Over spring break, I got the opportunity to travel to the Baltic nations and Poland. After studying some Jewish history and literature in a class on Jewish American literature, my interests, like so many tourists to the region, were two-fold: to see what was there, and to see what wasn’t.
The inclusion of Poland into the European Union has meant that tourism has increased drastically. It also means that many poorer EU citizens are now living in what is generally considered to be one of the cheapest countries in the EU with the lowest living expenses. Prior to the beginning of the Warsaw tour, it became apparent that the tour would be offered in two different languages: English and Spanish. I was taken aback. Why Spanish? I asked the guide why there was both a Spanish-only tour, as I had come across predictably few Spanish speaking persons in my my travels of the Balkan and Baltic regions. What brought these people to Poland? The guide explained that the economic downturn and the low employment rate in Spain means that there are a lot of unemployed young people. Asa result, many of them decide to live in Poland, take whatever jobs they can, or pursue their studies there in Warsaw where they can afford to study and not work full time. I was fascinated. In the States, I recalled hearing about the economic downturn in Spain some time around our recession, but I thought it had more than recovered. Apparently, it had not, and by the time our free tour left, the Spanish group (made entirely of people from Spain proper) had more people in it than our English tour which, in typical European fashion, contained a diverse mix of Italians, French, Canadians, Americans, Germans, and a couple Israelis.
While in that moment I witnessed what I would call EU economic tourism, that is, people who are attending a free tour in a country they intend to put down roots in for the lower cost of living, I also was able to get an insight into an even more popular trend: disaster tourism.
Disaster tourism is no new fad, but it is increasing as the sites of the world’s greatest atrocities become easier and easier to visit. This sector is difficult to define, as a person’s motivations for visiting sites of immense tragedy are varied. I considered that, for the two Jewish Israelis on our tour, the motivation for taking a Jewish walking tour of Warsaw was different than some of the non-Jewish Canadians and Americans. As I took the tour with my father, we struggled to understand why we were taking the tour. I imagined my dad’s feelings were not dissimilar to my own when I visited the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, or the new World Trade Center monument. These were tragic events that occurred well before we were born and we found it impossible to even visualize a world wherein they did not happen. I wondered, did I want to see the walls and boundaries of the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw because I wanted to be reminded of the perils of discrimination, or just because it is something to see that provokes an emotional reaction. Surely, the Israelis felt something more than I did, a feeling of loss over people in their community. But, for non-Jewish, non-Europeans, is a history tour just a history tour? That is to say, we simply learn about history to not repeat it, or is there something more (or less)?
After returning from a trip to Serbia and Bosnia in January, my dad was flipping through the pictures with some close friends and family and landed on a picture I took of him at the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed.
“I was counting how many assassination sites I have been to,” he said. “I think it is around seven.”
He began listing them. He had been to Ford’s theater, he had been to where JFK was killed in Dallas. I tuned out. “Is this a conversation we are meant to be having?” I thought. Does it show more, or less, respect for the dead to memorialize them in cocktail-party listicles on people who were shot, and famous enough for their shooting to be called an assassination. What’s more, are we doing the same thing when we visit sites like Auschwitz of the Warsaw ghetto?
I mentioned my father, but this is not to say I am not guilty of the same thing. I was born in 1998, and the war in the Balkans in the early 90s has always been something I knew nothing about, until I went to Bosnia, and to Serbia, and to Kosovo. I read books, Wikipedia articles, and we walked through a number of museums in the region. I admittedly suffer through chronic museum fatigue, and often exit a museum thinking “wow, I just spent $10 and I don’t think I learned anything.” However, the one thing that got to me in Belgrade was the still-bombed-out Ministry of Defense building, two blocks from the international bus station. I may forget which Balkan nation declared independence first. I may forget which of the Balkan languages are Latinized, and which ones use the Cyrillic script. I will not forget that, twenty-five years after conflict ended, a half-in-use Ministry of Defense building has its other half turned to rubble behind metal fencing, a reminder of what NATO had to do to end such an atrocity. I don’t know what this fallen monument means, whether it is a admonishment to ward off further evil, or a painful reminder of a bloody conflict that still tortures its victims almost three decades later.
All I know is that I’ll remember it too.
We returned to the micronation for lunch, and to get our stamps for this universally unrecognized nation. At the barliament, we ordered ‘foreign’ beer, and Lithuanian food, as the nation produces many more artists than chefs. There, we rubbed elbows with the president himself, who was at the next table arguing politics or art in Lithuanian. This country allegedly having a standing militia of eleven people, I was afraid to bother the gray-bearded man for fear that they might be waiting to protect the president at whatever the cost. As we left, we met with two Australians at the bar who were on our tour, and watched as the bartender stamped the instruction pages of our passports with what I gathered was a mix of jealousy (as they had forgotten their passports) and secondhand embarrassment that we were actually stamping our real passports with fake stamps. I don’t care who you are, you are never too old to play pretend.
We crossed the river and the guide showed us two of the city’s most impressive churches, one Roman Catholic and the other an Orthodox Cathedral started in 1346. Our tour wrapped up at the foot of Vilnius’ Castle Tower near the national museum, and we realized we had metabolized our fruitcake and coffee rather quickly (it would appear that fruitcake here is actually digestable) and were ready for lunch. Since I had long before made a vow to eat a meal in every nation I stepped in, we agreed to cross the ancient Vilnius River to get a nice Užupian meal.
The Republic of Užupis (OO-zoo-PEACE) is officially a neighborhood, meaning “beyond the river” in Lithuanian. It has historically been a neighborhood for artists, and declared itself to be its’ own country in 1997. The nation’s parliament, housed in a bar on the banks of the Vilnius River, is commonly known as their “Barliament,” actually has a working stamp and is where Užupis’ politicians, namely their current president, discuss policy and art. The chief pride of the nation, I believe, is the constitution which often has contradictory instructions to the citizens of the nation such as “don’t fight,” “don’t give up,” and “don’t surrender.” The constitution, thanks to the donations from many countries, has been translated into 38 languages and placed on a place for each language and hung on a brick wall in the north part of the 148-acre country.
Another beautiful part of the micronation is their Tibet Square. Flags of Tibet fly occasionally in windows and above doors in Užupis because the micronation has used their faux-independence to demonstrate their belief that Tibet should be an independent state. Tibet Square is decorated with authentic Buddhist symbols and Tibetan prayer flags. In fact, the Dalai Lama visited the area in 2013 and is an honorary citizen of the micronation.
We arrive, or should I say return, to Vilnius just as the sun is starting to rise. I spent most of the night nodding off then being shaken awake by some rogue nerve that senses fear then jerks me awake. I am tired, but not yet exhausted and as we weave through the deserted streets to our hostel downtown I begin to feel nauseous. The early-spring Baltic pollen has been seeping into my airways and I begin vomiting up mucus and stomach acid into the brush every ten or fifteen feet. After mapping dozens of cafes, we finally find one that is open before 10 am and we walk in, ordering coffee and what can only be described as fruitcake without the trademark stale-taste that all fruitcakes seem to have. The coffee shop offers a variety of mysterious coffee items with words like “nitro” and “compress,” but the barista seems to understand what my dad is talking about when he orders an “Americano, black.” We sit, eat our cake, and listen as the barista puts a vinyl of experimental German rock on the turntable. Perhaps my mind had softened, or been pickled by some sleepy neurotransmitter, but the German rock is one of the best things I have every heard and my heart crumbles like a fruitcake when I can’t find it on Spotify.
Eventually, we leave the cafe and find our hostel, which is locked. We are let in by a guest/ social media intern for the hostel, who informs us we can put our bags behind the desk, but that we have to wait until the owner gets in at 10 am to check in. This is no problem because the hostel has a large, soft, and clean couch in the lobby. I stow my bag behind the desk, take my shoes off, and quickly fall into a restful pseudo-sleep, which I break a half-hour later.
We walk to the town hall, where we begin the free walking tour of the city. The sun is out and I am elated to be on the last walking tour of the trip, which promises to be indistinguishable from the other Baltic walking tours in a few days’ time. The group is the largest yet, and we are immediately harassed by fellow Americans (from Minnesota of all places). Upon reflection, the most powerful nugget of truth came from our Polish tour guide who said that “the last thing he would do when traveling to another country is take a tour for Polish people, because when I am away from home the last thing I want to do is meet people from Poland.” Truer words have likely never been spoken; when I meet an American my first instinct is often to run. What if they want to talk about how quaint that city is? What if they cling to you and you don’t know how to get rid of them? What if they watch Fox News? Many scary things can happen when you travel, folks, be prepared. If you see an American sports team on a shirt or hat, act like you are Canadian.
We see statues, churches and places where synagogues used to be. We discuss Vilnius’ role as the center of Jewish learning and culture in the 1800s, and talk about Lithuanian culture and tradition. Then, the coolest part of the tour begins. The guide mentions that Vilnius is home to one of the largest and most legitimate micronations: Užupis.
We board a morning bus, amidst an open-air market of vendors hawking all sorts of produce, flowers, and meat. We found an Uzbek food stall and purchased some flatbreads for the road. This was to be a long trek. We decided it would be more effective to skip over Lithuania for the time being, as we were flying out of Vilnius and had to see that city regardless. Over ten hours we spent on the bus from Riga to Warsaw, making brief stops in Kaunas, Vilnius, Augustow, and Bialystok before stopping in the western part of Poland’s capital.
After half a day of in-seat movies, long beyond sunset, I was happy to reach the geographic endpoint of the trip. We hopped into a restaurant, which was about to close, and bought two to-go lamb kebabs. These were the only things they’d sell us, as the moment we sat down the last customers left and the staff began locking the doors. Thankfully, the kebabs were portable and our hostel was less than a block away. When we arrived we met a kind couple of teenage girls, one of whom was sitting and clearly keeping the other company while she worked her shift at the hostel. The employee gave us our key and walked us into the other building, up the stairs and to our room. It was a room full of 4 or 5 bunk beds, which we were lucky enough to have to ourselves. I quickly plugged in my phone and jumped into bed, quickly dozing off to the quiet and surprisingly clean-smelling room. A hostel without at least a vague scent of sweat or mildew is a fortuitous thing, and should be appreciated when one comes along.
The following morning, we left our bags with the receptionist, who had now morphed from two teenage girls to a short-but-skinny bearded man with black hair. We had a few hours until we were to start our noon tour of “Jewish Warsaw,” which I simply had to take instead of the general Warsaw free tour out of obligation to the Judaic studies courses I have been taking over the last two semesters in college. I also felt I had to take the Jewish history tour of Warsaw because I had always wondered what remnants there were of Jewish life in a place like this capital, nearly a century after German occupation. In the time before the tour, we spent nearly an hour looking for the bus station we were to leave from that night on our way back to Lithuania. After wandering around just one of Warsaw’s many bus stations (which are, thankfully, at least numbered) we came upon a small sticker, about half the size of a bumper sticker, pasted to the back of a sign post with the name of our bus company depicted on the front. We were not technically in the bus station, but on a street leading from it to the highway, and while my dad still wasn’t convinced this was the place I was positive. What young hooligan would, instead of promoting his new Soundcloud mixtape, would instead graffiti a sign post with the name of a low-cost bus company? Who knows.
Once we confirmed the ‘station’ coordinates with several websites, we stopped at a cafe and bought breakfast on our way to the city’s Old Town. There, we snapped some pictures by Polish flags, before realizing the tour began in a half hour on the complete opposite side of town. We walked briskly, though I found this difficult as my foot had begun aching the day before and didn’t show signs of healing. It was also a struggle because this was the first picturesque part of Poland we had seen, and it being the warmest, sunniest day we had had thus far, I simply wanted to rest on a bench, read, and take in the sun.
At the meeting place in front of a historic church, we came across two groups: a Spanish Jewish tour (Spanish language, not Sephardic) and an English Jewish tour. When we arrived, the Spanish tour was nearly twice as big as the English tour and I had to ask why there were so many Spaniards in Poland. According to our guide, Poland was one of the cheaper E.U. destinations so much of the typically younger and unemployed Spanish population was staying in Poland for the lower cost of living.
The tour passed by quickly, though we made fewer stops and stopped longer than typical. We stopped by the pre-Holocaust Nozyk synagogue, which was the only synagogue to survive the war. It served as a stable during the Nazi occupation, and was damaged somewhat in an air raid on the city. It was fascinating to see how Warsaw functioned in the Nazi occupation. The Jewish ghetto in the city had actually been bisected by a major thoroughfare, so a bridge was built to connect the two parts of the ghetto, as depicted in the film The Pianist. At the tour’s conclusion outside the Jewish Museum, we decided to walk back to the Old Town and get some pierogi and kielbasa for lunch. The restaurant our guide recommended was a Polish restaurant that made over a dozen types of pierogi and served “sausage” on sizzling skillets atop sauerkraut. We ate ravenously as the waitresses in what I assumed to be traditional Polish folk dress flitted from table to table.
Having checked off both food and cultural requirements, I had officially seen Poland, and the sun was hanging low in the sky, but still visible over the city’s three- and four-story buildings. It was the first sunny and warm day on the trip, and of the year, so we purchased ice cream at a bodega and sat in the park near our hostel until sunset after retrieving our bags. We still had several hours until our overnight bus to Vilnius left, so we decided to wander the mall near the station. Ultimately, my dad grew bored and suggested we go see a movie. We found the only appealing English movie was The Mule, the new Clint Eastwood movie where he becomes a drug mule because his wife leaves him or something.
When the movie ended, we cashed in all of our leftover Zlotys at the Burger King in the food court, had a quick dinner, and went to meet our bus. It began to grow cold as our bus pulled in about 15 minutes late, and we boarded one at a time after confirming with the bus attendant that we were who we said we were. There was a Russian woman in my seat (or at least a woman who was speaking Russian), and the attendant had to move her to the seat behind me, giving me and my dad each a whole row adjacent to one another. I finished watching La La Land, which I had started on the bus into Warsaw, and closed my eyes long enough to make myself believe I had slept.
We arrive late in Riga, Latvia and immediately find, across the river from the bus station, a Latvian restaurant, where we sit down to celebrate country #50 on my odyssey to all 196 UN-recognized nations. The waiter speaks little English, so when I switch to Russian and he still says “Bonjour” at the end of every sentence I grow even more perplexed.
I get some sort of meat ball wrapped in bacon; my dad orders chicken in a cream sauce. To ring in my semi cent-national journey, I also order a shot of local blackberry liqueur and a beer. The food is fairly good, and we are stuffed as we waddle back to the Central Hostel that is far from central.
In the morning, we walk around, seeing most of Riga before the free tour begins at 10 am. We start at the imposing St. Peter’s church, and the guide enthusiastically, but with less humor than the one we had in Tallinn, shows us some of the city’s highlights. We concluded the tour at a sculpture of a bird sitting atop a cat, who is standing on the back of a pig, who is placed on the back of a donkey. Our guide told us that it is tradition to make a wish and touch the nose of the highest animal on the stack, and the higher the animal you touched the more likely your wish would come true. By reaching the cat, my wish was thus 75% likely to be realized, according to our guide.
For lunch, we sat down at a fairly expensive nouveau-Latvian restaurant, and feasted on overpriced potato pilaf, blood sausage, and dumplings. At this point the trip had been grating on us, so we returned to the hostel to get some rest, before visiting a local “folkklub,” where they played traditional music accompanied by dancers who whirled around the dance floor. There, we met a Russian coder in his twenties or thirties, who happily talked to my dad about some nerdy stuff that I didn’t understand, while I got an opportunity to practice my Russian.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.