Monday, September 28, 2009


It's after 11 pm right now and I'm sipping a local Riesling and blogging from the bed of our hotel room. We just got back from taking the baths at the Széchenyi medicinal baths in Budapest (according to Wikipedia, the largest medicinal baths in Europe). My feet have been thoroughly massaged and my skin feels like it's been scraped off of its outer layer. I needed that. I have two pinky toes that are so used to wearing sandals all year long in San Francisco that they don't take well to wearing shoes. The funny thing is, with the weather the way it's been I would've been totally fine wearing my sandals here.

The local wine has been delightful. I've been drinking a lot of sweet white wine, Tokaj muscat is the only name I know. In all the English language guide books, the town of Eger is being advertised as a particularly good wine region, but my information comes from elsewhere. As a Soviet child, there were certain things you knew. I've forgotten most of them, but things like Tokaj wine (Tokaj is apparently a part of Slovakia, but a former part of the greater Hungarian Kingdom) and Budapest operetta do pop up once in a while. I continue my way through the former Soviet bloc countries incognito, as an American tourist. Being Russian here simply doesn't pay off. Today, a drunk beggar almost spit in our food when we betrayed a knowledge of Russian. We were eating dinner at a street cafe, and he was passing by, asking for money. Seeing that we didn't speak Hungarian, he went through the list: Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Parlez-vous Francais? Atah Medaber Ivrit? Говорите по-русски? Dave said, pa-russki. The man got all offended and said something in Russian about how they've worked for the Soviets for many years, and now don't want to have anything else to do with them -- and went on his way.

I find it very surprising on this trip to what extent the Soviet Union has become identified with Russia in the post-Soviet space. In a photo exhibit in downtown Krakow entitled "New Europe," for example, a photographer and a writer have traced the development of several post-communist countries, including Kaliningrad (Königsberg before WWII), but excluding Russia proper. "Since 1989 New Europe has become a fact," explain the artists. They are missing other countries, too: Lithuania and Moldova, for example. But no other cities are highlighted either except for Kaliningrad-Königsberg (a former Polish and then Prussian town, now an island of Russian territory on the Baltic squeezed between Poland and Lithuania, with no land connection to Russia proper). This exhibit makes an unambiguous statement about Russia.

The anger against Soviet Union is understandable, but equating Soviet Union with contemporary Russia seems unfortunate and unwise. It's kind of like being angry at all Americans (including Canadians and Brazilians) for electing George W. as president. Peoples living in Russia proper were frequently the first victims of Soviet politics -- and the fact that today Russian politics resemble SU closer and closer only goes to prove the effectiveness of the brainwashing all of us had undergone. Russia's new wave of nationalism is being met with the rejection of everything Russian by its neighbors (even Matryoshka dolls are being sold in the local touristy shops as "Slavic" souvenirs) -- and while all of this is perfectly understandable, it is also kinda scary. Increasing isolation has never led to world peace.

But of course contemporary Russia is a hard place to like, and why on earth I should ever be moved to defend it is a mystery. The Krakow exhibit definitely upset me: apparently, I am still thinking about it 2 countries later.

Gotta go repack again. We're leaving tomorrow morning to visit two small towns in Hungary where Dave's great-grandparents emigrated from. One of the towns has three hotels with the most expensive room going for $15 a night. They also rent camping spaces for your tent.

Dave's blog about what we actually did today:


  1. Those baths sound interesting. It didn't give you a wierd feeling with everyone else exfoliating madly?
    Back to a previous post - all those interactions make the trip - in fact years later those are the only things I remember. But I also found that when I travelled as a young person - my most memorable interactions were with locals, as I have become longer-in the-tooth, now I mostly interact with other travelers. Do you notice a difference in your interactions - ie) are locals more interesting - or other travelers?

  2. Theresa, when we travel, I suppose we'll take what we can get in terms of interactions! During this trip, we were on a general alert to use any available opportunity for communication. We've met lots of fascinating fellow travelers as well as people from Poland and particularly Hungary. Drinking and going to bars are always a good way of making friends, we've discovered :))