2 – Ukraine. In search of barbarians
“What are you transporting?” a Moldovan customs officer asked me at the border in Giurgiulești.“Nothing,” I replied honestly. “What’s the purpose of your trip then?” the officer said, rolling his eyes slyly as he uttered these unpleasant words. As I could not provide an answer, the public servant began to examine my documents. The border was empty and completely desolate. There was only an indolent dog basking in the sun on the cracked asphalt. Having realised that I was not a local, not from Odesa, the customs official began looking at my papers more meticulously. At one point, he took out something that looked like a pocket microscope and assiduously examined the hologram on the registration certificate of my car.
Diverse multitude of nationalities
I headed for Constanta (the real Tomis) in Romania, which used to be surrounded by barbarians from all sides, except the sea. The next point on my trip took me in the western direction. I got into my car and headed to Balchik, a little town on the Bulgarian coastline of the Black Sea. For me, Balchik was love at first sight, especially since I saw dozens of pictures of its suburbs in the Romanian National Museum in Bucharest. During the interwar period, Balchik belonged to Romania. The Queen of Romania built a palace there and planted a gorgeous garden in order to host her visitors – many of whom were the best Romanian artists of that time.
- Another good reason to go to Balchik is the opportunity to see the city of Ruse, where the Nobel Prize winner Elias Сanetti was born and raised. The very fact of his birth in this place means that the lowland of the Danube was a diverse multitude of nationalities and cultures – it was also the case during Ovid’s time.
- Canetti grew up in such a climate and, in fact, that region still looks mostly the same now. But what a pleasure it was to read Canetti’s memoir, where he described his colourful childhood in the city near the Danube and to imagine how only 100 years ago, here on the border between Romania and Bulgaria, that a child whose first mother tongue was Spanish (because the poet was the Sephardic Jew) was growing up.
- Many years later, he also picked up different words from Bulgarian and Romanian languages as well as Romani dialects. Canetti was born here, this is his native land and, probably, this is the main reason why he depicts his childhood with such warmth and tenderness. The other is a magnet for him, which attracts and stimulates interest. As for Ovid, the Other, by contrast, was a bloodthirsty barbarian, dangerous and primitive.
- The poet is a newcomer, a stranger here. I wonder how Ovid would describe the Danube lowlands if he were born there. How would he perceive the Romans in such a case? Perhaps as barbarians, invaders, murderers and oppressors? Or maybe noble colonisers or culture bearers, who are expanding the boundaries of western civilisation? As I drove to Balchik, those thoughts lingered in my mind.
There are two mosques in the town. Out of curiosity, I asked a local resident what the demographics were here. Apparently, he did not like my question. At first he tried to explain that all people here are Bulgarians and Orthodox Christians.
The mosques were allegedly a simple historical misunderstanding. When I repeated my question, though, my companion confessed that one of the mosques was still currently used for prayer, even though there are only a few Turks still living in the town. The cornerstone of the local Muslim community is the Romani people who, to his mind, erroneously consider themselves to be Turks or their descendants. He had to force himself, when talking about the Romanis, not to show his disgust. I noted to myself that I was lucky to meet such people like Ovid: first there was a fisherman in Ovidiopol and now this expert on Turkish ethnogenesis. All of them were just like the great Roman poet of his time: blaming the Other and slandering the surrounding people.
Wasting no more time I headed on to Constanta, approaching it from the north. I drove out onto the motorway, trying not to miss any detail of the view outside my car window. I spent so much time reading Ovid and about him that I felt like a barbarian attacking the city. Now I understand that it was some kind of mania – Ovidomania. It was cold that day in Constanta and I began recalling quotes from Ovid’s Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, attempting to make the trip through the contemporary city via ancient guides. Thanks to the local authorities of Constanta, who apparently forgot about the historical city centre, it was not too difficult to imagine that I was in some deserted ancient harbour, probably immediately after a barbarian attack. All I could see apart from the old casino which, in my imagination, appeared as a villa of the Roman governor, were stray dogs.
What was I looking for on my journey? Regarding Ovid, it was traces of his stay and – to be completely frank – his grave. Since childhood I have known that Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient city of Troy having patiently read Homer’s Iliad. Thus, I also dared to assume that I could discover Ovid’s grave by reading his works written in exile.
There was only one spot left in my journey – a small town called Ovidiu, located ten kilometres east of Constanta. One can hardly find something interesting in the town, but as you drive outside it you can find Siutghiol Lake, separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land. Just like in childhood fairy tales, there is something in the middle of this lake and within this “something” another mystery is found. This tiny island, amidst the lake near Constanta, is called Ovidiu by the locals. There is even a legend that the poet was buried in this special place (which sounds quite realistic).
It turns out that the barbarians had taken care of Ovid, as they would a king. Not only did they accept him, they also exempted him from taxes, honoured him with a laurel wreath and buried him in a special place with all the pageantries.Why did Ovid write so many unpleasant things aboutthose who were so hospitable to him? No doubt, he wanted to paint a simple black and white picture to make his readers feel sorry for him, and to make an impression on the cultural public in Rome with the terrible conditions of the place he was sent.
The island of Ovidiu is truly very small. There, I encountered a big yard overgrown with old trees, where a small, cosy restaurant is hidden away. I parked my car and took the boat which takes visitors to the restaurant – in the direction of the last destination of my trip. In the same way, the barbarians would have delivered Ovid on the boat to the last point of his journey. Having wandered around the island and found nothing of note, I took a seat on the restaurant terrace and ordered a drink.
It was beautiful, but a little bit sad; as is always the case when you achieve something you have been dreaming about for a long time. A waitress pulled me away from my reflections, as she suddenly came to me from behind and started speaking an unknown and, therefore, barbaric language that might have been Romanian. I might have looked embarrassed as she switched to English in a minute. As she was gabbling about what was on the menu, I thought to myself that there are two definitions of the word “barbarian”: first, it is a representative of another culture, those who speak a different language; second, it is a nomad, considered to be wild by civilised people. In my journey, I fit both definitions.
The concept of “barbarian”, which has been so skilfully developed by Ovid, still fits appropriately in Eastern Europe. After all, barbarians carry out a number of important roles. First, the existence of the barbarians on the opposite side of the border helps communities understand that they are “better”, “more developed” and “more civilised”. John Drinkwater points out that the existence of barbarians is also useful for the elite. The government needs to use myths to justify high taxes and maintain a well-paid army to defend against a barbarian threat. And, moreover, the emperor himself can receive dividends from the actual or fictitious existence of “barbarians”: he can position himself as a great defender of the people, a leader that protects civilisation from primitive, dirty and aggressive tribes.
Does this sound familiar? There are a multitude of abusive jokes about Moldovans: we, Ukrainians, found our barbarians in them, for we look more developed in comparison to them. The Slovaks think the same about the Hungarians, saying they are not even European, but wild nomads from Asia. Building a wall to stop the Syrian refugees, ViktorOrbán, the Hungarian prime minister, is also building his image as a defender of his own motherland from the barbarians. It appeared that the voters can forget about the economic recession and corruption if they are frightened with an image of barbarians, lying in ambush on the opposite side of the border.
“Do you have anything connected with Ovid on the menu?” I asked the smooth-tongued waitress.
“Sure, we have barbarian-style baked meat,” she replied with a smile.
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