Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How Many Countries Have You Been To?

It sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t always. The answer really depends on the definition of a country, and that’s not always straightforward. My personal rule of thumb is that if a region produces its own stamps and coins, then it’s a country, but obviously not every person would agree with me. (I’m not even sure every coin and stamp collector would agree with me.)

Things get complicated when countries split up or reunite. If I’d been to Bonn in the 1980s, for example, I could say I’d been to West Germany, but could I say I’ve been to Germany? I’ve never been to Bonn, so that’s purely hypothetical in my case, but consider Hong Kong. I was there in 1989, and it felt like a country to me. But it was an English colony then, and now of course it’s a Chinese city, so I’m not sure how to count that. (Taiwan’s problematic, too. I feel like I’ve been to three separate Chinese-speaking countries, but there are those who would argue that bitterly.)

Then there are countries that attain their independence (or something akin to it), such as is about to happen to several islands in the Caribbean.

All five of the islands (or parts of islands, in the case of Sint Maarten) that make up the Netherlands Antilles have recently voted on the issue of independence. Two islands voted for “status aparte,” which as I understand it is something just short of complete independence from Holland. Two voted to move closer to the mother country, and one, little Sint Eustatius, decided it likes things just the way they were and doesn’t want to break up the Antilles.

This causes all kinds of problems for country counters. Were the Netherlands Antilles a country before? Do the separate islands count as sovereign nations now? It’s confusing, and I think you could probably check with several different authorities and get several different answers.

The only thing I know for sure is that if someone asks me how many countries I’ve been to, all I can say is, “Not enough yet.”

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