History Lessons

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:: SPRING 2019 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::

Black compasses, small acrobats, imperial power struggles, night-frightened hunters, sudden accordions, midsummer gloaming, Franz Ferdinand, superficiality, bicycle touring, ancestral geography, sabres, chanterelles & Bosnia.


To know the truth of any story, one must start before the beginning. This is a story about Australia, even though it does not take place there.

Australia: a nation that considers itself borderless, innocently bounded only by the eternal ocean. This elision of what is littoral, mutable and enduring, with that which is literal and unyielding, but merely temporal, is a masterful sleight of hand. Australia depends upon it.

White people arrived on the island, displaced, severed from their histories, ignorant, bewildered, crazed with grief and loss. Righteously, without hesitation, with all that they brought with them, they proceeded to sever the country from its history. The whole place is unmoored.

Australia is where I was born and grew up.

Compass Rose

It is only posthumously that my great-grandfather was Czech. His family home was in Opava, a small town near the republic’s current border with Poland, but in the late nineteenth century—the time of empire—there were no hard and fast borders, and the very same town was marked on maps and documents, in German, as Troppau.

In the manner appropriate to his class and station, my great-grandfather was educated in Vienna and then entered a civil service in which he answered directly to the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg regime. The mighty Ottoman Empire, at this point in history, was already crumbling, and Bosnia, which for centuries had been under Ottoman control, had changed hands in 1878 and was now part of the Hapsburg dominion.


I repeated what I have found to be true: people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. I insisted that this has always been my experience.


The Hapsburgs had a more acquisitive eye than their predecessors, and resource extraction was the new order of the day. It was as part of this colonial project that my great-grandfather was sent to the Sarajevo region as a forest surveyor and administrator to manage natural resources there for the benefit of the imperial rulers in Vienna.

In Australia, in a dusty box in storage that contains my trinkets and memorabilia, there is a heavy black compass. It was one of my great-grandfather’s tools of trade.

I was not thinking of my great-grandfather’s compass, in the summer of 2016, when I found myself on a bicycle in Croatia approaching the border with Bosnia.

Compass Rose

I usually relish the long midsummer gloaming while I cast around for a place to camp after the brute force of the sun has passed, but that evening my pleasure was shot through with unease. The houses that lined the road were scarred with shrapnel pockmarks, burnt out, all the roofs caved in.

Most of the houses were boarded up, but amongst the derelict buildings were a few that had been repaired, re-plastered, repainted. Flowers bloomed on the occasional windowsill; some gardens were planted out with tomatoes and salad greens. Trees that had seen more than one war pass over them still bore fruit. It was the bountiful time of year.

The people who could be seen at work in the fields and gardens, or the ones already at rest on the benches at their front gates, were all old, though, and most of the buildings had hopeful notices advertising the houses for sale.


Trees that had seen more than one war pass over them still bore fruit. It was the bountiful time of year.


Suddenly, I heard music. An accordion, a guitar, voices singing. I stopped and, standing astride my bicycle, gazed back at a party of people sitting partly visible on a wide veranda behind one of the houses. The song finished and, after a moment of laughter and comment, another started up.

A woman came around the corner to an open door at the side of the house, carrying a pile of plates. She smiled and waved. A man sitting at the table looked up and beckoned extravagantly. I was drawn in. The host of the party rose from the table to shake my hand and invited me to sit down. A plate, food, a glass, wine—all appeared in front of me as the bittersweet accordion music went on.

The music was interspersed with snatches of conversation, and those who could switched to English. Milan, my host, took it upon himself to make sure that I was adequately informed of the area’s history.

“As you can see,” he said, “we had a war here.”

“Yes. I do see.”


The commissioner’s recommendation to my great-grandfather was that if he surprised anyone at all in his new domain whom he didn’t recognise, then he should shoot them before asking questions.


He gestured around the table.

“This is my family. My sister, there, she lives in Belgrade. In Serbia. These are her children. They are Serbs. The man playing the accordion, he is my friend. He is Bosnian. I have known him since we were boys. I am Croatian, but I live in Bosnia.”

The children ran out onto the lawn. One little girl executed a neat cartwheel, legs straight and toes elegantly pointed. There were three children: a brother and a sister and their younger cousin, the acrobat.

Milan gestured around the table again and summed the matter up.

“Croatians. Serbs. Bosnians. It doesn’t matter.”

Another song started and my wine glass was refilled. I protested, but I was told that this was a drinking song and so we must drink. The guitarist spoke good English and he introduced each song with an anecdote or a joke. The songs were traditional songs from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria. Everyone knew the words and even I was familiar with a few.


My uncle remembers photos in the family albums featuring his grandfather standing surrounded by huge mounds of earth amidst groups of Serbian war prisoners at work digging ponds.


“This was my father’s house,” Milan told me. “I grew up here. Now all the houses are for sale. Nobody wants to live here. Everybody has left. There is no money. No work. I live on the other side of the border in Banja Luka.”

People around the table asked me questions:

Where am I from? Where am I going? What am I doing here?

These are questions that have no answers—not ones that I know of.

I’m just travelling around, I said. Just looking at things. Meeting different people. It was my turn to gesture around the table at the circle of people. Different people, different food, different music, I said.

My evasions, my superficiality, didn’t pass unchecked. Milan looked at me sharply and said impatiently, “Yes, yes, all that is different—but really people are deeply deeply deeply the same.”

I had no argument with him.

“Yes, of course. You are right.”


Righteously, without hesitation, with all that they brought with them, they proceeded to sever the country from its history. The whole place is unmoored.


Later, after the musicians were gone and the party was breaking up, we stood around my bike, gazing at it.

“When I was ten years old I remember seeing a foreigner for the first time,” Milan said. “An Englishman on a bike. He had a big beard. I’ve never forgotten it.”

I did the maths and tried to imagine which of the legendary cycle tourists might have been in Yugoslavia in 1968, because there can’t have been that many casually passing by then. Milan looked at the three children standing next to us.

“And they will remember you!” he added.

And then, suddenly and urgently, he said, “I’m scared that there will be war here again.”

We looked at the children, and the little girl ran onto the lawn and turned another pretty cartwheel.

Finally, when everyone had left, Milan showed me a bed and the bathroom, handed me a bunch of keys and instructed me where to put them when I left in the morning. Then he got into his car with his wife and they drove back to Bosnia, leaving me in possession of the house.

Compass Rose

W      hen my great-grandfather took up his post as forest administrator in Bosnia, the Sarajevo police commissioner dropped by to pay his respects. One of my great-grandfather’s primary tasks was to guard against poaching, and to this end he had command of a small private army. The commissioner’s recommendation to my great-grandfather was that if he surprised anyone at all in his new domain whom he didn’t recognise, then he should shoot them before asking questions.

It was out of the British, Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman imperial power struggles at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the First World War erupted. Historians striving to achieve some sort of narrative clarity nominate Sarajevo as geographical point zero with the assassination by Serbian nationalists of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie—the fatal spark that ignited the conflagration that subsequently engulfed the world.


On the whole, I prefer to deflect conversation away from the potential dangers of being a woman alone in the world, especially when I am in the company of a sizeable group of drunken men in an isolated mountain valley.


My great-grandfather and his family remained in Bosnia during the war, although my grandfather, at the tender age of twelve, was sent to a military academy in Vienna where, alongside more-intellectual pursuits, he was instructed in military strategy and the arcane martial arts of fencing and hand-to-hand combat with a sabre.

As the war progressed, food supply became critical in Europe and my great-grandfather was instructed to set up fish farms in Bosnia to produce food for the troops. My uncle remembers photos in the family albums featuring his grandfather standing surrounded by huge mounds of earth amidst groups of Serbian war prisoners at work digging ponds.

The First World War finished before my own grandfather could put his military training into practice on the battlefields, and instead he went on to university in Prague to study chemical engineering. The stories that I heard from my grandparents, who were settled in Australia by the time I was born, were only of fleeing Czechoslovakia, a nation that rose and fell within a single century, and of living in Holland under Nazi occupation. It was not until I was an adult and I interviewed my uncle who lives in the US that I learnt anything of an earlier connection to Bosnia.

Compass Rose

It was only two days after attending Milan’s party on the border that I found myself inadvertently gate-crashing another gathering in Bosnia. This time I was the very first guest to arrive; in fact, I arrived before the hosts did.

It was the end of another long, hot day and again I was looking for somewhere to sleep. I had already spent some time searching for a campsite, first in rubbish-strewn pine forest around a decaying out-of-season ski resort sprawling over the summit of a mountain, and then as I dropped down along a rocky gorge that provided dramatic views, but nothing by way of a flat, sheltered spot to pitch a tent.

Finally, a valley opened out on either side of the river and a gravel track led over a bridge, away from the main road. Under a locked barrier on the far side of the bridge, the track followed the stream to a flat, grassy area sheltered from view by scrubby trees. There was a crude hut, a roofed structure sheltering a couple of long picnic tables and a fireplace for barbecues.


I shrugged in the face of these knowing insinuations. What could I say? None of us had yet travelled to the places we were discussing.


The hut was locked and there was no hint as to what kind of place this was. Privately owned? Public property? A sports club, perhaps? I glanced at my watch: eight o’clock on a Sunday night. Who would turn up now?

I walked to the river and scouted the steep banks for access to the water until I found some rough concrete steps where I stripped off to wash away the day’s sweat and grime. I returned to the tables and unpacked my meagre supplies. I was starting to relax as darkness fell and it was then that two cars rattled down the road and pulled up in a cloud of dust in front of me.

Men tumbled out and busied themselves unloading the vehicles. One walked straight past me without a glance and unlocked the hut. He returned to the shelter with an extension cord, which he plugged into a socket, and the bare bulbs hanging low over a table lit up. The others came to the tables carrying plastic bags and boxes and started to unpack meat, bread, beer.

“Hello,” I said.

The man with the keys approached and shook my hand brusquely. Another man joined us and asked in imperfect English, “Are you going to sleep here?”

“Ummmm,” I said. “Well, yes…I thought I might…”


These are questions that have no answers—not ones that I know of.


There was no convincing way to deny it. My sleeping bag and tent were conspicuously draped over the woodpile, airing out.

“Okay. Okay. No problem.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you.”

They turned away.

The fire was lit and meat and sausages were soon sizzling. The men—there were eight or nine of them—sat at the table and started to tackle the cases of beer. The conversation was animated, loud and utterly unintelligible to me.

It was not until the meat was cooked and on the table that anyone addressed me again. A plastic plate with an enormous pork chop and a couple of sausages was pushed across the table, along with a bottle of beer and some bread.

“Eat!”

I did.


The man with the keys approached and shook my hand brusquely. Another man joined us and asked in imperfect English, “Are you going to sleep here?”


The English speaker’s confidence grew as the meal progressed. As the number of empty bottles on the table increased, he started to translate questions directed at me. These enquiries traversed a well-worn path: where are you from? Where are you going? Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone? I did my best to answer patiently.

Certain destinations on my proposed route south and then east through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey raised loud objections.

“Albania! You can’t trust the people there! They are all criminals.”

“Turkey! But it’s too dangerous!”

I repeated what I have found to be true: people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. I insisted that this has always been my experience.

Eyes rolled and the men continued to voice doubts.

“But, you know…Muslims! They are different; they just don’t respect women! It’s their culture.”

I shrugged in the face of these knowing insinuations. What could I say? None of us had yet travelled to the places we were discussing.


I had already spent some time searching for a campsite, first in rubbish-strewn pine forest around a decaying out-of-season ski resort sprawling over the summit of a mountain, and then as I dropped down along a rocky gorge that provided dramatic views, but nothing by way of a flat, sheltered spot to pitch a tent.


The men’s attention wandered, and I sat in silence listening to them speak.

“What are they talking about?” I asked the English speaker after an interval.

“Hunting!” He laughed. “Always hunting!”

He listened to the conversation for a while and then turned to me to explain.

“We went hunting today, but didn’t kill anything. They are talking about the ones that got away. They grow bigger and bigger with each telling.”

“What language are you speaking?” I asked.

“Serbian! We are Serbs!” The answer was emphatic.

“Ah. I can’t tell.”

There was an awkward pause.

“What do you think of our country?”

I explained that people were nice, people were kind, people were hospitable. Just like all the other places I had been. Actually, to tell the truth, people are exceptionally hospitable in Bosnia. And it is beautiful, I added. I waved an airy hand, taking in the surrounding landscape; there are mountains, forests, rivers.

The men told me that life used to be better, before the war. The town on the mountaintop used to be a popular holiday destination, they said, but nobody goes there now. One of the men gestured along the valley; this area was a battlefront. The owner of the property explained that there used to be a proper house here, a hunting lodge that belonged to his father, but it was destroyed during the conflict. This hut was all they had managed to rebuild. They were still working on it.

I commiserated. It’s sad, I say. Such a beautiful country. Such nice people.


“We are honoured to meet you!” they announced collectively, and I supposed it must be on account of my courageous indifference to the regular arrival of the night.


Their attention focused on me again. Are you married? No, no. But what about children? Don’t you have children? No, I don’t. The men all had families, of course.

And then they returned to the question of fear. Aren’t you scared? Well, what of, I parried. On the whole, I prefer to deflect conversation away from the potential dangers of being a woman alone in the world, especially when I am in the company of a sizeable group of drunken men in an isolated mountain valley. They continued to ponder the matter amongst themselves and eventually I was made to understand that they themselves were frankly scared of the dark.

“We are honoured to meet you!” they announced collectively, and I supposed it must be on account of my courageous indifference to the regular arrival of the night.

I thanked the men for their kindness, for sharing their meat and bread and beer, for unhesitatingly accepting my uninvited presence amongst them. Then a question of my own occurred to me.

“And what about your wives? Do they ever come here? On the weekend, sometimes, perhaps?”

“Oh, no! Never!”

When the men opened a bottle of vodka, I pleaded weariness. I went to set up my tent, but they all insisted that I must sleep inside the hut. I rolled out my mat on the concrete floor and eventually fell asleep to the shouts and laughter of the men outside.

Compass Rose

In the days that followed these encounters, as I cycled onwards through the Bosnian mountains, fragments of the conversations recurred to me, matched by the endless iteration of my pedalling feet. History is made of these questions, their uncertain answers, the frail assumptions, the hazardous assertions—layered, bunched up, compressed and distorted, shifting and unstable. The past is never finished with. I was haunted by my uncle’s stories of pitched battles between my great-grandfather’s private imperial army and the local people going about their business in the forest. It was preposterous to imagine—as I wished to—that I had on the basis of my family’s history some ineffable connection to Bosnia’s woods. What was it they would tell me about where I was from?

Compass Rose

The muezzin’s call to prayer drifts across the lake, a perfect circle of still water in quiet conversation with the sky. A man whom I had asked for directions hours before in the valley far below greets me when I finally make it over the pass and ushers me into a tiny wooden cottage on the shores of the lake. His wife and daughter offer tiny cups of thick, syrupy coffee with crisp golden burek. Then cake, heavy and rich. We smile and gesticulate, our only shared language.

The family follow me outside, full of goodbyes and blessings, and I stand embarrassed by such an excess of hospitality. Impulsively, I proffer a paper bag full of chanterelles that I had collected near my last campsite.


It was preposterous to imagine—as I wished to—that I had on the basis of my family’s history some ineffable connection to Bosnia’s woods. What was it they would tell me about where I was from?


Lured onwards among the trees, foraging for the mushrooms, I had suddenly frozen. Was it safe to step here?

It is no idle fear. Many parts of Bosnia have not yet been cleared of mines, and while the danger areas are generally known and marked, sometimes the earth heaves and shifts unaccountably, under rainfall and snowfall, and not everybody has always returned from a walk in the woods. My ignorance amplifies my fears: what did those signs that were fastened to the trees along the road through the forest that I had been riding on say?

My ignorance is vast—all the things I do not know.

Compass Rose

I go to the lake and lean my bicycle against a boulder. The sun shines. I take off my clothes and walk down to the shore.

The water and the answering sky is a mirror that does not break as I slip into the depths. Can I catch the secret messages whispered in that ceaseless murmuring? Is it simply, I am, I am, I am? This place. Here. Now.


After a varied and unconventional career in Australia, Brazil, the UK and the Czech Republic, Anna Kortschak threw it all in to embark on a transformative adventure. She rode a bicycle, alone, from the Arctic Ocean in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Chile and then north again to Brazil, and followed up with a trip through Europe, the Balkans and Turkey.

She might have started riding without a clue of the ups and downs of bicycle travel, but by now she has written the Mexico and Central America section of the third edition of Trailblazer’s Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook and has had photos and essays appear in a variety of online and print travel and cycling publications. Her work was included in The Other Hundred Project, a collection of photo essays exploring the diversity and richness of human endeavour that were exhibited internationally and published as a display book.

Lead image: Anna Kortschak

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3 Comments

  1. Beautiful story Anna. I hope you are well. Im back in Sofia! Love Andy🙏

  2. Anna, I am spellbound by the beauty of your writing, your experience, and your reflection. Thank you.

  3. Anna: An amazing journey and exploration of self, humanity and history. I salute your intrepid adventurous spirit.

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