Cultural issues in the Balkans

As I’ve already said (and here), I really liked reading Walking the Woods and the Water.  If I may indulge myself, I’m going to do just one more post mentioning that one particular aspect I enjoyed is the insight given by the book into cultural issues – even in the 21st century – that Rick Hunt encountered along the way.

One such issue was when he was discussing with his host in Vidin her thoughts about Romania.  Vidin is in Bulgaria, across the Danube from Romania, and at the time of Rick’s trip (2011) there wasn’t a bridge over the Danube at that point, only ferries.   I see that the bridge which at that time was under construction was completed in 2013.   Be that as it may, Rick asked his host whether  she often went over to the Romanian side.  Her answer, as quoted by Rick, was “To Romania?  Of course not!  I’ve never been there”.

Bridge over the Danube (but at Novi Sad, not Bulgaria!)

When questioned further, she expressed no curiosity about Romania.  “The Romanians are not like us.  They are different people”.  Rick goes on to state that he found this attitude on a number of times amongst Bulgarians;   not hostility towards Romanians, but a “profound lack of interest”.  Instead, they looked culturally and spiritually towards the Balkans, even Russia and sometimes even to Turkey.

And a day or so later, he had a discussion with the manager of a guest house, whose attitude was that Eastern Europe was basically peopled by Slavs, with the Romania and Hungarian being a “wedge” of non-Slavs.

The interesting thing is that these attitudes reflect my own experience in Serbia.   On one trip, when I raised with some of S’s family members in Belgrade that we were considering a day or so in Timișoara (a city in Romania not far from the Serbian border), the reaction was along the lines of, “Why go there?   That’s not an interesting place”.   Yet, from what I have read, I think I’d find a lot to interest me there.   If we ever return (no plans for this!), I will ask again, and perhaps follow-up by asking if they have ever been there.

Moreover, the transport links – or lack of them –  between Belgrade and Timișoara reflect this attitude, too.   They are virtually non-existent,  yet it’s 155 kms which according to Google Maps should take less than 3 hours by car (although, there’s a border crossing and I’m not sure of the condition of the road, so this timing might be optimistic).   From Rome2Rio, it seems that currently there’s no direct train or bus connection between the two cities;  apparently you have to make your own way across the border (there’s a 22 km gap between the two closest towns).     However, although not on Rome2Rio, from TripAdvisor it seems there is a mini-bus which runs a service but only when booked.  Presumably this would be  our mode of transport if we ever made the trip to the city which was the starting point of the uprising against Ceaușescu.

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Memories……

It looks as though we’re going to have to some work on the house, so in preparation for this, I’ve started cleaning up some of my “stuff”.   This includes quite a few old papers (as well as other things!), and in turn, these include folders with itineraries and other nitty-gritty documents from past trips.  I’ve been guilty, over the years, when returning home after a trip, of just putting all the papers that I took along with me, along with the brochures and other materials that one invariably collects on the way, in a folder, thinking that “one day” I’ll get around to sorting it all out (typically, using jet lag as the excuse for not sorting it immediately).

Brochures (from various trips)

Since “that day” now appears to have arrived, there’s a bit of a back-log!   For example, one folder had a lot of materials from a trip to the US in 2006, where we attended a conference and then did a road-trip from Chicago to Philadelphia via Detroit and (yes, oddly) Long Island.  That was a few years back, but some of the memories seem as if it was “yesterday”.

Sure, there are photo albums with pre-digital photos from earlier trips, and then CDs and blogs with photos from other trips in the digital-age, and perhaps I need to look at these, too, but in the meantime, it’s been rather a fun – if slow – process going through all the nitty-gritty details of that particular trip.

4th of July

I guess we can’t let American Independence Day (also known as “America’s birthday”!) go by without a mention?  Of course, with the benefit of time zones, we get to have it before the Americans do!

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia

It’s the day on which, in 1776, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved, and the document was published.  It was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776.

There seem to be lots of patriotic events in America, but not so many in Melbourne.   Perhaps the expatriates do their own thing?

Walking the Woods and the Water (2)

Perhaps just a little more on Nick Hunt’s book, Walking the Woods and the Water.   I’ve said that in Holland and Germany, Nick found a lot of industrial development and traffic that he bemoaned.   When he got to the Danube, he added the many hydro-electric developments to this list, which had mostly occurred after Paddy Fermor’s time.

As I’ve already said, there was a lot about his book that I liked, but I found his insights into the people to be fascinating, in particular the Hungarians.   Rick comments that he found the Hungarians saw themselves as the victims of other empires, first the Austrians, and later USSR.  And on a contemporary note, one of the insights that I appreciated was into the Hungarian attitudes to EU, the loss of parts of Slovakia and Transylvania (in the Treaty of Treaty of Trianon of 1920).  Sure, to some extent these feelings were at the time of the book (and still are) fanned by Orban’s nationalistic lines, but these obviously were being received by a receptive audience.

On the other hand, there’s resentment by the Slovaks about the failure of Hungarians in their country to “integrate”, and, for the Romanians, Hungary was the historical tyrant.

In both Slovakia and Romania, Rick observed the outward signs of the obliteration of the former (usually Hungarian) aristocracy;   the Nazis had started the process and the Communists finished it off.   Paddy had a string of aristocratic connections through what is now Slovakia, Hungary and Romania;  for Rick, this was a trail of ruined country mansions.

Especially in Romania, or at least the Transylvanian part of Romania,  Rick visited the sites of number of the grand houses that were previously owned by the Hungarian overloads, who had provided a lot of hospitality to Paddy.   Rick found that many were in ruins, and others were now in use as institutions for the disabled and the like, with the current users having no real knowledge of their history.    The manager of one institution, when asked about the former owners, merely stated, “I think perhaps they moved to Hungary.  They donated their land to the Romanian state.  No one really knows…..”.

A little later Rick met with a the great grand-daughter of a former Count (who Paddy had met).    The family’s estate had been nationalised and the family imprisoned.  The girl had only found out about the whole history from her grandmother after Ceausescu’s fall, and the family had won back the house.  By then they had no idea what to do with such a property, so they continued renting it to the state.   And Rick visited other houses that Paddy had stayed at, but were now ruins.

Likewise he came across former resorts (in particular Baile Herculanae), which used to be fashionable for the gentry in the 1930s and for the masses under communism, but which was at the time of his visit only a shadow of its former self.

And of course in most places, the Roma were unpopular (or worse).

Paddy’s books took years for him to write, and one had to be published after his death, and seem to have been  a little selective.    I think Walking the Woods and the Water is less selective. It’s shorter than Paddy’s three books, of course, but still contains a lot of reflections on people, places, history and more.  I followed some of Rick’s progress on a road atlas, and I think he probably glosses over occasional nights when presumably little of note was worth recording.  Just the same, like Paddy, the range of accommodation that he had was extensive:   sleeping rough, the occasional hotel room, basic accommodation presumably found through Couchsurfing and similar and a lot of friends and friends of friends.  In one or two places, he mentions that he stayed with those who assisted the project financially, as it seems that the finance for his trip came from crowdfunding on the WeDidThis site (I think he means the British site, not the Latvian one.  The British site has now apparently been acquired by another crowdfunding entity).

At times, he leaves a warm lodging so as to walk in the rain or snow….stating that, “in that winter, walking alone through a snow-covered landscape seemed like the greatest happiness I could know.”   And his final words are to thank everyone who offers kindness and hospitality to wandering strangers;  he certainly encountered a great deal of this, which in this day and age, is reassuring.

Footnote:    Patrick Leigh Fermor’s former house at Kardamyli is to be used as a cultural hub (and for a few months each year, as a hotel).   Thanks to W for this link.

Walking the Woods and the Water

As I’ve mentioned,  I’ve been reading Nick Hunt’s book, Walking the Woods and the Water.

I really liked this book.   I found it fascinating as an update on Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor’s walk in 1933 (as described in  A Time for GiftsBetween the Woods and the Water (which I admit I haven’t yet read!) and The Broken Road, and also covered in the biography by Artemis Cooper, which I’ve relied on for an understanding of that part of Paddy’s trip covered in Between the Woods and the Water).   Like Paddy’s,  this book it gives an insight into and a great description of aspects of European life that we don’t often think about.

As an overview, one blurb states, that in 2011 Rick began “… his own great trudge – on foot all the way to Istanbul. He walked across Europe through eight countries, following two major rivers and crossing three mountain ranges. Using Fermor’s books as his only travel guide, he trekked some 2,500 miles through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. His aim? To have an old-fashioned adventure. To slow down and linger in a world where we pass by so much, so fast. To discover for himself what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, adventure, the mysterious, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth and story that still flow beneath Europe’s surface”.

It’s interesting that when Paddy did his walk, Hitler had recently come to power in Germany and Nazism was beginning to take its hold.   Nick likewise was in Hungary when Orban had come to power, and in Turkey in the early years of Erdogan.   He observed the rising nationalism in Hungary under Orban, and the opposing forces of Ataturk’s secularism and the rumblings of more fundamentalist Islam in Turkey.   A few years later, both these issues are still there, more strongly than before.   Such parallels with Paddy’s experiences.

Some aspects of Nick’s “trudge” concerned me.    He states that his preparation was limited to buying roadmaps and putting out some calls for accommodation.   However, it emerges on page 153 that he had a laptop with him (not mentioned again!), and his references to a mobile phone seem to be down-played, being limited to one comment in the first chapter and a mention very near the end of the book.  So perhaps he was better prepared than it first appears.

But his description of trekking through the Carpathians with inadequate gear and insufficient preparation worried me.  Yes, it all makes for very dramatic writing, and I suppose it was based on events that occurred, but I do hope that there’s been a bit of licence taken with these descriptions.    Paddy’s recollections sometimes departed from the literal truth, so perhaps there’s room for a bit of licence here too!

However, Rick does make the point that he wore the same pair of boots for the whole of his 221 day walk. He kept patching them up during the last stages of his trek.    I’m really not sure why he didn’t invest in a new pair somewhere along the way!

Couchsurfing

I’m reading Walking the Woods and the Water, by Nick Hunt.  Nick replicated Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor’s walk (in 1933)  from Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 2011.   He found a Europe that had greatly changed in numerous ways, yet in other ways still had similarities with the past.  I haven’t finished the book yet, so will post more about it when I have.  So far, it’s been fascinating.

Given that times have changed, the era of overnight hospitality for pilgrims and other wayfarers has gone.  Patrick Leigh Fermor availed himself of this type of hospitality at times (although he also stayed with friends and friends of friends, as did Nick).  But for free accommodation Nick at times used the modern alternative:  the  Couchsurfing website (and see here).

Hospitality on Couchsurfing is free.  The idea is that, if possible, people using the service should repay the hospitality by themselves being hosts.  In the FAQs, it’s stated, “A host should never ask a guest to pay for their lodging, and a guest should not offer. We do recommend that a guest show their appreciation by cooking a meal, taking the host out, bringing a small gift or offering some other gesture. Hosts should only offer what they are able to offer freely ….”

Given that the site is about “couch” surfing (and hence sometimes quite basic accommodation!), and consistent with Nick’s experiences, the hosts on this site often seem to be from “interesting” demographics, frequently with an “alternative” approach to the world (“food from dumpster diving” anyone?  I found this on the profile of one host).   Thus, it’s hardly surprising  as a result both of the type of hosts he had and the nature of his travels (“tramping”), Nick encountered a number of people resisting the “modern” world.  He too struggled with hard surfaces of roads built for cars, industrial developments along rivers and of course the cars themselves.   Hence, Nick offers an insight into the the mindset of some protesters that he encountered at Stuttgart.  Their immediate cause was a proposed development, but their actions were really symptoms of a much wider discontent, “the cars, the buildings, the roads, the ugliness”.

But this is only a fraction of what the book has to offer, so more about it later.

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Another runway for Heathrow

It looks as though there might be another runway coming at Heathrow.  It’s going to be a while before things are finally approved and then plans have to be drawn up.   However, it seems that if all proceeds according to plan, construction will commence in 2022.   Then of course construction will take a few years.   Heathrow will then have three runways (all east/west), although the new runway will be slightly shorter than the existing ones.

Understandably, there’s local opposition, so there may still be issues to be addressed.  Realistically, whether the new runway is built or not probably won’t ever affect me, but I do wonder about the distance of the new runway from the existing terminals.   Wikipedia states that there will be a new terminal building, but I haven’t been able to find out where this might be or how it will be connected to the existing terminals and transport systems.  Already access to terminal 4 on both the Underground and Heathrow Express is a little complicated, and the new runway is off in the opposite direction!   There is talk of new transport systems and a new  “Central Terminal Area“;  perhaps all will be revealed in due course.

In the meantime, of course, access to the airport generally will be improved by integrating the Heathrow Connect services as part of the Crossrail/Elizabeth line.  However, so far as I can see, although Heathrow Connect fares may have already been slightly adjusted (but still include a premium), the very high Heathrow Express fares seem set to stay.   And of course Heathrow Connect still operates at a 30 minute frequency (vs 15 minutes for Heathrow Express).