More tales from our Vienna Woods trip last month. . .
When you're on a cruise, half the experience is getting to know your "fellow travelers". . .probably not the greatest phrase to use in former Eastern Bloc countries.
There were only 137 of us on the ship, so we really had the chance to get to know each other. There were many visitors from England and Australia, so their accents, along with those of our Hungarian guides, creaed the lilting sounds of language all around.
A woman from Essex asked which floor we were on. When I told her the second tier, she laughed and said, "Oh, you two are posh," referring to the fact that second-floor rooms had French balconies.
I loved her sense of humor, but what I loved even more is that we'd met somebody who not only had the word "posh" in her vocabulary, but used it in everyday conversation.
We hooked up quickly with a couple from Washington D.C. Dennis and David were our companions as we played "identify the Amuse Bouche" at dinner and "streudeled" away an afternoon in Cesky Krumlov.
In the evening, a group would gather at the back of the ship, swapping stories and watching the amazing scenery float by. These new friends will always be special to us because we shared such an exciting experience together.
One thing that amazed us were the many Roman ruins in Budapest, as well as ruins newly discovered right in front of Vienna's Schonbrunn Imperial Palace. It certainly brought home the realization that the Roman Empire was all over Europe in the 1st century, even before the Huns arrived.
But the most moving piece of history was the Shoe Monument in Budapest. In 1944-45, Jews (men, women and children) were taken to the banks of the Danube River and shot, their bodies disappearing into the river.
But first the victims were ordered to take off their shoes and leave them on the embankment. In a Nazi world, shoes had value, while Jewish lives had none.
Today, along the river bank, are 60 pairs of iron shoes of that period in all different sizes as a memorial to those killed there. People place flowers and candles in the shoes in tribute to their memory.
History is everywhere, but the most memorable stories were the personal stories told by our guides, telling us what it was like to live under the Nazis and later, the Soviets.
Our middle-aged guide said she didn't have a phone until 1996 because all phone calls were recorded by the government. Not having a phone gave you a little more privacy.
She remembers five students in her high school class who were spies, and that three people could never stand together in public without the authorities breaking up the group. Two was a conversation; three was a conspiracy, she said.
While living in some of the most beautiful cities in the world, these people also lived through brutal dictatorships that filled their daily lives with fear and horror. It certainly made one appreciate living in "the land of the free and the home of the brave."