Eastern Europe, how best to understand such a complex, and conflicted region? Perhaps one should start with the cities, many different cities, in many different countries. Catalog the impressions and then ponder what it means, if anything, if nothing.
Lviv – A Man With No Legs
Travel to Lviv in western Ukraine, that beautiful city frozen in a state of rapturously Austro-Hungarian glory. Stroll through the heart of the historic old town. Listen to the sound of stilettos on cobblestone, voices of desire. Gaze at the bucolically bright mansions surrounding Ploshcha Rynok. Spend at least one single morning watching a man with no legs in a wheelchair. He patiently waits to see if any passers-by scatter a bit of change in the bowl that sits in his lap. The man does not beg, he just sits there patiently. He is not dirty or ill-kempt, but actually rather well dressed, if modestly so, from the waist up everything seems normal. The complete picture is quite different, like the many sides of this city. This drama takes place in the shadow of the Neo-Renaissance Opera House. Operas are fiction, while the dramas played out on the street are real.
Budapest – Beauty, Horror & Grandeur
Go to Budapest. Float down the Danube, on one side the hills of Buda blossom, staked out by the spires of churches and castles. Opposite lies Pest, home to the Hungarian Parliament, that delicious architectural confection of neo-Gothicism, a scene and style that devours the skyline. Disembark on the embankment just before the Chain Bridge, walk a bit upriver on the Pest side, to find a series of sculpted shoes at water’s edge. It was here, that hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45 to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube. Buda and Pest, here is a city that combines beauty, horror and grandeur in uncertain order.
Krakow – Defying Disbelief
Onward to Krakow, in that main magnificent square, Rynek Glowny, reputedly the largest medieval square in all of Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean. Here, the glory and pageantry of Poland is spread over 40,000 stunning square meters. All that once was, still remains, the Cloth Hall and the Clock Tower, St Mary’s and the Mickiewicz Monument. Could this square, this astonishing slice of Poland’s rich history, really have once been subject to the diktats of totalitarianism? It all seems too bad to be true. Amid such magnificence one tends to forget the more recent and troubled past. A cure for any case of 20th century Polish historical amnesia is just a tram ride away.
Stand outside the gates of Nowa Huta and ponder the terrible, fierce rust bucket beauty that was still born here. This suburb was what Krakow, Poland and all of Eastern Europe was supposed to become. A whole city, an entire nation and a wide swath of Europe forged out of iron and steel. Factories lauded as the new cathedrals, heavy industry as the master mold of mid-20th century civilization. Nothing lasts forever, but this hardly lasted a lifetime. Nowa Huta still exists, but its glory days are gone, its labor days are not. This place has become a piece of modern art that rusts right before the eyes.
Berlin – French Kissing Fear
To understand Eastern Europe, surely one must understand Berlin. Why it is so hip, so youthful, so vibrant, so alive. This used to be the world capital of disunity, but now it is united in revelry. 21st century Berlin is a city that seems to be giving fear a French kiss. It is so interesting, all those places where terrible things happened and now most of them can be seen for free. There is enough history here to last several lifetimes, but the past need not detain anyone, when there is another club to hop. Stand beneath the Brandenburg Gate and ponder Frederick the Great, the Kaiser, the Nazis, West vs. East. This is where both ends met the middle and a nation, became arbiter of a world divided against itself.
Now the traveler can dance until dawn in no man’s land, admire galleries worth of graffiti at any random underpass and glide by, rather than through Checkpoint Charlie. That once formidable barrier, looks so small and stupid in retrospect. What is more illuminating, the helpfulness of Berliner’s who rush to provide directions or the fact that nothing really happens here anymore, unless fun and efficiency is now of world historical importance.
Vienna – The Madness of Fairy Tales
Final stop, the fairy tale city of Vienna. Like all fairy tales, this one has more than its fair share of madness. The Hofburg, at the heart of the city, imposes splendor and arrogance, refinement and oppression upon the visitor in unequal measure. Here is where the Habsburg’s decided what was beautiful and everyone else had to live with it or suffocate from it. This was a world that made its own rules which the rest of the world was supposed to live and die by. And the Hofburg is just the start.
Vienna is a grand illusion, a magic act made out of marble and sculpted stone. There is more than enough of this to go around and around the Ringstrasse. It is enough to drive someone mad. No wonder this city gave the world Freud, Klimt and Wittgenstein. It was not just Metternich and Franz Josef who strolled through the gardens at Schonnbrunn, it was also Hitler and Stalin, at the same time, long before they became deities of death, these men were plotting and plodding amid the perfectly kept pathways. Modern Vienna is filled with an world of underlying tension, irksome and uptight. This can best be seen in the strained countenances of the Viennese. Those faces that stare away from the traveler. They are forever peering out tram windows, looking at nothing in particular, with an incredible intensity.
A World Turning Inward On Itself
The man with no legs, candy colored baroque buildings, shoes sculpted from stone, forty thousand square meters of magnificence, the heavy heart of heavy industry, a world that bordered on the apocalypse and now on frivolity, the weight of history at the Hofburg and so many other things. These are the impressions that help the traveler understand Eastern Europe, its peoples and it cities. What does all this amount to? There is no clear answer, there never will be. Eastern Europe is complex and conflicted. It is filled with the joys and horrors of life. As in the present, as in the past, it is forever turning inward on itself.