My father once told me that whenever a man crosses a river swimming, he loses a part of himself in the current. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. Now I think he might have been wrong.
Hot Summer Day, early July. My family and I are driving across the border between Serbia and North Macedonia. This is a process both mentally and physically exhausting, even though it’s nothing more than an infinite fight against boredom, followed by a rush of adrenaline as the border officer checks our documents. The first portion of the wait is the most unbearable, because the sudden weight of being stranded at the edge of a foreign land for an unforeseeable amount of time is crushing, like water pressure at the bottom of the Danube, 584 feet deep. But then you ease into it, and suddenly the moment that time had frozen seems just as distant as the moment it will finally thaw. In this state of existential passivity, I notice two stray dogs, only a few feet away from the line of cars. For them, this temporary perpetuity is the only known reality. The sight of their tired eyes and their saliva-covered tongues as they’re panting takes me down memory lane and summons the feeling that the Western intellectual would call déjà vu. I’ll call it a parallel.
My father (who lived his whole adult life in the fear of dementia, a demon that both his father and his grandfather battled at the end of their lives) always joked that once he forgets all our faces, and doesn’t recognize me or my siblings anymore, he’ll still be able to tell a Balkan land border and a non-Balkan land border apart. For the thing about the Balkans is that all their land borders are built around a common theme. Lines as long as the river Volga, truck drivers whose foreheads are burnt from a tedious day in the Sun, and dogs. Many, many stray dogs, with fur missing in patches on their backs, and ears covered in dried blood, a mark left by the survival of the fittest principle. He said you’ll know a Balkan border by its dogs, and I remembered it every time we crossed into a new country. There are no such dogs on Western borders, son. They don’t look like that anywhere else in the whole wide world. Of course, his view was very Eurocentric, as he never left the continent in his life. He didn’t trust planes to fly over larger bodies of water. Do not cross water that you couldn’t cross swimming, he implored me once. Do not trust something that doesn’t belong to anyone. There is a reason it doesn’t. The ocean will swallow your body and chew up your soul. It’s untamable.
Last year, in August, as we were embarking on our first true, family Balkan trip to Montenegro, I noticed he was right. Not about the ocean, but about the dogs. They were there, and greeted us like old companions, even though we’ve never met. There were several dogs, puppies even, three identical, innocent, little black devils, playfully wrestling over a few sips of water, poured into one of those plastic Tupperware food containers you would take on a vacation filled with slices of cucumber. The puppies were triplets, maybe a few weeks old. The dogs have children here, I thought to myself. This blurred line between Croatia and Montenegro, this demilitarized zone, this no man’s land, is their country. This is where they made a home.
This July it’s me who greets the dogs like old friends. The border is different, the two countries are different, the dogs themselves are different, but this unclaimed piece of land, no wider than the River Tisa where it flows past my grandma’s village back in Hungary, is the same. It belongs to the Balkan dogs, and everyone else is only a visitor. Temporary guests, drowned for a few excruciating hours in a non-linear time zone, before driving on to become someone else. My father would never say a word while crossing this land between the lands, as his distrust of the unclaimed put him under a spell of anxiety. He’d just keep looking at his old watch, waiting for the minute hand to suddenly lurch forward, but it never would. Before he lost the watch a couple months back, I’d never seen him without it, as he didn’t trust time that went unnoticed. I am now realizing that he, who claimed to know the Balkans so well, failed to see that this place was never really unclaimed. It was canine paradise. Not the Motherland, but the Promised One.
Nobody knows when they first came here, or where they came from. Were they Serbian dogs or North Macedonian, it did not matter. The only thing that mattered was that they were here, and as dogs don’t see borders, they would have journeyed even further, crossing into a new land, not unlike the one they left. But something made them stay. A couple of them could be strays left behind at the border, dogs that their owners abandoned while crossing the river swimming, and simply forgot about. Or maybe these dogs were never even pets in the first place, but wild canines that never got the urge to leave once they entered the strip of land where time stands still. Why would they? People in traffic tend to get out of the car to stretch their legs, and feed the strays they stumble upon out of the sheer necessity to kill time.
When the wait is finally over, the river of time thaws, and even the last rush of adrenaline subsides, we park the car on the other side to take a bathroom break in one of those filthy, Balkan highway facilities. In the shadows cast by its walls lies a dog, motionless as a sack of flour. Its fur coat is torn, revealing wounds that had healed long before he found this realm of peace. My sister is appalled, she demands we get this little buddy a bowl of water or at least feed him a turkey sandwich we brought for the long drive. How is it gonna survive if we don’t help? Of course, my mother points out that the dog is incredibly fat (perhaps the fattest dog I’ve ever seen), and my sister realizes that these dogs probably have it better than many. My mother mutters something under her breath about dogs being natural hunters and how the new age has turned them into sensitive, spoiled children. It reminds me of one of those Facebook memes which your run-of-the-mill, Great-Hungary-hoodie wearing conservative would share with the caption “the libtard west would turn our dogs into pussies,” but I decide not to share that thought with my otherwise politically centrist mother. The truth is that in every annoying, badly done Facebook meme, there is a grain of truth hidden somewhere. Because even the hunter puts down the rifle when the rabbit is served to him on a silver platter by strangers he’s never going to see again. Waves of the ocean flood over their fat bellies and chew up the remainder of the wolf’s instincts. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the Balkans, they say, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like it from here.
A week later, on the drive home, we get in the last line of traffic between Serbia and Hungary, in the no man’s land separating the Balkans from the side of Europe I call home. After the Serbian border officer lets us pass, and we slowly drift into the river of boredom, two guards motion to the car, and ask for our passports politely, so they can choose a lane for us to stand in while we wait for Hungarian officers to validate our entry request. The guards’ uniform is also Hungarian, so my mother greets them politely in her mother-tongue, and hands over the documents, one of which (mine) is more valuable than the rest, as it contains my United States Student Visa. Despite my father’s warnings, I’ve crossed the ocean, and not by swimming. It never swallowed my body. I don’t know what it did to my soul.
I notice the label on the guards’ uniform checking our passports. It says “Border Hunter” in Hungarian. Hunter. I’m chewing on this word, savoring it on my tongue. The sound is almost acidic in my throat. I vaguely recall a billboard I saw when I was in middle school of a man who looked like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial, wearing a Hungarian military uniform, smiling into a pair of binoculars, with the caption calling all young men and women in search of employment to help protect the country from “dangerous immigrants.” From refugees fleeing war. Hunt them down, the Abercrombie & Fitch model screams at me. Hunt them like rabbits. I then recall headlines of violence and brutality. I close my eyes and a scene of the hunter who’s checking my passport emerges, shooting at a mother running for her life, carrying two children, one on each arm. I think I’ve seen her before on a UN awareness campaign Instagram story, but it could have been someone else. Then I see her pierced by a bullet. I shudder at the image, and mutter something to myself about healed wounds and patches in furs, but the thought escapes without consoling anybody. Fat dogs watch the scene from the shade, their mouths full of turkey sandwiches. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the Balkans and just outside. Except if you’re a dog.
I once tried proving my father wrong about rivers and oceans, so I shoved my little brother into the Tisa at my grandma’s village. As he was grasping for air, my father jumped in, grabbed him below the armpits and swam with him to the shore. You see? He’s the same boy he was a minute ago. Nothing’s changed, I told him, waiting for acknowledgement. Then I noticed his watch was missing from his wrist.
In America, I fall asleep every night thinking of home. Back in my bed, I fall asleep every night thinking of America. Peaceful sleep only comes to me on transatlantic flights, where for eight hours, hours don’t exist. When dogs cross the river swimming, they drown. Time stops and they cease to be hunters. But my father was wrong, still. People remain hunters wherever they go.