Between the Lines of Guide-Books

I’ll admit – even on vacation, I’m still getting my history fix. Of course, I don’t usually hang out on beaches in my downtime (a favorite quip of mine is: “I’d rather go to Bulgaria (or fill-in any random unknown entity) than Bermuda”). I love devouring tourist guide books to help get to know a new place. I also like using them in new places I’m living during research trips — just because you live somewhere doesn’t mean you know all that much about it in the early stages. In addition to the sight-seeing, I always make sure to check out the history sections, since I find it mind-blowing to think anyone condense 2000 odd years of history into 5 little pages of print. What a skill!

Over the years, I’ve grown more interested at looking for what is often said and not said in these mini-cultural universes. I’ll admit: almost any piece of written material, especially a cultural guide, is going to bear the ideological markings of its era and provenance — so that’s not exactly news in itself that guide books display certain prejudices, assumptions, or expectations about their own time period. For me, it’s figuring out what those markings are and why they are there that’s the fun part.

Recently, I’ve run into some curiosities in two tour books – one for Vienna, the other Kyiv. To start with Lonely Planet Vienna Encounter guide, I read the following in the history section of the guide in reference to the 20th century. First, there is mention of Hitler’s rise to power, followed by his enthusiastic entrance in Vienna. Then we skip right to the “heavy” Allied bombing of Vienna at the end of the war, followed by the “raping and pillaging by the Red Army [that] further scarred an already shattered populace” (p.149). No war at all. No holocaust. No enslavement of the Slavic people. Straight from Hitler to Russians raping the Viennese. Yes, the Russians did rape a lot people in Austria and it was an extremely awful revenge, but it need be noted it was revenge. The Austrians committed plenty of war crimes on Slavic soil themselves, not to mention their involvement in the event known as the “Holocaust.”

In the author’s defense, I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of room to tell the entire story of the war. Still there could easily have been made mention of the fact the Austrians participated in the most destructive and violent assault on a group of people, namely the Slavs, in modern history. How interesting would it have been if she had written: “Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Austrians joined in Hilter in an attempt to enslave tens of millions of people and wipe out another six million altogether. The Austrians also participated in the rape of millions of Slavic women.” Of course, you wouldn’t see that in an Austrian tour guide put out by Lonely Planet! We, the good Westerners, all know the Slav is “supposed to loot and rape,” not the cultured central Europeans. This mindset has a long history — cultivated and modernized during the Cold War, yet dates back for centuries. I’m not claiming the author harbors some deep-seated hatred toward Slavs (she likely does not), in fact, it has nothing to do with any type of self-conscious activated racism or xenophobia, rather this type of discussion of the Slavs stems from an unconscious plane underneath where ideologically programmed understandings of other cultures reside, often times dormant, until you need to do a quick synopsis of the Second World War (apparently). For more on this, I’d recommend Slavoj Zizek’s artice, “The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape,” on perceptions of how minorities acted during the Katrina crisis. Continue reading

You Say Meydan, I Say Майдан

I was recently taking a little vacation in Istanbul between research stops in Europe (Prague and Kyiv). To my surprise when exiting a metro station I saw a sign for “Taksim Meydanı” in Turkish (obviously) for the famous and extremely vibrant square in Istanbul. Given my powers of intuition and analysis, I suspected that this word “meydan” was the same word as the Ukrainian “майдан” (or “maidan” transliterated) in Ukrainian (the whole “square” idea gave it away), which also means square (they pay me the big bucks for this type of things, trust me) since they appeared to sound related upon pronunciation.

This American girl loved the Maidan (Credit: Author)

The most obvious and famous of “maidans” in Ukraine is, of course, the Майдан Незалежності (or Maidan Nezalechnosti) – meaning “Independence Square,” which is noted as ground zero of Kyiv – right of off Khreschatyk Street. The Maidan sometimes registers with Westerners since it was the site of the incredible protests of the Ukrainian presidential election in 2004 (and yes, the guy they protested is now in charge…don’t ask). Students of the Ukrainian language learn this word “maidan”, first, because the maidan can easily serve as a topic of discussion in lessons due to the protests (“Що трапилося на Майдані?”), and second, because of the major difference with Russian, which has the word ploshchad’ instead (more below). Continue reading