Bulgarian International Truck Drivers: A Methodological Approach

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My study of the Bulgarian international truck drivers is limited mainly to the Cold war period. This context defines partly the methodological perspective of the research as far as the functions of the drivers and their place of society is rather different from their place and role after 1989. One of the most challenging aspects of studying this professional group is the necessary interdisciplinary approach, which includes traditional history, history of technology, anthropology, sociology. The key notions regarding the truck drivers in this period are transnationalism, liminality, trickster, and motility. The first two are part of the contemporary social studies, including history of technology and human geography, but also anthropology. The third is an anthropological term and the last one is coined in the framework of the sociology of technology.

Adopting the history of technology paradigm, my study of the Bulgarian international truck drivers during the Cold War draws on the analytical perspective of the Tensions of Europe network, which aims at exploring the hidden European integration through the lens of technology. In their article, presenting the intellectual agenda of Tensions of Europe, Thomas Misa and Johan Schot define the hidden European integration as ”an emergent outcome of a process of linking and delinking of infrastructures, as well as the circulation and appropriation of artifacts, systems and knowledge. These processes carried, shaped, flagged, and helped to maintain a sense of Europeanness, bringing out tensions in Europe and tensions about Europe. We call this “hidden integration”. [1] The authors distinguish “four contested arenas where these hidden integration and fragmentation processes can be clearly appreciated: transnational infrastructures, big technological projects, the colonial relationship, and European patterns of consumption.” [2]

The official and nonofficial practice of the Bulgarian international truck drivers during the Cold War are related to at least three of these “contested arenas”: they used the transnational infrastructures on the territory of the whole Europe, the Middle East and the North Africa; their work can be seen and analysed as one of the mechanisms of communication and interaction between Western and Eastern Europe during the Cold War as an outcome of the construction of the large international technological project TIR (Transports Internationaux Routieres) in which the Eastern European bloc participated; and the international truck drivers were means of spreading the West European consumption patterns across the Iron curtain. In the framework of the TIR system, which covered countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain, international truck drivers developed a special role in terms of the communication, multilateral interaction and integration of Europe, during the Cold War.

Drawing on these considerations, I use as a main framework of this study the modern transnational history. This conceptual framework is especially viable inasmuch as the project aims at synthesis of transnational, local and personal aspects of the process of dynamic interrelations between different actors, practices and politics in the context of European integration. The project pay attention both to integration tendencies and tensions between factors and actors in this process. This approach also emphasises the importance of non-state actors as builders of transnational networks.

There is no consensus about what is the transnational history definition. Drawing on the “transnational nature of contemporary issues” [3], Iriye conceptualises transnational history as “the study of movements and forces that cut across national boundaries”. [4] According to the Samuel Huntignton’s definition, the decisive element of the transnationalism is the transnational scope of the activities (“operations in the territory of two or more nation-states”) of a certain organisation or a group of people regardless its character or scale. [5] I consider the Bulgarian state transportation firm SO MAT as a company with transnational scope of activities and the international or long-distance truck drivers as a whole as a large transnational community, part of which are the Bulgarian group of the international truck drivers.

Contemporary freight companies, though not so powerful as SO MAT also could be seen as transnational actors as far as their scope of activities remains transnational and the truck drivers today are even more involved in the transnational community of long-distance drivers.

 

International truck drivers both before and after 1989 can be analysed in the context of transnationalism at least on three distinctive levels:
  • the first level is connected with the inherent characteristic of their work – to cross boundaries. These boundaries are several: national borders; the border between the Eastern and Western European bloc; they crossed also the borders between the so called first, second and third world (macro-regional borders);
  • the second level is connected with the building of transnational networks. One of the most important issues related to the practices of the international truck drivers (particularly Bulgarian ones, and especially during the Cold War) is that both at legal and illegal level, they created networks that covered the space of Eurasia;
  • the third level is related to the understanding that “transnationalism” should not be considered only on material level as material links between nation-states or only as flows of people, artefacts and goods. The specific role of the international truck drivers is that they represent also the processes of political and cultural transactions of perceptions, values, stereoptypes, and ideas. Thus, it could be argued that the international truck drivers crossed also ideological and even borders of mentality.

The contemporary global circulation of people, goods (materials, machines, food) and information (images, narratives, symbols) represents a sophisticated network of “flows”. This transnational network of flows could be investigated not only at a homogeneous material level (geographically expanded, materially integrated structures that cross national boundaries [6]), but also at the heterogeneous level of “legal, corporate, and political-economic elements”. [7] The developing of these transnational processes in the particular context of the Bulgarian truck drivers and SO MAT research and their transnational network building, is presented by means of different approaches, among which the historical approach I use here is in the frames of the use-centred history of technology instead of an innovation-centred history of technology. [8] This framework is used to show how some national (state and non-state) actors built transnational networks during the Cold war that overcame the Iron curtain and to stress the importance of the technology in this process. These transnational structures are seen as one of the instruments of the hidden European integration.

The Tension of Europe network explicitly highlights the relevance of these processes for the better understanding of contemporary Europe. My study of actors that have been up to date rather neglected in the literature provides insight into the dynamics and tensions between state policy and nonofficial (everyday) practices, national and transnational mediation process, and linking and delinking factors and processes.

I argue further that socialist international truck drivers during the Cold War should be considered as a liminal group: as occupying an ambivalent and in between position between the separated by the Wall worlds; as people which daily routines included crossing state borders, transgressing law and moral boundaries and trespassing political and ideological frontiers; and finally as a group with a liminal social status in the framework of the larger socio-political hierarchy. [9] The liminality of the group emanated predominantly from Cold War border regulations and policies within the context of limited opportunities for crossing the Iron Curtain [10] by ordinary people, objects and information.

The Hungarian anthropologist Ferenc Hammer also pointed out that the long distance drivers were a liminal group, in his very interesting and informative article “A Gasoline Scented Sindbad”. [11] However, Hammer explores the artistic and journalistic representations of the truck drivers [12] rather than the practice and role of the truckers themselves during the Cold War. His reason behind this choice is that “cultural analysis of everyday life is a rather hopeless enterprise” [13], but the article shows one more, methodological reason: the author uses predominantly the term liminoid for the mass perception of the drivers, following Victor Turner’s differentiation between liminoid and liminal, in which liminoid is related to artistic representations such as “books, plays, paintings, films”, and to the context of the “large-scale industrial societies” [14] while “liminal” is reserved only for the context of rituals and the traditional societies. Consequently, when Hammer claims right from the beginning that the drivers transgress any kind of borders [15], this transgressing is applied to the drivers’ “(ill-) fame”, but not to the actual border crossing issues or the drivers’ road experience, except for the “heroic” truckers’ road narrative found in the published interviews with Hungarian truckers. [16]

This essay aims to discuss further the socialist international truck drivers as a liminal group, stemming from two basic considerations: The first one is that both roads and borders, which constitute the essence of the international truck drivers’ identity, practices and status, should be considered as classical liminal spaces; and the second is that the notion of liminality should be used as an independent analytical concept, not directly related to the ritual context. [17]

 

Liminality Revisited

The socialist international truck drivers’ liminality during the Cold War is analysed here in the context of first, the transnational European road network (understood here as a “human-made, materially integrated structure that cross national borders” [18] as well as number of institutions and regimes functioning beyond the national level [19]) which are also considered “liminal”; and second, in the context of the truck drivers’ practices – mainly their mobile life (the inhabiting the space between two fixed points [20]) and border crossing.

Turner himself started the theoretical reassessment of the scope and applicability of the term “liminality”. Although, following van Gennep he defines liminality as “a phase in a processual structure of a rite of passage” [21] in his desire to apply the term to modernity, he also claims that “…with the increasing specialization of society and culture, with progressive complexity in the social division of labor […] Transition has here become a permanent condition.” [22] The Hungarian sociologist Arpad Szakolczai finds this “permanent liminality” “paradoxical, if not contradiction in terms” [23], but still he applies the concept for constructing three specific “permanent” liminal phenomena – the monastery, the court and the soviet regimes. [24]

In a similar manner, following Turner, most of the recent research about liminality attempts for revising the Turner’s concept of liminality to the extent modernity itself to be defined as liminal. [25] Simultaneously, and rather paradoxically, the “reforming” research (even these, related to space) fail to overcome the framework of processual, temporal understanding of the term.

In other words, while van Gennep maintains a relative balance in his concept of rites of passage between time and space passage (“… a change of social categories involves a change of residence, and this fact is expresses by the rites of passage in their various forms” [26]) both Turnerian and the post-Turnerian interpretations of liminality privilege the temporal dimension of it. [27] Thus, the spatial transition and the in-between zones, from which van Gennep borrowed the term [28] (or the so called by him “territorial passage” [29]) is bracketed or just neglected.

The state border is one of such spaces presented by van Gennep as liminal. [30] Yet, there is one more important in-between space, related to frontiers, considered by him – he calls it “neutral zones”: “The neutral zones are ordinarily deserts, marshes, and most frequently virgin forests where everyone has full right to travel and hunt.” [31] Furthermore, he noted that the border signs were placed “only at points of passage, on paths and at crossroads” [32], i.e. he thought the function of the borders only together with the ways/places of their crossing, together with the paths and the roads.

Furthermore, van Gennep considers not only the space, but also travel as a territorial and simultaneously ritual passage. [33] Talking about travel, however, he focuses on separation and incorporation phases of the process and skips the middle (the liminal) one – the travel itself, or reduces it to ‘waiting’ [34], or to the point of departure and the point of arrival. The traveling between them thus turns into condition (negatively described) where the traveler is not already here, but is not yet there. This sedentary perspective is one of the reasons why the poststructuralist attempts to emphasise spatial dimensions of liminality fails to address the space of the road and the process of traveling and focus on destination, on specific places “we go to” [35] or even transform (or practically annihilate) the space of motorway into a “non-place”. [36]

The transnational European road network bore during the Cold War similar characteristics as the above mentioned “neutral zones” as far as it turned into a space between the blocs, where all parties had “full right” to travel and trade, and therefore, like borders and neutral “strips”, should also be considered “liminal”. The liminality of this transnational road network however, is not given and even more – neutral. Since 1949, mainly under the auspices of ECE (Economic Commission of Europe), several large scale international agreements, conventions and regulations [37] were coined for creating an environment and a particular transnational regime, which made possible the intensive interaction and exchange between different actors, political regimes, and between the rival blocs. The rules defined by these agreements were compulsory for the states party of the treaties and were crucial for the development of the international transport. Thus, the European transnational road system turned into a space between (and trans-) the two blocs, where various actors from the First, Second or Third world could travel in all possible directions and with different, often conflicting goals and objectives. The transnational road network was transformed into a specific and differently structured space betwixt and between, [38] with specific rules and organization, where ongoing circulation of people, goods, and information took place related to all aspects of the complex nature of the Cold war.

The international conventions however, were one of the factors, shaping the road-border space into a corridor between worlds. [39] The other crucial factor was the social practices related to it [40] – the roads at that period turned into a highly contested space, being used for peaceful exchange and for the weapon’s transfer, for high level and large scale contraband and petty trade and smuggling, for intelligence operations and technological and ideological competition. One of the actors, playing an important role in shaping the meaning, use, and functions of this structure [41] were the transnational transport companies and the international truck drivers. The truckers were not just the emblematic inhabitants of the roads, [42] they were involved in all listed above transnational, legal and illegal flows and practices. And one last consideration about the liminal character and status of the truck drivers is important to be outlined – the context of the Cold war. Arpad Szakolczai notes that the “[s]ituations that are liminal in more than one way” produce a particularly strong effect. [43] So, the liminality of the truck drivers is further enhanced by the liminality of the Cold war itself, if following Turner we accept that all wars are transitional periods and are, consequently – liminal. [44]

The group of the international truck drivers and their activities, and the transnational road system in the post-Cold War era should also be seen and studied in the context of liminality, though their liminal status is not enhanced with the additional ambivalence of the Cold War conflicts and ideological separation. Still, though trickster is a key defining notion for the socialist truck drivers, I do not think it could be applied the same way to the contemporary truckers. The concept of motility, on the other hand, accepted as the connection between the social mobility and spatial mobility, is relatively useful for the current international truck drivers, but it seems rather peripheral for the Stop and Go research project, so, I consider it as a conceptual tool mainly for studying the truck drivers in the context of the Cold War.

 

Literature
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Auge, Marc. Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London, New York: Verso, 2005.
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Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.
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Vleuten, Erik van der, and Arne Kaijser. “Prologue and Introduction. Transnational Network and the Shaping of Contemporary Europe.” In Networking Europe. Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850-2000, edited by Erik van der Vleuten and Arne Kaijser, 1-22. Sagamore Beach: Science History Publication, 2006.
 

Notes:

  1. Thomas Misa and Johan Schot, “Inventing Europe: Technology and the Hidden Integration of Europe,” History and Technology 21, no. 1 (2005). 1.
  2. Ibid. 11.
  3. Akira Iriye, Global Community. The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2002).198
  4. ———, “Transnational History,” Contemporary European History 13, no. 2 (2004). 3
  5. Samuel Huntington, “Transnational Organizations in World Politics,” World politics 25, no. 3 (1973). 336.
  6. Erik van der Vleuten and Arne Kaijser, “Prologue and Introduction. Transnational Network and the Shaping of Contemporary Europe,” in Networking Europe. Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850-2000, ed. Erik van der Vleuten and Arne Kaijser (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publication, 2006), 25.
  7. Paul Edwards, “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organisation in the History of Sociotechnical Systems,” in Modernity and Technology, ed. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003). 199.
  8. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old. Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Profile books, 2006). xi
  9. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991), 95; 107; Bjørn Thomassen, “Notes Towards an Anthropology of Political Revolutions,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, no. 3 (2012): 687-688.
  10. Although explicitly connected to the transnational crossing borders of people, information and goods across the Wall, the term “Nylon Curtain”, coined by Gyorgy Peteri, is somehow problematic. It emphasizes the contacts between the separated worlds, but his perspectives is rather elitist and fails to address the questions – for whom the curtain was Iron and to whom was Nylon and to what extent the borders between the rival blocs were experienced differently from the different groups of people. Thus, considering the everyday experience of ordinary people from socialist countries, I prefer the term Iron Curtain as more capable of capturing the ambivalence of both the rigidness and the permeability of the borders during the Cold War. See Gyorgy Peteri, “Nylon Curtain – Transnational and Transsystemic Tendencies in the Cultural Life of State – Socialist Russia and East-Central Europe,” Slavonica 10, no. 2 (2004).
  11. Ferenc Hammer, “A Gasoline Scented Sindbad: The Truck Driver as a Popular Hero in Socialist Hungary,” Cultural Studies 16, no. 1 (2002): 80-84, 92, 94, 104, 120.
  12. Hammer, “A Gasoline Scented Sindbad: The Truck Driver as a Popular Hero in Socialist Hungary.” 89-90.
  13. Ibid.,” 89
  14. Victor Turner, “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual. An Essay in Comparative Symbology,” The Rice University Studies 60, no. 3 (3) (1974-07) 86.
  15. Hammer, “A Gasoline Scented Sindbad: The Truck Driver as a Popular Hero in Socialist Hungary.” 80.
  16. Ibid.,” 99-103.
  17. According to Arpad Szakolczai, “…it is necessary to extend the concept of “liminality” from its narrow meaning as the middle phase in rites of passage into a general concept. […] It will be argued that this concept is potentially one of the most general and useful terms of social science, and is comparable to the familiar concepts of structure, order and institution”: Arpad Szakolczai, Reflexive Historical Sociology (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 210.
  18. Vleuten and Arne Kaijser, “Prologue and Introduction. Transnational Network and the Shaping of Contemporary Europe,” in Networking Europe. Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850-2000, 6.
  19. Alexander Badenoch and Andreas Fickers, “Introduction. Europe Materializing? Toward a Transnational History of European Infrastructures,” in Materializing Europe. Transnational Infrastructure and the Project of Europe, ed. Alexander Badenoch and Andreas Fickers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.
  20. Sandor Klapcsik, Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach (McFarland & Company, 2012), 18-19; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, London: Minnesota University Press, 2005), 380.
  21. Turner, “Liminal to Liminoid,” 62.
  22. Turner, The Ritual Process, 107.
  23. Szakoczai, Reflexive Historical Sociology, 211
  24. Ibid., 214.
  25. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 140.
  26. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), 192.
  27. Bjorn Thomassen, “Revisiting Liminality: The Danger of Empty Spaces,” in Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between, ed. Hazel Andrews and Les Roberts (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2012), 24.
  28. According to van Gennep: “It is this situation which I have designated a transition, and one of the purposes of this book is to demonstrate that this symbolic and spatial area of transition may be found in more or less pronounced form in all the ceremonies which accompany the passage from one social and magic-religious position to another.” Gennep, The Rites of Passage. 18.
  29. Ibid., 15.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 18.
  32. Ibid., 17.
  33. Ibid., 35-37.
  34. Ibid., 25: “In order to understand rites pertaining to the threshold, one should always remember that […] most of these rites should be understood as direct and physical rites of entrance, of waiting, and of departure – that is, as rites of passage.”
  35. Thomassen, “Revisiting Liminality,” 21. See also: Hazel Andrews and Les Roberts, eds., Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between (Oxon, New York: Routledge, 2012); Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan, “Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transgression and transition,” Tourism Management 27, no. 5 (2005); John Urry, “The Sociology of Tourism,” in Classic Reviews in Tourism, ed. Chris Cooper (Clevedon: Channel View Publications, 2003).
  36. Marc Auge, Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 86. See more detailed critic of Auge in Peter Merriman, “Driving Places. Marc Auge, Non-places, and the Geographies of England’s M1 Motorway,” in Automobilities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift, and John Urry (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005), 145-167. While criticizing Auge, Merriman questions also the discourse of the “transit places” as liminal, but in this case, following the criticized authors, he again thinks the liminal place as something, which is “nowhere” (p. 152), while to be in-between does not mean to be nowhere, but exactly in-between.
  37. For detailed list of the UNECE transport agreements and conventions and the dates they were created see: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Summary List of International UNECE Transport Agreements and Conventions http://www.unece.org/trans/conventn/legalinst.html, assessed June 15, 2013. Among the most important UNECE conventions regulating the road transport were AGR – European agreement on international highways and the E-roads numbering system of UNECE; AETR – a collection of instructions for safety and regulation of the labour time of the international truck drivers; ADR convention – European Agreement concerning the international carriage of dangerous goods by road; ATP – convention on international carriage of perishable foodstuffs and about the special vehicles for this transportation. But one of the most important agreements for international road transport was the TIR convention (the UNECE Customs Convention on the International Transport of Goods under Cover of TIR Carnets). The convention simplified, unified and harmonised all customs formalities in such a way so that the trucks would be able to cross the borders sealed at the point of departure, without further inspection the freight. The main goal of this customs convention was to unify the customs procedures, to facilitate the transit road transportation and trade and to block the possibilities of contraband activities.
  38. Badenoch and Fickers, “Introduction. Europe Materializing? Toward a Transnational History of European Infrastructures.” 12.
  39. Gennep, The Rites of Passage. 26.
  40. Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture vol. 1: The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), 441.
  41. Badenoch and Fickers, “Introduction. Europe Materializing? Toward a Transnational History of European Infrastructures.” 12.
  42. Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings. Ten Key Essays Plus Introduction to Being and Time, ed. David Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993), 347.
  43. Arpad Szakolczai, “Liminality and Experience: Structuring Transitory Situations and Transformative Events,” International Political Anthropology 2, no. 1 (2009): 159.
  44. Arpad Szakolcazai, Reflexive Historical Sociology (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 214.