This may look like a slice of cake but it is so much more than that. Having already eaten everything on the menu at my favourite Istrian restaurant (not in one visit) I finally got around to trying that one thing on the menu I couldn’t properly pronounce. ‘Gibanica’. Usually, when it comes to food I can ‘name my feelings about it’ after the first bite. However, this was different. Very different. It was like a beautiful Turkish baclava but then it wasn’t. It tasted a bit like an award winning Austrian Apfel Strudel but it wasn’t that either. It also had the indulgence of an Italian Tiramisu but without the coffee. With my love of culture, philosophy, politics and food all combined, I came to the conclusion that it was as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottomons finally made friends and celebrated with this delicious treat. As you would. Oh and the Italians dropped in with some mascarpone because they heard food was involved and just had to add their culinary excellence.
This one slice of Gibanica triggered a wondering within me about culture and the future of it in a world searching for oneness. It has taken me a very long time to write this post. In fact I have spent more than 150 hours in front of the computer screen trying to piece my thoughts together. God only knows how many hours I’ve spent entertaining thoughts in my mind and yet I still feel that I haven’t been able to fully express the things I have experienced and the way I feel about culture. I do know that these days there are few places left in the world where true and authentic cultural expression can be experienced. Seeing an expression of other people’s existence, their own culture and their way of having a human experience made me think that perhaps we have been confusing oneness with same. In our quest to be ‘one’ are we even asking ourselves the question of exactly who we are conforming our physical selves to? Are we blindly handing our ‘selves’ over to whoever or whatever is requesting ‘same’ in the false name of equality and freedom? If we are, then I’m afraid we may just be continuing the pattern of stripping the human of his/her spirit, culture, language and more. Now we are just doing it differently, somewhat blindly morphing into a physical oneness but remaining divided in heart.
As I began to explore the whole concept of culture, more thought provoking things continued to show up in my physical world. One day I was sorting through some books when a beautiful Mandala by South African artist Lize Beekman just fell out of a book I hadn’t opened for quite some time. The picture had been a gift from a very special woman I met in Innsbruck a couple of years ago. I had removed the picture from it’s frame and placed it inside a hard cover book in order to protect it from being damaged whilst moving between countries. The Mandala interestingly titled, Collaborative Mandala, embraces the ancient form of circles expressing the wholeness within us and amongst us. Something that we have disconnected with entirely as we have orchestrated life in a somewhat linear fashion, ticking things off our list and avoiding the completeness of being. The Mandala, this beautiful symbol of culture, of our human experience whilst staying connected with our selves, our people, our earth and spirit, no doubt would have been close to extinction only a few decades ago. Now, as though the earth, our true mother is calling us closer to hear those secrets again, many people are intuitively searching for greater meaning in life. Yet, the true meaning of life has always been within reach. It is within our culture, our expression of our existence that we truly gain meaning. I would argue that without culture, there is no meaning at all and we may as well surrender our human titles and become robots. At least then our hearts would be protected from the emotional heaviness that stems from the cruelty still present in our physical world. Lev Vygotsky, the early 20th century developmental psychologist states; “Language and culture are the frameworks through which humans experience, communicate and understand reality”. Maybe this is why we’ve gotten ourselves into such a rut. We’ve lost our ability to understand reality because we have disconnected from our culture and language. Something worth considering.
Collaborative Mandala Artist: Lize Beekman
During the past few years, I have re-visted many places. Some in a literal sense and others through music, art, stories and even dreams. I have been on a rather confronting journey down memory lane, which is not something I tend to do often. My strength is being able to move forward, to keep going, pick myself up and start again when I need to. However, I have realised that in order to make all the pieces fit again into a beautiful mandala, a circle of wholeness, we sometimes need to re- visit the past. As many of you following this Blog would know, I have spent a great deal of time over the past 2 years in what I jokingly refer to as ‘the naughty corner’ of Europe. The Eastern block and the Balkans. My love for this part of the world is always bitter-sweet. I hate it as much as I love it. Yin and Yang right there. Yin says, let it go. Your dad sacrificed everything so that you could experience life in the lucky country. You have a passport to the world, literally! Yet Yang says all things can be healed and renewed through the power of love and forgiveness and this part of the world deserves credit for it’s rich culture often marred by political unrest. This love-hate relationship with my culture shows up in real life. It’s not pretty and it may upset the imagined truth people have about the ‘democratic’ world in which we live but I’ve decided to go ahead and say it anyway. In Europe, when I enter into a conversation with someone who doesn’t know me and I enter that conversation as an Australian I am treated very differently than when I identify myself as a Macedonian or even mention that I have a Macedonian background. My husband, a native, yet first-generation citizen of a popular and respected European country who coincidentally also has a background from the ‘naughty corner’ of Europe has the same experience in Australia. We have had many conversations about this over the years and both conclude that we are often guilty of choosing the culture that serves us best even though we know that in doing so, we are turning our back on a part of ‘self’ that also deserves to be seen. This reality of how we present ourselves through social experiences leads me to yet another question. What will become of the beautiful cultures that once existed in troubled corners of the world when generations of children and young adults are forced to hide their background for the purpose of fitting in and being accepted. This is a huge ‘can of worms’ yet no doubt something that must be addressed if we are serious about our desire for equality. If you haven’t already read the acclaimed essay “The Ungrateful Refugee: We Have No Debt, by Dina Nayeri, an Iranian American novelist and a former refugee, I recommend that you do. It is an intelligent, intuitive and honest expression of the hidden and unspoken laws of belonging. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/04/dina-nayeri-ungrateful-refugee
Replica of an Ancient Village on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Going beyond the political aspects surrounding culture and integration, we can certainly see a pattern evolving in our world of ‘becoming’ only after ‘surrendering’. In many corners of the world, not as violently as war, but in essence, we are letting go of significant parts of self in order to belong to others, to a group, a work place, a country, a union. Yet, what if we re-invented the whole notion of belonging as a way of simply existing and expressing our existence here on earth, knowing that each of us has a place and a purpose. Most importantly showing through acts of respect and compassion that we all have a right to be here on this life giving planet regardless of the colour of our skin, gender, or the country or class in which we were born.
Exploring life in the village of his ancestors. Recica, Ohrid, Macedonia.
Many of you reading this Blog who live in Melbourne would be familiar with the koori mural near the Tram Depot on St Georges Rd Thornbury (Melbourne) My dad used to work at the Tram Depot when I was a child. When the mural was painted, I remember my dad would sigh every time we walked or drove past. It was a really heavy feeling and he would always say the same thing. “It’s not just the colours of our flag we have in common with the Aboriginals.” I never really understood what he meant but as I got older I realised that he was referring to his own homeland, the story of his own people, displaced, unwanted, denied their freedom, language and culture. This all came full circle to me as I drove past the mural recently, I had a memory. I was taken back to a song that used to play on the SBS Macedonian radio station that my parents listened to when I was a child. I loved the song because it always played at the end of the segment and I knew that after the song, my sisters and I would be allowed to switch the radio back to an English station again. Even though I never really sang the song or even understood what the song was about, I always felt the emotion of it and so the melody has obviously followed me around. I wondered why that particular melody had popped into my head while looking at the indigenous mural on St Georges Rd, so I decided to investigate. I googled the song and realised the connection instantly. Translated, the song is about ‘mother earth’ and all the pain, suffering and heartache she has endured. The heaviness felt by the earth because of the heaviness in the hearts of the people suffering, for their hearts indeed belonged to the earth.
Колку векови во
Tемнина си била,
колку tемни сказни
знаеш, земјо мила.
Колку сtрадања на
рамена си збрала,
колку жрtви tи за
слобода си дала.
Знае сводот вечен,
знае сиоt свеt,
кога Вардар tечел,
миел ропска клеt.
Колку свеtа сила в
гори tвои се зби,
колку биваш мила
земјо, мајко tи.
Song Written and performed by Nikola Davidovski (1977) at Skopje Music Festival, Macedonia
Sunset on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
My land, how many lifetimes have you been in the dark
How many dark curses/punishment do you know of, my dear land
How much suffering/heaviness have you accumulated on your shoulders
How much life have you sacrificed for freedom
How much universal light shines through your stars
How worthy you are Mother land/earth?
While trying to unpack the meaning of this song and translate it into English I also discovered that the depth and meaning of certain words can never really be translated from one language to another. Perhaps this is why people continue to sing and engage in the language of their homeland even when the homeland ceases to exist. Not because they are ungrateful to the country who ‘let them in’ or because they are refusing to assimilate. Maybe because it’s the only language that can express what’s in their heart.
My dad’s heavy heart of being denied his culture, his language and his identity had always resonated with the heavy hearts of the indigenous men in the picture. Chained and tortured, simply for existing and maybe because they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time – honouring their culture and their life giving mother at a time when man was driven only to take.
The earth holds our stories of existence, of being, evolving and living. In the end, this is all that we leave behind. The stories of the past and the stories being created right now are an expression of our human experience. These stories show us who we are, who we became during our human experience here on earth.
Part of the Northcote Koori Mural on St Georges Rd Thornbury, Melbourne Australia.
As I began exploring the stories of the past, I was taken back to the European villages I had visited, places that at some stage in history had been burned down entirely in man’s quest to take, own and ‘assimilate’. Again, this reality from our past made me wonder about the current context of assimilation. In our physical, cultural and spiritual expression of existence, do we really need to be the same? I think we have that wrong and unfortunately we are still getting it wrong. That part is ego, control, power and greed. We are not the same because we have all experienced life differently and we have a plethora of cultural differences through history that prove it. Culture, whether it be specific to country, religion, spiritual, community based or the work place, should not be forced. For anyone who believes that it can, you’re right. It can and in this current world it can even be bought. But should it?
During times of war, armies invade and wipe out villages and territories. Human instinct for survival is a natural response, but history has also shown us that survival is only one aspect. Humans, unlike animals are also strongly aware of their ‘record of existence’. They hide their children and women not only to protect them from danger but also in the hope that their culture and mother-tongue would survive and live on long after the battle is over. And it does, it has, spoken and passed on through whispers. Spoken and passed on through stories, through love. Indigenous people around the world truly know that stories of existence are passed on through the calling of our ancestors who live within the heart of the earth and therefore within the heart of us all. We could certainly learn a thing or two from the people who have managed to keep this tradition alive.
I speak a language that should not exist, but against all odds it does. I have always been motivated by this and as I pass this language, this gift from my ancestors onto my son I do so not to be patriotic and dismissive of other languages and cultures. I do it to honour the spirit of my ancestors, many who lost their lives in order for that language to exist. I also recognise and value the language and culture experienced by others. I don’t need to assimilate or force my culture onto others because I really don’t want the world to blend into one culture. I love and appreciate diversity and all the stories that express our human experience. Our time here on earth. The earth does not hear or even know the details of our stories, she simply responds to the emotions attached to each story. Giving all people the freedom and opportunity to express the joy of their culture, their language and spirit is what will raise the vibration and energy of the earth. No we don’t all need to become Buddhists or do Yoga (not that there is anything wrong with doing that if you choose to and I’m saying this as a yoga teacher myself) but it is not the only way to evolve and awaken the soul. Culture, expression, art, music, friendship and relationships can also enhance our human existence. It is love and joy that allows us to fully align our hearts to the centre of our earth and feel one with all that was, is and ever will be. This is what makes us rich. Knowing this I wonder, how long must the women, children and the marginalised hide in their villages whispering their language and culture as though the words they speak are poisonous? Though we may not be able to change the stories of the past, we are certainly able to express stories that come from a place of love and respect today.
The language of respect from one living thing to another most often does not require any words at all. It’s a simple gesture, a knowing that I honour and respect the life in you in the same way as I honour and respect the life in me.
I think these guys do it pretty well.One of my favourite scenes from a Wes Anderson movie (and I literally have hundreds)
This is from Fantastic Mr Fox.
Many years ago I was drawn to a picture story book about a hedgehog. It wasn’t in a language that I was familiar with at the time but I bought it anyway, mostly because of a picture of the hedgehog smoking a pipe which I just fell involve with instantly. I thought it was pretty cool because Australian picture story books were going through a process of censoring any ‘inappropriate’ themes. I’m pretty sure that smoking a pipe would have been a no-go zone for a children’s book so of course I bought it. I felt as though I had just rescued a form of creativity that was soon to become extinct in our politically correct and overly-censored world. I carefully studied the illustrations, trying to work out what the story was about and where the story was from. It turned out, it was a popular poem published in the then Yugoslavia in the 1950’s. In the story, the hedgehog is invited to the fox’s house for dinner and at the end of the evening, he thanks the fox for his hospitality and prepares to leave. The fox and his friends (a wolf, a bear and two boars) are curious about why the hedgehog is in such a hurry to go home. They imagine a scenario in their minds where the hedgehog has something they don’t such as a grand home. The group of animals I like to refer to as ‘forest scavengers’ follow the hedgehog and are rather disappointed to discover that the hedgehog lives in a small cave, hardly a home to be proud of. I love this book, it goes beyond the concept of home is where the heart is or home sweet home etc. The other animals become so obsessed with the hedgehog’s home as they imagine it to be so much better than their own. They want the hedgehog’s home even though they know nothing about it. They simply feed off their desire to take something that belongs to someone else. Greed vs gratitude is so cleverly expressed in this story. It also explores the concept of what are you willing to give up in order to receive or become something else, something that may not necessarily be better than what you already have, it is more or less just a perception of being better. In a more current context, it makes me think about the FOMO concept. (Fear of Missing Out) Even though they had no idea what they were actually missing, the fear of missing out itself drove the other animals into the deep, dark forest with their willingness to surrender all that they had themselves. I could go on forever as there are so many layers of meaning, typical during this era of intellectuals and artists, many of who had strong political views at a time of uncertainty after the second world war. On a final note, I just love this story mostly because of my interpretation of the pictures at a time before I was able to understand the text. It reminds me that when the world gets all crazy and complicated and politically correct, I can imagine in my own mind, somewhere in the woods, a hedgehog quietly smoking his pipe and not giving a ‘%^&* about anything. He is content in his humble home and in that home he is at peace. The hedgehog was well before his time, quietly expressing his own existence without needing to sabotage the existence of anything else. Protecting his home and his way of life from the scavengers who had no respect for the little things that meat so much to the hedgehog.
The smoking Hedgehog. Source: Jezeva Kucica by Branko Kopic
An artist we met in Zagreb, Croatia who invited us into his studio and showed us how to paint on glass in mirror image. The artist was so thrilled to have a child in his studio and share his craft with what he referred to as ‘the future’. A very common theme throughout this part of Europe and the Balkans regarding the importance of children as a continuation of life and culture.
Pula Arena, Croatia. “Looks like the Italians were here mum”.
A couple of humble people we met on our travels. Expressing their existence, their joy and their culture and sharing it with us.
To complete my exploration of culture and the future of its existence, I am reminded of a statue of Bruce Lee in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina of all places. After the war and at a time when the country was forming, questioning traditional symbols and identity in what is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the former Yugoslavia, the local youth group at the time came up with the idea that Bruce Lee could be a suitable symbol of unity because he was admired by everyone. Those of us visiting from the west may be amused by their choice of symbolism, however during the communist regime anything from the outside, the west, was idolised in a cult like fashion. Pirated videos of Bruce Lee became an unspoken form of inspiration for the region’s youth. And so, in a ‘I have no answer to the question about the future of culture’ kind of way, I conclude this topic of oneness, culture and our relationship to earth with this proposition. When we cannot find a way to agree or to move on and heal from our past, the pain, the injustice and our stories, maybe Bruce Lee could be the answer? A neutral symbol of unity. Or, maybe, we don’t need any symbols at all but to simply breathe in the light and the love that the earth continues to grace us with no matter how much heaviness we burden her with. In doing so, we may just be able to let go of our obsession to control and instead create an existence worthy of our time here on earth.
Bruce Lee (the Statue) by sculptor Ivan Fijolić on display in the City Park of “Zrinjski Mostar
Dear Adult, JTLYK about Culture
Mother earth gives us all a home.
We don’t need to go around collecting other people’s homes, including animals, trees, oceans, lakes, mountains and rivers.
They don’t belong to us.
Human problems created by humans will never be solved if humans aren’t prepared to step outside of their gender, religion, country, class, status, titles and stories.
We need to step into our heart to find the answers.
The earth is our mother and she can hear our whispers.
She feels the beat of our heart.
We too can feel the beat of her heart.
This is how we stay connected.
The earth was given to us as a home.
A safe place for physical living things to express our existence.
The earth feeds us.
It nurtures us and keeps our human bodies alive.
The earth’s beauty is here not for us to take but to inspire us to create.
All that we create and express becomes our culture.
Surely this is worth more than money.
We all know that money only exists here, on this physical platform.
You’re not here forever so don’t forget to enjoy yourself as well.
Your joy and love will be felt in the heart of the earth long after you are gone.
These guys. A group of talented yet shy musicians we spotted in Novigrad. A little town on the Istrian Peninsula.