Rajna Hristova answers

What was better back in the day?

Rajna Hristova Ivanova from Bulgaria was born in 1931. She is retired, a widow and has four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She enjoys watching cooking shows and browsing through atlases, and takes daily walks with her Nordic walking sticks. (Image: Rayna Breuer)

Plenty of things used to be better than they are today – as lots of people would likely respond if asked. Seen through the prism of modern-day life, things seem to have been simpler and less daunting in the past. There is, however, one indisputable fact: while every period has its own challenges, individual generations typically enjoy better lifestyles than their predecessors.

The advances in the field of medicine provide a good illustration. Every year technologies improve treatment, so much so that we and our ancestors seem to be worlds apart. France's Louis XIV (1638-1715), better known as the Sun King, is an instructive example. In his day he was undoubtedly the richest and most influential monarch in Europe. And yet the standards of hygiene at his court in Versailles were not all they might have been. For years the King suffered with his teeth, which kept rotting because he wasn't cleaning them properly. By the 1680s the decay was so severe that they all had to be extracted – without an anesthetic! The holes in his gums were sealed using a red-hot iron; however, some did not heal completely and he developed an oroantral fistula, a channel running under the skin from his sinuses down to his oral cavity. To compound his dental debacle, he then developed an anal fistula, a similar channel running from the end of his bowel through the tissue and out through his skin. This was surgically removed in 1686, again – needless to say – without an anesthetic. To make matters worse, the monarch had an enormous tapeworm in his gut for most of his life. So, despite leading one of the most advanced countries in the world, the most powerful man in Europe endured all of these maladies.

Nor was life easy when it came to traveling in the old days. Today we can fly to almost any part of the world in no time, and only pay a fraction of a month's wages for the pleasure. Compare that with the situation 200 years ago: when the German poet Goethe traveled from Milan to Fussach at the end of May 1788, taking the cheap option of riding with the Lindau Courier, the 300-km trip took the best part of a week and cost 122 guilders. At the same time the dramatist Friedrich Schiller was earning just 400 guilders a year as a professor at the University of Jena. Long-distance journeys were therefore out of the question for the common folk. Most people only travelled for financial reasons, to trade or to move home, and many spent their whole lives in one place. In a nutshell, life used to be far more distressing and there were severe restrictions on freedom of movement. And that still held true until the very recent past. Progress in these two areas has been genuinely dramatic. The freedom and diversity of our modern-day age may seem overwhelming for some. But if we think of the suffering of Louis XIV or Goethe's expensive, five-day odyssey, we can appreciate that the achievements of our age are a great privilege. And maybe even face its challenges in a more relaxed frame of mind.

Rayna Breuer is a political scientist and lawyer and works as a freelance journalist.

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