For the past four years I have enjoyed traveling solo, and when I look back to my first experience I can’t help but smile; it was definitely the beginning of a never-ending passion. Mind you, I was an avid traveler since I was a child, but I never dared to venture into the unknown world of being…well, “alone”. I have developed a love affair with the beautiful cities of Eastern Europe. What exactly did I learn from visiting the ex-communist countries, also referred to as the “countries behind the iron curtain”? To sum it up, four major lessons seem to dominate my thoughts whenever I think back at the stories I heard and the people I met.
Lesson 1: “Different” is NOT Synonymous with “Dangerous”
For some reason, a lot of people believe that Eastern European countries are “unsafe” and that aggression levels are high due to copious amounts of alcohol that are consumed. From my experience I have found that all of Eastern European cities I visited are incredibly safe. I wandered the streets of Prague, along the banks of the Danube in Bucharest and got lost in the most random alleys in Oslo, and I have never once felt scared. Yes, the culture is quite different from more “traditional” European destinations , but that definitely does not mean that they’re dangerous.
“So the next time you start doubting yourself, your thoughts, your beliefs or ideas remember that beauty lies in destruction.”
Lesson 2: Kindness and Generosity are Not that Rare
What I have also learned is that kindness and generosity are not as rare as I thought. In Brashov, Romania and Transylvania I met some of the kindest people who constantly offered help when I needed it. In Veliko Taranovo, Bulgaria, where everyone I met did not speak a single word of English (and where my car got towed!), families welcomed me into their homes as I waited for my car.
Lesson 3: What we Take for Granted others Consider a Gift
During the communist era, some of the ‘basic’ rights, such as communicating in your native tongue or practicing your religion publicly, were frowned upon. During my last visit to Eastern Europe, I visited the “Hill of Crosses” in Lithuania, which has more than 500,000 crosses, planted by people from all over the world. All I could see was an incredibly overwhelming hill filled with beautiful and artistic crosses. Partly due to my ignorance I failed to realize that Lithuania, which was freed of the communist regime in the mid 1990s, had to fight for decades in order to practice their religion and to be able to speak Lithuanian, which left me in awe.
“These countries have taught me resilience, strength, patience and persistence.”
Lesson 4: Fall Seven Times, Stand up Eight & Wear your Scars with Pride
If I didn’t know any better, I would say that the Japanese proverb, “fall seven times, stand up eight,” was created for Eastern European countries. In Bucharest, women were incredibly suppressed, which is why the entire city is covered with feminist graffiti, proudly stating “God is a woman/God is feminine”, a statement which would have cost them their lives a few decades ago. The same goes for Budapest, the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ is a reminder of the 3500 murders that took place during the time of the Arrow Cross Terror, and while it remains a painstaking reminder one cannot help but stare in awe at the ‘shoes’ scattered across the bank. Prague, renowned for its impeccable beauty, is another example of a city that fell under communist rule for four decades. One representation definitely stands out, the “Lennon wall,” with its colorful graffiti notes and messages of peace created by artists and free-thinkers over the years, which happens to be a tourist hotspot nowadays!
These countries have taught me resilience, strength, patience and persistence. While many of us have been raised to hide certain elements of our personalities, modify stories from our past in order to avoid being judged, every single person I talked reminded me that our scars and our past make us who we are! So the next time you start doubting yourself, your thoughts, your beliefs or ideas remember that beauty lies in destruction.
Hend Seif El Din obtained her BA in Journalism and her MA in English & Comparative Literature. An artist herself, ex-editor and currently the Assistant Director of Marketing Communications at Semiramis InterContinental Cairo. She’s a true Aquarian, a bookworm, a vegan and a strong supporter of animal rights.