Greetings from Budapest! It’s hard to believe our two week vacation will be drawing to a close in a few days. It’s been an exhausting and enriching experience. We’ve explored three major European cities in the last nine days, each with its own language, history, and currency. My math skills have been sorely tested on this trip, and forget about my language skills! As a rule, when I travel someplace I try to use at least “hello/goodbye” and “please/thank you” in the native language. With Czech, Polish and Hungarian these words have been so strangely foreign (and so little time to learn to use them) that I’ve resorted to being a bad American. I still say please and thank you, I just assume the folks here know English, and they generally do.
Quick impressions? Prague was beautiful but touristy. I think we rarely saw anyone unconnected with the tourist trade. We struggled with the food (heavy and greasy) but loved the art and architecture. Krakow was wonderful: small, intimate, lively, but gave us a real appreciation for Poland’s difficult history. Budapest is huge and while some of it is beautiful, communism seems to have taken a real toll. A lot of gorgeous old buildings are falling apart. The city reminds me of New York — it’s artsy and sophisticated but challenging to get around because it’s so big, and even with lots of tourist attractions it doesn’t feel touristy.
Rick Steves has been a godsend, and his suggestions have only been off once in a rare while. His guide to Eastern Europe is after all a few years old so he can hardly be correct all the time. He’s really helped us whittle down our experience into the essentials. He tells you exactly what to spend your time on and when not to bother. Most other guidebooks tell you about everything, which would have been paralyzing on this kind of trip.
Our most compelling experience has been our visit to Auschwitz, but it’s hardly the only one. As a Jew, this trip has been everything I expected and hoped for, in terms of gaining a better understanding of my own history.
I was nervous about visiting Auschwitz. I grew up learning about the Holocaust, and I’ve always known that but for my grandfather’s ingenuity and wisdom (as well as luck and money), my father would never have survived his boyhood, and I would never have existed. It’s a part of who I am.
But to see these towns where Jews no longer live, and to walk in these places of destruction and murder, is a new perspective. Being here brings an immediacy to what I knew, or thought I knew. Other high points have been visiting Schindler’s factory and seeing a photo exhibit of small towns all over Poland where Jews were systematically murdered. For no reason other than because they were there. We’ve also explored old synagogues and cemeteries, and we’ve tried to get a sense of the Jewish identities of these cities.
There’s a lot to share, but it will take a while to process, as will the hundreds of pictures we’ve taken. And it hasn’t all been serious — yesterday we spent all day at a Hungarian wine festival, held on the terrace of Budapest’s Royal Palace, overlooking the Danube River. Tomorrow we travel to a small wine town named Eger, and then it’s off on our last leg to Slovenia.
And I’ve been collecting pictures of bookstores as I go. In Budapest today we found a whole street of used bookstores with gorgeous old illustrated books in the windows that reminded me of my beloved Oz books. I found a copy of Harry Potter in Hungarian, but decided not to lug that home.
That’s all for now. There’s more to come if you’re interested…