Paddling Through Eastern Europe. Where am I?
Where am I? Kalocsa or Puszta, Hungary? Where am I? Osijek or Vukovar, Croatia? Where am I? Vidin or Belograde, Serbia? Where am I? Russe, Bulgaria or Bucharest, Romania?
Budapest is a vibrant city but as we sailed the Danube across Eastern Europe the faces and towns changed. They talk of the wars, especially the war in 1991 between Croatia and Serbia. We hear about the Ottomans, WWI, WWII, Civil Wars, and …. We pass by ruins. We hear about the killing of brothers and neighbors and friends!
Mass Murder on a Grand Scale
Yesterday we were taken to a lovely Synagogue complex in Novi Sad, Serbia. I asked the guide about its name. She said it has no name. It has no name? Huh? The synagogue has a name but no one remembers it. (I found the name of Beit Hatfutsot?)
The town elders assassinated the Jews and destroyed the Jewish quarter. Upon their land they built white businesses and a theatre. Apparently less than 10% of the Jews survived the Homeland extermination. Serbs killed them where ever they could find them and dumped their bodies in the river. (This killing of Jews in WWII had also happened in Budapest earlier in the century. There is a monument entitled “Shoes” along the Danube.)
We drove through Vukovar, Croatia with tears on our faces. They did not stop the bus to allow us to take pictures of the houses that still lay in ruins.
Serbs destroyed 90% of this small town in what they call the “Homeland War” in the 1990’s. They say is was a massacre. Every other house and business is in ruins. The Serbs told the people to leave because they were taking over their town, their businesses and residences. A few thousand remained to fight the Serbs and try to protect their homes. In the end, like Syria, nothing much was left of the town and the Serbs went home. Their greed ended up killing 5,000 people, according to our guide. All of this violence did not mean too much to us as we traversed the town. How do you take sides in a war?
After this heart-wrenching sight we went on to a the Holy Cross church in Osijek, Croatia which is in the center of Croatia. The church itself looked like a place where furniture (altars) had been collected and stored to protect them. Nothing seemed to fit its structure and there were many different pieces of furniture with varying colors and styles. We were treated to a concert by a young lady who had won singing contests! And then taken out to a courtyard where there had been a fort?
The next day we visited Serbia and spent the afternoon in Belgrade. Immediately we understood what the Serbs had done. Belgrade has magnificent buildings similar to Budapest. You could see a long history of wealth and power on every street, unlike the country hamlets in Croatia that we visited. Like a child who wanted the toys of others, Serbia made a land-grab. Our guide in Belgrade protested that NATO sent bombers to Belgrade and destroyed parts of the city. We were shown a quadrant that stood destroyed like a holocaust monument to the past. She lamented the death of 4,000 children and civilians. But that bombing stopped the Serbs in their greedy path according to some.
On the Prince Michael’s shopping street, little girls and old men played for tourists hoping to make a little cash. I have never seen little kids play toy pianos for money!
Novi Sad, Serbia
A sadness covers the faces of many people as we visit country after country. Our guide in Novi Sad, Serbia said, “We don’t look backward, and we don’t look forward.” We live day by day and hour by hour! We are not planning because another war could come any time. I kept thinking about what she had said. I think the people are still grieving about the wars. How do you ever stop grieving for all the atrocities done by your brothers, fathers, cousins, or your family?
There is more. Bucharest, Romania rivals Budapest in its grand stature but it needs some redecorating. They are trying to renovate block-long apartments constructed by the Communists. Communism under Nicholae Ceausescu re-ordered the lives of the people until they went over the edge and assassinated him. Massive buildings line the crowded streets. I felt like I was entering an arena of a God. This man murdered thousands with his strict approach to allocation of resources, and was said to be the cause of a civil war that also killed thousands. To build his monumental valley, he uprooted and destroyed whole communities. Some say that he tore down 30 churches.
According to the Economist, “The government (Romania) is in the midst of liberalising the economy, opening up new sectors (most notably, energy and telecoms) to competition and investment. Economic growth is at 4.1%. Wages are rising fast. Adjusting for prices, Bucharest’s GDP per capita is above the EU average. Indeed, the average Bucharest resident is comfortably better off than the average resident of Manchester.”
And while there are great sites like the Parliament, the practical side of running the city seems to be lost. There are nine cars for every parking spot. Roads look like parking lots and people park wherever they can, even in empty lots. We saw people driving on the medians. We did not see motorcycles or bicycles. This is a big-car city that is as large or larger than Budapest. At sidewalk level, almost every building is covered in graffiti. Over and over I kept reading “fascist” on sidewalks and walls. As you walk the city, you feel a harshness in the air. You see a determination in the eyes of the people. An employee in the Sheraton Hotel assured us that it was safe to walk the downtown area. Interesting? We did not ask him if it was safe!
As we landed in country every country, I noticed a pronounced nationalism. The countries are no bigger than many of our states. We are facing our own issues of nationalistic ideologies these days with the president. Does it matter in the USA whether you are from Ohio or New York? Yes, there are regional differences but we do not have the need for a specific local identity, do we?
Even within the countries people take on regional identities? It is helpful that these countries are working toward membership in the European Union. It may mitigate the nationalism we felt as we crossed borders. Tom argues that people need identities because they have been conquered by so many outside forces. Those who have survived hold hands and wave a proud flag.
With almost every guide the speech was “superlative.” This bridge is the third largest, or this building is second in weight next to the Pentagon, this was the first, best, most beautiful, most important, most intelligent or brilliant, filled their speeches.
When we arrived in Belgrade, Serbia a guide took us to an unfinished Serbian Orthodox Church, St. Sava. She said it was the largest on earth. I asked, “What about St. Sophia in Istanbul.” She retorted that it was a museum now and her church was three meters higher!
St. Sava pales in the shade of St. Sophia but in her mind it was the largest and best on earth!
As we entered the church, we were stunned by the state of ruin or as she said, “It is in a constructive stage.”
But, the basement was finished with fabulous painted icons on the walls and an iconostasis (altar) where services were held for the locals.
There was no way for a handicapped person to enter this space. So people on our tour just waited at the top of the steps.
Pollution is Highest in The Balkans. The Sins of the Fathers.
You wonder about pollution after the wars? We experienced very dark skies (polluted air), crumbling buildings (asbestos?), and traversing empty dusty farmland. The European Environmental Agency has done studies and concluded that 90% of European countries have dangerous levels of toxins in the air.
“East European countries, including Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia, were found to be the most exposed to particulate matter, largely, it is thought, from coal and wood burning.
Particulate matter remains a serious threat to health, because no threshold for PM has been identified below which no damage to health is observed. In western, central and eastern Europe it has caused 430,000 premature deaths,” it said.
We have traveled to the war-torn countries of Cambodia and Vietnam and there we heard of the bombs and pollution in the soil from the wars. As we criss-crossed Eastern Europe, you know that it has the same issues. And you wonder how the pollution is affecting you? Eastern Europe is a bread basket much like the midwest is for the USA. Is it migrating into the food that is grown?
One of the goals of this blog is to bring people to places they might not have visited. I usually write with an upbeat and positive pen about our travels. The current blog introduces you to the REALLY difficult side of traveling. You become more informed and it changes your life in ways that you never dreamed!
As always, this blog is copyrighted by Marla J. Selvidge