Birthdays and Borders by Kristen Caven
Ten minutes after we left the dock at Calais, my mouth started watering, and not because I was thinking of eating. The hovercraft bounced along the choppy waves and the motor, buzzing in my ears, worked extra hard to keep the ferry on course against the fierce winds and rain. On a calm, clear day it takes an hour to cross the English Channel, but on a stormy night like tonight, it would take two. Two delirious, churning, tossing, rolling, nauseous, mouth-watering hours. With my stomach hovering somewhere just beneath my throat and my eyes unable to stay in focus, the two hours trapped in the fluorescently-lit box of the passenger cabin, our glassy faces reflected back at us from the water-darkened windows, would feel like an eternity. It was the night before my 21st birthday.
The night before, I had stayed up late enough to watch the lights on the Eiffel tower turn off. It wasn’t exactly romantic, since my companion was my 18-year-old brother, but the moment was memorable. Like a birthday should be. Felix and I had had a lot of time to talk to each other this summer as our family bicycled through Europe, and plenty to talk about. When you’re on a bicycle all day, even with U2 as a soundtrack on your Walkman, you have plenty of time to listen to your thoughts.
One of the things I thought about was birthdays and borders. A birthday is a border, of sorts—a boundary of time rather than space—that you cross once a year. It’s always a different border: between two and three; between fifteen and sixteen; you never cross the same one twice. And like the border between two states or countries, there’s some sort of event at the crossing. Sometimes a small event, like a “Welcome to Colorado” sign. Sometimes, as in “Welcome to California,” you have to pull over and eat all of your fruit. And sometimes you have to go through customs and get your passport stamped and declare everything you’ve brought with you. But most of the time, border-crossing is no big deal.
One of the most amusing border experiences we shared on our trip was the day we biked from Basel to Schaffhausen. The idyllic, winding road along the Rhine river took us across the Swiss/German border several times. Every hour or two, a clean-cut young man in uniform would put down his magazine or novel, step out of his red Volkswagon van, and put up his hand for us to halt. Different guy each time, but always the red van. We finally asked why the Volkswagons.
“This border is so often redrawn, they don’t keep signs since World War One,” was our answer.
There are years like that. Great years, when you get to celebrate your birthday three or four times over the course of a month, and it doesn’t really matter when your age turns. But most years it’s like going from state to state, where the scenery doesn’t change much at the border. You have to go a hundred miles or so before you can tell you’re in a completely different place.
But twenty-one, I realized, taking delirious possession of the stainless-steel head with the water swishing inside, twenty one is a significant border, not unlike the vast moat between France and England. Twenty-one marks the turning to adulthood, the granting of all rights and responsibilities, the arrival at legal drinking age. Many Americans celebrate twenty-one by making themselves very sick with alcohol. Me, I threw up without indulging in a single cocktail. I was having an unforgettable adventure instead. I celebrated all the way to Dover, and wheeled my bike off the ferry with the empty stomach and wobbly knees of a newborn adult.