Friday, September 20, 2013

Final Destination

From Budapest I took a train (where I met some very nice Brits, Americans, Poles and a Check guy) to Belgrade where I hooked up with my interpreter – Sunitsa and the three friends that she selected for our conversation and recording session.  That went swimmingly and despite my limited knowledge of Serbian I feel that I got great material for my project.  I also met this man – who immediately knew I was Russian by the way I was speaking Serbian with him, gave an impromptu interview and called me his Brother (it’s a Slavic thing).

my brother

After Belgrade I took a bus going backwards up the Danube to Vukovar, Croatia.  The border crossing was very tense and one young man was retained at the crossing probably for interrogation.  Before coming I contacted an American psychiatrist Charles David Tauber, M.D. who runs a small non-profit Coalition for work with Psychotrauma and Peace in Vukovar working with all comers and dealing with issues of post war narrative. His brilliant post on this subject can be found here


Charles was extremely generous with his time and gave me a comprehensive tour of the City that was almost completely destroyed in the Battle of Vukovar and is still in recovery as is evidenced by many buildings in ruins.  I did several short interviews in Vukovar and obtained a glimpse into the madness of ethnic cleansing that went on in this town.

From Vukovar I took a bus to Belgrade and then Sofia, Bulgaria and finally to Oryahovo, to stay at the Gallery Savchevi International Residency. 
This was my second stay at the residency and again I was taken by how familial and informal it is.  Artists stay in a modest house on a hill overlooking the Danube and Romania on the far bank, make their work and spend lots of time doing short day trips and long evenings of conversation, with Rakia, great wine and Bulgarian food for fuel. This time the group consisted of Bulgarians, Serbs a Ukranian and me as the lone American. 

Oryahovo residency 

In Oryahovo I met a group of American artists traveling down the Danube with the Schooner Hippo as part of a very interesting collaborative art project that Clemens, the captain of the schooner initiated and I could not resist going along for the ride. Clemens grew up on this boat built by his father when he was a child. We traveled from Oryahovo to Nicopol the next day and enjoyed conversation and swimming in the river.

Clemens, Shane and Jason on the Schooner Hippo

Upon return to Oryahovo I continued to prepare for our residency show, that fell at the beginning of the festival celebrating Diko Iliev, a famous Bulgarian composer.  The festival had everything from singers and dancers from Romania and Bulgaria, art shows, amusements and fireworks.  I spent a few exhilarating days in celebration enjoying friends and attractions.  

ride attendant

at the festival

Roma dancers

I hope to come back to this area next summer to continue working on the Mother Tongue project.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

By boat, train and foot.

I started out from Donaueschingen on a bike and rode about 60 kilometers a day in sweltering heat, periodically jumping in the river to cool off.  I stayed in Beuron (a pretty mountain village) and Riedlingen. 

This boy followed me for a couple of kilometers and happily gave me an interview when I finally saw he was still keeping up. At this point in Germany the river has no boat traffic and just as you think it is wide and deep enough it is dammed up and what comes out on the other end of the dam is usually a trickle.

After three days of riding I arrive at Ulm, a pretty medieval town with painted buildings.

This building represents a famous Ulm box – a boat in which merchants in the middle ages traveled as far downriver as Belgrade.  Later, impoverished Schwabisch peasants traveled down the Danube to populate parts of Hungary and Ukraine. 

At Passau the Danube is joined by the Inn and the Ilz. This summer Passau had a record flood as a result of the rivers swelling from heavy rains. The top of the brown band on this former armory tower is how far the Inn flooded the city after traveling from the Austrian Alps. Finally traveling by boat I leave Passau at the confluence of the three rivers.

In Austria the river traffic is filled with barges and cruise ships. 

We continually see castles and encounter the first locks.

Arriving in Linz (where Hitler spent his childhood and intended to retire) I am taken by how diverse the population is. People of every ethnicity hang out together less than 70 years since the fall of the Nazi regime

We come to Mauthausen  - a picturesque Austrian village on the Danube that housed the Nazi Labor camp where Russian POW's, Jews, Roma and other enemies of the Nazi state quarried granite.

Having traveled almost half the river length I arrive in Vienna at the end of the German-speaking world where I see the first Soviet built hydrofoil from Bratislava, Slovakia. 

Vienna is at once imperial and radical with classical Austro-Hungarian Empire buildings lining the Danube canal while great graffiti covers it’s walls.      

An hour from Vienna on the hydrofoil and I'm finally in the Slavic world – Bratislava, Slovakia.  I hear the language and it sounds like Russian, but I can't quite understand it.  Still, sounds familiar.
This sign in Czech is written on the bridge in Bratislava.
A loose translation is: Much more than my verse you are reading, but a mirror which inspects all. 

I met this art student/street artist spraying stencils for tourists in old town Bratislava.  His friend who was taking pictures of him was happy to do an interview for me in Slovak.

On to Budapest, Hungary.  The city is an exotic mix of Post-Communist abandonment and squalor and incredible Habsburg architecture that screams of well healed imperial power and dominance. 

This man, Miklos gave me a Hungarian history and language lesson along with an interview. He is one of the founders of the language school - Fungarian.

The Hungarians managed to hold on to their language after coming from the Ural Mountain region of present day Russia and settling in modern day Hungary in the 10th century. It is a beautiful sing song language that no one in Europe can understand because it has neither latin nor slavic routes.
Agglutination  - a kind of gluing words to one another to form new words makes some Hungarian words more like whole English sentences. 
Mobil+oz+tram  means I called some people on my mobile phone. 

I am off to Belgrade on the train and visiting Vukovar in Croatia after that before going to Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mother Tongue Kick Off

Dear friends,

Thanks to many of you I kicked off the production of Mother Tongue two days ago. I arrived in Donaueschingen, Germany on Thursday, July 18 and was fortunate to find a great hotel and a bike shop within a half an hour.  I rented a bike in order to explore the town with the intention of finding the source of the Danube, but it seems this act thrust me into the middle of a controversy as to where the Danube actually begins.

There is the storied memorial of the Donauquelle – the spring of the Danube, (currently under reconstruction) that is situated in the gardens of the palace of the Furstenberg’s (local aristocrats) and lays claims to pilgrimage by the Roman Emperor Tiberius in 15 BCE and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in 1499 along with many other celebrities. The Furstenberg’s elevated the story of the Donauquelle as the true source to the status of legend and representatives of many nations on the Danube have placed reverential plaques on this site.

Donauquelle under reconstruction and sans the statue and plaques
The construction sign at Donauquelle

Legends aside, the more moderate cartographers have placed the source of the Danube at the confluence of the Breg and Brigach rivers about a mile away.  Here I found two tipsy locals drinking Furstenberg beer (since 1283) on a bench by a statue of a woman and child.  The woman represents the Barr – the local landscape that gave birth to the Danube and the Child of course is the fledgling river. 
The tipsy guys were happy to be interviewed and spoke haltingly in German about the river.  My disadvantage is a lack of fluency in German, so I will need to translate the interview in post- production.

Beer at the Breg, Brigach and Danube
The mother - Barr, and child - Donau

I find the people extremely friendly and have had success getting answers to my questions.  I ask people to respond in their mother tongue to Key Words that I present to them.

The words are:
1. Danube
2. Usually these words are the names of the two countries above and below the Danube of the country I am in.  In Germany, at the source of the river it is only one word: Austria.
In Austria the words will be Germany and Slovakia.
3. Borders
4. The possibility of no borders

I met a group of guys playing beach volleyball and one of them, Peter, took me in his car about 20 miles to the Black Forest where yet another contender for the source of the Danube resides at the small town of Furtwangen at the source of the river Breg. Here at an altitude of about 1000 meters above sea level in the beautiful Black Forest you will find multiple plaques at the spring of the Breg claiming the spot as the beginning of the Danube. Near the spring is also the dividing line between the watershed of the Danube and the Rhine.

Peter at the source of the Breg

The confluence of Breg and Brigach with Danube on bottom right
These murky beginnings point to how the landscape is washed in our wishes.

I’m taking a 3 day bike ride to the city of Ulm (about 150 kilometers north east) tomorrow morning as the Danube is not navigable at this point.

I will continue to blog every several days as I acquire material.


Note: Much of the historic background I am getting from Andrew Beattie's The Danube - A cultural History, a worthy read.