Passport
Lifestyle

You Are Not Your Passport

Growing up as a third country national is weird as hell

Like a lot of you, I’m currently planning for a quick summer getaway away from the currently sweltering island we call our home. Apart from the necessities of planning the flights and assuring all other logistics are in place, the process of planning the trip was relatively simple.

The biggest headache remains making sure all my work is sorted ahead of time – a challenge that, at this point, I’m not sure how smoothly or elegantly I will be able to meet. I foresee a couple of sleepless nights, some misplaced crucial details along the way, and a lot of gnashing of teeth.

But at least the travelling part itself should more or less be a done deal.

Thing is, it wasn’t always like this.

"It would only be later still that I would learn that we classified as ‘third country nationals’...  we weren’t fleeing physical war but the economic fallout of one"

I arrived in Malta from Serbia in 1992, brought along by my immediate family owing to the fact that a civil war you may or may not have heard of was tearing what eventually ceased to be Yugoslavia apart. I was seven years old. My younger brother was four – and my sister would only be born three years later, on Maltese shores. It would only be later still that I would learn that we classified as ‘third country nationals’ and, because we weren’t fleeing physical war but the economic fallout of one, we also slotted into that much-derided category of ‘economic migrants’.

But, barring a few holidays (more on their sparseness later), I haven’t left this island which I’ve learned to call my home. I went through my formative years of schooling here – along with all of my significant professional training and experience. I feel in and out of love here, I’ve experienced family tragedy here. I learned the language – ticking off another box in that vague thing they call ‘integration’. Serbia was part of that too, of course, but more as a slightly more tinted, slightly more faded version of the same memories I have of those early years in Malta.

Partly owing to the good fortune that I was not from an African country and so was ethnically ‘safe’ from knee-jerk racism, and due to the fact that Malta-based Eastern Europeans had not yet developed a knack of embarrassing themselves on local news media with alarming regularity, I never felt directly pushed away from Maltese society.

Passport

But when I wanted to travel away from Malta – even for a short while – the limitations began to hit hard.

Thing is, Serbia remains out of the EU to this day. Professional and social restrictions aside – my father had to renew his work permit each year, at the expense of his employers – our travel was also restricted to countries which would allow us to apply for visas, which in turn would mean that we would have to have someone to vouch for us in the country we plan on visiting. So forget about your #wanderlust spontaneous travel plans, basically. But fast-forward some years ahead, and Malta is part of the EU. And while Serbia doesn’t quite make it to that club, in 2010 it joins Schengen. I get to travel to Tuscany with a group of friends. It’s July – given the heat, that was a bit misguided – but the feeling of not having to hassle to travel is great and in many ways, I’m glad I never took it for granted. But there was still one country I wanted to visit, and visit regularly, but couldn’t without any difficulty.

England.

It was a surreal experience, to say the least, and it made me think of just how fragile and arbitrary the notions of passports and the national borders they supposedly represent, really are.

An unfortunate thing, of course, because like a lot of people who at least grew up in Malta, I have plenty of friends who ended up there – certainly in London, a city whose myriad attractions were seductive enough in and of themselves.

It wasn’t impossible, of course. But it certainly was complicated. Ask someone from the UK to vouch for you – a friend or a relative – and to send a letter that says something along the lines of “I know this person and I can assure you he won’t use this chance to abscond to the UK”. Submit this and all your relevant documents to the British High Commission in Ta’ Xbiex – but no later than six weeks before you’re set to travel. Wait anxiously as they process your request. Hope to be accepted through the gates for a one-week London holiday.


London

Fortunately, I was never refused, and travelled to London often, despite this bureaucratic rigmarole. Even more fortunately still… come 2012, I finally got my Maltese citizenship. And just a year after that, I’m once again invited to England – to attend a wedding of the same Maltese couple who graciously hosted me, and indulged my bureaucratic necessities, when I had travelled to London in previous years.

But I’m travelling with a group of Maltese friends, and for once – I have something they don’t. Since my passport is newly-minted, it also means it’s biometric. So whereas before I would have been shunted off to some crowded ‘Non-EU’ stall at airport security – and subjected to a rapid-fire barrage of questions by a sulky official – now I could speed past even my Maltese friends in the queue: just scan the thing and you’re good to go.

It was a surreal experience, to say the least, and it made me think of just how fragile and arbitrary the notions of passports and the national borders they supposedly represent, really are.

My memories of Malta are just as strong – if not stronger – than my childhood memories of Serbia. Now, I’m in a position to make more memories while visiting other countries – but I didn’t always have that privilege so ready to hand, and a lot of people around the world still don’t.

Travel

What matters is the life you lead, the friends you make and the memories you collect along the way. That’s ultimately all that we’ll leave behind: our deeds and the people who remember them. And in the meantime, we have our own memories to contend with.

My memories of Malta are just as strong – if not stronger – than my childhood memories of Serbia. Now, I’m in a position to make more memories while visiting other countries – but I didn’t always have that privilege so ready to hand, and a lot of people around the world still don’t.

I didn’t change much from the year I had to travel to London as a Serbian national, as compared to the year in which I could do so more freely as a Maltese one. But in the eyes of international law, this absolutely made all the difference.

This is why rich people make it a point to buy passports when it suits them (which is, by the way, a slap in the face for regular ‘third country nationals’ who have to endure purgatory to get them). We still endow these documents with real power.

So much so that we often have to do some real hard work to remember that we’re people first, pieces of paper second.

Tell us your experiences with national identity of Facebook or Twitter.

READ NEXT: Xi Ħaġa Għall-Parker, Please

Written By

Teodor Reljić

Teodor spews out a lot of words, for both business and pleasure. He's written a novel -- TWO -- for Merlin Publishers in 2014 and is currently writing something in every genre you can imagine.

Comments