A few days ago, my travelling friends and I were nearing the end of a journey that included a river cruise from Bucharest, Romania, to Budapest, Hungary, with a post-cruise extension into Prague in the Czech Republic. Our journey had included stops in Russe, Romania; Vidin, Romania; Belgrade, Serbia; Osijek, Croatia; and Kolocsa, Hungary. All of us—Lottie Boggan, Margaret Vise, Ann Barksdale, Carol Kirkland, and I—had made many memories together.
We are back in Mississippi now. The bags are almost unpacked and put away. The fatigue is gradually subsiding. Stacked up mail is becoming less of an issue. Nights and days are beginning to be on home time. And life is taking on its normal rhythm.
As so often happens immediately following a trip, some of the smaller towns and villages coalesce, especially the ones visited in rapid succession. While I remember what we did, the sequence of the stops and the names of the smaller places are a haze. For the moment I recall with great clarity the three big cities and what we did in each of them: Bucharest, Romania; Budapest, Hungary; and Prague, Czech Republic. As time goes by and my photos and memorabilia become organized chronologically, I will know and recall with certainty the names of the small villages where we stopped in Romania, Serbia, and Croatia; and I will be able to connect my memories with particular places. For now I am reliving the big picture as I settle back into home and the life I am blessed to have.
The land of Eastern Europe includes the region sometimes referred to as the Balkans. Historically, much of the area has been one of perpetual conflict combined with redrawing boundaries and renaming countries. At this moment in time, there is peace.
The places we saw were behind the Iron Curtain until communism ended there. In the big cities - Bucharest, Budapest, and Prague - centuries` old buildings with breathtakingly beautiful, ornate architecture escaped the destruction of World War II and today remain intact; but there are also concrete structures built in straight-line block style, designed to equalize everyone and make everything look the same - vivid reminders of past communist control.
In the rural areas, it seemed as if time had stood still. Quiet countrysides resplendent with fields of yellow canola were a frequent sight. There was a notable absence of heavy farming equipment.
We met kind and gentle people all along the way who were eager to show us their world. They were similar in that respect to people I’ve met wherever I`ve travelled. In Croatia, we visited a home and shared the hospitality of a Croat lady who, with her husband, had rebuilt their home after the town - inhabited by Croatians and Serbians who were living peacefully together - was destroyed during a Serbian invasion. Today, she and her family are totally self sufficient with a garden, fruit trees, and chickens. She operates a small bakery from her home. She hopes for continued peace. Some of her current friends and neighbors are Serbs, as they were before the destruction of their village. The people there never wanted to fight.
After visiting her home, I remembered thoughts my late husband, Dr. Jimmy Royals, often expressed: “The people of the world don`t start wars. It`s the leaders who do. For the most part, people get along together and don`t want to fight each other.” He would have known. A veteran of World War II, he commanded a medical unit and a field hospital attached to General Patton`s Army. He travelled across Europe taking care of the sick, injured, and dead. He watched the bombing of Dresden and entered Buchenwald concentration camp the second day after it was liberated. After the war in Europe ended, he was in Piccadilly Square in London awaiting orders to go to the Pacific theater when VJ Day was declared. During those years of war, the civilians he met all along the way only wanted peace.
Another pervasive memory from our journey was that most of our guided tours were walking experiences. Our tour buses would drop us off at the starting point and pick us up in another place at the end. Our walks with earphones allowed us to learn from the local guides while becoming immersed in a world of preserved buildings, impromptu musicians, sidewalk cafes, and shops. Walking also gave us the opportunity to interact, if ever so briefly, with strangers along the way and to appreciate in a personal way the long and often troubled histories of the places we were seeing. Handrails for stairs and ramps for wheelchairs often were not present. Most of the streets we walked were worn cobblestone with uneven surfaces. One long day in Prague my phone recorded 5.8 miles. I don`t remember seeing any obese people anywhere. Many of our group had walking difficulties and other health issues, but I never heard a complaint, or anyone ask for help. I stood in awe of and with great respect for our group of retired elderlies.
With each trip, there is always the unexpected kindness of strangers. Those encounters and the times shared add a warm dimension that transcends the written word. It is a gift from above, unsought and unexpected. Etched in my memories are moments spent with Di and John Huston and Deb and Jim Peoples, who saw Lottie and me sitting alone at dinner one evening and invited us to join them. We became friends. We learned about their lives in Delaware, Ohio; and we introduced them to a little bit of the deep south. They and the brief times we shared are now a part of our journey and our lives. They represented the best of the human spirit.
Edrie George Royals is a Northsider.