broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “October, 2018”

The Gender Question: My Pronouns

The Gender Question_ Unpacking my Pronouns

The Gender Question: Unpacking

My Pronouns

H. Bradford

10/21/18

Wednesday October 17th was the first International Gender Pronouns Day.  The goal of the day is to raise awareness of gender pronouns, including referring to people by their preferred pronouns and normalizing asking about the pronouns.  In activist circles, this is increasingly becoming commonplace.  Recently, both of my workplaces asked me for my preferred gender pronouns.  But, I can remember just a few years ago when I was asked for the first time to publicly announce my pronouns.  This is a reflection of how I felt and my own gender journey.

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The first meeting that I was asked to use my preferred gender pronouns caught me off guard.  I felt afraid and unsure of what to say.  I knew what the expected answer was…she/her/hers….and I felt afraid to say anything but the pronouns that would match my outward appearance.  I didn’t answer at all.  Meeting after meeting, I didn’t answer.  I dreaded when it was my turn to share.  I would simply say my name and something else (for instance what group I was in or why I was there), avoiding the question or trying to bury the question in other information.  Only a few times was I called out.  “Oh, you forgot to share your pronouns!”  I wanted the question to go away.  It seemed like some hokey, liberal trend to be inclusive- but really, it felt like an interrogation into the walled up parts of myself.   I have wrestled with gender identity, but came to no conclusions or worse, no plan of action.  Thus, I have slid through life avoiding the question and relegating it to some condemned, musty, walled off part of myself that could be attended to when I had the time, courage, or emotional safety.  The “gender question” asked at activist meetings forced it out of the dark corner that I had been avoiding.  I resented that.  No one shines a light in my haunted house! Image result for haunted house

Mn State Fair Haunted House


For some context, I have felt alienated by my femaleness.  It started sometime around the 5th grade.  I didn’t want to grow up to be female…or the “w” word.  I didn’t want breasts or a period.  I didn’t want curves or for people to see me as a woman.  I didn’t want to become…such an alien thing.  It is a feeling that has hung around.  I could provide more details or examples, as often creating a narrative of lifelong questioning is necessary for legitimacy.  But, I don’t care to and legitimacy does not have to be rooted in history and long stories.  In any event, despite feeling un-female, I wondered what alternative existed for me.  What else could I be and how could I become it?   Despite these feelings, I have generally presented myself in a feminine way (to some degree), with makeup, shaved body, and long hair.  Thus, to question or feel disgusted by and alien from my body and biological/social lot seemed disingenuous.   Worse, when I have talked to some people close to me over the years, the reactions have been that I must be mentally ill or just trying to be trendy….because gender dysphoria is cool.   This left me feeling a bit lost and defeated.  By my 30s I tried not to think too deeply about it.  That is…until that pesky question kept coming up!


I started to test out answers.  Mostly, when it came up, I said I go by she/her/hers and they/them/theirs.  No one cared.  The question moved on to the next person.  This was nice and gave me more confidence.  No one stopped the whole thing and said, “Wait!  You are NOT they, them, theirs…. you are just trying to be trendy here!  Call the gender police.”  Or, “They, them, theirs is for MORE androgynous looking people.  Clearly you wear makeup and have long hair.  You are not constructing gender properly.”  In the few instances where I felt that I needed to give an explanation, I said that I was gender questioning.  By cautiously answering…but being met with zero reaction or questioning, I began to feel more comfortable.   These questions felt invasive and loaded at first, but it turned out it was not an inquisition. Image result for gender police


What am I?  I feel weird calling myself a woman.  It just seemed so…not me.  It seems like a special title reserved for some other people.  I didn’t ask for this body.  There are parts of it I would be happy to be rid of.  At the same time, I think she/her/hers is appropriate for me.  Despite how I might feel about myself, the world sees me as female.  I am treated like a woman.  Each time I fear for my safety or am treated as “less than” a man, I am living a female experience in a female body (I don’t mean this to reify biological gender, but as a shared experience of oppression).  I feel safer in female spaces than in spaces dominated by men and I feel like I do not behave or present in a fashion that is gender queer enough for trans or non-binary spaces.  I present myself in a “feminine” way.  I have been subjected to and subjugated by female gender norms.  I fear aging.  I fear becoming too ugly or too fat.  My presentation of self is still very much governed by patriarchal gender norms for women.   At the same time, gender is socially constructed.  There is no feminine.  Long hair and makeup can be masculine, androgynous, feminine, or really anything or nothing at all.  Despite the arbitrary nature of these rules, my presentation has social meaning that is associated with femaleness.  I could reject this, but there is no real way to reject this as reconstructing gender usually hinges upon gender tropes.  Binary gender is such a part of our cognitive landscape that it is hard to escape.  Inevitably, it depends upon rejecting what is viewed as masculine, feminine, mixing up these characteristics, or inventing something androgynous (which is often stereotyped as thin and skewed towards masculine).  She/her/hers is also useful in showing solidarity with women.  I am a feminist.  Maybe I don’t always feel like a woman, but I live in this world perceived and treated as one.  I experience oppression as a woman and she/her/hers can be useful gender shorthand for these experiences and my solidarity with those who also experience this.


Although I am she/her/hers….I am also not these things.  It feels like gender is Schroedinger’s cat, which both IS and ISN’T.  Both things exist in the box that is myself.  I am female in body and experience, but also not these things, both because there is no female body and universal female experience and because I feel alien from the female parts of me (whatever those may be).   This is hard to explain.  To address the first aspect of my non-femaleness, well, femaleness does not really exist.  What is female?  Breasts, certain hormones, certain chromosomes, vaginas, or other biological characteristics?  Some females have some of these characteristics and not others, have all of these to varying degrees, or have some of these in some parts of life and not in others.   I have some biological markers of being female, but I do not necessarily want them, and being female is more than just biological rules and boundaries (which are themselves socially determined).   I would be happy to not have breasts, for instance.  I have always hated them.  I am actually really happy that mine are small, since I really don’t want these female associated appendages hanging off my body.  They serve no purpose in my life.  I have no intention of breast feeding, which seems like a body horror, nor enjoy their utility in sexual attraction.  Yes, I called it a body horror.  I feel that chest feeding can be wonderful and nourishing for OTHERS who are not alienated by their bodies, but to me existing in this body, the very thought of it seems like a torturous humiliation.  In this sense, and others that I won’t share, I am very much not a woman.


Femaleness is also related to gender roles, expected behaviors, and social position.   Where do I fit in to that?  Sure, I think that I am “feminine”, but I think that this is one facet of who I am and more or less just a part of the full constellation of human traits that everyone shares to varying degrees.  I am not “feminine” in some ways, in that I don’t necessarily follow female gender roles.  I am not particularly nurturing, not at all motherly or maternal, am emotionally reserved, not much for traditional roles of care giving and cleaning, independent and self-reliant, not romantic, generally more rational and scientific than spiritual or emotional, etc.  Once again, these are characteristics that get divied up between masculine and feminine, but are not inherently either.  Still, I think that bodily, emotionally, and socially, I have traits that I feel are masculine, feminine, and androgynous.  I don’t feel a close affinity with my femaleness, but I don’t entirely reject it either.  Thus, I really like they, them, their as gender pronouns.  I also like to go by H. as well as Heather, since I think it represents my non-binary self.   Heather is very feminine in our society.  I used to hate my name because of it.  However, I am trying to accept that Heather is just a plant.  It is a flower that grows in rocky, boggy conditions- with no innate femininity, masculinity, or androgyny.  The sound of the word Heather is not feminine, as people in other countries have similar sounding names which are pegged as masculine- such as Hadir in Arabic speaking countries.  I can be Heather and not necessarily be feminine.  But, I do enjoy when friends call me H.

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Gender is complicated.  I don’t have the answers.  I consider myself gender questioning because I haven’t arrived at my final destination.  I don’t know that I will.  There may be times in my life that I embrace my femaleness more.  Other times, it may be a source of pain and humiliation.  I haven’t always enjoyed getting asked what my pronouns are, but at the very least, I am starting to feel more confident.  At this point, I feel confident enough to say that yes, there is a they, them, their part of myself.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t look or behave in a non-binary way or reject gender enough.  I don’t need to be legitimate in anyone else’s eyes.  It is gender that is illegitimate, not me.  Even if my feelings ARE the result of being trendy or mentally ill, why stigmatize either? Traditional concepts of gender (and sex) benefit no one but those at the top of our patriarchal, capitalist economic system.   As my life progresses, perhaps I will feel bolder and ask to be H. or they, them, their more often.  Perhaps not.  For now, this is where I am at.  Thanks for asking.

 

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Anxious Adventuring: Glacier Hike

Anxious Adventuring_Glacier Hike

Anxious Adventuring: Glacier Hike

H. Bradford

10/18/18

Iceland offers an endless array of opportunities for adventure.  Unfortunately, I only had a few days in Iceland, so I had to prioritize what I wanted to see.  I packed a lot into each day but had to determine what I would do on my final day in the country.  I narrowed it down to something related to volcanoes (such as lava tube exploring) or glaciers.  In the end, I chose a glacial activity since volcanoes will be around for a while but glaciers are in critical global decline.  Hence, I decided to go on a southern coast day tour of Iceland which included a glacier hike.  The tour company that I used for the day trip was Gray Line, but there are many day trip tour companies in Iceland.  The glacier that I visited was Solheimajokull, which is part of Mýrdalsjökull an ice cap that sits on top of the Katla volcano.  I was informed by the guide that as a result of climate change, there will not be any glaciers in Iceland in 100- 150 years.  Visitors to Solheimajokull can see how much the glacier has retreated in just the last ten years and it was melting as we walked on it.

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I was not particularly anxious about the glacier hike, even though I have never been on a glacier before.  My primary concerns were that it was going to be cold, slippery, and physically challenging.  About five people from our larger South Coast tour opted for the hike, with the vast majority continuing on for more sedate adventures.  When we arrived, we were outfitted with a harness, crampons, and ice axe.  The instructions did not feel quite as intense as the snorkeling instructions at Silfra.  We were told not to shuffle our feet, to trust the crampons, and how to hold the ice axe in a stable manner (i.e. not impale ourselves or others).  With those instructions, we set off towards the glacier.  It was about a fifteen minute hike from the parking lot to the beginning of the glacier.  Once we were close enough, we strapped crampons onto our boots.  Thus, a person would obviously want to pack hiking boots for this particular adventure (though, I believe they can also be rented).

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The first part of the glacial hike involved climbing up and down small hills.  In some parts, there were makeshift steps carved into the ice and snow.  Other parts required straddling small rivers of melting water and stepping over minor crevices.  From a cardio perspective, this was sometimes a little challenging, or at least got my heart rate up.  This is important to note because I was worried that the glacier would be cold.  After all, it is ice.  However, the giant mounds of ice broke up the wind and I actually felt pretty warm once I got moving.  I quickly shed layers and realized that I was wearing too much (fleece lined water resistant pants with leggings underneath and two sweaters + a jacket and wool headband).  On the other hand, I was not wearing a water proof jacket.  So, I got soggy as it rained for most of the hike.  When we stopped to look at the scenery, I became cold and tried to put on layers again.  Rain jackets can be rented for about $10 before the hike commences, which would have been a smart idea.  However, at the beginning of the hike, there was only a small drizzle, so I didn’t think it would be an issue.  Based upon this experience, I would suggest that the cold is not the major weather condition to worry about- rather rain, sweat, and moisture in general.

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When we reached the glacial plateau, we stopped to take in the scenery and got a closer look at some larger holes in the glacier.  We used a rope to lean in for a safe view of a large moulin, or a circular shaft in the ice carved by water.  There was time for photos and the guide taught us a little about glaciers.  After about 20 minutes of hanging out, we turned back…down.  This was where things went down hill for me.  I came upon a gentle, but icy slope that I didn’t feel comfortable going down.  I had a hard time trusting that my feet were not going to slip or that I would not simply tumble forward.  I hesitated, got a little stuck, and stumbled a little.  I didn’t fall or even loose my balance, but it was enough to make the guide uneasy and keep me towards the front of the group.  Yep, so like the snorkeling adventure, I got to be the guide’s sidekick.  From then on, I felt very self-conscious and over-thought each step.  I did my best not to shuffle, so I over exaggerated my steps.  At one point, I lost my balance for a moment- but immediately caught myself without incident, falling, or any stumbling.  However, since the nearest hospital was over an hour away and the guide mentioned that people had died hiking on the glacier, I remained haunted by a mistrust of my feet and sense of balance.  Like anything, over thinking can be paralyzing.  In the end, I never fell or came close to falling, but I definitely felt happy when it was over.  Unlike the snorkeling, I ended with a diminished sense of self confidence.  I mean really….why can’t I trust my feet?!!

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The glacial hike, like the snorkeling, is a beginner’s adventure- and as such, most anyone of reasonable health and balance should be able to complete the hike without incident.  Since I often hike or go for long walks, I didn’t enter the activity with much anxiety.  Really, it was not until the hike back (with more walking down hill) that I felt uneasy about the activity.  I am not sure what I could have done differently, except maybe to make sure the crampons were more secure on my boots- since they seemed a little too loose on the way back.  Once I started thinking too hard about each step, I seemed more prone to faltering- but- it was impossible NOT to think of each step since I didn’t want to stumble!  Overall, I would say the hike was worth it.  The three hour activity passed quickly and it was pretty neat to traverse a glacier.  While there probably isn’t much I can do to overcome my discomfort of going down slopes, at least I learned how to better prepare for such a hike in terms of what to wear.   I felt disappointed with myself for not being better at descending from the glacial plateau.  On the other hand, only five people out of over 25 people on the larger tour, went on the glacial hike…so I can be happy that I at least tried it!  I feel fortunate to have the privilege of visiting a glacier, as future generations are unlikely to have this opportunity if the necessary changes to our economic system are not made soon.

Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

Anxious Adventuring: Nationalist Tour Guide

Anxious Adventuring_ guide

Anxious Adventuring: Nationalist Tour Guide

H. Bradford

10/8/18

While visiting Macedonia I decided to go on a day tour to Lake Ohrid.  It would have been far cheaper to take a public bus, but I had some worries that perhaps the bus would be overbooked or that I would miss the bus back to Skopje.  To make things less stressful, I booked a day tour to Lake Ohrid.  Of course, Macedonia does not have an expansive tourist industry, so most day tours are private tours.  Private tours are expensive, but they make it easier to learn about different historical sights than I would have learned on my own.  Another downside, besides price, is that it can be socially awkward.  After all, it means that the guide is your only company ALL day long.  That is a lot of social pressure on both parties.  Many things could go wrong.  What if the guide is weird?  What if the guide makes me feel unsafe?  What if we simply don’t get along?  I don’t often do private tours because of the price and the social component.  But, it seemed easier than making a mistake using the bus system in an unfamiliar country for a several hour bus ride that at least online was said to be often sold out… so I booked a guide.

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Beautiful Lake Ohrid…


I waited anxiously at my hostel for the guide to arrive.  When he arrived, I felt disappointed that it was a man, since it always feels safer to be alone with women.  I wasn’t entirely alone though, since he had a driver with him.  It made me feel tense, as these two men were to be my company for the day.  Oh well.  The guide was nice enough…and handed me some brochures about various Macedonian tourist attractions.  He gave me an overview of how the day would go and we set off towards our first stop, the mouth of the Vardar river.  Along the way, he shared his knowledge of Macedonia, which he was very passionate and knowledgeable about.  Based upon his particular slant on the information he shared, it became clear that he was….very nationalist. Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

First stop…Vardar River (one of many photos of me that day…)


The guide, who I will call “A.” strongly believed that Macedonia was indeed the homeland of Alexander the Great and that the people of Macedonia, while Slavs, had actually mixed with the ancient Macedonian population.  He substantiated this belief with stories of how some villages continue to conduct group weddings.  He believed that group weddings  were a custom modeled after Alexander the Great’s mass wedding held in Susa wherein marriages were arranged between Alexander and his officers and Persian noblewomen.  This was an interesting theory, though there are many reasons to hold collective weddings (for instance, to save time and to share costs).  He was a strong advocate for a boycott of the referendum, as he felt that if it passed, Greece would have control over street names, statues, books, school curriculum, stadiums, or even outlaw the use of the name Alexander as a given name.  I didn’t quite understand why the referendum would be boycotted rather than simply “vote NO.”  Since the failure of the referendum, I now understand that voter turnout needed to be at least 50% for it to be valid.  To A., the very idea that the matter would be voted upon was insulting.  He felt deeply that not only were Macedonians the inheritors of Alexander the Great’s legacy, Greece had no business telling Macedonia what to do.  This was not framed as an anti-Nato or anti-EU sentiment.  A. also made no indication that he had a pro-Russian political orientation.  His position was, however, a vehemently anti-Greek position.  He spoke about the oppression of Slavic people in Greek Macedonia and believed that the majority of this population still spoke Macedonian (it is unknown how many speakers there are, but in 1951 it was 40,000).  I nodded along to his assertions, but didn’t know what to say when he went on a tirade about how Alexander the Great was not bisexual or gay and this was a myth propagated by Hollywood.  Nationalism, while it has reasonable aspects (yes, Macedonia should have the autonomy to determine its own name and interpretation of history) can also be deeply intolerant, angry, masculine, and homophobic… at least that is the brand of nationalism that I experienced with A.

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For my part, I mostly played dumb and asked questions, since that is often the safest way to act out the role of a non-threatening female around angry men.  In any event, I did not want to risk upsetting the person responsible for my safety and transportation.  The day had many awkward moments, as A. had a very pushy personality.  For instance, he insisted that he needed to take my photo at every stop we made.  At churches, rivers, lakes, statues, etc.  I politely told him many times that I was content to have just a few photos of myself, but he pushed to take my photo at every stop, harassing me with compliments about how I looked.  This was uncomfortable, but I lacked any power in the situation to escape this barrage of photos.  I did my best to make polite excuses not to take more photos of myself (usually I have the opposite problem that as a solo traveler I have to ask a stranger for a photo or use the self-timer on my camera).  This was to no avail and a familiar experience.  Consent and boundaries are only dimly understood among most people and part of living and traveling in this world is experiencing situations where these are violated, ignored, or pushed.  Likewise, A. was very devoutly Orthodox.  When we visited two monasteries, he insisted that I drink the water.  I didn’t want to drink the water, since I didn’t trust that it was not going to make me sick (untreated water contains unfamiliar bacteria that he might be used to, but I could get sick from).  He pushed me to drink the water, which he asserted was the purest water in the world.  I took a small sip to appease him and later found myself pretending to drink the water by cupping it in my hand, putting it to my mouth, but letting it slip through my fingers.  When asked about my religious beliefs, I felt it was best to lie- as he was extremely devout in his Orthodoxy.  I told him I was Protestant.  I don’t think I have ever lied about my atheism.  At one point, he told me to light the candles at the monastery.  I am not Orthodox, so I felt uncomfortable, but he was so adamant about it, I lit the candle.  Then, he quizzed me about what it meant.  I had no idea.  He said that the candles are lit because of the sins in the world.  I said something awkward about darkness and suffering, then moved on to ponder the miraculous dripping bone marrow of John the Baptist.

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Things became less socially intense when we arrived at Lake Ohrid.  I opted to spent some time alone there and enjoyed blissful social isolation as I strolled around the lake looking for birds and taking in the scenery.  At Lake Ohrid, the guide and I parted ways.  I appreciate that he was very candid about his political beliefs and I felt that it had been a unique opportunity to speak with someone with strong nationalist views.  On the other hand, I was relieved to no longer feel pressured for photographs or to sample water or any other thing that had made me feel uncomfortable during the day.  I survived!  The ride back to Skopje was less stressful.  I had an enjoyable conversation with the more politically moderate driver who was pro-EU and pro-NATO.  He was pessimistic about Macedonia’s future and largely indifferent to Greek’s demands, since Macedonia was too weak to resist it and Alexander the Great was not worth celebrating anyway.  The driver felt that Macedonia was a unimportant, doomed nation (so he lacked A.’s zealous confidence in Macedonia’s purpose and history).  It was interesting to hear this perspective, even if it came across as a dreary pro-Western defeatism.  Despite the polar opposite views on Macedonia’s history, both men agreed upon the horrible prospect of “Greater Albania.”  When I spoke to a very progressive guide the following day, she also feared Greater Albania.  So, oddly, that was the tie that bound the political spectrum- fear of Albanian territorial, economic, and population expansion.  I am not sure what to make of that…

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My guides often pointed out whenever they saw an Albanian flag…


I think it is both rude and privileged to put down my guide, as he was extremely hard working and passionate about his job.  In a group setting, I probably would have felt far less uncomfortable and anxious.  He was uncomfortably pushy in some regards and it was emotionally exhausting to try to balance politeness (for safety and a smooth day) and resistance (not wanting to drink unknown water, for instance).   I have had experiences like this before while traveling and living, which I have navigated differently depending upon my own perceived power in the situation (which is often little).  In any event, as trying as the day felt at some points, it was an opportunity to see and hear nationalism first hand.  Despite my support of Macedonian self-determination, on a personal level, nationalism feels smothering, assertive, and intolerant.

I am fairly certain that this AP photo by Thanassis Stavrakis of a Macedonian nationalist is a picture of my tour guide….

What’s in a name? Macedonia’s Referendum

What's in a Name_ Macedonia's Referendum

What’s in a Name? Macedonia’s Referendum

H. Bradford

10/7/18


I traveled to Macedonia this past September as a part of a three week trip that took me to several countries.   The trip occurred just ahead of Macedonia’s September 30th referendum to change the country’s name from Republic of Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) to North Macedonia (among other things).  It was an interesting time to visit the country, since there were activists campaigning for a boycott of the referendum.  Some of them handed out fliers and others appeared to maintain an encampment near Park Warrior Woman.   On the surface, the referendum seems simple enough, as it asked whether or not Macedonians were in favor of NATO and EU membership by accepting an agreement with Greece.  The Prespa Agreement with Greece entails a name change, but also means that the constitution would have to acknowledge that Macedonians are not related to ancient Macedonians and there would have to be Greek review of maps and textbooks to make certain that that Macedonia did not claim Hellenistic heritage or Greek territory. While I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to many Macedonians on the issue, I did speak to three of them, each of whom had different opinions on the vote.  I also read several books on Macedonian history before the trip, which at least provided some context to the debate.  My opinion is informed by these experiences. Image may contain: one or more people, shoes, tree, sky, crowd and outdoor


Macedonia was one of the six republics of Yugoslavia and among them it was the poorest, with an economy centered upon agriculture.  Within Yugoslavia, Macedonian national identity was promoted through the development of film, theater, music, art, language, etc.  Nationalism was cultivated in such a way as not to promote independence from Yugoslavia or overt territorial ambitions against Greece or Bulgaria in the interest of uniting Macedonians.  The collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 presented an economic and identity crisis.  In forging a new identity, Macedonia certainly has unique history and language to draw from, as the country is full of ancient Christian churches and monasteries and Macedonian language influenced St. Cyril’s Glagolitic script, the first Slavic alphabet.  Language and orthodoxy are two components of Macedonian national identity, and the Macedonian Orthodox church declared itself autocephalus in 1967.  However, its autonomy is not recognized by the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy.  While these are important parts of Macedonian nationalism, it seems that a great deal of Macedonian nationalism today draws from the ancient history of Alexander the Great, which Greece takes issue with.   And…Macedonia draws from this history to the extreme.  A visit to Skopje feels like a tour of an Alexander the Great theme park, with enormous statues of Alexander the Great, Phillip II, Alex’s mother Olympia, and Greek style buildings.

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Most scholars find little continuity between the Macedonia of Alexander the Great and modern Republic of Macedonia.  Alexander the Great was believed to have been born in Pella, in modern Greek Macedonia in 356 BC.  Of course, the division between Greek Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia is a construct of the Ottoman empire, nationalist struggles that aided the empire’s collapse, and borders drawn from the Balkan wars of the early 1900s.  In any event, the Macedonia of Alexander the Great or Phillip II appears to mostly cover Greek Macedonia, with parts of modern day Republic of Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria.  I have seen maps that extend this border further north as far as half way up Republic of Macedonia, but this doesn’t really matter as “Macedonia” as a place has encompassed different areas in different times.  The Macedonians today are Slavic people, who settled in the region in the 6th century, nearly 600 years after the death of Alexander the Great.  Therefore, Greeks argue that Republic of Macedonia has appropriated their history.  On the other hand, Alex, a Macedonian I spoke to, believed that Slavic people mixed with the Macedonian population, preserving some of their customs and history.   Macedonia would have experienced invasion from Huns, Visgoths, Vandals, as well as Roman rule prior to Slavs entering the scene.  History is contentious and while Republic of Macedonia is unlikely to be the geographic and cultural inheritor of Alexander the Great’s legacy, all nations are build upon myths and borrowings.

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All nations are human constructions.  After all, the Earth, as seen from space, does not have neat little lines delineating borders or handy name tags for rivers, countries, mountains, etc.  These are things that we have named and given meaning to.  In the case of nation states, this is a fairly recent phenomenon of unifying peoples, cultures, languages, and geographical spaces into recognized political units.  This didn’t happen neatly, accidentally, or uniformly.  Africa consists of nations carved out and patched together by European colonizers.   The United States, as a nation, was built by genocide, warfare, slavery, colonization, civil war, imperialism, and also by accompanying and supporting mythologies of manifest destiny, exceptionalism, moral justification, pluralism, and democracy.  And, like much of the West, part of our national mythology draws from Ancient Greece.  We appropriate Greek architecture, as many of our government buildings and statues have Greek themes and columns.   Lighthouses, juries, theater, democracy, our alphabet, the Olympics, math, science, philosophy, art, libraries, etc. are parts of ancient Greek culture that have been widely appropriated by the West.  We created movies and television shows based upon Greek mythology which are often inaccurate or re-imagined for mass audiences.  Yet, Greece does not take issue with all of these borrowings from their history, even when many are likewise not accurate reconstructions of myths, ideas about democracy, architectural styles, etc.  Why Macedonia?  Why Alexander the Great? Image may contain: sky, cloud, bridge and outdoor

A very Greek looking Museum of Archaeology in Skopje…


From a practical standpoint, borrowing from Ancient Greece is so commonplace that much of it probably happens without thought or notice. On the other hand, Greece does not have the means to threaten the United States or most of Europe even if they were to misappropriate ancient Greek history.  For example, there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, which, of course, is even more outrageously ahistorical than any Macedonian claim to Alexander the Great.  Suppose Greece took issue with this.  The United States has the largest GDP in the world, whereas Greece is around 50th.  While Greece spends over 2.3% of its GDP on military (for which it was praised by Trump), this spending (about 9.3 billion dollars) is dwarfed  by the $590 billion spent by the United States on defense each year.  Greece has little economic, political, or military power to challenge most other members of NATO or the EU for any misuse of Greek culture or history.   At the same time, Greece is in a much more powerful position than Macedonia.  Although Macedonia’s government has vowed to increase military spending as it seeks NATO membership, as of 2017 military spending was less than 1% of the GDP at just under 110 million dollars.   In terms of 2015 GDP, Macedonia was the sixth poorest country in Europe, after Moldova, Ukraine, Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia Herzegovina and a 27% unemployment rate.   Greece’s unemployment rate was also around 25% in 2015 and the population has suffered austerity measures and shaky EU membership in the face of a debt crisis that was spurred by the larger global financial crisis of 2008.  Nevertheless, Greece has more political and economic power than Macedonia for a number of reasons including its long established NATO membership (since 1951), EU membership (a part of predecessor organization the European Community since 1981), longer history as an independent country (Macedonia became an independent country in 1991 compared to Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829), larger population and area (population of 10 million versus 2 million in Macedonia), larger and better equipped military, etc.  In short, Greece is much more powerful than Macedonia and therefore far more able to enforce its claims to culture, history, and national identity.

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Phillip II statue in Skopje…with scenes of Alexander the Great’s life


Since Macedonia’s 1991 independence, Greece has exerted its relative power to thwart Macedonia’s existence as….Macedonia.  In the 1990s, Greece imposed an economic embargo against Macedonia and blocked its UN membership.  In 2008, Greece vetoed Macedonia’s NATO membership and in 2009, its bid for EU membership.  In 1993, Macedonia agreed to the official name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in exchange for UN membership and in 1995, agreed to change the flag by removing the Vergina Sun used as the royal symbol of ancient Macedonia (Gjukovikj, 2018).  This past summer, Greek and Macedonian governments sought to come to an agreement which would pave the way for Macedonia’s NATO membership.  This agreement entailed a name change to North Macedonia,  renouncing any claim to ancient Macedonia history and Greek territory, removal of all public uses of the Vergina sun, recognition of Greece’s territorial integrity (i.e. no territorial claims to Greek Macedonia), committee oversight of textbooks and historical materials, and various articles more generally related to trade, defense, crime, treaty enforcement, etc.  The Prespa agreement can be read here: https://www.thenationalherald.com/204203/the-full-text-of-greece-fyrom-agreement-pdf/


I have a soft spot for Macedonia, as it very much seems like the underdog in this situation.  It is impossible to imagine an outside country setting the terms of how the United States can interpret its history or what symbols we can use on our flag or in our public spaces.  It seems absurd that Macedonia cannot be Macedonia….as if national identity is some sacred truth!  Certainly cultural appropriation is not a small matter, but generally the injustice stems from the powerful appropriating the history and culture of the oppressed.  In this case, Macedonia is the smaller power with less leverage to define itself or maintain an autonomous existence.  While Macedonians certainly appropriate Hellenistic culture to nationalist ends, Greece historically has extinguished and denied Slavic culture in Greek Macedonia.  After Macedonia was divided by Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria in 1913, Greece replaced Slavic geographical and family names in Greek Macedonia with Greek ones and designated the Macedonian population “Bulgarians.”  In 1936, Macedonian language was outlawed in Greece and many Macedonians, who often were also leftists, either fled the country or faced political repression.  In 1951, 40,000 people in Northern Greece still considered themselves Slavophiles despite the decades of repression. No census of Slavic speakers has been conducted since (Karadis, 1994).  As recent as 1994, Human Rights Watch called upon Greece to stop harassment of Slavic speakers and in 1998, the European Court of Human Rights called upon Greece to allow its people free association by granting permission for the formation of Slavic cultural associations (Karatsareas, n.d.).  Greece many not formally recognize what remains of its aging Slavic speaking population, but the assertion of territorial integrity in the Prespa agreement at some level admits that the 1913 borders (which included Greek Macedonia) is contentious.  Why?  Macedonia lacks the military, political, or economic means to challenge Greece’s borders and the Slavic population of Greece Macedonia has been Hellenized to the degree that there is little threat of an independence/unification movement.   It seems that rather than a real Macedonian threat to Greece’s national integrity, this aspect of the agreement is meant to establish that Greece has “won” at history or any debate to the nature of Greece Macedonia’s geographic or cultural makeup is over.


Unfortunately, Macedonia’s right to be Macedonia (i.e. its right to self-determination), is not supported in the West.  While I was visiting Macedonia, Angela Merkel came to Skopje in support of voting yes in the referendum.  NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also visited Skopje that week.  The U.S state department, former president George W. Bush,  U.S. secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and President Trump each encouraged Macedonians to vote yes.  In fact, $8 million was approved by congress to fund a yes vote (Tisdale, 2018).  I imagine that to most people, Macedonia’s path to EU and NATO membership is viewed positively, as becoming closer to the West is blithely viewed as a way to become more prosperous, progressive, globally integrated, or any number of positive things.  But, at what cost?  In this case, the immediate cost is self-determination on even the most basic issue of maintaining the autonomy to choose by what name the country calls itself! Increased military spending is another expected cost.  Of course, this is also part of a larger issue, since the referendum in Macedonia has been framed by Western media as primarily a naming issue!  No big deal, right?  What is the difference between Macedonia and North Macedonia?  But, this ignores the other aspects of the Prespa Agreement, including the auditing of text books and maps.  This framing also ignores the assumption that joining the EU and NATO are positive things.  It is really positive and progressive to join the West by increasing military spending or fighting in NATO’s conflicts?  In any event, while the Yes vote won, voter turnout was too low to validate the results (only 36% voter turnout).  For now, the matter remains at an impasse as the referendum failed. Image may contain: outdoor


Macedonia is still a fairly new nation with tremendous challenges ahead.  Navigating these challenges are nearly impossible.  Integration with the West almost certainly means compromising aspects of national identity in favor of an identity which is less threatening to Greece.  As a matter of self-determination, I believe that Macedonians should have the right to interpret their history as they please, even if it does not align with other histories.  The world is full of cities founded and named after Alexander the Great, which Greece does not take particular interest in.   There are statues of Alexander the Great in Scotland, Argentina, Germany, France, and Egypt to name a few places.  The Albanian military commander “Skanderbeg” was nicknamed after Alexander the Great.  I think that it is entirely possible for both countries to coexist while allowing for Macedonia to draw inspiration from this history.  At the same time, a Macedonian driver that I met made the excellent point that maybe Alexander the Great is not the best symbol for the nation, considering that his image and history celebrate warfare and conquest.  I would add that Macedonia is made up of many people, including Albanians, Roma, Turks, Vlachs, Serbians, Torbesh, and others.  Alexander the Great may not represent all of these people.  I think that is a matter for the people of Macedonia to decide and question.   No one in Macedonia benefits from costly statues and buildings when the population suffers from poverty and unemployment.  For instance, the “Warrior on Horse” statue (which is meant to depict Alexander the Great) cost over $13 million.  The structures built in Skopje between 2010-2014 cost over $700 million.  As a tourist, it is certainly bizarre and fascinating to stroll around the endless monuments, but these have a human cost in terms of money that could have been spent on social programs and labor power that went into their construction.  Therefore, the right to Alexander the Great should not be idealized, but should be allowed as a matter of national autonomy.  Likewise, nationalism can be ugly and is often misused to cow a populace into submission and can foster social division.  But, the experience of realizing national autonomy can be unify and mobilize a people towards progressive interests.  In the end, that is why I support allowing Macedonia to be Macedonia.

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Sources:

Bender, J. (2015, June 29). Greece’s military budget is getting bigger even as the country’s economy lurches towards mayhem. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/why-greeces-military-budget-is-so-high-2015-6

Gjukovikj, D. (2018, August 02). Analysis | After 27 years, Greece and Macedonia have resolved their contentious ‘naming dispute.’ Here’s how. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/08/02/after-27-years-greece-and-macedonia-have-resolved-the-contentious-naming-dispute-heres-how/?utm_term=.de83f58ce516

Kakissis, J. (2018, July 09). Greece Is One Of Few NATO Members To Have Met Defense Spending Goal. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/07/09/627417425/greece-is-one-of-few-nato-members-to-have-met-defense-spending-goal

Karadjis, M. (1994, April 27). Macedonia: What the Greek government tries to hide. Retrieved from https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/macedonia-what-greek-government-tries-hide

Karatsareas, P. (2018, September 14). Greece’s Macedonian Slavic heritage was wiped out by linguistic oppression – here’s how. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/greeces-macedonian-slavic-heritage-was-wiped-out-by-linguistic-oppression-heres-how-94675

Pamuk, H. (2018, July 11). NATO formally invites Macedonia to join alliance. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-summit-declaration/nato-formally-invites-macedonia-to-join-alliance-idUSKBN1K12AR

State Department official backs Macedonian referendum. (2018, September 13). Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/world/state-department-official-backs-macedonian-referendum

Tisdall, S. (2018, October 01). Result of Macedonia’s referendum is another victory for Russia | Simon Tisdall. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/01/result-of-macedonia-referendum-is-another-victory-for-russia

Western Leaders Line up to Visit Macedonia Before Referendum. (2018, September 09.). Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2018-09-12/macedonia-opposition-says-name-change-an-issue-of-conscience

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxious Adventuring: Silfra Snorkel

Anxious Adventuring_ Silfra Snorkel

Anxious Adventuring: Silfra Snorkel

H. Bradford

10/4/18

I am not a very adventurous person by nature, but I am curious.  This is why I wanted to snorkel at Silfra, Iceland.  Silfra is a fissure located in Thingvellir National Park, where it formed in 1789 during the earthquakes associated with the Laki volcanic eruption.  On one side of the chasm is the North American plate and on the other, is the Eurasian plate.  These plates are pulling apart from one another, creating the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that bisects Iceland (and extends 65,000 km under the Atlantic Ocean).  The volcanoes which created and continue to shape Iceland are located along the ridge.   Iceland is unique because you can see the rift above ground (as opposed to at the bottom of the ocean).  The idea of snorkeling between two continents, where you can literally touch Europe and North America, sounded great!  The only problem is that I am not overly fond of or comfortable in water.   I debated if I should try this activity out at all.  But, in the end, I figured I would at least try it- despite my many worries.  This is an overview of this experience so that other anxious adventurers can find the confidence to dip into the water and explore this tectonic wonder!

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I had a number of misgivings about snorkeling at Silfra, but my main concern was that it would be cold.   The water temperature is usually under 40 degrees F and was about 36 degrees F when I visited.  It didn’t help that our tour driver/guide kept warning our small group that we were going to be cold throughout the day as we toured the Golden Circle.  Silfra was one of our last stops.  I tried not to think too much about the just-above-freezing-glacial water, but this was the main concern that weighed on me throughout the day leading up to the snorkel.  Aside from this, I was also mildly worried that I was not a good enough swimmer or that I would become anxious swimming in the deep water (I think the deepest part is about 100 feet, though I am not sure of the depth of the water I swam over).   Thankfully, none of these things turned out to be worth worrying over!

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When we arrived at Silfra, we were handed off to a snorkeling/diving guide.  The guide gave us a barrage of instructions regarding how to put on our dry suit.  I was too mentally preoccupied to pay close attention.  Gearing up to go snorkeling involved wearing a base layer (for me, the leggings and t-shirt I was wearing) and slipping into a flannel jumpsuit over this layer.  Once this was on, we put a dry suit over the flannel layer.  The dry suit was moist from earlier snorkeling trips in the day and required some assistance to zip in the back.  The worst part and an unexpected aspect of the dry suit was that we had to wear rubber bands around our neck and wrists!  The bands were meant to keep the suit water tight.  Without them, our suit might fill up with cold water!  The guide warned that one or two people out of every trip got water in their suit.  Yikes!  I felt immediate anxiety when the band was put around my neck.  I felt that I could not swallow or breathe, but I also felt that if I complained or loosened it, my suit would fill with water.  The thought of water entering my suit replaced the general fear of the cold.  The guide assured us that if we got water in the suit, we wouldn’t get hypothermia.  We would simply have to suck it up and continue uncomfortably to the end.   This was not at all encouraging nor anything I had even thought to worry about.

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This photo was taken AFTER snorkeling, but my expression is still a little anxious or strained.


We were fitted with masks, gloves, and flippers.  A cold, wet, rubbery hood was squeezed over our heads, which only added to my sense of choking.  I tried to relax and not show any signs of anxiety.  We were given more instructions, such as the fact that the snorkeling was a one way trip.  Once we commited to it, there was no turning back half way.  Anyone with misgivings was told they had to quit right away or commit, even if they were wet, cold, uncomfortable, or afraid.  However, the snorkeling itself would only last about a half hour, as that was the amount of time it would take to pass through the fissure to a lagoon.   A current would carry us along, but at one point, we would have to swim a little harder  to avoid being pushed out to a lake and separated from the group.  After these instructions, we were marched along to the entry point, where the guide helped put masks on our face and eased us into the water.  I continued to feel anxious, especially with the mask on my face, which forced me to breathe through my mouth.  I felt that I wasn’t getting enough air.  I told the guide that I felt anxious and he asked me what I was afraid of.  I told him that I was mostly afraid that my suit would fill up with cold water (which was one of several concerns at that moment).  He said that once I was in the water, it would either fill up or not fill up, then I could be afraid or not afraid.  With that, the group of six of us slowly entered the water.  I entered last.


The suit did not fill up with water.  It squeezed more tightly, but remained dry.  We were taught how to roll onto our backs if we needed a break or to adjust something.  The suit itself was very buoyant, making swimming very easy.  Sinking would have been nearly impossible, so the depth of the water was of little concern to me.  The guide became less gruff and stayed close to me to make certain that I was was comfortable.  The extra attention made me feel self-conscious and also socially anxious.  I assured him that I would be able to do this.  I probably wasn’t that convincing, since he stayed close.  Eventually, I became more comfortable.  The suit was warm, though my face and hands became very cold.  However, the cold was actually far less terrible than taking a cold shower or doing dishes in cold water.  The cold is really nothing to worry about at all.  Breathing through my mouth became more natural, rather than the forced struggle at the beginning.  I also stopped noticing the tight band around my neck.  I started to feel more comfortable and the whole ordeal felt mildly enjoyable as I passed over the algae carpeted rocks.  The guide did intervene to direct me away from the current towards the lake (and towards the lagoon), but probably because he either didn’t trust my sense of direction or didn’t want me to go through the experience of getting separated from the group.  Shortly after that, the whole thing was over!  My left hand was pretty numb at that point, so I didn’t waste time swimming around the lagoon.  I got out of the water, as did everyone else in the group.  Easy peasey…despite any concern I might have caused the guide.

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When it was all over, I felt an enormous sense of self-efficacy.  I felt that I could easily snorkel in most situations and that I was one step closer to trying diving someday.  I even felt that if given the opportunity, I would do it again.  My anxiety stemmed from the unknown of all of it and from the unfamiliar bodily sensations of breathing through my mouth while feeling that I was choking.  The water was cold, but I would much rather have a cold hand/face than feel cold from a frigid shower or cold rain.  Physically, it was not that challenging, as the suit floated easily and the current pushed us along.  Therefore, anyone should reasonably be able to do the activity if they know what to expect and can swim.  We were treated to hot cocoa and cookies after removing our gear.  I was surprised that I wasn’t wet at all under the suit and that even my hair was only a little damp.  As far as I could tell, no one in the group was significantly wet.

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A small reward for facing my anxiety…


I think  if I could do it, almost anyone can do this!  It takes a little time to get used to all of the new sensations, but the reward is swimming between two continents!  The particular tour that I did was through Arctic Adventures and included a tour of the Golden Circle.  There were less than a dozen people on the tour, most of whom had never snorkeled before.  Aside from Silfra, the trip visits Gullfoss waterfall and Geyser, as well as Thingvellir National Park.   It is advisable to bring a towel and change of clothes.  Also be mindful that there isn’t much time for taking photos.  No one in our snorkeling group brought cameras along for the snorkeling part.  Hence, none of the photos were taken during the actual snorkeling part of the trip.   Despite this, here is the evidence that I survived the ordeal with a smile (and nothing worse than a cold hand).

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