Impressions of Eastern Europe: Part Two
Geography, something which seems so physical, is also deeply social. What is a continent? What is a mountain and how is it different from a hill? At what point does a lake become an inland sea? There are quantitative thresholds or physical characteristics which define these things, but they could have been defined differently.
What is Eastern Europe? What are the Balkans? What is Europe, for that matter? Again, all of them are “other” places. Some “other” places are more like the U.S. and some are less. That is the mental framework that guides most of the perceptions of any U.S. traveler. We can only judge, assess, and categorize things based on what we know or think we know.
With that said, here are some more impressions of “Eastern Europe” from my travels there. I will use the term loosely, as member countries may not identify themselves as such.
Seeing as Poland and Polish people are often the butt of jokes, a person might expect Poland to be a place of potato eating, backwards, peasants. I’ve heard it said that no one is proud to be Polish. Why? In history, Americans are taught that Polish is a weak country that was easily defeated by Nazi Germany. The defeat is treated as more comical than tragic, as horses meet tanks…or something of that sort. Because my frame of reference was Russia, I expected Poland to be like Russia. (Obviously, I know there are historical and cultural differences, but for the purpose of imagination…Poland looked like Russia in my fantasy.) With that said, I was struck by the fact that industry and society seemed to be chugging along, without the same cracks and gaps that I perceived in Russia. There was bland, capitalistic urban sprawl in some places…complete with KFCs, parking lots, storage units, and super stores. However, there was also a lot of agriculture. Many homes had garden plots, even within urban areas it seemed. There was also concerted distancing from communism AND Russia. Communist relics were not kept around for nostalgia and Russia seemed to be viewed as an oppressive, expansive country that stole their freedom after WWII. Russia was also viewed negatively in light of recent events in Ukraine. Catholicism, was of course, quite pervasive. So, this is a country that among all the countries that I visited, seemed to be the most adversarial to communism and the most distanced from this part of the past. As a communist of the Trotksyist ilk, it is a bit uncomfortable being a communist among those who really seem embittered by that experience. Beyond politics, from what I saw, Poland was pretty, with thick, dark forests, but also fields and hills. Krakow had a very medieval feel, due to the remains of walls, market square, and brick Gothic structures. It is the first place that I have been that felt distinctly medieval.
Serbia: In some respects, Serbia seemed the opposite of Poland. Of course, communism was experienced differently there and not as a system forced upon it from the outside. As such, there are still monuments to Tito. The fact that Serbia uses Cyrillic script also made it seem more Russian-like. However, their Cyrillic script is slightly different. There were some letters that I had to learn. While there, I visited Tito’s grave, which compared to some resting places for communist leaders….was really pretty normal. He was not embalmed in glass and there was no long, moving sidewalk to view his body. There were gardens and statues, but his tomb was kept inside in what was once an indoor garden. It was at the center of this room, but shrouded by some plants. I didn’t even recognize what I was looking at, at first. There were also fairly relaxed security. I can’t say that this was a modest resting place, but the site was shared with a museum to Yugoslavian cultures. Compared to the tombs of Lenin or Kim Il Sung, this grave and visiting procedure seemed pretty modest. Also, unlike Bosnia, there were fewer obvious war memorials in Serbia. I had to hunt to find a memorial to NATO bombing victims. Yet, bombed out buildings remained. It is powerful to think that this was inflicted upon them by MY country. I also visited the Tesla museum in Belgrade. I must say, Belgrade sounds like a harsh word. It isn’t a pretty word to English speaking ears. The city isn’t all that pretty, but it is full of history and politics. It is easy to imagine early humans settling there on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Along the rivers are thick forests, adding to this sense of primeval history. The people were friendlier than other cities I visited. Everyone was welcoming and seemed happy to see tourists. While privately this may not be the case, at least a stranger walked up to my group and welcomed us to the country. Another stranger gave us a free watermelon from his cart. He could have sold it to us and even marked up the price, but instead he just gave it away…even though we had the money and privileged to travel there. That is another thing. In Serbia, I saw long, flat fields full of watermelons. I haven’t seen that many watermelons in my life! As a whole, the country seemed very agriculture, with watermelons, sunflowers, and some corn.
Slovakia: Poor Slovakia. Slovakia is to the Czech Republic what Superior WI is to Duluth Mn. That was my impression anyway. Whereas the Czech Republic seemed to inherit pretty German looking cities and twice the population, Slovakia was industrial, gray, and dim. Bratislava has some medieval and baroque architecture, but seems more defined by massive, modern constructions, such as a monstrous wired bridge and a watchful, TV tower overlooking the city. Even Bratislava’s castle seemed more boxy and utilitarian than ornate. Prague is popular and pretty. Bratislava is forgotten. So, I am sympathetic. Seeing as I live across the bridge from Duluth…in ugly, inferior Superior, I wanted to like Bratislava. My impression was that the divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia did not benefit Slovakia as much. Maybe I am mistaken. I don’t mean to misjudge. Really, I am not all that informed about Slovakia. In any event, that was my impression.