One sunny day, my parents, my sister, and I were headed towards the Polish-German border for a day trip to Germany. It was my first trip ‘abroad’; an 80km distance between our town and a neighbouring country. It was very exciting! However, I also clearly remember the growing fear mounting in the car as we were approaching the border crossing. All four of us sat in silence, thinking the same: would they let us in? We didn’t even need a visa, but the fear was there. A border guard took our Polish passports, looking at the photos and at each one of us carefully, asking why and where we were going, if we were planning to return the same day, and if we had enough money. Next the contents of our boot and car’s undercarriage were checked. We sat quietly inside warned by my mum not to make any noise.
I was holding my sister’s hand as the excitement of travel filled my heart, while also this unexplainable fear filled the air around us. Finally, as we crossed the border, it felt amazing to experience Germany. It looked exactly the same as Poland. But it felt different, new, and exciting.
It was 1992. I was ten. Not long ago on 4th June 1989, after 44 years the communism era had ended in Poland. Later that year in autumn the Berlin Wall came down. After that, Polish people could travel without being obliged to collect their passport from the local security office and being interrogated about why and where they were going, and whom they were visiting. From that moment on we had the freedom to travel. Limited, but it was better than none.
It was often difficult to travel as a post-communist country citizen. Although that original fear stayed with me, the curiosity and eagerness to travel won.
Many visas and border crossings later, I learnt that my passport raised eyebrows. Poland? Where was that? Was it a part of Russia? A communist country? For a while I wondered if I looked like a spy. I guess my strong Polish accent didn’t help.
Obstacles (mostly) never stopped me from travelling, though they made it more challenging.
In 2007, as my friend and I queued patiently to apply for a Canadian transit visa — our flight to Mexico had a connection in Toronto — we were in for a surprise. I will never forget my friend’s shocked expression when the visa officer asked, among many other personal questions: ‘Why do so many Polish people travel to Mexico?’ I wondered how I was meant to know. Was he implying illegal border crossings? We did get our visas that day, but we left the embassy perplexed. Why were we treated like this? All we wanted to do was to transit in the airport on our way to another country.
Another place I dreamt of visiting was the United States, so when my visa was refused, it left me in tears, with my plans ruined. I could not understand why despite me having sufficient funds and everything else that was required during the visa process. I was just another refusal in line.
So who can travel to the United States of America without a visa? 38 countries are part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that allows their citizens to travel for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. In 2008, a number of central and eastern European countries — including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia — joined that group by signing the visa waiver program understanding. Unfortunately, Poland was excluded due to its refusal rate.
When the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek signed the visa waiver memorandum for his country in Washington that year, he said:
‘After the Iron Curtain of the Berlin Wall had gone down, we’ve been cutting the barbed wire on our borders. I think that only people who went through this experience could understand, or can understand, what this moment means to us.’
That barbed wire still exists for some countries, although it’s not on the borders. It’s hiding in visa restrictions and in some people’s heads. A metaphorical, but very much real, barbed wire.
I am curious what the world would look like without it.
Recently, on my trip to Malaysia, I handed my passport to the border officer. He looked at me for a short while, and then enquired where I lived. London, I answered. He smiled, then asked: ‘What’s your favourite football team?’ I was taken aback by such an unusual question. Was he trying to trick me? I hesitated, but answered nonetheless. The man smiled even wider, nodded as if in approval of my choice, and joked with me some more. I crossed the border with a stamped passport in my hand and with the air of lightness in my chest. It was the first time I was travelling with my British passport that I had only had for a few months since obtaining my British citizenship. No visa required. Ah, I thought, so that’s how it should feel, when there is no invisible barbed wire. No prejudice or misconception. No hassle. Freedom.
This is part of a series of posts highlighting travel freedom as part of WTTC’s Ease of Travel campaign. You can view previous posts here: