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On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe Andrzej Stasiuk Is A Restless And Indefatigable Traveler His Journeys Take Him From His Native Poland To Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova, And Ukraine By Car, Train, Bus, Ferry To Small Towns And Villages With Unfamiliar Sounding Yet Strangely Evocative Names The Heart Of My Europe, Stasiuk Tells Us, Beats In Sokolow, Podlaski, And In Husi, Not In Vienna Where Did Moldova End And Transylvania Begin, He Wonders As He Is Being Driven At Breakneck Speed In An Ancient Audi Loose Wires Hanging From The Dashboard By A Driver In Shorts And Bare Feet, A Cross Swinging On His Chest In Comrat, A Funeral Procession Moves Slowly Down The Main Street, The Open Coffin On A Pickup Truck, An Old Woman Dressed In Black Brushing Away The Flies Above The Face Of The Deceased On To Soroca, A Baroque Byzantine Tatar Turkish Encampment, To Meet Gypsies And All The Way To Babadag, Between The Baltic Coast And The Black Sea, Where Stasiuk Sees His First Minaret, Simple And Severe, A Pencil Pointed At The Sky A Brilliant Tour Of Europe S Dark Underside Travel Writing At Its Very Best In this postmodern travel book, the author ruts around eastern Europe, divvying out impressions of this and that in prose that is sometimes lyrical, but almost always opaque I never could figure out what the point of this book was There was no cohesion to it, and it seemed the author was on drugs most of the time I suppose if you re a Joycean you may enjoy this, as it s stream of consciousness prose at its best For the casual reader, however, it s like listening to a drunken old man with an In this postmodern travel book, the author ruts around eastern Europe, divvying out impressions of this and that in prose that is sometimes lyrical, but almost always opaque I never could figure out what the point of this book was There was no cohesion to it, and it seemed the author was on drugs most of the time I suppose if you re a Joycean you may enjoy this, as it s stream of consciousness prose at its best For the casual reader, however, it s like listening to a drunken old man with an addled brain recount the misadventures of his youth If this photograph by Andr Kert sz takes hold of your thoughts and your imagination, you might understand why Andrzej Stasiuk writes It s possible that everything I ve written so far began with this photographThe space of this photograph hypnotizes me, and all my travelling has had only one purpose to find, at long last, the secret passage into its interior The strange aspect of this for me is that I, who have never been in Eastern Europe since I wrote this I have been to Romania,If this photograph by Andr Kert sz takes hold of your thoughts and your imagination, you might understand why Andrzej Stasiuk writes It s possible that everything I ve written so far began with this photographThe space of this photograph hypnotizes me, and all my travelling has had only one purpose to find, at long last, the secret passage into its interior The strange aspect of this for me is that I, who have never been in Eastern Europe since I wrote this I have been to Romania, and loved it , long to be there too, and not just in that street where a blind violin player is led across a dusty road by his young son, but in so many of the other photos Kert sz took This one for example I long to be there, following on along that shadowy street as the old man returns to his home after, perhaps, a visit to the nearby bar a drink and cards with other old men who have lived there all their lives That longing and that searching pervades every page of this wonderful book Stasiuk has no interest in events or spectacles or cities with all their aspirations and anxieties In a small Hungarian town called Gonc he watches a Slovak family emerge, with some hesitation, from a Skoda Octavia and reflects This was the sort of thing we wanted to see, not the Hussite House with its curious wooden bed that pulls out like a drawer , as the guidebook said What happened on the main street in Gonc wasinteresting than what had become mere history It drew us, because life is made of bits of the present that stay in the mind The world itself, really, is made of that Of course what he sees, and how he sees it, is highly subjective He needs to see those elements of rural societies that seem eternal, fixed, repeated through the generations All as it had been for a thousand years If he finds evidence of change, modernity, the new universal mediocrity, he isn t telling For him it isn t worth noticing What makes Stasiuk s point of view special is that it always emerges by engaging with the ordinary ordinary people, ordinary events Nowhere in the book is there the slightest sense of his being patronising, of seeing any division between what he is and what anyone else is This is travel writing by someone who wants to be, as much as to see Again and again he enters bars that brought the film of Satantango to mind Lonely, hopeless places where they ve never heard about the present Clearly I am drawn to decline, decay, to everything that is not as it could or should be I though too of Bela Tarr s most recent and final film, The Turin Horse , when I read about The odour of monotonous labour chained for centuries to matterthis changing that changes nothing, this movement that expends itself Some spring, not only will the snow melt, everything else will melt too Does any of this make sense Stasiuk prefers to dream the landscape into words than to describe exactly what is there For him it isimportant to evoke the essence of a place than to laboriously describe it in detail History impinges there is, for example, a visit to the grave of Nicolae Ceausescu but it is what remains despite history that sends him on another journey always on the smaller roads through Slovakia, Romania, Hungary or Albania, trying to find the secret passage, into their interiors On the Road to Babadag won all possible awards in Poland and for a while it was all everybody was reading and talking about So imagine my disappointment when I started reading it and all I wanted to do was to hurl it against the wall It s because I thought this would be a travel book I thought Stasiuk would leave some small town in Poland and go through Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria etc until finally he would reach Babadag, Romania where the book would end On the Road to Babadag won all possible awards in Poland and for a while it was all everybody was reading and talking about So imagine my disappointment when I started reading it and all I wanted to do was to hurl it against the wall It s because I thought this would be a travel book I thought Stasiuk would leave some small town in Poland and go through Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria etc until finally he would reach Babadag, Romania where the book would end It is called On the Road to Babadag Travels in the Other Europe, after all So what else should I expect I thought Stasiuk would tell me some funny anecdotes I expected some musing over the cultural differences between here and there I thought it would be like Michael Palin s New Europe only written from a perspective of someone actually from that New Europe.It is not really like that at all This book is just pure poetry and you have to accept that to be able to read it As soon as you do, you will embark on a journey that s one of a kind Stasiuk s accounts of his travels are non linear, context free, often confusing, full of maybes and perhaps but what they never lack of is beauty Even if he is fixated on the subject of animal excrement, he produces the most lyrical description of cow s shit Travelling for Stasiuk is not caused by the typical wanderlust It sof a strong urge to be in the here and now He writes when describing a trip he took in Poland before the borders opened I had no passport then, of course, but it never entered my head to try to get one The connection between those two words, freedom and passport, sounded grand enough but was completely unconvincing The nuts and bolts of passport didn t fit freedom at all It s possible that there, outside Gorz w, my mind had fixed on the formula There s freedom or there isn t, period My country suited me just fine, because its borders didn t concern me I lived inside it, in the centre, and that centre went where I went This obsession with here and now is obvious throughout the book because Stasiuk s descriptions are often careless when it comes to detail and context He disarmingly admits he doesn t remember where this happened or when, or whether it happened at all He can only offer a collection of impressions, smells, sounds and sights, maybe a nameless person here and there, some sliver of a dialogue.He stays clear of big cities and famous landmarks He explores the backwater and laments its disappearance He does get high on poverty and destitution You almost get the impression he is offended by every new ATM or internet caf which sprouts up in the villages he so fondly remembered to be completely free of any 21st century influence He wouldn t be the first and won t be the last travel writer to fetishise backwardness We have to forgive him for that because he writes it all so beauitifullyAt the same hour, in that same dying light, cattle were coming home from Kiev, say, to Split, from my Rozpucie to Skopje, and the same in Stara Zagora Scenery and architecture may change, and the breed, and the curve of horn or the colour of mane, but the picture remains untouched between two rows of houses moved a herd sated cattle They were accompanied by women in kerchiefs and worn boots, or by children No isolated island of industrialization, no sleepless metropolis, no spiderweb of roads or railroad lines, could block out this image as old as the world The human joined with the bestial to wait out the night togetherOn the Road to Babadag is a lyrical journey through the provinces of Europe and through its subconscious To Stasiuk that Europe is all that there is, that s the centre of his universe, it s where the heart of Europe beats Thanks to that we are spared witty jibes and superfluous comparisons between East and West I would like to be buried in all those places where I ve been before and will be again My head among the green hills of Zempl n, my heart somewhere in Transylvania, my right hand in Chornohora, my left in Spi sk Bel , my sight in Bukovina, my sense of smell in R inari, my thoughts perhaps in this neighborhood This is how I imagine the night when the current roars in the dark and the thaw wipes away the white stains of snow This is the colorful, often poetic prose of a seasoned travele I would like to be buried in all those places where I ve been before and will be again My head among the green hills of Zempl n, my heart somewhere in Transylvania, my right hand in Chornohora, my left in Spi sk Bel , my sight in Bukovina, my sense of smell in R inari, my thoughts perhaps in this neighborhood This is how I imagine the night when the current roars in the dark and the thaw wipes away the white stains of snow This is the colorful, often poetic prose of a seasoned traveler who loves to bypass the tourist hype and seek the unknown Busses, trucks, trains and walking, take him on thethan 200 trips into the countries of his soul In a bleak landscape filled with debris of war and wasteland, he finds the colorful people in their picturesque environment, writing the history of the geographical wonderland he comes across Different languages reside next to each other,and in between Russian is still a nostalgic remnant of a recent past Horse carts with number plates share roads with rustic old cars The people are as ignorant of happiness as they are of the future.I tried to follow the author by Googling his route, which resulted in a longer read than actually planned It nevertheless opened a world to me that was previously just a blur of possibilities, initiatated by images portrayed in travel programs and limited information provided in news programs We are spurred by the desire to return to the world of dreams, which relieves us of our freedom of will and gives in its place the freedom, absolute, of the unexpected This happens in places rarely touched by the traveler s eye Observation irons out objects and landscapes Destruction and decline follow The world gets used up, like an old abraded map, from being seen too muchThe old looks bedraggled, cast off, impotent the new struts and challenges, wanting to overcome both the shame of the past and the fear of the future Everything is temporary, ad hoc, a verb whose action is never completedClearly I am drawn to decline, decay, to everything that is not as it could or should be Whatever stops in half stride because it lacks the strength or will or imagination to continue Whatever gives in, gives up, does not last, and leaves no trace Whatever in its passing stirs no regret or reminiscence The present imperfect Histories that live no longer than the relating of them, objects that are only when someone regards them This is what haunts me this extra being that everyone can do without, this superfluity that is not wealth, this hiddenness that no one explores, secrets that, ignored, are lost forever, memory that consumes itself The Balkan States of Eastern Europe are the author s playground, which he visits as often as possible The small villages on the map disappears as the ink fades, but in reality they also vanish as fast as the political landscape changes That s why I rush to make these trips, why I m so avid for details that will soon vanish and need to be re created out of words Unpronouncable, exotic, names are scattered over his journey Nagyk ll , M t szalka, Nagyk ll , G nc , Kamenice, Vidice, Selenice, Borove, Chi in uNobody believes in tomorrow The here and now simply do not show any signs that it will be different from yesterday In the square, an air of indifferent symbiosis Everyone was connected by a time that had to be waited through Seconds and minutes grew, swelled, and burst open, but there was nothing inside The book is a confusing read if you try to track his route The author recalls his past experiences of places when he visited them in different seasons, some of them many years previously and that confuses the reader a bit.Yet, his memories are colorful, often satirical and generously covered by irony He shares his philosophies and anecdotes and although he finds little reason for optimism he is still infatuated with a region that he deeply loves He does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, and does not try to hide his observations of the villages he visits Parody and delirium One must be born in Hu i to smell the poison of melancholy that eats into mind and soul One must be born in Hu i, where even the crows turn back, to grasp this dream of glory of the native land, to understand this nightmareSo that was Chi in u I spent many hours under an umbrella in Green Hills Nistru on the Boulevard of Stephen the Great and Holy, at the corner of Eminescu In the pub sat ainternational gathering, speaking in English and German Probably office workers who had chosen to throw away their European and American money in this particular spot Besides them was the growing Moldovan middle class, the men wearing gold, sporting sunglasses, in the common style that combines hood, pimp, and gigolo, the women like the women you see on television, practically all with cell phones on silver chains around their necks It is not an exciting, fast paced read, but it sure is entertaining Apart from having proper guide books visiting these areas, a book like this one, will relieve the boredom of long train rides or futile hours waiting at a border crossing It might even make you smile But just reading the book on its own merit guarantees a refreshing look on a world we hardly know I certainly enjoyed this introduction by this author to his region, where ancient cultures, hundreds of years old, still prevailed, where man and beast never lost their bond, and an industrial revolution ended in rust heaps as man made as its dark history At times it was too much, but most of the time I was amazed

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