I’m in Vienna, Austria staying with M., a friend from Tibet!

Poland. Land of pierogi and suffering. Poland has an unfortunate habit of being conquered repeatedly with Mongols, Germans, Russians and other assorted empire builders sweeping through regularly. For some reason, it seems to be a recurring theme in Eastern Europe for people to describe their histories as full of suffering. The Poles do not shirk this duty with plenty of reminders to me about this (in comparison the Tibetans of course seem rather happier about it all but of course their suffering is rather longer, infinite if you will).

Warsaw. I took the overnight bus from Vilnius to Warsaw. Most uncomfortable and due to some fiendish trick combining daylight savings and the fact that Poland have their clocks one hour different to Lithuania despite being on the same longitude, I arrived at 4.45am and spent some time hanging around the bus stop in pitch black darkness. I ventured on to my hosts’ house and her rabid dog Holka.

Warsaw was the scene of some of the darkest scenes of WW II. One of the largest Jewish cities in the world before 1939 with over 400,000 Jews was steadily reduced into two ghettos which were liquidated (a somehow sickeningly apt word) between 1940 and 1943 with around 450,000 killed, mostly at Treblinka or of starvation and disease inside the ghetto.

There is a very good museum called the Warsaw Uprising Museum which commemorates the desperate fight by the Warsaw partisans against the Germans in advance of the Soviets. It was one of the greatest betrayals in the whole war with the Soviets stopping their advance to allow the Germans to defeat the partisans and allow enough time for them to exact revenge by effectively razing the entire city (eight out of every 10 buildings were destroyed) on direct orders from Hitler.

Today, that means that almost every building in Warsaw was built after WW II and has resulted in some horrific architectural crimes. The Soviets rebuilt the place  in both the original version (painfully touristy Old Town) but mostly by giving free rein to Soviet realist construction on a vast scale. Monumental AND monolithic apartment blocks sprout throughout Warsaw. Despite this, the place kinda grew on me. Like Berlin, Warsaw is attempting to move to a reputation of art, music and thought rather than architecture. The University library however is a triumph of engineering and now a celebrated landmark with secluded nooks and crannies amongst the greenery on its roof. I am unaware of how much weed has been consumed up here, I can only surmise that the quantities are likely to be vast.

All Saints Day. This is a tradition celebrated in Poland (and other Catholic countries) where you visit cemeteries and light candles on the graves of your relatives, cleaning and sweeping away the autumn leaves and remembering the dead. I visited the largest cemetery after dark with a good crew of couchsurfers and we passed the TV trucks and waffle makers before entering the eerie confines of the narrow rows between the ornate mausoleums, mournful statues of angels and flickering candle light. Entering the catacombs you can see how famous any given Varsovian is by the quantity of candles in front of their memorial headstone. The memorial to Jewish Varsovians who died during WW II was especially moving.

Budapest, Hungary. I stayed with B. a friend from Austin, Tx! It’s getting colder but I am resolute that drinking to keep warm is the right strategy. Budapest is really made by the mighty Danube which flows through the middle of the city bracketed by stately palaces and bisected by many bridges. It happened that while I was there, Hungarians were  marking the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 during which over 5,000 died. This was a definiang event both in Hungary but also amongst the other Eastern block countries.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 there came increasing calls for greater freedom. After days of protest, demonstrations at the Parliament on October 25th led the State Security Police to fire into the crowd, killing many. Inflaming the country, this led to a bloody uprising with the Soviet troops garrisoned in Budapest eventually retreating to the countryside and the Soviet Politburo appearing to bow to calls to pull Soviet troops out of Hungary. A few days later the Politburo reversed their decision as it appeared that the storming of the Budapest Hungarian Working People’s Party building (on rumours of political prisoners being held there) resulted in lynchings of the political police guarding the building. This swift turnaround resulted in thousands of Soviet tanks invading Hungary and the crushing of a nascent independent Hungary. The PM, Imre Nagy was shot and buried in an unmarked grave. His statue now stands leaning on a bronze bridge railing gazing reprovingly at the Parliament building as if to remind those in power of the cost it took to gain Hungarian independance.

I ventured into the heart of the old city, climbing up to the castle to see the fantastic Hungarian National Gallery with a great view over the city to boot. The Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art was great, showcasing one insanely awesome artist called Attila Csörgo (don’t ask me to pronounce it) whose kinetic pieces are unfortunately not on Youtube but, I assure you,  horrendously complicated and mind altering. Good stuff. Also visited the Terror Museum which chronicles the Hungarian torture machine history in WW II and the Soviet era. Powerful.

Hitchhiking. I decided to give it a go, seeing as I was getting low on funds and wanted to see what it was all about. Approaching this in a scientific manner, I perused hitchwiki.org for the best location in Budapest from which to depart to Vienna. I noted the advice about hitchhikers who make eye contact with drivers are 50% more likely to be picked up. I thus started by eyeballing the drivers at my first location, a petrol station close to the M1, the main motorway going north. After a 45 min stay, mildly frustration, I had learnt my first lesson of hitchhiking: location , location, location. There was little space for drivers to stop if they did like the look of me, so I picked up my bags and jumped on the next bus and relocated to a petrol station adjacent to the motorway, similar in looks to the mighty Bombay Hills BP. It’s all about quality not quantity, i.e. you want to widen your ‘funnel’ of potential drivers to ensure most of them are going your way and you want them going slowly enough so they can size you up.

Drivers are going to mentally say no for a multitude of reasons: he’s a man and I’m a hot single chick, I don’t pick up hitchhikers, my car is too small for his bag, he’s wearing a funny hat, I’m not going all the way to Vienna, I don’t have the time, I want to meditate, where do you think he hides his axe, he probably hasn’t washed in a week – dirty hippy and I don’t want him despoiling my baby seal fur-covered seats in the Beamer, daaarling.

It’s hard not to get discouraged, all those blank faces, sometimes fearful, sometimes stuffed with a mouthful of McDonald’s burger, or nodding negatively or with a slight shrug of the shoulders. After all, I used to be just like them and I can empathise. I wouldn’t have picked up me either! Good news being that I am now far more likely to pick up hitchhikers. It’s shit to wait in the cold for hours.

I reflected back to my conversation with Graham, an Irishman in Warsaw who had walked 25 km through the snow in the middle of the night to cross from Lithuania to Poland. Could be worse I told myself. Another friend told me she had hitched to and from school every day since she was 15 till graduation. How hard can it be? I finally gave in after detecting within myself a growing hatred of Mac-stuffed, Audi-driving Hungarians. Retreat turned into the Long March and I finally got on a bus to Vienna at 7pm after idealistically exiting the house at 10 that morning. The moral of the story is patently obvious. For some reason I come across as an axe-murderer.

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