Experiencing Eastern Europe

As a teacher, this quote has always rung true for me. I’ve often felt that to really learn and understand something there needs to be some meaningful experience to reinforce the lesson. As a traveler I’ve found that no matter how much I read up on a destination, researching as exhaustively as possible, there’s nothing like the act of travel, actually being there, and experiencing with all of your senses to gain the deepest understanding.

Experiencing Eastern Europe

One of our main focuses in travel over the past few years has been eastern Europe, and more specifically former Soviet or Soviet allied countries. Growing up in the west, I can remember from an early age being taught the threats of the “enemy empire”, that knowledge being driven home during atomic bomb drills. Then as a young adult we were indoctrinated with how much better our society was then that of the communist countries. Our economy was stronger, our infrastructure was better, heck we could put a man on the moon and return him safely back to Earth.

As I grew older and began to travel I quickly figured out the reality did not exactly match the propaganda we were all fed. Now, after having been to many of these countries and meeting people from them, my experiences have taught me that while there are some major differences, there are also many similarities. The image of the big clunky concrete apartment blocks marching off in uniformity for huge stretches of the city does exist in many places, and the poor construction is quite obvious to our eyes. But to the people who live there, who may have waited for years to get their allotted tiny apartment in one of these behemoths, it is home. They do everything they can to make it a warm and welcoming place.

Most of these countries are very stressed economically and infrastructure has gone left untouched for decades. Driving down a highway can be like maneuvering through a crater filled battleground. And sidewalks? Forget it! Most of the time your better off walking in the street then attempting to amble along the sidewalk. I’ve never encountered the food shortages that we would hear so much about, but I’ve also experienced first hand the lack of food staples, lack of choices and options, that we would take for granted at home.

Our friends in Lithuania make up for this with a very healthy dose of self-sufficiency that was amazing. If they had a good apple harvest, there was every imaginable apple product from dried apple rings to apple cake to apple jam. And it was all delicious. Their hospitality is alarming, they really wanted to treat us right so brought out plate after plate of different family specialties, fruits, cheeses, cured or smoked meats, and all of it delicious. Our biggest problem was eating enough to satisfy their desire to be a good host while not eating them out of house and home.

Another commonality we’ve experienced in all of these country is moonshine. It turns out you can make alcohol out of so many things. Of course, the most common choice is fruit: grapes, plums, pears, and apple. We’re not talking fruity wines either, this is hard liquor, ranging anywhere from 40% to 95% alcohol content. Again, it’s hard to say no when a glass is pressed in your hand with a huge smiling face and some encouraging words. The best option is to hold up the glass, give a hearty “Nastrova”, “Gëzuar”, “Salud”, “Nazdravy”, “Ee Swehkata”, “Noroc,” or just plain old “Cheers” and take a slug. It’s surprising how often we’ve encountered this phenomenon and everyone wants to share their particular homemade concoction convinced you’re going to be tasting something so amazing that it will blow your mind. Well, just be careful or it just might!

If we hadn’t traveled to these places, met these people, and had all of these experiences I’d still be blindly following the myths and untruths we are all subjected to if we listen to the wrong sources. We’d all be too scared to go anywhere or do anything. Go to Prague for the weekend? No way, I’ve seen “Taken” I don’t want to get kidnapped or worse! So, my advice, keep your mind open, go and see for yourself, taste the food, talk to the people, raise the glass and drink!

Have you traveled in Eastern Europe?  What were your impressions?

Experiencing Eastern Europe

18 thoughts on “Experiencing Eastern Europe”

  1. I went to Moscow for a conference a few years ago, and there was a moment on Red Square, outside St Basil’s Cathedral, that I felt I needed to pinch myself. My younger self, in high school in the US in the 70’s, would never in a million years have imagined that I’d be able to travel to Moscow so freely and easily. After all, the Soviet Union was the “evil empire,” the “them” in “Us vs. Them.”

    1. Rachel, Exactly! I love it, because there are still so many leftovers from those days, but so many new things as well. We absolutely love traveling in EE.

  2. I certainly agree that there’s nothing like traveling to open your eyes. Experience is the best teacher by far. Up until now we have only had a taste of the Eastern Bloc nations (Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary, Slovakia) and as you said they still bear the scars of the Communist era. We learned a lot visiting a Slovakian home and talking to the owners, who have reclaimed a family winery. Perhaps it is because of their hardships that they seem so welcoming, or it might be because they just want to help curious travelers better understand their country. In any case we have only had wonderful experiences in Eastern Europe and we really want to go back. Our biggest challenge is figuring out where we want to go first!

    1. That is the real challenge isn’t it? Especially for us as we only have limited time throughout most of the year. I think your right, hardships usually bring people together so that could be part of the welcoming we experience.

  3. My first trip to Eastern Europe was to Hungary back in 1992, via train from Austria. I knew immediately that things were different as soon as I crossed the border, when things immediately became sad and gray. In 2008, however, when I went to Croatia and Slovenia, the differences between East and West were minimal. What a difference a decade can make.

  4. I got to visit Prague in the early 1990s when they were just starting to rediscover their non-Soviet Bloc identity and Western Tourists were a novelty. You could feel that the local people suddenly felt promise and opportunity in the air. It’s a shame that while a few of these places have managed to thrive so many are still struggling. Good for you for exploring them all!

    1. Eileen, It’s true, many do struggle and some even feel life was better under Soviet times because everyone had a job. It’s an interesting area, for sure.

  5. We’re working our way toward Eastern Europe. I can see us exploring the countries surrounding Russia in the years to come. I love reading about your adventures in these areas.

    1. Thanks Jan! We’ve only got a few more countries in Eastern Europe to visit, but then it’s on to Central Asia. What a fantastically big world we live in!

  6. I’ve been to Eastern bloc countries several times. Once in high school well before the wall came down and once in 2012 when on an around the world with my family. I agree that the propaganda put forth in years passed is amazing. I think I would like to spend some serious in depth time in one of these countries.

  7. Phoebe | Lou Messugo

    I’ve always had a fascination for Eastern Europe/former Soviet bloc starting when I lived in Prague as a young teen when it was very closed and communist. Since then I also lived in Bulgaria over the time of revolution when the dictator was overthrown and democracy restored. I’ve seen the food shortages and enormous queues though being a privileged westerner I never actually had to stand in them (but friends did). But despite all the hardships my family were always warmly welcomed into people’s homes and well fed and watered just like you said. I totally share your travel ethos.

    1. Phoebe, Every time we write about Eastern Europe I think of you. What amazing experiences you must have had as a child living in those amazing countries. I’m still trying to figure out how we can meet up so we can really share stories. Coming our way anytime soon?

  8. Love this post and it was so on point with the one I wanted to share this week on East Berlin. I am so looking forward to exploring the former eastern bloc countries and understanding more about their cultures and experience during the Cold War. Your observations about the propaganda we experienced and continue to experience about countries that are not similar to ours are spot on. In Berlin we also visited the DDR museum which explores life in East Berlin behind the Iron Curtain. It was a fascinating look at the lives of ordinary people during those times.

    1. Katy, The DDR Museum remains one of our favorites; it’s a great visit to the past. As you can tell, we love traveling in Eastern Europe, and I hope you get to do more and more!

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