People and Places

Our travel wrap up

Posted on January 22, 2011

We have been back since last Tuesday, wading through a mountain of e-mail and snail mail (and snow, for that matter) and generally catching up with the normal routines of life in NH.  It is good to be home and while we have a deep abiding love of travel, most of us need some routine and at some point there is the tug of knowing that there is work that needs to get done, bills to be paid, and friends and family we increasingly miss.

On a trip home from Italy once we amused ourselves by creating a rating system for trips.  We created categories and assigned scores from 1 to 3 (three being the best).  Our categories included history, landscape, culture, food, climate, exoticism, degree of undiscoveredness (did I just make up a word?), warmthof the people, quaint factor, awe inspiring factor, and so on.  As you can imagine, Italy scored through the roof on history, culture, food, quaint factor, and more.  Same with France.  Laos scored higher on exoticism and low on climate (unless your idea of the ideal climate is a steam bath).  Africa was over the top for landscape and awe factor, very low on food.  Japan, high on history and culture, not so good on warmth of the people given its highly formal culture.

Central Europe scores high on one category after another.  In terms of history, culture, awe inspiring (the cathedrals for example), quaint (the small streets of Prague’s Lesser Town), landscape (in the case of Salzburg), and more the region is world class.  Food, warmth of the people, and undiscoverdness, not so much.  We would recommend it to anyone.

Here, in no particular order, are some of our highlights:

  • Thousands of people waltzing in Vienna’s main square on New Year’s Eve.
  • Driving through the mountains and lake area outside of Salzburg, the Sound of Music inside a snow globe.
  • Walking Prague, a feast for lovers of architecture and almost too much.  On almost any block are three, four, or five buildings that would be show stoppers if in Boston or even New York.
  • Cooking class in Budapest.
  • A day at the zoo surrounded by happy Czech families.
  • Staying in a castle with roaring fires in our bedrooms.
  • The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, truly world class.
  • The new Schindler Museum in Krakow.
  • Seeing Don Giovanni performed in the opera house where Mozart directed its premiere in the 18th Century.
  • Meals at Mlynek (at the foot of the fog enshrouded Charles Bridge), Cesares (that gem of an Italian place in Krakow), Bagelmama (the hip little sandwich place run by an American expat), and our modest little wine cellar in Vienna.

Some of our favorite people?  Anna and Milos, the young Czech couple who we hope represent the future of this part of the world.  Albert, the hyper attentive B&B owner in Budapest.  Our comically morose guide at the Hospital in the Rock and the waitress later that night — really they should date. 

The best part of the trip by far was spending hours and hours just the four of us.  All our lives are busy now, Emma spends much of her time in Syria, and Hannah’s work in research labs last summer and next leave her little time for travel.  Whether it was discussing what we were seeing, chewing over big life topics over dinner, or just cuddling together to watch a movie, it was time to savor and hold dear.

In the end, the people matter more than the museums and churches and landscapes.  We have wonderful memories of making the best of it in dreadful places and situations because of the people.  Many of our best travel stories involve the people we’ve met — dinner with a family in their small apartment in Damascus, touring a Zanzibar slum witha CED alum, spending a day with Vicky and Al Teo in the Malaysian rain forest — and it’s the people that allow you to go from tourist to traveler. 

Tourists skate over the surface of a place and there’s enormous satisfaction in the experience.  For example, a Czech tourist coming to the US for the first time could fill every available hour in DC or New York, but we would hardly say they really know America.  We saw amazing places and we learned a LOT, but I would not pretend that we know Budapest or Prague after our relatively short visits. 

Emma and I had a long conversation about the notion that anyplace can be known.  It implies that there is some static, fixed truth to be discovered about a place and that if you stay long enough or dig deep enough, you can discover it.  But all of these places are changing all the time, as is our country, and because we are talking about people and societies– with all their irrationalities and complex forces at work — maybe the best we can do is to get a snapshot in time.  As with all pictures, where one points the camera and what one brings into focus is itself subjective and distorting. 

None of this is to say we cannot come to understand a place, or at least to understand it better.  Visiting it gives you its immediacy, its look and feel.  Reading about it gives you perspective and context and sometimes good analysis.  Reading its poetry and prose, listening to its music, and watching its movies gives you a glimpse into its soul.  Spending time with its people helps make an emotional connection, makes it matter more. 

Finally, the other way we think about travel is to ask what we’d like to bring back with us.  What would we like to emulate?  For example, we wish we could learn to savor food and conversation the way the Italians and French do — Americans are always rushing off to the next thing.  I am still influenced by the Japanese aesthetic.  Arabic hospitality puts us to shame.  The English and Irish are such great talkers.  In each case, we leave a place wondering how we might have a little more of this or that quality in our day to day lives back in America.

How would we answer the question for this trip, for Central Europe?  Not in any emphatic way, but probably a sense that each of these places values high culture in day to day life more than the United States.  It felt like there was more music and museum going and even in the attempt to rebuild, an honoring of the great architecture that came before.  As visitors, we were, no doubt, on the lookout for those things, but we also saw evidence of an intellectual tradition that is still more widely valued than the simple tourist experience.  It was in those lines of dusty old bookshops in Budapest and the crowd watching the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day broadcast outside on a public square and the new museums that seemed to be popping up everywhere.  There was a time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Central Europe was the intellectual center of the universe and that energy has not entirely abated in these four countries, even if their political and economic clout ended with the last shots of WWI so long ago.

There are trips that are good for the body, good for the soul, good for the belly.  This one was particularly good for the mind, though it nourished many of our senses.  It presented the drama of humanity – -the stage where we have been at our depraved lowest and the very heights of our artistic and intellectual abilities.  How many places offer that experience?

One thought on “Our travel wrap up

  1. Lin Li says:

    ” Spending time with its people helps make an emotional connection, makes it matter more.”
    I agree. What is the most fascinating is that people from different backgrounds, after communicating with each other, find so many universal commonalities lie at the core of the soul.

    Wonder what you learnt at that cooking class in Budapest?

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