a psychologist.’ The person who wrote and spoke these words was the first director of Vienna’s Burgtheater a century ago. He got the job when the theatre was no longer reliant on the favour of the emperor but on political parties. His name was Anton Wildgans, and he formulated the above sentences in 1929 in his ‘Speech on Austria’, which he was to deliver before the Swedish Royal House in Stockholm to mark the birthday of the Austrian Republic. However, due to illness, he had to deliver it in writing.

He wrote these words with the intention of defining what he called ‘Austrian people’. Much of this speech can be read as a plea for a multilingual, peaceful Europe, and indeed it was intended as such.

As I read the 92-year-old sentences, I wonder whether it is the very hesitation before my own language that makes me the typical Austrian that I never wanted to be? Would that also be the European thing about me? Wildgans was a poet, a highly regarded playwright in his day, and he belonged to no political party. This was one of the reasons why he was offered the position of theatre director, and also the reason why he lost it again after just eighteen months. He had the support of neither social democrats nor conservatives; he found himself crushed between the utterly irreconcilable differences in political ideology. Despite this, he took over the management of the Burgtheater once again in 1930. He allowed himself to be persuaded – it seems his idealistic love of this institution was so great. He resigned barely two years later, this time for good, as he died shortly afterwards. This was the era of the Wall Street Crash, and there was talk of converting the Burgtheater into a cinema. The fact that Wildgans resolutely distanced himself from politics did not exactly help him to oppose these plans. But the Burgtheater is still a theatre, even after being closed for 307 days, the longest closure in its history. It is once again open to everyone who is vaccinated, recovered or has a negative test for COVID-19. Open, but on one condition.

The six-year-old superhero from the Italian water park can’t remember a time when he could spontaneously walk into a theatre. For him, a visit to the theatre means planning, a PCR test and a Green Pass – which is then only valid for 48 hours. Without it, he is barred from the theatre; only vaccinated adults are allowed in. It used to be said that everyone had to have equal access to theatres. Then, all of sudden, everything changed. Today, even six-year-old Europeans (especially if they live in Vienna) have daily reminders that their superpowers are limited. Perhaps this makes people more unassuming and considerate, or perhaps it is just an indication that some (Central?) European governments like to treat their citizens like boarding school pupils, and that it is exceedingly difficult to set rules that are perceived as fair by large groups of people. At any rate, my potential super-European is eyeing emigration to Amsterdam, where kids are allowed into theatres with a PCR certificate, and also into the ice cream parlour.


Spider web in the backlight
Europe is more connected than ever, photo: Bas van den Eijkhof via unsplash


I’m not sure whether the joy of being European is as intensely revealed to people who are growing up today as it was to me back then; while official Europe is more concerned than ever – and on a larger scale than ever – with physically locking people out of certain areas: be it from Lithuania, be it from Germany, be it from theatres or cinemas. I have a suspicion that the perceived advantage of being born European is often exhausted in the material wealth that it brings. And perhaps this simply proves that what was once the driving force behind the EU’s enlargement actually works: being one economic unit and so becoming richer together than any individual state has been in the past.

In the online encyclopaedia I read: ‘Measured in terms of GDP, the EU single market is the largest common economic area on Earth’. All goods can be easily and legally transported anywhere within the European Union. Exactly. On the other hand – I admit I almost forgot – the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Who would be peaceful enough to deny it?

In his speech, which may have helped him to be appointed director for the second time, Wildgans wrote: ‘Leadership [...] in turn requires rising above parties, which in the given case was identical to rising above nationalities.’ By the given case he meant the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Lack of temporal distance and being born into a bourgeois family meant he certainly idealised the situation during the monarchy. He speaks from the viewpoint of a privileged, educated, German-speaking man, and he speaks 92 years before me. Nevertheless, I would like to quote a passage from his text: ‘The disaster that once again engulfs the world in the shape of wars or class struggles stems mainly [...] from the sluggishness of minds and hearts, which are content with mere rumours about others and lies about others, instead of recognising them and thereby comprehending them in their nature, their passions, sensitivities, and demands.’

As European people, who as a result do not necessarily have to live in Europe, people who allow themselves to hesitate before their own language.

‘Wos woins’, says a man behind me when I’m struggling to scan the barcode on the little paper strip I’ve been given to use the public toilet at the main station. I turn around and quietly explain: ‘Hij bedoelt ik moet opschieten’. ‘You have to unlock it’ – this is how my young companion would translate it with a laugh, knowing full well that no one in Vienna is told to hurry up like that. Dutch is his father’s tongue. We had left the night train from Rome and were again surrounded by ‘Austrian people’.

The question is, 92 years after Anton Wildgans’ definition, do Austrian people still have this linguistic potential to be psychologists and avoiders of disaster? Or have they become international English-speaking people who no longer know what they should hesitate about because there is no hesitation before the English? Have we already arrived, unawares, in the pre-Babylonian future in which languages are abolished as nameable and separable entities, as in the Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel or the New Testament miracle of Pentecost? And does this make it much easier to say ‘no’ to someone who knocks on the door and wants to come in? Please? No! I hope that ‘Austrian people’ could exist again one day. As European people, who as a result do not necessarily have to live in Europe, people who allow themselves to hesitate before their own language, the question of whether ‘green’ is the right expression for so much diversity, people who are curious about the languages of others and therefore also about others as people, enthusiastic about diversity, finding it not just normal but wonderful to speak and read many languages, even those that are considered dead but remain alive as long as they are read by someone.


Europe Now

People, as I know them, some of them still barely 140 centimetres tall, but growing all the time. They already know four or five languages, read Roald Dahl’s De grote glazen lift in Dutch, Michael Ende’s Neverending Story in French, dream in Portuguese and eat – of course – Italian. They know where Minsk is because they have eaten chocolate from there wrapped in paper bows with cats on them, they listen to Persian songs, watch Peppa Pig in Romanian.

Soon they will be watching Chinese cartoons in the original and know what it means when a Greek calls you kollitari; the realisation that the word means both ‘burr’ and ‘glue’ as well as ‘friend’ will help Europeans when deciding whether cars should be banned from cities forever, whether flying or travelling as a hologram is more energy-efficient.

Imagine if, in school, we learned the sucking tongue movements of a dying African click language, just like crochet or knitting; that a slight shake of the head in Albania means agreement, but the Greek ναϊ means es’. That the language spoken in Afghanistan is called Pashto and is as closely related to German as to Greek, and that ‘thank you’ sounds like ‘manana’ in this language. ‘Language is punishment’, said Ingeborg Bachmann when she thanked Anton Wildgans for the literary prize that was named after him 42 years after he talked about Austrian people. I have to disagree with her on this one. Language makes it possible to understand the potential of what the other person needs, desires and dreams of. Languages know no borders. Especially in Europe.

About the Author
Portrait of Andrea Grill
Andrea Grill
Biologist and author

Andrea Grill studied linguistics, biology, Italian and Spanish. In 2003, she completed her doctorate at the University of Amsterdam on the butterflies of Sardinia. For several years she was active in scientific research and also wrote books. After living in Amsterdam, Neuchâtel, Bologna, Tirana and Bern, she now lives in Vienna. Her novel "Cherubino" (Zsolnay, 2019) was longlisted for the German Book Prize 2019.

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Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.