Impressions of Eastern Europe: Part One
This summer I spent a month in Eastern Europe visiting various countries. My approach to travel is sometimes a Smorgasbord model. I want to take in as much as I can as quickly as I can. So, this summer was both a sample and a binge.
Prior to visiting Eastern Europe, I’d been to Russia. So, my expectations were shaped by my experiences with Russia. The cognitive schema for “Eastern Europe” was an imagined place with monolithic buildings, social decay, Cyrillic letters, and communist relics. One thing that struck me was not only how different each country was compared to Russia, but how different they were from one another. While this may sound naive and really it is, the imagination created Eastern Europe as a place “out there.” It was a different place. A gray, potato consuming, “other.” What is Eastern Europe anyway? East of what? Some countries would prefer to be called Central European. Others are Balkan. I lump them together as the exotic “other” of Europe. They are more wild and less developed. Most are formerly communist.
With that said, here are some of the observations of Eastern Europe. These are not profound, enlightened observations…but the impressions of myself as an American tourist.
Albania was uniquely Albania. The language is incomprehensible and alien, sitting on a lonely branch of the Indo-European language tree. It is an old language, with related languages that died long ago. The country seemed empty, spacious, mountainous, arid, and brown. It reminded me of Montana or Wyoming. It didn’t seem “European”…whatever that means. In the imagination, Europe is crowded, urban, developed, and busy. Albania was still. It was also mostly Muslim. The countryside was littered with domes. These domes were shelters built for each family during the communist era for the purpose of protecting the populace from invasion. 700.000 of them were built. My impression was that Albania seemed forgotten and alone in Europe. Also, everything seemed to be falling apart. And while some people used donkeys to pull carts, others drove fancy cars and wore ostentatious suits and jewelry. There were cows and chickens well into the borders of Tirana, the capital. The capital itself was full of begging children, eager to please and eager to latch on to tourists. It was all very odd. These superficial observations may seem offensive and certainly come from a place of privilege, but those are my honest thoughts.
Like Albania, Bosnia is mountainous and mostly Muslim. The mountains were different. The air was less dry and hot and the mountains are greener. The social disparity did not seem as stark and the country did not seem to be abandoned. There was also greater delineation between country and city. Bosnia did not remind me of any other country or place. There were bullet holes in buildings and warnings of hidden mines off of trails and roads. Sarajevo was framed by long cemeteries with white graves, each dated from the 1990s. The once besieged city had memorials to children, but also a few remaining plastic filled impact sites from bombs. There was also a small marker depicting where Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated….almost exactly 100 years prior to my arrival. So, obviously, war still left visible scars on people, land, and buildings. Still, the decayed Olympic stadium and mosque, Orthodox Church, synagogue, and Catholic church…all so close to each other. attested to other narratives. Bosnia, for me, was a time travel back to the 1990s and 1980s. The giant orange snowflakes on the Olympic stadium reminded me of an ugly ski sweater. The whole place reminded me of things I didn’t pay attention to when I was 10 to 14.
My impression was that Bulgarians were Russians with a tan. (Remember, my frame of reference was Russia, so this impression was based on the fact that the country used Cyrillic and the language seemed more similar to Russian). Really, the country is layered with history, from Thracian, to Bulgar, to Ottoman, Roman, Byzantine, etc.) Bulgaria was wide and also seemed rural. Roses are grown there, so it also reminds me of the smell of roses. There were also long fields of sunflowers. In this respect, it reminded me of North Dakota. The Black Sea was amazing, though people seemed to wear whatever they wanted on the beach. Old men and overweight men squeezed into black speedos. Some women went topless. Kids floated on alligators, dolphins, or donuts. The sand was white and the water was dark blue. In my imagination, the people seemed strong, sturdy, tan, and robust. This is, of course, a stereotype. Sofia was gray, square, weary, and unpretty. However, there were abundant archaeological digs and random ruins within the city and many styles of architecture, attesting to the long and diverse history. Sofia sits at the foot of Mount Vitosha. Like the buildings, it is imposing, looming, and intimidating. In any event, Bulgaria reminded me the most of Russia, albeit a Spring Break version of it.
Everyone loves Croatia. With its long coast line, cliffs, mountains, and forests it is naturally beautiful. It also seems less Slavic than some other eastern European countries, inasmuch as it seemingly flaunts its similarities with Italy, Catholicism, and Roman history. Tourists love it. Split was awake all night with music and dancing in the street. The many tourist sail boats added to the noise. Split was lively. Me, the introvert, wasn’t as enthused. I don’t want to be on the “Croatia is fabulous bandwagon.” I would rather be on the “Albania is awesome donkey cart.” However, really, Croatia is a pretty country with dramatic views. Dubrovnik, with its winding walls, Adriatic views, Game of Thrones tourism, pleasant breeze, cornucopia of gelato, was stupendous. There is a part of me that only cautiously loves Croatia. In the back of my mind, I have a stereotype that Croatians are Nazi collaborators. The checkered red and white shield on their flag does not ease this stereotype, seeing as this symbol was used by the Ustase. Of course, Finland was a Nazi collaborator and I don’t hold that against Finnish people. So…. anyway, Croatia…very touristy…but for good reason.