Red and White


Photo credit: Yours Truly

I’ve been mulling over this word for over a week: Heritage

Not in any profound, from dusk till dawn and sunrise to sunset kind of way. Rather, it was humming on the back of my mind, occasionally bumping into other words – language, character, history, pride– failing to stick completely.

That’s not really a surprise, seeing as I’ve never been particularly comfortable discussing my heritage.

My family heritage is a lost history, glimpsed at from between the cracks of a door, whenever my parents, cousins, aunts and uncles let something slip. Even now, with me old enough to vote, they still become tight-lipped and reluctant to talk around me, reserving certain subjects for behind closed doors.

I do know that the root of my family name – bozuk, the Turkish word for rotten, or broken – was earned because someone, at some point in time, made their living smuggling livestock across the border. It’s a fun party story, and a good nomen-omen joke if people are inclined to hear it, but it doesn’t make filling out forms over the phone any easier.

My national heritage – with its combination of Christian pride and pagan practices sneakily inserted in the ceremonies – is one of those things that you only appreciate under certain contexts. The bracelet you see above – a martenitza – and other similar red-and-white decorations, is a prime example of that. I have tried explaining it to people, I have tried to share this practice with my friends since I came to England, but unless you’re from the Balkans (or China, which is where most of these things are mass-produced at these days) the meaning seems lost.

What is the meaning? When I was a child they told a story related to the first ruler of our country, and how his family got wounded trying to cross the Danube, and how the white thread they tied around the messenger bird’s leg was tinged red.

When we were children, we would wear elaborate bracelets and badges of red-and-white, some with cartoon characters, others without. It became a competition of sorts, to see who has the best one. It was also a popularity contest, and a show of how well you got on with your classmates – after all, if you brought everyone a bracelet, that said good things about you. (Later, much later, I would buy a ton of bracelets just so that I could give one to my crush. The one he gave me in return resided on my piano for months. I noticed with some joy he wore his for a long time, too, although it’s possible he just couldn’t be bothered to take it off.)

Of course, once we had sex ed in school, we had a few teachers let it slip that the red and the while actually symbolised male and female in nature, and that sure made for some fun party stories, too, (although, people were not always amused.) We continued to wear our bracelets, but we did so with discretion – only for certain times, certain occasions. We took them off on the last day of the month of March, or as soon as we saw a stork, or a blooming tree. (Although it’s less poignant now, seeing how warm winter has gotten.)

Bringing this custom over is hard, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I remember sharing it with some friends of mine, giving them bracelets, only for them to take them off the next day. I felt, and still feel, really confused, talking about traditions that I just follow, ideas that are just part of the way I was raised – untranslatable things, that nonetheless make up the very fabric of my being.

Perhaps they’re too tender to share. Perhaps.


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