A second year in Scotland — May 2005

On an Eastern European holiday, Kirsten and friends find both beauty and evil.

By Kirsten Beattie (English, Studies in Women and Gender ’03)
Beattie.

Beattie.
Photo by Jack Mellott.

Kirsten Beattie is in her second year of teaching and mentoring students at Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a UK fellow. The UK fellows program is sponsored by the U.Va. Center for Undergraduate Excellence. She has agreed to give the readers of A&S Online a glimpse into her life in Scotland through monthly updates.To read her previous reports, click on “Related Links” at the bottom of this page.

At the start of every term, I sit down with my big, yellow academic planner and fill in the events of every day for that term, including classes, games sessions, Sunday chapel times, important academic dates, school extracurricular events and holidays. Not surprisingly, in the 18 days I spent immersing myself in the offerings of Eastern Europe, I lost track of time, so it was quite a shock for me to realise that in only ten weeks, my last term will have ended and, with it, my teaching career at Fettes.

It is far too soon to feel sad about that, however, as the summer term can only be described as glorious. Coming into the term from an amazing holiday is helping to keep my spirits up, too, as I am absolutely thrilled to have had the experiences that I did.

My good friend Kate Nelson-Lee, a lacrosse coach here at Fettes originally from Rhode Island, two other American friends teaching at a school outside London and I started our travels in the Czech Republic’s beautiful Prague. After two days there, we initiated our rail passes (and got the first of many passport stamps) and headed south to Bratislava, Slovakia.

While we could easily see why Prague is renowned for its beauty and charm, we found Bratislava a city that still is seeking its character. It seems to have largely been built up in recent years. While the “old town” area is beautiful, we selfishly were a bit disappointed that the city’s “castle” was constructed so recently. (Greedy Americans.) We also endured a painful walking tour with a woman whose idea of sharing the history of the city included walking into busy cafes and intruding in churches where people were worshipping simply to note bits of architecture. “It’s Rococo!” she would assure us.

Perhaps we enjoyed Bratislava more than we realised, but the city paled by comparison when our next stop quickly became our favourite of the trip: Budapest. From the moment we made it to our hostel and put our bags down (transporting our heavy backpacks was always the most stressful part of the journey), we fell in love.

The city combines the old charm of its architecture with a very modern and bustling energy. Life neither stops for nor revolves around tourists, so we were able to fancy ourselves as travellers worldly enough not to stick out like sore thumbs, even in our American sneakers and jeans (self-delusions, I know). From lounging in thermal baths to bread and cheese picnics on the shore of the Danube (wouldn’t want to swim in it, but the ambience was nice enough) and an entrancing night at the ballet, Budapest will long be one of my favourite city experiences.

We next made our way through Croatia and took nearly a week there, much of which involved time on trains, buses and ferries. After a brief overnight in Zagreb, we made for our true destination: Dubrovnik, a coastal city in southern Croatia. Here, we walked along the old city walls, oohing in admiration of the beautiful Adriatic, wandering through the alleys and stairwells of the old city, taking ferries to local islands where we sunned on boulders.

Croatia is where we came face to face with recent history. In Prague, Bratislava and Budapest, modern history, the history we knew well from our 20th Century history textbooks, was brought into focus for us through the frequent mention of communism and references to the world wars by our guides in those cities, as well as the evidence visible in some architecture or the depletion of local culture and heritage. (Or through our tacky guide in Bratislava who, passing by a needy person asking for money, said, “That wouldn’t have happened in communism.”)

In Dubrovnik, we saw roofs in the process of being reconstructed still, remnants of a conflict that we learned about through newspapers and television shows, not history texts. In a national museum, a hole in the wall was covered with a plate of plastic and labelled “December 6, 1991.” We were 10 years old when the missile hit that wall.

Our experience was enhanced by our decision to stay with a local woman who had only reclaimed the bottom floor of her two story house, “re-allocated” through communism, four years ago. Ivana, our hostess, assured us that her house was in fine condition, its extra-thick walls having protected it from much of the damage that the shelling that had wrought elsewhere.

We spent four days in Dubrovnik, and while I wouldn’t trade any of the time we spent there, our journey south proved much simpler than our journey back north. Our target destination was Krakow, Poland, but train schedules conspired against us, and we ended up spending three days purely for travel. Day one was a 24-hour ferry ride, the thought of which still nauseates me — never before have I been in a boat in which waves washed over the top of it and down the other side. Days two and three involved between eight and 10 hours of train journeys each as we wound our way back through Slovakia and Hungary before finally arriving in Krakow.

We spent many enjoyable hours in the market square area of Krakow in the outdoor cafes and wandered around the city a great deal, but the most significant part of our stay there was unequivocally our day trip to Auschwitz. I don’t feel that I can put the emotions of that day into words and do them justice, but there are several parts of that experience that remain in my mind.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of the exhibition of shoes, suitcases and glasses, to name a few, that were taken off of the prisoners, or the execution wall with its wreaths of flowers. I know that I won’t forget the smell of decomposition in the room of women’s hair that had been removed from their corpses and later used in German textile factories. I know that I won’t forget standing on the very platform at Birkenau where the weak and sick were separated from those capable of working, walking the path they would have walked to the gas chambers, looking around trying to grasp the immense size of the camp.

Auschwitz was the culmination of our trip, and although we ended our trip in Warsaw two days later, by then we had lost our energy and zest for tearing up and down streets to see the sights. We spent many hours (particularly in those last three days of travel) discussing what we had seen, mulling over our favourite and most memorable (translate: least favourite) aspects of the trip. We read books about life in the Czech Republic in the years following Communism’s demise and books about the unwillingness of Croats and Serbs and Bosnians each to assume blame for any of the atrocities committed in the war.

Of all of the places that I have seen, I count those that I visited on this trip among the most valuable. Places like Paris and Rome and London are about the romance and reputation of those cities — perhaps Budapest is, to a certain extent, too — but I felt like they were cities where you took pictures of pretty things and maintained a certain distance from reality. I didn’t take any pictures, couldn’t take any pictures, of the puzzles pieces of history and snippets of news as they fell into place for me, making sense of so much modern history for me, making them into reality for me. And I certainly didn’t take any pictures in Auschwitz.