"Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things."
Waking up in an Eastern European country, on my first international solo trip, was both thrilling and unnerving. As I stood in this little corner, looking out the window onto the street (see below for my view), and making a cup of coffee, I thought back to the entire reason I had chosen this region of the world to visit alone.
This part of Europe had been on my bucket list ever since I was a little girl. I’m sure most little girls don’t dream of going behind the 'Iron Curtain.' But, most little girls don’t have a grandmother like mine. She had traveled Eastern Europe the year that I was born (1986) when the Cold War was still going on and communism was still the great worry of the free world.
She had done something few Americans had done at the time. She had gone behind the Iron Curtain and visited communist Hungary. It was important for her to see what her father had received a purple heart fighting against. With that, she and her friends had to give up their passports to their armed military escorts and were under strict orders not to wonder off from the prescribed stops or they would be arrested immediately.
As a reference point, the Berlin wall came down in 1989, essentially rupturing the Iron Curtain. In the years prior to this, tensions were high. Hence, the tight security and armed guard escorts surrounding a few Americans entering Hungary. With that said, Budapest was as far as they could go behind the Iron Curtain as countries like Czechoslovakia were too unstable to visit at the time.
Her memories from this region of the world are that of a sea of grey washed buildings many still ravaged from the war, heavy military presence, oppression looming in the air, and endless red stars denoting the communism that was so prevalent in the area at the time. My grandmother and her friend did step away from the armed guards just for a moment to pop into a grocery store. Up until this point, the tour had been deliberate and prescribed for the American tourists to see what the communist leaders wanted them to see.
But, this... this... was real life... saddened people walking around sparsely packed shelves needing food that simply wasn't there because the food supply, like all other industries in the country, was controlled by the government. In many ways, only the higher ups on the social status ladder were afforded the luxury of access to proper food. And, this realization staring her in the face in a grocery store in the middle of Eastern Europe was one of the most defining moments of her life.
She never edited the story to me as a little girl. It was important to her that I knew how the rest of the world lived at the time. She wanted me to be grateful and informed. Two qualities I still seek after fervently in my life. And, it was accounts like this one from her brief time in Hungary that sparked a desire in me to one day visit where she couldn’t, to go deeper behind what was once the Iron Curtain of Europe.
Nearly 25 years later, I found myself alone, on a night bus from Budapest to Bratislava. A ticket that I easily booked without so much as a visa. Thus, even from the start, her experiences in 1986 were vastly different to mine in 2018. And, to be honest, throughout my time in Eastern Europe, I could see little to none of her memories in the cities and country sides that I visited.
Budapest, for example, quickly became one of my favorite cities in Europe. And, Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was this little hidden gem of a city filled with the kindest people. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were all amazing countries to explore… full of life, beautiful architecture, trendy shops, unique art and culture, endless cobblestone streets, and truly lovely people. And, the only signs of the stories I had heard about as a little girl were found in their history museums.
It was amazing too see first hand how time and the efforts of good people really can make a difference. And, the importance of it all was not lost on me. Waking up in this little hotel in Bratislava, Slovakia, I was afforded the opportunity to check something off my bucket list that wasn’t about world wonders or epic views. It was more personal than that. It was something for that little girl and her grandmother all those years ago. And, I was truly, deeply grateful.
I suppose that’s a lot to think about, alone, in a quiet corner, in a small room, thousands of miles from home. But, it’s the reason why I took these photos. I wanted to remember this moment reflecting on her experiences now overlapped with mine, wondering what I will one day tell my grandchildren about my travels. If you were a viewer from the outside, this was, by all accounts, a little moment... a small blip in the larger framework of someone’s life story. But, for me, this moment... well…. this moment was one of the big things.