Traveling to Enlightenment by River Cruise
The riverboat we are traveling on is long and narrow. Our cabin is half below water lever, so we look out the porthole in our room and see water about at our neck level and feel very tenuously dry. Each place we go, there is an included tour with a local expert as our guide, and these are really experts. We try to trick them with questions; they know it all. Our job is to listen and learn. Tours begin at 8:30 a.m., sharp. The goal is not a vacation; the goal is enlightenment by Amsterdam.
We start in Romania. Mostly we learn modern history here – since Romania is prey to frequent earthquakes, no building is older than the 19th C. We have this stuff at home, I think; typical westerner, I want OLD stuff. I would have liked to learn more about the gypsies, but the guide doesn’t talk about them except to say, “Don’t take anything with you that you don’t want to lose – leave valuables in the hotel safe/ship safe.” Two cruisers had their passports stolen the day before we start our cruise (they came to Bucharest a few days early) and will be joining the ship as soon as their replacement passports are available. They are, I suppose, enlightened.) Still, I think the gypsy culture is interesting and would like to learn about it, but fear it is a touchy subject. Especially to two of our group…
Our tour guide takes us through Bucharest, pointing out beautiful “old” buildings amidst newer ones built after the last earthquake—or the one before that, or before that. Everything is made of concrete. Bucharest is poor and always has been, apparently. Everything needs repairs, and repairs cost money.
This city, run down and poor and dirty, holds no attraction for me. What do these people, with their foreign language and culture, their poverty and their concerns, so different from mine, have to do with me?
Our last stop on the bus tour is an art museum. I have never been moved by paintings, my medium is words. I trail the group, politely listening to the guide discuss the various painters. I am struck by a painting of a beautiful gypsy girl, wearing her wealth, a necklace of coins, her eyes full of youth and life. The tilt of her head, the twitch of her lips and thrust of her hip dare us to disdain her wild, free life. I laugh back at her silently before moving after my group into another room.
Beneath a huge painting, a young woman sits on a pillow, surrounded by a group of children on similar pillows. I don’t understand the language but the gestures and inflection is universal. She is asking them questions about the painting, responding to their answers with nods of encouragement, further questions, praise, occasionally with laughter. A few mothers are mixed in with the little group, but the children are attentive and involved and don’t need their mothers to keep them quiet. She is a good teacher.
I stop to look at the children. Seven or eight years old, I guess, with a few much younger siblings, probably brought by the mothers volunteering to assist on this class outing. The little girls wear their hair in ponytails or twin tails, tied with bright elastic bands and coloutful plastic barrettes. How often have I volunteered on class trips when my children were this age? Countless times. I sit on a bench and watch them; one of the mothers comes and sits beside me. We don’t speak, language is impossible between us; we sit and watch the children and their animated teacher, who brings the pictures alive for the children, and Bucharest alive for me.
Next day, we cruise up the Danube to Bulgaria, stopping at Svishtov where we take a bus to the small village of Arbanassi, to see a medieval church (Christian, Eastern Orthodox, hidden away from the Ottoman occupiers in a low, ugly building, but beautifully painted and adorned inside) and a home, also from the 15th C, in the Turkish style: no furniture, one huge wooden “bed” per room, covered in glorious Turkish rugs and topped with a Turkish tea set in the centre. The guide explains that the villagers believe storks settling in a village will promote fertility. Young women tie coloured, woven strings to the branches of trees in the winter, and when the storks return in the early spring, if they roost in the trees, the young wives claim back their strings and will bear children. I think of all the books depicting babies arriving via a stork when I was a child, and although I have never tied a string to a tree, and consider the return of the Canadian geese as much a nuisance as a harbinger of good things, it is impossible to deny our common humanity.
We learn that in the 900’s, a Bulgarian invents an alphabet for the Bulgarian language, which is adopted, with a few modifications, by all the Slavic countries, and by Mongolia, and is used for 1000 years. The guide speaks of her poverty-stricken country with pride, and infuses that pride in us.
Later, I see a T-shirt with the ancient alphabet stamped on it. Letters make words and words are the route to enlightenment. I buy five Euros worth of enlightenment. Just to prove I have attained some. There might be a quiz at the end. I wouldn’t be surprised. The tour director is German; we’re all a little intimidated by her.