When I was 23, I backpacked through Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Italy. We almost entirely slept in a tent with the exception of Budapest where we arrived at the campsite late at night after it had closed. We met a woman who offered her “little box,” (her limited English word for a camper trailer) since she liked to sleep in the fresh air. Also, Istanbul, where little hotels that sold Turkish rugs were very affordable.
Yesterday, I went into my attic and my husband and I looked at old pictures from this trip. I later examined them and googled the monuments that I did not remember, but were clearly important to me at the time. It was by far the most I have deliberately thought about this trip that took place literally half my lifetime ago and I was in awe of the places that I have been.
Sometimes, in my life, I have been so busy moving on to the next thing that I have forgotten the joy that comes from really relishing and remembering experiences. My memories have become random snippets, many of them negative that repeat in my mind at unplanned moments. Making a deliberate decision about what I want to remember by writing this list felt good.
- The crystal clear water of the Aegean Sea at Milli Park, lying on the beach and seeing a boar run out of the woods
- Sitting on the ruins of the Atrium Vestae in Rome.
- or next to Mieszko the Stone Bear outside of the Church of Our Lady Grace in Old Town, Warsaw with posters of Pope John Paul II on the door
- or on the Spanish Steps
- where I drank water from the Fontana Della Barcaccia at the bottom
- going to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. My friend, Pelin, had written me a long letter and taught us how to bargain. “Offer half price and look confident,” she said. I bought a long golden brown dress and wore it with my dusty Doc Martins that I got polished in the open air.
- taking my shoes off and lining them up besides hundreds of others outside of the Blue Mosque, the faucets where people washed before praying, the 20,000 hand painted tiles and 200 stained glass windows, the Mihrab telling Muslims the direction of Mecca, or where to face to pray
- the the marble columns and arches of the Basilica cistern outside of the Hagia Sofia
- the Turkish rug sellers that knew English and would help us get where we wanted to go
- Visiting the 42 meter (138 feet) high Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers in Gdansk with the plaque that says, Oddali życie , abyś ty mógł żyć godnie… They gave their lives so that you could live in dignity. In 1980, Poland became the first communist country to honor victims of communist oppression when they erected this monument. Ten years earlier, right before Christmas in 1970 (a little over three years before I was born), the government announced a sharp increase in the price of food. The country was poor and the workers were already spending half of their wages on food. Workers protested. They rioted and burnt down the government building. Official reports said the Polish police killed 42 people in the protests, but later investigations discovered that over 700 people died in the city of Szczecin alone, but doctors had been forced to lie and say that they had died of natural causes.
- Seeing the Warsaw Uprising Monument, the Warsaw Uprising happened in 1944 when Poles fought against the Nazis. Stalin had told officials that if Poles fought against Germany, the Red Army would join them. The Red Army never came. 16,000 members of the Polish Resistance died as well as between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish citizens. Germany destroyed 25 percent of the city’s buildings. Between 85 and 90 percent of Warsaw’s building were destroyed during the war. Germany had already essentially lost the war so this all happened for no real reason. My family came to the United States from Warsaw and my heart hurts thinking of the places they may have lived or shopped being destroyed.
- Seeing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the 400,000 Polish jews were forced to live in a jewish ghetto, 1 square mile large. Many of them died of disease and starvation. Others were taken to extermination camps and killed or to forced labor camps. Between 55,000 and 60,000 remained and they started to form a resistance, smuggling in weapons from anti-Nazi Poles. When Nazis entered the ghetto to relocate people to camps, the resistance ambushed them and they withdrew after a few days. The Nazis returned a few months later, far outnumbering the resistance with tanks and heavy artillery. The resistance fought strongly for a month, before the ghetto was under Nazi control. When we were there, a large group of Israeli teenagers was there wearing white shirts and kippahs and holding Israeli flags.
- sleeping cars in trains in Poland, catching glimpses of Transylvania on a bus from Budapest to Istanbul
- Bathing in water from mineral hot springs with the sun streaking through the glass ceiling at Gellért Bath in Budapest.
- Eating breakfast with a view of the Hagia Sofia on the roof of a little hotel in Istanbul that sold Turkish rugs.
- Walking through a closed down carnival on the beach of the Baltic Sea in Gdynia.
- Hiking in the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane.
- Going to the Vatican, standing in a mob of people to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
- Going to the ruins of Ephesus, the oldest place I’ve ever been, founded in the tenth century BC, sitting on ruins of old toilets and standing where John the apostle stood.
- hearing the calls to prayer in Selçuk, a cow that seemed to be roaming freely on a palm tree lined road