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SAVING A TONNE - Part 2, The Balkans (a journey across Europe to save a tonne of carbon)

Sun, 11/06/2023

SAVING A TONNE - Part 2, The Balkans

From the edge of Europe, my overland journey to Denmark to save a tonne of carbon starts through the Balkans.

Buses from Istanbul to Bulgaria leave from the Central bus station. I was overwhelmed by many bus bays and had to ask a couple of the men, all spruiking journeys, to find the right office. My night bus was having one of its lights repaired as passengers loaded luggage and found their seats before speeding off into the dark, bound for Sofia.

In the middle of the night we stop for border control, clambering sleepily out of our warm seats, queuing to have our passports checked and stamped to leave Turkiye, waiting around, then bussing 200m between borders only to repeat the process to enter Bulgaria.

I have a special connection with Bulgaria. In the 1990's I made the documentary INJE - Lost in Translation for SBS TV about a complex theatre collaboration between performance artists from Bulgaria and Australia, led by Bagryana Popov with Angela Campbell, Eugenie Fragos and David Wicks. INJE, an adaptation of a Bulgarian hero’s tale, was premiered at Barrie Kosky’s famous 1996 Adelaide Festival. Returning to this wonderful country, I stay with one of the young performers from that project, Assia Ivanova, now Associate Professor of Theatre at the New Bulgarian University.

Assia and her husband Iassen, an Associate Professor of Philosophy, share a connection to Australia. He studied wine production in Adelaide and then took a trip of a lifetime on the Ghan to Darwin. He still shares the Kurdaitcha Man story he learnt from Arrente people in the centre of Australia, with his students. He is super clear, when philosophy has such strong European foundations, he wants his students to appreciate there are other world views. I direct him to the Uluru statement from the Heart, Tyson Yunkaporta and other contemporary First Nations authors sharing knowledge and perspectives.

My friends live just outside Sofia with nature all around them. We walk up the hill from the house to collect sweet tasting water from a spring, find edible mushrooms growing in symbiotic marriage with the plentiful chestnut trees, see rosehip bushes and other fruits growing wild along the paths. Assia has a garden growing tomato, figs, strawberries. These are generous hospitable people and its humbling to know I am unlikely to be able to return the favour. Australia is far and travel is expensive. I know how fortunate I am to have travelled so much. We talk about the environmental crisis, the enormity of it, and how the struggles of daily life are distracting and easier to tackle. Like so many of my friends, they try to make positive changes but see little hope in their politicians. Bulgaria hasn’t been able to form a Parliament for 6 months with the President as caretaker. There will be more EU edicts to help address ongoing crisis but from this part of Europe, they also see contradictory actions in countries like Germany and France, that keep the EU firmly invested in unsustainable practices. They won't eat the shellfish from the Black Sea this summer, due to microplastics. They worry for their kids.

Visiting central Sofia, we go to Toplocentrala, the new contemporary performing arts centre, dreamed by a collective of artists, currently run by Vesko Dimov. A dedicated IETM member, Vesko dreamt and fought for many years to have this centre built; with three halls, outdoor amphitheatre, small observatory, bedrooms for residencies and a great bar. It sits in the middle of a park not far from the National Palace of Culture, with a small stream running alongside the large outdoor space. Vesko has plans to put solar on the roof and make Toplocentrala more sustainable. There is a workshop festival on, and wonderful to see young performers training in the halls, foyer and outside spaces. Then Assia and I catch up with other artists from the Inje project, the renowned Director Vaskressia Vicharova and performer turned youth worker Veronika Petrova. Sadly the ‘National Treasure’ of the troupe, celebrated actor Valentin Ganev is away performing at a Festival in Varna, and we all speak via phone.  After so many years there are still reflections about the difficulties of the INJE project. We were all so young. It was my first serious adventure into intercultural collaboration and through the film I held responsivity to honour all participants’ perspectives. It’s wonderful to have this chance to reconnect. I relish being surrounded by Bulgarian language and the Cyrillic alphabet, I have poor language skills but being immersed in foreign language tunes my other senses. Compared to when I first came to Bulgaria, there are more signs translated into English, evidence that my mother tongue continues to colonise the world.

After a couple of days sharing stories, I am on the road again. Another bus, this time to Belgrade. When she was younger Assia toured across Europe by bus from Bulgaria many times. I recall meeting her in Amsterdam after a two-day journey. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that at the time I remember feeling sorry for her. Now, I am taking this journey and checking former attitudes with fresh eyes. In the Climate Century, striving for Climate Justice, equity does not mean growing everyone’s lives to achieve ‘universal’ wealthy western standards. And, importantly, that clues to our future are already being practiced in communities who have not had the same opportunity to carelessly waste resources. I’m not glorifying poverty here, basic standards need to improve across the world, and especially as resources become scarcer, how we do this is a creative challenge.

The countryside is green and lush, rushing past. Once again, the obligatory double stop for passport control, out of Bulgaria, into Serbia.

I arrive in Belgrade mid-afternoon and after so many hours sitting, dump my bags and start exploring on foot. The day is wet and grey. Around the station are several fancy new apartment buildings disrupting impressions of an older place. There is a police presence on the streets and the air feels a little heavy. Climbing up into older Belgrade, I brave the rain to admire the magnificent buildings and people rushing home from work. I admit my knowledge of this country is sketchy. According to Wikipedia, Serbia led a revolution against the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th Century which marked the beginning of the Principality of Serbia. The Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia united several countries after WWII but dissolved after several wars in the 1990’s.

Tijana Mićanović is a cultural Manager with Green Art Incubator providing research and workshops for the Serbian cultural sector, focused on Green Transition. We recently each presented our work at IETM’s Green School. Tijana and I meet in a lively café in the university quarter near Republic Square.

Green Art Incubator is led through the University of Belgrade by Dr. Jovana Karaulić at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Department of Management and Production and Dr. Vladimir Đurđević, an associate professor at the meteorology group of the Faculty of Physics. Combining arts and science, they work to promote "green policies" in public cultural discourse, creating an agenda of "green changes" in the sector, initiating greater professional participation in environmental dialogues and encouraging greater engagement with the public in this topic.

Tijana shares that in the past week the nation has been shocked by two shootings, including one by a 13yr old boy, executing 6 of his classmates. People have been deeply distressed and demonstrating in the city, hence the police presence. Tijana says there is growing awareness of environmental crisis in the public and inspiring the Incubator's work to connect that concern with action. However there is still resistance to Green Transition, especially in the performing arts, compared with museums and galleries who are more concerned with conservation. We agree that culture is key. Sharing our motivations, in such different contexts, is somehow reassuring.

She directs me to the Kalemegdan Fortress, in a romantic park overlooking water, where the Sava and Danube Rivers meet. Danube is the second longest river in Europe, running through 10 countries and connecting Germany with Ukraine where it runs to the Black Sea. It is one of the world’s top ten most threatened rivers and dumping of wastewater is cited as a possible reason that Serbia will not be permitted to join the EU.

The rain has stopped, the park is full of lovers and families out for a stroll. The late evening casts a beautiful light over Belgrade. And I am heading upstream next to Hungary.

#culturematters #climatejustice #savingatonne

The first part of the journey is here:

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