Europe on One Euro a Day

My partner and I met the most extraordinary girl in Montenegro. She was standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Bright smile, blue hair, massive backpack and thumb in the air. We were driving from the Montenegran coast to Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It was a beautiful drive in early Autumn sunshine, the road rising gradually through the mountains that separate the two countries. And there she was, a completely incongruous figure.

We stopped and she scrambled into the back seat.

‘Thanks, guys,’ she said in an accent that wasn’t local.

‘Where are you from?’ I asked, as one does.

‘Malaysia.’

‘Malaysia, truly Asia,’ I said instinctively, as everyone does who watches Sky News go round and round.

‘I suppose you know you shouldn’t board a vehicle when there are just two men in the front,’ I said, ‘though I think you have nothing to fear from us.’

‘You looked ok to me,’ she said, but I don’t think she’d looked very carefully.

She tells us she’s a freelance script and advertising copywriter based in Kuala Lumpur, working mainly for TV companies and specialising in documentaries and travel shows. Travelling is her passion, she says, with or without the wherewithal. This is her second trip to Europe.

‘I’m travelling for six months on 200 EUR. I’ve used up my 90 days in the Schengen Zone so I’m doing all the others. Only I can’t go to Serbia. Where are you heading to?’

‘Sarajevo,’ we said.

‘OK, that’ll do.’

SHE’S TRAVELLING ON JUST OVER 1 EUR PER DAY!!

She’s clearly a highly-educated successful, middle-class girl, but with a passion for travel that’s got way out of hand. It’s so feverish that she’s swooping on leftovers in McDonald’s, lurking at the back of supermarkets to pounce on items that have expired or passed their best-before date, sleeping on benches, begging space in strangers’ gardens where she can erect her tent, preferring all of this hardship for six months to just one comfortable long weekend in a three-star hotel.

I couldn’t do it. In fact, I could never have done it. It’s quite astonishing that anyone can, or would, if they actually had the option not to. Even the refugees trudging across Europe have more or can get more than she has.

Many of us think wistfully of such adventures. Or we did when we were young. The open road. Chance encounters. Freedom. But most of us thought and think in terms of plentiful food, warm and clean bedrooms, trains, planes, rented cars, clean dry clothes, and, of course, companionship.

So, I admire her pluck. Hers is a mad and dangerous adventure. I also admire the ease with which she accepts generosity. She’s from the minority Christian Chinese community in Malaysia, and her parents are both pastors, but the way she throws herself on the mercy and kindness of strangers is surely more Buddhist. She isn’t wearing saffron robes, but in other respects she’s like one of those apprentice monks doing the traditional year of begging for a living in the streets of Bangkok, bowl outstretched for a handful of rice – only she’s got blue hair, which they never have – and not, I think, because blue clashes with saffron.

Doesn’t quite work….

buddhist beggar

It’s actually hard to accept gifts without guilt and awkwardness. We hate the feeling of  ‘obligation’, even more than we’re glad of the gift we receive.

It’s easier to give, at least if we’re older than 11 or so, and we don’t always expect to get something in return. But it’s far harder to receive without the feeling that some kind of contract has been established that places us under an obligation. Scroungers can do it, of course, but hers isn’t the eyes-averted style of the scrounger, eager to get what he can and scarper. She simply seems to accept that much of the time (though I fear she can’t rely on it all of the time, and she had some hair-raising stories to tell) people will just step forward and help her, and she will gratefully and gracefully accept, without fuss.

To us she seemed like a splendidly worthwhile cause, and in need of protection. She expected nothing from us, asked for nothing, and was quite prepared to fall back on her one Euro a day if she had to.

PTH

We drove her to Sarajevo, where she slept at the home of a lady who worked in a café, and the next morning we drove her to a remote spot on the road between Sarajevo and Mostar. She was heading for a village high in the mountains that she’d heard was the prettiest in the country. After that, probably Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, and then home for a few months of scriptwriting, before, surely, another mad adventure.

She is delightful company, and she’s a brave, hardy, fascinating, determined, and utterly crazy girl. If you see her by the side of the road, don’t hesitate to pick her up.

Perhaps she’s writing a book about the trip. She said she wasn’t, but I wonder.

A Lingering Loathing – Bitterness in the Balkans

Loathing still lingers, unfortunately, in former Yugoslavia (nation of the Southern Slavs). I spent last week in three different fragments of that ‘impossible’ country (forged and held together, despite historical enmities, largely by the iron will of Marshal Tito). I was on holiday in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, catching the last of the summer sun and the last warmth of the Mediterranean (already a slightly chilly 22C).

Bosnia & Herzegovina is itself a fragmented state, with three separate presidents, each representing the three major ethnic groups, who still don’t live entirely separately. We travelled by car through each of these fragments within a fragment. I suspect there isn’t complete consensus on the justice of the current compromise. Crossing the border from Montenegro we were welcomed to Republika Srpska, I saw, rather than to Bosnia & Herzegovina.

road sign

Croatia, now an EU member is conspicuously more prosperous than the other two. Croatian GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) stands at around 21,000 USD, in Montenegro at around 15,000 USD, and in Bosnia & Herzegovina at around 10,000 USD. To put these numbers into perspective, EU average GDP per capita is around 32,500 USD. Lower GDP translates superficially into poorer roads and a general scruffiness around the edges of everything. Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina is still visibly war-damaged. It reminded me of Beirut, similarly beaten up by civil war.

If there are currents of hatred still seething beneath the surface of these societies they’re not obvious to the tourist. An enormous reconstruction effort has built new roads, and restored towns such as Mostar, where inter-communal killing raged in the 1990s. Except in Sarajevo you would find it hard to imagine the events that occurred just twenty years ago.

The only tension that’s visible to the naive and naked eye lies in the systematic defacing of road signs.

I am often teased by a British friend when I mention multilingual road signs as one of the tangible benefits of EU membership.

‘If that’s all the EU has achieved, a few paltry road signs in more than one language, then I hardly see the point of it,’ he is inclined to say.

But I mention them in all seriousness as, albeit superficial, evidence of the way in which the EU has preserved both the larger peace between nations since the Second World War and the smaller peace between culturally distinct minorities.

‘The EU has developed best practice in the recognition of linguistic minorities,’ I sententiously pronounce, ‘and stipulates that when a linguistic minority exceeds a certain percentage of the population then road signs must be in more than one language.’

Actually, I don’t know if this is true, and I can’t find any evidence for this on the internet, but I suspect it’s at least convention and certainly best practice, if not actually law.

But ardent die-hard nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans still tend to assert the absolute and necessary dominance of the majority, whatever it happens to be. The culture of the majority must prevail, and where boundaries make that unachievable, a majority must be established through force of arms.

‘Why should we have road signs in Hungarian,’ they might say in southern Slovakia. ‘The Hungarians must learn our language.’

To which I counter, again on the basis of hearsay rather than knowledge, since I hardly ever go there, ‘Well, in Wales we have dual language road signs and we’ve had them for years. Doesn’t matter at all.’

welcome to wales

I suspect that it’s a determination to assert the multi-ethnic nature of Bosnia & Herzegovina that dictates that road signs must show place names using both Latin and Cyrillic characters. Near the Dalmatian coast, where the population is overwhelmingly Croat, this clearly won’t wash, and west of Mostar, and on the short coastal road, Cyrillic place names are ritually obliterated.

Childish, foolish, intolerant, incendiary, destructive, and dangerous, of course, and I wonder, do these Croat nationalist still want the map of former Yugoslavia to be redrawn? Haven’t they endured enough conflict?

Oddly, a ‘Yugoslav’ identity asserts itself outside the homeland. You can find communities of former ‘Yugoslavs’ all over the world, and when they’re not sitting tight in their own territories they seem to be the best of friends. They may be divided by religion and alphabet but they share far more, a group of closely related languages, and a liking for strong alcohol and heaped up plates of meat.