It was at the end of my third year in secondary school that I first left the country. Our class had organized a holiday week in the small German city of Tecklenburg in the Teutenburger forest—some fifty kilometers beyond the Dutch-German border. I had, in fact, had the privilege of making the preparations. We went by train. It was the very first time I could use my passport. The border police entered the train at the last station before the border and checked every passport carefully, stamping each one of them. We looked intently though the windows of the rather rickety train carriage, trying to discover any change in the scenery that would indicate that we had indeed crossed the border from Holland into Germany. Yes, in those days, borders between countries were very real.
And, indeed, there are still many real borders in the world, with serious officials distributing their stamps. Just a few days ago a tourist was arrested when he crossed the Norwegian-Russian border by daring just one step onto Russian soil. Even at Schiphol airport one may have to stand in line before being admitted to the Netherlands. But when passing by car from one EU country to one of the 27 other EU countries—the number of EU-members is now 28, since last week Croatia was admitted—one simply continues, often even without reducing one’s speed. During our last Sweden-trip, from which we returned last evening, my passport never left my briefcase. And thus travel in Europe has last one of its somewhat exciting aspects.
There is, however, something else that has caused travel to lose something of its glamor. Until a few years ago, checking your mail, upon your return after a few weeks’ absence, was a significant event. Usually, there was quite a pile, with inevitably some pleasant and less pleasant surprises. But little of that has remained.
Our neighbor next door always looks after our plants and our mailbox when we travel. Upon our return we find three neat stacks of mail on the table in our living room: newspapers, magazines and items in large envelopes, and letters. Gradually these piles have become less impressive. When coming home, yesterday, after an absence of some five weeks, it did not take us very long to evaluate the harvest of those five weeks.
The stack of newspapers consisted mainly of the local paper, since we usually try to remember to temporarily stop our subscription to the main paper, when we plan to be absent for more than a week or so. Neither did the pile of magazines amount to very much: Ministry magazine, and some monthly publications of organizations we belong to, and a few other items that one would hardly miss if they had not been delivered. Yes, I picked up the Spectrum journal, since I was curious (and perhaps vain) enough to check whether it contained the article I had written.
The third pile likewise was little impressive. I noted gratefully that this time there were no blue envelopes from the tax office, nor any envelopes from the office that deals with speeding fines. And hardly any invoices. Just a few banking matters and some information from our health insurance, to explain some extra charges I had to pay. But that was about it. Everything now comes to us via our computer. Why would someone write us a long letter, if you can send a short sms at any time, write a short mail message, raise us by Skype, or phone us for almost nothing? Most of our financial matters are processed digitally. The church (in the past always a main source of mail) only sends e-mails. Undoubtedly, things have become far more efficient than they were in the past. But, coming home after a trip, there are few surprises. And thereby, travel has lost one nice fringe benefits. In spite of the good cares of our next door neighbor.