When I was a gawky 14-year-old, my parents took me to Europe. In a dusty village on the border of Austria and Hungary, a family friend introduced me to a sage old man with bread crumbs in his cartoonish white handlebar moustache. As the man spread lard on rustic bread, he shared his eyewitness account of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. I was thrilled by history as never before.
In Prague, my Czech friend Honza took me on the walk he had taken night after night in 1989 with 100,000 of his countrymen as they demanded freedom from their Soviet overlords. The walk culminated in front of a grand building, where Honza said, “Night after night we assembled here, pulled out our key chains, and all jingled them at the President's window, saying, ‘It's time for you to go now.' Then one night we gathered...and he was gone. We had won our freedom.” Hearing Honza tell that story as we walked that same route drilled into me the jubilation of a small country winning its freedom.
In Northern Ireland, my guide Stephen was determined to make his country's struggles vivid. In Belfast, he introduced me to the Felons' Club — where membership is limited to those who've spent at least a year and a day in a British prison for political crimes. Hearing heroic stories of Irish resistance while sharing a Guinness with a celebrity felon gives you an affinity for their struggles. Walking the next day through the green-trimmed gravesites of his prison-mates who starved themselves to death for the cause of Irish independence capped the experience powerfully.
El Salvador's history is so tragic and fascinating that anyone you talk to becomes a tour guide. My Salvadoran guides with the greatest impact were the “Mothers of the Disappeared,” who told me their story while leafing through humble scrapbooks showing photographs of their sons' bodies — mutilated and decapitated. Learning of a cruel government's actions with those sad mothers left me with lifetime souvenirs: a cynicism about many governments (you can tell by their actions who they really represent) and an empathy for underdogs courageously standing up to their governments when necessary.
Tourists can go to Prague, Norway, Ireland, and Central America and learn nothing of a people's struggles. Or they can seek out opportunities to connect with people (whether professional guides or accidental guides) who can share perspective-changing stories.
About This Entry
You are reading "Firsthand Accounts Make History Spring to Life", an entry posted on 10 July 2009 by Rick Steves.