Where am I, I wonder. Layover. In limbo. I want to orient myself, properly situate my body in time and space, adapt to wherever this is, this place. I want to be present, located in a location. I hold my phone, look at the map and the blue dot that says where I am: Eurasia, Russia, Moscow. The GPS clearly says so. But am I really there, though?
I like to keep track of the places I’ve been, to chronicle my travels and worldly experience. I love maps, and they’re handy for this, but they’re always designed around political borders, which are so woefully unhelpful. They don’t accurately describe where we’ve been in the world. Not really. I want more from cartography. I want to visualize data, to accurately identify the places I’ve experienced. I want to see real geography, demography, to understand Earth more fully. I want to chart my life adventures on a map more empathic, more descriptive. This is what I’m thinking as I stand in this Moscow airport, wondering if I’m experiencing Russia, if this might count as visiting. I tend to think not, despite my hard GPS evidence. It seems hard to count an airport as seeing a country. I’d at least have to leave this building and go into the city.
Size-wise, Russia is the largest country in the world, spreading all the way from Norway to North Korea. It really makes a mockery of political geography, confounding conceptions of continents and global regions. It’s the biggest country in Europe and the biggest country in Asia, and that’s when divided at the Ural Mountains. The country is simply too damn big, in my humble opinion. Do Moscow and Siberia have anything fundamental in common? Somehow I don’t think so.
What defines a place, anyway? Being an American in Europe, the topic comes up often. Where you’re “from” is shorthand for your experience and personality, along with where you’ve been — places leave imprints. People say they’ve visited the States, for instance, which connotes a sort of worldliness. But maybe they just spent a few days in Manhattan. Does it count? Sure — they felt the busy sidewalks and gruffness that’s too often mistaken for rudeness, the sheer density of a certain kind of person. Hell, they might have even felt it at JFK airport on their way to Iowa or something. I’ve met people who did a semester of high school in America, in some tiny random city in Arkansas or Wisconsin. Surely it counts as having been to America, but not the America I’m “from”, the America that defines my experience. The US is multitudinous. There’s the America of Wal-Mart, guns and the Bible Belt, and then there’s the America of Hollywood, Apple computers and Seinfeld. It renders quite ambiguous the term American, except in the most general, broad sense.
Specific places are multifaceted enough as it is: Berlin is at once the European capital of WWII history and weekend-long parties. There are these two simultaneous Berlins, a city once literally divided. Berlin is certainly German — the country’s capital, even — but it lacks so much of what Americans think of when they think of German. All the Oktoberfest and lederhosen stuff is in Bavaria, in the south. The big engineering factories and auto headquarters are in the west. And of course all the fascism and nationalism is basically gone, especially in Berlin. So have I fully experienced Germany? Have I really been?
Germany is one country, like the USA. It counts somehow as one land — Deutschland — no matter which state you visit. Bavaria is a distinct place — a people and their land. It could be its own country, just like neighboring Austria is. Austria, along with part of Switzerland, comprises the rest of the German-speaking world. This swath of central Europe could be one country, or twenty. It happens to be three, for whatever reason.
America is stranger still, has even more distinct ecosystems and peoples. It is many nations within one state, really: United States, appropriately. But the borders of each state are themselves problematic. Ideally, the US would be divided into more distinct regions: the tri-state area or city-state of New York, New England, the Rust Belt or Great Lakes, Appalachia, the Deep South, the Southwest, the Great Plains, Cascadia, California… Hawaii is obviously a separate thing, much more akin to Polynesia than, say, Massachusetts. And what the hell is Alaska doing in the union? It’s clearly part of the vast Canadian tundra. And yet, since the US has bought it and claimed it within its empire, the people there count as Americans.
Sure, Stalin moved ethnic Russians to the Far East, but do they actually belong there? I know: it’s almost impossible to say who belongs anywhere, really. Such is the effect of empires and their ravenous creation of history.
And yet: East Asia is indeed the place of East Asians, each of its countries quite ethnically homogeneous. Arabia is indeed comprised of Arabs. Arabs have also conquered northern Africa and made Muslims of the Berbers, who are now essentially part of the same Sunni culture, and yet Libya remains a part of the African continent, hardly resembling the sub-Saharan land and people so far below it. What’s more African: Arabic or Afrikaans?
The world is full of random, inaccurate, curious distinctions. I think it’s stupid.
To be clear: Nation means people. A nation is a people with shared history, culture, ethnicity, language, belief system. State is a sovereign political designation. A state is a country. Some nations have their own states: Japan, India, Italy. Some states are made of multiple nations: Belgium, Russia, the USA. Kurdistan and Palestine are nations without states, without proper recognition by the United Nations. You could say the same for the American Confederacy, where they still wave their flag in preference to the US’s. The world is so delicately demarcated with political borders that carefully acknowledge sovereign statehood, but it’s a total mess, straight lines cutting through nuanced national distinctions. Some people/tribes/monarchies hold their sovereign status, while other distinct nations are disintegrated. How does visiting Monaco — a city on the French Riviera — count as a new country, but not visiting Tibet?
The United Kingdom: Scotland and England are distinct nations with differing histories and perspectives, but they share a larger sovereign statehood along with Wales on the island of Great Britain. They all form one country, along with Northern Ireland. Going to Belfast crosses off all of it. A two-hour train ride from there gets you to Dublin, Ireland, which counts as its own distinct country, even though it shares an island and is clearly part of the same general region — the British Isles. But they get upset if you point that out, because they identify so much as such distinct people — so resolutely Catholic, not Protestant. Somehow it’s easier to divide an island of similar people than to reconcile political ideas of unity and independence.
Belgium has issues too. Two hours from Amsterdam counts as a new country. But Belgium itself is divided between Flanders and Wallonia — the Dutch and French parts, respectively — its capital city a sort of blend of the two, where both languages are spoken and posted. Flanders could easily be part of The Netherlands, and Wallonia could certainly be part of France, or sovereign. There’s even a German-speaking bit — the East Cantons — which the country took from Germany after World War I, despite its people’s resistance. So you have this country comprised of parts of its neighbors: Germany, France and Holland. Why though?? Brussels is much more similar to Amsterdam than Honolulu is to Boston. And yet Belgium is politically distinct, with UN membership of course, though it is also part of one larger regional unity: the Low Countries — along with The Netherlands and Luxembourg — the Benelux Union. I haven’t been to the tiny country of Luxembourg (half a million people out of Benelux’s 28 million), but how much different could it be from its neighbors? Must microstates really have more legitimate international identity than huge, dominated territories? Benelux could easily be considered one land. Instead it counts as three.
Luxembourg is huge compared to the State of Vatican City: A neighborhood inside Rome inside Italy that somehow counts as its own country. It’s considerably smaller than Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, both by size and population. It’s not so different in any meaningful way from Rome — it’s just the Catholic center of it. So here we have a neighborhood that has more rights at the UN than Puerto Rico, for instance. Within London, England, UK is The City of London — it’s also just a neighborhood: the financial district. It somehow counts as its own city, with its own laws and regulations. New York has a financial district, too, also just a neighborhood in Manhattan, one of the five New York City boroughs. Wall Street, and more specifically the NYSE building, is perhaps the highest concentration of economic power in the world, but it adheres to the same laws as Anchorage, Alaska. Building, neighborhood, district, borough, city, county, province, region, union, state, country, nation: the arbitrary status of sovereignty and administration; ambiguous, convoluted distinctions; terminology as a means of trying to make sense.
Vladimir Putin recently exploited Ukraine’s internal strife and took over Crimea. He just annexed it, said it was part of Russia, and by such decree, it somehow was. This felt like a big deal to the international community — it’s a crime, of course, to just take over a place. The world isn’t supposed to behave like that anymore. But looking at the history, the culture and the people of the place in question, it’s no wonder that Putin accomplished this without much dispute or aggression — the Crimean people identify as Russian. Putin looked at the map and thought: this peninsula belongs with Russia because of history and language and cultural identity. The rest of the world sees it as a sort of power thing, like an empire-hungry desire to acquire land. As such, Crimea remains internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. But I wonder: If the UN weren’t so incensed by the brashness of Putin, would Ukraine really even care? Why do states want to administer and hold dominion over places that aren’t really a part of them?
Settlements in the Palestinian territories by Israel are similar — a violation of clear international law. And yet the world stands idly by as Israel poises itself to claim all of the holy land, while Palestinians, unlike Crimeans, fight and resist.
Dominion is a funny thing. Boundaries and distinctions are rarely easy to establish, especially in the long lens of history. Israel, before it was a splinter in a Muslim Middle East, was a Jewish land, before Islam was even imagined. Istanbul used to be called Constantinople — a Greek city — and Byzantium before that, long before Turkish invasion. This all happened in the Near East — Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Levant.
We now refer to the dominion of Allah as the Middle East. It’s pretty Eurocentric, isn’t it? A silly name by us in the also silly West. But so be it. I like the term Arabia, since it’s an agreed upon distinction by a self-identified people, but it leaves out the full extent of Islam’s spread, including the Persians, Turks and Berbers (though I think they now identify as Arabic). But the term still fails to encapsulate the full spread of centuries of Jihad, and it’s this spread that I’m rather interested in. From The Islamic Republic of Mauritania to The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the teachings of the Quran hold dominion across this huge, largely inhospitable swath of the planet. The largest Muslim population is actually in Indonesia, even further southeast than where I’m currently flying.
I won’t be going. I just can’t be bothered to get into all that.
I look back at Google Maps, scroll over to where I am going. Southeast Asia, Indochina, the East Indies. Its borders are crazy. The map isn’t fully loading and the rough sketch that Google presents makes it all the more clear how haphazard and questionable certain borders are. Sharp jagged lines going every which way — it looks like a child took scissors to the area. I wonder what that will feel like, how clearly the nations are defined.
It is helpful to recognize places, to locate, identify and differentiate between them. Each place has a meaning, and every land and its people enrich the world in a certain way. So it does make sense to categorize the planet, to this extent. Political and administrative boundaries change over time, but cities and cultures are more robust, definite. There will always be a New York City, defined — if nothing else — by its architecture and skyline, whether it’s part of the Empire State as currently defined, its own city-state like Hong Kong or Singapore, or a new seceded territory that includes its tri-state area, where so many of its workers commute from. Some borders — like New York — should be redrawn. Others, like in Ireland, should be erased entirely, I think. I’m curious what each part of Southeast Asia will feel like, and still wondering what counts as being somewhere. Sometimes I feel there just thinking about it.