The Long Way To Me: a Tale of Mountains, Bread and Friendship

There is an old saying  – a man lives for as long as his name is being spoken after death. Our duty as living souls is to make sure his story is not forgotten. 

People call me dreamer, adventurer or migrant; my close friends call me a story gatherer. 

Six years ago I lost a friend to suicide. It hadn’t been a long friendship. Still, it marked me profoundly because of all the untold stories it held. 

In 2007 I followed my heart – and the man who stole it – to the other end of the world. 

Together, we made a friend – a fellow expat who defected during the Communist Regime and had been living in Brisbane for a long time. Alex was starved for news “from home”  – he hailed from the same place where I spent my Romanian childhood. 

There is a great difference between leaving your home forcibly and leaving of one’s own accord; his nostalgia was different from mine but similar in how we both remembered times, places and people that were no longer. We shared the need to belong somewhere while feeling misfits in either of our worlds. 

I was lucky: my new family and their friends rallied around me. 

He was the loneliest man I ever met, too proud to accept what he saw as pity. 

He never fully adjusted here; yet his travels back in Romania brought the bitter realisation of his longing for the home he left behind and never found again. 

He always joked – or so we thought – that he won’t live to see his sixties. And sure enough, the year he turned 60 was his last. 

This happened during the beginnings of my intercultural marriage. It opened my eyes to my own dilemmas: where do I belong and most importantly, what is the story I want to leave for my children?

I’m a curious hybrid – I spent my childhood under the Communist regime in a small village surrounded by mountains. As a teenager, I grew up during the transition to a much-promised Democracy that never took flight properly, after the Romanian revolution. I sailed around the world most of my twenties, circumventing the globe three times. Then in my thirties I settled into a new country, in the Capitalist World. 

When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I am a World Citizen; deep down I know I’m from my mountains.

My sister and I had this childhood game: blindfolded, we put our finger on a map, then imagined the world through made-up stories. One day my finger stopped on Australia: I didn’t know much about it but the closed borders couldn’t prevent our imagination from wandering. My tale was a wild chase, riding on the back of a kangaroo. 

Alex’s life story gave me the ultimate gift: the understanding that we are all made of memories and dreams; our final story is driven by how we reconcile them with each other, blending past wisdom with meaningful present. 

I’ve many memories but lately, my thoughts go back to my village. 

I remember the embers dancing through the air, the sky – a shade of surreal blue and the smell reigning over the place. Hearts in our mouths, we, children, were all hanging in that space where time stopped: a minute had the weight of an eternity and a half.

It was baking day; nothing could beat the sweet anticipation of the fresh, hot bread taste. Maybe even some plum jam – my Nana lived thrifty yet gave generously. There was never room for wanting in her household: her cold room was stocked, her bread box was full – just like our hearts. 

I’ve always loved sour dough. I  can’t describe the disappointment when – in my twenties – I tried for the first time a supermarket loaf. My heart still breaks for everyone who’s never known the true taste of freshly baked bread and settles for this sad affair of puffy bread. 

Back in those days, that was my truth. I was living happily under the sun, eating the bread, picking fresh apples and plums, climbing trees and running through the forest without a care in the world. Our village was surrounded by mountains. I spent my early years finding North, learning the paths to every summit, learning all birdsongs and finding each wildflower there was. In between exploring, I helped on our small, fast-paced farm.

To my  child eyes, my grandfather was a grandiose man, all mighty and fearless. 

I can fit one of his old shirts now – this tells a different story of his stature. 

He was self – taught, whether it was becoming a bee-keeper, growing tomatoes up in the mountains, building an adobe kiln or designing an automated circular saw. 

He wanted us to live by two truths: We can be anyone we want to be and do anything we put our mind to. The other was to keep true to ourselves and live a meaningful life. 

In my native Romania we have “glasul pamantului” – voice of the land. The mountains whispered it to me. It wasn’t really a voice; more like a painful tug of my heart. I couldn’t really understand what it meant; only that I felt something every time I was in my mountains. Later on, I felt the same in the Canberran grasslands.

Once I hit school age I was returned to the city, although I longed for the tiny village school. My 6yo dream was to work and live off the little land we had. I didn’t understand that the land did not belong to us, or that our hard work would go to the “collective”. However, the mountains were our blessings and our curse. A village tucked under a mountain ledge, inaccessible to cars was not a priority for the Agricultural Production Cooperative. At the same time, this meant that frost-resistant hybrids or mechanical agriculture reached us slower, limiting our crops to whatever could be grown at that altitude, mainly corn, potatoes and plums. 

Fast forward – almost 40 years: I’m looking at embers again. The sky turned shades of grey and orange this time.  There’s no bread in sight, just worried looks and crying children. The harrowing 2019-20 bush fires scenes on national television – especially those from Mallacoota – will haunt our nation forever. I felt for all the people loosing their homes. The old heart tug was back; houses can be rebuilt but I wept bitterly seeing hundreds of animals carcasses laid along the roadside, waiting to be buried – that’s a sorrow one can never forget. 

I was fifteen when we left the village for good, after my grandfather’s cancer diagnosis. 

I vowed to go back, till my field, keep bees, ride my horses and make plum jam. Instead I became a journalist; then changed it for a new dream as I set sailing around the world.

It’s a good thing that we can dream, that dreams change, following a natural order as we walk through life. One dream is gently laid to sleep, a new one takes shape and sometimes we uncover the forgotten ones or the ones we don’t speak about anymore but still hold dear in a hidden corner of our souls. 

When I was younger, home was a notion carried in my soul: my mountains, where I longed to return. Till then, home was where my head laid, whether a fluffy pillow or a mossy rock. 

Never had I imagined I’d be living side to side to the kangaroos of my childhood story. 

In the early days, I was home sick in a new place that I didn’t understand. A place where people drive the wrong way and eat bad bread, speaking funny English that I genuinely struggled to understand.

Yet it was a welcoming place to start again. I received same love I had in my village of yonder. My mother in law has a superpower: she can turn a house into a home, gathering friends and family, living by the  “don’t build a higher fence, build a longer table” saying. 

I was lucky to be welcomed with open arms by all her friends. People I hardly knew genuinely wanted to know me or to help me adjust to my new life. The phone was ringing with kindhearted offers of advice, friendship and love. Asking about my job search, or whether I needed a ride to the mall. I was suddenly adopted within that small community as one of their own children. I certainly felt being one. After moving to Canberra, I truly missed our connection. Until a few years ago when we still had a landline, I loved getting calls from those lovely folks. Time made these calls rarer; we all got older. Some of my early friends received their final call. But every time we visit Brisbane, it makes my heart sing, catching up with those remaining. 

I never had my farm back.  I didn’t become a beekeeper. I never returned  to journalism. Instead I focused on my own little family, thriving in the Capital city that others call boring and aloof. 

I have been slowly growing my roots by photographing people wearing my hat and telling me their story.  I made best friends for life – a circle of fierce, like-minded people for whom I should do anything to protect them. 

I’m making up for the wandering years by reviving old dreams and making new ones. 

A few years ago I decided to fulfil my teenage ambition of being an artist. Middle aged, with two young children and working two jobs, I took the chance, enrolling to be a Visual Arts student. It was tiring, thrilling and spectacularly beautiful. And it landed me on the dream job, teaching art classes.

The first lesson was memorable: “- You talk like Gru” said one little girl. We all burst into laughter – an instant bond was formed. I’ve been nervous about teaching, but I knew then that I would  be all right.  I talked about getting lost between the five languages I speak and the confusion in finding the right pronunciation. 

While my accent can’t be helped even after so many years living here, I moved the conversation towards diversity. Instantly, everyone contributed their own heritage – Dutch, Russian, Irish… what languages we speak at home and how the universal language of art governs them all. 

My childhood put the base of who I am. My love of bread helped me teach my children many lessons: money value? – look at how many breads a week’s worth of minimum wages buys  in a country. Patience and resilience? – let’s bake bread from scratch. Although it has became more like let’s make pizza from scratch, thus starting our own family traditions. Someone’s life outlook? – look at the bread they eat. It tells so many stories. 

Above all, I keep coming round to my grandfather’s words, asking us to live a meaningful life. I try to fill each day with things that matter. 

I made some First Nations friends who explained more in depth the land connection I have felt. I started listening to it, finding new stories in my beloved grasslands. 

After the utter desolation, seeing so many animals killed in the bush fires, I joined the Community Fire Units. In my art practice, I started a project focusing on endangered species.

Recently I discovered an old song – “I’ve never been to me”; I’m told it’s a one-hit wonder but it hit a chord with me because it echoes my old man’s words. 

In my travels around the world, I have seen lots of paradise corners but also lots of pain. 

I don’t know whether I’ve been to “me” or whether I’m living a meaningful life yet; this is definitely the closest. 

And while my story has yet a few pages to add, I’m using my time wisely, teaching my children to set anchor, make memories and forge dreams of their own, finding sense in these ever shifting times. 

The Lost Ark – Small Things

The Lost Ark is a project that brings to the limelight our unique Australian fauna and flora in the aftermath of the bush fires.

One year on, we are looking at the possible ways in which we, as artists can raise awareness of all the conservation work that needs to be done.

“Small Things” is a piece bringing up the importance of small things that make up for a bigger picture.

Original score by Harvey Welsh Images by Akka Ballenger Constantin © 2021 Ballenger/Welsh

The Lost Ark – Dawn

“Dawn” is the next piece in our series – a beautiful morning out in the grasslands.

The Lost Ark is a project that brings to the limelight our unique Australian fauna and flora in the aftermath of the bush fires.

One year on, the grasslands are coming back to life and we are looking at the possible ways in which we, as artists can raise awareness of all the conservation work that needs to be done.

Original score by Harvey Welsh Images by Akka Ballenger Constantin © 2021 Ballenger/Welsh

The Lost Ark – Nocturne

The Final Cut for “The Lost Ark – Nocturne” is finally here.

The Nocturne was in the making for a long while and we kept tweaking it, but I think we are finally done with this piece. I am totally in love with the music – it works so well with the images.

If you joined us later, The Lost Ark is a project that brings to the limelight our unique Australian fauna and flora in the aftermath of the bush fires.

One year on, “Nocturne” is a glimpse at the way the grasslands are coming back to life. We are looking at the possible ways in which we, as artists can raise awareness of all the conservation work that needs to be done.

Original score by Harvey Welsh Images by Akka Ballenger Constantin © 2021 Ballenger/Welsh

The Lost Ark

“The Lost Ark” is an opportunity of learning together. This series of drawings, linocuts and etchings brings back the focus on the aftermath of the 2019-2020 bush fires and their impact on our unique Australian fauna.

An interim report, “Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfires: The Wildlife Toll” commissioned by WWF Australia concluded that more than three billion animals were killed or displaced: 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs.

I am an art educator, working with young children. Often, I find myself embracing their spontaneity in my own artistic practice and for this body of works I chose the same informal approach, where feeling and playfulness prevail, taking over realistic/ natural illustration detail.

Through these images, I hope to bring to limelight some of our unique species and I would like to encourage the public not only to learn more about our wildlife, but also to donate their time and to support financially the Wildlife rescue program.

* 10% of the works on sale will go to two local charities, ACT Wildlife and Wild Talk.

Please consider donating to these two charities. Thank you

Click here for a donation to ACT Wildlife:

Click here for a donation to Wild Talk

Have A Blue Christmas!

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!” – it’s a phrase I wish I could say and savour this year.

I love all things Christmas but I do happen to have a couple of favourites. Perhaps what I enjoy most is giving. I love giving unconditionally. I love seeing that little sparkle, when the others unwrap their presents and find the things they secretly wished for. I also love placing random gifts under the wishing trees and imagine the joy of someone I have never and will never meet.

Over the last decade or so, I found it hard to adjust to this entire Summer Christmas business and I have been secretly longing for the White Christmases of my childhood; where the trees were really glistening and the sleighs, bells and snow were real. While I love with all my heart the uniqueness of the Australian landscape and the peace of my grasslands, I do long for the snow too.

This year, however, I find myself wishing away the white. The skies have been ashen and the horizons have turned orange for what it now feels like an eternity and a half. We’re only a couple of weeks into the summer and the temperatures are already breaking the records. The air is impossible to breathe and the grounds are scorching. With all these fires raging out of control, so much has been lost. People’s lives, existences, farms, houses, crops and ecosystems are gone. It doesn’t feel like Christmas at all. The most demoralising thing is the lack of leadership we are seeing at a time when we should all unite forces. We have lived through a couple of long drought seasons, followed now by unimaginable destruction caused by the fires. The outlook is grim and untenable. Some of these fires might be out of control for a longtime; and when the current leaders do not believe in climate change, do not want to fund the firefighters properly and do not take charge in crisis situation, the thing we need most right now is rain. I wish you all a very blue Christmas, where the heavens will open, the skies will pour down and the dams will be full to the brim once more. Stay safe wherever you are and don’t forget to hug your loved ones.