On travel

I meant to post the following thoughts at the end of May:

Last weekend was Memorial Day in the US, and folks were posting about travel and barbecues and other things intrinsic to this American holiday.  I sat here looking at my empty email box and thinking about work here in Sweden.  And also about how when I describe my trips here, which seem like local jaunts, my friends and colleagues pronounce how romantic my life is and how jealous they are that I can travel in Europe.  I feel the same about my friends’ and family’s travel at home!  I want to be traveling in California, D.C., West Virginia…

I wrote that just before Matt and I were about to leave for an extended tour in the eastern part of Europe.  Matt had back-to-back meetings that took him to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and to Budapest, Hungary, so I tagged along. We rented a car to drive from one former Communist-Bloc country to the other, with a short stay in between over the weekend in Klagenfurt, Austria, to visit family.

It was a fascinating trip.  Klagenfurt was lovely; we enjoyed seeing family and visiting familiar and new spots around the Austrian countryside (and wow, did we eat well).  But Ljubljana and Budapest were totally new to both of us.  Because Matt was in meetings most days, I explored the cities by myself (and wow, did we eat well, after Matt’s meetings!).

I won’t give you the blow by blow on my wanderings, just the highlights and some photos below.  One thing I did in each city was to visit the ethnografic museums, which contained local folk culture displays, and also foreign “folk” culture exhibits. At the moment, the museums here seem obsessed with South America.  I saw similar displays about the Amazonian forest peoples of Venezuela and Brazil, in Ljubljana and Budapest, respectively. What strikes me as strange is that these shows about very different tribes had such similar objects — each had a purse made of an armadillo’s thick shell, folded over into a clutch; each had the long woven tube-shaped baskets that people use to crush the tubers they eat, or the tightly woven trays and loosely woven hammocks. They had slightly different decorative arts (feathers for masks and body jewelry, etc.), but the displays were about the same.

But when it came to home, each country’s region had detailed displays — of wedding dress for men and women, of different agricultural methods from ploughshares to woodworking, weaving for rugs and tatting of lace, and more.  Men in mourning in Hungary wear white dresses.  Women in Slovenia could be identified as part of a regional group by their headdress.  Considering all the school kids whom I assume travel through these exhibits, it’s great for showing them the diversity within their own countries, and just how old those groups are (despite the side effects of tribalism, I suppose).  And for me, very enlightening:  I know that Europe has always had its different regions and groups, but it’s interesting to see both how countries hold onto their traditions while they homogenize with the rest of Europe.

So, in Slovenia, we ate food inflected with Italian, German, and local flavors, reflecting the different rulers and neighbors the young country has lived with over centuries.  I also saw the slightly nationalistic side of the museum displays, some of which contained asides  about how Slovenia, the wealthiest of the Yugoslav bloc, was always the least willing to participate, and the first to embrace the EU.  Also evidenced by the layout of the city: the beautiful old center of town, surrounded by the Communist-era office blocks and apartments, and the edge of new “modern” growth.  But Ljubljana has no subway:  It rests on too many Roman ruins, and every dig stops for archeological research or preservation, or for fear that the cave-riddled earth might collapse. (This thoroughly modern, beautiful European city is surrounded by green hills, and the Alps to the north — absolutely gorgeous.)

Hungary hits you with its heavy history of the Hapsburgs, its central position in European history and trade, and its anti-Soviet revolution in 1956 — and then what looks to my outsider’s eyes something like silence on the Communist era, except for the modern memorials that went up after the 1989 “thawing.”  One of the other meeting-wives joined me on my rambles through the city for two days, and one afternoon we ended up at the monolithic structure in the City Park that represents the people’s coming together to end Communism.  From the front, it looks like the prow of a ship, plowing into the plaza’s cobblestones, and from the back, individual metal spires cluster together until they become the whole edifice at the front.  This plaza is where the Communist government reviewed parades, my friend’s guidebook told us. But no plaque or anything nearby made that clear.

Pockmarks from bullets sprayed into the stately colonnades of the courthouse, where protesters were shot in October 1956, are now marked with brass balls.  But with no explanation.

I found all of this fascinating.  I was in high school when Germany was reunited and the Berlin Wall fell.  These countries now have a new young generation that did not live with Communism, exactly, and are now growing up partly under the EU’s sensibility.  And they are suffering a bit under the current economic crisis.

One young woman I met on the bus heading downtown in Ljubljana told me she is a secretary at the World Trade Center in town, turning her nose up a bit at how lowly the job sounded (“oh, I’m just a secretary,” she said, in perfect English).  She and her boyfriend meet up with their friends once a year to play computer games for a week in an inexpensive vacation house in Croatia, cheap to rent with euros (Slovenia once went to the Mediterranean and still holds tight to its seagoing connections — the ethnography museum had a whole room devoted to fishing, even though the country retains only a small slice of shoreline these days).  The rest of the year, they play each other online over the Internet, because all of her friends have left the country to look for work or education opportunities, and better lives across Europe.

I never really got the chance to speak to a local in Budapest.  Everyone in the service industry seemed to speak English and speak it well.  Everyone was cordial.  I stuck to the tourist trails, and so I saw a few remnants of Communist statuary, or the places people lived or protested.  I missed any evidence of the neo-Nazis, the nationalists, anything that would seem unsavory or speak of unrest, economic or political, that shows up in the news.

My mom asked me about anti-Semitism.  I saw no evidence, except for the giant synagogue in Budapest, and the monuments to the Jews killed at the end of World War II.  Another fascinating history — and the fact that this synagogue was rebuilt and is now a tourist trap fascinates me as well.  Cathedrals across Europe have the same tacky souvenir stands and tours, but they are something I never associate with active places of Jewish worship.  I did see some weird graffiti in Ljubljana, but I have no context with which to parse it — it could be a defiant yell or an anti-Semitic slur.  It’s as unclear to me as the languages spoken in these countries.

What more to report?  I could go on and on about the beauty of Buda versus the pedestrian delights of Pest, or the history of the flooding on the Danube River, the Jewish population in Budapest.  I could tell you about the strange blind, pink salamander that lives deep inside Slovenia’s karst caves.  I could go on about the importance of the dragon and symbolism in the country’s history.

The gist?  I walked everywhere.  I visited castles.  I bought souvenirs like hats and shoes, useful things that I could take home and keep using.  I ate well. (I relied on The New York Times‘ “36-hours-in” posts for Ljubljana and Budapest and they seemed spot on — contact me if you want specific feedback or other recommendations!)  I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

And I wonder, is it possible to be this kind of tourist in my own home?  I would not mind seeing the Underground Railroad, or traveling in the footsteps of the Freedom Summer activists.  I would like to see the American Indian paintings in the Southwest, and the Japanese WWII internment camps across the American West.  I would like to eat well in L.A.  Perhaps travel is always grassier from the other side of the Atlantic?

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