After spending two weeks in Eastern Europe, I now sit here in the comfort of my Florida home, and try to make sense of the unfolding refugee crisis in the countries we have just visited. In order to recapture moments of insight I received during our travels, I have rearranged my desk and assembled a kind of altar to jog my memory with things I purchased or picked up along the way.
First and foremost is the Bulgarian icon I purchased in Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria. This unusual icon of Mary just drew me in. Usually she is pictured with the infant Jesus in her arms, but in this one she is pondering her son on the cross with the Heavenly Father hovering over him in the clouds. On the opposite side of the icon is a fiery cloud signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit, Sophia Wisdom. Even though Mary is surrounded by the Holy Trinity, she dominates the scene. “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
I am told by our guide that religion is a thing of the past in Bulgaria. Communism practically wiped it out of people’s minds and hearts. He said that most people in his country look at religion as part of their history but not their present or future. As I child attending Catholic School in Chicago, I remember praying for the conversion of Russia and the fall of Communism. His statement brought home to me just how devastating it must be to live under a regime that does not allow freedom of religion.
At the center of my “collage” is a map of Eastern Europe that I found in a little souvenir shop next to our dock in Vukovar, Croatia…a town still struggling to rebuilt after a brutal civil war. The map was just what I needed to help me sort out the countries that were visiting on our river cruise down the Danube. As this mighty river meandered towards the Black Sea, it often formed the border between countries along the way. Now that I could see it on this simple map, I started to get my bearings.
While in Croatia, we visited with a local family in Osijek who invited us into their home and served us refreshments. We spend about an hour and a half asking them questions about their life and work and the history of their country. The mother, a lab technician, had just come back from working a few days in Germany where she could earn a better income for her family. The father was retired military, and shared a few stories about his service under the auspices of the United Nations. For twenty years his job was to detonate land mines left over from the recent wars throughout their part of the world. Their teenage son often acted as an interpreter, and had ambitions to go to school and probably find work in a more prosperous Western European country after college. We learned that is the dream of most young educated people in Eastern Europe as they don’t see a bright future in their home countries.
While we were at the airport on our way home from Bucharest, Romania, I picked up a copy of the European version of TIME Magazine as I was hungry for information about the refugee crisis. That, along with newspaper and television accounts, didn’t paint a very promising picture.
As I mentioned, I picked up a few little things along the way including some gifts from Mother Nature. Among them are rocks I gathered along a path by the Fortress in Belogradchik, Bulgaria. The most special rock, however, was one I received in the Executive Lounge in the Palace Hilton in Budapest, Hungary. It was there that we spent several hours in conversation with a woman from London, and as we were saying goodbye she handed me a small, heart shaped pilgrim rock from Apparition Hill in nearby Medjugorje. It was a blessing to me then and now as I realize how little acts of kindness can bring people together from all over the world.
Another little “nature collection” was inspired by my wanting to travel “light as a feather.” So throughout the countries we visited, I picked up little feathers along the way. A dear friend had suggested that they would all have stories to tell, and she was right. But the overall story was that at the end of the day the birds who dropped their feathers in my path knew no borders or boundaries. They flew above checkpoints and boarder guards, over various land terrains and rushing waterways. As they migrate, they need no transportation other than their own wings to fly high above the troubles they found on earth. No passports to carry or currency to exchange…now that is traveling light.
Tomorrow’s Blog: Crossing Earthly Boundaries