Our memories of working abroad defined certain places as Eastern Europe–using the old “Cold War” dividing line of Russian influence.
Traveling in October of this year in the countries of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, we learned that most citizens prefer to be identified as living in Middle Europe. They are tired of being affiliated with a term that they feel is outdated and which identifies them as being repressed under authoritarian regimes.
We also found that people in those countries didn’t want to speak Russian with us, as it was a reminder of the same period. Knowing Russian was still sometimes helpful, as Slavic languages share many similarities.
We could often read signs or understand words in Czech or Polish. It was difficult to get along in Budapest, however, as Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages and looks and sounds really weird.
We usually travel to third-world or at least more far-flung countries, where we can purchase exotic handicrafts to sell in our store. We knew that Middle European countries also had interesting handicrafts, and we were attracted by the possibility of train travel between the different cities on our itinerary. Also, it was sort of Europe, without being so expensive.
Traveling by train was a mixed blessing, however. While it is relatively cheap, and the rail cars are clean…and some even have power plugs for our smart phones…there are problems. First, we had to go to the main train stations to buy our tickets; there, no one spoke good English, and once we had to wait more than an hour while the computers were down. Second, it was confusing to find out what track you should be on, and there were often changes of trains required before your destination. Finally, the trips were always longer than advertised.
Even though the train cars were modern, we suffered from the poor state of the infrastructure and the fact that the tracks seem always to be under repair. One time we stopped 45 minutes without anyone telling us why. The final straw was when the train from Warsaw to Budapest took 11 1/2 hours, and there was no notification about when to depart the train.
We just flew the final leg of our journey, from Budapest back to Prague. It was convenient and easy.
One big surprise was that in the EU no one asked to see our passports, until the time we took our flight back to the U.S. When a train attendant came through, he was only interested in looking at our tickets.
Because of the wide geographical spread between the countries, there were noticeable differences in personalities. It is said, for example, that Czechs are generally non-confrontational, while Poles might be more straightforward with their opinions. It’s taboo in Poland to shake hands at the doorway, but OK for the other countries. The Hungarians seemed more reserved in their manners than people in Prague.
All of the cities we visited, coming off a terrible 20th century, have blossomed into huge tourist magnets in the 21st. Even in October, we shared the streets and shops with many tourists, although apparently few Americans.
Fred likes to buy T-shirts in the local language, but that took some effort. The city centers were full of shirts saying “I (heart) Poland” or “Hard Rock Cafe Budapest”…all in English. We finally found our way to real local shopping areas and markets. We would know we were successful when we saw T-shirts for sale with slogans in Czech, Polish or Hungarian!