In my youth, high schools regularly required classes in world history in addition to American history and civics. These subjects didn’t thrill us, but in retrospect they had definite benefits. Today, when high school students are shown a map of Great Britain or France, many have no inkling where these places are located.
Still, most of us lack an understanding of less familiar parts of the world, especially where there is little current American involvement. That includes Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where we recently visited. Spending a week in this region certainly does not make me an expert, but it is enlightening and is a great reminder that we Americans are very fortunate.
BUDAPEST ON THE DANUBE
Visiting Hungary the second time in a decade was instructive. While the Capital, Budapest, remains a magnificent old city on the Danube River, with new buildings and an easy-to-navigate subway system, there are new ominous political concerns.
On one of our tours, our guide was answering questions about the current government and suddenly announced that he thought it was time for him to stop. Away from the group, he noted that the Hungarian president, Victor Orban, was now moving the country in an ultra right direction, causing fear and motivating educated young people to leave.
“SHOE ON THE DANUBE BANK”
Having previously passed by the Holocaust remembrance exhibit, “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” where Jewish men, women and children were told to take off their shoes and then shot into the river by Hungarian Nazis in 1944, this information was very disconcerting.
Taking a walk in a non-tourist neighborhood pointed out that cigarette smoking is frequent and constant. We may think that tobacco companies worry about the decline in American cigarette consumption, but Eastern Europe is picking up the slack. Another fascinating find was the large numbers of stores selling sewing notion, fabrics and machines. Obviously, the economy is such that homemade clothing is needed as it was here in the middle of the 20th century.
We visited Croatia and Servia, two of the six countries that once were part of Yugoslavia, a country that existed from 1942 to 1991, when the somewhat benevolent independent communist dictator, “Tito” (Josip Broz) kept those countries in line and prevented them from killing each other. This area, known as the Balkans, has always been a tinder point for wars.
Vukovar, a small attractive Croatian city, was about 85 percent obliterated in the 1990s in their war with Serbia, which extended into much of the former Yugoslavia. According to our guide, it’s peaceful now, but unemployment is 33 percent and emigration is causing a brain drain among the young educated people.
Perhaps the most amazing piece of information from our guide regarded schools. Croatian and Serbian people reside in both Croatia and Serbia and some have intermarried. But when the children of intermarried couples go to school in Croatia, they must decide if they will attend a Serbian or a Croatian school; the youngsters of these nationalities cannot mix in schools even if their parents have done so.
I wasn’t prepared to like Bucharest, Romania’s capital, as I’d heard that it was a grey boring city and a set of my grandparents emigrated from Romania over a century ago because of the dangers facing them.
A BUCHAREST CAFE
But what we found were friendly people, interesting places, great food, joy at getting rid of their Communist dictator in 1989, an amazingly modern McDonald’s and ease in getting around Bucharest with Uber.
Travel is always interesting; visiting a small part of Eastern Europe was enlightening.
[This wonderfully descriptive article first appeared in the Huntington WV Herald-Dispatch on Thursday, September 14, 2017. The author, Diane W. Mufson, a retired psychologist, and her husband Maury reside in Huntington, West Virginia. Ms. Mufson is a weekly contributor the editorial page of the Herald-Dispatch. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org]