After living in England for the past 3 ½ years I finally decided to go ‘abroad’ to Europe and take a trip I had long thought about taking. Part of the reason I hadn’t taken the opportunity to travel before is the prospect of very long train journeys, since I prefer not to fly unless necessary. But I finally decided to take this trip, fly to my first destination, and take trains from there, out of the realization that one day we may no longer be within such close proximity.
I began in Vienna. In my imagination Vienna was a place with wide, stately boulevards, people dressed in furs, and with few tourists. And with no young people except those kept around to dust the gilt-framed mirrors in classic cafes. I imagined an impenetrable social silence, full of Freudians and Habsburgs grappling with their faded histories.
Instead I found a throng, in deepest winter, of tourists, students, and old men in Tyrolean hats. I found café waiters much like those in the storied Parisian Deux Magots, only perfectly happy to respond to my imperfect German. I saw young Americans interviewing old politicians or soldiers. I eavesdropped as they tried to comport themselves as ‘academics’ but withering under the weight of their subjects’ years. There were the wide boulevards, threading through the Habsburgian bâtiments, museums, and universities.
In Budapest I found something beyond the Europe I had previously encountered. Completely unfamiliar with the language, I arrived knowing numerous Americans who had spent years living in Budapest. But I had no preconceived notions of the city. My first impression was design: again I found the Habsburgs – in the massive, stout buildings forming a monotonous and often crumbling block-long façade.
But if the buildings were in need of some paint or plaster, there was also a prevalent graphic design that pulled me in. An east/west black and white pattern, repeated around the city. I could see why my contemporaries came, and stayed. There is an aesthetic in Budapest that meets the eye and speaks of internal harmony, a confident identity, and peace with that. Budapest was a no-nonsense kind of city.
Bratislava, the weather at least, was cold and icy. But the people welcomed you by standing up and smiling, by letting you know it was ok to be there, in their new country. It’s a small place, but the people are tall. I felt the need to parse out the Slovak from the Polish and the Austrian and the Czech. The city was painted in lovely colors and public art was as likely to be funny as to be a memorial. I got a sense of a people not dwelling too much on past sorrows.
Krakow. John Paul and the Jewish Quarter. Auschwitz and Schindler tours. My taxi driver, as I left for home, insisted next time I must see the salt mines. I regretted not making that trip. The university is 600 years old. A lovely city. Lots of green space. I sat in a park and let the February sun work its magic. 24-hour pierogi shops. I’m glad I came in Winter as I’m sure the summer traffic pollution is unbearable. Would I go back again? Probably not. It was missing something for me.
And then – Auschwitz. How do you visit a place like that and what can you possibly say that hasn’t already been said? Most of us have lived our entire lives with the images of that place starkly before our eyes in books, film, museums, and newspapers. In Auschwitz I, the mundane kept surfacing: the design of light fixtures, sinks, pathways, and courtyards. But the horrible accumulated quickly: piles of luggage, eyeglasses, personal effects, human hair.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a five-minute ride away by bus. It is a vast space, a field of unending misery. It was meant to hold up to 200,000 people and over a million were killed there. It is a cemetery. The ashes of victims rest on the grounds. Here the scale of the final solution becomes fully apparent. It was a city of horror, of death – the depths of human evil. It was here that, it you were to feel anything but terror, it might be complete loneliness in a forsaken world.
Four cities in ten days is a lot to cover. Stepping out of the ‘West’ and into an ‘East’ for a week and then some was not as jarring as it surely was only two decades ago. But the hilltop castles and massive basilicas insisting on their history and their culture makes me glad I stepped out of my comfort zone.
Unfamiliar as they were, I am glad in a way that I made this trip without prior research on customs or appropriate levels of tipping. Making mistakes is not the end of the world. I wish I had been able to say a few words in Hungarian or Slovak or Polish, but that didn’t seem to be much of a worry to them. I smiled instead and said “thank you” – that seemed to be enough.