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New Men, Old Europe

Being a Man in Balkan Travel Writing

Wendy Bracewell

Much modern Western travel writing presents Eastern Europe, and especially the Balkans, as a sort of museum of masculinity: an area where men, whether revolutionaries, politicians or workers, are depicted as behaving in ways that are seen as almost exaggeratedly masculine according to the standards of the traveller. Physical toughness and violence, sexual conquest and the subordination of women, guns, strong drink and moustaches feature heavily. This is a region where men are men - and sometimes so are the women, whether 'sworn virgins' living their lives as honorary men, heroic female partisans or, in more derisive accounts, alarmingly muscular and hirsute athletes, stewardesses and waitresses. But the notion of a characteristically masculine Balkans is not limited to outsiders. It can appear in travel accounts from the region as well, ranging from Aleko Konstantinov's emblematic fictional Bulgarian traveller, Bai Ganyo Balkanski, with his boorish disregard of European norms of behaviour (Konstantinov 1895/1966), to more polished travel writers who nonetheless find it useful to contrast a 'Balkan' model to Western versions of manliness.

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Wendy Bracewell and Alex Drace-Francis

In writings about travel, the Balkans appear most often as a place travelled to. Western writings about the Balkans revel in the different and the exotic, the violent and the primitive – traits that serve (or so commentators keep saying) as a foil to self-congratulatory definitions of the West as modern, progressive and rational. However, the Balkans have also long been travelled from. The region’s writers have offered accounts of their travels in the West and elsewhere, saying something in the process about themselves and their place in the world.