My wife and I just returned from a 25-day cruise from Amsterdam to Bucharest through the Rhine, Maine, and Danube rivers, including a variety of stops and onshore excursions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. And, while our access to e-mail and Internet was decent along the way, my current feed of the daily grind of the news cycle suffered somewhat, which is probably a blessing, but not very conducive to commentary on the relevant zeitgeist of the moment.
As is the case with other river cruise trips, the highlight for me is the cruising itself, but this trip was very educational, with good exposure to local experts on the history of each country and the region, meaningful interaction with local residents, and good interchange with fellow tour participants. As a result, I came away with some new perspectives on this region. Some observations:
- It was difficult not to draw an immediate comparison between the relatively affluent German-speaking nations and the Slav countries to the south and east, probably mostly due to cultural differences, but also influenced by their much different historical experiences in economic development.
- In the former Warsaw Pact countries, there was a stark contrast between the traditional Baroque architectural model and its assimilation with contemporary styles and the occasional but ever-present drab Communist-inspired concrete slab with concrete columns and protruding reinforcing steel, incomplete as if the construction workers had simply walked off the job some 25 or so years ago. It reminded me of a similar reaction in Poland when we visited there 12 years ago, but seemed much more pronounced in Bulgaria and Romania on this trip.
- In a little over three weeks on this trip, we probably visited over 20 churches and cathedrals, beautiful places many centuries old whose monasteries founded the Christendom that became Western Civilization. Now many of these places survive mainly as tourist stops, a sad commentary, and one wonders what will replace them as anchors.
- We had a very interesting lecturer on board for two very good presentations on the Balkans and the future of Serbia in light of all of its problems in the past century. One of his key points that struck me was that in this region the concept of ethnicity always trumps the notion of citizenship; people simply have been conditioned by history and circumstance not to think in terms of the latter, but always of the former. And it occurred to me immediately that this is completely the reverse in America and is the essence of American exceptionalism, where anyone of any race or ethnicity can be an American citizen, subject to a commitment to its ideals and civic creed. And I wonder how many of us realize how important this distinction has been over the years.
- Our local guide in Croatia spent quite some time discussing what we call the Balkan War of the mid-1990s, in which their country bore much of the brunt of the ethnic-cleansing of the Serb army. She told me that people in her country prefer to call it the “homeland war”, because to them that is what is was–a battle for their homeland, and they do not like the reference to the Balkans, even though it characterizes a century of complicated internecine warfare, restrained only by the Communist period under the Tito regime, primarily between and among the various ethnic tribes of the former Yugoslavia.
- We visited in the homes of several families in former Communist countries, who introduced us to great food, family life and customs, and innovative ways for them to make a living. They were all impressive people, hard-working, but still having a hard time almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I thought again about my first two points above, the stark differences in the experiences of these people since World War II and how much that has meant to their fortunes. Simply put, these people were fed nothing but lies for 75 years, three generations, and this has corrupted their very souls in a way that cannot be quickly overcome. There is no better example of the degree to which ideas really do have consequences.
This was a great trip, very provocative and instructive, that I wish every American, particularly those under 40 years of age, could experience.
Welcome back Windham
America is wonderful
Gregory Stachura says
Home again! It is fine to visit other places but the United States is the home of American Exceptionalism – for the present.
“…United States is the home of American Exceptionalism …”
It is, but why would any other place be a home for it? And what does it mean, out side of what Joseph Stalin (the origin of the quote) thought it meant?
Vern Wuensche says
Glad you had an enjoyable trip. While you were gone I too had a very enjoyable time–
reading your new book: The Texas Pilgrim. The striking thing to me was that my perspective on issues was amazingly identical to yours. Similar qualities in our backgrounds of a University of Texas education and business might be responsible but I like to believe it was that great minds think alike!
Thanks for the insights.
Gary E Parks says
You sure picked a “hot” time to visit Europe. Glad you had an interesting and informative trip.
Sandy Kress says
Thanks for your keen insights, Jim.
The reason many European countries speak of ethnicity, versus citizenship, is the same reason being Thai, is both an ethnicity, as well as a country.
The Czech republic, is not only a country, it is a “tribal homeland” for the Czech people, as is Hungary, etc. (While not often stated as such, “white people” have tribal homelands as well.)
The world’s countries accord citizenship based upon two distinct principles: Jus sanguinis (Latin: right of blood), and jus soli (Latin: right of soil).
Immigrant based countries: much of the new world, Australia, New Zealand accord birth by simply being born within the country.
The issue someone from say Canada or Australia looking at Hungarians protesting migrants from entering their country, and wondering why, (as both Canada, and Australia accept people from all over the world) is that they forget countries like Hungary not specifically immigrant built.
In this day and age no one would complain if Cambodia were evicting people from people from say Finland, who had settled there, after all, Cambodia is supposed to be for Cambodians…yet for some reason, Slovakia is supposed to just accept people from Syria, with no questions asked….
“…And it occurred to me immediately that this is completely the reverse in America and is the essence of American exceptionalism, where anyone of any race or ethnicity can be an American citizen, subject to a commitment to its ideals and civic creed….”
Like Lord Mayor of London – Sadiq Khan, son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver?
Like Bora Laskin, Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, son of a Russian immigrant scrap peddler?
Like Nicolas Sarkozy, Former President of France, son of a Hungarian immigrant?
Like Sir Isaac Isaacs, Former Govenor general of Australia, son of a Polish tailor?
All exceptional people, all exceptional stories (“Only in the UK could the son of….”), all in exceptional counties…
Dionicio Vidal Flores says
Thanks, Jim. Every time we travel, we come back
realizing what a great country we live in and how
lucky we are to be Americans.
Jim Windham says
Thanks for your multiple posts, Arthur—some points to think about while I’m getting unpacked and caught up. Meanwhile, for a more comprehensive view of American exceptionalism, you might enjoy Marc Thiessen’s article in The Washington Post and Houston Chronicle today, entitled “U.S. Isn’t Just Great; It’s Indispensable”.
David Richards says
Thanks for sharing. Great trip.
Danny Billingsley says
Sounds like a great informative and educational trip. Your insight regarding loyalty to ethnicity over country should be a warning to those of America who seek to identify or divide us based on race, ethnicity, gender and so forth, rather than nationality. My family’s American exceptionalism story began with my grandfather, who at the age of 15, crossed the Sabine River and came to Texas with a horse, saddle and $5.00. Married my grandmother when she was 15 and he was 17, moved into a dirt floor tent and began sharecropping. They raised 8 kids through the depression farming and splitting cross ties for a penny a piece. Their sons went off to WWII and their daughters husbands did the same. My father, uncles and aunts became businessmen, school teachers, craftsmen and stay at home moms, raised their kids instilling honesty, work ethic, the need for education and independence, with a healthy dose of governmental skepticism thrown in. My grandparents grandchildren went to college, war, worked and raised the next generation. The next generation are doctors, lawyers, soldiers, police officers, nurses, businessmen, cattlemen, loggers, school teachers and yes one felon. What other country in history has allowed and provided a system whereby that story could be told? And there are millions of stories like it. America is exceptional indeed.
Robert Craig says
Glad you’re home !