Travels Through Europe’s Troubled Borderlands

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father grew up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.  His country of birth doesn’t exist anymore, either: it’s now two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it was variously part of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It was also twice invaded and ruled by the Germans in her lifetime.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in “borderlands,” as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Blessed with fluency in Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns that have been swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of just the right quote or anecdote as Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate of borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories of others, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

My First Trip To Canada

I grew up in a wildly multilingual family and Canada’s bilingual nature fascinated as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  It was just a short flight from New York, but felt as distant and exotic as Belgium where my parents had lived for awhile.

I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was perfect. Even the subjunctive somehow sunk in. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual (unlike my older brother whose French was not very good).

He put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but in a hot house—now it was alive, transactional.

Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies just the same. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked by a suspicious agent if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language. Oh, and how difficult it was walking in stalked heels on cobblestones (it was the early 70s, remember?). I

I knew then that I’d be back—and in more suitable shoes.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir, He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University and also teaches creative writing on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com

Is Ghent a Better Travel Destination than Bruges?

Bruges and Ghent were never on my radar until my first trip to Paris when I came across a travel magazine with a big section on Bruges and the amazing canals had me spellbound. I didn’t get there as soon as I hoped (author book tours in Germany sidetracked me), but when I did, it outshone my fantasies. My timing made it possible to see the famous Holy Blood Procession that had been going on there since medieval times.

In Bruges, my wonderful B&B host and I discussed other cities in Flanders and she dismissed Ghent as not up to the standard of Bruges. She thought that it was worth—at the very most—a day trip. That was also apparently what her other guests told her after visiting Ghent.

Having  spent a week there myself, I don’t agree. Bruges is magnificent, thanks to its death in the 14th century as a port city and to being relatively untouched by war through the centuries. The core of the city is beautifully preserved, and the further you get from the crowds, the more tranquil you find it. But it’s definitely “preserved” and in many ways feels like a giant museum.

Ghent on the other hand is a very dynamic city. It has its fair share of canals and gorgeous buildings, as well as ancient churches and beautiful art. Bruges has the Michelangelo Madonna and Child, Ghent has the Van Eyck altarpiece. I think it’s a draw there, and the same goes for the food. I ate just as well in each city, savoring Flemish/Belgian specialties like waterzooi, carbonnade, vol-au-vent, moules-frites, stoemp, and of course made only a tiny dent in the amazing variety of amazing beers (there are apparently over 1,000).

Where Ghent outweighs Bruges for me is the fact that it’s a university town that’s friendly, entertaining, and alive. Ghentians call their home “The City of Trust and Love” and I found that attitude in people of all ages.

There’s a reason Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (Dead Bruges). Bruges might be more picturesque, but Ghent is livelier and, perhaps best of all, attracts fewer tourists. Not surprisingly, it’s widely called one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, and is currently working on a novel set in Ghent.