Border- a journey to the edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

The border area west of the Black Sea between Bulgaria, where the author Kapka Kassabova grew up under a communist regime, with Turkey and Greece to the south, is a mystery to most people. Situated on the edge of Europe, it has been fated to lie on the edge of a succession of empires: Greek, Ottoman and Soviet, suffering continual invasion and domination, with enforced transfers of Greeks into Turkey and vice versa, now replaced by the stream of refugees from ravaged areas like Syria, trying to reach Germany or the UK by a backdoor remote mountainous route. Since her own family was forced out as economic migrants, I think during the messy collapse of communism, travelling as far afield as New Zealand, she displays a strong empathy for migrants of all kinds.
As a child, the author resented the restrictions which prevented her from crossing the border near her Black Sea holiday resort into nearby Turkey. She was intrigued by the East Germans known by the locals as “sandals”, who crept off into the forested granite hills of Strandja in the hope of finding a way round the electrified barbed wire border fence, only to be betrayed by shepherds or shot by border guards.

Thirty years later, nostalgia for the countryside brought her back, to stay in a succession of places, starting with the “The Village in the Valley”, presumably unnamed to preserve people’s privacy, now decimated by the mass population exit “in the brutal freefall of 1990s post-Communism”, completing the effects of an earlier flight of Greek-speaking people in exchange for Bulgarian refugees from Turkey in what the author calls “the merry-go-round of exchange of population”. Although this is fascinating, I was frequently left unclear about the sequence of events.

The lack of clarity, combined with frequent digression into anecdotes and folktales, and a picaresque map which omits most place-names to focus on specific features of her stories such as “The Spring of the White-Legged Maiden” or “Felix’s Cliff”, create an avoidable confusion which is my main criticism of the book.

The compensation, is the creation of a kind of magical, haunting quality in which we learn say, about “agiasma”, Greek for the holy springs, at one of which the author was taken to watch the fire-walkers, still keeping alive the tradition of fire worship.

Sometimes the supernatural “goes over the top” for my taste, as in the convoluted tale of the “Tomb of Basket”, the excavation of which was thwarted by terrifying night-time visions of “three-dimensional spectral projections” coming out of the rock to approach the terrified observers “who got the hell out of there”.

More prosaic is the anecdote of the Turkish “chesma” or roadside fountain where she meets a shady character, whom she realises too late must have developed his secluded rural “gangster-baroque” hideaway on the proceeds of spying and wheeler-dealing for the former Stasi-like State Security.

I was intrigued by the C6 rock monastery of Saint Nicholas, protected from further vandalism by a self-appointed, unpaid guard who turns out to be not only a despised gypsy but a Muslim, who observes, “Church or mosque, it’s all the same. A place of God and silence. You have to treat it with respect”. We are reminded that the reason for persecuting the gypsies over the centuries was that, in roaming around with their horses, they avoided paying tax. Hence the failed decree to ban gypsy acrobats from having horses.

Then there was her stay in “The Village where you lived for ever” in the Rhodope Mountains inhabited by the Pomaks. Descendants of long-ago converts to Islam and therefore persecuted as a kind of “fifth column” in Bulgaria, despite their Slavic or ethnic Bulgar origin, at various times having both Christianity and name changes forced upon them. Near here is “The Judgement” border cliff from which “inconvenient people have been pushed into the mist since the beginning of people”. I was moved by the tale of the Czechs trying to escape from Communism who left some money for the lunch they stole from a shepherd. His dilemma was whether to turn a blind eye and risk being punished for failing a test of his loyalty, or to report the theft and be commended. Having chosen the latter, he was haunted for the rest of a life. Or did the Czechs arrive in Greece safely, if hungry?
Kapka Kassabova has an appealing honesty, even if sometimes verging on neurosis. When it was time to move on from “the Village in the Valley” she writes: “I had worried that I was at heart a deracinated, drifting person, despite my delusion or being at home everywhere. That although I no longer belonged here, in the broken country of my youth, it was where I secretly belonged the most. That I fancied myself as an observer, but even after twenty years away, I was still a participant and always would be. That I had no distance from anything and cared too much about the doomed. That the Village in the Valley felt like paradise but might be purgatory. That I couldn’t tell the difference. That I felt tainted , yet full of love for this plundered place”.

In selecting points for this review, I appreciate once again the book’s strong sense of place and social history. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that, if inspired to visit this area, we would lack the knowledge and access to local guides to experience it as the author has. Also, how long can its character survive as people die out in the “villages of dingy, inscrutable beauty” while the current Turkish regime attacks the southern slopes of Strandja “like a wrecking ball” with gigantic quarries and cement works, and a coastal nuclear plant, all in the name of progress.

In a time of monsters – Travels through a Middle East in Revolt by Emma Sky

Encouraged to read this by Emma Sky’s sharp analysis in BBC radio interviews of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, I realised too late that to find out more about her role as political advisor to the American commander General Ray Odierno in its aftermath, enabling her to give damning evidence at the Chilcot Enquiry, I should have started with her book “The Unravelling”.

“In a Time of Monsters” proves as is often the case with travel books to be very anecdotal and episodic, often revealing some telling insights through a chance encounter, but also frustrating, even confusing at times, in what it omits or glosses over. The background history of the Shias versus Sunni is a little too fragmented, while the explanation of the Caliphates from the death of Mohammed up to the recent attempts of Daesh to create a single Islamic state probably comes too late in the book, some two-thirds of the way through.

“Bored, bitter and twisted”, with an acute sense of anticlimax and loss of purpose after her return to London in 2010, perhaps even a little traumatised by her experience in Iraq as she suggests most westerners are, she resolves to make sense of events by visiting countries affected by the Arab Spring: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kurdistan and so on.

Making use of what seems like an inexhaustible network of obliging high level political contacts prepared to engage in boozy debates, Emma Sky has no difficulty in striking up conversations with strangers prepared to chat at length . Perhaps her childhood as the matron’s daughter at a boys’ boarding school gave her the confidence to act with such ease in “a man’s world” and also to embark on risky, physically tough journeys, solo or with a male guide for the reward of seeing beautiful, remote areas, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Skimming along the river on a jet ski, white-water rafting, swimming into caves to scale waterfalls: sometimes, the socialising and exciting activities, seem too much of a digression from the lives of ordinary Arabs.

It is no surprise that Emma Sky criticises the US for allowing Daesh (or ISIS) to gain a foothold in Iraq in the anger over government corruption and discrimination against Sunnis following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also condemns the failure to take early action against Assad in Syria to force him to negotiate. It is perhaps more of a surprise that she is so harsh on Obama, described as “leading from behind” and being too passive. However, she does not really provide convincing evidence that continued use of direct force by the West would have yielded the desired results without unacceptable levels of bloodshed, not to mention resentment over apparent attempts to dominate . She is also very critical of Iran as a somewhat malign and destabilising force, reaching tentacles even to the borders of Israel, but was perhaps unable to make the visit to the country which would assist a clear and more objective analysis.

There is a logical progression, in that, being in date order, the visits reflect the passage of events, so that by 2014 Emma Sky is at the refugee camp of Zaatari, close to the border in Jordan, which has become the fourth largest city in the country owing to the flood of refugees from Syria. By 2016 she is in Greece and Eastern Europe tracing the destabilising pressure of Arab refugees pushed out by the devastation in parts of the Middle East. She even visits London to suggest, perhaps too simplistically, that the Brexit vote itself was largely the result of concerns over migration triggered partly by the instability of the Middle East.

The Epilogue finds her on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a time of acceptance of her past naïve over-optimism, but clinging to the belief that “this is not a time for cynicism or despair” in the hope that her students will manage to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island Road Trips (Travel Guide) by Lonely Planet,Brett Atkinson,Sarah Bennett,Peter Dragicevich,Lee Slater -Skimpy and limited use as a sole guide

This is my review of Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island Road Trips (Travel Guide) by Lonely Planet,Brett Atkinson,Sarah Bennett,Peter Dragicevich,Lee Slater.

Designed to whet the appetite with plentiful photos in colour and clear maps to provide some easily-grasped “on a plate” itineraries for those who for whatever reason want a trip planned for them, this contrasts with the “usual formula” for “Lonely Planet” guides: tremendously detailed, largely black-and-white with few illustrations, for serious-minded independent travellers who probably already have a plan of where they want to go.

The breezy style is mildly irritating: Queenstown is introduced as “a small town with a big attitude” which “goes for gold with an utterly sublime setting” on Lake Wakatipu, “ripe for rubbernecking, so keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel”. There are some useful street maps (once you get there!) of, for instance Te Anau or Central Nelson, snippets of good advice e.g. on leaving Te Anau by 8.00 to avoid heavy coach traffic to Milford Sound.. Yet the structure seems quite repetitive and therefore wasteful of space: introducing the four road trips, featuring main South Island highlights (Milford Sound, Kaikoura for whale-watching and Queenstown, then main cities, Queenstown again and Christchurch), then outlining each trip, finally covering each one in more detail but still quite skimpy as regards suggested activities and places to stay.

I question the rationale for the choice of road trips:

1. Sunshine Coast 4-7 day circular drive in vicinity of Picton, Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park on north coast

2. Kaikoura Coast 3-4 days linear route between Picton and Christchurch

3. Southern Alps Circuit 12-14 days circular drive from Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass, Fox Glacier, Queenstown with detour to Mount Cook

4. Milford Sound Majesty 3 – 4 days linear return trip from Christchurch via Te Anau to Milford Sound for boat trip

I do not recall reading this in the book, but starting from Christchurch, these four trips could be combined into a grand 4 week tour of the South Island.

I don’t understand why a few more features were not flagged up with a fuller index, and the inclusion of more itineraries e.g. to cover Dunedin and the Catlins Conservation Area in the south, or the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on the west coast.

The guide in general seems over-simplified, fragmented and less informative than it could have been in the space provided.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

“A long journey out of the self”

This is my review of Driving Home: An American Scrapbook: An Emigrants Reflections Pb by Jonathan Raban.

I discovered Jonathan Raban through “Arabia”, confirmed his brilliance in “Bad Land” and read “Driving Home” in the hope of rekindling some of the old magic. This is a collection of essays published in magazines and newspapers in the period 1991-2009, following his decision, as a middle-aged “Brit” to move to Seattle.

For me, Raban is at his best as a travel writer, the observant rolling stone who combines descriptions of landscapes and people met in passing with history, politics and culture to create a vivid sense of place. This is typified by the essay used for the book title, in which Raban drives a round trip from Seattle “a western city built in the wilderness and designed to dazzle” , over the Coastal Range and the Cascades, across various river valleys to the dead level plateau of the Christian Right where it is “a big thing to raise a tree”, since only stunted sagebrush grows there naturally. To give us background, he weaves in anecdotes about the explorers Lewis and Clarke, and introduced me to two neglected literary talents, the poet Roethke and the novelist Bernard Malamud, whose writing captured the spirit of the north-western states.

Raban’s political articles on the aftermath of 9/11, the newly elected Obama and characters like Sarah Palin are entertaining, informative but perhaps not as “striking” as some of his other work since so much has already been written on them by others, plus this material will date quite fast.

His essays on famous literary figures probably require some prior knowledge of their work. For instance, I enjoyed the article on the in many ways rather unpleasant Philip Larkin, and was interested to learn how much he feared death and pleased to be taught to appreciate his poem “Aubade”. However, the piece on William Gaddis left me cold and caused me to begin to skip in search of essays with more immediate appeal.

In the main, Raban can make watching paint dry interesting, but the occasional piece requires too much effort to be worth the trouble. The least successful category seems to me to cover those on a specific theme like “On the waterfront” which appears too much of a contrived exercise in writing.

If these essays were thrown together in a single book to earn a few bucks, I don’t blame Raban. His tendency to write articles based on his daughter, or to name-drop holidays with “the Therouxes” detracts somewhat from his writing.

Despite a few reservations, there are sufficient excellent passages in this book to make it worth reading and keeping on one’s shelf to revisit later.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars