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In this week’s edition of Good Reads, E&M's Frances Jackson shares a few online titbits that caught her eye over the last few weeks: prepare yourselves for a whistle-stop tour of current European hotspots, both culinary and cultural.
Frances, Diaphragm / Baby editor
FORGOTTEN EUROPE, BRIEFLY REMEMBERED
This is not only my first Good Reads of the year, but also my first as a magazine rather than blog editor. I suspect that the festive season is still preying on my mind though, because I am very much in the mood to indulge myself and shall be shamelessly tailoring these picks to my own personal whims and interests. Some readers might recall that I have previously used these pages to argue that Western media outlets suffer from a chronic lack of interest when it comes to Albania. In general I stand by this point, but I was at least pleasantly surprised to see the country getting a couple of mentions in recent days.
The first, which even spent a little while trending on the website of the Independent, was connected to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s decision to arrange three coloured pencils like Le Tricolore in his lapel pocket for the Charlie Hébdo demonstration last Sunday. The author is right to highlight the fact that Rama is himself an artist, yet I do feel that he misses a couple of other important points. Namely that the politician used to live in Paris, and, perhaps even more significantly, is now leader of a European country that – however secular it may be – does have a Muslim majority.
My other discovery was a travel piece about the mallësori, a mountain community in the far reaches of northern Albania. Amongst the sweeping and evocative descriptions of life in the mountains, there are perhaps hints of the strain of orientalism identified by Larry Wolff in Inventing Eastern Europe, but for the most part, I found the author to be fairly even-handed in his judgement. In fact, for me, the main effect of the article was simply to unleash a certain nostalgia for the country that I called home for a few months back in 2013. All I can say is read it, and go there. Seriously. Albania is a wonderful place that does not deserve the oft-unsavoury reputation it has acquired.
|Photo: Ivan Bandura; Licence: CC BY 2.0
This Christmas tree was going to be put up on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence square) during the wave of
demonstrations in Kyiv back in December 2013
This round, E&M author Ana Maria Ducuta, a Romanian student, takes up the challenge and enriches our little series on Christmas traditions by looking at what happens in Poland and Ukraine. Between animals that may speak with human voices if they eat a traditional dish and weather forecasts that influence people's future, the two countries definitely have interesting traditions to read about.
In Ukraine Christmas is celebrated on the 7 of January. The country, in fact, follows the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one. Although during the Soviet Union Christmas was not officially celebrated there, after gaining independence in 1991 Ukraine started to celebrate it once again. Now the period between 7 and 14 January is a festive week and many Ukrainian Christmas traditions, which are actually based on pre-Christian pagan customs, take place within that period. But Ukrainian Christmas rituals are also dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family and to the remembrance of ancestors.
|Photo: Danielle Harms; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Old ladies singing carols at Budapest's Christmas market
In the run-up to the winter holidays, E&M's little series about Christmas traditions in Europe continues. This time around, Ana Maria Ducuta takes us inside traditions in Hungary and her mother country Romania, where the Christmas period actually starts in mid-November.
Christmas. The magical word that brings so much profit to merchandisers and supermarkets, making people so eager to buy and spend their money on useless things who somehow compensate for all the bad things that happened throughout the year. The new consumerist dimension of Christmas has basically drowned out its magical meaning and emotional attachment, making it a celebration of irrational spending. But for centuries, Christmas traditions were not only a way of carrying and conveying a message through generations, but also a moment of introspection and the chance to step into an alternative universe, where we find our identity in the customs and traditions of our ancestors. After all, it's all about understanding people's souls. And that is what traditions do: they carry a little piece of soul and identity across time. Christmas traditions are different across Eastern Europe, but they all carry a very important meaning that should remind us that each Christmas could be a re-birth and a new beginning, if only we’d take the chance to search for and find ourselves. In the former Eastern bloc, Christmas was not celebrated during the communist period which lasted until early 1990s (1989-1992) but after democracy was restored restored, Christmas traditions regained their place and importance. Let's take a look at what happens in Romania and Hungary.
Christmas is a magical time everywhere in the world and Hungary is no exception. Hungarian Christmas starts with the celebration of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas. Meanwhile, front yards and tables are decorated with advent wreaths with four candles. Every Sunday before Christmas, one more candle is lit until the last one, which is lit on Christmas Eve, the most important evening in Hungarian Christmas traditions.
Fifteen countries, around 50 young people and a fairytale town high up in the mountains – what do young people from Southeastern Europe gossip, worry and dream about?
The small town of Krusevo, the highest town in Macedonia and on the Balkans, hosts the 11th edition of the annual International Youth Conference "European values for the future of the South Eastern European countries". Curious and enthusiastic, the young participants enjoyed the crisp mountain air while sharing opinions and good practices on youth activism and European integration for five days this September.
After ten rounds of negotiations and near failure, Serbia and Kosovo have agreed a pact that opens up the path for Serbia's languishing EU accession. The constellation of events that led to the announcement of the pact on April 19th, including discussions with Russia, has brought this historic agreement about. Yet, while the ground has been laid for Serbia, it is only the first of many steps on the path towards EU membership.
The clear political stumbling block between Serbia and the European Union is the recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty. Having accepted changes in the governing of northern Kosovo, most notably giving the "Association/Community" "full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning", Serbia is not close to making a full recognition.
A historical agreement with limitations
The signing of a 15 point agreement between Serbia and Kosovo constitutes a major success for High Representative Catherine Ashton, both for the stability in the Balkans region and unlocking the potential for Serbia and Kosovo's entry into the EU. The two parties, torn apart in Kosovo's war of independence in 2008, have reached an accord that recognises Kosovo's right to be governed by local independent statue, whilst giving Serbs in northern Kosovo their own police force and appeals court. However, far from being the end of the story, the agreement has created the space for normalisation to emerge, rather than sealed the relations between the two states.
The European Theatre Convention’s (ETC) first ever Spring Tour is in full bloom across the continent. For seven days, a caravan of five young artists, several journalists and ETC members are travelling east to west and north to south in a tour bus, aiming to examine the role of theatre in a time of uncertainty and crisis in Europe. Day one in lovely Stuttgart is already over and opened up discussions on the role of politics in supporting the arts and on theatre as a tool for promoting debate and change in society. E&M will keep you up to date with all the talks, productions and interesting people met along the way.
First stop: Staatstheater Stuttgart, the largest triple branch theatre in Europe. Housed in two buildings dating back in the early 1900s, it hosts opera, ballet and theatre. Our tour guide was dramaturge Christian Holtzhauer, who showed everyone around the impressive performance halls, the busy backstage and the painting rooms where the sets are put together. The theatre is not only a centrepiece of German architecture – it holds six Opera of the Year awards from the magazine Opernwelt and won Theatre of the Year 2006. Its role is heightened by its directors’ involvement in social and political debates, which are an important focus of the city of Stuttgart and its citizens.
Imagine travelling across Europe for one month by train to talk to people, and find out young people’s vision of Europe. It's not as impossible as it sounds. Last December six people travelled the old continent to meet students and young people and discuss their thoughts on the future of Europe, on topics such as politics, education and sustainability. The project Europe on Track was created by AEGEE-Europe (European Students' Forum) and sent out two teams of young people (the Red Team and the Blue team) to travel over 9000km in 27 days. The Red Team was travelling mostly through Western Europe, while the Blue Team was travelling towards the East all the way from Brussels to Istanbul. E&M interviewed Mathieu Soete, member of the Blue Team and experienced youth activist in AEGEE, to get an insider view of this adventure.
|Photo: AEGEE Europe|
|Mathieu Soete, 26, tells us about his adventure|
E&M: Mathieu, what motivated you to spend one month travelling across Europe by train?
MS: There are a lot of moments where you can talk with people in certain environments like the one that exists in a European youth organisation such as AEGEE, but there's never enough time and you're always in a sort of "European bubble", where you don't meet with people in their own realities. You get to learn much more about people when you go out to meet them. This project had two aspects: travelling and discussing. For me it was not the travelling that attracted me, it was not to see that part of Europe that I decided to go to, but it was because I thought with my prior experience I really had an idea of the topics discussed and could get into some great discussions. Visiting people, finding people, and giving them the opportunity to talk, not only to us but to everyone who is listening – this was my main motivation.
E&M: What was the main idea behind the Europe on Track project? And by the end of it all, do you feel that you've reached your goal?
MS: The main idea of the project was to link young people in Europe with European policy-makers in Brussels, to give them the possibility to speak up and reach "Brussels". We'll see how many policy-makers we can reach in the end. There is a real need for them to get to know the opinions of young people, more than they can learn from surveys or opinion polls. In that respect we have succeeded in collecting a good number of stories of people on their experience with (non-formal) education, politics and sustainability, what is working, what is not working. What I really wanted to do was to go ahead with an open mind and gather the real impressions of people, not just steer them towards what we already believe in, but rather record what people are really thinking. I think we've managed to do this.
Slavoj Zizek’s new film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (official website), is meant to be a wake-up call, not a propaganda film. While most things we see on the big screens are idealised, romanticised, stereotypical versions of reality (and especially of morality), the "big problems" eat away at us because public opinion avoids tackling them. This is especially true for Eastern Europe, where years of dictatorial regimes taught the population to not ask too many questions and less than 25 years of democracy haven’t yet produced a particularly opinionated generation. In several short scenes, Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, film-maker and the protagonist of the movie, uses examples from film, music, history and current events to discuss various ideologies.
One of the fascinating points Zizek makes in the film is how the financial crisis became a source of violent outbursts and protest movements across Europe. He believes Europe no longer faces "an accident", something that can be fixed, but rather is undergoing a structural phenomenon. Crisis has become a way of life, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer until the poor act out. What these protests lack, though he says, is a coherent agenda. Putting it this way, most of the manifestations of protest in Europe, including the Eastern countries, have been nothing but rage episodes or wannabe-copies of what a public manifestation should look like.
And Zizek may have a point. In May 2010, one of the biggest Romanian protests of the past decade took place in Bucharest. Over 30,000 people protested against the Emil Boc government and the austerity measures he had implemented. Far from touching on any violent frustration, the protest turned into what will be remembered as one of the largest-scale dance parties in Eastern Europe. People performed carefully synchronised choreographies on a well-known Romanian party-classic: the Penguin Dance. It’s on YouTube. And thus the grand reason why everyone gathered was forgotten. As Zizek would say, it started out from a spirit of revolt, but wasn’t followed by an actual revolution.
Ties stronger than Realpolitik? That's the question that followed me during the whole Visegrad Summer School (VSS) which ended in Kraków a few weeks ago. Throughout no less than 25 lectures and 6 workshops that concerned tough political issues, as well as subjects like cultural modernisation, urban art and eco-design, this was an issue which I simply could not put aside.
Discussing a common European interest, European identity and the emergence of a European public sphere is always a nice intellectual Erasmus pastime or at least a good occasion to show off your erudite complaints about the current European rulers. Those politicians who have no idea about the transnational agenda, etc. It's sad but true - the relevance of those discussions still seems to be safely speculative.
Nevertheless, in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE) such considerations aren't just hypothetical disputes. Not only because we, the Easterners, Central-Easterners, post-Mitteleuropeans may feel some strange phenomenon of community but also because without asserting some "Central-Eastern European solidarity" we are simply lost.
A few days ago I finally finished reading The Native Realm. A great book by Czesław Miłosz that is highly-recommended for anyone who claims to be European. "The native Europe" (which seems to be a more accurate translation) is a fascinating memoir and an intellectual walk along the meandering European paths of the 20th century. But this is not going to be a glorifying review of a brilliant book - although I do encourage you to read it. I'm referring to Miłosz for a rather less optimistic reason.
Last week European public opinion was once again bewildered by Geert Wilders (we all know this flamboyant platinum blond "statesman"). This time his Party for Freedom (PVV) launched a website where Dutch people can file complaints against immigrants from "Middle and Eastern European countries." The complaints are going to be presented to the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment.
Once you've entered the site and recovered your eyesight after being dazzled by Wilders's shining mane, you'll see giant headlines from Dutch newspapers: "Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians – increasingly criminal," "Eastern European gangs in villages" or "Problems with Poles" and a story about some supermarket with misspelled Polish names (of course). The text underneath is even better. "The massive labour migration leads to many problems, nuisances, pollution [sic!], displacements and housing problems (…) Have you ever lost a job to a Pole, Bulgarian, Romanian or other Eastern European? Do you have problems with Eastern Europeans? We'd like to hear."