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.
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!