Bread and Salt: First words

My old friend Dave and I are doing the final proofs of the English version of Bread and Salt: it will go to print on Monday, for publication on 21 June, in Utrecht. Then we will have the challenge of doing the proofs for the Dutch translation, without a word of Dutch: fortunately our friends in the Netherlands will do the proofreading. In the meantime, in what is becoming a tradition for Regular Marvels, here is the opening section of the book.

Pâine şi sare

ReceptionThey are waiting for us at the top of the path, in front of the museum: the mayor, in jacket and tie, the curator and a few other friends and supporters. To one side stand two young people in Romanian costume, red and black and white, crisp as fresh linen in the pale morning sun. They hold a golden loaf and a dish of salt: pâine şi sare. Handshakes and introductions; then I’m invited to take a piece of bread with a few grains of crystal. A glass of clear palincă and a toast to health and long life.

A hundred yards off, some Roma labourers pause briefly to observe the welcome ceremony, then turn back to repairing the road.

This is Transylvania, the land beyond the forest, where Scythians, Saxons, Magyars, Vlachs and many more have lived successively and together over centuries. After the First World War, the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the territory to Romania, which had sided with the victorious Allies. Transylvania was then home to three principal ethnic groups: Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, each with their own language and culture. Since the revolution in 1989, most of the last have left to claim the right of return as Auslandsdeutsche, Germans abroad, but about 20% of Romanian citizens in Transylvania are still Hungarian.

I came to know southeastern Europe through cultural development work with Belgian and Swiss foundations. Over the years I have visited many villages and small towns in Romania, Albania, Bulgaria and what was once Yugoslavia. Sometimes, we have been three or four visitors to see how the work is going; more often, it’s been just an interpreter and me. But whatever the circumstances, I have been welcomed everywhere with warmth and generosity. Tables have been set with burek, the traditional cheese pie made with filo, and zelnik, its spinach-based cousin; with salami, cured ham and meatballs. Tomatoes and plums have been brought in from the garden, and there has been yoghurt, ‘national’ coffee, black tea and every kind of homemade fruit spirit. And, always, bread.

No one is in a hurry. There are introductions and rituals to be observed as we get to know one another over the course of a morning. There is much to present and explain, and not only what has been achieved through the project. There is a church or a mosque, old houses, an archaeological site, a museum; sometimes the young people perform a local dance or song. It is people’s culture that is being presented, as a valuable gift. Man does not live by bread alone.

And then there is time to talk, round a table in a shady garden, or in the mayor’s gloomy office that hasn’t seen new paint since Tito’s day, to talk and get to know one another a little. It is a human exchange that will linger in the memory.

I am under no illusion, though. This courtesy is done not to me personally but to the donor whose, representative I am, for now. And here, as in other poor places in the world where work has taken me, I am also, and inescapably, a representative of the world’s rich and powerful nations. I have in my pocket a bank card and the European Union’s burgundy passport.

Days later, transferring between flights in Munich, that identity document takes me into a different line, past the returning Gastarbeiters and others hoping to enter the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, without the protection of a right of return. A bored policeman flips my passport across a scanner, barely glancing at me before sliding it back under the glass. Further down the hall, the line of non-EU citizens has not moved.

Bread and Salt: Stories of Artists and Migration will be published on 21 June 2013, by Vrede van Utrecht. Digital versions, in English and Dutch, will be available for free download from this site from that 22 June. 

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