One of the things Hector Ó hEochagáin loves doing most in life is looking at a map. Its director, Evan Chamberlain, and himself – they have worked together on travel documentaries for more than 20 years – will spread a map of the world on the bed of a hotel room. On the table next to them will be a few beers. They will examine the map, plotting and scheming like two Victorian adventurers.
“I loved geography at school: the names of capital cities, mountains and rivers always motivated me as a child in Navan,” says Hector.
“My favorite was the capital of Albania. I knew it was Tirana. This always earned me bonus points! When I look at a map, I feel a buzz. They `re my best friend. There’s something about maps. They have been there for centuries. Google Maps in your car or on your phone replicates what sailors had in their galleons hundreds of years ago, complete with all their instruments and other items. »
Chamberlain and Hector plot their route. “We say to ourselves: ‘what about that? Look at the Balkans. Look at the Bosphorus. Look at the Black Sea. What if we went from here to there, from the Balkans to the Baltic countries? The title immediately makes people vibrate. Where are the Balkans? Where are the Baltic countries? If you look at the map, it’s a natural progression across Eastern Europe, from one line to the next.”
Hector’s 3,000-kilometer trek from the Balkans to the Baltics in the north is the final seven-part installment of his trip around the world, during which he learns about the cultures and customs of Turkey and several countries from the former Eastern Bloc, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Poland, as well as two Baltic states. Each country is dedicated to an episode. It is remarkable, he says, how much the communist experience had an impact on the people he met along the route.
“There is so much mental and physical baggage in the air in these countries. The former Yugoslavia was divided into six countries. All these countries are unique in their own way, but they have been covered by the curtain of communism. We feel that there has been a lot of misery, war, tension, a lot of sorrow and death. Lots of oppression. »
Hector says it is difficult for countries like Poland, Serbia and Latvia to shake off their past. “A country like Poland was defeated by the Nazis and ruled by the Russians. People think that Eastern Europeans are cold, hard and very severe people. But they endured a lot of destruction over the 60 to Last 70 years It takes time to break these people down, to get to know them, but I found them to be the most amazing, friendly, hardy people.
“I wanted to find out during the trip if I had anything in common with these people, as an Irishman from an island a few hours from Europe. What do we have in common with them?”
Hector and his production team had to shoot an episode about Ukraine at the last minute, as Russian military forces began to gather at the Ukrainian border just as they were preparing to enter the country for filming.
He covers several other war-related topics during his travels, including a fascinating visit to Gallipoli, the site of the needless deaths of more than 3,000 young Irish people during the First World War. His visit to Auschwitz left a mark that still endures.
“It was a beautiful sunny winter day. There was snow falling gently, about three or four feet of snow on the ground. We entered through this wooden door. It has only been seventy years since this happened, in the blink of an eye, in which millions of people lost their lives. Even talking about it now makes me sick to my stomach thinking that humanity could be so evil for doing what they did.
“When you look to the left, at Auschwitz, this is the path that leads to the gas chamber for these men and women. When you look to the right, even in the workhouses, where they slept, you see the marks on the walls, the blood stains. There is a spirit of sadness, a feeling of calm, a feeling that something horrible has happened in the buildings and in the neighborhood. I felt guilty for leaving him five or six hours later – guilty as a human being that it had happened. How in the name of God did we allow this to happen? »
Hector found the visit interesting but frightening. “Nothing can prepare you to face the gas chambers. They have a facility. It’s a glass box. It is approximately 20 meters long. There are suitcases and children’s shoes stacked on top of each other that they removed when entering the gas chamber. As a parent, it was heartbreaking to witness. It’s horrible, it’s a place full of history, but everyone should see it – to see what happened there.
The mood is obviously lighter elsewhere in the series. It’s hard not to burst out laughing at the sight of Hector grimacing during a vigorous pre-dawn massage in the Turkish baths. He drinks rakia – a home-distilled spirit like poitín – in the Bulgarian countryside, singing with the distillers in a jovial atmosphere; he visits Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania; he hones his tennis skills at Novak Djokovic’s Center of Excellence in Belgrade.
Hector felt a special kinship with the people he met in the Baltic republics, that he had kindred spirits. He happily danced jigs with locals, who played accordions and dressed like Wren Boys, in the Lithuanian countryside, for example, during a festival marking the end of winter, which ended by the burning of a 40-foot scarecrow effigy. .
“When I arrived in Latvia,” he says, “I was in the forests with a survivor. Awesome guy, who took me out in the snow on a frozen river in 10 degrees below zero in a canoe. We went hunting. We lit a fire. He fed me by this tree in the desert. He showed me how to survive in the virgin forests of Latvia. Nearly sixty percent of the country is covered in forests. It reminded me of what Ireland might have been like when Ireland was full of silver birch, mountain ash and oak and we were all tribal.
“What I took away from sitting with this man, and his appearance, with his blue eyes and his white skin, and the way he talked about Mother Nature – I immediately felt a connection to him, as as a descendant of this Caribbean island. Celts because I know I descend from the Fir Bolg.
“If you look at the latitude line, Latvia and Lithuania are our true Northern European cousins. I felt very much at home in a forest in the ice with a surviving hunter who talked about his love of the land. The feeling I had from Latvia and Lithuania was: these are my people.
- Hector — The Balkans become Baltes, TG4, Thursday evening, 9:30 p.m.