We were almost at the border. The train was stopped and the French customs officers boarded.
“Passports please,” they declared. The officers walked down the aisles, guns in holsters and barely scanned my passport once he saw United States of America on the cover.
This was one of those standard inconveniences that we couldn”t avoid but we could be rid of soon.
But the train didn”t move and a different set of French customs officers, boarded the train. “Passports please,” again they declared and followed the same procedure as the control before.
Two more sets of customs officers this time Spanish boarded the train and checked passports. One of the officers was in plain clothes. OK, this was more than standard border control. It seemed a little excessive for just a routine check.
But this check was not an isolated incident.
Another friend of mine who had traveled to Spain the day before me said that French customs officers boarded her train too. Only they had dogs. They searched bags but this time they had their guns drawn and ready to fire, finally escorting a passenger off the train.
Now it”s not like they tell you what they are looking for. Instead we are all left to speculate. Were they looking for terrorists? And if they were was it because they were tipped off or was it just a random check? Were they al-Qaida terrorists or domestic Spanish terrorists?
Of course, something like this doesn”t ruin a weekend trip after all, I can understand the need for border patrol. Instead, it kind of just floats out of your mind as a standard procedure not to be thought of until the train ride home. After an adventurous cultural escapade and many details later, we boarded a train headed back to France.
And on the train ride home, there was no border control going from Spain to France. I wondered why? But this time, my friend and I changed trains at the French border town of Cerbere. We had a two-hour layover so we decided to take a walk around.
This town was gorgeous, but small and empty. It was on the water which was bordered by little closed cafes and the whole town was surrounded by green mountains. And of course like the American tourists that we were we had to take a picture. There was only one person close enough to take a picture a man who looked to be of North- African descent.
He took the picture and returned the camera. As we thanked him, two of his friends approached us and we could tell that although they were speaking French, their accents were not French. OK, fine, whatever .
“Do you know where we can find a taxi to take us to Barcelona?” they asked.
Barcelona? Were they kidding? We were a good several hours away from Barcelona a taxi would cost a fortune.
“Well there is a train station right there. I”m sure you could find a train to Spain. That”s how we went,” my friend replied.
“We can”t get to Spain on the train. We are not allowed to cross the border.”
OK. Now that was a little weird. I don”t think I need to tell you that it”s a little uncomfortable when you”re two girls talking to three men trying to illegally cross a border.
My thoughts were thrown back to the border control on the way to Spain. Were these men the kind that customs were searching for and if they were, were they dangerous?
Were they just being racially profiled or did they really pose a threat?
Suddenly I was very aware that there was nobody else around. To kill some time we went to a caf, and several minutes later the men showed up. They went inside, where they had a clear view of us and watched.
We were definitely going to take a cab back, we decided. We both were uneasy. Maybe they wanted our passports, our money
Unable to find a cab we asked the caf employees if they had any suggestion for getting back to the train station. We explained our discomfort with these particular men and they didn”t second guess us at all, instead the waitress said she would drive us back to the train station.
“We get a lot of people trying to cross the border here,” she said. “I don”t blame you. It can be dangerous especially two girls traveling alone.”
All of this and we were just going from France to Spain two European Union countries in which border lines are supposed to be blurred to facilitate travel and trade. But borders still exist and while it is easier to move between countries, borders continue to be surveyed.
Yael Kohen is a Daily columnist writing from Aix-en-Provence, France. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.