2019 Grateful 35: Closed borders

I’ve travelled Route 66 enough to be conscious of how towns and villages are at the mercy of those with planning power. A new highway, a new motorway, a change in public policy can be the death of a place. No doubt those who argue in favour of the change cite progress, the public good, and greater benefits as they justify their plans and decisions. Route 66, with its ghost towns, deserted gas stations, and ramshackle restaurants and bars, oozes nostalgia. People still drive the road daily. They still photograph its faded glory. They still support the occasional tourist spot or truck stop that has fought the odds and stayed open to feed their visitors.

The 420 unfinished housing estates dotting Ireland are a different story. These interrupted solutions to Ireland’s pre-crash housing issues haven’t a nuance of nostalgia. They don’t attract tourists or feature regularly in travel magazines. Today, they’re more likely to offer a public safety hazard than a photo opportunity. Writing for the Irish Times a couple of years ago, Simon Carswell described them as

an unofficial memorial to over-development, reckless lending and the failure of government policy to protect its people in a time of excess.

Strangely, neither affected me in quite the same way as the Goričan-Letenye border crossing between Croatia and Hungary. And no, not the main one on the highway, Letenye–Goričan II, but the older one, a few kilometres away, Letenye–Goričan I. From what I read, it’s only a temporary closure – between March and July this year – because of work being done on a bridge over the River Mura.  And yet I find it hard to believe. With the exception of Club 114, everything looks deserted. The post office, the gas station, the motel, the tourist information centre, the currency exchange kiosk, the bank – all skeletons of their former selves.

Letenye–Goričan I closed border

From what I gather from the Letenye town website, the motorway crossing opened in 2008. It doesn’t require a huge stretch of my imagination to see this as the death knell for the old crossing. With most of the traffic using the A3 motorway from Zagreb which morphs into the M7 motorway to Budapest, the need for the original crossing waned. I’d imagine that when it is in operation, it’s used mainly by local traffic from the neighbouring Zala County (HU),  Međimurje County (CR), and Varaždin County (CR) and at times has been limited to residents of these counties only.

Googl eimage of the Letenye–Goričan I closed border crossing

Google’s satellite image shows the now empty bus parking lots. The aerial view says that some thought went into the planning but when it outlived its usefulness, that was that. We had come off the road to eat at the well-reviewed lakeside Zelengaj restaurant but it was closed for a wedding. Club 114 was our nearest option. It looked closed, too, but not for a wedding. The menu was extensive, testament to the variety of palates that once supped at its tables but as our selections were met with the Croatian equivalent of sorry, not available today, it seemed that the selection had shrunk. We both ordered Wienerschnitzel and the two lads who came in after us got the same. It’s been a while since I’ve seen as good a synopsis.

We sat outside, taking advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been having. It was like eating dinner in a ghost town. All we needed was the tumbleweed. Inside, two long tables were set as if for a wedding. And from the fussing the couple were doing with positioning the cutlery, it seemed as if guests were expected at any moment. It all added to the surrealness. Time seemed to have taken on new meaning.

wedding table set at Club 114We’d gone to Zagreb to drop off some friends as they made their way back to Australia, the long way around. The 24 hours we’d been away felt like a week. Our last supper in Croatia was as strange a one as I’ve had in while. Facing a border we couldn’t cross, we made our way back to the motorway and did as everyone else was doing: we got in line and waited. Hungary is in the Schengen. Croatia isn’t. Hence the delay. We got lucky. Even with just one lane open, it took little more than half an hour to cross. Friends travelling back from Serbia the same day had to make do with a 3-hour hold-up. It’s not high season yet. That’s when the fun really starts.

While I’m a great proponent of personal space, I have mixed feelings about borders. I like the sense of travelling between countries. I like to see the lines I cross. But I don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with it. It saddens me to see how much of rural life survives at the behest of planners and their ilk who have the greater good in mind when they make their decisions. The voice of the many is louder than the voice of the few. From the billboards and posters still in place, someone once had great plans for the area, plans which seem to have largely come to nothing. Although maybe I’m going it an injustice and perhaps Goričan warrants further exploration.

Make no mistake, I like the convenience offered by motorways if I’m on a fast track from A to B. But I also value the back roads, the old highways, the Route 66 equivalents that run across this region. I don’t want to see them die a slow death, starved of sustenance. Just as I will pay more for my washing-up liquid in the village shop because I want to keep the option of being able to shop there, every now and then I’ll take the low road, the back road, and spend my money at places like Club 114 – we might have been half the business they had that day and they won’t get rich from what we left on the table, but if that wedding table was set more in hope than in reality, I like to think that I contributed, just a little, to keeping the dream alive for another day.

This week, I’m grateful for the reminder that there is always a consequence.

Big brother… and big sister… are watching

I have been known to get a little paranoid at times. Not too often, mind you, but enough to make me question my reality on occasion. It’s particularly strong if I’ve had a week of reading back-to-back spy novels or watching old movies featuring the great conspiracies of our time. But I’m nowhere near Chicago comic, Emo Phillips who ‘was walking home one night and a guy hammering on a roof called [him] a paranoid little weirdo. In morse code.’

I consider myself to be a rational, intelligent human being with a healthy inquisitive nature and a mind that’s open to exploring all sides of a debate before taking a stance. I know first-hand what it’s like to be judged; I’ve been on the receiving end of bigotry and racism; and I know the harm a lemming mentality can do.


As I write, I’m in shock. My heart is thumping and my knees are shaking. I am taking deep breaths and trying to convince myself that this country, my adopted home, is not going to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

I’ve just heard about the flashmob that convened outside László Csatáry’s home last week (I’m a little behind the times not having a TV – if it even made the TV). I’ve watched some of the videos shot that day and it seems to have been a peaceful protest against the crimes of man who was allegedly instrumental in sending 300 so-called alien Jews to their death in Kamenetz-Podolsk in Ukraine in 1941. A long time ago, admittedly, but as William Shakespeare put it so succinctly, time is the justice that examines all offenders.

Apparently, Csatáry has lived in Hungary for the last 15 years, and for the latter 6, with the knowledge of the Hungarian government. That scares me. Justice is one of the cornerstones of democracy and if the government (our elected guardians) turns a blind eye, what hope have we? But on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being slightly disturbed and 10 being terrified to the extreme, I rated a 3 in this instance. I’ve become used to this government and although upsetting, it didn’t surprise me that they knew he was here and chose to do nothing about it.


What has me quaking in my bare feet right now is that the day after the flashmob, the right-wing website enlisted the help of its readers to identify those who exercised their democratic right to protest and to stand up against what they believe to be wrong. even offered a reward of 100 000 forints (about €350) for the most useable information. Word has it that within just 48 hours, more than 90 000 readers had managed to identify most of the participants, so-called anti-Hungarian Jews, who are now being harassed via phone and Internet. Ye gods – we are turning on each other!


Brian Whelan recently did a piece in the Irish Times on the return of anti-Irish prejudice to the UK. Irish emigrants heading to the UK these days differ from those of yore in that they are almost completely unaware of past lives, with no real sense of history. Since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, more and more young Irish people are seeking their fortune abroad. Reminiscent of the mass exodus of the 1980s, this wave of emigration comes on the back of a relatively stable Ireland, in political terms. The Troubles have, for the most part, been relegated to the distant past and the Protestant-Catholic divide has narrowed to the point where it can be stepped across with relative ease.

Admittedly, according to Whelan, there are signs in the UK of the previous tension: a total stranger might approach you in the pub upon hearing your accent to let you know their relative was killed while serving in the North, as if you were to blame or should apologise. But it was the BBC3 documentary about Irish rappers (who knew!) that drew quite a commentary recently on Twitter.

I read some of the Tweets and found them to be racist, bigoted, and downright nasty. Yet Whelan makes an interesting point: Similar Tweets about any other nationality could potentially get the person arrested or fired from their job, but when the jokes are aimed at the Irish it is written off as ‘banter’. This is, in most part, probably down to our own innate self-deprecation. We like a laugh and we’re well able to laugh at ourselves. Yet the day is dawning when this type of rhetoric needs to stop.


Why can’t we all just get along? Why the persecution, the harassment, the singling out of individuals? Why not peace, justice, and freedom for all? At the end of the day, we are all part of the one race – the human race. Or is someone not telling me something?

First published in the Budapest Times 27 July 2012.