My wife and I just returned from a 25-day cruise from Amsterdam to Bucharest through the Rhine, Maine, and Danube rivers, including a variety of stops and onshore excursions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. And, while our access to e-mail and Internet was decent along the way, my current feed of the daily grind of the news cycle suffered somewhat, which is probably a blessing, but not very conducive to commentary on the relevant zeitgeist of the moment.
As is the case with other river cruise trips, the highlight for me is the cruising itself, but this trip was very educational, with good exposure to local experts on the history of each country and the region, meaningful interaction with local residents, and good interchange with fellow tour participants. As a result, I came away with some new perspectives on this region. Some observations:
- It was difficult not to draw an immediate comparison between the relatively affluent German-speaking nations and the Slav countries to the south and east, probably mostly due to cultural differences, but also influenced by their much different historical experiences in economic development.
- In the former Warsaw Pact countries, there was a stark contrast between the traditional Baroque architectural model and its assimilation with contemporary styles and the occasional but ever-present drab Communist-inspired concrete slab with concrete columns and protruding reinforcing steel, incomplete as if the construction workers had simply walked off the job some 25 or so years ago. It reminded me of a similar reaction in Poland when we visited there 12 years ago, but seemed much more pronounced in Bulgaria and Romania on this trip.
- In a little over three weeks on this trip, we probably visited over 20 churches and cathedrals, beautiful places many centuries old whose monasteries founded the Christendom that became Western Civilization. Now many of these places survive mainly as tourist stops, a sad commentary, and one wonders what will replace them as anchors.
- We had a very interesting lecturer on board for two very good presentations on the Balkans and the future of Serbia in light of all of its problems in the past century. One of his key points that struck me was that in this region the concept of ethnicity always trumps the notion of citizenship; people simply have been conditioned by history and circumstance not to think in terms of the latter, but always of the former. And it occurred to me immediately that this is completely the reverse in America and is the essence of American exceptionalism, where anyone of any race or ethnicity can be an American citizen, subject to a commitment to its ideals and civic creed. And I wonder how many of us realize how important this distinction has been over the years.
- Our local guide in Croatia spent quite some time discussing what we call the Balkan War of the mid-1990s, in which their country bore much of the brunt of the ethnic-cleansing of the Serb army. She told me that people in her country prefer to call it the “homeland war”, because to them that is what is was–a battle for their homeland, and they do not like the reference to the Balkans, even though it characterizes a century of complicated internecine warfare, restrained only by the Communist period under the Tito regime, primarily between and among the various ethnic tribes of the former Yugoslavia.
- We visited in the homes of several families in former Communist countries, who introduced us to great food, family life and customs, and innovative ways for them to make a living. They were all impressive people, hard-working, but still having a hard time almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I thought again about my first two points above, the stark differences in the experiences of these people since World War II and how much that has meant to their fortunes. Simply put, these people were fed nothing but lies for 75 years, three generations, and this has corrupted their very souls in a way that cannot be quickly overcome. There is no better example of the degree to which ideas really do have consequences.
This was a great trip, very provocative and instructive, that I wish every American, particularly those under 40 years of age, could experience.