BOOK REVIEW: "The Atlas of Unusual Borders" by Zoran Nikolić

I take a look at Zoran Nikolic's informative journey of maps which don't makes sense - an interesting addition to your world travels.

I've always been quite the bookworm. In fact, when my grandparents went on holiday when I was little - I can't remember where to - and brought us children all back a personalised leather bookmark, mine was the only one without a name on it. It simply said "Bookworm", which is what my Grandad affectionately called me for many years.

There's no one kind of book that I like - fiction, non-fiction - I love stories and new knowledge alike. I'd eat words if I could! Since my partner and I began thinking more about the kinds of travel we'd like to do together in the not-too-distant future, I've been adding more travel-related books to my wish list.

Now, it may seem a strange thing to be reading travel books in a time when there are so many restrictions on our travel during this era of COVID-19, but I do feel that books can transport you to another place. A good writer takes you on a journey somewhere - whether that's to a place that actually exists, or one that doesn't.

The first book that I've managed to tick off on my travel-related wish list is Zoran Nikolic's The Atlas of Unusual Borders. Published by Harper Collins, the book's blurb reads as follows:

"The borders that define our world are not as clear as we think they are. Centuries of conflict have left countries divided, often shattered, with remnants of territory left behind. Discover how quirks of geography affect people's daily lives."

The Atlas of Unusual Borders was shortlisted for the 'Illustrated Travel Book of the Year' award at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards in 2020 (Travis Elborough's Atlas of Vanishing Places took the top spot in the end), and I can see why Nikolic's journey through the quirks of our geography has been so highly regarded. The book's pages are filled with clear and aesthetically pleasing maps of enclaves and exclaves from across the world.

I'd heard of the term 'enclaves' before reading this book ('exclaves' was a new one to me!), but I wasn't too sure what it meant. As Nikolic explains, enclaves are areas that are completely surrounded by the territory of another state, whilst exclaves are essentially the opposite - a part of a state that can only be reached by going through another state.

When we think of the borders between countries, we often think of singular lines that clearly demarcate the boundary between one state and the next. Nikolic's book shows us that, because of the very complex histories of conflict across the world, it is rarely as simple as that.

For me, it's not just that enclaves and exclaves exist that is so interesting - it's the stories of how they came about. There are tales of territories given as wedding gifts to the rulers of another country, territories which subsequently moved further and further away from the boarder of their home county through the ever-changing borders of the mainland as a result of conflicts and treaties alike.

In some of the many examples which Nikolic provides, the borders of some countries stretch down the middle of a street, with the houses on one side of the street in one country, and houses on the other side belonging to another. At times, the governing of these strange borders are shared by the respective countries (which proves much easier in the European Union, for example, where laws across countries are similar and freedom of movement is permitted). On other occasions, it's much more complicated than that.

Perhaps one of the most eyebrow-raising examples of such odd borders, is in the village of La Cure. In this village, a hotel named 'Hotel Arbez' lies on the border of France and Switzerland - but more than that, the border goes right through the double bed in the honeymoon suite, making the hotel a tourist destination for those seeking stays in unusual hotels.

Interestingly, the UK is currently experiencing something similar recently with regards to borders, but this time with local authority boundaries. As I read The Atlas of Unusual Borders, I thought about the newest COVID-19 local restrictions in England and the English tier system which has recently brought in to deal with the pandemic on a local level. In the town of Langwith on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border, residents on one side of the street are (at the time of writing) in tier 1, whilst those on the other side of the street are in tier 2 and are therefore subject to tougher restrictions. Reading Nikolic's book in the current global moment had a particular poignance for me, reminding me of the common phrase "we must draw the line somewhere." The question is, who gets to draw that line, and why?

Another border which Nikolic explores is the International Date Line, drawing upon the stories of two islands that are a whole day apart. Big Diomede and Little Diomede are small islands in the Pacific Ocean - the first island is part of Russia and the latter is part of the USA (Alaska, to be specific). These islands are less than 4km apart, but are situated either side of the International Date Line - meaning that they are a day apart, despite being able to see one island from the other on a clear day. Quite poetically, they are known as Yesterday (Little Diomede) and Tomorrow (Big Diomede).

Closer to home, The Atlas of Unusual Borders explores other geographical curiosities beyond enclaves, exclaves and unusual borders. I was particularly intrigued to read about the island of Sark, which is a British Crown Dependency (a self-governing possession of the United Kingdom). The island is part of the Channel Islands, off the coast of Normandy, France. With a population of around 500 people, Sark is thought to be the last feudal country or territory in Europe, meaning that no cars are allowed on Sark - just horses and tractors. In a strange turn of events, in the week after reading the book, I heard of another story about the island. In 2019, Sark advertised for a dairy farmer to come and live on the island, outlining just one requirement that the prospective farmer would have to adhere to -they had to bring their own cows with them!

One of the many reasons that I love to travel, is to learn new things - to learn about the ways in which other people live, and to hear stories from people all around the world. During this very strange, almost travel-free time, The Atlas of Unusual Borders provides an insight into these stories, lives and histories, but from the COVID-safety of your own home.

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