Seven years after her graduation, Kristin Dittenhafer-Reed ’09 returned to Hope College as a full time faculty member in the Chemistry department. Dittenhafer-Reed is directly impacting current students in the same her professors impacted her just a few short years ago. Teaching and mentoring students through research is a passion of hers that she gets to live out everyday at Hope College.
Dittenhafer-Reed graduated from Hope with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. While at Hope, she had her first exposure to research. She conducted undergraduate research with Dr. Moses Lee. Directly following her graduation, she went to grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a Doctorate of Philosophy in Biochemistry. Dittenhafer-Reed received the Graduate Research Fellow from the National Science Foundation. This prestigious award is given to graduate students working towards a masters or doctorate who are doing research in their fields.
While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dittenhafer-Reed was able to do research while also teaching and mentoring undergraduate students. In 2014, she won the Denton Teaching Award, which is an award that “honors biochemistry graduate students who consistently provide quality guidance and scientific training in mentoring undergraduate students.” This award is a testament to the dedication that she has to both research and her students. She cares deeply about impacting students and helping them during their undergraduate years. Most recently, she was awarded the Towsley Research Scholarship at Hope College. This award will allow her to continue her research on the Mitochondria (a part of the cell) into 2021.
“As a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry, I strive to provide the same high quality, transformative experience to current Hope College students by modeling Hope’s mission. My goal is to offer innovative and rigorous instruction, while encouraging personal development and fostering relationships rooted in faith.”
As a student at Hope, Dittenhafer-Reed was involved in various activities around campus. Though her most prominent being summer and undergraduate research, she was also a student- athlete, playing for the women’s basketball team. She spent a summer in Vienna, Austria in the Vienna Summer School Program. Dittenhafter-Reed recalled how it doesn’t get any better than walking the streets of Vienna looking at the art and architecture of the building for a class. She also explained at the 10 Under 10 Young Alumni Panel that Hope College was instrumental in developing her faith. She was able to grow in her relationship with the Lord while here. She is grateful for the time she spent here as a student and is blessed to be back at the place she loves.
“For the first time, I felt connected to a supportive Christ-following community that encourages believers to intellectually evaluate their beliefs. The solid foundation I established at Hope College, allowed my Christianity to flourish in graduate school and beyond, even as I entered a more theologically diverse environment”
Hope College is proud to give Kristin Dittenhafer-Reed ’09 the 2019 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honors emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
When Diego Romero ’09 first stepped on to Hope College’s campus he was a freshman in high school participating in Hope’s TRIO Upward Bound Program. Having spent the next four years on campus in the program, Diego decided to attend Hope College to study Spanish Education. As a first-generation college student and former English Language Learner, Romero was aware of the struggles that he endured and knew many other students were in his same position. He wanted to help the next generation of students. From the start, he was deeply dedicated to education and wanted to make an impact in the lives of students to come.
While at Hope College Romero was an incredibly active student, involving himself in many co-curricular activities. As a freshman, he joined the Phelps Scholars Program – a living-learning community focused on global learning and diversity. He was a member of various clubs such as the Latino Student Union, the Outdoor Adventure Club, and The Book Club. Romero gained early valuable experience working with young students as a volunteer in the CASA program at Hope.
“I came from a poor family and understand the struggles, but as I was once told, education is the only way out and once you get it no one can take it away.”
Upon his graduation in 2009, Romero moved to Denver, Colorado where he spent the next two years teaching Spanish at Denver Public schools. Over the past ten years, Romero’s passion for his students and dedication to his profession has allowed his to move into leadership positions in the school district. His current role as an elementary school principal at a school where a majority of his students are English Language Learners has given him the opportunity to use his experiences to directly impact students each day. He is committed to giving each student the resources they need to reach their full potential. He believes strongly in the value of an education and life-long learning. He has exemplified this by earning a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction for Linguistically Diverse Education as well as an Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Certificate and Educational Specialist Certification.
“I was struck by his work as an elementary school principal and his ability to build trust among the teachers who report to him. He is student-centered, always putting their needs first, but he understands the importance of creating a climate and culture in which teachers thrive as well. He is committed to creating a school culture that values equity, collaboration, community involvement, and open communication.” ~ Elizabeth Colburn.
Romero lives in Denver Colorado with his wife Rachel Bakken ’09 Romero, also a recipient of the 2019 10 Under 10 Award this year, and three-year-old son, Collin. Romero has stayed connected with Hope College over the years despite living in Colorado. Hope College is grateful for his continued dedication and support of his alma mater.
Hope College is proud to give Diego Romero the 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honors emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
What does a liberal arts education look like after graduation? For Andreana Rosnik ’13, it looks like having a Doctorate of Philosophy in Chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley while also making and selling her own artwork. Just six years after graduation, Rosnik has found a beautiful balance of mixing both STEM and the Arts into her daily life in San Francisco.
“I can have science and art coexist in my life due to my liberal arts background. From Hope’s curriculum to its various seminar series to mere interactions of students and teachers across disciplines, while at Hope I was immersed in a place where different fields constantly intersected.”
Rosnik graduated from Hope College with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Mathematics with a minor in Spanish. Following her graduation she received a Fulbright Research Fellowship at Universitat de Barcelona. There she continued her studies while also engaging in new cultural experiences. Her knowledge from the Phelps Scholars program (a first year program at Hope that aims to foster global learning and community) aided Rosnik while living abroad. Upon her return to the states, she continued her schooling at the University of California-Berkeley. She worked as a Graduate Student Instructor during her PhD program teaching courses such as Chemistry and Thermodynamics.
Rosnik is currently working as a Computational Scientist and Software Engineer at EnelX where she is collaborating with others to make clean energy more accessible and mitigating climate change. She feels fortunate that she has been able to find a career that is challenging her intellectually but that also aligns with her personal morals and beliefs. Andreana also works as a part-time artist. She works with colored pencil to create intricate and colorful pieces of art. Her art gives her an opportunity to express herself in a different way.
“I also do artwork semi-professionally, and while that is not my main career, what I love about making art is that everyone needs art, whether they realize it or not…My artwork gives me the space to wordlessly describe my inner world, as well as to freely explore fantastical elements of some other world. While my work is full of detail and, in some senses, rooted in analysis, expressing myself outside of the context of science in this manner was something that I need”
Rosnik’s liberal arts education at Hope College gave her the tools to pursue both her passions on both ends of the spectrum. While at Hope Rosnik was a very involved student who participated in various co-curricular activities. Rosnik was inducted into four Academic Honor Societies across multiple disciplines. She spent a summer doing research at the college in addition to spending time abroad in Spain. Hope College is proud of Rosnik for how she has used her liberal arts education at Hope and after Hope.
Hope College is honored to give Andreana Rosnik ’13 the 10 Under 10 Young Alumni Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honor emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
When Rachel Bakken ’09 Romero graduated from Hope College with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering with a Mechanical emphasis, she was onto bigger and better things. After graduation, she moved to Denver and accepted a position at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Romero describes the mission of NREL “is to advance the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies.” She now works as the Energy Engineer and Project Leader.
Over the year at NREL, Romero’s diligent work and expertise in the field has allowed her to move gracefully through promotions and added responsibilities. She currently manages many ongoing projects and initiatives at the NREL. The work Romero does is having a direct impact on the environment and the way we use renewable energy. She is solving problems and creating solutions in renewable energy. In 2014, Romero went back to school at the University of Colorado Boulder where she received a Master of Science degree in Civil Engineering. She also received her Professional Engineering Certification.
Romero is a member of the professional organization, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). There she is a chair for the Young Engineers program. In addition to ASHRAE, Romero has been a member of the Philanthropic Education Organization for many years.
“Hope provided me with a well-rounded education; my skills include excellent writing, an understanding of cultural topics, and more. This has been invaluable for the variety of work that I have done. Hope prepared me to be not only a professional worker, but a leader in my community”
While at Hope College Romero took full advantage of her liberal arts education by immersing herself into many areas of campus life. Romero swam for four years on the women’s swim team and she earned three varsity letters during her swim career. At the 10 Under 10 Young Alumni Panel, Romero reflected on how being involved in sports as well as other co-curricular activities helped her to learn valuable skills like time management. She also noted that she enjoyed being a part of many aspects of Hope’s campus life. She also was involved in various clubs such as the Knitting Club and Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society.
Romero is still living in Colorado with her husband Diego Romero ’09. Diego was also a recipient of the 2019 10 Under 10 Award. Together they have a three-year- old son, Collin. Diego and Rachel have stayed connected with Hope College over the years despite living in Colorado. Hope College is very thankful for her continued dedication and support of her alma mater.
Hope College is proud to give Rachel Romero the 2019 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honor emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
Though it has only been 6 years since his graduation, Adam Maley ’13 is already conducting groundbreaking research that could save the lives of many. Having received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from University of California, Irvine, Maley is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Pathology Department at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He is currently working “to develop a point-of-care digital ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) instrument that can count individual protein biomarkers for early disease detection.” Maley is currently working on developing this technology to detect diseases in infants as early as possible.
Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, Maley was first interested in research during his time at Hope College. Throughout his 4 years at Hope, Adam worked on research with faculty members. The exposure to the scientific process early on in his education career gave Maley insight into what he wanted to do for a living and he fell in love with chemistry because it made so much sense to him. His relationships with professors, advisors and mentors while at Hope played a huge role is life and the discernment of his calling as well. Maley now has the opportunity to mentor and teach undergraduate students in his own lab and would like to one day work at a primarily undergraduate institution where he can mentor students.
“Having the opportunity to conduct original research as an undergraduate was instrumental to my career. I went into graduate school knowing what scientific research is, and how to communicate my research through presentations and writing. Many of the General Education courses I took at Hope included writing, which also helped me to become a better scientific writer.”
When Maley was not in the lab at Hope, he was participating in a wide variety of co-curricular activities around campus. Maley was a leader on campus in his role as an RA. He also served on Spring Break Immersion trips during his spring breaks. At the 10 Under 10 Young Alumni Panel, Maley shared how he was grateful for Hope College and the liberal arts education it gave him. He had the opportunity to take organ lessons while at Hope. Though at first he was nervous, he soon loved when he could sneak away from the lab to get in some practice time. He reported that playing the organ challenged his mind in ways that it had never been before. He has taken those skills he has learned from his liberal arts education with him in his career.
Hope College is proud to give Adam Maley the 2019 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honor emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
Lindsey Ferguson ’10 Hanson is the perfect example of what is means to live out your passions and life calling. Having graduated from Hope College with a Bachelor of Arts in Dance: Performance and Choreography, Ferguson is now living in New York City working as a dancer, choreographer, teacher and actor. She is passionate about the work she does and is deeply dedicated to spreading joy through her work.
Hanson’s professional career began her sophomore year at Hope when she was hired for her first TV role where she appeared in “Come On Over,” a children’s television show produced by the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. This job introduced her to Koyalee Chanda who was the director for her next job on “Sesame Street.” Since then, Hanson has appeared in other TV shows including “America’s Got Talent” and most recently, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She has also been in Broadway Productions, commercials and films.
While at Hope College Hanson was devoted to her studies and made the most of the education that Hope provided her. She was a member of various dance student groups including Dance Department Professional Club, Hip Hop Club, Swing Club and Sacred Dance. She also served on the Theatre and Dance Production teams. In addition to her involvement on Hope’s campus, Hanson spent a semester off campus at the New York Arts Program, a program aimed to help student artists explore their career options. This experience gave her a taste of what it’s like to live and work in New York City as a performer.
She has a love for teaching dance to the next generation of dancers. Since graduation, Hanson has been back to campus numerous times as a guest speaker and master class instructor in the Dance Department. She is an Adjunct Professor at Montclair State University where she is currently also working on a Masters Degree of Fine Arts. She hopes to one day be a full time teacher and choreographer.
When Hanson is not on dancing on Broadway, choreographing ballets, or getting a masters degree, she is volunteering. Hanson shared at the 10 Under 10 Young Alumni Panel that her faith was transformed at Hope College and she has taken that with her in her career and life beyond Hope. She volunteers at local charities in New York. Her faith is important to her and she is trying to spread the love of Christ wherever she goes around New York City.
“My Christian faith has been the anchor of my hope in a place that can sometimes feel so far from God’s Kingdom…As I work in and out of NYC, I strive to maintain Hope’s vision of being a leader in my community, bringing hope and positive change to those around me. I’m here to make a difference in my community—pressing on to be the hands and feet of Christ–backstage, in the audition room, on the subway, in Times Square, or on my neighborhood block.”
Hope College is proud to give Lindsey Ferguson ’10 Hanson the 2019 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honor emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
Criminal Law is not for the faint of heart, but Christine Washington ’09 Michel is fighting the good fight. Michel is a criminal defense attorney at her practice, Christine A. Michel P.A. Law Offices. She has described her work as coming alongside people during the hardest times in their lives. Since graduating from Hope College with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with a Criminal Justice Emphasis, Michel has been around the world helping those who need it most.
A year after her graduation, she travelled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti where she worked as a Site Manager for TouchGlobal Crisis Response. She was part of a team working to rebuild after the 7.0 Mw earthquake in January of 2010. She served there for a year. In 2013, Michel went to Cambodia and worked as a Pre-Trial Chamber Clerk at the United Nations Assistance to the Khemer Rouge Trials. She then returned to Haiti where she worked temporarily as Acting Director of Family of Faith Ministries. It was in July of 2017 that Michel opened her law practice in Jacksonville, Florida. She works in criminal law as well as other areas including Immigrant Law and Family Law.
Michel used her time at Hope to develop her leadership skills that she has used in her career. During the 10 Under 10 Young Alumni Panel, Michel recalled a conversation she had with Vanessa Greene, the Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Vanessa Green encouraged Michel to be more involved at Hope, to step beyond her comfort zone and try more things on campus. Michel was soon involved in many areas on Hope’s campus, even becoming the President of the Black Student Union almost immediately upon joining. She competed on intramural teams, participated in Dance Marathon, and volunteered with CASA.
Michel thanks Vanessa Greene for encouraging her to become more involved on Hope’s campus because it made Hope feel more like home. She reflected on how she came into her own at Hope College through the leadership roles she served in and impactful relationships with professors. Michel is also thankful for the experiences at Hope that helped her grow in her relationship with God and for the close friendships she made and still maintains. These experiences and relationships at Hope gave her the courage and confidence to passionately pursue her dreams.
“Hope gave me ownership of my faith. No longer was church and Christianity something my parents made me participate in, but it was my own and I blossomed by going to the Gathering and Chapel and eventually found a closely knit group of believers to help me grow beyond what I could have imagined.”
Michel now lives in Jacksonville Florida with her husband, Johnson. Together they have a young son, Chase. Hope College is grateful for Michel and her continued support of her Alma Mater. She is a force for good in the world and Hope is proud to recognize her accomplishments so early in her career.
Its an honor to give Christine Michel ’09 the 2019 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honor emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within 10 years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
Nearly 6,000 miles from Hope College, Alison Garza ’10 Wicker is demonstrating what it can mean to be a global citizen in today’s society, living and working in Amman, Jordan as an Information Analyst for the ACAPS Yemen Analysis hub. She is serving refugees in war-torn countries, making sure they have the best care while they are living in the camp. Since her graduation, Wicker has worked all over the world serving others in various humanitarian work.
Wicker started her career working in the inner city of Chicago with AmeriCorps and Chicago Health Corp as a Health Coordinator. She developed after school programs for youth in the city as well as programs for single moms. In 2016, Wicker moved to Iraq to work with Samaritan’s Purse. This organization aims “to help meet the long-term physical and spiritual needs of those displaced by ISIS.” While there, she held various titles and worked on many projects to help those in the area. During her time there, she “develop a multi sector needs assessment for retaken villages in Al Hamdaniya district in collaboration with project managers and technical advisers”
More recently, she has worked with World Vision International in Jordan. There are over 5 million refugees who have been displaced because of the Syrian Crisis and many of them are children. Wicker works closing with those who have been displaced to assist them in their times of trouble. Currently, she is doing research and data collection as an international consultant.
“I learned the basics of research while at Hope College, working as a research assistant. The papers I wrote then, involved heavy research and deep analytical thinking – all which are necessary for successful completion of project evaluations in the humanitarian world.”
Wicker reflected on her time at Hope College. She said that she was initially attracted to Hope because of the mission statement. “to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith.” She liked that emphasis on global leadership through the lens of the Christian faith. She has the skills to work with others from all different backgrounds because of her liberal arts education.
“Hope College developed my character further through rigorous liberal arts education that encouraged me to think outside of the box. I enjoyed classes in philosophy, religion, history, statistics, among many communication courses.”
Hope College is proud to give Alison Wicker the 10 Under 10 Award. The “10 Under 10 Awards” honors emerging leaders who are making significant contributions by living out their callings; engaged in the local and global community through professional and/or volunteer involvement; and use their education to think about important issues with wisdom and clarity, communicate effectively to bridge boundaries that divide human communities and act as agents of hope living faithfully into their vocations. Designed for alumni who are within ten years of graduation, they are presented by the Hope College Alumni Association. Make a nomination today!
Jim and Barbara Neevel shared their love for Hope, the reasons why they give and their generational connections to the college in a recent visit. Here’s their story:
After twenty years in ministry, the congregation of New Hackensack Reformed Church in Wappingers Falls, New York, wanted to find a way to honor Jim Neevel’s service. They established an endowed scholarship for students from the state of New York in order to continue to expand the reach of Hope College on the east coast.
Barbara came to Hope not knowing what she wanted to study. Through careful consideration, she was guided to the education department and became a teacher. She remembers that every part of her education at Hope was part of her character building.
Hope College made me who I am. Hope College gave me a purpose.
– Barbara Jeffrey ’56 Neevel
Barbara and Jim met on the first day of classes at a reception for students. She remembers that everyone knew Jim, because of his parents’ and his grandparents’ experiences on campus.
Jim grew up in Westminster County where his father was a pastor. He was a sociology and psychology major at Hope. He says, “When I came to Hope, my eyes and ears were opened to a lot of things. It was through the college experience that I was able to solidify what I wanted to do. The professors were wonderful, there was a warmth there, you knew everyone on campus – students and professors.”
I knew I wanted to be a pastor . . . Hope gave me a deeper purpose and fulfilled what I thought I wanted to do.
– Jim Neevel ’56
James and Barbara Neevel Scholarship Fund A scholarship established by New Hackensack Reformed Church in Wappingers Falls, New York, in appreciation of James and Barbara Neevel’s 20 years of ministry. Because the Neevels want Hope College to be well-known on the eastern side of the U.S., as it was when they were college students, the scholarship provides assistance to worthy students from the east coast, with financial need.
Jim says they contribute to their scholarship fund in order to “provide an opportunity for every student that would like to attend Hope College to support them in that way. It makes a difference!”
If you’d like to learn more about endowed scholarships, visit hope.edu/give.
The Neevel Family: Andrew Neevel ’16 Jeffrey Brown ’07 Kathryn Neevel ’82 Brown Kenneth Neevel ’84 Susan Thompson ’87 Jeffrey Neevel ’87 Marcia Veldman ’56 Thompson Norman Thompson ’53 Barbara Jeffrey ’56 Neevel James Neevel ’56 Pearl Paalman ’24 Veldman Harold Veldman ’21 Adrian Zwemer ’26 Mary Crouch ’27 Zwemer Cornelia Nettinga ’27 Neevel Alvin Neevel ’26 Siebe Nettinga 1900 Henry Veldman 1892 James Zwemer 1870
On June 3-15, 2019 a group of lifelong learners joined the Hope College Global Travel Program and professor emeritus Donald Luidens on a journey to Eastern Europe. Dr. Luidens reflects on their adventure…
The 2019 Hope College summer expedition to Eastern Europe, entitled “Discovering the Balkans: From the Black Sea to Budapest,” provided a wonderful opportunity for eight friends and alumni of Hope College to sail up the Danube from its mouth in the Black Sea to its midpoint in Hungary. It was a treasured excursion, punctuate by feathered wildlife, gorgeous vistas, crumbling castles, picturesque villages, and modern urban sprawls. It provided a tantalizing narrative of centuries of turbulent history and a grim reminder of the legacy of Soviet domination of these countries during the twentieth century. In all, an unforgettable experience.
We gathered in early June in Bucharest, the capital of a slowly modernizing Romania, hundreds of years old, but barely a babe in the contemporary era. The capital is dominated by the Soviet-era architecture – gargantuan in scale, and inevitably box-like in form – which was favored by Communist architects and the former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. No building more fully embodies this Orwellian period than the ornate and stolid parliament building, begun during the dictator’s reign and completed after his death. Constructed at the cost of razing hundreds of historic homes and other edifices, this structure became a symbol for us of the price that Romania has paid for the post WWII Soviet-dominated years.
Romanians have begun the laborious process of reclaiming their history, including their Orthodox Christian roots. Churches long in disrepair are being revived and have become wondrous tourist destinations as well as places of worship.
Following a brief sojourn in Bucharest, we headed south to the Danube and a sleepy fishing town called Fetesti. There we boarded our floating home for the next ten days, the sleek river cruiser, Avalon Passion. No one ever explained the name of this worthy vessel, but it certainly proved to be a pleasant and comfortable place to bunk on our trip. Not to mention the food, which was rich in its variety, calories, and appeal. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were definitely passion-inducing.
Initially, we turned east and headed to “Point Zero,” the opening of the Danube into the Black Sea. Disagreements about the source of the Danube in the mountains of Bavaria meant that its length has historically been counted from its undisputed endpoint at the Sea. Here a UNESCO World Heritage protected delta is the home to hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. While we were too early to enjoy their presence in such numbers, we were treated to many varieties of storks, cranes, and sea gulls. And foliage that came down to the river’s edge in profuse rolls of green and gray. Moses could have hidden a lifetime in the bulrushes!
While at the mouth of the Danube, we visited a small fishing village, St. Gheorghe, notable because of its Ukranian Orthodox history. Its first inhabitants were refugees from a sixteenth century pogrom in their home country. Secluded and safe in this hinterland, they developed a thriving business catching beluga fish and selling the roe, the world’s recognized premier caviar. However, years of overfishing and growing competition from elsewhere, has left this community struggling to survive on the edge of the Danube.
Turning back west, we were treated to endless miles of unbroken farmland and low-hanging shrubs. It was gloriously relaxing. Happily, the weather cooperated throughout the trip, so that we spent countless hours on deck watching the landscape swirl by. Evenings were particularly evocative, as the sunsets quieted our chatter and drew our sense of awe.
Towns and villages popped up from time to time, but the overwhelming sense of greenery soothed us every day. On a regular basis we stopped to visit local historical and cultural sites. A nineteenth century folly, a seaside casino envisioned by one potentate to draw the masses, has been a derelict for decades. Local businesses are working to revive it to its Gothic glory. Discussions of a new Monaco on the shores of the Black Sea swirl in the local conversation. The remoteness of Romania, distant from Rome even in ancient days, provided a home in exile for the unrivalled storyteller, Ovid. His residence is commemorated in Constanta with a town center statue and museum.
The centuries-long rule of the Ottomans is everywhere evident in these once-Moslem controlled provinces. Mosques punctuate the skyline and stand, cheek-by-jowl, with Crusader-era churches and castles.
Indeed, forts, castles and strongholds recall the millennia of wars fought over this strategic region along the main waterway in Eastern Europe. Occupiers from the Greeks through the Soviets have left their trail. We had occasion to walk the battlements of several ancient citadels, positioned as they were on the banks of the Danube to regulate and protect the inhabitants and their farmlands.
Without doubt, the most awesome of these castles was embedded in and around a natural outcropping high in the mountains near Belogradchik, Bulgaria. Some of our participants followed the guide up the long climb to the mountain aerie, while others agreed to stay behind and take pictures. A truly memorable site and sight, indeed!
While the western length of the Danube is enveloped by many Alpine foothills, the eastern segment is mostly lowland and agricultural. As a result, there are few extravagant vistas on this lower end. The most remarkable is known as the “Iron Gates,” a section of the Danube where mountain ranges from both the Romanian and Serbian sides come together in rolling profusion. On the side of one hillock is a carving of a past warlord, stately and bushy-bearded and imposing. He serves as the gatekeeper of the Iron Gates, a lone, gnarled sentry overseeing the river traffic. Not far from this ancient carving is a modern gatekeeper to the Danube, a two-tiered dam that was constructed under the joint administrations of Yugoslavian President Josip Tito and Romanian President Ceausescu. The dam has created a large lake that provides hydroelectric power for wide swaths of the two countries. It was an engineering wonder to ride the massive locks as they shunted multiple vessels up and down the river.
Punctuating our river cruise were a series of lectures on regional history (the resident tour guides were all superb amateur historians and helped us understand the long- and short-term narratives of their beloved countries) as well as periodic folk performances. On one such occasion, Bulgarian dancers and instrumentalists joined us on deck for a rousing spectacle.
Everywhere signs of the Soviet era were apparent. Sometimes in the form of state buildings (like the Romanian Parliament), but more often in small towns and struggling villages where the archetypal box-like apartments and factories were dropped into the midst of traditional communities, scarring them four decades after “independence.” The most dissonant ones appeared in beautiful mountain hamlets where gargantuan factories were imposed on rural or resort-like backgrounds.
In keeping with Marxist ideology, the true proletariat was assumed to be an enlightened industrial laborer. With this model in mind, the Soviets and their Eastern European allies worked mightily throughout much of the twentieth century to turn rural farming communities into true workers’ paradises. In the process, six- and eight-acre peasant farms were collectivized and became government-run agribusinesses. Their former landowners were marshalled to the cities and towns in order to work in the state-run factories. These factories were supplied, at largely discounted rates, with raw materials from the Soviet Union, and the markets for their products (from shoes to washing machines and cars) were Soviet Bloc consumers. This tight-knit, circular market kept the Eastern European economies alive (if not humming) during the post-World War II years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did this tight-knit system. Artificially cheap raw material no longer flowed into the countries, so most factories ground to a halt. When they were able to produce their former goods, these countries found themselves competing against much better, more mechanically produced, more widely-marketed goods from the rest of Europe and the global marketplace. Inevitably, they were – and remain – at a significant disadvantage in that rough and tumble commercial environment.
To complicate matters, when the new regimes took office, they tried to rectify the “land reform” policies of the Communists and offered to return stolen farms to the descendants of their former owners. However, for many, this was an impossible opportunity; they had spent two or three generations in the cities and villages and had no interest in returning to their ancestral lands. So now those same mammoth farms, which were once harvested by collective effort, were sold to the highest bidders and are now owned by agribusiness corporations or wealthy landowners. Inevitably, these painful realities sparked many discussions with our guides. Nevertheless, they all saw a better day dawning.
The future for Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia may be on display in Hungary, with its exploding cities and Western European focus. Our last stop was in the bustling metropolis of Budapest. The sister cities of Buda (on the hills to the west of the Danube) and Pest (on the flatlands to the east), were joined together in 1873 at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Budapest retains its Imperial mantle, self-consciously the European-Asian linchpin in geopolitical and cultural transactions. Hotels, skyscrapers, and cathedrals have been refurbished and modernized, thrusting up throughout the city in regal fashion.
Two stops on our tour of Budapest stand out as most memorable. A visit to the Opera House was much anticipated, and we were disappointed that the main theater was undergoing extensive repairs. However, to compensate, the opera company had arranged for a tenor and a soprano to provide us with an impromptu concert! While we sat on the main staircase to the auditorium, they entertained us with lucious arias and lilting duets. The accoustics in this elegant staircase could not have been surpassed in a more formal setting. It was divine!
The second stop was equally moving. It was to the studio-home of stain-glass artist Roth Miksh, a Jewish artisan who reached international fame at the beginning of the twentieth century, but whose art fell out of repute with the arrival of the Nazis. Miksh was a contemporary of Tiffany (with whom he was often in competition for international recognition). His home/ studio has been transformed into a magical museum. His heirs have retrieved many of his works from owners around the world, and these are on extensive display throughout. While some of the works are classical in their form, reflecting medieval church windows, others are striking in their modernity. When we stepped into this unprepossessing home, none of us could anticipate the affecting art that was housed therein.
Another indelible highlight of the Danube excursion was the incomparable cuisine. From the start, we found the food to be outstanding – whether on the Avalon Passion or in local eateries. We sampled widely and found few offerings to be wanting. While it may not be the sole reason to take a trip such as this one was, it certainly is a strong recommender.
Our final evening in Budapest provided us with a cherished opportunity. Near our hotel was a grand ferris wheel which lofted us ten stories into the sky, well over the tops of neighboring apartments and hotels. It provided a grand panorama as we made our way to its apex. The city of Budapest lay out beneath us in royal splendor as its nightlights began to glow. In the distance, the Danube curled through the twin cities, reminding us of the matchless journey that lay behind us and that beckons future adventurers.