My First Encounter of the Danube

Author: Andy Chan

danube serbia

Danube—Дунав (Dunav)

I was born and raised in Hong-Kong. As funny as it may sound, my first encounter of the Danube was not from a history textbook, or the news, but my arranged piano score “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II. This classical waltz was my first, and possibly the only understanding of the Danube. At that time I realized that the Danube is a river that flows in Europe, and a composer wrote a beautiful music about it.

We all love rivers, don’t we? They are ancient, mythical, and of course, spectacular. Strolling along the promenade, basking in the soothing sunlight and embracing the gentle tugging of the breeze, one could not help but feeling so alive and be totally amazed by the sacredness of nature. That is why people fantasize of rivers as places where cultures are exchanged, friendships are built and an inspiration for a waltz arises! Indeed, rivers are great, and they are very impressive. However, as I sailed along in this Danubian journey, I learnt the other side of the Danube.



Myth 1: Danube connects people physically

In some way, yes, people did move up and down the Danube; in reality, the Danube has always been a border/barrier between countries. For instance, it was the natural border used by the Roman Empire, and during cold war, the Danube was the frontier between Czechoslovakia and Austria. Even today, countries in the Balkans form their border according to the Danube—like Romania and Bulgaria.

Myth 2: The Danube connects people linguistically
Not necessarily. Languages are related to each other often by their shared history, culture and traditions, rather than by their geographical location. A good example would be Hungary and Romania. Both countries are essentially next to each other, but they belongs to two different groups of language families—the former in the Uralic family, while the latter in the Indo-European family, and such difference is due to their respective history, like empires which conquered them.

Myth 3: The Danube leads to economic prosperity along its region
Sadly, this is not true either. The Danube was un-navigable until the 19thcentury, due to the Iron Gate and the Danube Bent. Also, it flows in the wrong way—from the north to south. That means the produce in the Balkans cannot be easily transported to the economic powerhouse at the time, Germany and central Europe, where demand for food and natural resources were huge. So basically, there were not a lot of trade activities and flows of goods along the Danube until recently. (In fact, the map of Danube was drawn wrong until 1820, when people started to think of making use of the Danube).

1871 Iron Gate Danube
1871 Print of the Iron Gates on the Danube

Myth 4: The Danube helps people living around it
That WAS true, but after major artificial transformation during the 19th century, marshlands, which made use of the Danube flooding water by storing them in irrigation systems, were replaced by arable lands further away from the Danube. And recent flooding in the Balkans proves that it wreaked havoc in the Danubian region. Furthermore, in the movie “The mosquito problem and other stories”, it shows living by the Danube could be a nightmare than a bliss—as the river serves as the breeding ground for the mosquitoes’ larvae. The residents there even joked “the only way to solve the mosquito problem is to live with them!”

Myth 5: Danube is as romantic and blue as depicted by the Danube waltz
Unfortunately, after heavy industrialization along the Danube during the 20th century, pollutants from factories, fertilizers/ harmful chemicals from modern farmlands and contaminations from the two dams and travel cruise along the Danube render the Danube as “brownish or greyish”.

The Danube can both connect and divide nations culturally, economically and politically. It can give birth to a unique culture of its own – a Danubian culture. This is the theme we are addressing in our Smmer School. In the future, I hope the Danube could serve as an ambassador to connect, rather than divide, nations across the Balkans.

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