Circular travels

My great-grandfather’s house was the first one in the village with a bathroom that had ceramic tiles. Great-grandfather went to work in America and brought things from there that people here could only dream of. He was one of many mid Europe economic migrants, but back then, without negative connotation, they were called the “Americanos”.

His daughter, my grandmother, married during the 1950s into a neighboring village, and back then a neighboring village that was within one-hour walking distance over the hill, was a different world. She was a stranger there and local population let her know that. To go on vacations was considered an indulgence, and with five daughters and no car that was difficult. She never saw America; her world was within the cadastral borders of two villages. The farthest she traveled during her long life was the Hungarian-Slovak border on the Danube, somewhere near Gabčíkovo.

Her daughter, my mother, lived her best years behind the Iron Curtain in socialist Czechoslovakia and she saw the sea for the first time in her 40s, in Jelsa at Hvar. Late, but still. Her horizons were somewhat broader, but still limited by her own fear and lack of experience due to years behind closed borders, without opportunities to learn foreign languages, meet foreigners or read translations of foreign books.

My younger sister was born after the Velvet Revolution and she completed her first independent travel armed with the knowledge of English, a cell phone, accommodation prearranged via Booking and Airbnb, with cheap seasonal plane tickets. TripAdvisor minimizes risk of going to bad restaurants or boring beaches because millions of other online-tourists already visited them and decorated social media with thousands of pictures. She is a typical young European who managed to travel around the world in her 25 years and this is why her horizon does not have sharp edges, it is rotund, endless. She has no prejudice so she expects no hostile areas beyond the horizon, only something new, different, with more colors and more fun.

By chance, I write down notes about travels of closest ones in a group of some forty people from all over Europe, with whom I share a dormitory in a mountain home below the Teide volcano at Tenerife. The Atlantic island belongs to Spain, it is part of the EU and the Schengen area, which makes it possible to experience safe exotica wrapped in European neatness and tidiness. Although the Canary Islands archipelago is just a 100 kilometers off the coast of Africa while Europe is more distant, you will not find dark skinned tourists here.

Close to the volcano’s crater, at 3,300 meters above sea level, a stone mountain home Refugio Altavista was built, where after a tiresome five hours long climb you will find a clean bed, bathroom and kitchen, so that at 5 in the morning you could, together with other European and American tourists, head for the top. The final 500 meters altitude are hell: rare air, frost, fatigue, nausea, a difficult climb with crackling pumice stone.

But, from the edge of a crater you will see a shadow the volcano throws for only a few minutes, during sunrise, at clouds between you and the Atlantic. It is an impressive show, and if your brain can connect two thoughts together at these heights, it will become apparent that this difficult hike, for something so temporary, can only be voluntarily undertaken by those whose life is really good and who feel safe in their country.

To relieve ourselves from stress, break daily routines, shopping, kid carpools, we observe ephemeral beauty and experience brief sunlight reflections, mist over the ocean or unusual curves of the coast, languages and sounds of the cities. At our beloved Croatian coast, we will place our kids in rubber boats for adventurous expeditions of unknown bays behind the first reef, followed by a night in the forest, so they can watch stars and listen to bugs in the morning. Voluntarily and for pleasure we accept unpleasantries, pain, coldness, hunger or fear, we gladly go on unknown routes. But still, these are circular travels that finish where they began – at home, in Slovakia, Germany, Croatia. In Europe, our safe and wealthy continent. The travels of four generations tell me, however, how fortunes can change, how fast the social, societal and political situation can change and how easily we can become unwanted strangers. Somewhere deep there still lies an atavist fear of the unknown, coming from outside and without invitation.

Monika Kompaníková
Translated by Maria Vuksanović Kursar

In search of a European consciousness

Sometimes I wonder whether I always felt as a European. Apart from my national consciousness, I felt I belonged to a greater whole and I had this sense of belonging long before my country became a member of the large European family.

Maybe it’s exactly this that I am trying to discover while wandering alone through streets of European cities, following people while trying to decipher their opinions and actions like Odysseus who “many cities of men he saw and learned their minds”[1].

After an unexpected call from the publisher V.B.Z. to participate at the vRIsak literary festival, I found myself wandering through Rijeka, away from others, willingly of course, trying to find similarities between this country and my homeland.

So, what is European consciousness?

In an unstable world marked by continuous turmoil and transformations, it is necessary first to realize who we are because knowing oneself to the core is at the same time our compass.

Given numerous challenges that the world is facing today in terms of globalization, but also specific predicaments that the European family needs to address, we must discover our inner conflicts and reluctances. In order to see whether there are still some cohesive forces that will eventually prevent centrifugal forces that became apparent during last summer with the exit of the United Kingdom better known as Brexit.

It is our duty, as reasonable people who face contemporary challenges every day, to give at least a small contribution to resolution of mankind’s long-term problems that have been growing bigger during our time.

In spite of rapid technological progress, we are now living in new medieval times, in a time of inequality, both within member states themselves and also between various countries.

Scenes reminding us of Oliver Twist or The Little Match Girl take place every day on the streets of Madrid or Athens or in Syrian refugee camps. On top of this, thousands of economic migrants are wandering through various European cities looking for jobs in the worst conditions while possibly becoming human trafficking victims. These people are, allow me to use this expression, “invisible citizens” and a different “invisible Europe”.

As if all of this is not enough, terrorist attacks that are often pushing our tortured continent into despair, are not just resulting in loss of lives and installation of restlessness into our safe and calm life, they also, by spreading fear, encourage xenophobic, racist and fascist urges.

What is the solution? How will we justify sacrifices made as communities to join the European family? How will we secure the future of our children and their right to live with freedom of thought and dignity?

I believe that the only solution is culture, our anthropocentric culture. This is the basis of European consciousness. Because our common myths, our values, our fairytales are guaranteeing our cohesion, even our differences guarantee it.

It is this sense of familiarity which overwhelmed me on Croatian streets this past summer, when I saw a mother and daughter who instinctively ran to help an older man who fell on the ground: compassion and humanity. Even in the music of a street violinist I felt this magic: notes full of pain from a long history of struggle, notes of joy and optimism for a common “tomorrow”.

Windows and doors of Europe are open, not to escape, but to live freedom of choice every day.

As a person dedicated to literature, and beauty, I am making a decision to stay. To stay and try to change what I can, while carrying my European humanism as a shield.

[1] Homer, The Odyssey.

Myrto Azina Chronidi
Translated by Nives Fabečić Bojić

How not to become Greece

When I was in Zagreb and Rijeka a few months ago, many asked me with great concern whether I think that “Croatia could become Greece”. The truth is that the economic crisis which hit both countries cannot be compared. Croatia is not a member of the Eurozone, it did not sign an austerity package, and its’ economic situation is showing signs of recovery as of lately, while Greece is in a deep recession. On top of this, Greek public debt and GDP percentage are almost double that of Croatia, and the same goes for unemployment rate which is twice as big as the one in Croatia. But there are also numerous similarities between our two countries. A great portion of our economic activity is based on agricultural production and tourism, while we are also troubled by irreparable everyday living (inefficient and non-productive public administration, bureaucracy and corruption).

There are many ways for Croatia (or any other country) not to get into a hopeless situation that hit Greece during past several years.

Croatia as the youngest EU member has an opportunity to observe the example of Greece’s longstanding life within the European Community. Greece has received more than 160 billion euros through European subsidies since 1981. A lot of this money was invested in economic progress, social development and development of infrastructure. A lot of the money disappeared in underground state labyrinths, commissions were paid out, more money ended up in private bank accounts abroad or used to buy votes. This is how slowly but surely almost half of Greek population, after 36 years, has come to believe that the country was destroyed simply by becoming a European Community member. So, lesson one: use of European resources must be transparent and rational.

Apart from being a member of the largest global economy, Greece did not manage to face its inability to gain insight of its own economy. Greek economy remains focused on domestic production, instead of production for international markets. This causes an imbalance, leading to even bigger problems for actual economic production. Lesson number two: “economy” means production, and “production” means being open.

The third and perhaps the most precious lesson that Croatia can learn from Greece is that his “hurricane” which fell upon Greece from almost entire Western Europe – secularism – was and will be the most important link connecting Greek political leadership and its citizens. Recently, due to very tense economic and social crisis, (the always present) nationalism has strengthened thus creating a dangerous explosive “device”.

As far as I know, none of this has happened yet in Croatia. This is why it would be wise to, while there’s still time, take advantage of all privileges before they, as it happened in Greece, drag Croatia into a disaster.

Christos Ikonomou
Translated by Koraljka Crnković

When endangered species were still just a game

When we were little, we played “Save the endangered animals of the world”. It was a game that the World Wildlife Fund created during the ’90s when there was still hope. In school we talked about rainforests, cried and raised money to buy green surfaces the size of one, two or three soccer pitches. The economic crisis was only visible in the fact that we had to use books inherited from the previous generation. But mostly it seemed that the world is doomed. There was nothing exciting and new we could look forward to; we will live the same lives as our parents. But it did not turn out that way.

 

I began studying journalism in 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks and that seemed important then. I was at home watching the Towers collapse in slow motion and to us, future journalists, it seemed as if we are already there, at the spot. The world was changing in real time and we will bravely report about it. There will be plenty of work for us when we graduate. The great generation of baby boomers will retire, and we will be able to pick and choose any job. But it did not turn out that way.

 

In 2007 I was working on the book Camera Obscura. I was gravely concerned about the global ecologic situation. There was talk of global warming, but people acted as if that was not their problem. Proponents of heavy industries laughed at wind power and heat energy, while my younger sister and I often discussed how stupid it was of these old industry dinosaurs not to invest in renewable energy thus opening hundreds of thousands of jobs and creating a clean environment. The situation seemed hopeless. I finished the book in 2009 and it mostly dealt with my fear about the planet’s future. But it turned out even worse.

 

Eight years later I am reminiscing about days of playing “Save the endangered animals of the world” and reading about endangered species in my used biology book, and I realize that all that will soon remain of these animals is just that: pictures. We live in a time of mass extinction at an unbelievable scale. It is as if we decided to destroy all wild life on the planet at any cost. The ecological chain is broken and we keep pounding individual links with sledgehammers so it could never be repaired. We loot, plunder, destroy, and do so knowingly. Nobody can claim that we do not know or understand what we are doing.

 

Actually, we? Which we? You? Me? Or maybe it’s “them”? Because, to be honest, “we” are no longer those who decide what will become of this world. Were we ever deciding? I don’t know. You can buy energy-saving lightbulbs and reusable shopping bags, but what difference does it make when various governments detonate nuclear weapons at ocean bottoms and neglect an accepted climate agreement? They say we can make a change via elections, but what difference does it make when international megacorporations and a handful of the super-wealthy have destroyed our ecosystem? They say that such a situation is our “fault” and it seems it is our common task, yours and mine, to singlehandedly save the world from assholes who don’t give a damn about what will become of it. I am tired of this. I’m becoming passive. This task seems impossible to me. Because it is impossible. If until a few years ago I used to say “Consume less! Move to a village and grow your own food! Vote!”, now I say: “Enjoy the time we have left. Teach your children not to trust those in power. It is better to be a dead anarchist than a live sheep.”

Johanna Holmström
Translated by Željka Černok

A different Europe

During the 20th century, after two global wars and discovery of atomic weapons, the human animal finally became capable of achieving its prime goal which it dreamt about since its first steps on this planet. It finally had possession of a facility that could destroy everything and anything different on this planet in just a few steps.

Bringing this fact to conscience, the horror of personal bestiality, moved mankind for a moment or two away from Darwinistic basic premise toward a perspective of solidarity. The realization gained some peculiar manifestations. Specifically, the Declaration on Human Rights, while informally it was a significant increase of intolerance for all forms of discrimination and racism in the public sphere. Of course, banishing this primary human instinct for exclusion, deletion and destruction from the public sphere did not remove it from individuals. With failed attempts to form political and state creations based on solidarity, which pursuant to human nature became abysses of chaos, exclusion and repression, coupled with absolute global supremacy of the neoliberal paradigm, first artefacts fueled by ancient art of exclusion started appearing on society’s fringes. Sheer tolerance for its existence was enough, everything else became a matter of time. The correct majority that was not (yet) ready to, alongside those with shaved heads, shout in the streets, found its haven in the anonymity of the web where it could remove social roles, discard political correctness and give in to their primary, suppressed impulses. Before we became aware, these parties were in national parliaments, and today they are publicly and with ease governing over Parliaments throughout Europe.

And “that” Europe is now celebrating its next little victory. A stricter regime officially confirmed by ministers of interior of EU members, will as of April be implemented on Schengen borders through stricter surveillance of all passengers, including EU citizens. A regime Europe implemented for refugees, is now broadened to include EU citizens as well, and if looked at from an opposite perspective, we are also awarded refugee status in a way.  This is an opportunity for all younger generations to experience nostalgia of older generations in traffic jams at border crossings and to prove their innocence with documents and empty car trunks. What started 60 years ago as the European Coal and Steel Community, then grew into unbearable ease of transfer of capital, goods and people is now returning to its beginnings. To coal and, of course, capital.

What can be said of this Europe where Hungarian, Slovak, Czech, French, English, Polish, Croatian, Slovenian and all other “domestic” populisms are metastasizing rapidly? They differ mainly by opening different parts of the old European closet and deriving various combinations and permutations of basic elements, such as racial hatred, hate for foreigners, hate for women, homophobia, necrophilia, totemisms and other noble products of the European spirit. The only thing that comes to one’s mind is that within these societal processes there must be a point where it will be necessary to admit that communication is simply not possible, and that even search for dialogue is a pointless, destructive and even a non-ethical act. A line will have to be drawn somewhere, where exterior walls of “that” Europe will be reciprocated by sharp internal cuts. Otherwise, “that” Europe which is not a different speed Europe, but a different perception and understanding Europe will soon simply cease to exist.

Aleš Čar
Translated by Jagna Pogačnik

Contemplations from once western Yugoslavia

One of the first things children learned during the 1960s in Icelandic schools was that our country, Iceland, is not the only country in the world, and that it belongs to a greater whole. The first community we belong to is that of the Nordic countries, and the greater one is that of the entire Europe. We as pupils found comfort in being able to see this on a geographic map – with child-like sensitivity for our position in the hierarchy of existence, be it close to us, or completely greater – we saw our country was an island in the big blue ocean, far away from other countries, far from those in the north and those belonging to Europe. Our closest neighbor was Greenland, a vast expanse with glaciers, whose natives were a strange, yet primitive people, about whom we were told we have nothing in common with, neither in appearance nor in way of living, and that it in fact geographically belonged to North America. Regardless of the fact we were not able to see North America on our geographic map, it was clear that we were allies of the United States of America, even to the extent that was greatly detrimental to us.

I remember that the first European geographic maps we saw covered areas from southern Greenland to North African coasts, with Cyprus in the bottom left corner, so that Moscow was barely part of them. Even though the map showed all European countries, this did not mean we were connected to all of them. The east part of the map was simply called Eastern Europe and, although Iceland had economic ties with many countries in that part of the continent, with Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and we were told, directly and indirectly, that we had nothing in common with that part of the world. Almost all Icelandic children, without knowing, played with toys from those countries, wore clothes tailored in them and lived in homes where fish was eaten from plates and milk drunk from glasses made there. Our parents bought all of this, not paying attention to the origin of goods, in SÍS stores, the largest retail chain and the largest merchant partner of that big part of Europe.

It was known to happen, although rarely, that the distance was successfully made smaller. I remember a Yugoslav dance ensemble that put its skills on display in Reykjavik in 1968. During that same year we were visited by Croatian literary author Antun Šoljan who held a lecture about literature of his country. A few years later Yugoslav workers worked on the construction of the largest hydropower dam in the country, and during the 1970s travel agencies started offering trips to the Adriatic coast. But a spiritual distance was still present.

But much later, 11 years after I completed elementary school with excellent grades in the subject of worldview towards Europe, everything changed. The map of Europe from my childhood fell apart, and new borders were drawn where they did not exist before. Countries we never heard of were mentioned in the news every day. To meet the people we heard about in those news, we asked literary authors for help. It was clear to us that, just like in our country, literature describes the truths of the heart and mind. Literary nations mutually recognize each other and we needed to read authors such as Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugrešić, along with their colleagues.

It is sometimes said that the Silk Road ended on our island in northern Atlantic, where Viking ships with Chinese dragon heads sailed into bays and shores while bringing our ancestors who built their home here. By following the same logic, it can be said that Eastern Europe came to Iceland. Throughout Icelandic villages and hinterland cars such as Škoda, Moskvitch, Volga and Wartburg were driven, alongside American, English, German and Japanese cars, and I heard somewhere that Iceland was the only country on this side of the Iron Curtain that imported Trabant cars. And if we can imagine a big mighty freight ship sailing into Reykjavik harbor full of Yugo cars, which actually happened, then our capital can be called the most western part of Yugoslavia.

These little known ties between our countries rose to my mind when I first came to Croatia in spring of 2016, while visiting Rijeka and Zagreb. I thought about how our histories overlapped for decades in countless tiny details existing in everyday life, while official historical science does not deem them important and worthwhile enough.

Sjón
Translated by Tatjana Latinović

Rijeka – a scream for beauty

It was summer of 2015, when I first arrived to Rijeka for the vRIsak[1] festival opening and said that for me there are two kinds of cities in the world – those in which I would live, and those where I wouldn’t. After spending just two hours in Rijeka, I already knew it was in the first group. Later I had a brief contemplation: was I maybe inadvertently lying, to fascinate my hosts? After all, I just arrived. No, I said! I felt this with all my senses, the same way a man feels love for the first time. A sunbathed city, beautiful and romantic with its architecture and smiling people, built for centuries in a warm and intimate bay of the Adriatic. Everything had this special beauty to it in a moderate daily rhythm.

I shared my impressions with Ana Vasung, translator of my novel Glass River that was to be presented during the festival. She said nothing, and just smiled as if wanting to let me know not to rush with my emotions without knowing what’s ahead. And that was beyond my expectations. Even during my first talks with V.B.Z.’s owner Mladen Zatezalo, editor in chief Drago Glamuzina and organizers Marija Bošnjak and Zoran Simić, I felt their dedication to the festival’s idea. They showed care for the participants, responsibility and desire for everything to be in harmony with beauty, whose true vessels are literature and art. They truly bring people together and make them better. Each appearance by authors who came to present themselves and meet colleagues from various countries, was part of that mission. Media gave us special attention as well, which brought the festival to a new level.

I respect Croatians as people close to us, I admire how they do everything with pride and confidence, but I most appreciate their perseverance and dedication to the task at hand. They value what is theirs, defend it (sometimes to death), but these extremes seem justified with time. This dedication was a common denominator for all the days of my stay, after which I was fully convinced that Rijeka became my favorite city to be in and that I will always happily return to. I also met the famous actor Rade Šerbedžija and realized why he chose Rijeka as his permanent residence. What else besides persistence and dedication to beauty, along with a stimulating coexistence of differences, would be his motivation? And how properly they named the festival – vRIsak! Its essence and mission truly made it a scream for beauty. And love – human, friendly, passionate, aesthetic – love!

This is why the following year, when I was invited again, I came with a heart full of love to a city that already enchanted me with its rich history and attractions and to my “brothers in arms” who tirelessly organize participant presentations. New friends, new adventures, things I will remember for as long as I am alive.

I climbed to a fortress with a beautiful view of Rijeka in all of its grandeur and beauty. The sight left me speechless – the elevated tower from which I glanced with fear made an illusion as if I was inches away from the sky, making me feel invisible in time. Next to me was the prominent lady with blueish-green eyes that were blending together with color of the distant sea. I trembled from this apparition and instinctively started to embrace it when suddenly a lightning cut through the sky, thunder roared and rain started to pour. The beauty was dimmed by countless large drops, while I, scared, senseless and speechless, barely made it to refuge-giving castle rooms, turned into a nice café. The city below was already under a veil of rain, it could not be seen anymore, as if it never existed. The multilingual crowd of guests brought me back to reality. I saw many unfamiliar faces and one of them was mine. The rain quickly stopped – nature’s summer fury is intense, but temporary, the sun came back and soon Rijeka appeared, as it was before, only cleansed. I was cleansed as well.

Afterwards I took the endless steps down to the city. I stopped, observed, admired. And on one of the steps someone had used fresh paint to draw two pairs of footsteps facing each other. Below them it was written in English: “Kiss me.” I stepped on the larger footsteps and kissed the renowned imaginary medieval lady, whose eyes I will always remember. I thanked the Lord for giving me this vision. I told myself then: “If you, God, are a river flowing through us, then Rijeka[2] is for me a small part of tissue of Your heart.”

[1] Scream in English; letters RI are capitalized in Croatian as the represent an abbreviation for Rijeka, the city where the festival is held

[2] The name of the city means river in Croatian.

 

Emil Andreev
Translated by Ana Vasung