broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “eastern europe”

Impressions of Eastern Europe: Part Three

Once again, here is a post about my trip to Eastern Europe this past summer.  Again, it is just an overview of my impressions.  I am not going out of my way to be sensitive or politically correct, so I do apologize in advance if anyone finds it offensive.  It is meant to be an honest overview of how I perceived the countries.

Greece:

Greece isn’t a part of “Eastern Europe” in my imagination.  It isn’t Slavic and doesn’t have a history of communism, so it is different from the other places that I traveled to.  Actually, Greece does have a history of communism, in that it had a civil war between communists and fascists/monarchists/nationalists after WWII.  I think you can imagine who the U.S. supported.  In any event, I saw more hammers and sickles (in the form of graffiti) in Greece than any other country I traveled to.  I really should have counted them, since I think I saw 25 around Athens alone.  Some folks just aren’t on board with austerity.  Anyway, as a kid I loved Greek mythology.  Greece was a place that captured my imagination.  It had the elements of my childhood imagination: mountains, monuments, olive trees, sea, and sunshine.  I visited Athens, Parga, Thessaloniki, and Meteora.   Of course, Athens stands out, since it was pretty amazing to visit the Parthenon, Acropolis, Temple of Hephaestus,  Olympic Stadium, Temple of Zeus, and so on.  It was strange to think that I was standing in the same places where Aristotle, Diogenes, or Democritus once were.  I will also say that I felt a sense of gender injustice, since although there were these great monuments and great histories, had I lived at the time, as a female I would have been home bound and excluded from this culture.  This is strange, considering there are statues of goddesses as warriors, hunters, and muses.  There are powerful women everywhere, but women themselves were treated as property.  Beyond that, what else can be said?  I think Greek food was the best out of all the countries I visited.  Also, Greek people were pretty extroverted, with dancing, breaking plates, singing, affection and so on.  I am not extroverted, but it was fun to watch.  Also, I felt bad for the Greeks, since the prices were the highest in all of the countries that I traveled to.  Sure, prices are higher for tourists, but still….I am not sure how Greeks afford anything when the prices seemed comparable to the U.S.

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Slovenia:

I was sick for 80% of my trip.  This is not a lie, as I wrote in my journal each day that I was sick.  I had a chest cold, which accounted for much of that sickness.  The rest was stomach ailments, which ranged from mild diarrhea to 12 plus hours of nausea and dry heaving while en route from the Czech Republic to home.  With that said, Slovenia was one of my favorite places.  One reason for this is that I felt relaxed.  Although I had some minor stomach issues there, I felt comforted by Lake Bled, which reminded me of home.  I walked around the lake twice.  It is hard to feel sick and miserable in the midst of forests, crystal clear water, a castle on a hill, and swans.  Also, Bled featured a Mexican restaurant.  I was happy to try the Slovenian take on Mexican food, which included a garnish of cabbage.  I also tried a rich, delicious Cream Cake…twice.  I hiked through the woods, enjoying solitude and a lack of direction.  I also visited the aforementioned Bled Castle, thankful for the clean, well-kept toilets.  Slovenia was like a fairy tale.  It reminded me of a Yugoslavian Switzerland.  Ljubljana, the capital, was also quite nice.

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Montenegro:  As the name suggests, there were many mountains.  I was in Budva and Kotor, which are both coastal areas hemmed by forested mountains from behind.  Budva had palm trees, white sand with pebbles, and an old town of Mediterranean architecture.   Kotor was a bay, also with Venetian looking buildings and squarish homes with red, clay tiled roofs.  It seemed that there was a lot of tourism and wealth.  For instance, I saw a yacht with a helicopter on it.  This was one of several yachts parked in the bay of Kotor.  Since I am not a beach oriented person (i.e. I don’t care for swimming and feel self conscious in a swim suit) it wasn’t my favorite place.  Though, hiking in the mountains could be fun.

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Austria:  I really only passed through Austria, so I won’t say too much.  I think…Austria seemed silly.  German looks silly in writing.  Maybe the main reason I thought that Austria seemed silly was because we stopped at a rest stop that had a slide to the toilet and a cluster of animatronic, singing animals.  This occurred at more than one rest stop.  We also stopped in Graz, which is the home town of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Somehow, this also seemed silly.  Sorry Austria.

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Czech Republic:  Probably the coolest things I saw in the Czech Republic were the church made of bones in Kutna Hora and the working class astronomical clock in Olomouc.  The former was cool since…well, where else in the world will I see a church that has been decorated with human bones?  The clock was interesting because it is a socialist realist clock…complete with workers instead of saints.  As for the Czech Republic, it was the first country I visited on my trip as well as the last.  Therefore, seeing as my frame of reference was Russia, I was surprised how green, clean, and developed it looked.  (No offense, Russia.)  I saw many windmills, attesting to some concerted effort to use renewable energy.  The towns did not show signs of monolithic communist housing.  Instead, the houses were small with orange roofs.  There were also churches with unique, witch hat shaped steeple spires.

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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.

Poland:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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.

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Bosnia Herzegovina:

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.

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Bulgaria:

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.

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Croatia:

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.

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