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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.

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…

…Bankski 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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bosnian barbeque

It is only two days after attending a party, uninvited, on the Croatian Bosnian border that I find myself inadvertently gate-crashing another gathering. But this time I am the very first guest to arrive. In fact I arrive before the hosts do.

It’s the end of a long hot day in the mountains and I am finally descending after many hours of extended and arduous climbs. I have already spent some time looking for a suitable place to camp – first in depressingly rubbish strewn pine forest around a decaying out of season ski resort that sprawled over the summit of the mountain and then as I dropped down along a rugged rocky gorge which provided plenty of dramatic views but not much by way of a flat sheltered spot to pitch a tent.

Finally, the valley opens out a little on either side of the river and eventually I spy a gravel road leading over a bridge away from the main road. I turn onto it, duck under the locked steel boom barrier across the road at the far side of the bridge and ride along the track sheltered from the view of any car driving along the main road on the other side of the river by scrubby bushes on the river banks. After a few hundred metres I come across a flat grassy area which would make a perfect camp site – perfect, that is, but for the presence of a small hut and a basic roofed structure sheltering a couple of long picnic tables and a fire place for barbeques.

I get off the bike and look around searching for clues as to what kind of place this is. Privately owned? Or public property? A sports club or association, perhaps? I glance at my watch: 8PM on a Sunday night. Who would turn up now?

I walk to the river and scout the steep banks for somewhere to access the water. It’s not long before I find some rough concrete steps and I’m very grateful to strip off and wash away the day’s sweat and grime. I return to the bike and unpack my meagre supplies and consider what I might eat for dinner. I’m just starting to relax as darkness falls. It is then that two cars rattle down the road and pull up in a cloud of dust in front of me.

Men tumble out of the cars and busy themselves unloading the vehicles. One walks straight past me without a glance and unlocks the hut. He returns to the shelter with an extension cord which he plugs into a socket and the bare bulbs hanging low over the table light up. The others come to the tables carrying plastic bags and boxes and start to unpack meat, bread, beer.

“Hello,” I say.

The man in possession of the keys approaches and shakes my hand brusquely. Another man joins us and asks in imperfect English, “Are you going to sleep here?”

“Ummmm. Well, yes,…. I thought I might….”

There is is no convincing way to deny it. My sleeping bag and tent are conspicuously draped over the wood pile airing out a little.

“Okay. Okay. No problem.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you.”

They turn away.

The fire is lit and meat and sausages are soon sizzling away. The men – there are about 8 or 9 of them – sit at the table and start to tackle the cases of beer they have brought with them. The conversation is animated and loud and utterly unintelligible to me.

It isn’t until the meat is cooked and on the table that anyone addresses me again. And then, with a sense of hospitality that extends to even the most unwelcome of uninvited guests, food and drink are pressed upon me.  A plastic plate piled up with a giant pork chop and a couple of sausages is pushed across the table, along with a bottle of beer and some bread.

“Eat!”

I do.

The English speaker of the group has an uncertain grasp of the language but his confidence grows as the meal progresses. As the quantity of empty beer bottles on the table steadily increases he starts to translate various questions that are directed at me. The enquiries traverse a well worn path: where are you from? where are you going? aren’t you scared? isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone?

I find these questions wearisome but under the circumstances I do my best to answer patiently. Certain destinations on my proposed route south east through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey raise vociferous objections.

“Albania! You can’t trust the people there! They are all criminals.”

“Turkey! But it’s too dangerous!”

I repeat my favourite mantra: people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. I insist that this has always been my experience.

Eyes roll and and the men continue to voice doubts.

“But you know, …Muslims,… they are different, they just don’t respect women! It’s their culture.”

I shrug in the face of their knowing insinuations. What can I say? The fact is that none of us have yet travelled to the places we are discussing. We are all talking theoretically on the basis of our assumptions and preferred ideologies.

The men’s attention wanders and I sit listening to their talk.

“What are they talking about?” I ask the English speaker, after an interval.

“Hunting!” He laughs. “Always hunting!”

He attends to the conversation for a while and then laughs again and turns to me to explain.

“We went hunting today but didn’t kill anything. They are talking about the ones that got away. They grow bigger and bigger with each telling.”

I laugh, too.

“What language are you speaking?’ I ask.

“Serbian! We are Serbs!” The answer is emphatic.

“Ah. I can’t tell. You just look like people to me.”

He squirms a little. “Yes, yes. We think so, too.”

There is an awkward pause.

“What do you think of our country?”

I explain that people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. Just like most other places. Actually, to tell the truth, people are exceptionally hospitable in Bosnia. And it’s beautiful, I add. I wave an airy hand taking in the surrounding landscape – there are mountains, forests, rivers.

The men hasten to tell me that life used to be better, before the war. The town I passed through on the mountain top used to be a popular holiday destination, they say, but nobody goes there now. It’s not the same. One of the men gestures along the valley here – this area was a battle front, he says. The owner of the property explains that there used to be a proper house here, a hunting lodge that belonged to his father, but it was destroyed during the conflict. This hut is what they have found the means to rebuild since then. They are still working on it.

I commiserate. It’s sad, I say. Such a beautiful country. Such nice people.

Their attention focuses on me again. Are you married? No, no. But what about children? Don’t you have children? No, I don’t. The men all have families, of course.

And then they return to the question of fear. But aren’t you scared? Well, what of, I parry. Really, on the whole, I would prefer to deflect the conversation away from the potential dangers of being a woman alone in the world, especially since I am in the company of a sizeable group of increasingly inebriated men in an isolated mountain valley. But they continue to ponder the matter amongst themselves and in the end I am made to understand that they themselves are frankly scared of the dark.

“We are honoured to meet you!” they announce collectively. And I suppose it is on account of my courageous indifference to the regular arrival of the night.

I thank the men for their kindness, for sharing their meat and bread and beer, for unhesitatingly accepting my uninvited presence amongst them.

And then a question of my own occurs to me.

“And what about your wives? Do they ever come here? On the weekend, sometimes, perhaps?”

“Oh, no! Never! We keep our women in their place!”

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the trouble with exes: ex-empire, ex-communist, ex-yugoslavia

The evening with its fading light is my favourite time of day and the midsummer gloaming affords a slow lingering glow to bask in long after the brute force of the sun has gone. But tonight my pleasure is tempered by unease.

I’m approaching the Croatian border with Bosnia. All land borders are scored into the landscape arbitrarily but the violence here is stark and overt. The houses that line the road are scarred with shrapnel pock-marks, burnt out, all the roofs caved in. This is a border marked out in obvious human suffering.

Most of the houses are boarded up but amongst the derelict abandoned buildings are a few that have been repaired, replastered, repainted. Flowers bloom on the occasional window sill, some gardens are planted out with tomatoes and salad greens. Fruit trees that have probably seen more than one war pass over them still bear fruit. This is a bountiful time of year.

But the people who can be seen at work in the fields and gardens, or the ones already at rest on the benches at their front gates, are all old. There are no young people here and most of the buildings bear hopeful notices advertising the house “For Sale”. It is a melancholy scene and the camping prospects look grim. Sheltering for the night in the gutted shell of a house destroyed in an internecine war bodes fitful sleep.

But suddenly I hear music. An accordion, a guitar, voices singing. I turn and standing astride my bike on the road gaze back at a party of people sitting partly visible on a wide veranda at the back of one of the smarter houses. The song finishes and, after a moment of laughter and comment, another starts up.

A woman comes round the corner of the house to the open door at the side of the house carrying a pile of plates. She smiles and waves. A man sitting at the table looks up, catches sight of me, and beckons extravagantly. I am drawn in. The host of the party rises from the table to shake my hand. He sizes me up briefly, and then bids me sit down. A plate, food, a glass, wine, all appear in front of me as the bittersweet accordion music goes on.

The music is interspersed with snatches of conversation and those who can switch to English for my benefit. Milan, my host, takes it upon himself to make sure that I am adequately informed of the area’s history.

“As you can see, we had a war here.”

“Yes. I do see.”

He gestures at the circle of people around the table.

“This is my family. My sister, there, she lives in Belgrade. In Serbia. These are her children. They are Serbs. The man playing the accordion – he is my friend. He is Croatian. I am Croatian but I live in Bosnia.”

The children run out onto the neatly mowed lawn of the backyard. One little girl executes a neat cartwheel, legs straight and toes elegantly pointed. There are three children, a brother and a sister, and their younger cousin, the acrobat.

Milan gestures around the table again and tersely sums the matter up.

“Croatians. Serbs. Bosnians. It doesn’t matter.”

Another song starts and my wine glass is refilled. I protest but I am informed that this a drinking song and so we must drink. The guitarist speaks good English and is obviously a professional performer. He introduces each song with an anecdote or a joke. The songs are traditional songs from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria. Everyone knows the words and even I am familiar with a few.

“This was my father’s house,” Milan tells me. “I grew up here. Now all the houses are for sale. Nobody wants to live here after the war. Everybody has left. There is no money here. No work. I live on the other side of the border in Banja Luka.”

People around the table ask me questions.

Where am I from? Where am I going? What am I doing here?

These are questions that have no simple concrete answers. Or not ones that I am aware of.

I’m just travelling around, I say. Just looking at things. Meeting different people. It my turn to gesture around the table. Different people, different food, different music, I say, inanely, and my superficiality doesn’t pass unchecked.

Milan looks at me and says urgently, impatiently, “Yes, yes, all that is different – but really people are all deeply deeply deeply the same.”

I have no argument with him.

“Yes, of course. You are right.”

Later, after the musicians are gone and the party is breaking up, we stand around my bike gazing at it.

“When I was ten years old I remember seeing foreigners for the first time,” Milan says. “An Englishman on a bike. He had a big beard. I’ve never forgotten it.”

I try to imagine which of the legendary cycle tourists might have been in Yugoslavia in 1968 – there can’t have been that many cyclists casually passing by back then. Milan looks at the three children standing next to us.

“And they will remember you!” he adds. And then, suddenly and emphatically, he says, “I’m scared that there will be war again here.”

We look at the children and the little girl turns another pretty cartwheel.

Finally, when everyone has left, Milan shows me a bed and the bathroom, hands me a bunch of keys and instructs me where to put them when I leave in the morning and then he gets into his car with his wife and they drive back to Bosnia leaving me in sole possession of the house.

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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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