Blasted in Brasov– Traumatic Memories of Transylvania (Eastern Europe & Me #21)

It is an unfortunate symptom of the human experience that so many of our memories center around traumatic incidents. The things we would rather not remember often stay with us far longer than we could ever imagine. The more we attempt to suppress unwanted parts of our past, the more likely they are too return with a vengeance. Many of our most vivid memories get connected with negative events. Uncommon occurrences that because of their novelty or rarity stick in our mind. These experiences do not have to be life shattering in order to become memory markers. They just need to be unique. I discovered two such experiences lurking in my memory when I began to think about Brasov, that elegant city in eastern Transylvania known for its splendid old town and beautiful setting amid the mountains.

Confined space – Street in Brasov

Stealing Away – Criminal Minds
Drunkenness and drug abuse. Those were not the kinds of experiences I was looking forward to finding when I went to Brasov. During a decade of travels in Eastern Europe that include a trio of trips to Transylvania, I have found the region to be much safer than the United States. Violent crime and the potential for it to occur are rare. I have never seen guns in Eastern Europe except while visiting museums. In the United States, handgun crime is a chronic problem that only seems to get worse with each passing year. Mass shootings are now occurring multiple times a week. There is no such thing in Eastern Europe. When shootings do occur, they are usually related to organized crime. I have read more about stabbings in the region, but these crimes are much harder to commit.

That does not mean Eastern Europe is without crime. Whereas in America, I rarely worry about theft, I have heard numerous stories of theft from travelers in Eastern Europe. In one case, I had second-hand experience with it. On an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest, a friend of mind had his wallet cleaned out of cash. Petty theft is anything but that when it happens to you or someone you know. This is why most accommodations in the region have multiple locks on the door. Phrases such as “do not leave your bags unattended” take on a different meaning in Eastern Europe.

There is also the persistent problem of corruption which still plagues every post-communist country. This corruption is not just the kind where fat cats get kickbacks on contracts. There is also the petty kind, where citizens are forced to pay for services or access that should have already been covered by their tax dollars. A Hungarian once told me that business costs should include a thirty percent add on for various payoffs. While corruption in Hungary has worsened over the past decade, the problem is only a little better or worse than other nations throughout the region. Corruption trickles down through society, affecting everyone, at every level. I have been asked for petty bribes a few times while traveling in the region. Thankfully, this is the exception rather than the rule. Endemic corruption rarely affects tourists on a perceptible level. More problematic are societal problems that can be seen on the street.

Beautiful setting – Council Square in Brasov

Soft Targets – Picking Up Problems
Brasov is prosperous by the standards of Romania. The city has good public transport services, a diversified economy, and a thriving tourist sector. It is in Transylvania, which happens to be the most economically prosperous region in Romania besides the capital of Bucharest. Brasov has a lot going for it, but like the rest of Romania, the city is still recovering from the disastrous Ceausescu era. Societal woes are to be expected. The average tourist is not likely to encounter many problems. Nevertheless, Brasov was where I had a couple of memorable moments that I would rather forget.

One came while walking down a narrow street in the Old Town during the late afternoon. I suddenly found an unwanted companion in the form of a very drunk Romanian man who looked to be in his 40’s. For some reason – most likely my red hair – he thought I must have been German. He mockingly began to sound off in drill sergeant speak. By the tone, I could tell his comments were pejorative. I assumed these were allusions to German militarism The man was trying to get a rise out of me. I would have none of it, but I did consider the possibility that he might lay his hands on me. That would have escalated the situation to a point of no return. There was little doubt that he was inebriated. His mocking tones went on for a couple of blocks before the man finally wandered off. I was a bit shaken by the experience. This could have easily happened almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe. The biggest surprise was that it occurred in Transylvania. I have seen much more public drunkenness in Poland and Hungary. Romanians are not known to be excessively fond of alcohol, but the problem does exist.  

Evening scene – Brasov at dusk

Shock Effect – A Tale of Trauma
By the standards of substance abuse, public drunkenness by someone acting like a lout is only of mild concern. The same could not be said for a shocking sight I came across while walking in the Old Town one morning in Brasov. Foot traffic was rather heavy since it was a weekday. The morning commute on foot to the nearest bus stop or workplace was in full force. While weaving through fellow pedestrians I noticed a woman walking at a brisk pace. Her features were shriveled though she looked to be no older than 40. She pressed a plastic bag to her face from which she was inhaling a substance. This turned out to be glue, the smell of which struck my nostrils just before her rancid body odor. The moment was shocking in the extreme.

Sniffing glue is a sure way to destroy brain cells and shorten your lifespan. Drug abuse is a disease of despair, as much as it is one of addiction. It is no secret that Eastern European societies have had a difficult economic transition to capitalism. Some nations such as Romania have suffered more than others I have grown used to fending off attempts for money or cigarettes in public areas. My infrequent encounters with the destitute have been short and relatively benign. While this encounter was short in duration, it will forever remain in my memory. There was a desperation about that woman I have rarely seen. Now over a decade past that moment, I can only wonder what became of her. I imagine something quite tragic. This is one of those travel memories that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Travel gives you a different perspective on the world and sometimes it is one you would rather forget.

Visions of Life– Travels With Brian: A Resurrection In Damak (Eastern Europe & Me #20h)

The evening before Brian’s death I walked away from him fighting back tears. I knew our journey together had reached the end of the road. I clenched my jaw, only loosening it to say, “I’ll be seeing you, Brian.” The time had come for me to return home. Eight years later his daughter Amelia came to visit me in northeast Ohio. One afternoon she provided me with details of his final moments that I did not know.

Amelia said when the door closed behind me a look of deep and abiding sadness spread across his face. She said to this very day it was one of the saddest things she has ever witnessed. The look on her face when she told me this said it all. Her tone of voice changed, and shadows fell beneath her eyes. In that darkness I could see the room once again where Brian lay fitfully. Sometimes darkness illuminates rather than obscures, this was one of those times. I knew when I left Brian on that dark day, I would never see him again physically. What I did not know was that I would see him spiritually for many years to come.

The beginning of a new day – Sunrise in Damak

Ghost Hunting – An Irresistible Urge
One of the recurring themes of my life has been searching for what I lost. First it was my biological father, now it would be my spiritual father. I went looking in the pages of history and in places where few care to venture. I found Brian in an improbable place, an invisible and profound presence. This occurred five months after he died when I traveled to Eastern Europe on a winter trip to visit castles and historic sites in central Slovakia. Near the end of that trip while traveling back to Hungary by car, I took a detour soon after crossing the border. Whether consciously or otherwise, I began to scrutinize a map for the village of Damak. Once I located it, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to travel there. Winding along roads fringed by agricultural fields and barren hills, I made my way to Damak.

Once I spotted a sign by the roadside announcing Damak, I began to look around at the well-kept houses and clean swept sidewalks. The village was quiet, not a single person was standing outside. It was apparent that time had slowed to a crawl in Damak. I searched the village for a ghost in broad daylight. When I found the village center, I noticed a war memorial. The kind that can be found in every Hungarian village. Anyone wanting to know the who, what, and why of Hungary’s tumultuous 20th century history, should spend some time reading the names on war memorials. These are the men who died at the front. Others were forced to flee the country. Along with them died the promise of a greater Hungary.

I took a close look at the memorial and scanned it for a name that I knew would not be there. Geza Nagy, a native son of Damak, officer in the Royal Hungarian Army, and professor of medieval history at Western Carolina University was nowhere to be found. I went looking for traces of Nagy in Damak because Brian had often spoke highly of him. He told me the fascinating story of Nagy escaping the clutches of death on the Eastern Front during World War II. The bronchitis Nagy contracted from walking back thousands of kilometers across the Soviet Union led to his death many decades later. In my mind, Nagy was still alive. He was part of a past that never died. The same could be said of Brian. He was the one who brought me to Damak. I was not just looking for Nagy, I was also looking for Brian. At the war memorial I found him. Without Brian, I would never have made it here. The memorial had meaning because of his words. Visiting Damak and looking for Nagy was a way of reconnecting with Brian. I could feel him here. 

In memory – World War I and II monument in Damak

Seeing Clearly – “We Are Here With You”
The visit to Damak was the first of many moments when Brian came back to me. Ironically, the most powerful of those moments occurred when Amelia told me the story of Brian’s final moments. At mid-morning while a drenching rain pounded the rooftop, Amelia was holding Brian’s hand. Her youngest sister, Virginia held the other. His wife Candace was sleeping. It was July and the sky was crying tears of resignation. While Amelia and Virginia sat quietly reading and periodically glancing at their father, they were suddenly alerted by the sound of him inhaling a deep and penetrating breath. They looked up and immediately noticed his eyes wide open.

Amelia knew instinctively that this was the end. She rushed into the bedroom and woke her mother. Candace rushed to the bedside and began to comfort Brian. Tousling his hair, offering soft words that “it will be alright. We are here with you.” Virginia began to weep without restraint. The wrenching sobs reverberated through her body as she clutched the bed covers and tried to look at her father through a flood of tears.

Amelia said her father was looking forward, as alert as she had seen him in weeks. He seemed to be enraptured by a sight of something in the near distance. The presence of whatever he saw could be detected by the look of complete serenity on his face. He looked so calm, so content, as though he knew what came next. Amelia said after seeing that look in his eyes that she would never again be afraid to die. What did Brian see? The proverbial light? George and Mary? Heaven? God? For what seemed like minutes, but was only seconds, he continued to look forward. His eyes moved around the room to where he looked at Virginia, then Amelia, and finally Candace. Each gaze lasting ten seconds, a look of sadness in his eyes that only arises from true, unconditional love. The moment lingered and then he died.

Visions of Life – Brian at home

Life After Death – A Powerful Presence
That same day I received a call from his son in law with the news that, “Mister Brian has died.” I began to sob as soon as the call ended. I was just pulling out of a parking lot at the Rapid City airport. This was the same parking lot I pulled out of with Brian on two separate occasions many years before. Back then we laughed, we made plans, we talked about nothing in particular. Brian’s death made the memory of him more powerful to me. This is friendship, this is love, this is loss, this is life after death. Brian is still alive in my mind. He always will be.

Click here for: Blasted in Brasov– Traumatic Memories of Transylvania (Eastern Europe & Me #21)

A Surreal Symmetry – Travels With Brian: The Eastern Front (Eastern Europe & Me #20g)

There have been three great traumas in my life. The day my father walked out on our family when I was a child, the day I broke my neck, and the last days I spent with Brian just before he died. After each one of these traumas, I spiraled out of control. In the first two cases, it took me years to regain my footing after attempting various acts of self-destruction. My father’s disappearing act left a hole in my family’s life from which we recovered, but never fully healed. The broken neck sent me to the bottle where I nearly drank myself to death due to survivor’s guilt. A less than sobering experience that I somehow managed to survive.

As for Brian’s death, I am still trying to recover and wonder if I ever will. His death sent me from one job to another and then another. I could not run away from my problems since I carried them with me. I began seeking professional affirmation because personal fulfillment no longer seemed possible. My social existence narrowed to the margins and has stayed that way ever since. One thing I have learned is that life goes on, but the past is ever present. The very fact of Brian’s existence kept me anchored for years. For the last decade of his life, we were physically apart and spiritually together. The greatest truths of unconditional love are rarely spoken because they do not need to be. Brian was always there for me. And then suddenly he was gone. 

A surreal symmetry – Luftwaffe bombing damage in the Greater Manchester area during World War II

Dramatic Instincts – Troubled Times
“Mister Brian is dying. They call his illness the silent death.” His son-in-law told me that not long after I landed at the Atlanta airport. No one was aware until it was much too late that Brian’s heart was failing him. The doctor told him he had only a small chance of surviving surgery. Right then and there, he made what is in my opinion the most courageous decision of his life. He would end it in peace on his own terms rather than risk the operating room. By the time I arrived in South Carolina, he was only a few days away from drawing his last breath. Seeing this giant of a man, a larger-than-life figure both physically and mentally, reduced to a weakened shell of his former self was deeply disturbing. He could hardly talk and spent most of the day sleeping. And yet he seemed fully aware of all that was going on around him. I was later told that my presence had a calming influence on him. I noticed a wry smile swept across his face when I approached him. He was still with me, I found that comforting.

Speaking of comfort, his wife Candace made sure to turn the television on while he lay there resting. For a man of supreme intellectual powers, Brian had to be the greatest lover of television I have known. I believe this love was the manifestation of a repressed dramatic instinct. He once confided to me that while at university he had tried his hand at writing plays. On this day, there was plenty of drama playing out on the television. The opposite of peace was portrayed on the screen. Earlier in 2014, Russia had sent soldiers to occupy and annex Crimea which was then part of Ukraine. Now pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine supported by the Russian military were trying to take more Ukrainian territory. This violation of a sovereign European nation’s borders upended the post-World War II rules-based order which had brought peace and unprecedented prosperity to the continent. Europe was reverting to more troubled times. The Eastern Front was undergoing a sinister resurrection. No one knew at the time just how retro Russia would go, but the annexation of Crimea and War in the Donbas were harbingers of horrors to come.

The Eastern Front – Scene from Ukraine-Russia War

Fits & Starts – The Cycle of History
Brian had been born during the maelstrom of World War II. There were reminders in the room of that conflict and not just on the television. On a table beside his bed, his wife had placed a wedding photo of his parents Mary and George. Mary sheltered her only son while bombs fell from the sky. George enlisted in the Royal Navy a day after Great Britain went to war in 1939. He was stationed on convoy ships that were sunk multiple times. He managed to survive those terrifying experiences. George also lost a thumb in a boiler room accident. This did not keep him from duty. Men like George had ensured that Brian would grow up in a world safe from fascism. Now fascism was back in in the form of Putin’s Russia, threatening the international order. In a bizarre historical irony, the main successor of the Soviet Union – which did more than any nation to defeat Nazi Germany – morphed into a fascist force unseen in Europe since 1945. This was alarming in the extreme.

Brian would have found all this fascinating and unsurprising. One time I asked him his opinion of whether history repeated itself. He raised his right hand, then said “history is like this.” Brian then proceeded to move his hand sharply up and down as though it were riding the waves of a tumultuous sea. The meaning was clear. History proceeds or recedes in fits and starts. Progress is not linear. Regress occurs with startling frequency. Brian and I had that conversation many years before anyone could have imagined what would transpire between Ukraine and Russia. The postwar world was fracturing. Nothing lasts forever. That includes not only nations, but also us.

Looking to the future – Brian in England during the 1980’s

The Ultimate Reminder – Prisoners of History
The days I spent beside Brian’s bedside were extremely difficult. I was watching a man who played a preeminent role in my life slowly dying before my eyes. There was nothing I could do, nothing any of us could do. This was a reminder that you have very little control in life and no control over death. All you can do is watch and wait. The entire world shrank to the size of that room. Brian was surrounded by his wife, daughters and me. There was a surreal symmetry with the rest of his life in that moment. Brian had dedicated himself to history. Now here we were as prisoners of our personal history with him. There was no escape. None of us would have wanted it any other way.

Click here for: Visions of Life– Travels With Brian: A Resurrection In Damak (Eastern Europe & Me #20h)

Laughing Matters – Travels With Brian: Levitating, Ljubljana & Festetics (Eastern Europe & Me #20f)

When I was growing up a trip to South Carolina meant one thing, fireworks. North Carolina where I lived had banned fireworks, South Carolina could have cared less if you blew yourself up. As long as you had fun doing it what could possibly be the problem. Brian never really liked North Carolina where he spent part of his life. The last fifteen years of his career he chose to live over the state line in Georgia. He often referred to North Carolina as the nerd state of the South. On the other hand, he thought highly of South Carolina which was filled with wild asses both historical and contemporary. It was only fitting that Brian spent his final days in upstate South Carolina. This scholar of the ancient Romans was in a place where they extolled the virtues of Roman candles. I am sure the idea of such absurdities gave him the greatest pleasure. One of his most endearing qualities was an incredible sense of humor.

Scratching the surface – With Gyorgy Festetics in Keszthely

The Same Difference – A Case of Curiosity
Brian and I had two very important things in common. The first was curiosity. He tolerated my Eastern European obsession because he was as fascinated by my interest as I was appalled by his lack thereof. He came of age in a world that viewed anything east of the Iron Curtain as irredeemably backward. For him, communism was a bad idea that the Russians had made worse. The collapse of the Iron Curtain could set the newly freed nations once again fighting each other. The region was filled with strange ethnic groups who spoke unintelligible languages and adhered to customs that were the antithesis of British pragmatism.

The distinction between us and them could not have been greater in his mind. Whereas I saw the Orthodox religion as mysterious, he saw it as superstitious. Whereas he saw the culture as insanely provincial, I saw it as adhering to time worn traditions. There was also the subject of German reunification. For Brian, this was to be feared rather than celebrated. I found it difficult to refute this argument from a man whose mother had been forced by Luftwaffe bombing raids to take him into a bomb shelter as a toddler. My passion for Eastern Europe was not going to change Brian’s heart or mind about the region, but as always, he was willing to listen. That was what really mattered.

Reflections of grandeur – Ljubljana

Levitational Advice – The Rise & Fall
The second thing we had in common was that neither of us took ourselves too seriously. Despite, or perhaps because of his many accomplishments in the field of historical scholarship, Brian never missed an opportunity for an irreverent remark. He was an intellectual powerhouse to the point that Cambridge provided him a full scholarship to any university in the United States in pursuit of a doctorate. Brian told me on multiple occasions that a doctorate was a ridiculous idea. A pointless show of pretension for professional students. After the intensity of Cambridge, his time at Vanderbilt University where he gained his Ph.D. was something of a joke.

His greatest memory of that time was not writing his dissertation on President James K. Polk. A man whom he referred to “as an insufferable nerd.” Instead, it was of a Polish gal he met at a local Catholic Church in Nashville not long after arriving there. She confided in him her avowed belief in levitation. As a matter of fact, she claimed to be proficient in the art of levitating. Perhaps she was trying to get a rise out of him. I found this story a source of endless fascination, Brian less so. As I sat there wide-eyed asking him to provide me with every detail, I could not help but ask, “Did you ever see her levitate?” He only replied with a single word, “Christopher”. This was followed by a look which made clear I might just be as crazy as the girl.  

An American education – On the campus at Vanderbilt University (Credit: BugsMeanee)

Humor Over Hubris – History & Hilarity
Brian loved to make jokes out of whatever material was at hand. When I told him about my trip to Ljubljana, he confessed to having an affinity for deliberately mispronouncing the name of the Slovenian capital. Instead of the proper pronunciation “loo-blee-ah-nuh”. He pronounced it Jubal-jana. Such harmless jokes were some of my most memorable moments with him. Our all-time favorite was Festetics, the name of a famous Hungarian noble family and their Baroque Castle in Keszthely, close to the shores of Lake Balaton. One afternoon I mentioned to Brian that the name was pronounced FESH-tat-itch. We both agreed there was something about this strange name which sounded more like a skin rash than a noble family. Anytime one of us said Festetics, this would be followed lead by endless scratching. As Brian liked to say, “guys like to sit around and act real stupid.” We did plenty of that together.

The rather ridiculous side of Brian was lovable. He did not have the pretensions of most academics. He was still the guy who grew up in Stockport, the only child of a father who worked in a steel mill and a mother employed in the school cafeteria. Hubris had no place in their home, but humor certainly did.
He never lost his sense of humor no matter how serious the subject. I still vividly recall one of his lecture courses on Ancient China which strangely segued from the Huang Ho (Yellow) River to a digression on square dancing. This gave rise to the idea of a Huang Ho dosido. A laugh out loud absurdity that was lost among most of his uber serious students. Brian was always poking fun at his profession. The subject matter gave him ample opportunity to blend history with his incredible sense of humor.

Brian was not above poking fun at himself. This was true, even when it came to the most serious of subjects, including his own death. I once nagged him about making sure he settled all his affairs in advance. He was indifferent to the idea. I could hardly blame him. Who among us wants to admit their own mortality? His willful disinterest exasperated me to such an extent that I finally asked in scarcely disguised frustration, “Aren’t you worried about all the stuff Candace and the girls will have to deal with after you die?” He raised his voice and exclaimed, “Christopher, I’ll be dead so there will be nothing for me to worry about.” As you can imagine that settled it. I had to stop myself from laughing. Unfortunately, his death would be no laughing matter for me or those who loved him so dearly.

Click here for: A Surreal Symmetry – Travels With Brian: The Eastern Front (Eastern Europe & Me #20g)

Heart of the Matter – Travels With Brian: A Transylvanian Tale (Eastern Europe & Me #20e)

Since leaving the south twenty-years years ago, I have rarely gone back to visit in the summer. That is because I find the heat and humidity to be insufferable. As soon as my shirt starts sticking to me, I know that I would rather be almost anywhere else. And so, I almost always avoid going there in the summer with only a few notable exceptions. The final days of Brian were one of them. Not long after I returned from a trip to Transylvania, Brian’s health had taken a turn for the worse. During our weekly phone calls his voice grew progressively weaker. He would begin coughing and then be unable to stop.

At first, I thought he might have had pneumonia. Several weeks of sickness morphed into several months. Soon it got to the point where I could barely understand him. I told myself things that made me feel better, such as a hospital stay might be needed, that he was only in his early 70’s, and at least there was no sign of another stroke. What I failed to realize due to distance and willful distraction was that his health had been worsening for quite some time. The news soon came that his heart was failing. An irony if there ever was one. He had the strongest heart of any man I have ever known. For it to fail seemed impossible, but so did the idea that he would die.

The gift of time – Looking out from Sighisoara Citadel

Once Bitten – The Afterlife
Transylvania. I spent ten days there in the spring of 2014. Not once do I recall phoning Brian during that trip. I was too busy with Brasov and Bran Castle, Sibiu and Sighisoara. I should have called to tell him about my trip. He would have loved to hear about how a dog bit a hole in my sweatpants while I was running up to the fortress in Deva. The last time a dog bit me before that, I had been staying with Brian. While on a run up the road in front of his house, a large chow came bounding through a pasture and proceeded to bite me in the ass. It then proceeded to immediately turn around and bound back across the pasture. Both Brian and I found that quite humorous. If you believe Bram Stoker, getting bitten in Transylvania can be very bad for one’s health. While I never asked Brian what he thought about Transylvania, we did discuss Stoker’s Dracula. In Brian’s opinion, it was written at a much higher level than popular fiction. He praised it as quality literature. That was as close as we ever got to discussing Transylvania. Why I still can remember that conversation today is a mystery to me. Perhaps because of its novelty. A first and last time. Much like life and death.

I do not have much experience with death, other than my own. I broke my neck, I damn near drank myself to death, and nearly came within a few meters of getting hit by a van while running in Brasov. I do not have nine lives, only one, and I am lucky to still be living it. It took me years before I realized just how close to the edge I have been. Then it dawned on me one day, these things happen because of something inside of me. I would never say that my risky behavior was a conscious choice, but I need conflict and tension. Paradoxically, it is the time I feel most alive. My idea of risk has been strangely synonymous with what I began to perceive as a subconscious death wish. I never believed that I was going to live very long. The broken neck gave me survivor’s guilt from which I suffer to this day. Guilt rarely makes you a better person, but it does make you do things you live to regret.

Once bitten – Bran Castle in Transylvania

Antidotal Evidence – The Gift of Time
Brian was the one who pulled me back from the abyss. I am not sure he ever realized that he saved me. Twelve step programs and self-help, counselling and tough love did very little for me. Brian saved me by being there to listen for hours, then days which turned into two decades. Your time is the greatest gift you can give to anyone, and love makes it last longer. Brian’s English pragmatism and sense of moderation was an antidote to my extremism and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He was an anchor for me, a male version of my beloved mother. Wherever I was in the world I knew that he had my back. The trips to Eastern Europe where I was out of touch with everyone, where no one – including Brian – knew where I was or why, were only possible because I knew he was always there at the end of the line.

I did not always have to make the call because I just knew. I could rely on his support half a world away. I knew he was watching and waiting. When we reconnected, he would mention how his wife Candace had showed him my photos and the captions I posted beneath them on social media. He called it, “very interesting.” I could feel his index finger tracing my route across Transylvania or deep into central Ukraine or along the railway in southern Poland or from Bosnia to Budapest or slicing through the Suwalki Gap on the train from Vilnius to Warsaw. He was an invisible presence watching over me. His confidence in me set my life on a course that I could have never imagined for myself when we first me.

Back to the start – Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina

Bit Parts – A Conversation in Cullowhee
Would you believe such love, trust, and friendship started over a conversation in Cullowhee, North Carolina? Brian told me he needed help finding the biographical details of an actress who starred in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. was working on a book about the marginalization of female actresses in Hollywood films. The bit part I played for him in researching the utterly forgettable actress in a horrendous movie took us on an incredible journey. It also took me to his bedside in Simpsonville, South Carolina just before he died.

Click here for: Laughing Matters – Travels With Brian: Levitating, Ljubljana & Festetics (Eastern Europe & Me #20f)

Foreign Exchanges – Travels With Brian: Bulgarians & Hungarians (Eastern Europe & Me #20d)

Going to Eastern Europe is like going home. I was not born there, but I was born again there in April 2011 when I first set foot in Sofia. It was with great sadness that I could not take Brian with me on that journey or future ones. I once mentioned that he should go with me. The resignation in his voice told me all I needed to know. His relationship with the region was a combination of disinterest and mild curiosity. Sometimes he managed to surprise me with strange asides in unexpected moments. For a man who seemed indifferent about much of what I had to say about the region, he seemed strangely connected. I could never quite figure out how he came by the anecdotes and information he often shared with me about the region. A certain element of mystery to his knowledge.

There was a reason I spent almost twenty years listening to him with what can only be described as a state of near rapture. Take for instance Bulgaria, a Balkan backwater if ever there was one for Brian. At least that was what I wrongly assumed. On more than one occasion, he professed a certain affinity for Bulgarians. When I talked about traveling there, he suddenly came to life. Telling me about his interactions with a Bulgar student from a private school where his wife taught. Brian referred to her as “a lovely person.” It is not everyday you hear about a wonderful Bulgarian living in the mountains of northern Georgia (the American state, not the Eastern European nation). Praise from Brian was never profuse, so I imagine that young Bulgar’s intellect and manners must have been particularly impressive.

The Conversationalists – Sculptures in Sofia

Trivial Pursuits – The World To Us
In another conversation, Bulgaria suddenly materialized when Brian and I were discussing World War I. He often lamented the dearth of English language works of military history on the eastern and southern fronts. While discussing the less than stellar allied campaign on the Salonika Front, he mentioned how Bulgars are full of courage and fighting spirit. “We could not get anywhere against them. Look at their casualty figures, they know how to fight.” I wondered when he took the time to analyze Bulgaria’s World War I casualty figures. Brian spent most of his later years watching endless games of baseball, the television show Law and Order, and trying out various attitudes of repose. All while consuming massive quantities of leftovers late at night. This was what he affectionately referred to as, “hanging out.” His lifestyle did not stop him from summoning information from the vast storehouse of knowledge he had acquired by reading thousands of history books and scrutinizing reams of data in his 34-year career as a professional historian.

Brian’s mastery of trivial facts and sublime anecdotes could be downright shocking at times. For whatever reason I one time asked him if he knew the capital of Moldova. This was part of a pathetic attempt by me to stump him. No sooner had the question left my lips than he shot back with, “Chisinau.” I did not even bother asking him how he knew this. Chisinau is the most obscure capital city in all of Europe. I often think that Brian and I were an odd couple. These exchanges concerning Eastern Europe were the essence of our relationship. Two men brought together by a mutual affection for one another’s company while sharing strange facts that most of the world could have cared less about. Of course, those same facts meant the world to us.

Going to war – Bulgarian troops departing for the front during World War I

Preoccupations – A World Transformed
Unfortunately, Brian’s keen insights on history and the eccentricities of different ethnic groups would have been immensely entertaining, if only we could have traveled together in Eastern Europe. That was not to be. Perhaps this is why I am now sitting here eight years after his death trying to recover whatever I can from my memory of our conversations that touched on the region. Brian came of age in a world where the western world was in the ascendant and after 1989 in full blown triumphal mode. I often wonder what he would have made of democracy’s degeneration and the west’s descent into decadence. I am sure he would have found Eastern Europe’s growing influence in the European Union surprising. He would have been astonished by how the center of power in Europe is being pulled eastward by the Ukraine-Russia War, German dithering, and French foolishness. Well, maybe not the latter. He knew as well as anyone that national character informs policies.

Brian did not have much use for Eastern Europe, mainly because he had so little experience of it. The relatively few experiences he had profoundly affected his opinions of certain peoples and nations. There were a few rays of light that broke through the gray and gloom which he perceived as inherent to all places once hidden behind an iron curtain. Most prominently for him, Hungary and Hungarians were too be admired. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution had a profound effect on this opinion. Because it occurred during his formative years, Brian remembered it well. He spoke with unbridled enthusiasm for Hungarians. For him, the Hungarian rebellion against Soviet-style communism was the outgrowth of a people who had a long history fighting for their freedom. His opinion was also formed by his colleague Geza Nagy, who had been a Hungarian Army officer fighting on the Eastern Front during World War II. Nagy only survived the experience by walking back across southern Russia to Hungary, then fleeing further westward to escape the Soviet onslaught and occupation of his homeland.

Noble prospects – 1956 Hungarian Revolution

The Outsiders – Noble Prospects
Brian and Nagy were university colleagues for several years. He always spoke of Nagy with reverence. This might have influenced Brian’s opinion of my travels in Hungary. He found these of great interest. In his mind, Hungary was a noble country which fought for its independence against great odds in 1848 against the Austrians and 1956 against the Soviets. I wonder what he might have thought about Hungary’s more recent turn to one man rule and the loss of democratic norms which have given it pariah status in the European Union.

Hungarians were and are outsiders. That was probably one of the reasons Brian found them worthy of respect. He was also an outsider, an Englishman living out the last years of his life in a foreign country. I was an outsider as well. Virtually fatherless and with an alcohol problem when we first met. Back then I was a long way from my Eastern European travels, both overseas and with Brian at his home. We may never have traveled there together, but we went to so many places in our conversations that recalling them today I am still astonished. Unfortunately, my travels with Brian would eventually come to the end of the road.

Click here for: Heart of the Matter – Travels With Brian: A Transylvanian Tale (Eastern Europe & Me #20e)

Notoriously Crazy – Travels With Brian: The Snoma Finnish Cemetery (Eastern Europe & Me #20c)

By the standards of European travel, Finland is considered inaccessible and remote. It is not on any of the main routes for European travelers. Many of those who do end up in Finland are either going to or coming from St. Petersburg, Russia (prior to the Ukraine-Russia War). For both Brian and I, Finland was a strange and icy land of stunning beauty which neither of us had shown ever visited. The furthest north that Brian ever traveled was in his own country when he attended an England-Scotland football match in Glasgow. This would be the first and last time he ever visited the land from which my ancestors originated. All he got for his troubles was a brick flying past his head during the match. Knowing that I was of Scottish descent, this story interested me greatly. He once told me Scots are fine and funny people, but they are also crazy. He paid me a similar compliment many years later when he referred to me as “notoriously crazy.” I still consider this one of the finest compliments I have ever received.

Staking a claim – Sign for the Snoma Finnish Cemetery

High Plains Drifter – An Icy Scythe
Getting to know Finland is not easy. Few people I know have personal experience with the place. Brian and I were in the majority. Finland’s relative obscurity makes stories about it quite memorable. In Francis Tapon’s The Hidden Europe – a comprehensive account of his travels in every Eastern European nation – he opens the book with a story from his time in Finland. This is something of a head spinner since few consider Finland part of Eastern Europe. It is supposedly too prosperous and too far north. Nonetheless, a geographical case can be made that Finland is part of the region. This being Finland, the odd and exotic, banal and bracing, come together as Tapon gets himself stuck in an outhouse above the Arctic Circle. He fears this could be the end of him before his journey across Eastern Europe begins in earnest. Tapon finally manages to open the door with a series of karate style kicks. From this tale I learned that if ever in Finland, it is best take crap seriously.

Finland can be hazardous to your health, whether you are above the Arctic Circle or searching for a Finnish cemetery in western South Dakota as Brian and I discovered. In the spring of 2009, Brian visited me for the second and final time in western South Dakota. He had slowed down considerably over the years due to a couple of strokes and the aging process. He was still able to visit me in one of the remoter parts of the United States. Brian loved western history, western movies and western landscapes. Western South Dakota has all of these in spades. Unfortunately, it also has the extreme western weather that can turn any trip into an adventure. The weather was somewhat mild during Brian’s visit. Mild by South Dakota standards still means the weather is given to change at a moment’s notice. As we set out for Snoma Finnish Cemetery I should have kept this in mind. While we had sunshine and blue skies accompanying us on the two-hour journey by car to the site, there was also an icy wind cutting through the brittle grass like a scythe. We were getting a little taste of Finnish weather half a world away.  

Mining The Soil – Finns Farming
It is only appropriate for a chill to be in the air when looking for something of Finnish origin. This calls to mind northeastern Europe and a land from which the Finns built one of Europe’s most successful nations. It was not always that way. Hundreds of thousands of Finns fled abroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries like so many other ethnic groups from Eastern Europe. That is what happens when Russia occupies your country. There are only two responses, fight or flight. Finns, like millions of other Eastern Europeans, were looking for a place where they could live free from fear and prosper. This brought some of them to the far reaches of western South Dakota. That is not surprising since the Black Hills region was known for its mines. Finnish immigrants were drawn to these, whether in western South Dakota, copper country in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. There was also a small community of Finns who tried their hand at dryland farming just beyond the northern slope of the Black Hills.

The High Plains in the Dakotas are known for sublime distances, howling winds and bad soil. Five kilometers south of the small town of Fruitdale, 40 Finnish families founded a community called Snoma. It was one of countless immigrant farming communities in South Dakota. Most of those farmers came to till up the rich soil east of the Missouri River. Farmers west of the river found the going much rougher. Hundreds of thousands tried to scratch a living out of the soil. Most of them failed. The Finns of Snoma tried their best to beat the overwhelming odds. They named the town in honor of their homeland. Snoma is a corruption of the word Suomi, which means Finland in the Finnish language. With their legendary stubbornness, communal practices, and tremendous work ethic, the Finns of Snoma hoped to create an Edenic existence. The fact that the only traces left of Snoma today are a cemetery is proof that their dreams lie scattered in the dust. Nevertheless, the fact that there is anything left at all is a triumph of determination. Snoma may not be found in any history book, but its roots lie like its former inhabitants deep in the earth.

High plains drifter – The road to Snoma Finnish Cemetery

Mining The Soil – Finns Farming
It is only appropriate for a chill to be in the air when looking for something of Finnish origin. This calls to mind northeastern Europe and a land from which the Finns built one of Europe’s most successful nations. It was not always that way. Hundreds of thousands of Finns fled abroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries like so many other ethnic groups from Eastern Europe. That is what happens when Russia occupies your country. There are only two responses, fight or flight. Finns, like millions of other Eastern Europeans, were looking for a place where they could live free from fear and prosper. This brought some of them to the far reaches of western South Dakota. That is not surprising since the Black Hills region was known for its mines. Finnish immigrants were drawn to these, whether in western South Dakota, copper country in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. There was also a small community of Finns who tried their hand at dryland farming just beyond the northern slope of the Black Hills.

The High Plains in the Dakotas are known for sublime distances, howling winds and bad soil. Five kilometers south of the small town of Fruitdale, 40 Finnish families founded a community called Snoma. It was one of countless immigrant farming communities in South Dakota. Most of those farmers came to till up the rich soil east of the Missouri River. Farmers west of the river found the going much rougher. Hundreds of thousands tried to scratch a living out of the soil. Most of them failed. The Finns of Snoma tried their best to beat the overwhelming odds. They named the town in honor of their homeland. Snoma is a corruption of the word Suomi, which means Finland in the Finnish language. With their legendary stubbornness, communal practices, and tremendous work ethic, the Finns of Snoma hoped to create an Edenic existence. The fact that the only traces left of Snoma today are a cemetery is proof that their dreams lie scattered in the dust. Nevertheless, the fact that there is anything left at all is a triumph of determination. Snoma may not be found in any history book, but its roots lie like its former inhabitants deep in the earth.

The Gates of Heaven – Snoma Finnish Cemetery (Credit: Karen-Dennis Hickson)

Buried Evidence – Living On The Edge
Brian and I were curious to see the cemetery. I pulled the car into a parking area just off the road. We would have a short, but steep walk up a hill to the cemetery which was set amid scrub oak and pine trees. For me, this was not much of a problem. I was raring to go. Brian was more circumspect. He never liked cold weather and though it was April, the wind was reminiscent of the last days of autumn. I coaxed him from the car. Surely, he could make the short walk. What happened next, I will never forget. He slowly began to make his way up the hill with a sweater pulled over most of his head. This afforded him protection from the wind. He already was wearing multiple layers. My way of dealing with the cold has usually been to move faster. In this case, that would not work. Stiffer than a two by four, this giant of a man (he was well over six feet tall and broad shouldered) proceeded to set the slowest pace possible. And yet he never stopped.

Mumbling and a bit of whimpering ensued. I began to feel remorse as I was struck by the sudden fear that this might be the end of him. I could see myself trying to explain to his wife and three daughters how I brought Brian to a bad end while on an icy trek to a Finnish cemetery in the middle of nowhere. I really did not think he was going to make it. I hoped he would not collapse. If he had, there was nothing I could have done but join him on the ground and beg him to forgive my foolishness. Thank the lord this did not happen. Brian made it to the cemetery while still upright and alive. To my surprise, he spent an inordinate amount of time studying the headstones. He was obviously fascinated. The site was remote and peaceful, austere and heartfelt. The wind offered the only words still spoken here. When it was over, Brian and I slowly made our way back to the car. For the next several days he would sit in my apartment and every so often say, “Snoma Finnish Cemetery” with a tone of astonishment. I knew then that our journey had been worth it.

Click here for: Foreign Exchanges – Travels With Brian: Bulgarians & Hungarians (Eastern Europe & Me #20d)

Kindred Spirits Between East & West – Travels With Brian (Eastern Europe & Me #20b)

For two kindred spirits who spent so much time together, the European travel preferences of Brian and I could not have been more different. By the time I began traveling in Eastern Europe, it had been over twenty years since he set foot anywhere on the continent. His travels had been mainly to western and southern Europe. For over half of Brian’s life, Eastern Europe was terra incognito due to the Iron Curtain. Brian never made it any farther east than Vienna. His opinion of the Austrian capital was less than stellar. Depending on the conversation, it was either nice or sterile. Not exactly a rousing recommendation. I detected a suspicion of all things Habsburg because it was east of center. For Brian, the Austrians were Germans, and all Germans were to be regarded with skepticism. He generally thought they were fine. He gave them the compliment of being “regular people”. Something to which any self-respecting Brit should aspire.

All that glitters is not gold – Schloss Belvedere in Vienna (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Bombs Away – An Open Wound
Like many of his generation who were born during World War II and grew up in its aftermath, Brian never forgave Germany for the terror that rained down on Britain. I remember watching the World Cup with him and his uneasiness when Germany’s fans began singing “Deutschland Uber Alles.” First there was silence, then he said, “that should not be allowed.” This remark was followed by a longer silence. The room we were in filled with an unspoken tension. His prejudice was understandable considering that his mother had been forced to take him into air raid shelters on several occasions after he was born. He recalled that there were four monuments on his street in Stockport (part of Greater Manchester) marking where German bombs had fallen. Britain may have been on the winning side in the war, but they did come out of it proud and prosperous. Instead, the country was exhausted and impoverished.

Postwar Britain was a tough place, nowhere more so than industrial Stockport. Brian recalled ration books, the public housing where he grew up, and the straitened circumstances of the country during his youth. I am quite sure he held Germany responsible for some of the situation. I realized the depth of his anger one day in 1997. I remember the exact place where we were riding in his car when he spoke with furious intensity after I asked him about Dresden. The city in eastern Germany which the British incinerated in February 1945. He was incensed by anyone who might try to apologize for the firebombing or even worse. “When I was growing up, we called it revenge. Everyone knew that and there was no question about why it was done” I can still recall the burning gaze in his eyes when he made that remark.

In that moment, I understood the visceral anger after World War II toward the Germans, not only by the British, but also Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavs and many others who had suffered horribly. This led to ethnic Germans in Central and Eastern Europe being expelled. The wound after fifty years was still open and raw for many. Time does not heal all wounds. It dulls the pain and masks the anger, postponing the outburst to a later date. I recall distinctly how indifferent Brian was when I returned from a trip to Germany and told him about my visit to Dresden. The only time he displayed emotion was when I mentioned seeing a few of the scant ruins left as a memorial. This seemed to satisfy him.

.Towering inferno – Dresden after the firebombing (Credit: Bundesarchiv)

Irreversible Decline – A State of Mind
Brian also showed no sympathy for the destruction of East Prussia in 1945. East Prussia was believed to be the heart of German militarism. He summed it up as “the Red Army sorted out that problem.” This was quite the statement from a man who detested the Soviet Union, which he viewed as a hub of degeneracy and despotism. His opinion of Russia was hardly any better. He did provide one caveat for Russia’s turn toward communism stating that, “No country had tried it before.” In his view, communism was an understandable experiment at the time. The world had no experience with it before the Russian Revolution.

Nevertheless, he had little use for communism, believing the ideology was an abomination. When it came to countries such as China which later tried the experiment for themselves, Brian said they should have known better. He had no use for the apologists and the foolish naivety of the Lincoln Steffens (“I have seen the future and it works”) of the world who deluded themselves in the 1920’s and 1930’s despite copious evidence of Stalinist crimes. He did reserve some sympathy for those intellectual elites such as the French writer Andre Gide who were first seduced by Stalin’s Soviet Union, then had a change of heart and told the devastating truth about it.

Each of the above anecdotes was as close as Brian got to Eastern Europe mentally, physically, and academically. His fields of scholarship were Ancient Greece and Rome, Jacksonian America, and Ancient Chinese history. Very different subjects, but with the commonality of being either on top or on the rise. He did not show any great interest in imperial decline and fall. Decadence and disasters in once great empires might provide a telling anecdote, but they were not among his favorite topics. Perhaps that was a subconscious psychological reaction to the British Empire’s irreversible decline.

Well-traveled – The Times Atlas of the World

End Run – A Matter of Time
Later in life, Eastern Europe was still terra incognito to Brian despite the Iron Curtain’s collapse. He dismissed it as irredeemably backward from the Byzantines to the Bolsheviks. For some reason which I never quite understood, he always tolerated my obsession with the region. His usual withering criticism of any place he found not up to standard was muted. I figure that Brian respected my opinion enough to give a wide berth to my enthusiasm for all things Eastern Europe. When I would call him from abroad, he would mention thumbing through his huge and well-worn Times Atlas of the World, following my travels with his finger. Unfortunately, my travels took me away from him, just as my career had. I would still visit him at least twice a year, but I regret not spending more time with him. Little did I realize that he was slowly approaching the end of his life.

Click here for: Notoriously Crazy – Travels With Brian: The Snoma Finnish Cemetery (Eastern Europe & Me #20c

The Invisible Man – Travels With Brian (Eastern Europe & Me #20a)

In 2014, I took two trips to different parts of Eastern Europe, one in the spring, the other in the winter, one to Transylvania and the other to Slovakia. Eight months is not a long time between journeys, but there was a dividing line between those trips. One that I crossed over and from which I could never go back. The dividing line can be summed up in one simple and devastating word, death. Death of a friend, death in the family, death of my spiritual father. The end of a life, not just for the man who died, but for the part of me that died along with him. I would like to say it took me months to get over his death, but that would be a lie. Some things you never get over. I am still confronted by suppressed memories from that time. Those memories tend to come creeping back up on me when I least expect it.

Fearless faith – Tomb of Joszef Mindzenty in Esztergom Basilica

Constant Companion – Ones For The Road
Just the other day while I was reaching back into my memory for details of a journey I took across Transylvania, it occurred to me that this was the last trip I made while Brian was still alive. He never traveled with me to Eastern Europe, but he always traveled inside of me. Wherever I went, I carried him with me. From Brasov to Sibiu to Deva, I am sure he was there, if not physically, then spiritually. Over the years we had many conversations that touched on various aspects of Eastern Europe, some trivial, others deeply meaningful. Now nine years removed from his death, those conversations are coming back to me. They bring back misty-eyed memories and provide revealing insights into the most fascinating man I have ever known.

Our journey together started with a question. “Why don’t you travel anymore?“ The question hung in the air while he pondered a reply. “Christopher, you get older, travel becomes too hard, too much bother. I would rather sit at home.” He sounded tired while telling me that. Brian used to travel much more than he liked to let on in conversations with me. That is not surprising. When I once told him of all the Brits I met at hostels and hotels in Eastern Europe, he said, “they are the most traveling people in the world.” Interestingly, he was part of the “they”. The English are indirect, and Brian was no different. They don’t just beat around the bush in a conversation, they circumnavigate the point they are trying to make. Through a strange process that only becomes perceptible to those with whom they are speaking,

Going home – Stockport in the 1960s

Marriage of Convenience – The Worst Fears
I pieced together many of his travels from our conversations across the years. From time to time, Brian would mention trips in the type of disembodied tone that made them sound like they happened in a different lifetime. There was a great deal of truth in his tone. He was born 27 years before me. Listening to his tales was like hearing something taken from the pages of a history book. During the 1960’s and 70’s he returned to Great Britain every summer to visit his mother and father in Stockport. He traveled to Europe on countless occasions. He would sometime regal me with stories of summers spent on the Spanish coast, the chosen holiday destination for many British of a certain generation. There was the time his father told him “Son, you have done damn good” in referring to Brian’s first wife.

Brian had married into a family of second-generation Germans in the upper Midwest. The patriarch was a man of industriousness and considerable wealth. Tragically, the family was riddled with neurosis. Brian often mentioned the higher suicide rate in Germans. His in-law’s achievements were likely a result of mental health issues. For Brian, the marriage turned out to be a disaster that he would come to regret. The wealth was not worth it. I always wondered how bad it must have been. Brian tended to downplay disasters as a way of alleviating stress.

The worst fears were realized when I read a letter from his first wife written many years after their marriage had ended. Insanity was written across every page. You could read the madness between each line. Only then did I realize how depressed that must have made Brian. How it would have weighed on him for years? Mental illness is a fascinating subject until you have personal experience with it. The details of that letter did not matter nearly as much as how the letter was written. By reading it, I knew that whatever ailed that poor woman was incurable.  

Man of Principle – Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty (Credit: Dutch National Archives)

Difficult Man – The True Believers
Brian always sided with the true believers in causes that captured his interest. This hardcore adherence to principle was one of the reasons that Brian, like Mindszenty, spent much of his time alone. As Brian once told me about Mindszenty, “he was known to be a very difficult man.” It is strange how those who have straightforward and what are perceived to be simple beliefs are extremely complex people. Brian was one of them.

Click here for: Kindred Spirits Between East & West – Travels With Brian (Eastern Europe & Me #20b)

Less Than Sunny Disposition – The Storm In Trieste (Eastern Europe & Me #19)

Thinking back across my trips to Eastern Europe, I now realize there has been one experience largely missing. That experience is storms. You know the ones with dark clouds rolling over a large body of water, body sized bolts of lightning dancing in the near distance, and a barrage of thunder that sounds like the heavens are splitting. The kind of storms that feel you with fear and remind you of nature’s infinite power. Those storms where you watch the rainfall coming across the face of the water. Where you cannot bring yourself to look away from the unfolding disaster. Terrifying to the point of traumatic, these are the kind of storms that I hope to survive and never will forget.

Calming Influence – The Delicate Sound of Thunder
Is there anything better than an ominous cloud burst accompanied by howling winds? In a matter of minutes, a placid body of water is transformed into a foaming rage. Alas, this experience in Eastern Europe was mostly elusive for me. I was too busy searching for shade to avoid the razor-sharp sunlight beating down on baked shoreline. With only a single exception, the time I spent beside large bodies of water was beneath cloudless blue skies and brutal heat. I understand that for most travelers this sounds like the realization of a dream. Who does not want to experience a holiday at the seaside basking in the sunlight? I am one of the few who would rather avoid this experience.

It was my luck to get the kind of weather that sends me running for relief in the nearest air-conditioned building. The beaming rays of sunlight were a source of constant irritation Being of Scottish ancestry, with fair skin and red hair, I try to avoid exposure to direct sunlight. This was all but impossible. The burning, white light that beat down upon me was draining. Seeing legions of beautiful people sunbathing half naked in the sea did nothing to lighten my mood. I equate sunshine at the seaside with suffering. While I agree that blue skies, warmth and radiant light is preferable for a positive outlook on life, a brooding seascape can unleash creative instincts that would otherwise lay dormant within me. Moodiness and melancholy are often associated with cloud cover. Add the spark of a storm and the adventure begins.

There is nothing quite so dramatic as stormy skies and the anticipation of a cloudburst getting ready to break upon you. When I was a child, I spent summers with my grandparents in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Thunderstorms were a common afternoon occurrence. For my grandfather, these were something to avoid. He had been struck by lightning many decades earlier. Anytime he heard a hint of thunder or saw a flash of lightning on the horizon, he immediately made his way to the house. My grandmother had a very different reaction. As we sat through storms, she would become preternaturally calm. It was as though she were meditating with her eyes open. One time when I mentioned my fear during a storm, she displayed an astonishing tranquility. In a measured voice she said, “A storm makes me feel closer to God.” Anytime I hear the delicate sound of thunder, I remember her words.

Sun and blue sky – View from Zadar on the Croatian coastline

The Looming Storm – Taking On Trieste
Alas, I did not hear any thunder, dodge a single bolt of lightning or run for cover from wind swept sheets of rain on all but one of my visits to the shores of the Aegean, Adriatic and Baltic Seas, the Sea of Marmara and Lake Balaton. I can still recall walking on the seaside promenade in Thessaloniki feeling like I was being burnt to a crisp by the silver flashes of sunshine reflecting off the Aegean. The coast of Croatia was beautiful beyond imagination until I realized that the medieval towns constructed from limestone radiated a white heat that threatened to melt me. When visiting the Baltic in late September along the Latvian coastline I should have been met with a chilly reception. Instead, the sun beat down upon me with the usual intensity. The Sea of Marmara at Istanbul was not much better even in December. As for Lake Balaton, all I got was blue skies and record heat. I sweated so much that I looked as though I had bathed in Balaton’s mesmerizing blue waters. When I think back to those days at or close to the seaside, all I can remember is one sunny day after another to the point that they all seem the same.

There was one notable exception though. An experience so singular and unique that the memory of it is still vivid a decade after it occurred. I was visiting Trieste in northwestern Italy, a city that is more Mitteleuropa than Italian. Before arriving there, I spent a week sweating it out along the Croatian coast. The weather in Trieste was in a very different mood from what I had found further to the south. The Adriatic looked uninviting and dangerous. There was no beach except for some pebble strewn shoreline beyond the city. Trieste was not what at all I expected, architecturally, aesthetically or culturally. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had come down from the mountains to touch the sea. My first experience of Italy was to be stormy in the extreme. The accommodation was awful, the restaurants refused to open until the evening, and after a couple of days I could hardly wait to leave.

By the Baltic – Majori in Latvia

Coming Ashore – Naturally Dramatic  
Trieste would not let me go without a more impressive memory. This came during my last afternoon in the city when the vicious Brora wind began to blow. A guide leading the city tour I was on spoke of the Brora as though it were part of the city. I knew what he meant. The wind was ferocious, threatening to tear the city apart and take me right along with it. This was only a precursor for a gathering storm. I took leave of the tour and rather than run for cover, foolishly made my way to an upper part of the city to snap some photos. Looking back down upon the lower part of Trieste, I saw an incoming storm surging across the Adriatic. A thick mist began to envelop the city. The Adriatic turned gray and menacing. Bands of rain driven by the fierce Brora blew ashore. The scene that unfolded before me was naturally dramatic. The fearsome energy of the storm lashed Trieste. The storm broke upon the city with a tempestuous ferocity. This was the only storm I ever witnessed by the seaside in Eastern Europe. It was everything I wanted it to be. And I even managed to survive the experience.

Click here for: The Invisible Man – Travels With Brian (Eastern Europe & Me #20a)