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Nowhere Magazine Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest

I would like to share some more exciting writerly news. I was recently notified that I won the Nowhere Magazine Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.

My winning story has gone live today and can be found here.

Deborah Cass Prize…and the winner is…

Janette Chen was the winner of the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for her piece, Wall of Men. Janette is a Sydney based writer and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her future work. I was very happy to end up being one of two runners up, along with Belinda Paxton, another Sydney based writer.

You can read an account of the award night here. The guest speaker was the inimitable Maria Tumarkin whose speech took the form of ten ‘short talks’, inspired in part by Anne Carson’s book of the same title.

The award ceremony was followed by a dinner which was every reader/writer’s dream: plenty of good food and table chat almost exclusively focused on exciting books and ideas.

And last but not least I was fabulously dressed by my good friend Denise and her sister, Steph, otherwise known as the Imelda Marcos of Brunswick. It is a shame that I don’t have a photograph documenting the surprising result of the Cauchi sisters intevention in my personal appearance but believe me when I say no detail was overlooked – dress, shoes, jewellery, jacket, handbag, it was all attended to.

Deborah Cass Shortlist

Rerhaps there are still some people who might occasionally wonder: Whatever happened to Anna? Wasn’t she cycling around somewhere?

Well, I was. It’s true. But it’s been a while now.

Somewhere along the way I ran out of steam for blogging regularly to report on my adventures which took me into Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain in 2016. From there I returned to the UK and spent a couple of years to-ing and fro-ing between that beleaguered nation and Europe. And now I find myself in Australia, my erstwhile homeland, and astonishingly I’ve been back for over a year .

I’m still largely itinerant, even if I mostly travel in a car at the moment and my poor bike is languishing abandoned in Spain.

I finally landed back in Australia. Let’s see what happens next.

Flying past Jupiter.

It’s not really as comfortable or convenient as bicycle travel – but I do cover more ground more quickly and I can carry around things like a sewing machine, and jewellery and wood-carving tools

While I haven’t been blogging, I have been writing. I’m working on a book.

And recently I had the very encouraging news that I have been shortlised for the Deborah Cass Prize, an award established to support emerging Australian writers with a migrant background. This year’s final results  will be announced at an event in Melbourne on December 4, 2019. The event is open to the public and so if you too find yourself in Melbourne, Australia, and would like attend follow the link above for more information.

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retro-blogging

I’ve added a few post below with some of my favourite images from Eastern Europe. I’ve dated them to reflect when I was actually there — and it’s all old very news now, but I hope that you enjoy the photos anyway!

snapshots of bulgaria

My kind of road in Bulgaria!

A city camp site! I wandered around Plovdiv all afternoon with my bike and eventually made my way to one of the city’s most famous attractions – some ancient Roman ruins – and there I met a couple of young French cyclists. We talked until well after dark and ended up sleeping in among the crumbling walls.

I love communist kitsch.

A Bulgarian Banksy…

… paints images of significant Bulgarians on a rocky crag in the centre of Plovdiv.

I spent a couple of nights accommodated at an Orthodox monastry…

…where a Roma festival was taking place…

… and this sheep was here to be blessed before what I imagine was an unfortunate end on a barbeque.

I turned off the road on my way back to Plovdiv to eat lunch and discovered that…

…Banksiov had been busy in the woods, as well.

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snapshots of macedonia

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snapshots of albania

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snapshots of montenegro

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the roses of sarajevo (or: scars)

Walking through the woods, foraging for mushrooms, I suddenly freeze. Is it safe to step here?

This is not an idle fear. Parts of Bosnia have yet to be cleared of land mines and while most of the danger areas are known and marked accidents do still happen from time to time. My dubious grasp of the local language amplifies my fears: What exactly did those signs that were fastened to the trees along the road through the forest that I’ve been riding on say?

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The temptation of chanterelles overcome my nerves in the Bosnain forest, but only so long as there is a clear indication that other people have been this way in recent times.

There is no denying that Bosnia is spectacularly beautiful and sometimes – like when the muezzin’s call to prayer wafts across Prokoško Lake on a sunny afternoon  – it is hard to imagine a more peaceful scene. A man, who I had asked for directions hours before down in the valley far below, greets me when I finally make it over the pass and down to the shores of the lake. He invites me into a tiny wooden cottage for coffee and his wife and daughter ply me with burek and cake before I wander to the edge of the lake for a well-earned swim.

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This settlement on the peaceful shores of Prokoško Lake is conveniently close to Sarajevo and a popular place for holidays and weekends.

In Sarajevo, the intelligent and personable young man leading the group I am part of on a free walking tour of the city casually mentions that he spent his childhood hiding in basements. It seemed a bit like a game at first, he says; but then he makes it quite clear that no child really wants to play a game that lasts the best part of four years – probably not even one where the cumulative privations and losses entailed by its savage nature are less traumatic.

Sarajevo’s museums all contain exhibits illustrating atrocity and war – a haunting photographic record of traces that, despite the best efforts of the perpetrators to efface them, point undeniably to the hideous brutality of the genocidal Srebrenica massacres, the tunnel whereby food and medical supplies were secreted into the besieged city, the graveyards full of the dead, the local brewery which is now more notable for the spring that provided besieged Sarajevo residents with fresh water than for the quality of its beer.

Our guide finishes up what is – given the difficult subject matter – a surprisingly engaging, and even optimistic, tour by asking us to assure our friends and family that Bosnia and Sarajevo are safe now and to encourage them to visit. Bosnia’s best hopes for the future are in tourism, he believes. And it is impossible not to hope that Bosnia’s future is brighter than its past.

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Sarajevo sits in a valley and the Serbian forces subjected the city to a relentless siege from the surrounding hills. Between 1992 and 1996, for a total of 1,425 days, artillary and sniper fire rained down on the residents of Sarajevo.

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Sarajevo’s streets are scarred in the places where shells fell and where one or more fatalities occurred the craters have been filled with red resin to memorialise the victims. These are Sarajevo Roses.

On leaving Sarajevo, when, in order to avoid a major highway, I decide to follow a lead provided by an intriguing line marked on my map, I unwittingly embark on another dark tourism foray into the bitter heart of Bosnia. I really don’t think that I have retrospectively conjured up the eerie silence that descended as I turned off the main road and started pedalling along Crna Rijeka (Black River).

The road rose and fell as it traversed the valley. There was no other traffic, no inhabited houses in view, no sounds of life, no matter how faint or distant.  At the top of a rise, I was arrested by the sight of a multi-lingual memorial plaque commemorating the lives of a group of twelve UN personnel who perished somewhere nearby in a helicopter crash. In English, German, and Romanian the names are listed under the claim that they died here in the cause of freedom and justice. The melancholy reminder of personal sacrifice and lost lives leaves me pondering on the fragile nature of peace in Bosnia and the elusiveness of freedom and justice.

I finally arrive at the top of the pass late in the afternoon, tired and hungry, hoping for a place to rest while I eat lunch. And certainly there is an open area, some picnic tables and even a fountain of drinking water but the scene is dominated by an ugly billboard. In acid green, yellow and red the sign shouts:

MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE

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Significant areas of land in Bosnia are still off limits.

I eat and cycle on my way.

My next ‘destination’ in Bosnia is Sutjeska National Park where I want to explore what is said to be one of the two oldest forests in Europe.

It is probably clear by now that I am not a particularly assiduous planner. In Sarajevo, a couple of tourist services offered guided walks in Sutjeska National Park but guided walks are not for me. I decide instead to follow my usual research strategy for an area of interest which is simply to ride to a nearby sizeable town in the hope that I can pick up maps and enough relevant information to set out independently. In this case, the town where I am hoping to gather information is called Foča.

I cycle into Foča in the morning without having entirely shaken the creepy feeling that riding and camping in the war-ravaged Goražde valley had induced in me. But it quickly becomes apparent that there is nothing at all in Foča to uplift the spirit.

The first thing I notice is that unlike that other areas that I have passed through in Bosnia, here the street signs and advertising are exclusively in Cyrillic script. With no obvious centre to the town I ride around at loss for while hoping for some kind of ineffable invitation to arrive from one of the cafes or restaurants. As that hope fades, I stop at an open fronted cafe populated by a group of three or four men nursing beers in the dark interior. I sit in the morning sun at one of the outside tables, order a coffee and then get out my laptop to see if I can locate a tourist service of some kind.

But on typing ‘Foča’ into the search field of my browser the autocomplete function helpfully suggests that what I might be looking for information on is: ‘Foča rape camps’ or ‘Foča massacres’ or ‘Foča war crimes’. I hesitate a moment before plunging into the abyss. When I finally raise my eyes from the computer screen and look around the cafe at the other customers I find that I don’t want to meet their eyes or smile or answer their questions about where I am from or where I am going. I get up to pay for my coffee but one of the men makes a show of paying for it himself and my muttered thanks choke me.

I get on my bike and ride out of town.

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leaving the citadel

Most people in south-eastern Europe don’t like the term ‘the Balkans’ and don’t use it to refer to themselves. And there is no real agreement as to exactly what area the name refers to, even amongst people who do use it, so I’m going to try to avoid it.

If there is a single thing that is generally agreed on, most probably it is that borders and identities are vexed and complicated around here. Certain categories are vague, overlapping, ill-defined, loose – and they continue to pose a problematic challenge to our modern fiction of the linguistically and ethnically homogenous nation state. But more of that later. For now what is important, to me at least, is that when I cross the frontier between Slovenia and Croatia I leave the Schengen Area, if not the EU. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 but for some reason, that isn’t clear to me, is not yet eligible to join the Schengen Agreement.

If Croatia’s membership of the EU has brought major economic improvements with it they are certainly not immediately apparent in this part of the country. Suddenly, I feel less scruffy and out of place. If Australia and Western Europe, where I have spent more that the last year, represent the land of plenty, well, now I have returned to the desert to resume my wanderings in the wilderness. And somehow I feel much more at home here.

Bye bye, Fortress Europe.

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I’m not one to romanticise poverty but I really do like countries where people still have livestock, grow at least some of their own food and know how to fix things when they break. That seems like a valuable set of resources and skills to me.

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Storks are a common sight all through Southern Europe. (They don’t care about borders, though: Schengen, EU, Slovenia, France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia – it’s all the same to them.)

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