I have been traveling a LOT lately. In mid-February I took my youth group to Palermo, in Sicily, for our annual mission trip. After about two minutes at home, I took a brief jaunt to Denver to watch the Red Wings rekindle their great 90’s rivalry against the Avalanche in the outdoor Stadium Series game. Then I was back at home for three days before a friend and I left for vacation in Budapest and Prague. In case you’re wondering, I do normally travel more than the average American, but I do not ordinarily see eight countries within a month (U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany). It has been a whirlwind, and it’s not really over; in April I will head to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Portugal on extended study leave. Racking up those frequent flyer miles.
While I’m back in the States, people keep asking me how my trip was, which is a nice pleasantry, except that I’m not sure how to answer. Usually I just respond, “Oh, it was great, thanks,” and that is about all most people want to hear. Half the time they’re not even sure which trip they’re asking about, which is understandable given the flurry of photos on my Facebook page. Distinguishing one old church from another is a challenge if you’re not actually there. Occasionally someone asks a little more. “Was Prague really as beautiful as they say?” “How well did you get around in English?” They’re simple questions. Yes, it is (but…more on that later). Very well, surprisingly.
But I find myself wanting to say more.
These were not simple trips. “It was great, I had so much fun” doesn’t encapsulate them. In fact, some parts of them were not fun at all, and they weren’t supposed to be. If you travel anywhere and that’s all you have to say, I think you’ve kind of missed the whole thing anyway, but maybe that’s just me. And most people don’t want to hear it. But in case you do, I’m trying to put a few thoughts here as they come back to me.
So, here’s the thing about Prague. It really is a gorgeous city, with the castle and cathedral perched on the hill over the river, a backdrop to the statues of the Charles Bridge and the blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture in the buildings of the central city, all stunning by both day and night. The city is simultaneously adorable with its kiosks serving hot wine and pastries, and its cozy pubs and cafes. It would be very easy just to see that side of the city, to spend your time there charmed by the Old Town and lulled by steins of beer and platters of meat and dumplings.
But then someone mentions that not long ago, all the buildings were gray. Gray? Now they are a dignified but lively celebration of colors that seem like they must have always been that way. They were gray, we are told, until not long ago. If I had been born in the Czech Republic (which wasn’t the Czech Republic then), I would have known them as gray. Probably I would have lived, not in these glorious examples of centuries of architecture, but in one of the plain, concrete apartment buildings all around the city that all look the same. We spent a day at Terezin Concentration Camp, and I can’t think of Prague without thinking of the stories of Nazi occupation. And then I can’t think of those WWII days without also hearing the stories of the Russian liberation of Prague, which led to decades of oppressive Communism – an interesting version of liberation. And then I remember the faces of the people there, especially the older people, who seldom look you in the eye and seem suspicious of strangers.
I had an amazing time in Prague. I saw the grave of St. Wenceslas (of Good King fame), felt my jaw drop at the Cathedral of St. Vitus, laughed with new friends late into the nights, and had the best beer tasting tour I’ve ever seen. And I felt the painful history and challenging present beyond all the pretty buildings.
Hungary shares much of this history of occupation and dictatorship, although their form of Communism was apparently less restrictive for a time after Stalin’s death. We spent our time in Budapest visiting astoundingly beautiful churches and castles and experiencing their famous hot springs. We rode a funicular, took a boat tour on the Danube, and busted our guts laughing at British guys on a stag trip. But I will also remember the prevalence of visible homelessness, and the stories of how little the average citizen makes there vs. what average housing costs. I had a great time, but I also learned some intense lessons about human frailty and oppression.
I suppose these are unusual things to think about on vacation, but I guess I’ve learned by now that I’m not really wired for all-inclusive resorts that keep me insulated from the realities of the world (although I did go to one once, and it was fun for a couple of days, until it became creepy that I was seeing no one who actually lived there). Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing and doing frivolous things. But I’m also glad that I spent some of my vacation pondering the rise of Nazism, for example, because that’s the kind of thing that makes me more aware of what is happening in my own context.
On that note, stay tuned for my next post, tentatively titled: “I’m not saying Trump is Hitler, but…”