In her lecture ‘Up Down and Across the River’, Wendy Bracewell gave us a fascinating introduction to the extensive body of travel writing based on authors’ voyages to different countries along the Danube. By looking at a diverse cross section of accounts it soon became clear that in almost every case the author’s preconceived ideas of the particular place were so ingrained that they would inevitably influence any observations made upon arrival. An old Etonian writer, for example, could not help but compare any place he went with his beloved alma mater. This idea gave rise to discussion about stereotypes and how once someone has been exposed to clichés, regardless of their validity it is impossible to distance themselves from these when forming an opinion on a place. This was particularly evident in Negley Farson’s 1926 work, Sailing Across Europe, in which he comments on the ‘dandified officers in French blue with painted cheeks and red lips’. In this case, Farson, having heard reports that it was commonplace for those in the army who held rank above that of major to use cosmetics, could not avoid seeing this, despite the fact that such tales were unlikely to be true.
It quickly became apparent that these stereotypes continue to live on today, perhaps as a result of a vicious cycle, in which depictions of a place are constantly influenced by the artist’s predetermined notions. David Černý’s controversial statue, Entropa, commissioned in 2009 to celebrate the Czech Republic’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, confirmed the ever-pervasive nature of received ideas regarding European countries. The piece angered many by depicting nations as their stereotypes (Romania, for example was depicted as a ‘Vampire Theme Park’), however it could not be denied that these stereotypes continued to live on in the minds of many and that they persisted in affecting the image that a lot of people had of a place. The question was then raised about the divide between Eastern and Western Europe and whether this stemmed more from set ideas of foreign nations rather than actual differences. In our tutorial group we carried on the discussion, considering how these issues affect Romania in particular. Romania, for example, is often thought to be a Mediterranean Country, despite its harsh winters, which sometimes see temperatures as low as -20°C. It was interesting to note as well, that for some of our group the reason for choosing Romanian language was the common portrayal of Romania as a mystical and magical place.
In our afternoon language session, we were introduced to the complicated world of Romanian noun and verb endings. This lesson soon proved to be rather satisfying as we were able to draw comparisons to our native languages and, indeed, to other languages we had studied, which allowed us to gain a better understanding of the structure of Romanian itself.
Later on, we were further immersed in Danubian culture as we were treated to three ‘storytellers’ accounts of their upbringings in Danubian countries and how they were affected by the multilingualism that is so common in this part of the world. Through their heartwarming, and often humorous tales, it became evident how confusing it can be when one is not certain of what to call their ‘mother tongue’. The day came to an end with a sampling of a number of different Danubian delicacies. For many of us it was our first time experiencing such cuisine, and we were definitely impressed!
All in all it was another great day in our exciting journey along the Danube.