Thursday, October 18, 2018

Proud to be. . .

Two weeks ago, I discussed the highlights of our recent vacation to Eastern Europe. Dave and I decide on vacation destinations a little differently than some. We enjoy getting to know the place we're visiting--in particular its history. When we started planning this 'epic' vacation about two years ago, it was important that this be a trip about "learning," not just about "seeing the sights."

There are several tour organizations that offer similar trips, but what made us select Smithsonian Journeys was the education factor. We had a highly-qualified history expert along with us on the entire trip. (A little more on that in a bit.)

Since we've been back, some friends have asked, 'What impressed you most?' So I thought my answer might be of interest to you as well.

National Pride

Over and over again, we simply could not avoid the topic of overwhelmingly strong national and cultural pride - and the attempts to undermine it - every single place we visited.

Frederic Chopin, born in Warsaw, Poland is something of a national hero there.

Here is a video clip of one of Chopin's famous Polonaise compositions, performed by a very young Liberace.

Chopin left his beloved Poland in exile to live in France. He died of tuberculosis at 39 and was buried in France, but his heart was returned to Poland where it remains. This statue and this park in Warsaw is dedicated to him. During WWII, the statue was destroyed, then years later after the war, it was rebuilt. It is said to have been destroyed to inflict a spiritual blow on the German-occupied Polish people.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, opened in 1940, in a suburb of Oswiecim, Poland (Auschwitz is a German-ized version of the town name) is a sobering monument to Hitler's plan to eliminate the Jewish people and their culture from existence.

Not much more to be said here. However, the failed, but monumental Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 is a tribute to the Jewish resistance in occupied Poland.

In 1918, Poland was reunified after 130 years of non-existence as a country. Five generations of Polish people never lost hope that their country would be re-unified.

After WWII in 1945, Communism was imposed. The Palace of Culture and Science was a 'gift' to the Polish people from the Soviets. It's a source of disdain for many Polish people today as a symbol of the universally-disliked Communist regime. 

While in Warsaw, we enjoyed traditional Polish food at Radio Cafe just a few blocks away from our hotel. The restaurant owner, whose name, I'm sorry that I can't now remember, came out and spoke to our group.

Back in the day (post WWII), this restaurant catered to the staff of Radio Free Europe. Listening to RFE was completely taboo, but became a valued source of information from the free world.

The positive impact from the fall of Communism in all the places we visited on this trip became a recurring theme. All of our city tour guides mentioned it, and shared their experiences of what that meant to their lives.

Solidarity in 1980 made Poland the first to leave Communism behind, the remaining nations followed one by one.

This star on display inside the Parliament Building in Budapest topped the Parliament dome during Communist times. Now it's a museum piece, inside. People don't want to forget.

In each new location on the trip, as I mentioned earlier, we had a local city guide who provided historical information and personal experiences.

Our local city guide in Budapest (what a view behind her, eh?) gave us excellent perspectives on being Hungarian.

Medieval History

Here in the US, our earliest heroes lived a couple hundred years ago. In Eastern Europe, history and important historical figures go way, wa-a-a-y back.

St Stephen (Szent Istvan) was the first king of Hungary in the 10th Century (a good 800 years before George Washington took the reigns of the Continental Army.) He is still one of the most revered historical figures for the Hungarian people.

Unfortunately, Hungary made some bad choices in their alliances during WWI and WWII. And the country has paid the price. Today, Hungary is a member of the European Union (EU), and they benefit from their membership. Interestingly, they have not adopted the use of the Euro. Nor has Poland. Nor has the Czech Republic. One might speculate that, for each of these countries, even their money represents a sense of national pride - with images of centuries-old national heroes imprinted on each denomination.

For the Czech Republic, the Munich Pact in September 1938 gave Germany the right to invade Czech Territory. Big problem: dignitaries from the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) were left out of the negotiations while diplomats from Germany, France, Britain, and Italy discussed Czehoslovakia's fate. To this day, the Czech people refer to that agreement with bitterness as o nás bez nás (about us without us).

In Germany, a section of The Wall, once separating democratic West Berlin from Communist East Germany remains as a monument to the re-unification. The footprint of the entire wall is embedded in the street pavement.

All this learning, and no fun?

Well, not exactly. Even though our assigned educator, Christopher Brennan, PhD provided extensive historical information in formal lecture settings, he provided plenty of distraction from the historical data-dump, too! Here he is with one of many ever-changing maps of Eastern Europe.

And he proves that the Wieliczka Salt Mines (near Krakow, Poland) are indeed composed of salt, by taking a lick. He also kept us entertained, not only with his vast knowledge of the subject matter, but also with his dry, British sense of humor! His local knowledge as a resident of Vienna, led us to excellent eats (and brews)!

And our lovely, fabulous tour director, Silvija from Latvia, not only kept our group in check, but provided tons of stories from her own experiences growing up under Communism in Latvia.

She is a real gem!

And if you really want to get a feel for national pride among the Eastern European nations, open a conversation about which country has the best strudel!

This is perhaps, the most important lesson I learned on the trip: when presented with two dessert options, one being strudel, no matter which country you're in and what the other choice is, get the strudel - each strudel is the BEST! (below is the Hungarian version!)

And yes, that rivalry is real. I can go on and on with various examples of the deep national pride we observed and experienced. But I've probably already bored you to tears with all this!

Back to the sewing machine!

Happy Stitching!



  1. Not boring at all. Very interesting.

  2. Thanks for sharing all of this. Fascinating and I'm fairly sure I'll not get to visit there in this life time.

  3. Strudel looks amazing but I Cant find your directions for it

    1. Oh my! Sorry to confuse you! Yes it was amazing, but the photo in the blog is from a lovely farm in Hungary, and if you jumped over from a photo in the Good Migrations newsletter, that was a photo of delicious German strudel in Berlin. I didn't make either one, but only commented that when in eastern Europe, get the strudel, it's always the best dessert choice! Unfortunately, I don't have the secret to making good strudel. Guess I just have to go back to Europe!