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Forbidden places: a journey into Europe's borderlands

Kapka Kassabova’s Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe is a timely, powerful story of immigration, friendship and travel.

When Kapka Kassabova was in her late thirties, she decided to return to the place where she had grown up, but had not seen for 25 years: the borderlands of eastern Thrace, where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet. Her parents were Bulgarian scientists who, after a spell in the UK, had settled in New Zealand, where, she writes, the Kiwi speech made “fish” sound like “fush” and “chips” like “chups”, where the stars were rearran­ged and the seasons inverted: an “upside-down world, but then it always is, for the immigrant”. It is again as an immigrant, a wanderer, that Kassabova – who now lives in the Scottish Highlands – went to find the forbidden places of her childhood.

“Forbidden” because her early years were confined by the militarised border that separated the three countries, acting as a cut-off line between the Warsaw Pact states of the Soviet bloc and Nato members, in the Western sphere of influence. Though the end of the Cold War and shared EU membership “softened” the border between Greece and Bulgaria, it was once “deadly”, she says, and it “remains prickly with dread to this day”. This is an exceptional book, a tale of travelling and listening closely, and it brings something altogether new to the mounting literature on the story of modern migration.

Kassabova started her journey on the Black Sea, dropped westwards to the border plains of Thrace, crossed the passes of the Rhodope Mountains, and made her way in a circle back to the sea again. (A better map would have been invaluable.) Everywhere she went she paused, took time to make friends and hear people’s stories, to look at her surroundings and understand them, to meditate on the nature of borders and to remember her own confined childhood, when she first became conscious that, unlike other holidaymakers to the Black Sea, she was not free to leave Bulgaria. A border, she writes, is something that you carry inside you without knowing. Like Freya Stark, who also wandered through remote parts, Kassabova has a gift for relating the past to the present: Herodotus, Atatürk and the Greek gods all accompany her on her travels.

The countryside she describes is wild, remote, sometimes scary, covered in the blackest of forests, where wolves, boar, bears and vipers are to be found, where the villages are inhabited by old people, the young having long since left, and where “entrepreneurs and consumers, desperadoes and smugglers” hold sway. She meets former border guards, traffickers, foresters and lighthouse keepers. Many of them are refugees from earlier migrations, expelled from their homes by conflicts, victims of nationalist feuds that had lain dormant for years, or the children of immigrants, whose love of their homeland is strong but who exist in a permanent sense of limbo, ever poised to flee.

With some of her new friends, she crosses backwards and forwards across the former border, travelling in cars so old it seems unlikely that they can cope with the steep mountain tracks. With others, she just sits and talks. There is Ivo the herbalist, a man with a “heroic” moustache, forced through bankruptcy to settle in what was once his holiday home, who grows aubergines as heavy as hand grenades and makes an ointment that cures everything from psoriasis to alopecia; and the divorced former teacher Ioanna, now a mountain climber, who patrols the forests for poachers, illegal loggers, drug dealers and illegal immigrants as she searches for abandoned treasure; and Mr Karadeniz, whose father was five years old when he threw a stone at a pig requisitioned by Greek soldiers and whose grandmother, fearing reprisals, whisked her son over the border to hide with Bulgarian neighbours.

Into this mix have come today’s refugees, the Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, struggling to find safe routes to the West, their journeys truncated by new wire fences and hostile officials. “Europe,” one Kurdish woman marooned in a village on the Turkish border tells her sadly, “is where you are not afraid.” She fled with her eight children to prevent them being conscripted to fight Isis; but where she will go now, no one can say. The strength of Kassabova’s book lies in the skill with which she interweaves the narrative of these people into that of the inhabitants of the borderlands, giving the context for their lives in a way that the dozens of current books on the travels and travails of modern refugees seldom do. They enter her journey, and she listens to them, as she listens to everyone. It is an important reminder that refugees are not a separate species, moving inexorably away and towards, but part of a vast, complicated pattern of history.

Everywhere she goes, Kassabova takes stock of her surroundings, the birds and the mountains, the ruined monasteries and caves, the rock formations and waterfalls. Sometimes charmed, sometimes frightened, sometimes haunted by the ghosts that seem to inhabit these lost mountainous lands, she writes about roses, about belly dancing, fire worship and dragons. Her curiosity is limitless.

Patrick Leigh Fermor once wrote about a “forlorn ultimate border of reality beyond which a cloud of legend, rumour and surmise began”. This is Kassabova’s territory. And if, at the end of the book, it is hard to name the many characters she has met, or to recall with precision the places she has visited, she leaves a vivid image of these lands and the people who occupy them. Equally powerful is her own sense of sympathy for the uprooted and dispossessed. “I felt very strongly that within my lifetime, we may all become exiles,” she writes. “That we may all be robbed by devouring daemons disguised as policy and industry, that we may all walk down some road carrying in plastic bags our memories of forests and mountains, clean rivers and village lanes.” At a moment when Hungary has promised to incarcerate all who cross its borders ­illegally, and when asylum-seekers are adrift from one end of the world to the other, Border makes for timely reading.

Caroline Moorehead’s books include “Human Cargo: a Journey Among Refugees” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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The flirting has got extremely out of hand in the latest episode of Game of Thrones

Game of Bones, more like.

Last week, we discovered the romcom residing within Game of Thrones: this week gave us all that and more. “Eastwatch”, the fifth episode of the season, didn’t have high-octane action scenes or lengthy shots of people scheming around maps. But it did have a whole lot of character building: as old allies returned, new tensions emerged and new bonds were formed. And that, my friends, resulted in truly the best thing of all: lots and lots of good, old-fashion Westerosian flirting.

We begin with Bronn and Jaime emerging from the lake: reader, they did not die. Lying on the grass together, dripping and panting. “What the fuck were you doing back there?” Bronn says angrily about Jaime nobly risking his life in his attempt to kill Daenerys. KISS! KISS! KISS! “Listen to me, cunt,” Bronn continues. “Until I get what I’m owed, a dragon doesn’t get to kill you. You don’t get to kill you. Only I get to kill you!” Possessive much? Bronn leaves Jaime looking sadly out over the lake, contemplating the wars to come.

Meanwhile, Tyrion looks sadly over the ashes of battle, contemplating the wars to come. Daenerys and Drogon are presiding proudly over the remaining soldiers, demanding they swear fealty to their new queen. Lord Tarly and his hot son Dickon refuse, and in a vaguely horrifying call back to her father’s taste for (wild)fire, Dany has them burned alive. RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son.

Dany flies Drogon back to Dragonstone, where they run into Jon Snow. Drogon and Jon’s eyes meet across an uncrowded hillside. Jon is transfixed. He gazes deeply into Drogon’s reptilian pools. He removes the glove upon his hand, that he might touch that cheek! They touch. Jon gasps. It’s steamy stuff. Then Daenerys jumps down and Jon’s attention is refocused. What a love triangle.

Dany seems moved by Jon’s connection with her enormous, dreadful son. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” She sighs. “It wasn’t the word I was thinking of,” Jon mutters, before remembering who he’s talking to. “But yes, they are. Gorgeous beasts.” It’s adorably unconvincing. They chat about her new habit of burning men alive and Jon’s past habit of taking knives to the heart. The flirting is purely restricted to the eyes but, my God, it’s there.

Until, of course, Ser Jorah Mormont turns up. Boy, this love quadrangle is heating up. Dany openly and outrageously flirts with Jorah’s new, smooth, scale-free face, calling him “an old friend”, saying things like “you look strong”. They hug for way too long. Jon scowls. I can’t wait for the scene where they fight in the fountain to the red-hot guitar chords of The Darkness!!!!

That scene arrives sooner than you’d think. After Bran has a vision of ravens flying over the White Walkers as they march on Eastwatch, he sends a raven to Jon from Winterfell. Jon finds out Arya and Bran are alive and that the White Walkers are approaching their destination. After a long debate, Dany, Jon, Tyron, Davos and Jorah all agree that the priority is to get Cersei to believe the White Walkers are real – by taking one captive and bringing it to King’s Landing. Of course, Jorah and Jon use this opportunity to dick swing in front of Dany like “No, I, The Big Man, will go beyond the Wall, because my penis is larger.” Dany absolutely loves it, doing the same facial expression she used to reserve for gazing between Daario Naharis’s naked thighs.

Even after all this, the flirting is not over for the Dragonstone club. Davos runs off to King’s Landing with Tyrion, where he discovers………. GENDRY! And, my dudes, he’s hotter than ever!! My heart truly sings. What we lost with Dickon’s death (RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son) we gain twice over with the return of the sweaty, hammer-wielding bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Davos and Gendry flirt about Gendry’s love of rowing, Davos’s aging face and being fucked, hard (by Time). Mere seconds later, as they attempt to escape in their comically tiny and unstable boat, Davos flirts with some guards about their massive erections (before Gendry murders them with his larger, harder hammer). Tyrion is impressed, muttering “He’ll do!”

Gendry makes an instant impression back at Dragonstone by refusing to hide his true identity as Davos suggests immediately introducing himself as the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, asking to join the trip to the Wall, and flirting outrageously with Jon by teasing him for being short. Jon absolutely loves it. “Our fathers trusted each other, why shouldn’t we?” Gendry says, cheerfully. (Editor’s note: thanks to the political ramifications of their friendship, both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are dead.)

Before we leave Dragonstone we pack in three more sexually-charged conversations. Tyrion flirts with Jorah. “You may not believe it, but I’ve missed you, Mormont,” he says. “Nobody glowers like you, not even Grey Worm.” In a gesture of grand romance, he gives Mormont a coin from their past, and insists he promise to make it back from The Wall alive, in order to return it. Then Jorah and Dany exchange syrupy goodbyes, Dany grabbing Jorah’s hands and Jorah kissing hers. Jon turns up and fishes for compliments. “If I don’t return, at least you won’t have to deal with the king of the North anymore.” “I’ve grown used to him,” she replies. It looks like Jorah has won the battle – but Jon will win the war.

Outside of the steamy boudoir of Dragonstone, elsewhere in Westeros, relationships are tested. In King’s Landing, Jaime confronts Cersei about Dany’s unbeatable dragons, and Olenna’s confession that she murdered Joffrey. Tyrion meets Jaime to tell him of the White Walkers and Dany’s proposition of a truce. Cersei responds with the shocking reveal that she’s pregnant, and plans to tell the world that Jaime is the father.

In Winterfell, Arya watches Sansa placate the Northern Lords as they complain about Jon – and finds Sansa not protective enough of her brother. When Sansa tries to explain the importance of diplomacy, Arya is like “just kill em all, bitch” as she is wont to do. Sansa sounds surprisingly like her brother when she says: “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.” It’s the first hint we get that while Arya is very good at murdering others and surviving herself, she’s not brilliant at managing other people – a thread that continues when she falls into a trap set by Littlefinger, who, by pretending to hide a letter from Arya, leads her straight to it. It’s the letter Sansa was forced to send to Robb when she was a prisoner of Cersei – asking him to swear fealty to her beloved King Joffrey. It’s intended to poison Arya against her sister – but I don’t buy that she would be fooled so easily

In the Citadel, Sam ignores his smart girlfriend because he’s an idiot. Gilly discovers in one of the citadel’s dusty old books that Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage in Dorne (presumably to his Dornish wife, Elia Martell) was annulled and he was remarried – possibly to Lyanna Stark. We know that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s son with Lyanna Stark - if Jon was their legitimate child, that’s a key piece of the puzzle in figuring out if Jon has a claim to the Iron Throne. Sam responds by talking over her, jacking in his maester training and leaving the city with all the useful information in. Good one, ya idiot.

Finally, Jon visits the Wall where he is reunited with the Wildlings. Tormund obviously lusts after Brienne – “the big woman” – which makes Jon chuckle with delight. He discovers the Brotherhood Without Banners in the basement, and they all flirt by insulting each other repeatedly. Jon gets to do his favourite thing of reminding everyone that there real war is the one with DEATH. “We’re all on the same side,” he insists. “We’re still breathing.” It’s a great line on which to end the episode, which closes with a shot of this ragtag bunch o’ misfits striding out beyond the wall. Will this motley crew figure out a way to work together? Will they complete their quest and secure a White Walker? Or will they discover that, all along, the real prize beyond the Wall… was friendship?

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • Bronn calling Jaime a cunt. +11. Same.
  • Jon telling Daenerys her dragons aren’t beautiful. +9. Risky move.
  • Sam just boldly butting in to a Serious Maester convention when he’s essentially their cleaner. +19.
  • Tyrion and Varis sipping wine and reading private letters. +8 each.
  • Dany openly lusting over two men and subtly encouraging them to vie for her affection. +21. This is serious bad bitch behaviour.
  • Davos seriously suggesting that Gendry rename himself “Clovis”. What the fuck kind of weird name is Clovis?! +12.
  • Davos: “Don’t mind me, all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age!” +16. Why does no one ever listen to Davos!!!
  • Gilly just casually discovering some of the most crucial information for the wars to come. +21.
  • Gilly taking no shit when Sam treats her like a total fucking idiot. +17.
  • Sam, being a total twat. -71.
  • Gendry immediately running off with Davos after five seconds in his company again and no knowledge of the task at hand. +14.
  • Gendry killing people with an enormous phallic hammer. +8.
  • Gendry discarding all advice and breezily identifying himself to a potential rival for the Iron Throne. +18
  • Gendry negging the King of the North five seconds after meeting him. +12.

That means this week’s bad bitch is Gendry!!!!! The hammer-weilding, Jon-teasing king of my life. He is closely followed by Gilly, who I strongly suspect will get her day in the sun one day soon. Congrats to both.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.