The primary goal of my trip to Central Europe was to visit Poland so that after 57 years I could finally acquaint myself with relatives on my father’s side. As my parents left (“fled” would actually be a more appropriate word) Europe and its post-war Communist troubles prior to my birth in 1956, I had little contact with my father’s side of the family. (My mother’s immediate family emigrated to Canada with my parents.) Although there had been opportunities for me to visit Europe at various earlier points in my life “I had other priorities” as Dick Cheney might say.
I have regrets in not making it to Poland earlier. My father passed away in 2010 and I think he may have been well pleased to see me make a journey of discovery into the land and places of his youth. As well, his three older brothers had also previously passed away, leaving only his youngest brother. However, he is now aged and in poor physical health and mind. So while I did have the pleasure of meeting him it was not at a point in his life when he could have provided me with stories about growing up with my father. It also meant I was not able to gauge how similar in personality he was to my father.
Still, there remained a large number of cousins to meet and they welcomed me with great humour. I was somewhat embarrassed though that my Polish language skills were very poor which made conversation problematic. I had started out life speaking Polish well but this skill deteriorated over the decades due to lack of use. Fortunately, a bilingual cousin and his wife drove me around the countryside and acted as linguistic intermediaries when the going got too hard for me – which was often.
(I have since “friended” on Facebook a good number of the people I met in Poland and am grateful translator apps allow me to carry on communications in Polish. Maybe reading Polish often will eventually lead me to speak it passably again. That accent is a hard thing to regain though, what with all those consonant mash ups.)
Australia is a long way from anywhere and whenever I go on an overseas vacation I make the arduous long haul (economy) flight worth my while by tacking on a number of destinations. So although the primary reason for my trip was to visit Poland I also planned to see Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Vienna. I was also open to visiting any other areas that struck my interest within my allotted 6 weeks, meaning Salzburg, Innsbruck and environs became ad hoc add-ons. Zurich also made the visitation list but that was, of necessity, as it was my flights’arrival/departure point. Not complaining though because what kind of miserable person would complain about visiting Switzerland?
I spent two weeks in Poland with relatives and the remaining 4 weeks on my own, travelling the continent via its excellent rail system.
I felt a great affinity with Central Europe. I loved the sense of history that surrounded me (both tragic and triumphant), the easy accessibility to high culture, the busking performance artists and the common folk’s pleasure in simple activities like evening walks and dancing in public parks. And I loved the beer! I am no stranger to beer but never before had I tasted such exquisite beers. I would have been content to travel Europe with the sole purpose of sampling regional beers.
But as I travelled through Central Europe I also developed a heightened awareness of its tragic history. In part it was because any walk you take is likely to pass by a monument to some tragedy; but also because these reminders reside side by side with, and in jarring contrast to, the people’s easygoing consumption of life’s simple pleasures. Consequently, I felt the contradictory emotions of tragedy and pleasure battling for my attention throughout the trip.
One of the tragedies that was often at the forefront of my mind during my travels was the almost 50 years of Communism imposed on the former Soviet bloc countries. For my next posting I will write about, and try to analyse, this previously unfelt (by me) intense loathing of Communism I experienced on my trip.