Palaces, fortresses, parks, museums, cathedrals, churches, synagogues and mosques in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary created a spicy stew of impressions in my mind during my recent visit to these countries, accompanied by my husband and youngest son, Mark. Why did I make this visit? I was born in Bucharest, Romania, and my desire to visit the home where I was born was the catalyst for the trip. (Note: What is the use of a big wide world when your shoes are too small? Serbian proverb.)
Spectacular beauty melds the borders in the region as sunflowers, that would have inspired Van Gogh, sparkle from fields alongside corn, wheat, tomatoes, cucumbers, and berries, the latter used along with grapes to produce balanced and superb wines. (Note: A 90-year-old grape vine found in the garden of an elderly lady in Split, Croatia, proved that Zinfandel was originally a Croatian grape variety known as Tribidrag that has been cultivated in Croatia since the 15th century.)
What a pleasure to drive many miles on highways and not see a single billboard! Did you know that in 2012, almost 95 percent of the world’s raspberries came from Serbia and that Hungary’s favorite spice, paprika, is considered a national treasure?
I knew that individuals have shaped the history of these countries and left their mark, but hearing the views of residents sometimes changed my mind. Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s book “Dracula”) is an admired folk hero in Romania for having defeated both the Turks and the Hungarians. Josip Broz Tito was popular and viewed as a unifying symbol both in Yugoslavia and abroad and received 98 foreign decorations.
When Nazi Germany began murdering Europe’s Jews, Bulgaria was the only Eastern European country that saved its Jewish population when Gentiles, including clergymen and members of parliament, battled the Nazis. In Hungary, many Jews were saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Swiss Consul Carl Lutz.
Unique personalities impacted and are still impacting the area. The Latin poet of the Roman Empire, Ovid, born in 43 B.C., was banished to what is now Constanta, Romania, by Emperor Augustus Caesar, for causes unknown. (Note: It was rumored that Ovid had a romantic relationship with the Emperor’s wife.)
In 1883 Bulgarian revolutionary Tonka Obretenova, from Rousse, lost her five sons in battles against the Turks. On July 28, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson flew the Serbian flag over the White House and all public buildings in the nation’s capital to commemorate the courage of Serbia on the fourth anniversary of the declaration of war against Serbia by Austria-Hungary.
On January 6, 1978, President Jimmy Carter returned the Crown of St. Stephen, the symbol of the Hungarian nation, to Hungary. (Note: At the end of World War II, the Crown was given to U.S. Army officers to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Soviets.)
Great Britain’s Prince Charles enjoys spending time in Romania and owns several castles in Transylvania. The newly-elected president of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is the first ethnic German president, a minority in Romania. He is also a Protestant in a country where 90 percent of the population is Orthodox.
On February 19, 2015, Croatia elected its first female president, Kolinda Graber-Kitarovic. The Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, received a scholarship from George Soros to learn the ways of Western democracy at Pembroke College, Oxford.
While watching the recent Wimbledon tennis final, I cheered loudly for Serbian Novak Djokovic, the eventual winner. I had visited his country and my feelings about him and Serbia would never be the same.
Yes, you definitely should put Eastern Europe on your bucket list of places to visit!
Editor’s note: Sipprelle, a Princeton resident, has had a life-long appreciation of international affairs. The daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she started school in Santiago, Chile, and later studied in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She attended Centenary College, in Hackettstown, and then spent a year studying and traveling in India before graduating from the University of Redlands in California, where she met her husband, Dudley, one of her classmates, who became a teacher and foreign service officer.
While living in Gothenburg, Sweden, she was president of the American Women’s Club and started the Diplomatic Women’s Club in Rome, Italy. “I taught high school English at a girls’ school in Izmir, Turkey, and at the American School in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic,” she says. “In 1987 I became a State Department Officer and was posted to Rome; Mexico City, and Vienna, as well as in the U.S.”
Since moving to Princeton in 2005, she has served on the Princeton Housing Authority and as president of the Friends of the Davis International Center at Princeton University.
She is an active competitor in masters’ track and at one time held 17 American records. At least one of her records still stands. In 1978, when she was 43 years old, she set the record for the one hour track run — 15,578 meters. Her four sons include Scott Sipprelle, a venture capitalist who ran for Congress in 2010 and lost to incumbent Rush Holt.