After a month traveling in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia, I’m back in D.C. refreshed, though still fighting jet lag. What did I miss most? Free tap water in restaurants, sharp cheddar cheese, my laptop, and good old American friendliness. It’s funny how accustomed we are to social lubricants like how are you and enjoy your day.
What did I love most about my travels? Europe’s linguistic diversity, the political and cultural curiosity of its people, and the out-of-body sense of walking through the ravages of twentieth century history — not to mention the ancient, medieval, and early modern pasts — with each step one takes. Here are some quick hits:
Most vibrant city: Berlin. I stayed in East Berlin’s Mitte district for 8 days, where a stroll of a few blocks took me past a bar featuring live ska/klezmer bands, a dozen art galleries, used clothing shops, restaurants representing every international cuisine, remains of the Berlin Wall, the rebuilt central synagogue of Berlin, packed beer gardens, and quiet cafes. Berlin is a city that, more than any other I’ve spent time in, feels like the playground of creative young people. You can feel how Berliners have re-engineered their city for tolerance and diversity even as they continue – earnestly and thoroughly — to dig through Germany’s history of genocide and war.
Most stunning city: Vienna. Everywhere you turn, there’s another breathtaking Hapsburg palace or perfectly manicured public park. Beautiful classical music wafts out of rehearsal halls, the croissants are the best we’d ever tasted (chocolate icing on the outside, vanilla custard within), and the Secessionist art is transporting. The mystery is why so many Viennese teenagers are completely Gothed out. Dyed black hair, combat boots, and wallet chains were as ubiquitous as jeans and polo shirts among the high schoolers we saw lounging in every park.
Strangest superimposition of Eastern Bloc architecture on a medieval walled city: Bratislava, Slovakia. We didn’t think much of Slovakian food, but from the fortress above this city, we took in an old Jewish ghetto, the uniformity of the Communist housing state, and looked over the border into the Austrian countryside, where dozens of giant windmills turned in unison.
Best place to learn about post-war European history: Budapest. Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party never ascended to the majority pre-war, but was later installed by Hitler and helped to carry out the ghettoization, deportation, and genocide of the nation’s vibrant Jewish community, which accounted for 5 percent of the Hungarian population (that’s a larger percentange of Jews than in the United States today). After the war, the Soviets ignored the results of two free elections and installed a Communist regime that brutalized the population for over four decades and violently quashed a democratic uprising in 1956. The average Budapest apartment building still bears bullet holes from the 1956 street fighting. At the Terror Museum, we walked through the Communist Party’s underground prison and execution site. Budapest is a breathtakingly gorgeous city that has withstood a terrible burden of history.
Best place to meet international travelers: Croatia. The craggy, magnificent Adriatic coastline really encouraged conversation on the beach, on ferries, and while hiking. We met two of the few liberal Democrats from Alabama (they wholeheartedly endorsed Tom Schaller-ism), several American expats, tons of Australians, and some friendly French jeunes femmes who gifted us with soft pads for lying on the rocky beaches. Everybody wanted to hear about the presidential elections. But when I told an Aussie investment banker that Hillary was in the lead, he informed me she can’t win. I guess you don’t have to live inside the Beltway to keep up to date with CW.
I’ll be posting more photos and reflections soon! I’ve been thinking a lot about the Jewish history I witnessed in every country we visited. Let me know in comments if there are particular places you’d like to see pictures of or hear more about.