Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany

Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany: 20 Days in Eastern Europe

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


We've been home since Saturday evening, but that doesn't mean we've stopped learning about and discussing Communism, as well as our travels throughout Eastern Europe.

I guess you could say that nostalgia has begun to set in.

As we were sitting in class today, discussing our itinerary for Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, we were all reminded of some unforgettable moments: the rebellious nature of one special Hungarian songwriter, the hotel's automatic door that just wouldn't stay shut, the times where some of us got lost along the way (or as I'd like to put it, we simply took the scenic route), and of course that first group dinner where we feasted upon lots and lots of goulash and could only begin to really get to know each other.

It definitely seems as though we're in no shortage for memories after our three weeks abroad. That fact became even more apparent after I took my camera to Sam's on Sunday and discovered that I had 835 photos to print out that document every moment (and every meal) of our trip! Let me tell you, I just can't wait to sit down and put all of those in my photo album once I've sorted them all out!

Anyways, after looking through the rest of the class' blog updates over the past two days, I've realized there's really not much left to say! could I ever really begin to adequately describe the trip in a couple of words anyways? It was incredible and eye-opening, and it's something we will all remember for the rest of our lives, but the places we saw and the stories we heard are things you can't really understand until you experience them on a personal level. I can't even say that I fully understand them yet! As for all of us, it's a constant learning experience, both in the classroom and beyond, that has let us at least skim the surface in a search for a better understanding of four very unique and unbelievable European countries.

Thus, it's impossible for me to pick a favorite city or a favorite country after experiencing each individually over the past three weeks. I loved Budapest because it seemed the least Westernized, and I felt as though I was able to make the city my own after strolling through parks and finding my own places to sit and observe that were off the beaten path. Another river city, Prague too was beautiful and unique, and it never lacked for good shopping and an assortment of tourist sites. From there, Warsaw and Gdansk gave us a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into Polish life where we played witness to two cities that were once leveled by bombs and have since recovered and become even more amazing with age. Finally, we visited Berlin, and we couldn't have had better timing, for we got to watch Germany play in the semi-finals for FIFA 2010 from the comfort of an Irish pub near our own Ramada Berlin-Mitte hotel.

Whether riding bikes through the city, taking paddleboats onto the river, swimming in the Baltic, or simply going off on our own to experience everyday life in these five European cities, the trip offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us. We don't know when we'll be back, or even if we'll be back, but I know that we made every minute count while we were overseas, and that looking back- there are definitely, definitely no regrets.

Thanks to all our readers for keeping your interest-

Alex Cherry

In hindsight...

With a little more than 72 hours back on U.S. soil and exhaustion still, very much a factor in adapting to everyday life, my body and mind are struggling to recover. Now, with a less demanding schedule than we had for the past three weeks, I am trying to reclaim and make sense of everything I experienced during our travels.
Which, for me, is proving to be more of a challenge than I initially fathomed it would be. Prior to our departure to Central Eastern Europe, we devoted three weeks in the classroom to prepare us for our studies abroad. In hindsight, not only was three weeks in the classroom too short, it is near impossible to prepare someone for the experiences we encountered.
Our objective was to analyze the structure of communism and the role of the media in its ultimate fall. In many ways, our experiences abroad contradicted our prior studies. In the classroom the scope was very narrow and in some respects one sided. As we studied communism, an oppressive, meek, black and white picture was painted
Unaware at the time, I left the United States overwhelmed, naive and jaded. Not far into our travels, did I discover, the little knowledge I had of communism was solely based off of an American perspective. As our travels commenced, the picture that was presented was no longer black and white. Various shades of grey presented themselves leaving myself and other students even more puzzled.
Most importantly, communism is a word very seldom used in Central Eastern Europe. Communism was never achieved nor experienced in these societies. It was the ultimate goal for the ruling Soviet Regime – a societal utopia that they were hoping to reach. But, were never able to, socialism was the only practice that was accomplished in Eastern Europe. I mention this because; in our first meeting with a Professor in Budapest we were corrected. Eastern Europeans do not refer to what they’ve experienced as communism, it was socialism. And, I as re-visit my experiences over the past three weeks that first meeting still stands out to me. It set the tone for the rest of the trip and we would be corrected many times following that initial meeting.
Whether or not, socialism was good or bad is most definitely subjective. At the mention of socialism, nostalgia still sets in for some. I was taken back by the number of individuals we encountered that, longed for the “good ‘ole days.” For quite a few people socialism marked a time in their lives when they had security. Never, did they wake up and have to wonder if they would still have a job. Now, with a fairly new democratic society these same people find themselves struggling to adjust. Homelessness is new to them, as well as the competition that comes with a democracy. On the other hand, there are a number of people who do believe a democratic society is better and will lead to a more prosperous future – it is just a matter of time and adjusting.
Adversely, there were still remnants of how harsh life was during the rule of the Soviet party in many of these countries. Visits to places like the Terror House in Hungary, ship yards in Poland and the Jewish memorial and the Berlin wall in Germany brought about a bleak feeling. It was a constant reminder of how far these countries have come in the past 20 years. This brings about another point.
Aside from the knowledge I gained, on what socialism was truly like for those that lived through it were the spirits of the people. I was awestruck by the strength of the people in the four countries that we visited. Their spirits were strong, as well as their devotion to their culture and their zest for life was contagious. I was enveloped completely by the people’s warmth. For me, my personal encounters with strangers in Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Germany were the most enlightening.
All in all, my experiences in Europe have far exceeded what anyone can gain sitting in a classroom. I am most grateful for the people I met while abroad. I am now faced with the task of trying to further make sense of all I’ve gained during the past six weeks. This trip marks only the beginning for me, it has also reiterated why I am pursuing a career as a journalist – to develop a deeper personal understanding of how cultures, industries, economies, companies; government agencies and key decision-making individuals function. In traveling to these various countries I believe it pits your will and wits against those who possess information and who would wish to suppress it. And, I have learned how to overcome that. Lastly this trip has influenced my life by permitting me to experience the level of access to interesting people and events, as outlined above.

Danke schön to all that have accompanied us during our travels! And thank you to all of the Professors and students for such a phenomenal experience!!

...Until we meet again Europe

Kyara Massenburg

Monday, July 12, 2010

Just a few thoughts...

My mind and body are struggling to recuperate from the past three weeks. Attempting to reflect and accurately present my thoughts, which have yet to take form, is proving to be quite challenging. However, I will try:

Our mission was to examine the complexity of communism during the Soviet regime and to study the media’s role in its ultimate collapse. Our findings proved that our scope was quite narrow.

Upon our arrival, we were welcomed with a grim glimpse of what may have been before the year 1989. Various shades of grey cascaded the scenery. It was cold and damp. As we progressed toward the center city of Budapest, large unadorned and austere buildings came into view. They were tall and rectangular with uniformed square windows. I wondered if they were the communal quarters where people were assigned to live.

As we traversed through the bleak landscape, I thought to myself, how appropriate of an introduction into our journey it was. I felt it illustrated the depraved state in which encompassed the lives of millions. I, myself, knew nothing of this profound period in history.

I was born during its final years. My life, as I know it, was untouched from the harsh, adulterating era of the communist regime. Separated by time and distance, I was unscathed. The rest of the students were born between 1989 and 1991. I thought this trip, especially for the undergraduates, was symbolic. The same years that marked the beginning of their lives also signified, essentially, a rebirth for those who were held captive behind the Iron Curtain.

The trip was too short, yet at the same time, too long. It was an intensive and enlightening experience. We were given the opportunity to speak with individuals whose perspectives far surpassed what ours could ever be. Between meetings with a dissident Hungarian musician, political scientists, a former Communist Party member, journalists reporting from the East, and educational tours to radio stations and museums, we had multiple platforms to receive information. In addition, the collaboration of the faculty and the accompanying guests provided us with a plethora of resources to build on our inchoate understanding.

The first three weeks were a crash course into the principles and ideologies behind communism. Having this background knowledge as the foundation for our learning, everything that followed advanced our understanding. Being in the setting where fifty years of oppression occurred helped what I’ve heard and read through texts and lectures materialize into the reality of what was. The chilling and ominous audio and visual displays in the Terror House evoked a sickening feeling, which ran through me. The ’56 Institute and its images enabled me to recognize the calculating nature of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The stories that were shared by individuals whom we were scheduled to meet as well as from those whom we just met in passing expanded my knowledge.

I realized that we must be careful to not become desensitized of the realities of the past. There is a great significance in seeing the places where people were tortured and killed. We must be careful to not forget the casualties and not lose sight of how people, whether they are disillusioned or psychotic, are capable of doing the most horrific of things.

The past three weeks broadened my perspective immensely. I realized that each Soviet bloc country had its own unique story. Depending upon the culture of each country as well as the leadership in the Kremlin and the party head in each country, there were various degrees of oppression throughout each country. For instance, Czechoslovakia liked the socialist system. They just wanted to reform it into “communism with a human face.” The Prague Spring of 1968 was a peaceful demonstration. Likewise, the Solidarity movement in Gdansk was a peaceful resistance with improved workers’ rights as its platform.

The pervasive nature of the corrupt system penetrated all aspects of people’s lives. However, some societies were more tolerant and optimistic of the system than others. For many, it gave them a sense of security. Yet, some wanted to preserve their culture.

The impact of the radio and other media outlets was not as instrumental as we initially hypothesized. Prior to our departure, we had the notion that Radio Free Europe was a beacon for disseminating the truth to the Eastern bloc. However, the conversations that we had with many individuals illuminated the fact that RFE was not considered very credible.

Throughout our journey, we realized that other factors, both internal and external, were profoundly influential in the demise of the system. The leadership, or lack thereof, presented a stronger case for the collapse. A disregard for economics was a key factor. In addition, the system was weak. Its use of force was its only prevailing strength to keep the masses under control. Dissident behavior, whether in the form of an uprising or in a peaceful demonstration, was met with suppression. Relinquishing the reins in the slightest manner could result in a domino effect, which the Party could not risk.

The amount of information, which I gathered over the past six weeks, is overwhelming. The challenge that I face, now, is to decompress and organize my thoughts and notes into a comprehensive paper. But, beyond my thesis paper, what I am appreciative of is the experience. The knowledge and perspective that I now hold will remain with me. I look forward to enlightening others who are unaware. This course and trip exemplifies why I want to be a journalist: to surpass my own literal and figurative borders by immersing in the cultures and lives of others with the purpose to expand my knowledge as well as others’.

- Ashley E. Hotham

Auf Wiedersehen

I cannot believe we are already back in the U.S.! It is crazy how fast three weeks can go by when you’re traveling across Europe!

This trip has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life and I’m so glad I could experience it with such great people. I think all of us have learned more than we ever thought we would on this trip and we’re definitely all experts on communism/socialism now.

Our last stop was in Berlin, Germany. It was definitely one of the places everyone was looking forward to visiting from the beginning. From the bike tour across Berlin on my bike Tinkerbell, to decking out in German colors for the World Cup, to getting lost somewhere at a U2 train stop, Berlin ceased to impress me with its beauty and the German people only seemed to become more alive with each passing day. It was almost impossible to believe that such a wonderful place could have such terrible history. It is so amazing that a nation can come back from such repression and become such a sparkling place to visit. It takes a lot of courage to come back from such a chilling past. One of the reasons I think Berlin has done so well is because it is the only place we went to that still seems in tune with its past. Berlin has kept so much to remind the people of what is most important. Although Germans are sometimes embarrassed of their past, they still keep pieces of the Berlin wall up for historical purposes and to remind them how much they do not want to regress back to that low point. In the Reichstag, the government officials keep Russian writings on the wall to remind them how devastating war can be on a nation. Germany was the first nation we have been to where everyone admitted that children learn about the socialist rule in schools. I think it is really important that the younger generation learns about the nation’s history with no loopholes. I think the journalist at our last meeting in Berlin and on the trip says it all and explains why the Germans have done so well. He said that the past isn’t what is important right now, what is important is to look the future and look toward the horizon. His optimism was so powerful and his quote was a great way to end our journey in Europe. It is amazing how the German people—even those who lived through the socialist rule can forgive and forget, and have so much optimism toward the future.

For those who followed us on the blog throughout our journey, thanks for reading!

Auf Wiedersehen,


(P.S.- I want to go back already!!)

A New Perspective

We made it home, back to Carolina, after an exciting and somewhat exhausting three weeks of European travel. Personally, the 5 cities on our agenda were all places I never visited. Because of this, I didn't have much of an expectation besides what I heard from friends and family which went a little like this . . . "ohhh, you're going to the dark side of the world . . ." Throughout my education I've been taught the American perspective of communism and Eastern Europe which depicts a dark, gloomy, oppressive society that was miserable on every level. In traveling to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany and in speaking with intellectuals who grew up and experienced firsthand the power of the communist regime, I was given a different perspective . . . a perspective of my own.

First off, communism was never experienced in central/eastern Europe. Communism was the idea or the ultimate goal for those in power but socialism was the actual practice in society. We were corrected many times during our meetings and discussions that communism never existed. . . it's socialism that we're speaking of. We also learned that socialism wasn't necessarily all bad. Many people described how secure they felt under the socialist power. They had a job at all times and goods were much cheaper. Throughout our travels, it became apparent that a person's satisfaction with socialism as the form of government depended on where it was they were living and how oppressive that particular government was.

Some of the people that we would meet with would say that the new democratic society in place today isn't necessarily better than the old socialist government. The "good ole' days" became a recurring word in our vocabulary. In my opinion, it is going to take a little longer for people to adjust to the new democratic forms of society that have been set up in these countries. Many people aren't comfortable with the new competition that comes with a democracy. All of a sudden, you must work hard for your job and pay more for food and other goods. However, it doesn't take 10 to 15 years to get a car and you are able to travel freely. Like most things in life, you must consider the idea of give and take.

I learned so much during the past three weeks but I think the most important idea I was able to take from this experience came in the very last meeting when we were in Berlin. I asked our 3 guests the following question: Is the new democratic society seen today better than the socialist society you experienced over 20 years ago? Do you miss the "good ole' days?"

One of the men responded with something that struck us all. He said that he can't change the past. He must only look to the future and hope that he can make an impact. I think that is a great lesson for us all to learn. We shouldn't dwell on the past. Although we can learn from history in order to make our own future brighter, we must not let what happened before us weigh us down. We must only look toward the future and work towards making an impact through simply living life.

I experienced an incredible adventure over the past 3 weeks. I made new friends, gained new knowledge and created memories that will last a lifetime.

Thank you to all who accompanied me and gave me sunscreen . . . haha. I can honestly say that I love you all and I couldn't have asked for better travel buddies.

Auf Wiedersehen, Na Shledanou, Dowidzenia, Sziasztok, Ciao . . .

With love,

Back to Columbia

Goodbye Europe!
The past three weeks almost seem like a dream now that we are back in the United States. I learned more on this trip than any class I have ever taken in my lifetime. However, I think that we only scratched the surface on the events that took place in these countries during the reign of Communism. All of these countries were effected drastically by the Soviets coming in and the Communists taking control, but each in their own way.
The country I found the most interesting was Germany. It is amazing to me how much this country has been through and has still recuperated fairly well. The more I learned about the German people from going to the Reichstag and talking to former East German journalists at the ZZB institute, the deeper the respect I gained for them grew. At the Reichstag, our guide told us that there are no paintings or any kind of representation of former German leaders inside the building because the government does not want to display any kind of nationalism. He said they do this because nationalism has been a problem in the past with Germany. I understand their reasoning behind this, but I wonder how different the US would be if it were more like this. Would be a weak country? Isn't our nationalism one of the biggest pieces holding Americans together? We may not have extreme nationalism like the Germans had at one point, but it is present. With this in mind, I formed a respect for Germans because it must be hard for them to try and forget their past and move to a stronger future for their country.
Then when we went to the ZZB institute to talk to the former East German Journalists, we got a much bigger incite to what life was life to Germans who had been through big parts of the past that Germany is trying to recover from. The eldest journalist is the one that I was really interested in. His parents were Communists during the Nazi reign and his mother was sent to a concentration camp for it. Then when the Communists took over East Germany, he moved there with his father. He was a journalist during this time and talked about what happened to him when he wrote something the government did not like. It was very interesting to me to meet this man because he had been through most of Germany's grim history.
Talking to the journalist really let you know how suppressed East Germany was. One of them was a foreign correspondent in Russia during Gorbachev's time as General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. However, he was not allowed to report on Gorbachev's glasnost or perestroika. The journalists were only allowed to report on what the government wanted them to report on and there were extreme punishments for people who did not do as they were told.
This trip taught us all how little we know about Communism here in America. Some of the things we uncovered were chilling. The degree at which spies worked for the government is way worse than we knew. However, the people did have some freedoms while living under Communism and they were far better than we expected, though they still were not that good.

Morgan Weaver

Looking Back

Berlin was one of the most inspiring places I've ever come to visit in my life and truly a gem of European history. There are so many important people and events that revolve around that city, a characteristic that makes attentive visitors feel as though they are sitting directly on the pulse of Europe. It truly struck me as a city that lives in great optimism yet constant reflection. To specify, a friend of mine that I met during my stay said it is a great achievement for Germans to still look forward towards a bright future even in the light of the trials of its past. This denotes that German people have pulled through even the worst conditions of state and triumphed forward against suppression and disunity.

The evaluation of my experiences in the past three weeks will be a process that continues for quite some time. This is understandable because every time I tried to truly absorb observations about my surroundings I would only encounter a greater flow of new information. There is a distinct list of things that are emerging within my thoughts though. First off I have realized that capitalism itself is not inherently the best form of economic policy. Depending on how much a population expects its government to provide, any degree of socialization may be taken to meet those demands. Straight capitalism is simply a formula that has worked very successfully for the United States and other wealthy nations, but it is not a generally suitable and acceptable method. What does remain important is the maintaining of a democratic form of rule. This goes all the way back to John Locke's writings about a government's only true purpose being to serve the people of its society. If it does not meet those needs then it should be in full capability of the citizenry to change how their interests are represented. Over the course of the trip we visited places where this was not legal under the rule of communism, yet attempts to do so were still made. Everything from the Hungarian Revolution in '56 to the Prague Spring to the Solidarity movement and the Fall of the Berlin wall reflected resentment toward socialist leadership.

Finally, in a journalistic light, I see that media did not play as grand of a role in the end of communism as perhaps America had hoped, but there is certainly a value to supplying people with free information they would not be able to get from their own society. Having the ability to make your own decision between what information is relevant to your interests is instrumental in preserving democratic stability. If people are incapable of receiving information from alternate voices and perspectives than their own (or the one they are accustomed to) their understanding of societal needs becomes stagnant and therefore unuseful in the betterment of society. The more limited information exposure is, the more limited one's reasoning becomes.

Altogether, this has been one of the best decisions I have made in college and am extremely lucky to have shared it with such bright and engaging people. The things I gained could not have been achieved in the classroom, even with the best textbooks and professors imaginable. A significant part of the learning came from teaching myself what was significant about communism from interacting with those who lived under its reign. Being in the environment taught me things about the communist experience that cannot be easily put into words and printed. There is a significant depth and understanding that can only be achieved by submerging one's thoughts into a context only attainable through travel and experience.

- William Flourance