What are the Balkans? Reporter and writer Paolo Rumiz tries to answer the question abandoning himself to memories, writing “bastard notes, voices and frequencies that pierce borders, ignore visas, passports and languages to get right to the heart of man”
The event from last June 27th, “L'Europa che non conosci. Viaggi, racconti e immagini tra il Trentino e i Balcani" (translator's note: The Europe you do not know. Journeys, reports and images from Trentino and the Balkans), included an encounter called “Un caffé da Lutvo” (translator's note: Coffee at Lutvo's), with the actress Roberta Biagiarelli and the President of the Forum Trentino for Peace and Human Rights, Michele Nardelli. For the event, writer Paolo Rumiz sent a highly fascinating unpublished work he has written. The text was read with the musical accompaniment of violin player Mario Sehtl.
I could tell you about the hatred and the slaughters, the refugees and the kalashnikovs; I could tell you about a ravaged land, with a cold geopolitical look. But I won't. I will tell you about the sounds of a restless world, of the acoustics hiding the soul of its places. My soul is filled with those frequencies. It seeks them like Orpheus does his zither, it follows them beyond the frontier of the world of the living, where Persephone dwells. My soul feels that those partisan sounds resist the great process of global uniformity, the tyranny of the pensée unique.
I am a child of the border. Italian by language, German by culture, Slavic by liver and guts, Turkish by chant and heart, Jewish by fascination. The Balkans dwell in my last name, which holds the root “Rum” of Rumelia, the European – Roman – part of the Ottoman empire. I thus believe I contain within me something that helps me feel that space on the globe in the right manner.
So let us start randomly, there where the memory of my long traveling leads me. Let us start from two beautiful women from Novi Sad, 6-feet tall, approaching an accordionist sitting along the Danube; they put money in his hands and tell him 'c'mon, move us to tears'; he plays the instrument squeezing oceans of sadness and centuries of uprooting; they dance and hug, mindful of the passersby.
The Balkans are these flashes and images of lightning. Things like a Belgradian who is out on the street cheering for some good news, hires three gipsies with wind instruments and a drum and goes around the city with them, holding a bottle of rakija, followed by a throng of passersby dancing to their music.
That way, the theatrical sharing of joy and melancholy triumphs. Like when a Greek in an inn in Thessaloniki celebrates making a good deal by shattering plates, methodically, one at a time, amongst the clients and the inn-keeper cheering; then, suddenly struck by nostalgia, he goes to a “forbidden” inn to wear himself out in a rebetiko solo, with his knees bent, arms wide open and a cigarette in his mouth, in front of a raucous singer from Smirne and a buzuki player wrinkled like a Cheyenne.
The Balkans are an Austrian station and a gust of wind that storms the glass door open, pushing a young gipsy inside; a wonderful raven braid, a flamenco vermilion long skirt, her newborn in a bundle by her side, she begs for money with her fiery eyes, leaving the onlookers breathless.
The Balkans are a young Turkish woman pulling a love story out of your Western reticence: she listens to it in silence and, with tears on her face, she says 'Your tongue is like honey, stranger'; then, to thank you, she sings for you and that plows your soul; it's a song called “Ayrilik”, 'sweet absence', with a voice that sounds like a reed flute in the middle of the desert.
And then, the trans-Danube to the Vojvodina border, with dead tracks, gipsies, horses, manure-heaps and pumpkins – too big! - in the street, amidst a fog where everything fluctuates as in a glass of water and Pernod; or a Slavic waitress, with short hair and a black ribbon around her neck, winking openly at you in a pub along a Pannoia road.
The Balkans is walking in the mud towards the first ramifications of the Carpathians, where Western trains end and the “Soviet” gauge starts on the tracks; few – but fatal – inches make it so different from the European one. The Balkans are the first confused perception of the Eastern spaces, a cold totalitarian monosyllable excluding the sweeter word: “Orient”.
I can still see her, now, a girl farmer with dirty nails and the smell of garlic; but despite that, she knocks me down with the slash of her troubled look, hips sheathed in black and gasping mature pomegranates; the vision only lasts a second, until she roars her throat clear and, after spitting, she calls someone in the kitchen with a truck driver-like voice.
Images and sounds now come smoothly. I can hear the monotone chanting of the Sufi Bektashis in Albania, in the forgotten valleys where the Romans traced the Via Egnatia. The silence of a snowfall on the Sarajevo minarets and the evening screams of hundreds of swallows on Mount Rodopu, Bulgaria; so many it is impossible to fall asleep. Then, Strumica, a village deep in Macedonia, where farmers put down their spades at sunset to take their trumpets and clarions and the entire valley is suddenly filled with music as if Dionysus himself dwelt there with his court.
The Balkans. They are the endless burden to an Archimandrite in a church in Dobruja, Romania, where from a distance you can see a black snake of men and women flowing on the hills, in line for the funeral of a pious man. The Balkans are a band of Roms able to play for 48 hours straight at a wedding reception in the dust of the Hungarian Puszta; they are an army of 200 bagpipes – I don't know if you have any idea what that means – playing on the Stara Planina hills, swollen like Odysseus' wind bag.
The Balkans are the Mediterranean periplus of an Arabic word, "Sevdah", 'black bile', the great mother of mood swings, nostalgia and falling in love, a word that reaches the Iberian peninsula with the Islamic army and melts with Latin, turning into "Saudade"; that “sweet melancholy” (of a lost land) that centuries later the Jews, banished by the Catholic Kings, will bring with them to the new land, once again Islamic, the Turkish Empire, to generate those tormenting masterpieces of popular musicality: the "Sevdalinke", a word whose root is crystal clear, the love songs of Bosnia.
The Balkans are a young Bulgarian shepherdess called Valja Balkanska. A girl from half a century ago singing while sitting down on a low wall, fascinating two foreigners seeking antique music. That millennium-long chant of an impossible rhythm is recorded and sent into space on a satellite, along with other songs of planet Earth, to give the Aliens a sublime testimony of the voices of our world.
The Balkans are the rustling of the leaves in an impenetrable forest called Perucica, lost in the ravines of the most secluded Montenegro, a primitive forest where the source of the world's creative and destructive energy is said to dwell. They are also the murmuring of Sava, Drava, Tibiscus and Timis flowing into one sole endless land of waters and peoples, in a precarious balance among Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Romania, paradise of migrants, anarchists and boatmen.
The Balkans are the Greek Panagotis who, on a moonless night, carries you up on the mountain to see an olive garden older than Christ and listen to the crackling of the October stars over a rosemary prairie; they are dolphins silently accompanying your sails towards the end of the Corinthian Gulf, among the Erymanthian, the Helicon and the Parnassus loaded with out-of-season snow; they are the rustling of the great Dodoni oaks in the Epirus, sacred trees where the faun still feels at ease.
The Balkans are that contiguity of sea and mountains that unchains the freezing winds of Borea, the slope plunging into Dalmatia, land of seamen come down from rough valleys; they are the Kotor ravines, the fiord of the last strand of Adriatic, where thunders rumble as many as four times and the end of the bay is hidden among the rocks as if it were behind an iconostasis during the celebrations of the sacred mysteries.
The Balkans are the chanting of Ljubo, the boatman, entering on a barge along the Danube up to the shadowy Iron gates, the mountainous straight between Serbia and Romania; they are its beating notes of a kolo that let his friends know he is coming; they are the echo that changes after the great dam of Turnu Severin, with the Southern wind invading the plain and the rustling of the barley ears in Brza Balanka.
The Balkans are a train rattling by in winter entering Bulgaria and seeking the mountains amongst walls of snow, after passing the river of Europe on a long iron bridge. An old Orient Express filled with cold drafts where a 50 year-old woman, whom you have known for five minutes, sits in front of you and asks you 'Are you happy?' and you realize it had been twenty years since someone had asked you that question.
The Balkans are the snowy Bosporus, when the ravine turns into a Norwegian fiord, among the shouting of the muezzins and the cutting howling of the wind; they are the North wind sweeping the Galata Bridge and an old man in the alleys of the Pera hills who silently offers you amber-colored tea because he knows you are cold.
The Balkans is realizing that everything ends and everything is understood there, in the secret alleys of the second Rome, Constantinople, where the Great Gate has nested with the naturalness of a crab choosing an empty shell as its home; in the city where people go to smell anchovies, mackerels and smoked sword-fish, just to listen to the crowd on the piers, the roaring of the ferries in the fog, the squeaking of the pontoons and the screams of the royal swallows on the bazaar. In my verse ballad 'The Quince of Istanbul', I write that it is impossible to grasp Bosnia, intended as the quintessence of the Balkans, if you do not immerse and lose yourself at least once in the alleys of the Golden Horn.
The Balkans, a land 'whose destiny you cannot understand, its subjection / to a distant and unfathomable power / its smell of leather and cigarettes / the Caucasian look of its women / its vitality and its sadness / if you are foreigner, you cannot understand / the endless patience of its elderly / the mysterious rite of coffee / to be slowly sipped on the divan / if you are not from the Bosporus and you do not look / from the quays of Beyoğlu and Karaköy / at the river of people coming from Asia / and in the night you cannot see the small Kandilli Feneri lighthouse's intermittent throb / right over the luminous windows and the garden / of the çiragan royal palace'.
And truly, you cannot understand anything about the Balkans if you do not see that faint light calling you, lost at the end of the world, the only thing that is still amidst the traffic of vessels, fish, men and seagulls.
To me, and not to me only, that world is still summed up by a state that is no longer there, whose name is only uttered with “ex” in front of it: Yugoslavia, whose only thing that is still alive and unwillingly uniting the Countries born out of its breaking up is its phone prefix, 0038. I followed the dreadful war that ravaged the old Federation, and I would have so much to tell. But if you ask me what that world was, I tell a small story. This story.
One day I ended up in Ohrid, Macedonia, on board my old Renault. It must have been 1985 and what seemed to be the happiest moment for the Country. Tito had died, border control was less strict, from Ljubljana to the Greek border freedom of speech was whooping it up, there were parties and beautiful women everywhere and only a few pessimists were starting to feel the dark evil that six years later would sink the federate republic. I got to the town amidst this climate. An enchanting place looking over one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe, a stone's throw away from Albania, still armored by the regime.
The car was broken, it went on coughing and loping, and I had to urgently adjust the tappets. So I went to a mechanic shop to ask for a screwdriver and a wrench so I could do the job on my own. Friends of mine were waiting for me in Thessaloniki for dinner and I wanted to be quick. And then the unpredictable happened. After hearing my request, the mechanics put their work on hold and consulted each other, debating heatedly. It did not occur to me immediately that, since it was a self-managed enterprise where the laborers themselves were the owners of the tools, my request had led to a meeting.
The problem was moot point. The traditional Balkan hospitality did not allow for me to be left alone with my own destiny but, at the same time, the rules of self-management did not allow for the wrenches and other tools to be given to me. My request was not feasible and the mechanics were literally fighting to find a way out for me. The meeting lasted an hour and a half and I observed it with fascination, till the boss of the masnada came to me with a solution. They would do the job. For free.
Meanwhile, I was given a cantaloupe followed by a dish of salted ham. One thing was clear: I would not get to Thessaloniki that day. What lied ahead of me was far better. A black-dressed woman came with olives, goat cheese and prune rakija. Meanwhile, the work around my car had paralyzed the company. The mechanics were all there putting their hands on it, smoking and cracking jokes under the burning Macedonian sun. Two o'clock in the afternoon came, when they finished the job (in Yugoslavia, only the 8-hour shift starting at 6 am was in force) and the car was returned to me on time. I thanked everyone, without knowing what was awaiting me.
The boss of the shop – a Turk of ancient Ottoman origins – invited me to his house: since he had alerted his wife, when I got there, already tipsy, I found the table prepared and two wizened old ladies, also dressed in their widow black, going back and forth from the kitchen. Only the men sat down: the self-managed company, the boss' father, and the transiting Italian. 'We made you kebab', I was told, and I discovered something totally different than what I had eaten up till that moment. Not just a sandwich with the usual 'chunks' of meat cut with a knife from the skewer, but a 1-meter diameter 'pita' where the pieces of meat had been placed in a uniform layer.
We drank some more propitiatory rakija, the boss cleaned his big hands black from car grease, vigorously wrapped the double layer of pita and roasted meat forming a perfectly pressed cylinder he then cut into medallions, and then put the spiral-like disks on a huge copper platter. Finally, he placed two bowls in the center of the platter, one with fiery hot pepper sauce and the bigger one with yogurt, to extinguish the fire caused by the first one. Distributing the food was a ritual performed with ceremonial seriousness, then cheerfulness exploded.
That was just the first of a long series of platters. Lunch turned directly into dinner without breaking the continuity, sunset brought with it trumpets and clarinets and, when I went to the back to piddle, I noticed that my car had been driven to the garden and polished perfectly, while invisible women had made me a bed with embroidered linen sheets. I renounced Greece, stayed in Ohrid for three days and not once did it occur to me that that wonderland would sink in a pool of blood.
There. These are the Balkans to me. And I apologize if I have not spoken about wars and secession, but of bastard notes, voices and frequencies that pierce borders, ignore visas, passports and languages to get right to the heart of man.
This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page: Tell Europe to Europe.
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