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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

One man's enclave is another man's exclave

With so many different countries in Europe struggling to achieve a new identity in a 'unified' Europe, it's interesting to ponder what national identity means? The answer perhaps lies not in the usual definitions, but in Europe's forgotten enclaves — tiny fragments of one country cut off and completely surrounded by another. Stuck for centuries between different cultures, currencies, and (at times) languages, each is resplendent with idiosyncrasies.

Many of them appeared in the Middle Ages - after the Treaties of Madrid (1526) and of Westphalia (1648), the latter ending the Thirty Years War and creating independent principalities that made the map of Europe resemble a sloppily manufactured patchwork quilt. Others resulted from land disputes, or plain mistakes - and most were eventually re-attached to their mother countries or swallowed up by host states.

Now only four "proper" enclaves remain in Europe. They are: Campione d'Italia, an Italian town in Switzerland; Llivia, a Spanish (or rather Catalan) town in the French Pyrenees; Busingen, a German village in Switzerland; and Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog, a Dutch/Belgian municipality comprising 22 patches of Belgium and eight of Holland.

It took Vitali Vitaliev, the author of the book "Passport to Enclavia", several months to locate and visit all four. The enclaves' near-obscurity is a shame, for their ambiguous status makes them ideal for studying the increasingly cross-cultural and cross-national character of Europe. And, politics aside, each of them is resplendent with fascinating (often bizarre) idiosyncrasies of everyday life. Perfect destinations, indeed, for an inquisitive, knowledge-hungry traveller.

Having gone to explore Campione d'Italia, Vitali Vitaliev was put up at a hotel in Como, some 12 miles away, and had to cross the Swiss-Italian border several times a day. This was irritating, due to long tailbacks and the unpredictability of the customs officers, who would occasionally wave his car aside for inspection. Though part of Italy, Campione is not part of the EU (it is excluded from membership by a special Protocol). However, as Italian passport holders, its residents have the right to live and work in any EU member country - but not in Switzerland, on whose territory Campione is located. The safeguarding of law and order is entrusted to the Como-based Italian police unit, but every time a policeman goes home he has to leave his weapons in Campione, in accordance with a Swiss law forbidding foreigners to carry arms across Switzerland. The Campionese drive around in cars with TI number plates (for Ticino, the neighbouring Swiss canton) and carry Swiss driving licences, but mail their letters with stamps of the Italian Republic. Paradoxically, they are not expected to show their Italian passports when going to Switzerland, but are routinely checked when travelling to their native Italy. "I always have my passport with me, just in case," said Fedra, Vitali's Campione-based guide. It all started in the year 777, when Totone - a local landowner - tried to buy an indulgence for his sins by donating his holdings, including the fishing village of Campione, to the Basilica of St Ambrose in Milan. As a result, Campione fell under the rule of the Milanese ecclesiastical authorities and not those of nearby Como, as would have been more logical. Miraculously, this illogical bond has survived all the ups and downs of a turbulent history. Campione's modern townscape is stunning: narrow streets winding up and down the hill; the renovated casino; mountains spotted with red-roofed houses, as if suffering from measles; the mirror-like surface of Lake Lugano. Yet it looks and feels distinctly un-Italian - in its tidiness, in the absence of washing on the balconies, in the quiet demeanour of the locals who seldom gesticulate or raise their voices. Its spotlessly clean Italian coffee shops sell inimitable Italian espresso, for which you have to pay in Swiss francs. Two seemingly incompatible lifestyles packed into one square-mile of a town that was once poetically compared by Giovanni Cenzato to "a little Italian boy wearing a Swiss costume".

In his 1891 Handbook to Southern France, Karl Baedeker - somewhat disdainfully - referred to Llivia as "a dirty village of ancient origin with some ruins remaining". It is a pity that the great guidebook writer overlooked the most interesting feature of Llivia: it's the only Spanish enclave in Europe. Founded by ancient Romans, Llivia had been a pawn in Franco-Spanish struggles until 1659, when the Peace of the Pyrenees Treaty gave 33 "villages" in the Cerdagne Plain to Louis XIV of France. The French thought that Llivia was included in the transfer, but the Spanish regarded the territory not as a village (pueblo), but as a town (villa). Having spotted the discrepancy, the patriotic residents of Llivia, who wanted to remain Spanish, claimed that the treaty had nothing to do with them, and the French had to agree. So we may assume that the enclave status of Llivia was the result of a simple historical boo-boo. Today's Llivia is much less "dirty" than it, allegedly, was in 1891, and its per capita rate of recycling bins must be one of the highest in both France and Spain. Yet the hooray-patriotism of its 1,000 inhabitants remains unchanged. Modern Llivia is fiercely Catalan, with few people willing to speak French to a visitor - an unusual scenario for a village - sorry "town" - surrounded by France. A huge red-and-yellow Senyera - Catalonia's national flag - stands in the corner of the modest office of Josep Alcalde, Llivia's 36-year-old mayor, a member of the United Catalonia Party, which he himself described as "moderately nationalistic". He told of a letter he received from a nearby French village a couple of miles away. The letter took 15 days to arrive for, according to EU regulations, all inter-EU mail has to go though a sorting office in Amsterdam. "I could have walked there myself in half an hour and picked it up," he shrugged. The mayor also complained that to call the same French village from Llivia he would have to dial an international code. Llivia enthusiastically embraced the euro in the hope that it would clear up at least some of the financial mess in the town, where both French francs and Spanish pesetas were freely circulated.

Busingen, a small German enclave in Switzerland, scarcely features on maps, owing to the fact that it is actually a suburb of the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, where the residents of Busingen routinely do their shopping. Few of them, however, would choose to go shopping in their native Germany. First, because they would have to show their passports or ID cards at the German border - a procedure they are spared when going to "foreign" Switzerland; second, because there are strict quotas on the amount of German goods these German subjects can bring back to Germany. They are restricted to half a kilo of meat, 125 grams of butter or a kilo of sausages. The quotas are imposed by numerous Swiss and German customs posts scattered along the erratic Swiss-German border that goes totally haywire in the Busingen-Schaffhausen area. In one instance, it runs across the beer garden of a Busingen pub, so that the tables are in Switzerland and the bar in Germany. The reason for this frontier madness is that - rather like Campione - economically Busingen is Swiss, whereas politically it is German, albeit not part of the EU. Busingers get their salaries in Swiss francs - the only currency allowed to circulate in this one-street German village - but, being German citizens, they have to pay German income tax. True, Swiss prices are high, but taxes are relatively low, whereas in Germany it is the other way around: lower prices and very high taxes. In Busingen, therefore, they have the worst of both worlds. Busingers are free to shop in Switzerland, but those who wish to work there need a hard-to-obtain permit, normally granted only after many years of residence. But German inventiveness and practicality help to ease the burden of their duality, if only slightly. The village has its own car number plates - "BUS" - but two different post codes: Swiss and German. In the village centre, next to modernistic Burgerhaus, two differently coloured phone boxes - Swisscom's and Deutsche Telecom's - stand next to each other, sparing the locals the expense of international calls when phoning the nearest cinema or supermarket. In their daily trials, the residents of modern Busingen are reaping the consequences of their own ancestors' unforgiving pride, better known as stubbornness. In April 1693, Eberhard Im Thurn, a popular ruler of then Austrian Busingen, was kidnapped and put in prison in Schaffhausen for a religious offence - to the villagers' great dismay. He was released in 1699, but Busingers have a long memory and when Schaffhausen tried to incorporate the village into the Swiss federation in 1723, they came out adamantly against it. Eventually, Busingen fell under German control, where it remains as a living reproach to Schaffhausen for the mistreatment of its leading citizen.

If Busingen strikes the visitor as eccentric, then Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog - a cluster of Belgian and Dutch enclaves to the south of Breda - can safely be described as insane. The border here resembles a hank of wool thread chased by a playful kitten, thoughtlessly leaping across streets and squares and cutting through houses, offices and shops. The confusion is such that every building in town has to be marked not just with a number, but also with a tiny Dutch or Belgian flag underneath it. Of three houses, standing next to each other on the same side of the same street, one can be in Belgium, the next in Holland, and the third split between the two. "If the border runs through a house, it is better for a baby to be born on the Belgian side, because child benefits are higher in Belgium," Anne-Miek Smit-Rygersberg, a Dutch artist with appropriately double-barrelled first and last names, explains without a shade of irony. In rural Baarle it is still common to give birth at home with the help of a midwife. The most thriving trade in the Belgian parts of Baarle is in fireworks, which can be legitimately sold all year in Belgium, but only on Christmas Eve in Holland. The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops - not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle. There is no end to the duplicity of life in Baarle - the town with two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags. The existing 22 Belgian and eight Dutch enclaves that constitute modern Baarle are a huge improvement on the situation in 1843, when, in the aftermath of the Treaty of Maastricht, 5,732 parcels of land between just two border posts had their nationalities laid down separately. Baarle's split personality crisis originates from 1203 when the Duke of Brabant, in a gesture of gratitude and appeasement, lent a chunk of his territory to Godfrid of Schoten, the powerful Lord of Breda, but kept all inhabited - and hence tax-paying - bits (houses, farms etc) for himself. In the course of centuries most dwellings disappeared, but the patches of land on which they stood retained their original "nationhood". Yet some of the town's features give hope that a united Europe might eventually work. For example, several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle's pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing. The situation was so ridiculous that eventually the two states had to harmonise their licensing laws. More often than not, an absurdity has to reach its apogee to force the authorities to act.

Now, if you think I'm making all this up, listen to this sound file, then go and buy the book: "Passport to Enclavia - Travels in Search of a European Identity" by Vitali Vitaliev. Happy reading!

P.S. Some more information on Ely Place, Jungholz, Kleinwalsertal, Vennbahn, Verenahof, and Samnaun.