A Curtain Closes – COVID-19 & Travel in Eastern Europe: The Return of History (My Balkan Affair #45)

The woman at the piano in Szeged’s train station finished her Hungarian rhapsody. The silence after she stopped was just as riveting as the music she had been playing. To see beauty stripped to its barest essence was to have watched this woman play the piano. Her performance had been a striking example of how art can shift reality from the mundane to the magnificent in a matter of minutes. There are very few moments in life when we instinctively know that we have witnessed something remarkable, this was one of them. After she was finished playing, the woman picked up her child who was no longer near tears and went to the platform. In a few minutes, the woman along with many others including myself was boarding the train which would take us to Budapest.

Somewhere between Szeged and the town of Cegled, an hour up the line, my Balkan affair began to recede into a swirl of confused and captivating memories. The loss of memory was inevitable. My only solace was that it would be replaced by a sense of accomplishment which comes from the rare instance of a trip completed without even a hint of regret. Paradoxically, this left me feeling disconcerted by a premonition that this trip might never be topped. At this time, I cannot say whether it ever will be. The reason is that a global pandemic has postponed any further travels until an undetermined time in a future that remains mysterious.

Standing guard over silence – The Fat Policeman statue in Budapest during COVID curfew

The Gift of Hindsight – No Going Back
The gift of hindsight is good for something other than regret. It is how we make sense of history. All the course of human affairs can only be made sense of after the fact. That is when we look for trends that were invisible at the time. We tell ourselves later that they did in fact exist, we were just blind to the possibilities. I did not know anything about COVID-19 while traveling across the Balkans. I do not recall hearing a single word about while back in Budapest either. My only encounters with the virus would come way later when I was back in the United States. It was increasingly mentioned in media outlets until one day it descended upon our world and altered the course of life as we know it. With the gift of hindsight, I have come to believe that my last trip in Eastern Europe was meant to be just that, a sort of last hurrah. The kind of immaculate memory that one can vicariously live through for years. The past only becomes glorified as a golden one when the present has proven to be calamitous.

The beginning of 2020 was not the end of innocence, but it was the end of taking for granted the opportunities I have been afforded to travel throughout the region. Hindsight tells me that eventually things will get back to normal. I believe otherwise, there will be no going back in order to move forward. There has been a break with the past. Ominously, what comes next has become anyone’s worst guess. Taking a wait and see attitude has never been so worrisome, at least not in my lifetime. I keep thinking back to the summer of 1914 in Eastern Europe. It has been said that summer was among the most beautiful anyone can remember. The citizens of Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire and all the other states in the region had no way of knowing that a storm was gathering and would soon break upon them. A storm of such scale and ferocity that it would transform the future into something unimaginable. There were historical forces at work which would alter the lives of millions for the worse. Are we living through another such nightmare or a speed bump on the road back to normalcy? It Is too soon to tell.

Emptiness – The Chain Bridge in Budapest during curfew due to COVID

Collision Course – The Present Future
I often comfort myself with the thought that everything I saw in the Balkans still exists. The walled towns of Budva and Kotor, the ruins of Stari Bar, the synagogue in Subotica and the Bar to Belgrade train still exist in the same state in which I left them. Perhaps next year they will be open for the taking by tourists. Perhaps not. It is comforting and frightening, mostly the latter, to think of just how empty each of these attractions must be at this moment. What does Budva become when there are no tourists to lay eyes on its medieval delights? What is Kotor without a line of curiosity seekers snaking their way up the mountainside in the quest to surmount Fort St. John? The ruins of Stari Bar have not been this silent since they were abandoned hundreds of years ago. When I visited Cetinje it felt like I was the only foreigner who dared brave that ice cold city during the winter. Now no foreigners dare brave it at all. The world of travel in the Balkans has turned insular. The region is back to being the preserve of locals. They finally have their cities, towns and tourist attractions back and not a Euro or dollar to show for it. Such is the state of a world no one saw coming. Expectations must now be adjusted accordingly. 

I imagine the Bar to Belgrade train still surging forward on its daily journeys filled with nothing but empty seats. A handful of passengers cover their mouths and noses with masks. They eye each with a shared sense of trepidation. Those plague columns that I have seen standing in so many Eastern European cities, now seem oddly appropriate. They are monuments to a past that was just as precarious as our present and future. The past, present and future have converged rather than collided. COVID-19 is a milder and more modern form of the plague. It has killed many and altered the lives of even more. Borders have closed, reopened and closed once again. The Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe have not been this closed off since the Iron Curtain cordoned it off from the rest of the western world. The curtain that now stands today is translucent. We can see through it and dare not go beyond it. That curtain is something we have learned to hide behind. History has returned, the tourists have not. The pandemic has proven once again that history has its own logic, only in hindsight will we ever make sense of it.

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