Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

For some reason that I am unlikely to ever truly understand, I am attracted to danger. In other words, I feel most alive in moments most people dread. History is one way for me to satisfy my affinity for danger. I find reading about people in grave danger a source of fascination. That was how I came across stories from one of the most frightening places on earth during the 20th century. It had been said that fear ran so deep in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, that people kept a bag packed with clothing just in case they were arrested., The arrests usually happened at night. The potential arrestee might hear a car pull up to their flat or house. This would be followed by a knock at the door.

Opening the door, they would be met by NKVD agents (precursor to the KGB) who had come to take them away. Sometimes people did not answer the door. When the NKVD agents broke through the door, they would find an open window. The person being arrested had jumped out the window. In some cases, they were trying to escape. In other cases, they were committing suicide. Some people would even jump out a window to their death as soon as they heard a car pull up. They had no idea whether it was the NKVD or not, but they many did not care to find out. If there is a greater definition of fear than that, I have not heard of one.

In memory – Stone marking where Masaryk fell outside of Czernin Palace (Credit: Ervin Pospisil)

Sheer Despair – An Open Window
We will probably never know if Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, had a similar experience to Soviet citizens during the Stalinist era. It is plausible because of what happened the night of March 10, 1948, when Masaryk was either killed or killed himself. There were only two ways about it. Differentiating between the two has always been and will likely always be the problem. Was he aware that someone was coming to kill him? Did he hear a car pull up? Footsteps on the way to his residence? In Masaryk’s case. that someone would likely have been the NKVD or people trained by the NKVD not to arrest Masaryk, but to kill him. They would have been told to make it look like an accident.

Then again, Masaryk may have opened a window and jumped, not to flee, but to commit suicide out of sheer despair. Whatever the case, Masaryk’s body was discovered in the courtyard of Czernin Palace below the second story window to his bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, but in this case, Masaryk was not going to bed, he was going to be dead. Since that fateful morning when Masaryk’s body was discovered, there has been speculation about whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Circumstantial evidence points to the latter, but we will probably never know the truth. That has not kept people from having strong opinions on both sides of the matter. Theories of what happened to Masaryk continue to circulate today.

Wartime exile – Jan Masaryk (far right) in Great Britain during World War II (Credit: J.R. Bainbridge)

The Fall Guy – Push Comes To Shove
Jan Masaryk did not seem like a candidate for suicide. He was a level headed, fair minded diplomat, whose sense of duty to Czechoslovakia meant that he stayed in the government long after those opposed to its takeover by the communists had resigned. Masaryk was determined to do right by Czechoslovakia. That determination led to his death. Proponents of the theory that Masaryk committed suicide believe that he killed himself out of despair. Those who were close to him in the days leading up to the incident say that Masaryk had grown increasingly despondent over the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and came to the realization that his position was hopeless. The official determination said as much, but since this came from the communist government many believe that it was a lie. Yet Masaryk’s own secretary believed suicide was the only explanation.

The counterargument is even more compelling. It states something to the effect that Masaryk was thrown out of the window to his death. Some have even called it the “Fourth Defenestration of Prague”, an allusion to the three times in history when crowds took matters into their own hands and tossed officials out the Town Hall window. Whereas those incidents were a case of Hussites or Protestants versus Catholics, in the case of Masaryk, it was ideology rather than religion which formed the basis for his murder. Stalinism was the most virulent strain of communism, one that would not tolerate any opposition. Masaryk’s mere presence in the government was a barrier to creating a totalitarian state. As such, he had to be pushed (quite literally) out of the way or more to the point, out of the window. When push came to shove, Masaryk became the fall guy.

The fallen – Jan Masaryk in coffin at his funeral

The Only Way Out – Death & Dishonor
Those who believe Masaryk was murdered by the NKVD or agents trained by them, point to his size. It would have been difficult for the heavyset Masaryk to climb out the window. And if he did jump, a forensic study done in 2004 shows that he would not have landed where he did. This points to Masaryk being forced out the window and tossed to an ignominious death. The proponents of this theory also point to feces being smeared about the bathroom. It is highly doubtful that Masaryk would have smeared feces before deciding to depart from the world. Another piece of circumstantial evidence concerned the fact that Masaryk had openly stated he would be traveling to London the next day.
The last thing the communists wanted was Masaryk in Great Britain fulminating against the communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. This may have been the communist’s last chance to rid themselves of Masaryk.

Throwing him out the window was a convenient way of making the death look like a suicide. The communists then turned the entire suicide story on its head. They claimed that the western world had driven Masaryk to despair by harshly criticizing him for staying in his cabinet position. The National Front government was a mouthpiece for Czechoslovakia’s communists. This theory seems like a stretch. Masaryk felt he had to stay in the government or even worse would come after him. He, like all Czechoslovak citizens, was in no position to protest the prevailing government narrative. They knew that arrest or worse awaited anyone who did not tow the party line. If they had any doubts, the death of Masaryk reminded them of what could happen to dissenters. It may have looked like an accident, but the message was clear. Death was the only way out in communist Czechoslovakia.

An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

While visiting Prague I was able to take advantage of the free tours led by guides who provide an intriguing introduction to the city’s history and culture free of charge. Participants can give tips at the end of a tour if they feel the experience was worth it. In my experience, the tours were always worth it. The guides were engaging, sometimes humorous, and always personable. Prague has such a wealth of history that several area specific free tours were on offer. I was able to take tours of both the Old Town and the Castle District (Hradcany) on separate days. Among the highlights of the Old Town tour was the guide. Teo was a young man from the Netherlands who had moved to Prague to be with his Czech girlfriend. She was the love of his life. Giving tours must have been a close second for Teo. He was an excellent guide due to his gregariously animated nature. He came to life while telling stories. He knew his facts, but the delivery set Teo apart. It was done with such charisma that I began to wish that there were Teos in every Eastern European city.

Fall from grace – Czernin Palace (Credit: Michal Kminek)

Throwing Down – Going Out The Window
Teo knew how to drive home a historical point with a telling anecdote. This was never truer than when he told our group about the three famous defenestrations that occurred in Prague. He recounted these stories with unforgettable zest while standing in Charles Square at the heart of the Old Town (Stare Mesto) near where the victims crash landed. He used the English slang term, “chuck”, when referring to the defenestration of seven city councilors being thrown (“chucked”) out the window of the Town Hall in 1419 by a mob of Czech Hussites, inaugurating one of the great religious rebellions in European history. In 1483, the same thing happened again in a rebellion against the ruling authorities. On both occasions, Prague’s burgomeister (mayor) fell victim to mob violence.

The third defenestration was the most famous and well known of these “accidents” of history. It happened when an angry group of Bohemian aristocrats became incensed at the Catholic ruling authorities for halting the construction of Protestant churches. They proceeded to storm the City Hall and toss Catholic officials out the window. Miraculously, all three of the victims managed to survive the 21 meter fall, but the uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics did not. The incident was the spark that lit the powder keg which exploded into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the worst conflicts in European history. This incident was reenacted with zest by Teo. His animated body language included acting like he was tossing the victims out the window by himself. This led to many chuckles from the tour group.  His telling of the defenestrations was so memorable that I have never forgotten them.

Crash course – Town Hall tower in Prague where defenestrations occurred (Credit: Oyvind Holmstad)

When I showed up to go on a tour of the Castle District several days later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Teo would once again be leading our group. Despite bone chilling cold, grim skies, and an icy wind, Teo was in fine form as he took our group on a multi-hour tour of the district. This time we heard many memorable stories, but nothing else about the defenestrations. That was not surprising since the first three occurred in the Old Town. Only later did I learn about what some have termed the fourth defenestration of Prague. It occurred in the Castle District on an early morning in 1948. There was only one victim, but that man represented one of the last bastions of democracy and integrity. He was all that stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. Perhaps Teo did not tell us about the so called Fourth Defenestration because the history was rather recent. Even today, there are still questions about who killed Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomas Masaryk. Jan was the post-World War II Foreign Minister when he was literally toppled from power. His death is still an open wound in Czech history.

The founders son – Jan Masyrk (Credit: Bain News Services)

The Czernin Palace – A Fall From Grace
The free tour of the Castle District took us from one splendid structure to the next. All the architectural eye candy was a sight to soothe the eyes. With so much to see, we were bound to miss some impressive places. Perhaps that is why we did not make our way over to the Czernin Palace. This Baroque confection is the longest palace in Prague, measuring 150 meters in length across both its front and back. The palace has been home to the Foreign Ministry since the 1930’s. It also acted as the residence of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reichsprotector of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Heydrich would end up getting assassinated by the Czechs. Fortunately, Jan Masaryk was not in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. If he had been, there is little doubt that the Nazis would have had him arrested and likely worse. Instead, Masaryk spent the war in Great Britain where he did radio broadcasts that were transmitted to his occupied homeland. When the war ended, Masaryk retained the foreign ministry post he had held before the Nazi occupation. He held the position as part of the postwar National Front government.

Masaryk was an outlier in a government dominated by communists. Masaryk’s support for the Marshall Plan where the United States would provide financial assistance to rebuild Europe put him in the crosshairs of the communist government. The communists were working hard to marginalize anyone who disagreed with hardline Stalinism. To them, Masaryk was a dangerous man, especially since the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder was respected throughout the country. The communists needed him out of the way if they were going to impose communism on the country. Because of Masaryk’s lineage, dispensing with him would be difficult, but not impossible. Masaryk was too ardent an advocate for an independent and free Czechoslovakia, he was not going to go quietly if he went at all. The situation between Masaryk and the communist government was tense and adversarial. Soon it would be much worse.

Click here for: Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

A Hole In The Heart of Europe – Belarus: An Uncrossed Border (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #37)

Belarus, the word evokes different thoughts, many of them quite distressing. Thoughts of autocratic rule, thoughts of a last refuge for the Soviet system in Europe, thoughts of an ossified, anti-democratic dictator able to bend the people’s will to his whims. From a political standpoint, there is not much good to say about Belarus’ history since the Soviet Union disintegrated. Then again there was not much good to say about Belarus during Soviet times either. One is the only number anyone needs to know when it comes to post-Soviet Belarus. That is because Belarus has had just one leader, Alexander Lukashenko, since it became independent. That number is an expression of how far democracy has come in Belarus.  And that is not far at all. An opportunity has been lost.

Last of The Soviets – Government House in Minsk (Credit: Nuno Godiho)

Dueling Identities – History & Mystery
Belarus is an obscure nation, even for someone like me conversant in Eastern European history and travel. It remains a nation of mystery and history, a land of confused and dueling identities. It is not quite Russia, though sometimes it is hard to tell. It is in Europe, but not really of Europe. At least, not the Europe of humanism and progress. This is a Europe that most of us are unfamiliar with, one of totalitarianism and regress. Belarus is an enigma, an Eastern European version of no man’s land covering a crucial region that lies on a geopolitical fault line between Poland and Russia. Paradoxically, this no man’s land is home to nine and a half million people. They live in an insular state. Rather than a bridge between east and west, it is more like an island unto itself. While there is a great deal of Russian influence when it comes to Belarus, Russia has not been able to assimilate it. The two nations are not one and are certainly not the same.

To the rest of Europe and the world, Belarus is a baffling place, a question mark that lies at the heart of Eastern Europe. The questions it poses are still awaiting an affirmative response. How much longer will totalitarianism rule this benighted land. Will Belarus ever be free of interference from big brother Russia? Will it ever become a popular rather than a pariah state? Answers continue to elude Belarusians. At least ones that would include respect for the human dignity and civil rights of all Belarusians. So much of the little that we know about Belarus is intensely negative. Will that ever change? History teaches us that nothing stays the same, but Belarus for the past thirty years has been changed, not for the better, but for the worse. At best, it has stagnated. At worse, it has ossified. Attempts to renew the country have been met with belligerence and brute force, tear gas and truncheons. The future does not look bright, but this is nothing new. Throughout the 20th century, Belarusians had a rough time of it.

East of center – Belarus and surrounding nations

All The Wrong Reasons – Looking Down On The World
With Belarus making headline news once again for all the wrong reasons, I have asked myself what do I really know about the nation? Beyond negative news blurbs and a handful of guidebooks, the only other things I know about Belarus comes from a series of disconnected experiences with the people and country. These are anecdotes, either personal or political, that provide a blurred window into a nation that seems to defy logic. I have started scouring my mind for anecdotal evidence of Belarus. After so many trips to Eastern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that Belarus is still such a mystery. A nation that is a gaping hole in the heart of my Eastern European travels, an uncrossed border, a chance not taken because of fear and logistics.

Coming close to Belarus and meeting Belarusians is the experiential evidence I have of the country. This has been the only way I could get beyond the dire drip feed of negative news emanating from the country. I have never visited Belarus and for obvious reasons do not plan too anytime soon. I am rather proud that I came as close I did on two separate occasions. The first was while visiting Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. Ukraine’s border with Belarus was within a few kilometers of those sites. It is another in that seemingly endless series of tragedies that has befallen Belarus, that much of radiation from Chernobyl ended up on the Belarusian side of the border with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants.

The visit to Chernobyl did afford me a window into a natural world that ignores borders. This tip of Ukraine was heavily forested. It is even more so across the border in Belarus. Later, while flying from Kiev to Riga, my Baltic Air flight traveled over Belarus. I looked down from 20,000 feet at a nation of trees. From the air it was easy to see that forests covered a good deal of the country. Some 40% of Belarus is forest, including a swath of wilderness along the border with Poland that contains some of the last remnants of the primeval forest that once covered Europe. The forest cover makes for good hiding places. This cover allowed the partisan units of Belarus during World War II to wreaked havoc on the German supply lines and occupation forces. From above, the forests in Belarus added another layer of mystery. I could see the forests, but not the trees. This is an apt metaphor for Belarus. A foreigner can see the dictatorship, but not the people who suffer under it.

Undiscovered Europe – Strusta Lake in northeastern Belarus (Credit: zedlik)

The View From Vilnius – Democracy & Dictatorship, Freedom & Oppression
The only other time I came close to Belarus was on this same trip. While staying in Vilnius, I became cognizant that Belarus was too close for comfort. Looking at a map made me realize just how close Belarus was to the Lithuanian capital. And the comparatively smaller sized Lithuania looked like it would not stand a chance if Belarus ever descended into geopolitical belligerence. This realization was different from how I felt while close to the Belarusian border in Ukraine. The latter has the size and resources to keep the Belarusians at bay. If anything, Ukraine is seen as a threat by the government in Belarus. Lithuania as an annoyance.

Belarus had a strange effect on my mentality while in Lithuania. It was hard to believe that two nations could be so politically different from one another, despite their proximity. To go from democracy to dictatorship was a thirty minute drive from Vilnius. For most people a thirty minute drive might mean going to another village, town or county. For people in this part of Europe, it was the difference between freedom and oppression. This was a trip that I would not dare to take.

Click here for: An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

The Mother of All Problems – Elena Ceausescu: Cult of Personality (Part One)

When you live a life based on lies, that is eventually what you become.

The “mother of the nation” allegedly shouted “you’re a motherf%$#er” in her final moments. Elena Ceausescu was never filled with motherly love when it came to her fellow Romanian citizens. Along with her husband, Nicolae, she helped lead Romania to ruin during the 1970’s and 80’s. She was one-half of a power couple that defined the last decades of communism in Romania. Whatever failures are ascribed to her husband, Elena must also share a large part of the blame. Like her husband, Elena was all powerful, until one day she was not.

Funereal Find – Going To Ghencea
Visiting Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest was a must. I had come with my travel companion Tim to visit the Romanian capital on a spur of the moment decision when me for the first time at a hostel in Bulgaria a few days earlier. The idea was to see the ginormous Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world and the most visible monument to the venal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. Listening to stories about Ceausescu’s bizarre behavior was by turns fascinating and frightening. The stories intrigued us enough that we decided to visit his grave. When we did, I was shocked to find that a dignified grave in a nondescript setting among many other graves. There was neither a grandiose tomb nor an unmarked plot, instead it was so normal as to be disconcerting.

Buried beside Nicolae was his wife, Elena. This was not as surprising since they were inseparable in life and from the looks of it, also in death. They were partners in crime, amassing a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of ordinary Romanians. Oddly, Elena was the subject of a personality cult propagated just as vigorously as the one that extolled the supposedly limitless virtues of her husband. This also made her just as hated as her husband when the Romanian Revolution broke out in December 1989.

Forever together – Nicolae & Elena Ceaucescu at Ghencea Cemetery (Credit: Falcodigiada)

A Communist Love Story – Nicolae & Elena
It was said that from the time Nicolae Ceausescu first saw Elena Petrescu in Bucharest he was so smitten with her that he never looked at another woman. Elena had grown up in a Wallachian village and come to Bucharest in search of work. With only an elementary school education she was not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, neither were the communists. She was able to find a job as an assistant in a lab. This would become the genesis of later assertions that she was a master chemist.  Elena joined the communist party in 1939 as it appealed to a woman who was looking to escape the relative poverty into which she had been born. It was through communism that Elena met her husband. This was her big career move, one that would pay dividends when Romania went communist after World War II.

Elena soon procured a position as a secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even greater positions, power and prestige would come her way after Nicolae became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965. Elena’s prospects soared as Nicolae manipulated the party apparatus to benefit himself and his wife. Many believe that a trip to Red China in the early 1970’s was a decisive turn in her lust for power. It was there that she witnessed firsthand the machinations of Mao Tse Tung’s wife, Jiang Qing, also known as Madame Mao. Jiang had also been begun her rise to prominence as a secretary, in this case to her much more famous husband. During the Cultural Revolution, lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death a decade later, Jiang exercised an immense amount of power. She was highly influential in policymaking. By 1969, she had been appointed a seat in the Politburo. Soon she was surrounded by a cult of personality.

A passion for communism – Elena Petrescu at the age of 23

Red Romania – The Ceausescus Ascendent
In China, Elena had witnessed Madame Mao at the height of her powers. What Elena should have later noted was the fate of Madame Mao after her husband’s death. She fell out of favor and ended up committing suicide. There was a lesson in Jiang’s fall, but Elena, like all people who became intoxicated with power failed to heed it. Back in Romania, she attained one powerful position after another, culminating in her becoming a member of the Permanent Bureau of the Political Executive Committee. Elena now exercised more control over Romanian affairs than almost anyone else in the country, other than her husband.

At the same time her own personality cult began to grow. It reached critical mass with Elena being feted as an academic genius. For someone with an elementary school education, Elena had done very well for herself by rising through the party ranks. That was not enough for her expanding ego. She was awarded a doctorate in Chemistry. Scholarly works from her began to be published. Many at the time did not believe what amounted to patently false claims of Elena’s scientific genius. After the Ceausescu’s fall, the truth came out. These works were ghost written on behalf of Elena. No one dared to protest if they valued their life. If she turned against someone, they were doomed.

Dark ambitions – Elena Ceaucescu

Darkness Deified – Taking The Fall
Elena Ceausescu was a different kind of mother for her nation. One who was extremely vulgar and vain. She was notorious for being overtly concerned with appearances. Her rise went in lockstep with Romania’s fall. While Elena worried about such frivolous matters as published images showing her prominent nose, the country was being bled dry of resources by the Ceausescu’s policies. Unbeknownst to the population at large, the Ceausescu’s were secreting away huge sums of money in secret bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile, the shops were empty of consumer goods, the heat only worked part time in the winter and food became increasingly scarce. The entire time, no criticism could be voiced against either Nicolae or Elena.

The Ceausescu had reached the realm of near deification in public discourse. While the economy collapsed, public discontent began to simmer. Life in Romania was intolerable for almost everyone not connected to the regime. There were even murmurings of discontent among Ceausescu’s fellow cronies. The situation exploded after the military attempted to put down an uprising in the city of Timisoara. Someone was going to have to take the fall for the disaster Romania had become. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu would be the prime candidates.

Click here for: The Final Act – Elena Ceausescu: The People Had Enough (Part Two)

Unleashed – The Balkans: War of the Stray Dog (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #36)

Anyone who has spent time in the Balkans has almost certainly been confronted by the problem of stray dogs. In Sofia, Bulgaria a group of stray dogs became my running companions for half an hour. In Sarajevo, I came across another pack wandering around a yard just before dawn. That was ten years ago. During my last trip to the Balkans I noticed the problem continues to persist. I never made it to the waterfront in Bar, Montenegro because I came across a pack of dogs whose barks were so ferocious that I did not dare tempt fate and did a quick U-turn within 100 yards of them. Such experiences have led me to think of the Balkans as the land of the stray dog. What I could never have imagined was that the Balkans was also where the War of the Stray Dog took place. This war proved that the truth is not only stranger, but also more sublime than fiction.

Ready for war – Armed forces supporting Bulgaria (Credit: Неизвестен)

Violent Absurdities – Perpetual Contentions
Many years ago while visiting a fort on the coast of Florida, I first learned about the War of Jenkins Ear. The conflict partly resulted from a violent absurdity that occurred when Spanish sailors boarded the merchant ship of Robert Jenkins of Britain and severed his ear. The war took place during the mid-18th century and lasted nine years. At the time, I thought there could not possibly be a more absurd way to start a war. That was until I discovered the War of the Stray Dog fought between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925. It was the culmination of strained relations between the two nations. The postwar World War I Treaty of Neuilly-sure-Seine, which had awarded western Thrace to the Greeks who just happened to end up on the winning side of the war. This became a point of perpetual contention between the two sides.

This did not sit well with the Bulgarians who coveted the region. After the treaty went into effect there were intermittent, cross border incursions by fearsome groups, particularly the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and another offshoot, the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization. Both groups would use whatever means necessary to try and wrest the region away from Greece. The IMRO was notorious for violence, including between its own leader and operatives. IMRO most famously captured, tortured, and murdered the Bulgarian Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski. He had made the mistake of working with Greece and Yugoslavia to improve relations. Tensions between Bulgaria and Greece continued to fester after Stamboliski was out of the way. It would not take much of an incident to bring the two sides to blows, but no one could have imagined that incident would revolve around a stray dog.

Worth fighting for – Stray dog in Bulgaria (Credit: Melody Gilbert)

Running Wild – Going Beyond The Border
Even by the standards of the Balkans, the border region between southwestern Bulgaria and northern Greece is exceedingly remote. Strikingly beautiful, the area is covered by mountains with few good roads. To an outsider, the region seems like an improbable place for a war to start, but many parts of the Balkans continued to be contested ground, no matter how obscure, long after World War I ended. This was the case with the Demir Kapou pass in the Belasica Mountain range, which straddles the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Border sentries of both nations stared across an invisible boundary at each other. The enmity between the Greeks and Bulgars was pervasive, putting the sentries on hair trigger alert. That is probably the best explanation for what occurred on October 19, 1925 when a Greek border guard’s dog got loose and proceeded to run into Bulgarian territory. A Bulgarian soldier shot the border sentry dead. A little bit later, a Greek officer displaying a white flag went into the no man’s land between the two sides. This only made the officer and a private who had accompanied him easy targets. They were also shot dead.

Word of what happened on the border got back to Theodoros Pangolos, who had gained control of Greece through a military coup. This was just the kind of incident Pangolos could use to bolster his strongman credentials. He sent an entire corps of the Greek Army to the border where they were ordered to march into Bulgaria. They met tepid resistance. Along the way, they pillaged and burned villages. In addition, they killed approximately 50 people with this incursion. On the Bulgarian side, cooler heads prevailed. The Bulgarians appealed to the League of Nations to resolve the dispute. Panglos had demanded the Bulgarians pay a huge sum of money – six million Greek Drachmas – for restitution.

Ironically, Panglos had defeated his own cause by ordering the incursion into Bulgaria. The Greeks had gone from victim to perpetrator. They had also committed atrocities in Bulgaria. The upshot was that the Greeks were ordered to pay restitution for the damage they had caused. While the Greeks protested the League’s decision, they had little choice but to comply, since Britain, France, and Italy were in favor of this decision. The Greeks claimed they were not being treated fairly. That the League decided in favor of what the most powerful countries wanted. Of course, the Greeks were ignoring the fact that Bulgaria was a similar sized country.

A show of force – Тheodoros Pangalos

Barking Up The Wrong Tree – A Dog’s Life
The Bulgars may not have won The War of the Stray Dog on the battlefield, but they did win their case before the League of Nations. This infuriated Panglos. It also shamed him. Less than a year later, he would be ousted from his position as de facto dictator of Greece. The humiliating loss in The War of the Stray Dog did irreparable damage to his reputation. Panglos’ political career would never recover. Lost amid the diplomacy and mediation which resolved the dispute, was the fact that a stray dog had started the whole mess. Nothing is known about what happened to the dog. The incident stands as an instructive example of how misunderstandings can lead to war. This was especially true with the Bulgars and Greeks who assumed the worst about each other. A seemingly innocence action by a dog and its owner turned into an international incident. While the situation was resolved at the League of Nations, no one thought to enact another sensible option to make sure the same thing would never happen again, a leash law.

Medieval Miracle – Walls of Ston: The Great Wall of Europe (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #35)

Deciding to go medieval with our love, eight years ago my wife and I explored the Dalmatian Coast on our honeymoon. The focal point was Dubrovnik, the famed walled city, perched on a clifftop above the Adriatic Sea. There are few places in the world that can live up to their popular image, but Dubrovnik was one of them. It was just as amazing as advertised. The architecture combined with the sea was breathtaking. Dubrovnik seemed at times more like a movie set than a place where real people had made so much history. It was as though someone created a medieval town in miniature and filled it with architectural treasures. Was Dubrovnik imagination or reality? At times it was hard to tell, but eventually reality in the form of fellow tourists crowded our visions of a fantasyland. It did took not take long for my wife and I to grow weary among the legions of tourists jostling for space in the cramped confines of the Old Town. Perhaps this was why I felt relieved when we departed by bus from Dubrovnik. The walled city is just not large enough to accommodate everyone who comes to visit. Upon leaving Dubrovnik, the bus headed northward hugging the coastline until it turned inland on the way to the Croatian capital of Zagreb. I figured we were done with this part of the Dalmatian Coast. I soon discovered that the Dalmatian Coast was not done with us.

It was not long after we left Dubrovnik that I noticed what looked like a long stone wall crawling up a hillside in the distance. It was large enough to be seen from the highway. The wall looked medieval, but I could not be sure. The wall’s length and size had to be quite impressive if it could be seen from so far away. I wondered at times if my eyes were deceiving me. What was this wall doing out in the middle of nowhere? Perhaps it was a mirage. The Dalmatian Coast was full of mirages except they always proved to be real. I thumbed through my guidebook in vain for information. The wall was large enough that it should have been mentioned. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong part of the guidebook. Then again, it might be one of those abandoned ruins that has fallen prey to indifference and neglect. As the bus wove its way around the Dalmatian coastline, the wall was soon out of sight, but it did not disappear from my memory. Later I would discover that the wall was not a mirage, it was another miracle of the medieval. I had caught my first glimpse of the Great Wall of Europe, otherwise known as the Walls of Ston.

View from afar – The Walls of Ston (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

Walled Off – Salt of the Earth
“They don’t make things the way they used to” is one of the phrases that expresses humanity’s misgivings with the materialistic throwaway culture that is so pervasive in the modern world of today. The phrase assumes that older architecture and objects were built to last. And in my experience that is largely true. It has a great deal to do with the fact that in a culture of mass consumption, things must be built cheap and fast. The further one goes back in history, the more it seems that things were built to stand the test of time.  The amount of human effort that went into constructing buildings and manufacturing objects several centuries ago, lent itself to craftsmanship. There seems to have been a direct correlation between the length of time it took to make something and its survivability. As far as architecture goes, a structural work was a major undertaking and as such the planning was often meticulous, the construction even more so. The Walls of Ston are a good example of this.

The lengthy defensive work was built to help protect Dubrovnik and by extension, its economic vitality. In a lagoon just beyond Ston were salt pans. These were mined for what was one of the most valuable minerals of the Middle Ages. The walls of Ston were the outer most defensive works protecting both Dubrovnik and its outlying areas. The walls stretched for seven kilometers. Such were their importance to Dubrovnik’s security that the city leaders spared little expense in their construction. They brought in several Italian architects and artisans to design the intricate system. When the walls were completed during the 14th century, they sported 41 towers, 6 bastions and 5 fortresses, including a massive fortress overlooking Ston. The harbor at Ston was also fortified. The final product stretched from the shortest point across the Peljesac Peninsula from Ston to Mali Ston (Little Ston).

Great Wall of Europe – Walls of Ston (Credit: Anto)

From a tactical standpoint, the works offered immediate protection of the salt pans at Ston. These yielded a great amount of Dubrovnik’s wealth. Even today, the salt pans are still viable. They hold the distinction of being the oldest continuously mined salt pans in the world. In the larger strategic context, these fortifications were built to keep enemies far away from the city of Dubrovnik. That would have been too close for comfort. Thus, the idea was to foil or at least slow an attacker. From what I saw, the Walls of Ston were formidable enough to make an invading force think twice before attacking them. Even if they got past the walls and various fortifications, it was still nearly 60 kilometers to Dubrovnik. Obviously, any defensive works that could stand up to half a millennium of invasions were built to last. Their longevity speaks well of their construction.

A secure location – View of Ston from the walls (Credit: Jules Verne Times Two)

Called Away – Destiny & Dubrovnik
Viewing the Walls of Ston from a bus window for a few fleeting minutes would never be good enough for me. The prospect of visiting them was tantalizing. Before long I was imagining what it would be like to walk the length of the Walls of Ston. I told my wife about them and how we had to go back for a visit. If that meant going back to Dubrovnik, then so be it. She was up for it and so was I. The Walls of Ston act as a magnet. I can already feel them pulling us back down to the Dalmatian Coast. Once again, destiny calls and it is all because of Dubrovnik.

Click here for: Unleashed – The Balkans: War of the Stray Dog (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #36)

Looking Into The Mirror – Vysehrad Abandoned Railway Station (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #34)

Like everyone else, I have looked into a mirror countless times. Unlike everyone else, I have never really seen my reflection. The person in the mirror is supposed to be me and in a physical sense it is me, but the mirror does not reflect my feelings of who I really am. To get an accurate reflection of myself, I have spent the past ten years traveling throughout Eastern Europe. Prior to that, I spent 15 years traveling across the Great Plains and western United States. I was looking for myself in all the obscure places. Sometimes I would come across a place that seemed to suit my self-image. A place that whether I liked it or not was a true reflection of how I saw myself. Not long ago, while searching through some old photos of a trip I made to Prague in 2012, I found one photo of a place that for a few fleeting minutes acted as a mirror in which I saw myself reflected. This mirror just so happened to be the abandoned Vysehrad Railway Station.

The Mirror – Vysehrad Train Station

Shades of the Past – The Rust In Rustic
A multi-day stay in Prague allowed me to see a bit of the less touristy side of the city. This was how I found myself the day before departure along the right bank of the Vltava River traveling to Vysehrad, the site of an old fortress that used to be one of the centers of power in Prague during the Middle Ages. That power gravitated away from Vysehrad to the Castle District (Hradcany). Today, the Castle District, along with the Old and New Towns, are the tourist hubs of the city. Fewer come to Vysehrad, but that make a visit that much more compelling. The old fortress holds a commanding position above the Vltava. It makes an excellent vantage point from which to look out across Prague. On my way to the heights of Vysehrad, I came across another impressive place, the abandoned Vysehrad Railway Station. It was the only place in Prague that I found had neither tourists nor locals. As a matter of fact, all it really has is the past. Because of that, I immediately fell in love with the station.

Some places age better than others. The abandoned station at Vysehrad, for all its dilapidation, had in my opinion, aged rather well. The station as it stood on the day I saw it, put the rust in rustic. In many places the white facade was covered with a patina of brown. The paint was either chipped, cracked or fading. While the windows looked like they had not been cleaned in ages, The station had style. Its elegance may have faded, but its grandeur was still intact. With a touch of imagination, the viewer could turn back the clock to the turn of the 20th century. It reminded me of an old aristocrat living in self-imposed exile. The old aristocrat no longer attends grand balls and gossipy social gatherings, just as trains no longer call at the station. The station wears the neglect and indifference well because it has character and integrity, those indisputable ingredients of greatness.  If the past has a shadow, then the abandoned station at Vysehrad casts it. Somewhere within that shadow can be found the station’s story.

Coming down the line – Train passing by the 19th century Vysehrad Station

Stuck At The Station – Waiting For Departure
The building of a station in Vysehrad was first proposed in the late 1860’s. The original station and railway lines took five years to construct and opened in 1872, connecting the Smichov District on the left bank of the Vltava River, with Vysehrad on the right bank and further onward to Franz Josef Station, as the city’s main railway station was known at the time. The abandoned Vysehrad Station which stands today replaced the original. It was constructed just after the turn of the 20th century in Art Nouveau style and was in use until the 1960s, after which it became a dumping ground. A renovation occurred during the 1980’s, but maintaining the station continued to be a problem and soon there was seepage from water which caused deterioration in the building.

When communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia, it was an opportune time for Czech Railways to do something different with unwanted assets. This included the Vysehrad Railway Station. It took a while, but the abandoned station was finally rented to private investors who proposed turning it into a cultural and entertainment space. Around the same time, Czech railways stated that they would renovate the station so it could once again serve the hundreds of trains that passed by it each day. The station was also designated a cultural monument in 2001. This afforded it protection from being torn down, but not from further dilapidation.

Like so many post-communist plans in the Eastern Bloc, the proverbial train has never really left the Vysehrad station when it comes to reopening the structure. The latest part of the seemingly unending saga to make it economically viable occurred when a company, TIP Estates, bought the station and surrounding land. Historic preservation turned out not to be the company’s forte. For instance, they tore down a waiting room on one of the platforms which was listed as part of the protected monument. Not long ago, the city of Prague proposed a purchase of the building. Unfortunately, the difference between what the city will pay and what the price demanded by the company was 50 million euros. A deal has yet to be made. The city is now talking about foreclosing on the property. The upshot is that the station has continued to deteriorate while its future is in limbo.

Waiting On A Train – Vysehrad Station in the early 20th century

Lost Glory – Alone, Austere and Formidable
Whatever happens to the station at Vysehrad, I will always have a fondness for that rustically regal edifice. On the day I discovered it, the skies were gloomy, the surrounding streets silent and the station abandoned. I had the station all to myself. It mirrored my mood of melancholy. The station’s essence was of lost glory that could never quite be recovered. I looked at that mirror and saw a reflection myself. The station was battered, but still standing. Alone, austere, and formidable, waiting for someone to notice it, but not caring if they did. There was more than a hint of fragility. At any moment, the station looked as though it might collapse. Then again it might still be standing fifty years from the moment I first laid my eyes upon it. I could only hope the same for myself.

Click here for: Medieval Miracle – Walls of Ston: The Great Wall of Europe (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #35)

Going All In – Eastern Europe: Everything (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #33c)

There was, still is and always will be too much of everything. All those impressions both material and spiritual that greeted me along a decade of Eastern European travels. These left me with lasting impressions. Some were connected, most were not. The mind works to order things in a logical way. That is the way we make sense of life, but travel does not really work that way. Travel for me has nothing to do with itineraries, it is about being lost and trying to find yourself. At some point, I lost my way back home and the only thing left were the memories.

The iron gate of the Greek Catholic Church at Hajduboszormeny was created by the hands of an anonymous Hungarian just before the turn of the 20th century. I often think of that iron gate, the one I could not get past, either physically or psychologically. The gate haunts me like a friendly ghost. Appearing before my eyes, stored in my memory, captured through the miracle of photography. The image means everything to me, but so do many other things across Eastern Europe. They all add up to a sum greater than their parts. A representation of lived experience, an enhanced reality. I cannot name just one, in the same way I cannot name them all, but I will try to name a few of “everything.”  

At the gates – Greek Catholic Church in Hajduboszormeny

Crossover Appeal – A Matter of Perspective
There was Ampelmann at the crosswalks in Berlin, telling me when to proceed. Ampelmann walked through the wall. He seamlessly crossed over from the east and like so many before him, he refused to go back. He walked away from those had given birth to him, emigrated to affluence and became an influence. Ampelmann made a seamless crossing of the divide between East and West. All Germans should have been so lucky. If Ampelmann could cross that divide so seamlessly, then anything and “everything” is possible. Amplelmann was not communist or capitalist though he was co-opted by both. Instead, he was a symbol, not just of stop and go, but of a familiar figure who brought a sense of continuity between the past and present.

There was the Becsi Kapu (Vienna Gate) on Castle Hill in Buda. This was where the trek from Buda to Vienna either started or ended, depending upon one’s orientation. It was like a magic portal that played mind tricks on those who passed through it. For a few moments, I could imagine entering Vienna rather than Buda, or entering the 18th rather than the 21st century. The difference and distance in time and space between the two cities was compressed at that gate. Go north through the gate into the Castle District or southward to take the first step toward Vienna. “Everything” depended on the chosen direction. Going into Buda meant surging forward into the past. At Becsi Kapu, the past was not what it used to be. Royal processions and traders bearing the riches from far flung lands no longer passed through the gate. Instead, the march of progress has brought regress in the form of tourists by the thousands traveling through the gate each day.  

Going places – Waiting at a train crossing in Tarpa. Hungary

Travel Costs – Taking A Toll
“Everything” includes roads, so many roads that I cannot differentiate among them. They all began to run together, threads of pavement or concrete that I took on my travels. Threads that led nowhere and threads that led to the middle of nowhere. I was the needle that guided the thread through rural landscapes such as the one that ran close to the Hungary-Ukraine border. A road in terrible disrepair, that seismically shook the car. Hitting the brakes to survive numerous quakes. These roads were memorable for all the wrong reasons. Roads in Ukraine that were not as bad as I imagined, roads in Romania which were worse than I imagined. These roads had meant “everything” to commerce and conflict. They meant even more than that to me, the roads offered me the opportunity to see it all. What that all was I still could not quite figure out, but I kept looking for it.

“Everything” included banknotes and coins. The indistinct Euro coins and the highly distinctive currencies of Bosnians and Bulgarians, Romanians and Ukrainians that still valued their fiscal freedoms. Heroes I had never heard of were presented to me on these banknotes. A pantheon of greats staring back at the spender. Reminding those who clutch these currencies of the people who made them possible. These notes and rounded pieces of metal allowed me access, opened doors, lifted gates, greased palms. When it comes to travel, movement is never free. It costs money. Every move I made depended to a greater or lesser extent upon money. I hated to admit it, but “everything” depended upon money. Some might say that is sad, but I know it too be true.

Everything included maps, the maps I bought to places I had been and to others I might never go. In one hand, maps of Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. In the other, maps of Belarus and Moldova. A map is nothing more and nothing less than the art of possibility sketched out on exceedingly fine paper. It offers the viewer a relentless array of choices. The more choices, the merrier, at least for me. I could not have it all, but at least I tried. Those maps have a little bit of “everything” on them. Cities, towns and villages, monuments and historical markers, strange names, and spectacular landforms. Opening one of those maps opened a world of possibilities, it still does. “Everything” felt/feels possible with a map at hand.

A relentless array of choices – Maps of Transylvania and Hungary

Getting Lost – Less Than Logical
When it came to travel, I sought “everything.” I could not just visit one county in Hungary, I had to visit them all. One castle led to a hundred more. Was any of this logical? It was obsessive, it was compulsive, but was it logical. Is life logical? If not, then why should travel be any different. I tried to order and organize my travels so they would lead somewhere. Where was I going? I had no idea then and I have no idea now. I am lost amid “everything”. I always that getting lost would be frightening, but I have found it exhilarating. Confusion can be maddening. It can also be intoxicating. “Everything” became my passion, and I gave it “everything” I had. I would do it again, I will do it again.

Click here for: Looking Into The Mirror – Vysehrad Abandoned Railway Station (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #34)

The Dreams That Became Reality – Eastern Europe: Everywhere (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #33b)

Do not let others define you. That is one of the best pieces of advice you are likely to hear. In other words, define yourself, because if you don’t, other people will. I would like to think that I am defined by my travel experiences. By this, I mean the places I have visited, most specifically in Eastern Europe. There are too many for me to name each one, though some have left more powerful impressions than others. It is those impressions which are still seem like dreams, even though they will always be part of my reality. They include:

Tourism As A Spiritual Experience
The Gothic churches in Brasov (Black Church), Cluj (St. Michael’s Church) and Sibiu (Lutheran Cathedral). I discovered each of those structures at the heart of old city centers. Their location was not coincidental. Religion was a much more powerful force when the churches were erected. Each was built with stone, a material that showcased both their solidity and staying power. They were constructed at a time when cities and citizens were governed by the influence of religion. People were defined by their faith as much or more than their ethnicity. Seeing each of the three helped me to understand the role of religion in the medieval world. Today, the lives of Transylvanians revolve much more around money or at least the pursuit of it. Perhaps that is why the churches are almost always empty except for tourists. They offer an architectural attraction rather than a spiritual awakening.

Let there be light – Premonstratensian Church in Zsambek

A River Runs Through Us
The Danube. I have stood upon the river embankments in both Buda and Pest on countless occasions entranced by its slate grey waters, but familiarity breeds indifference and habit dulls the imagination. While the river is a refuge amid the city, this can be lost among the many distractions which surround it. At times the Danube can seem like just another tourist attraction, rather than a living entity that has shaped Budapest more than anyone can possibly imagine. I gained a more personal insight toward the Danube 120 kilometers downriver, near the village of Gederlak. A narrow, paved road from the village leads to the Danube. It was on this road which had no traffic, neither in cars, bicycles or by foot that a very personal journey took place, not for me but for my mother in law. As a child she had ridden her bike down this road with friends. The road ends at the Danube. With very little development to be seen, the river comes naturally. This was the riverscape of her childhood. Standing on its banks, I could almost hear it flowing. An elemental experience that takes the visitor back to basics. Before Magyars, Avars, Huns, Romans or Celts, there was the river. Up to this point in history it has outlasted all comers. I would not bet against the same thing happening again in the future.

A Polish Puzzle
The Old Town in Warsaw. It was built and rebuilt, one stone, one brick, one building at a time. The meticulous nature of the postwar reconstruction took years. It says a great deal about the human ability to overcome adversity and achieve miracles. One so perfectly planned and executed, that it is easy to forget how much of what stands today was not so long ago, ruin and rubble. I have rarely found a place more pleasant than Warsaw’s immaculately reconstructed Old Town. I have also rarely found a place so disconcerting when reflecting upon its wartime history. The Old Town was meant to be a ruin that would soon be wiped away, another artifact of wartime destruction. Instead, it was the thousand year Reich which vanished after only twelve. As for the Old Town, it would soon rise again. Amid the rubble were seeds of reconstruction. They lay scattered in millions of pieces, forming one of postwar Europe’s great jigsaw puzzles. Piecing it together was a point of Polish pride, a true triumph of the human spirit.

The Miracle – Old Town in Warsaw

Everything We Know Is Wrong
Lviv. There were triumphs to be found in Lviv. The city helped me realize that everything we know about Ukraine is wrong. Lviv was an educational experience in the counterintuitive. With its sublime architecture, sacral, secular and fin de siècle, that destroys stereotypes. I felt like by experiencing Lviv, I had really accomplished something through travel. Perhaps it was the breaking down of a barrier in my mind. This was not the gritty war torn Ukraine seething with corruption and revolution. Lviv was both a hub of Ukrainian nationalism and a city infused with the kind of elegance and refinement that I imagine must have been pervasive across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was moving forward into the future by relying on a past that felt ever present. I was glad I went there and even more glad that I returned, not once, but twice.

The Survivalists
The Hungarian villages of Jak, Lebeny and Zsambek. These villages are where all or parts of Romanesque churches still stand today. It was nice to know that despite Hungary’s deeply conflicted history that these sacral structures managed to survive. This, despite the Mongol, Ottoman Turkish and Soviet invasions and occupations, which although separated by centuries, visited destruction on Hungary’s houses of worship. The fact that each of the surviving churches still stood in a village was not lost on me. Out of sight, out of mind may have saved them, not only from invaders, but other tourists as well. I discovered this much to my delight on multiple visits.

Looking into the past – Mansion in Oradea

“Little Paris”
Old mansions around the city center in Oradea. This western Romanian city, which lies only a few minutes from the Hungarian border, still bears the remarkable traces of its prewar wealth. A monied class that poured the proceeds of their capitalistic pursuits into creating a cityscape that gave it the moniker, “Little Paris.” (It was known as Nagyvarad until 1918) From what I saw, there was not anything little about the ideals expressed by these old palaces and mansions. This was provincial grandeur on steroids. A time of great confidence as well as pretentiousness.

Oradea’s city center was one of the few places with pretensions of greatness that somehow managed to achieve it. There was something seductively disturbing about the old mansions which were in varying degrees of dilapidation and disrepair, of restoration and reconstruction. Looking at the infinite number of scars covering their facades was a telling sign of the city’s troubled 20th century. A span of time which had taken Oradea to the dark side. Oradea was just beginning to emerge, like so many other places in Eastern Europe, into the disconcerting daylight offered by a new system and a new century. it left me with an indelible impression. Much Eastern Europe, the city remains deeply embedded in my memory. These places helped define my idea of the region and by extension, of myself.

Click here for: Going All In – Eastern Europe: Everything (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #33c)

A Miracle That We Ever Met – Eastern Europe: Everyone (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #33a)

It was a miracle we ever met. There are 7.6 billion people on the earth, 292 million of whom live in Eastern Europe, so the odds were good that I would meet someone, but the odds were long that I would meet you. I doubt you remember me, but I will never forget you. I only knew you for a few moments, minutes or at most a day or two. In the limited time we spent together, you made a lasting impression. One that sticks in my mind and appears like you did so long ago, at an opportune moment.

You are:
The middle-aged Hungarian man with the deferential kindness and intelligent intonations who provided directions on the train near Nagymaros on taking the ferry across the Danube to Visegrad. You provided more than directions to a place, you also showed me and my wife the helpfulness deep inside your heart…The old Croatian lady in Split, hanging out her window as she must have done hundreds of times in her life, and only one time in ours. Saying the words for love in her native tongue as she watched my wife and I lock lips, then walk right out of her world. She would forever be part of ours. That woman had likely seen so much of life and fate, passion and hate, yet still she erred on the side of love.

The Romanian man in Brasov who I only knew as Lara’s father. His daughter had a seriousness about it her that was electrifying. She ran the family business with a ferocity that was matched by the darkness in her eyes. That darkness was both beautiful and terrifying. Her father had a welcoming warmth in his eyes that was a sight to behold. I never saw a moment when he was not smiling. He told me about his time in the Romanian Army as though it were joke and backed it up with anecdotal evidence. When I asked what he and his fellow soldiers did all day, he smiled and said one word, “smoked.”

Undertow in an underpass – Istanbul

Reserve & Nerves – Suspicion & A Wry Smile
The man of genial reserve managing the horse track at Kincsem Park in Budapest. It was New Year’s Eve and Balint was a busy man, but he took the time to talk with me for almost an hour. On my first and only bet on a horse race he helped me pick a winner. Afterward all I could think was, “I hope we meet again.” We have not, except in my memory…The primary school and college age Hungarians on the Metro in Budapest at rush hour who willingly offer up their seat to pensioners. I have seen them do the same on Bus 68 in Kispest. This small act of kindness, a reminder of the utmost respect for elders. Their actions were habitual and most importantly, sincere…The strikingly beautiful lady who managed the front desk of the hotel in Bucharest. I later found that she was also strikingly intelligent. After I said to her, “you look amazing today.” She replied, “why only today.” At first, I was at a loss for words, but then said, “you look amazing every day.” She gave me a look of suspicion and then a wry smile.

The quiet Latvians on the packed bus from the airport into the city center at Riga. So quiet that I could hear myself breathe. I felt the eyes of a nation on my every move. They stared straight ahead, obeying proper etiquette and in the process, making me extremely nervous. Were they looking at me or through me? If silence was deadly, then the quietness of their unspoken voices and penetrating stares would have murdered me in that moment…The pharmacist in Vilnius who sold me cough syrup that might mitigate a cold that had raged in my head since I landed in Latvia. She was kindly and knew enough English to assist me. Her assistance was better than the syrupy concoction I downed to little effect. The highlight of that visit was the way her face lit up when I said “Aciu” (pronounced achoo). I was not sneezing. Instead, I was saying thank you in Lithuanian. In this case, I really meant it.

A Miracle That We Ever Met – People at Onofrio’s Fountain in Dubrovnik

Closer To Humanity – Human Sweat & Hot Breath
The man who spoke English all too well in the old Turkish quarter of Sarajevo. He wanted to help me order my food at a restaurant for no apparent reason, which immediately raised my blood pressure. When the waiter told him to go away, I was surprised he did. I expected to see him again and never did…There were the beggars at the exits to the metro in Budapest. Before I saw them, I could smell them. I felt bad for each of them because I knew their poverty was real, their troubles unceasing and they were at a place in life where hope had become a handout. The only thing separating everyone else from them was money…There was the Ukrainian equivalent of the American soccer moms in Kiev. Each morning I watched as they pulled up to their kid’s school in fancy SUVs. I looked at them with a combination of wonder and disdain. I wondered where they got the money for those vehicles, but I already knew. In a nation scarred by corruption, even the most upstanding looking family was never far from suspicion. In Ukraine everyone had a price, the question was just how much it would cost.

The lovers in the parks of Berlin, spending their days staring up at each other and the sky. I got the feeling that these couples could see stars in broad daylight. The packed masses in an Istanbul underpass. Jostling and jovial, shoulder to shoulder we stood. The smell of human sweat and hot breath, a riot of motion. I have never felt closer to humanity…There was the Slovak hotel proprietor who checked me into my room in Bratislava. He was the patriarch of a family run business, but I never saw him again or anyone else after check in. I heard footsteps and voices. They were a family of ghosts with just one face that I cannot quite remember, but like all the people I have met in my Eastern European travels, I can never quite forget.

Memorable meeting – In Budapest

Friendly Ghosts – Coming Back To Me
All these people and hundreds of others, who left me richer in experience, keep coming back to me. They are an escape, a safety valve, a lifeline. They mean as much or more to me as anything I saw or did in Eastern Europe. Memories of them will continue to stay with me. Thank goodness for friendly ghosts. Thank goodness for all of you. I hope to see you or someone like you soon.

Click here for: The Dreams That Became Reality – Eastern Europe: Everywhere (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #33b)