Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/4 posted by hidden europe on

There is an old Russian proverb that suggests that a man consists of a body, a soul and a passport. But passports are not such an age-old institution as the proverb might imply. A hundred years ago, travellers might wander hither and thither across many parts of Europe without any formal documentation. Where a traveller did have a passport in those days, it was often just a single sheet of paper.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

There is an old Russian proverb that suggests that a man consists of a body, a soul and a passport. But passports are not such an age-old institution as the proverb might imply. A hundred years ago, travellers might wander hither and thither across many parts of Europe without any formal documentation. Where a traveller did have a passport in those days, it was often just a single sheet of paper. European passports of the nineteenth century were often little more than a commendation and a request for safe conduct. They had little of the sophistication of the modern booklet style passports - with their watermarks, detailed embossing and a myriad of latent images. Indeed, a hundred years ago, there were no photographs on passports - they were not to appear until about 1915. The notion of the booklet style passport only popped up in 1920, when a League of Nations conference recommended a more standardised format for passports: a bound booklet with details of the holder - including a description and photograph, and thirty-two numbered pages reserved for official observations and visas. It is a format that has stood the test of time.

Passports are in the news this week, of course, with new laws on passport requirements coming into effect in the United States today. Many Europeans are surprised to find that, until now, folk in the US have been able to make trips to Mexico, Canada and certain Caribbean destinations without a passport. The new regulations now require US citizens to secure a passport if they plan to re-enter the United States by air. No big deal, perhaps, but possibly once they have that small blue book with the eagle on the front cover, our transatlantic friends might well be inclined to explore the world a little more. As generations of Europeans have found, merely having a passport becomes a great incentive to travel.

Here in Europe, though, the passport is beginning to look a little passé. The trend to passport-less travel will be strongly reinforced over the next year or two, as passport controls between the EU's old and new member states will be relaxed from this time next year. Checkpoints at land borders will disappear first, and by spring 2008 regular passport checks at airports will cease too. The Schengen group of nations will be extended through the admission of nine of the countries which joined the EU in May 2004. And Switzerland will soon join Schengen too. It will not be the first non-EU country to give up passport checks at points-of-entry; Iceland and Norway joined the fold five years ago. Land borders in Europe are becoming less conspicuous features of the landscape, as checkpoints and fences disappear. Motorists can already drive from southern Portugal to northern Norway, a journey of over 5500 km with eight border crossings en route, without a single passport check along the way. With the expansion of the Schengen region in early 2008 the possibilities become even greater. Airports are having to rethink their terminals. For example, before too long the great majority of flights arriving at airports such as Tallinn, Budapest and Prague will all be classified as domestic rather than international. Meanwhile, the two European countries that have stood fast against the advances of Schengen, Ireland and the United Kingdom, are beginning to look decidedly isolated.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.