The fall of the Iron Curtain has opened up a whole new region of natural beauty, history and culture to Western travelers. It also has exposed some issues where “we” are concerned.
The idea of traveling to Eastern Europe leaves me feeling really conflicted. The list of attractions and worthwhile destinations is long and varied, but I can’t help but wonder how welcome travelers of color truly are in that part of the world.
There are some IBIT readers who’ve actually been to a few of these places, and I’m hoping some of you will share your insights with the rest of us.
I love traveling in Europe. London, Paris, Venice, Amsterdam are among my favorite cities on Earth. Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium, the whole of Scandinavia — they all have wonderful things to offer.
After awhile, though, you realize that for all its glories, you’re talking about only half of Europe, the half that’s always been open and accessible to American travelers.
The western half.
I grew up during the Cold War, when mutually assured nuclear destruction between East and West was a very real possibility — and as we now know, came close to actually happening once or twice.
During those years, travel to Eastern Europe, then dominated by the Soviet Union, was neither easy nor entirely comfortable, and authorities in those countries worked at keeping it that way.
Then came 1989. The Soviet Union, having bankrupted itself in our mutually insane arms race, went belly-up and told its eastern European allies, “You’re on your own.” Just like that, the Iron Curtain came down.
Today, virtually anybody can visit Russia, any of the former Soviet republics and the nations of Eastern Europe. And at first glance, there are plenty of good reasons to do so.
Beautiful Old World cities packed with history and historic charm, not yet spoiled by a tidal wave of tourism. Places of incredible natural beauty — the seashore in Croatia in cities like Split and Plitvice Lakes National Park being only two examples.
This year in particular, there’s another good reason to check out Eastern Europe — price.
Summer is always high season for European travel, but with the Summer Olympics taking place this year in London from the end of July to mid-August, the cost of everything is going to be that much higher the closer you get to the United Kingdom.
That would make this the perfect summer to flip the European tourist script and go East, young man (or woman), because just about everything in countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, not to mention the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all tend to be cheaper than their Western counterparts.
Travel blogger extraordinaire Matt Kepnes once spoke of spending 46 days in various Eastern European countries on a total of $1,846. That works out to $40 and a few coins per day for food, lodging and everything else — 21st century travel at 19th century prices.
So Eastern Europe has a lot of things to recommend it.
Then you start hearing about harassment of blacks and other peoples of color in Eastern Europe — Russia and Ukraine in particular.
Ukraine has a track record of racially motivated harassment and physical attacks that’s more than a decade old. What portion of these attacks were directed against visitors of color as opposed to students or residents is hard, if not impossible, to determine.
You hear about neo-Nazi skinheads in Russia who targeted Africans and other darker-skinned people, stalking and stabbing them — and in one case, decapitating their victim. (That neo-Nazi skinheads could even exist in Russia boggles my mind.)
It’s come up most recently during Euro 2012, the European soccer championship tournament, being co-hosted in Poland and Ukraine. Fears of racist violence there were so acute that black players on some Western European teams urged their families to stay home rather than attend the games in person.
Some players and even whole teams have discussed walking out in the middle of a match if the abuse gets out of hand.
But you don’t have to be black to catch hell in this part of the world. The Roma can tell you all about that.
There are those who point out that the people responsible for this nonsense tend to be a minority even among their own countrymen. It’s worth remembering too that individual incidents are just that, individual incidents. Furthermore, the reality is that, for whatever reason, tourists often get a “pass” from local xenophobes that residents of color might not.
Even so, there is something about all this that makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Is it appropriate to recommend travel to a part of the world where this kind of behavior seems to be woven into the social fabric?
Hence my conflict. Eastern Europe has attractions galore, but there’s nothing attractive about racism rooted in xenophobia. The question is how much of the region is truly infected with this sickness of the soul