Rumiz is on familiar terms with Europe’s frontiers. And he always has been. Those borders came down around him starting the very night in 1947 when he was born in Trieste, when this small fragment of land along the Adriatic which had seen the splendour of the Austro-Hungarian empire, before joining Italy for some years after the errors and follies of the Second World War, became the “Free Territory of Trieste”.
“I remember the faces of the communist cops at the border and the Yugoslav women coming in from the countryside carrying their jugs of milk on their heads. For my parents this border was a nightmare. For me it was simply an invitation to wander, a line beyond which the mystery began.”
This curiosity, this desire to head out the door and roam, never left Paolo Rumiz. His longest journey was a zigzag along the eastern borders of the European Union, from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea. Thirty-three days, ten countries, some 6,000 kilometres on foot, by bus, by train, hitchhiking, catching rides on barges, carrying six kilos of luggage stripped of superfluous ballast – and seven notebooks.
That narrative was the first by this Italian travel writer to be published in France. A journey from top to bottom across a Europe that he found to be higher than it was wide, a journey he set out on to get as close as he could to the soul of the Slavic people of the east. It was beautiful writing suffused with shadows and sun, bathed in love and melancholia, steeped in delicate and powerful fragrances.
The fall of communism, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars
And etched with faces and stories whispered during encounters with the Sami, the last reindeer herders in the Kola Peninsula; with Father Leonid, who had been a soldier in the Russian special forces; with Alexander, a tender-hearted orphan tormented by the fear of what awaited him after two years in prison; with the monks of Solovki islands; with Mariusz, a man-wolf who slept on his stove in a house lost in the shadow of the chapel of the patron saint of vagabonds; with the magician of blinis (small, yeast-leavened, buckwheat pancakes originally from Russia); with reticent Estonians, Latvian choirs, with Old Believers on the shores of Lake Peipus; with Rita and Volodya, marked down once for all as “foreigners”, stamped in their passports; with ambitious young officers in Kaliningrad; and with Lilia, who keeps watch over an old Jewish cemetery.
The stories piece together again an atlas that has been erased by modern states, restore souls to territories that have been lost. Bothnia, Karelia, Livonia, Courland, Latgalia, Masuria, Polesie, Volhynia, Ruthenia, Podolia, Bukovina, Boudjak (between the mouth of the Danube and the lower Dniester), Bessarabia, Dobruja – all these “ancient border provinces engulfed by geopolitics”.
“A tidepool of humanity,” says Paolo Rumiz, who claims a “plural identity: Slavic in the soul, German in my approach to culture, Italian in my language – and a little bit French,” since his first journeys were made through France and he has been inspired by tales of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Nicolas Bouvier and Bernard Moitessier.
He wrote his first story at age 21. But above all, for many years, working for Il Piccolo, the Trieste newspaper, he followed the fall of communism, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars. “Clinging to the northern extremity of the Mediterranean Sea, Trieste, my city, is a seismograph, a balustrade looking out to far horizons. In the cafes it was natural to talk about what was happening abroad. Men born in my era were raised on the bread of geopolitics.”
Journalism is not always the truth
This journey to the borders of Europe Paolo Rumiz decided to set out on soon after his 60th birthday in 2007. After a night of partying to celebrate the Schengen accord, when the border around Trieste opened and the last of the Iron Curtain that symbolised the separation of Slovenia was dismantled, he realised that he was going to miss something: “the dream, the line of shadow waiting to be crossed, the feeling of the forbidden.” Then “like a salmon heading up a river,” he struck out “towards the Slavic soul.”
His travelogue will be serialised in La Repubblica. Since 2001, it has been a ritual. One month from now, Paolo Rumiz will set out on his eleventh journey for the Italian daily. The travel writing, however, fails to heal the wound left by the Balkan wars he reported on. “I felt betrayed by the blindness of Europe towards the Balkans – especially to Bosnia, where we wanted to see only Islamists where in fact there were Europeans with a Turkish culture. This powerlessness to explain, this helplessness in the face of violence against innocent people made me sick, physically. I always feel I owe something to the poor Bosnians. Later I wrote a story in verse on Bosnia, a love story that plays out from the end of the war up to 2002. Readers have grasped the poetry in a way they never understood the war correspondence. Journalism is not always the truth. Sometimes we must find another language. And so I found this decasyllable (a ten-syllable verse or word) that touched the soul. I could say things that in my entire life as a reporter I had failed to understand. Today, I am like a tightrope walker, walking between the truth of journalism and the transfiguration of poetry and fiction.”