Elizabeta Bakovska

ESSAY: Stranstvuvanje and Provincialism
Project Which Is Not a Project by OPA
Translated from the Macedonian by the author

In my pocket I still carry the key of my former home- Josip Osti

I came across the word stranstvuvanje1 for the first time as a high school student in the Macedonian translation of the title "Странствувањата на Чајлд Харолд" by Byron. It was one of those words that everybody understands but nobody knows how to explain correctly. Several years later I also found the original title ‘Pilgrimages of Childe Harold’ and I realized that the Macedonian translation of the English original can also mean pilgrimage, i.e. a holy journey - travel with the specific goal of spiritual cleansing. However, equally importantly, it also suggests a journey that has a circular trajectory, i.e. it carries within its meaning the return home. Stranstvuvanje therefore becomes a term with positive implications: a process of learning and enlightening through travel, living far from home, but also in returning to the home as a starting point. The traveller, the pilgrim, the one who goes abroad, takes the answers that he has found on this trip and brings them home, to the real place, where the questions that sought those answers were born.

With its nature of searching, movement, dynamics, openness to the world, stranstvuvanje is opposed to provincialism. The latter term had a negative charge, suggesting languor, immobility, outdatedness and limitation. In a cultural sense the concept of provincialism, as the journalist Mirjana Pavlovska observes in a column entitled "Cultural Provincialism", does not correspond to the world. It is aggressive in its own environment, and ultimately implies inferiority in communication. The provincial does not ask questions, much less seek for answers. He lives in his limited world of inherited, false, values that are projected on the rest of the world, lightly and cruelly judging the things he does not know. However, in a deeper sense, provincialism also means a hidden, never-fulfilled yearning for what is worldly as opposed to the provincial. Thus, the provincial wishes for what he does not know; he wants to believe that he has somehow risen (or maybe that he can rise) above the province, to which (to his regret) he naturally belongs, regardless of whether he wants to or not.

The latest generations of Macedonian immigrants are between these two terms: stranstvuvanje and provincialism. These are the people that can be considered so-called intellectual immigrants (as opposed to the previous generations of economic immigrants). Elizabeta Šeleva also calls these people Diaspora intellectuals. The generations of Diaspora intellectuals are often associated with a third term: nomadism. In an attempt to explain the meaning of this term in the modern context, i.e. outside its well known historical context, Rosi Braidotti says that "to be a European nomadic subject means to be in transit, whilst being rooted in a historical conception that accepts responsibility for this." Here, in this space between the "fatherland" and "abroad" - almost on no man's land - exist some of the more interesting creative identities of contemporary Macedonian women’s writing – Kica Kolbe and Lidija Dimkovska.

Although the novels The Snow in Casablanca by Kica Kolbe and Hidden Camera by Lidija Dimkovska are stylistically completely different, each reflecting fully the character and views of their writers (the almost sensual, philosophical, romantic nature of Kolbe, and the almost cruel, ironical, sharp bitterness of Dimkovska) they still start from the same point – the voluntary departure from home (i.e. the fatherland). "Why did we run away from Macedonia? Because of my father's conviction, according to which there is the rule: once a refugee, always a refugee!" says Kica Kolbe's narrator, identifying her fate with the almost genetic message of the historic refugee heritage of the Macedonian people. It seems that Lidija Dimkovska's Lila also feels the need to travel, to reside abroad, almost like a genetic imperative. Thus, the combination of considerations: nation and language (the words pečalbarstvo and pečalbar2 only exist in Macedonian and cannot be appropriately translated into another language); gender (because a woman, from her very birth, is doomed to move into her husband's home); historical and sociological forces are what make the strantvuvanje, i.e. the need to travel and find a new place for oneself in one's own life, the central concern for both writers.

Paradoxically, once the adventure of travel and foreign residence has begun (the result of a conscious, adult decision by both writers and their main characters; which seem quite similar to the authors) there is essentially more bitterness than excitement to be found. The causes of this bitterness are mostly external to the characters themselves, in the way the West, their new residence, perceives them. In line with this, Lidija Dimkovska says: "a Balkan writer is a priori expected to be prone to exile, which is only recognized in the world of art if it is of a political nature." Thus, the intellectual who has left his home (i.e. the world of provincialism), motivated solely by his need for stranstvuvanje, i.e. learning, searching for answers, spiritual enlightenment, realizes with disappointment that nothing rules the West but provincialism itself, manifested via the western perception of Otherness with regard to everything that comes from the Balkans, or similar "poor and underdeveloped" countries. The ease with which the foreigner is defined and classified - based on a system of prejudices and convictions, communicated indirectly through views and data which are retold and therefore altered (like a game of "broken telephone" or “Chinese whispers”) - is nothing but one of the recognizable features of provincialism. "For us, it is very important to see how a Macedonian and an Albanian, for example, or an Asian and a European get along. We have quite different stereotypes for each case, and you behave completely differently. This is very useful for us - the foundations that help these poor countries - to help us to get to know them better, so that we can invest in their art even more, and invite more artists over here", Lila is told by the Austrian, Claus, the host of the foundation which provides fellowships for foreign students in Vienna.

Limited by the pressure of this Otherness – a double Otherness, in the case of a woman (usually Other in herself), and a foreigner - both Kolbe and Dimovska face the unavoidable state of solitude. "I, for the sake of truth, have been living lonely. For twenty years. Since I left Macedonia. There is nothing lonelier than a single, perfectionist writer in exile, with a virtual biography from Casablanca" says Kica Kolbe. Coming to the same conclusion in a more introspective way, Lidija Dimkovska says: "And for who knows how much time in her nomadic life, she felt the well-known, almost familiar emptiness of being, the emptiness of the Home as a core and atom of human life, the emptiness of one's own ‘I’ before the world that you cannot change, but which changes you itself; it destroys you and it resurrects you." This is actually the moment of great realization, the moment towards which the authors (i.e. their narrators) strived since they departed on their journeys. At the moment when they realize that the spirit of provincialism is actually universal, and not national, enlightenment - their initial goal in travelling - occurs. It is not a single, universal answer, but a single, universal question: if the world is as it is, both where you have left from and where you have gone, then who are you? Where do you belong? What is your home?

Asking those questions, Kica Kolbe and Lidija Dimkovska depart in different directions. Kica Kolbe approaches these questions in a romantic immigrant way: "I want to escape the European West and go somewhere far away. Especially its grandiose past... I want a strong smell of Macedonian lime." She searches for the answers to the questions about belonging back in her fatherland, i.e. in what she has imagined as her fatherland. Because, "if every departure from the native land is a small death, then every return is a resurrection," she says, aware of her need to return home, i.e. to the place where the travel began. However, at the same time she is also aware that such a place simply does not exit, i.e. that the ‘fatherland’ is an individual construction by each person, a virtual chronotope, painted by our reconstructed memories, emotions and expectations, a Casablanca that belongs to us only. "In the course of the last ten years my native city has lost any real marks for me. It has somehow become an object of my imagination." Such a home, such a city is presented in this novel as virtual, changing, hidden beneath a show, made beautiful by music and the presence of the man who loves her. A fictional home, but as real as the ‘real’ one. In this real world, Kica Kolbe clearly, in a Heidegger-like way, tells the answer to the question where she belongs: "you have given me my mother tongue and the land where I was born in a moment of creative anxiety, with doubts about where I belong as a writer, in Macedonia or Germany, who really needs my words and images, where is my home... the writer who moves resides in the language, most of all in their mother tongue."

On the other hand, Lidija Dimkovska refuses to make the place where she started from more beautiful, even if it is only in a virtual sense. Asking basically the same questions: "Was that a home or a simulacrum of a home? Were all the years of stranstvuvanje and nomadism years of a simulacrum of a life?" she concludes that home is not a concept that has to be related to a place (a real or a virtual one), a space that will be marked by a toponym. "Personally, I prefer and I try to follow my own thought: it's more important to have a fire rather than a fireplace'", she says, finding the fire and home in her beloved one, i.e. in a man rather than in the space. Love is the reason for the moving, love is the reason for returning. And there is no other more real reason for traveling, returning and for creation.


1. The Macedonian word stranstvuvanje does not really have a proper single counterpart in English. It means residing, or staying abroad.

2. These two terms, meaning "working abroad" and a "worker abroad" respectively, are also untranslatable to English.

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