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In search of barbarians

This piece originally appeared in Issue 6/2016 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

January 12, 2017 - Andriy Lyubka - Articles and Commentary

fisherman in ovidiopol

“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.

He could not understand why someone from so far away would want to cross the border here and without any particular purpose. I did not mention that the nature of my trip was tourism-based. It would have sounded totally absurd – why would anyone drive 430 meters into Moldovan territory? What is there to see? Surely, nothing worthy of a photograph! In fact, had Ukraine not handed over several hundred meters of its territory to Moldova in 1999, Romania would have been here. Moldova’s access to the Danube was to help it strengthen its maritime power. Ukraine, in return, received some hundred meters of motorway near the Palanka village, connecting the northern and southern parts of the Odesa region. There was even talk that this exchange was not to Ukraine’s advantage, but was undertaken as a gesture of support for Moldova, that is to give it a significant tool for development and enrichment.

Great geopolitics reduced

You may want to ask what was Kyiv’s real motivation here. Is it possible that Ukraine is such a noble state that, while being unable to successfully develop itself, it supports other countries? The answer is simple: fortifying Moldova was seen as a way to reduce its chances of joining Romania in the future. The idea of a “Great Romania”, of course, could not find many adherents, apart from Romanians themselves. For this reason, Ukraine (or its former Kremlin fathers) chose a “divide and rule” strategy. In this way Moldova, elbowing everyone around like an old woman at the market who suddenly shoves her way between two stalls and starts to lay out patties for sale, wedged itself in the border between Ukraine and Romania. Here, international geopolitics was, in a sense, reduced to two villages: Giurgiulești and Palanka. This, in essence, is what made my trip worthwhile. But how could I explain this to the officer working for the Moldovan State Customs Services?

The inspection of my car lasted almost one hour. Once the ordeal was over, I was set free. I was quickly let through the Romanian border, no questions asked. As I was driving on a good quality road, and noticing that my car was no longer shaking madly, I realised that I was past the border. My final destination was Constanta, the ancient Greek harbour of Tomis, where 2,000 years ago Publius Ovidius Naso, or better known as Ovid, spent his final years in exile.

Would Ovid have crossed the frontier in Giurgiulești? No. Even more, if we try to imagine what he could have been doing in this place, given his legal education, arguably he would have been a customs officer. After all, Ovid’s legal practice can still be seen in the structure of his poetry. They are logically constructed, include arguments and persuasion and, when necessary, skilful manipulation. Ovid did not succeed in defending himself, due to the wrathful will of the Roman Emperor Augustus, and was exiled to the very end of the world, to the edge of western civilisation.

What do we know about Ovid? He was born in 43 BC in Sulmona (central Italy) to a well-to-do family. He received a typical rhetorical education, practiced law for some time but then gave up and fully devoted himself to poetry. He proved to be much better at it. He quickly earned fame and one could only be jealous of his social position: he resided in the centre of Rome, right near the Capitoline; he had a beloved wife and several friends. In other words, he had a very ordinary life, until one day an incident changed his life for good. In the year 8 AD, Octavian August became angry with the poet and banished him to Tomis (the historical name of Constanța, a city in Romania), a place that was considered to be situated in the middle of nowhere. Ovid lived there for nine long years before passing away in 17 AD.

Why did the emperor punish the writer? Firstly, because the ruler was a man with a severe disposition, he enjoyed imposing penalties (remember that Cicero was violently killed during the reign of Octavian Augustus). It is still a matter of debate, but most scholars agree that Ovid could have witnessed adultery or an orgy with Julia, Augustus’s granddaughter. Using contemporary terms, Ovid could be considered a celebrity, a somewhat scandalous star of his time.

Yet the thunder crashed and the spoilt child of fortune was sent into exile to Moesia – the extreme province of the Roman Empire. He spent almost nine years there and wrote the books Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, which have rich, emotional, sorrowful characters, but at the same time, lack certain facts. Describing Tomis and its surroundings – the Danube and the Black Sea, the barbarians and the Romans – Ovid mainly resorts to crude stereotypes. In his descriptions the barbarians have overgrown hair, are bloodthirsty and are mostly notable for wearing trousers. This detail is very often repeated in his works, the trousers made more of an impression on him than the threat of being violently killed during one of the hostile raids on the port. The Danube and the Black Sea freeze during winter time, the fish freeze up inside the solid ice and the barbarians rush across the ice to rob Tomis. It is so cold there that even wine freezes, but if one breaks the jar, the wine still keeps its shape and therefore has to be cleaved into pieces of ice and consumed in a solid form.

Edge of civilisation

But let us start from the beginning. Not in Sulmona, Ovid’s birthplace, but in Giurgiulești, a Moldovan village between Ukraine and Romania, the very boundaries of the Roman civilisation. How on earth did I happen to arrive here? I wanted to understand Ovid better since he is my favourite poet. I was naïve to think that if I step on the same ground that Ovid once stepped on, I would finally feel the whole of Eastern Europe. Such thoughts seem to be so well-timed in Giurgiulești. In Ovid’s time it was the end of the empire, the edge of the western civilisation.

Two thousand years have passed, but another frontier lay in this very place – the border of the EU and NATO with Ukraine. We can assume that Ukraine did not become an EU-member because our Ukrainian riverbank still looks barbaric through the windows of Brussels. After all, it is enough to experience the quality of roads, which are almost absent on the Ukrainian side (the local people say that there are no roads but visible directions on the ground) and the flat asphalt on the Romanian side in order to start believing that the border, a fortification of Western civilisation, existed here until today.

When crossing the border from the Ukrainian side, one would not normally pass through the small town of Ovidiopol, situated on the south of the Odesa Region. A few centuries ago, the location of Tomis was largely unknown and explorers had sought everywhere around the Black Sea coast to find it, but without any success. In 1795 Catherine the Great requested that the small Turkish settlement of Acidere be renamed as Ovidiopol, in honour of the poet. How could I pass this place by?

Ovidiopol is a small town located beside a lake connected with the sea, but not too close to attract crowds of tourists. It is quiet and provincially calm. A grisly monument is located on the outskirts of the town next to the coast. Emptiness is all around. Only the pier is full of fishermen. Being a lover of fishing myself I decided to start a conversation with them. I asked one about the monument and who it was honouring. “An unknown soldier,” the fisherman blurted out with no shadow of a doubt.

An interesting response, I thought, particularly since, throughout his exile, Ovid adorned military attire several times when the barbarians attacked Tomis. All the inhabitants of the city had to climb up the walls to beat off the enemy. But to call the statue of a man sitting feebly in Roman attire “a monument honouring an unknown Soviet soldier”? It was too much. I took one more look at the fisherman, suspecting he was mocking me. But, no, he was serious, totally concentrated on his cork-float. Then I tried to take advantage of the pause between his grumbling and asked him one more question: “Why is the town called Ovidiopol?” My companion, to my surprise, gave me a partially correct answer. He explained that one Roman poet was exiled here and the town is now named after him. “Bessarabia was the same for Rome as Siberia is for Russia”; this is exactly how he put it, as if he had learnt about severe frost from Ovid’s poems.

“You see,” he said puffing his cheap cigarette, “there are plenty of nationalities that used to live and still continue living here. There’s a great multitude of cultures here in Budjak (the region which lies on the Black Sea between the Danube and Dniester Rivers). There are Tatars, Turks, Jews, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Gypsies, Russians, Moldavians, Greeks and Germans. Altogether, the sum of these cultures creates a lack of culture. This is the reason, our life is so bad.”

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.

Ovidomania

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.

Translated by Yulia Pelepchuk

Andriy Lyubka is a contemporary Ukrainian poet, writer and essayist. He is currently a research fellow at the New Europe College in Bucharest.

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