Hungary….Where Are You Going?

Hungary…Where Are You Going?

Budapest. Could it be more beautiful? thriving? welcoming? At least to the tourist, euros in hand.

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This city was the reason I started on this journey. A book – Katalin Street by Magda Szabo – spoke to me, told me I had to return. This, my third visit. And it was all that I remembered, and more. More construction, more tourists, more prosperous.

It’s been more than thirty years since my first trip to Hungary. Then, it was dipping its toe back into Western culture. Wanting more contact with the West, and its money, many of the stringent economic and personal austerities had eased. Everyone wanted the US dollar, and we were approached by every type of Hungarian offering us improbable amounts of zlotys for American currency.

Five years ago, Budapest was booming, at least to my eyes. There was construction everywhere, new building as well as infrastructure renewal. And while the Revolution of 1956 might be ancient history to us, it was never far from the minds, and hearts, of those with whom we came in contact. It gave me pause – for surely we left these people in the lurch. But with the fall of Communism in 1989, compared to its neighbors, Hungary’s transition was relatively calm. The country had experienced considerable inflation, its citizens trusted that better times were to be had with another system. Now they’re part of the European Union, far ahead of their eastern neighbors.

And, indeed, Budapest has prospered. On this trip, even more building, more infrastructure upgrades, tour groups everywhere, riverboats filled with tourists two and three deep in the Danube. Things seem to be going their way. The days that we were there were filled with sunshine and blue sky and streets crowded with commuters and shoppers.

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And then. For isn’t there always a “then.”

We were there during the week before their elections. Some we talked to were concerned that their right-wing anti-immigrant Prime Minister would be elected for a third term. He won, and since then there have been massive demonstrations in Budapest against what protesters call an unfair election system. Of course, like finds like, so most of those I talked to, including one man who had organized an action group to help those immigrants stranded in the city, were appalled to see their country head in this populist direction. Sound familiar?

I know, a lot of political thought on a vacation. But, for me, politics is everywhere these days. None of us have the luxury or privilege not to be involved.

Oh, Hungary, have you, like so many of us here in the U.S., forgotten those times when we reached out to help those needing a hand? Is the world now building walls instead of lengthening our tables?  Who are we becoming? Where are we going?

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Serbia, Croatia – and a Homeland War…

Serbia, Croatia – and the Homeland War …

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It’s the same language – different alphabet; it’s the same religion – different opinions on the origin of the Holy Ghost; it’s the same ethnicity – they are all Slavs, even the Muslims.

So why? And is it over? Has everyone suffered enough?

Of course, we are tourists. We aren’t going to see a deep truth; the surface is barely visible to us, as we go from site to site, not quite herded in groups, dutifully following our knowledgeable and charming tour leader. Listening to her, we could believe that everything is behind them now, that everyone is looking to the future, that there was never a problem between people, only between governments. And perhaps there is more than a kernel of truth, of reality, in her pronouncements. I don’t know. I can only tell you what I saw, my interpretation of the atmosphere.

We came first to Serbia, to Belgrade, home of one of Tito’s largest monuments. On my last two trips to this area, we heard much of Tito, how he “stood up” to Moscow, fostering his own brand of Western-focused Communism. On this visit, we found that the “older” generation continue to venerate him, wishing for those old days, when everyone had a job, everyone had a decent place to live, everyone knew that their basic needs would be taken care of. The standard of living, for most, was the highest of the Eastern Bloc countries. That this was propped up by US aid, in our own country’s fear and hatred of Communism, was not discussed.

We visited his memorial, I would dub it a monument, and heard from two generations. For younger people, Tito is ancient history. They talk about him in terms of “gramma’s time.” They only know the “freedom” of an economy where one has the “opportunity” to make it on his/her own. That they have national health insurance and other guarantees of coverage of basic needs is a given for them; they see themselves as operating in a free-market environment.

The older generations – those “grammas” – are not so happy. As with most of us, they see the past through a sepia lens, and are wistful for Tito and all the benefits his regime brought. Again, they seem unaware of the underpinnings of US dollars “fighting Communism.”

As for the city itself, it seems to bustle – lots of traffic, delightful commuter-filled streetcars, parks and open space. Definitely not the dark, somber world we imagined. Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) seem like ancient history to those we came in contact with. The issue of Kosovo, however, is not. The Serbs we talked to (few) admitted that atrocities occurred but maintain that tiny Kosovo should remain part of Serbia from an historical standpoint.  Well, this area has been a thorny one for centuries. I don’t think from my few hours in Belgrade that I’ll be able to solve that one.

A few hours north on the Danube brought us to Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous region of Vojvodina. Again, more discussion of the war, as the Serbs call it, the Homeland War. Closer now to the Croatian border, it is interesting to see the blending, softening of attitudes. Perhaps it really is true that the closer you get to a people, the more you understand that we are all connected, all the same.

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Novi Sad exuded a different kind of atmosphere, lighter, with its parks, its town square. A Catholic church sits on one side; we were told that the Croats/Catholics destroyed this church during the fighting. The citizens of Novi Sad, mainly Orthodox Serbs, joined together in its rebuilding. This Saturday morning we sat in the square, watching young families and their elders enjoying a spring day.

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As we arrived in Croatia, it became obvious that the miasma of its history is never far away. Our first stop was Vukovar, a border town badly damaged during the Serbo-Croatian War (that is what they call it here). While much is rebuilt, thanks to funds from the European Union, there is still considerable evidence of the destruction of buildings, homes, and any optimistic view of the future. We had the opportunity to lunch with a family in Bilje, a small farming village that had once been occupied by both Serbs and Croatians. The family’s home, and the majority of homes had been destroyed in the fighting. During the war, they said that their Serbian neighbors, all of them, had left, most to return to Serbia. None had yet come back.

The family told us that when their house was destroyed, they moved into a house vacated by a Serb neighbor. They lived there until their house was rebuilt. Now the village is in stages of reconstruction, although perhaps every 10th house remains empty and in ruins.

The family said that relations with their Serb neighbors had been good, that is was governments, not people, who caused the problem. While their hospitality was lovely, I’m not sure that I buy what appears to be the party line for visitors. While I wish it were so, I don’t have such a high regard for human nature.

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Perhaps this next generation of Serbs, of Croats, of Slavs, of Catholics, of Orthodox, can touch upon this ground that their forefathers have bloodied and make sense of it. Perhaps they can see that we are all connected, that we are all the same. Would that…

Next week — Budapest…

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Bulgaria…and Can These Kids Speak English!

Bulgaria…and Can These Kids Speak English!

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My Bulgarian experience started in Ruse, a delightful, small city on the Danube, followed by a bus trip to Veliko Trnovo.

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It was intriguing seeing the Bulgarian countryside, mountains, snow just about everywhere. I even got to see the phenomenon of “orange snow.” That occurs when a late snowfall coincides with winds from the African desert, a strange mixing snow and sand.

The village of Veliko Trnovo is working hard to cater to tourists – they sell lovely silver and rose attars there, though they are still in a learning mode. The roads and sidewalks were in the process of being upgraded, and this made walking slippery and treacherous on the main (only) shopping street. Once inside these ancient buildings, the wares were appealing, but steep steps made entry and exit dicey. In one such, we had to exit backwards!

The next morning, we arrived a Vidin, a quaint town complete with exquisite synagogue, now fallen into disrepair mosque, and orthodox church.

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The local imam met with us and told of his small congregation and its collegial relationship with the church across the street. The groups meet monthly for dinner and fellowship. He seemed sincere and authentic, though I’m sure he was working hard to put his best foot forward. Vidin also has one of the best-preserved fortresses in the world, Baba Vida, but I must tell you that, by this time, I was getting pretty fortress-weary.

What I do remember most about this town is the children that we met. They are in a special after-school program where they study English. Now, all Bulgarian children study a second, and third, language, but this group was spectacular. Ranging from nine- to eleven-years-old, they did an outstanding job of introducing themselves and telling us about their interests. THEN, the surprise. They came around to us, one-by-one, holding a picture of an animal that we couldn’t see. We were to guess the animal, based on questions that we would ask – in English, of course. And these kids, they understood us, just about all the time, even with all our accents. So they not only learn to speak English, but also to understand it, American-English, at that.

This group of dark-haired, shy, fetching, disarming children stole our souls, and while they may not have understood all those adjectives I just rattled off, I know that they felt a connection.

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I don’t think that life is easy for the every-day Bulgarian, but the land has a dark, sometimes foreboding, beauty that will stay with me. I hope to return and see more of this thought-provoking country.IMG_0769.JPG

Next week: Serbia and Croatia

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Snow, Ice, and Getting to Romania…

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Snow, Ice, and Getting to Romania…

Eastern Europe, here I come…or so I thought. A third Nor’easter resulted in a cancelled flight, which I did not know about until I appeared at the airport. And no, I did not receive an e-mail about it, United Airlines. I wouldn’t have shown up at the airport had that happened.

But, enthusiasm undaunted, I blithely accepted an alternate arrangement, even though I was told that I would have to clear customs in Munich before proceeding to Bucharest. I was less happy when I noted that I had only fifty-five minutes between flights. When I contacted United about plans if I missed connections (this, after interminable time on hold while watching my cell phone battery flash “low”), I was told that if that happened, I could take the next flight out. That it was nine hours later didn’t seem to bother the representative.

Then a kind Lufthansa rep actually took the time to find (or sent a minion to find) my checked bag and reticket it on through. Things are looking up, I thought. Stay positive. Which I did. Throughout the flight, while the toddler in the seat in front of me screamed for much of the eight hours. Those hours of meditation seemed to pay off for me, as I sent tonglen to both child and parents.

Arriving early, I made my way, not exactly easily, to Terminal One, Munich. I found the gate number– for my cheat sheet told me that my Tarom (Romanian Airlines) boarding pass would be issued at the gate – and attempted to clear security. I had my passport. But security required a boarding pass. The guard sent me to ticketing. When I arrived there, it was closed. A sign said that staff was now at the gate aiding passengers. I must admit that I thought of Joseph Heller – I needed a boarding pass to clear security, but I could only get a boarding pass if I cleared security.

So, good old Terminal One, Munich – grey in contrast to the glitzy Terminal Two –may lack shops and perfumeries, but it does have a visible Information Desk. There I was in luck, because the representative took pity on me, called, then paged, the Tarom gate, and an agent came sprinting to get me. Still no boarding pass, however, since, you may remember, the boarding pass is issued at the gate.

What she said to the security patrol, I don’t know. I think her tears may have worked – and he, looking decidedly glum, waived me through. A race to the gate, where, boarding pass issued, I made that flight. Now I was always sure that eventually I would arrive in Bucharest, and I have to thank these lovely women who worked so hard to help me arrive there.

And arrive I did – to ice and snow. Bucharest, my first look at Romania.

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The next morning, still ice, still snow, I learned much about Nicolae Ceausescu, the last leader of Communist Romania, how he progressed (or regressed, really) from a popular leader whom people believed worked for the betterment of the nation, to a megalomaniacal egomaniac who tightened the noose around his people, cutting them off from any kind of contact with those outside the country. All the while building monuments to himself on an unparalleled intensity.

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While balancing on an icy square, our group met with Egmond, who participated in the Romanian revolution when he was only a young boy. He told of the hatred of the Romanian people for Ceausescu, along with his wife, Elena, and the consolation they took from their executions. Ceausescu built, as a testament to himself, a parliament – the second largest building in the world, it is said.

There was much to see in this historic city. I noted the demonstration that was happening in one of the squares, a protest against the rising cost of gasoline.

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And an outdoor market, now holding its own against supermarkets, the latter needed to show that the country is ready for the EU.  But on this cold, snowy Saturday, vendors and buyers gathered to sample skins, honey, bread, meats, and, of course, slivovitz!

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Soon we bused to Constanta, an ancient port on the Black sea. We viewed Roman artifacts, some more than two thousand years old, and, astoundingly, right out there in the elements – rain, pollution, weather, continuing to take their toll.

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While in the museum, I was delighted to see, and it wasn’t a mirage, a tableau of World War I soldiers and nurse walk across the square. That they were re-enactors didn’t bother me a bit!

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So, the start of my trip, with its kerfuffles, segued into days of seeing years and generations of history become real to me. Tough times for these people – then and now, as they work to adjust to a totally new economy. Some will benefit, but I feel for those who will be left behind.

Next week, another hard-times country: Bulgaria.

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