A stone’s throw away from my apartment lies the river Rhine. It naturally parts Switzerland and France from Germany. The city of Basel, however, extends to both sides of its banks. If I followed the river northwards, I would be entering French territory within minutes. The transition used to be hardly noticeable: Only a street sign reminded the pedestrian of the change. Walking further past residential areas of the French town Huninque, one would soon encounter a bicycle bridge that carries the stroller across the river to the German city Weil am Rhein. There, turning at a well-frequented shopping mall and passing by the customs agency, one would soon reenter Switzerland.
I often took this “three countries walk”—ideally with a partner to converse and share observations. The scenery is not exceptionally beautiful, on the contrary, but the ever-changing environments, enriched by cultural particularities, generate a unique experience. Along with the steady flow of the river, the walker composes a collage of different urban atmospheres. Moreover, the act of crossing borders and drifting through countries in a single turn conveys a special feeling of freedom.
The crisis and the subsequent shielding of most European countries put an abrupt end to this. However, the closing of the borders—an unprecedented event since World War II—has not only limited the range of my pastime city walks, it has also changed my spatial perception of the immediate environment. The situation reminded me of Kurt Lewin’s phenomenological descriptions on how the war altered the soldier’s experience of the surroundings. As the German psychologist wrote in 1917, the seemingly infinite, in every direction expanding landscape—the “landscape of peace”—changes significantly with the emergence of the battle zone. There, instead of spreading out, the landscape is directed along the front line, ending abruptly before sheer nothingness.
Similarly, today, a chasm opens ten minutes north of my doorstep. With the closing of the national borders, the open landscape of free flows that Basel shared with its neighbouring countries was suddenly ruptured. The previously abstract borderlines have become a palpable reality, dividing accessible area from virtual no-man’s-land. Out of fear of the virus, the governments introduced new “front lines” and, in so doing, fragmented space and curtailed the freedom of movement. Hence, what was once a gate to the world has become a dead-end, embodied by a ridiculous fence. The meaning of “northwards”, which until recently seemed endless, has been shrunk to a few hundred metres.