Christmas and New Year's in Eastern Europe
- Submitted by: Wayne Citrin
- Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005
The idea of spending the Christmas and New Year's holiday in Eastern Europe first occurred to me on the train ride back from Berlin to Zurich after the weekend of November 19, one week after the Wall came down. That weekend, of course, was inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall the week before. I was in Heidelberg that weekend playing tourist and some German students had set up loudspeakers in a public square with the news reports from Berlin. I went to Berlin the following week with friends, when the sight of East Germans walking freely to the west was still something novel, and every Trabi crossing the border was cheered. On the train ride back to Zurich, the plan for an extended trip to Eastern Europe began to take shape.
At the time, I was a post-doc at the IBM Zurich Research Lab, and I had a reputation for doing a lot of travelling. The itinerary this time seemed clear: Leipzig, Berlin, and Dresden: the hot spots of the East German revolution, Prague, of course, where events had just begin to heat up while we were visiting Berlin (and I hoped they'd stay hot until we got there), Vienna and Budapest, for the contrasts, and Ljubljana because it was a nice place that I wanted to explore further and because Yugoslavia had its own interesting political goings-on. I plotted the itinerary and planned to leave on the 23rd of December. By good fortune, the stay in Prague fell over New Year's Eve, and Christmas Day was to be spent in Berlin. I tacked a night in Nuremburg onto the beginning. I had always wanted to see it, and the Christmas market would still be going on.
The next step was to find a travelling companion. Unfortunately, the usual suspects were unavailable. My apartment-mate, Lloyd, another IBM post-doc who shared my aversion for overly fastidious Swiss landladies who objected to American grad-student standards of household cleanliness, was expecting a visit from his girlfriend, although he offered to join us in Prague. (This ultimately didn't work out because his girlfriend, a Sri Lankan studying in the US, couldn't get the West German transit visa needed to take the train from Switzerland to Czechoslovakia.) Doug, a Canadian friend and colleague, was planning to be back in Canada. Lloyd and Doug were the ones who had traveled with me to Berlin the previous November, when the Wall came down. My friends from the US all had other plans or were unwilling to spend the money. One friend with whom I had previously travelled, Mark, was in the states on business, but when I offered him the opportunity to go on the trip, he jumped at it and modified his travel plans, expecting, rightly, that this would be the opportunity of a lifetime.
If you recall what was going on at that time, the Wall had just been breached, demonstrations were going on in Leipzig and Dresden, and several East German Governments had fallen. There were big demonstrations in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria was shaken, and people were just waiting for Romania to go up. Hungary was calm, although they had started the whole thing by opening the border with Austria.
Travel arrangements were the next thing to be made. I had never traveled in East Germany or Czechoslovakia before, and I didn't relish the thought of dealing with their travel bureaucracies. On the other hand, I didn't want to take a tour. Basically, I wanted my accommodations taken care of. Switzerland has no shortage of travel agencies, and I went to the downtown Zurich (Bahnhofplatz) office of Kuoni, the largest travel agency in Switzerland (and one of the largest companies in Switzerland, period. Travel is a big business for the Swiss - not just foreigners visiting the country, but for the Swiss who go abroad.) There I met Mr. Patrick Saner, one of their European travel specialists. I gave him my itinerary, and asked him to reserve low- to mid-priced hotels in each city on the given days. I had tried to give the German names of the places I wanted to visit (like Prag and Wien instead of Prague and Vienna), since on a previous transaction with a Swiss travel agency, trying to inquire as to the fare to Crete, the woman on the other end couldn't understand where I wanted to go. Finally, I pulled a dictionary down off my shelf, looked up the German, and said I wanted to go to 'Kreta.' 'Oh! Kreta!,' she said, and it was smooth sailing from there. In this case, however, Mr. Saner pointed out one of the entries I had given him and said, 'Where's Laibach?' I pointed out that Laibach was Ljubljana, which was news to him. I suppose that nobody in Germany's called it that in about 100 years.
Mr. Saner looked at the itinerary and said that they could get the East German reservations and the visa, and the Czech and Hungarian reservations, but that it would be simpler for me to get the Czech and Hungarian visas in Bern myself. He said that they had no affiliate in Ljubljana, but that I shouldn't have any problem finding a place there without a reservation. (This was just as well, because I ended up not going.) Finally, he said that finding a hotel room in Prague around Christmas would be difficult, but that he would try his best.
Later that week, I took the morning off and took the hour-and-a-half train ride from Zurich to Bern, the Swiss capital. The Czech embassy was just on the edge of the central area, and I suspected that that was the one that would take the longest to get. All three embassies I wanted to visit (I also wanted to pick up the Yugoslavian visa ahead of time) only issued visas between 10 and noon.
The Czech consular section was around the side of a nice large house. The area was quiet, but when I opened the door, there was a mob scene inside. It seemed that everybody wanted a visa to Czechoslovakia. While I was filling out my forms and standing on line, I spoke to a man who had left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and had never returned since then. In the meantime he lived in Basle and designed nuclear power plants. Now he felt it was time to go back for a visit. I finally fought my way to the front of the line, handed in my form, my passport, and my fee, and ten minutes later had my visa. The entire process had taken about 45 minutes, and it would have taken over a week by mail. I was glad I had done it this way, since I had heard stories of the Czech embassy in the US, not used to being the center of attention and swamped with visa requests, actually losing passports.
Nearby was the Yugoslavian embassy. It wasn't crowded at all, but contained a number of unsavory-looking characters who all seemed to be waiting for the person behind the counter, who never showed up. It was getting to be almost noon, and I wanted to get the Hungarian visa, too, so I left, figuring that I could get the Yugoslavian visa at the border, without any problem, just like the last time I was there.
I got to the Hungarian consulate around ten minutes before noon. I was the only person there. The woman took my passport, my application form, and my 35 Franc fee, and five minutes later I had a second ornate Hungarian visa right beside the first. (I had been there earlier that year. The last time I had gotten one, it had been easy, too. I was in Vienna, and went to the IBUSZ Hungarian travel bureau. They took the passports to the embassy and brought them back later that day with visas. I could even have done it myself there, and it would have been faster and cheaper.)
Travel arrangements, visas, and travelling companion taken care of, the next step was to obtain some introductions to meet people in the various cities. This was something I had never done before, but I thought that at a time like this it was important to meet the people there and find out what was happening. (I wasn't confident that I would be able to meet many people on my own, or that they would be willing to open up to a stranger without an introduction. As it turned out, though, people were more than willing to talk.) As I had numerous German colleagues and a couple of Czech ones, this didn't seem to present a problem.
I recalled that Willibald, one of my co-workers, had family in East Berlin, and I asked him if it would be possible to arrange an introduction. He said he would have to think about it. He was quite troubled by the events in East Germany, and was afraid that the East Germans would rush headlong into an embrace with the West and reunification. He was convinced that the West was in a spiritual crisis, and that there was nothing of value for the East Germans to gain by joining the West. (The material aspects of the change were for him trivial.) He had no love for Communism as it was practised in Eastern Europe, but felt that the East Germans, by starting from scratch, could achieve something new and better, a 'third way,' and that, in any case, by adopting capitalism and materialism, they would be discarding any spiritual and communal benefits that they gained under the old regime. At the time I though that this was easy sentimentalism and said so. Why should the East Germans be thwarted in their desire for a better material life, and why experiment on them, especially when they were just emerging from a nightmare experiment? Could you blame them for wanting freedom of speech, and better jobs and better cars, and fresh fruit to go with it? Later on, as I met the people, my feelings started to change, but for the most part I still believe it.
A few days later, Willibald came back to me and said that he had thought about it and that he thought it would be a good idea for me to meet his family (actually, his wife's family), that he thought that it was important for Americans to experience life in the East first-hand. He asked me not to push the hosts too hard, that they had suffered greatly between the war and the Communist regime, and that the rug was being pulled out from under them again, and that it all required sensitivity. He warned me not to offer solutions to their problems, something that he felt Americans were prone to, and asked me to convey his concerns to Mark, who was still travelling. I agreed with all his conditions, and I agreed to them.
The other introductions were not so difficult to arrange. Another friend, Matthias, had a number of friends in Dresden, and gave us their names and addresses. He said, though, that they had no telephone, and that since there was no time to write a letter, we should just go and knock on their door. He couldn't guarantee that they would be home, though, since he had heard that they might be travelling in the West around that time visiting family.
A Czech friend, Jan, who had left the country around 1972 and hadn't been back since (although he was thinking about it) enthusiastically joined in, contacting friends he hadn't contacted in many years. (He later had to do this service for a number of other friends who followed us to Prague.) He called a friend from University days, who said he'd be happy to show us around, and that we should call him the night before we got into Prague. The friend also said that we had picked a good day to arrive in Prague, since it was the day that Havel would be inaugurated as President. When we asked if we should bring him anything, he said that some chocolate for his son would be nice. Jan added to us that t-shirts with American college logos were popular in Czechoslovakia, and would be an appreciated gift, but I couldn't find any that I was willing to part with, but I had an American hockey jersey that I thought would make a good gift.
Jan also contacted a woman he knew who worked for Czech radio who said she might be able to get us interviewed. He gave her the other friend's number and said that she should leave a message for us that way. We ended up not hearing from her; I have a feeling that she had other, more important people to interview than a couple of visiting Americans.
Finally, we needed to stock up on maps and guidebooks, especially since I suspected that some of them might be hard to find in Eastern Europe, particularly city maps for East German cities. I bought a bunch, and dug some others out of my files (from my previous trip to Hungary and Yugoslavia). A Prague guidebook was hard to find, but I was able to borrow one from my manager, Liba, who was a US citizen of Czech birth, who herself was considering going back to Czechoslovakia around Christmas.
People asked me what I was doing for transportation. I told them I was going to drive, which raised some eyebrows. I own a Mazda RX-7, which I had taken to Europe with me. It was unlikely that mechanics in the East had seen a rotary engine, much less knew how to repair one. However, the car was in good condition and had just been checked out. It was a calculated risk, but I felt it was reasonable. I wanted the freedom to make my own schedules and not depend on the schedules of the Eastern European railroads, and I wanted to be able to drive through the countryside and stop in small towns. All of this required a car. Still, some people commented on my 'bravery' (a synonym for foolishness?). In any case, nothing happened.
One thing I was worried about, though, was the availability of unleaded gasoline. There were times that I had trouble finding it in France and Italy, and I knew it would be much harder to find it in the East. On a previous trip to Yugoslavia, I had to drive ten miles out of my way to get it. I was reassured, though, by markings on my maps indicating gas stations with unleaded gas in Leipzig and Dresden, and the Czech and Hungarian tourist offices gave me listings of all the unleaded gas stations in those countries. Plus, part way through the trip we would be stopping in Berlin and in Vienna, where unleaded was not only available, but was mandatory at all gas stations. Again, it never became a problem.
About a week before departure our hotel reservations and East German visas arrived. We had reservations for all the places we wanted to visit; Mr. Saner had come through (of which I had never had any doubt). I bought some new walking shoes and did some last-minute packing, and finally the morning of December 23 arrived. It was time to go.
December 28, 1989 - Berlin/Dresden
Not much to say about this day. We wake up and go to meet Monika at the subway station near the hotel. She's a bit late; she had to wait a half-hour to cross the border. It's ok - Mark's late trying to buy a gift. She brings us a gift for Willibald, and some more literature. We haven't planned anything, but she wants to spend more time with us, so we take a walk over to the Ku-Damm, then go to the Martin-Gropius-Bau to see an exhibit of demonstration pictures. We're all amazed by the ornate interior of the museum.
Even though Mark doesn't think we showed her a very good time, I think she enjoyed just walking around with us in the west. She says that if someone had told her three months ago what things would be like now, she wouldn't have believed it: 'Wahnsinn!' ('Nonsense! Madness!') I hear the same chorus later in Prague.
We ask if many of the people who left will come back. She says a few. Several hundred have left from her housing complex alone. One friend of hers has a sister who left. The friend says, 'I hate her.' But she [Monika] says, if the people hadn't left, would anything have changed?
We're invited back any time, and even to stay with them instead of in a hotel. It's a wonderful offer and we reciprocate. Will we ever take them up on it?
We walk alongside the Wall toward Checkpoint Charlie. Everywhere are people with hammers. Monika looks at it with a big smile. 'Wahnsinn!'
We get out of Berlin fairly late. One try at a wrong crossing point (the one closest to the road to Dresden) wastes some time, and we finally get over the border around 5. The roads are crowded and we get into Dresden around 8. We only get a glimpse of the magnificence of the Baroque palaces through the nighttime fog. The first person we encounter is the parking lot attendant, who offers to change money for us. Probably a good job - he's the first person whom foreigners often encounter. The hotel room is small. We take a quick walk around the town - many of the palaces are still in ruins (as are a few buildings we saw in East Berlin), others are restored, or in the process of being restored. We walk through the courtyard of the Zwinger (amazingly, the grounds of the palace are open - there's no indication they're ever closed), but don't get to meet Matthias' friends. My Falk map of Dresden, purchased in Zurich, gets a woman's attention. She wants to know if she can buy one here, but I can't help her. A call to Prague causes us to move up next day's meeting time to 11 AM. We go to sleep in anticipation of an early start tomorrow.
December 29, 1989 - Dresden/Prague
Another big day. We get up at 6, pack, eat breakfast, and take a quick walk around the town, trying to get some pictures, but the sun isn't up yet. I wish I could come back to Dresden for a few days, maybe a weekend, but we have to leave.
East German hotel breakfasts are kind of strange. Unlike the buffets which are included in western, particularly West German, hotels, in East German hotels they give you a voucher for, say, 8 Ost-Marks. You go up and get what you want (bread that's not too fresh, lots of strange new sausages, bad coffee), and a cashier gives you a slip recording the prices of the things you've bought. Generally, you don't know the prices of the things you've bought beforehand, usually you go over and have to pay cash, and the eight marks usually don't allow you to sample the more interesting things on the table - a strange system.
The previous day the East German border guard misunderstood me and gave me a transit visa. Fortunately, we didn't have any problem; the desk clerk asked us if we were leaving East Germany before 5 PM the next day (we were), so it was no problem staying the night.
Out of town and on the road. Past a bunch of gas stations, all of them with long lines of Trabis. I'm in a hurry and don't stop. I hope I don't regret it. Through some prosperous-looking small towns and into a hilly region known as Saechsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland). It looks a bit Swiss. There's a lot of frost at the top where the border is. Formalities are fairly quick - the Czechs make us change 180 DM, which we probably don't have to do, since we've paid for our hotel in hard currency in advance. There's a cursory, but friendly, customs check.
The language is suddenly different. The signs are different. The architecture is initially similar, but the feel of the villages gradually changes. Is it the different language that makes me feel this way? All the Czech flags? [Note to any Slovak readers out there: I used the adjective Czech to describe Czechoslovakia in my diary; I realize it's not accurate. I also used the term Czechoslovakia, rather than Czech-Slovak Federated Republic or CSFR, since that's what it was called at the time. No offense intended.] The landscape becomes flat. Without getting lost (a minor miracle), we get to Prague about 15 minutes late and find our hotel. We park the car in the hotel lot and the attendant asks if we want to change money. Jan, a mathematician about 40, balding and with a beard, is waiting for us. He's in a hurry to meet a friend, then get to the castle for Havel's inaugural Mass, so we get a whirlwind tour across Prague. He points out his childhood neighborhood and school, asks after his friend Jan in Zurich and what he thinks (his own feeling is cautious optimism). He tells us the papers are more open in their reporting than before, although reporting on Panama is a bit confused. The papers sense that the people aren't in the mood to hear much criticism of the US, and there's no party line to follow. He gladly takes our copies of the International Herald Tribune and Der Spiegel.
There are Havel portraits and Civic Forum posters all over the place, in train stations, in shop windows, in the windows of taxis and trams. Czech flags are flying everywhere. This isn't ordinary. Jan later tells us that people have been getting drunk and becoming patriotic, which is unusual.
We get to the pub where we're supposed to meet the friend, but she's not there; she must have already left. We soon find her, though, or she finds us. Liba is a pretty young woman of about 30, the cousin of a friend of Jan's. She lives in London and works as a buyer for a British hotel chain. She says she buys everything you could think of. Jan is a researcher in the mathematics department of the university. He later tells us he doesn't have the highest degree, although he's done the work, because he isn't (or wasn't) considered politically reliable. He figures he'll get the degree now, although it won't make much difference except perhaps a slightly higher salary. He already travels quite a bit, although that might become easier, too.
We approach the castle. Crowds are already converging on it. Groups of soldiers, buses, members of sports clubs in matching jackets, people with Czech and European flags. Two soldiers are carrying a banner praising Havel. An announcement from a loudspeaker asks for calm - they don't want any more injuries. I guess someone was hurt in the crush. Two soldiers are standing guard at the gate. They're completely dwarfed by the crowd and I think they look nervous. We walk through the gate and get swept in with the crowd through an archway into a courtyard. We stop here for a while because we hear a cheer over the loudspeaker. In the next courtyard, Havel has come out on the balcony and is making a speech. It's a very short speech and sounds kind of awkward (although the translated version in the paper I saw later was very moving). The people don't mind the deficiencies in the speech at all and start shouting his name. We surge forward, get swept in the second courtyard, and find ourselves in front of the cathedral. No chance we'll get in. We get separated from Mark, although we find him later. We listen to the Mass, talk to a friend of Jan's, a young guy in a black hat who offers us a swig of Romanian champagne (he apologizes for the choice, but there's no Czech champagne left in the shops). We learn later that he used to be a teacher of handicapped children, but that he's now an actor. He has a pessimistic outlook on the future of actors in Czechoslovakia.
I asked Jan if he could take time off because it was vacation at the university. He said yes, but added with a laugh that the students were on strike anyway.
The mass ends, and the people start filing out, but we wait around a little. There's a commotion on one side of the courtyard. I go over to see what's going on. Apparently members of the cabinet are going out. People cheer and applaud. The only one I recognize is the bearded Komarek, one of the new deputy prime ministers.
We head out (having found Mark), go down the castle hill and past the Romanian embassy, where the streets are lined with protest signs and memorial candles. Ceaucescu is already dead. We hear that Havel cancelled his reception and donated the money, about 300,000 crowns, to Romanian relief.
We go through Prague's maze-like streets, looking for a place to eat, but in the holiday atmosphere everyone has the same idea. We finally find a place where we have beer and the one dish on the menu. (Pot roast with the ubiquitous bread dumplings.) Some of the other places had free tables, but Jan and Liba think they're saving them for foreigners, whom they can cheat.
We walk around the city. Liba is full of stories and legends about Prague and Jan is very knowledgeable about the history. We visit the Jewish cemetery, a very evocative place, and see the grave of Rabbi Loew, who created the Golem. There is a legend that if you write a wish on a piece of paper and leave it on the grave, he will grant the wish.
The Jewish quarter was built in Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) around the turn of the century. By that time, many of the Jews were assimilated, although that didn't help them in the '40's.
We later go to the coffee shop of the Inter-Continental Hotel, a strange place with overdressed foreigners and Czechs in everyday dress. Liba insists on going there, although we don't know why. She claims she likes the cakes and says it's her treat. During our stay in Prague, things often become a race for the check. Sometimes we win, more often we lose. Somehow I don't feel so bad as in East Berlin.
We hear a fair amount in English in the coffee shop. During the stay in Prague, I ended up hearing a lot of English on the streets. This disappoints me, as I like to think we're the only two Americans here, although that's obviously impossible. 'Go away,' I say. 'This is my adventure!'
On the way out of the hotel, we pass a man whom Jan talks to. He turns out to be Pavel Landovsky, a famous exiled Czech actor now living in Vienna. (He was the farmer with the pig in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'.) He tells us that Havel is having his private party upstairs. Jan asks if the actor is back for good, but the man is mainly interested in his car, which has broken down. We walk to the Old Town Square, where a festival is about to begin. Although it was planned a while ago as a festival of folklore groups in support of Civic Forum, happy coincidence makes it an inaugural festival.
There are thousands of people in the square. We edge toward the stage, and a Bohemian dance group starts to perform. At one point, a famous singer who hasn't been allowed to sing in 20 years comes on stage. She says a few words and leaves. People call her back and she begins to sing a song. Everyone is quiet and many people put V-for-Victory signs in the air. I look towards Liba and see tears in her eyes.
In one part of the square, a hot air balloon is being inflated. 'Where is the balloon going?,' someone asks. 'If they're lucky, to Vienna; if not, Moscow,' is the reply. Everybody laughs.
All over, people are singing patriotic songs, holding up sparklers, dancing, smiling, walking around. While we're waiting for the animated clock on the town hall to strike, we hear cheers from the part of the crowd back at the stage. We later hear that Havel showed up, said a few words ('I heard you were down here and I thought I'd just come by to say 'Hi''), and left. His performance is just as fast as that of the clock; it takes less than a minute.
We walk toward Wenceslas Square, which is covered with banners, crowded with people. There is a memorial for victims of the government, with many candles, burning or burned out. Under a statue of Wenceslas there are students singing songs from '68. I ask about the large, official-looking building at the end of the square. Is it parliament? Jan says no, it's the national museum. Parliament is behind it, and then the national theatre. There's a joke: 'What is parliament?' 'It's something between a museum and a theatre.'
As we walk back, we pass some students collecting money for the event. But when they try to give them money, they protest. Liba laughs and says they're not used to business. They were giving out tickets as proof of payment, and now that they're out of tickets, they don't know what to do. We eventually persuade them to take our money.
We make it back to the Old Town Square, then to a nearby church where a jazz concert is being played. Before the show the priest makes a little speech, saying that some people might find the performance unreligious, but that God has nothing against jazz. We eat some chocolate that was initially intended for Jan's son. Then, as we listen to the jazz, I look into the peoples' faces. There's bliss, happiness, intensity, peace. There's something about these people that's both innocent and serious. People must take life seriously here; something is at stake.
Liba goes home and Jan, Mark, and I stop at a wine bar by the river. We talk about the future of Czechoslovakia. Jan hopes that the subsidies will disappear. He knows that things will be hard for a while, but that they will get better. I ask if there's any pretender to the throne of Bohemia. Only the Habsburgs, he says. Are there any royalists in Czechoslovakia? Jan laughs. 'No, but maybe you can convince me to be the first.'
We walk back over the Charles Bridge, where more people are singing '68 songs. I remember something Liba said, about Czechs being afraid to call attention to themselves, embarrassed to shout. In the last month, I think, they've certainly disproved that.
December 30, 1989 - Prague
More of a day of walking around and impressions, than of any thematic coherence. I wake up late, and walk to the subway station where we're supposed to meet Jan. Mark is already out taking pictures. Out here on the edge of Prague, where the Olympic Hotel is, things don't look unfinished so much as broken down. Can't see too much variety in the shop windows, but I don't go into any shops, so I can't really say. In the street, a tram has become entangled in the overhead cable, and all the other trams are backed up behind it.
I get to the station, and look into a supermarket which looks better-stocked, with some western brands, like Coca- Cola. Strange system - one needs a shopping cart to enter, and when they're all in use, you have to wait until someone leaves before you can enter. I've seen this system before in East German stores. I wait a bit and we meet Jan and Mark.
We take the Metro to the center of town and catch the bus to the outskirts. This is an area of separate houses and small apartment blocks. Jan says it's a desirable place to live. On the bus we speak to a Czech man who says he has a niece in Topeka, Kansas. He hopes to visit her next year, and echoes the refrain I've heard repeatedly (from Liba, too): 'If anyone had told me three months ago what would be happening now, I'd say he was crazy!'
We eat in a small pub, which looks like a country inn, having excellent Wienerschnitzel and potato salad with beer. I ask Jan whether people still fear the secret police. He says, for the first five days, yes, but after that, not at all. Later we walk by secret police headquarters and there's no nervousness. I also ask about the student who supposedly died in the big demonstration of November 17, and whose reported death eventually led to the downfall of the government. He says the student didn't die, but that it was the undisputable fact of the violence, 50 years to the day after the Nazi suppression of a demonstration in Prague, that set everything off. We talk about the role of the students, and Jan says he feels that the students are too self-important, that they incorrectly feel it's they're doing that Czechoslovakia is free, when it's really Gorbachev's doing.
We go visit a nativity scene made entirely of gingerbread, which many people are lined up for, and on the way to the church, we walk by a private house, which surprises me. Apparently a number of people own private houses, or have privately owned apartments. We learn the next day that it may take 10-20 years to get an apartment even if one joins a building cooperative, less if one answers an ad and has something to offer in return. He tells us about one friend who actually bought a building in the historic inner city and renovated it. (I don't know where he got the money.) The real difficulty was in getting the building supplies and in navigating the bureaucracy, since the building was under historic preservation. Interesting that entrepreneurship on that scale (pretty valuable real estate) still exists, but apparently the government welcomes private capital restoring old buildings. Jan also tells us another story about 'The Prague Orgy,' the novella written by Phillip Roth. Some guy (a friend of a friend of Jan's) owns a house in the historic quarter (Jan pointed it out to us). He's known for the orgies he holds there. Jan said his tastes don't run that way, so he was never invited, but his friend was, and so was Roth, who wrote about it. I'll have to get the story and read it. We walk back to the castle through several nice neighborhoods of formerly private houses. A visit to the cathedral, then I go into a souvenir shop to buy some postcards. The shopkeeper charges me 18 crowns when the total price marked on the cards is 12 crowns. Jan gets upset and gives the guy a sermon. He says the guy doesn't understand the difference between free enterprise and cheating. The guy gets very defensive and starts talking about how he's staying open late, etc. We leave, but I don't get my six crowns back.
We go to a restaurant (actually, a beer hall) where a few friends meet us. One is Liba, the others are Joseph, a New York art dealer, and his Czech friend, Katya. I don't mind him, but the others react negatively to him. The problem is that, as an art dealer, he has a tendency to treat beauty as a commodity, and in doing this, shows a great deal of insensitivity to local feelings. He complains about not finding anything nice to buy in Prague. He says he saw a traditional dress in a shop window in Prague, that he wanted to buy for a friend, but that the shopkeeper wouldn't sell it to him. Liba says that the shopkeeper wouldn't sell it to him, rightly, because he wasn't Czech. 'We cry when we put on those clothes,' she says. Perhaps if he had said that his mother or grandmother had come from that village (where the dress came from) they would have sold it to him. Anyway, he has many Czech friends, and seems to know and like Czech culture, but he doesn't help matters by criticizing the Budweis beer, which is actually pretty good. He and Katya have to leave early (she seems to understand English perfectly, but will only speak Czech), and then we go. Before we do, I ask Jan about an acquaintance of an American friend of mine, a Czech mathematician named Kvatel who lives in Montreal. According to Jan, he has a reputation for being a character. He started at the art college, doing ceramics, then became a mathematician. He was instrumental in starting the Prague-Pilsen scooter races, which Jan says are mentioned somewhere in the work of Josef Skvorecky. One day he met a dancer from the Crazy Horse in Paris, and invited her to give a math lecture in Brussels. He coached her very carefully, she gave the lecture, answered the questions with his help, and got a certificate of thanks from the university for giving a guest lecture in mathematics.
After we leave, we go to the Slavia Cafe, a great smoky Art Deco room with a jazz band and filled with people only be described as looking like 'intellectuals' in the most stereotyped sense. Jan greets some of his friends, one of whom has a bandage over his forehead and a patch over one eye. He's not the first person I've seen in Prague with this kind of bandage. Mark wonders if it has something to do with the earlier demonstrations.
At the next table was a woman whom Jan originally thought was an actress in a well-known amateur theatrical company. But he noticed that she was wearing her Czechoslovak tricolor pin backwards, and, when he pointed it out to her in Czech, realized she was a tourist.
We walk to Wenceslas Square. Lots of people are walking around in a good mood. We go past the musicians and memorial again, then to the Museum metro station. The station is covered with posters. One is in both English and Czech, asking the Czechs to help teach the English how to get rid of Thatcher: 'Our Honekker.' Liba, who must be something of a Tory, gets upset and writes 'I don't agree' on it in English and Czech. After that, we say good night and we go home for the evening.
December 31, 1989 - Prague
An early start. We meet Jan at the Old Town Square. As I'm waiting, no less than three people come up to me asking to change money. I'm not interested, as I have plenty, and there are risks, too. We walk toward the site of the old Stalin monument. It was removed in '62, but the stand is still there, and now there's a large liberty bell set up there for the last three weeks or so. Some kids are playing street hockey nearby. Jan says the statue was the largest Stalin statue in the world. He says climbers used to prefer certain routes up it, and there was a joke about someone who had a swimming pool made out of one of Stalin's ears after it was removed.
We walk to a large nearby sporting ground, where about 800,000 people demonstrated the previous month when Wenceslas Square got too crowded. It happens that the sporting ground is opposite the Interior Ministry. We return to the castle to walk around a bit and then get lunch.
After lunch, we go to buy some liquor for tonight at a private shop. There's a line outside. A sign says the shop will be open tonight until two in the morning. I find that refreshing. Later, in Budapest, I will find a number of 'nonstop' shops open 24 hours. I wonder why they can't do that in Switzerland, where everything closes at 6:30 on the dot. Afterwards we go to a restaurant across the street that's famed for having the best Pilsner beer in Prague. The restaurant is closed, but one taproom is reachable through a foyer in the entrance to an apartment building. There are two taprooms, only one of which is particularly noted for its beer. People are lined up, some with their own pitchers, so that they can take fresh Pilsner home for lunch. The beer is excellent, possibly the best I've ever had. We hear some customers complaining how the restaurant is closed, and that we have to stand crowded in the hallway to drink our beer. One guy turns to me and says in English, 'Stupid socialist system.' I say that maybe the restaurant will be open longer hours now or after the election. He's unconvinced. I say that at least the beer stayed good under socialism, and he (who's probably been drinking it all morning) replies that his father claims it was better before the war. Now, Czechoslovakia exports 90% of its hops (needless to say, the best ones) for foreign exchange. Only the remainder are available for Czech beer.
Jan tells us a story about an Englishman of his acquaintance living in Prague after the war. He married a Czech woman, and his father-in-law convinced him to give up his British citizenship because it could prove inconvenient to the father-in-law. He [the husband] had a language school, but the government seized it and sent him to the countryside. Only recently has he come back to teach. I forget the point, but the story of a wasted life struck me as very sad.
A few hours rest at the hotel, then back to meet Jan in the inner city. Service at the hotel is much more unfriendly than it was in East Germany. Mark thinks the hotel staff is composed of disgruntled ex-secret-police informers, but so were the East Germans, I'd guess. My guess is that they're just unhappy to work on the holidays and during the historic events.
On the way to meet Jan, we see a number of people crowded around a shop window watching a video. It's Komarek, giving an interview. The number of people interested is itself interesting.
We go to a party in the center of town. The apartment is in a nondescript building, but is fairly large inside. The hosts are student types, some of whom speak English. There are many Italians, and it seems like most of the Czechs there speak Italian.
Our host seems to echo the opinion of many Czechs when he says that it all depends on Gorbachev. He says that Gorbachev has his own problems right now, and probably wouldn't bother Eastern Europe now, even if he wanted to.
Lots of food, wine, and beer at the party - it's all excellent. I like the idea that the smokers go into a special smoking room. Jan is having a good time, but we have to go meet Liba.
We meet her and a friend by the clock tower in the Old Town Square. She's brought sparklers, sandwiches, cookies, and champagne. Bara, her friend, is a young Czech woman who has been working as a riding instructor in London. Previously she lived in Italy. (That Italian connection, again.) She doesn't seem as excited by the festivities as Liba. Currently there aren't many people in the streets (it's 10:00). We see small knots of people walking in the street, some in costumes, some playing musical instruments, some with drinks.
We walk to Wenceslas Square. There's already a small crowd there and it's getting larger. Lots of Italians. Bara says that Prague is a new Italian budget travel destination. It used to be Yugoslavia. There are crowds of people singing folk songs. Liba and Bara join in, although there are many that Bara doesn't know; she never learned them. Two people on stilts, acting out the roles of a quarrelling husband and wife, are running around. Ambulances are setting off their sirens in celebration. A police car drives slowly through the crowd, the occupants grinning broadly. There are firecrackers and fireworks. A Czechoslovak flag is flying from the spear of the Wenceslas statue. everybody is happy and smiling. A small stage with speakers is set up under the statue, and rock music is being played. Jan wants to go back to the party, but we'd rather stay outside, so we let him go. We agree to meet again on the town square just before midnight.
We walk back slowly. More people are coming into the square. By this time, the Old Town Square is filling up fast. Everyone has a bottle. Lots more fireworks. Liba says we have to light the sparklers and write our wishes for the new year in the air. We join in a dance while someone plays a folk song on a guitar and everyone sings. On the steps of the memorial statue stands a crowd of people singing more songs. There are Czech flags all over the place. Midnight comes, champagne corks pop. We hug, pass the bottle, cheer. The celebrations were unannounced and completely spontaneous, but this is an outpouring of joy that's wonderful to be a part of.
We say our farewells to Jan, who wants to return to the party. (It must have been some party.) The rest of us are going to Bara's house. Jan has been wonderful to us, and I'm sad to see him go. As we walk to the Inter-Continental to get a cab, Bara says to me that she always, particularly this year, imagines Prague nicer than it really is before she comes back. She claims that she doesn't have much love or affinity for the country. She says that the center of Prague, of course, is lovely, but the outskirts are still poor and dirty from the pollution, and the people have to line up when a shop has tomatoes or fresh salad. 'It's terrible,' she says.
We get to Bara's parents' house, where she is staying. Her mother is (was?) a director for (of?) Czech TV and quite wealthy. Her younger sister and some friends are there, watching Czech rock videos. We sit and drink wine and talk. Bara is thoroughly Europeanized, and I think you can find a lot of people like her in Europe, without any real ties to their home country, or evidence of their home country in their demeanor. She spends the evening telling us about her admiration for Dudley Moore, 'Arthur,' and its sound track, and makes me listen to it and verify that her transcriptions are correct. We play an ingenious board game, designed by a cousin of Liba's, and by then it's 5:00. We leave Bara, but not before Bara and I get into a discussion of Britain's immigration policy with regard to Hong Kong. I think Britain has acted shamefully, she takes Britain's side, and the discussion is only prevented from getting heated by the fact that we're too tired. I think it's funny how immigrants who have gotten into their new country are often more conservative about immigration policy than native-born people. I've seen the same thing in Switzerland.
As we're walking to get a cab, Liba tells us about her father, who flew in the RAF during the war, then was persecuted for it afterwards in Czechoslovakia, but I don't remember the entire story. We drop Liba off first, and we wish each other a happy new year. I'll miss her - will we ever see these people again?
That was the end of three unforgettable days. Although I couldn't understand the language, and had no connection to the history, I think I felt something of the Czechs' joy in their freedom, and will always carry the feeling with me. I wish them well.
January 1, 1990 - Prague/Vienna
New Year's Day. I don't know how we do it, but we're up and out of the hotel by noon, and on the road to Vienna. The road starts out flat and dusty, then gets hillier. We pass through towns, some of which are quite beautiful, others of which are poor and joyless. Among the former is the town of Moravy Budejovice, which is a pretty old town around a small square. This shouldn't be confused with more famous Ceske Budejovice, where the original Budweiser is made. Among the latter towns is the town of Znojmo, near the Austrian border: dusty, dreary, and deserted. It doesn't seem as though the Civic Forum is so strong out here; in Znojmo there's a large banner over the road urging everyone to advance the socialist program (the only such sign I've seen - soon to come down, probably), but even here we see Havel posters. It may be mainly a Prague movement, but it has feelers all over.
Cross the border - it's easy. The Czech crossing point is modern and clean, unlike the one on the East German border. It makes you wonder about the kind of face the Czechs have decided to show to their East German neighbors. We stop in a cafe on the Austrian side to get some coffee to help us wake up. It's funny that I feel at home in a German-speaking country much like Switzerland, considering all the complaining I do about the Swiss while I'm there. Everything seems cleaner. We get to Vienna - things are very familiar again. Since Mark is going back tomorrow, I make sure we go to a bunch of places I know and like. We go to a familiar restaurant [Smutny], a familiar wine cellar [Zwolfapostel Keller], and a familiar cafe [Speyrl]. I feel like I'm pissing money away - in Prague and East Berlin, I hardly spent anything. Here it feels like I'm going through a fortune. I buy newspapers right and left. I feel like I've been deprived of information and need to reimmerse myself. People selling newspapers on every street corner, it seems. I love it. I sit in Cafe Speyrl and read more newspapers there. It feels like paradise.
January 2, 1990 - Vienna
I just wandered around Vienna relaxing today. Here are a bunch of impressions, many of them influenced by my experiences in Eastern Europe.
There is an abundance of electronics shops in Vienna with red, white, and green-striped signs saying 'We speak Hungarian' in Hungarian. I remember seeing them the last time I was here, but I didn't realize they were a permanent fixture. Last time I was here, it was a long weekend in Hungary, and people had just been paid their annual bonuses. The town was flooded with Hungarians, and every Hungarian car I saw heading back to the border seemed to have a refrigerator or an air conditioner strapped to the top.
There's not a single good book on Prague to be found here in Vienna. One shopkeeper tells me they've sold out.
Another perspective on the Prague celebrations, from the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, January 2, 1990 (translated by Yours Truly):
Prague Celebrates New Freedom
A Canon of Joy for the New Year
by Dieter Borreman
PRAGUE. The New Years' Eve galas at all the better Prague hotels have been booked for weeks. Fancy dining is firmly in the hands of the tourists. 700 crowns - about half a month's salary in Czechoslovakia - gets the tourist a New Years' Eve dinner at the best table in the house at the stylish Forum Hotel.
It's been that way for years, but never before has the demand been so great as this year. Revolution tourism is in, but reality in Prague at the end of 1989 isn't here at all. The real action is elsewhere: on Wenceslas Square, the Old Town Square, and the Charles Bridge.
On New Years' Eve 1989/90, half of Prague is on its feet. There, where just in November demonstrations were bloodily beaten down by policemen, thousands celebrated their newly won freedom.
At least a hundred thousand people were on Wenceslas Square. That night they celebrated 'their victory.' Only two days ago, their hero, Vaclav Havel, became president of Czechoslovakia. It's a New Years' Eve for the new man in the Castle. 'Long live Havel,' keeps sounding through the giant square, and 'Long live the President!'
The change from the old to the new year, at the stroke of midnight, was celebrated by Praguers on the Old Town Square, beneath the famous astronomical clock of the Town Hall. Trombones traditionally sound in the new year, but this year the trombones could scarcely be heard. Fifty thousand people streamed into the square, and the chorus of their voices drowned out the fanfare.
'Svobodu' ('Freedom') is the word of the night, and the Praguers celebrated their victory singing, laughing, and kissing. On every corner, the national anthem was being sung, but in contrast to the giant demonstrations of the last weeks, this time the crowd was not united in a single chorus. Hymns, 'Svobodu' and 'Havel' choruses blended together with fireworks, clinking glasses, and popping champagne corks into a canon of joy over the victory.
Twelve hours later, the debris from the giant party had already vanished. Just like after the protest demonstrations, no mountain of litter remained behind in the Prague city center after the victory celebration.
Strange day. Here I am in Vienna, coming up for air after a week in Eastern Europe. So what do I do? I go to see 'Back to the Future, II.' In English! Tomorrow I submerge myself back into the East. I'm not particularly looking forward to it, and will probably delay it as long as possible, waiting until after lunch to leave. Mark took the train back to Zurich this morning (had no more vacation left) and I miss having no one to talk to. The man at the hotel desk started a conversation, but I didn't keep it up. 'Are you from America or England?' I said, 'America,' and that was that.
Mark and I got along pretty well, but in a lot of ways, we were an odd couple. I'm amazed by his refusal to learn German, and his inability, which I'm sure was deliberate, to properly pronounce words, both in German and in English. It drove me up the wall sometimes, and it was all I could do not to correct him, or at least to correct him without being rude about it.
I'm feeling traveled out. If I hadn't paid for Budapest already, I might not go. Will I continue to Yugoslavia, since I have no reservations? Probably; things are happening there, too, and I don't know when I'll get another chance to see it.
Vienna is a city with a lot of contrasts. The main streets are as dynamic as anything in the West, but the side streets can be as quiet and dingy as the East. Quiet anyway. Vienna has the air of being more important than it deserves to be as the capital of Austria. It's hard to remember that we're farther east than Prague. I wonder if Vienna would have looked like Prague if it had found itself behind the Iron Curtain after the war. (Actually, it was behind the Iron Curtain in a sense; Vienna was partitioned like Berlin.) Looking at Vienna, it's easy to imagine the whole city looking like some of its older streets. It's actually encouraging for Prague; Vienna was in worse shape than Prague after the war, and in a few years it was rebuilt. (See the movies 'The Third Man' and 'Welcome in Vienna' for an idea of the shape Vienna was in after the war. Prague, on the other hand, was almost entirely spared during the war; the only damage came just at the end from American bombs that destroyed two buildings.)
Austrian movie theaters have reserved seats - a nice touch. The cheapest seats are up front; the seats get more expensive towards the back. This is reasonable, to a point. There are lots of ads before the movie, mostly interesting because I've never seen them before. (The ads in Zurich theaters get tired very quickly, but new ads are always entertaining.) Ads for movies seem to show no movie clips - just stills at most. There are lots of newspaper ads. It sounds like Vienna has lots of newspapers, including ones I haven't seen at the newsstands. One claims to be the oldest daily paper in the world, having been established in 1703. I really like that aspect of Vienna, along with the great cafes, the lively wine cellars, and the great desserts. In general, I think I could live in Vienna, although my life would be more sedate than if I were to live in Berlin, for example.
January 3, 1990 - Vienna/Budapest
I didn't drink the tap water at the hotel in Prague. I suppose the fact that all the water glasses in the hotel room had tooth brushes on them had something to do with it. Likewise the fact that Jan told us the tap water would kill babies, and a number of protest signs against polluted drinking water had pretty graphic drawings. Since we almost exclusively drank beer and coffee while in Prague, we must have been pretty dehydrated.
At the head of the Kaerntnerstrasse (the main shopping street) in Vienna, there is a small bus with Czech flags on it. I originally thought it was Czechoslovakia tourist information, but I saw that all the signs were written in Czech, and none in German, and I realised it was information for Czechs visiting Vienna. I guess it's a little version of the wave of East Germans in West Germany, although it's probably not the same sort of love-in, and the Austrians don't have the same sort of ties to the Czechs as they do to the Hungarians (I don't think). Also, the Hungarians have been crossing the border for years.
In the Vienna city center, there are big green signs with the silhouette of a mobile home and a slash through it, and underneath saying NO CAMPING in English. It's hard to imagine hordes of Americans in Winnebagos descending on Vienna, but I suppose it was once a problem if these signs are here now. I didn't see a single Winnebago while I was there.
Driving out of Vienna towards the Hungarian border, the houses start to assume the eastern style they had in Czechoslovakia. They don't look like the Swiss/Austrian wooden houses you get in the western part of the country, but have a faceless, square, plastered look, and are usually painted white, gray, or yellow. The ones on the Austria side were generally clean, the ones on the Hungary side less so.
The last town in Austria is Nickelsdorf. It's a town of at most a thousand people, but it must have at least a dozen electronics shops, plus several stores selling jeans, and a few roadside stands selling chocolate, bananas, and pineapples. All these stores have red, white, and green stripes on them, and most of the owners seem to have Hungarian names. The border crossing takes no more than ten minutes. Last time, it was a Hungarian holiday weekend, and it took an hour.
[I took a different route to Budapest than the last time. Then, I took a side road and followed the Danube. We didn't get far, though, before a policeman waved us over to the side. There were a couple of cars stopped in front of us, all with foreign (i.e., non-Hungarian) plates. We had been caught in a speed trap.
[The policeman came up to us, and in bad German told me I had been going too fast, and that the fine was 500 forints (about $10 at the time). I had just come over the border, and since it was difficult to buy forints abroad, I had none and told him so. 'What do you have?,' he said. 'Austrian schillings,' I replied. 'Then, it's 500 schillings,' he said. This came to about $40, and I paid it, not wanting to get into trouble with the Hungarian law, but it's a good thing I didn't tell him we had dollars.
[We drove down country lanes, through old villages where my car attracted lots of attention, actually passed horse-drawn wagons, and drove along the Danube, which was incredibly pretty. Across the river was Czechoslovakia, which seemed like a forbidden land at the time. We stopped in the city of Esztergom, where the main cathedral of Hungary is, turned south, and stopped for the night in the little artists' colony of Szentendre. Szentendre was settled by Serbians, and the architecture has an eastern feel. The town is a fairly well-known resort in Hungary, and I've heard that it is being rediscovered by the west. If so, I hope they don't ruin the peaceful atmosphere.
[We got into town, and sought out a restaurant that had been recommended by a friend: the Arany Sarkany (I believe that was the name; it translates to Golden Dragon), which I've heard was almost singlehandedly responsible for reviving Hungarian cooking. The proprietor, who spoke some German and English, quickly removed a 'reserved' sign from the table and served us a wonderful multicourse meal. Soup, appetizer, main course, wine, dessert, and liqueur came to US$7. I realize that this was expensive by Hungarian standards, but it was a wonderful meal. We paid in dollars. We mentioned to the proprietor that we had no room for the night, and he made a few calls and got us a room at the inauspiciously named 'Hotel Party.' The room was fine, though, with an unorthodox arrangement with the sleeping quarters in a loft above an entranceway. Later we took a walk along the Danube before turning in.
[A few days later, we came back to the restaurant again, and the owner recognized us and greeted us enthusiastically. We had another dinner that couldn't be beat, and to top it off, he sold us a large bottle of fine Vilmos pear brandy for $5.]
Anyway, that's what we did then. This time I was travelling by myself, but that route required navigation, and it was getting late. I took the direct highway to Budapest instead. This was interesting in its own right. Many of the roadside billboards were for western companies, and were written in Hungarian. Many of the Hungarian ones were for hotels, and others for such things as trucking companies, and they were imaginative in the western style, unlike the clumsy signs we saw in East Germany.
The highway from Gyor (the major border city, which in many ways resembled a provincial Italian town) to Budapest was by far the best road we had traveled in the east. There were road stops with western-looking restaurants, and Shell gas stations (selling unleaded gas, no doubt). The only thing wrong was that part of it was only two lanes, with a speed limit of 90 km/h. Later it widened to four lanes and things picked up to 120. I drove carefully, as I was afraid of getting another Hungarian speeding ticket. The Austrian cars didn't seem to have any such fears. I was also afraid that the border guards would catch me for my outstanding Budapest parking ticket from my last trip, but I was being a little paranoid.
It seemed like there were far more western cars on the road this time, but that may have been because I was travelling along the main road. I noticed that although the Hungarians have Trabis and Ladas and Skodas, they, like the Czechs, also have western cars, although the Hungarians' were of a higher class: Mazdas and Fords, plus a few late-model Mercedes.
Getting to the hotel was surprisingly easy. Budapest traffic can be hellish, and rush hour even more so, especially without a navigator, but except for an illegal left turn I had to make, there was no problem getting to the parking garage. The parking attendant wanted to change money (this was getting to be a real refrain), but he was offering 5.5 forint to the schilling and I later found out that the official rate was 5.1, so it wouldn't have been such a good deal. Not like the 100% premium Mark got on Ost-Marks (and we could have done much better), which got us a half-price dinner the night in Dresden.
From the parking lot, I stepped onto the Vaci utca, the main pedestrian shopping street in Budapest. It looks a bit like the Kaerntnerstrasse. Western shops, western-style displays in the Hungarian shops, a McDonald's, a Citibank Budapest, and the Hotel Taverna, a modern complex which is easily the nicest eastern hotel I stayed in: up to western standards in every way [I'll describe the standard-style Budapest hotel I stayed in during the previous trip in the next chapter]. Although I guessed it was four stars, it turned out to be only three. There were several restaurants and bars, no meal tickets, and a nice informal feel. Not extremely friendly, but very lively; lots of life in the lobby. Western prices, too. A beer out of the room's minibar was about three dollars. I went into a grocery store on the Vaci utca. It was well stocked, although the freezer counters and refigerator counters were empty, there was fairly little bread, and the fresh fruit didn't look too good. However, it was late in the day, and even in Switzerland, the fresh fruit isn't so good this time of the year. A can of beer was nearly a dollar, which is a little on the high side for a grocery store. (To their credit, the fruit brandies were $7 a bottle, and the Egri wine was about $3, which isn't bad.) Does Budapest have western prices now? No way - I went to a beer restaurant where I got an enormous plate of food and a large beer (although the Hungarians, like Czech barkeepers, seem to like to skimp on the beer servings), and the check came out to less than what the minibar beer in the hotel cost.
Was the grocery store typical? I had seen some large, well-stocked Budapest grocery stores before, including an enormous one on the Marx ter, a far less fancy place than the one in the Vaci utca, and a store in a non-fancy area near the restaurant also seemed well stocked. (Same empty refrigerator cases.) Both this store and the Vaci utca one displayed Julius Meinl signs. I don't know whether they're owned or run by the big Viennese coffee and grocery company, or merely get their coffee from them.
I noticed that most of the voices in the Vaci utca grocery store were Hungarian. (Likewise, I looked into the McDonald's, and most of the voices in there were Hungarian.) It seems that many Hungarians have the money to spend on these luxuries.
Speaking of Hungarian voices, my impression of the Hungarian language was that it often sounded like a mumbled Italian, with similar cadences. I liked the sound of Czech, especially spoken by women, much better. I did like looking at the strange Hungarian words and trying to figure out that they meant.
My first impression of Budapest, is that it is the future that Prague and East Berlin aspire to. There are still a lot of poor-looking people, the northern approaches of the city look (or did eight months previously) a lot poorer than the prosperous Buda neighborhood in the south through which I entered this time, and the espressos at the famous Gerbeaud's coffee house leave a lot to be desired, but the fact that Hungarians can be such shopping animals in Austria says something about their prosperity. I'll find out some more tomorrow when I go on a walking tour through some other neighborhoods.
Just before going to bed, I flipped through the television channels. Two Hungarian channels, an Austrian one, one French, and two English. On the French channel I found a burlesque number that was positively pornographic. I enjoyed it, and the studio audience of middle-aged men and women (politely?) applauded at the end.
December 23, 1989 - Zurich/Nuremberg
Mark and I set out on Saturday morning for Nuremberg. The trip is uneventful, as is the border crossing into Germany. [Once a German border guard made me empty my pockets and searched the whole car, but not this time.] We stopped in Augsburg for lunch, and look around the cathedral, supposedly the tallest in the world. There's not much left of old Augsburg (I would guess it was destroyed during the war) except for a heavily renovated pedestrian shopping district [one of the most pleasant features of German cities; every city seems to have one] and some clusters of old buildings. There's a sign on a wall indicating the site of the old synagogue before 'the Jewish citizens of our town' were sent to the camps.
We get to Nuremberg after sunset. It's a spectacular place, with an almost complete city wall larger and more impressive that that of Carcassonne [which is a fairly small place]. Inside the wall, old houses stand next to new buildings constructed with sensitivity to their setting. The inner city is no museum, but rather a busy living place. This is the last night of the famous Christmas market, and we want to see it. I'm a little disappointed, though. The goods in the stalls are a bit repetitive and a lot of them seem kitchy to me. I'm not sure if that's really the case, though: what may be kitch to me might be taken seriously as real folk art by a German. I've noticed that Europeans, including Germans, are wired into their pasts much more than Americans, and take traditional toys, traditional music, and traditional dress much more seriously than most Americans. The closest thing I can think of are people in the western and midwestern US who like to dress in western clothes, listen to country music, and like square dancing.
Although we look forward to dinner, our appetites are spoiled by a single slice each of Nurnberger fruit cake bought at a stand in the market. Unfortunately, not only was it heavy, it wasn't even very good. We leave the market and wander around town for a while, then come upon a cozy pub-restaurant near one of the gates, where we stop in for a beer. We start talking to a German man at the table next to us. He was with some friends, all of them were somewhat drunk. He was 61 and retired. He thought that the Americans didn't need to be in Germany anymore, although he took pains to assure us that he thought that the presence of Americans helped the Germans develop the way they had. When he heard that we lived in Switzerland, he joked that we should tell the Swiss to hold on to his money; that he was still alive. We drank Rauchbier, a strange smoked beer from nearby Bamberg. According to the man, there's a saying that one only acquires the taste of Rauchbier after the third one. Well, by the end of the third liter we certainly had the taste for it, although there were a lot of more unpleasant beers you could have said the same thing about. One strange thing about the smokiness of the beer was that it led to a sensation in the throat not unlike that of smoking a cigarette. The man enjoyed speaking English; he seemed happy to practice it. What did he really think? I think he was sincere in all of it - not just trying to be nice. He had never been to the east, and the presence of Americans made him feel secure. On the other hand, with all these changes, why should they remain?
He suggested we go to Bamberg, where the Rauchbier is made, and said we might have a long wait at the border. He liked to say 'Goddam Germans' in reference to his drunken friends, but they didn't understand him.
December 24, 1989 - Nuremberg/Leipzig On the autobahn to the border we see more and more of the little Trabis, heavily loaded for travel or with Christmas gifts. Most are on their way back to the border. We see lots of Trabis on the side of the road with their hoods up. Just before the border we see signs warning US soldiers not to go over the border without authorization. Then the border. Concrete wall, guard towers, fence, but no barbed wire. The guards are courteous and the crossing only takes about an hour. There's no search; they just ask where we're going, make us buy the visa [what I got from the travel agency wasn't the visa per se, but simply a confirmation number to indicate that the government had approved the visa] and pay the highway tax, then we pass through.
Along the road, there are hand-painted welcome banners for the 'German brothers,' and people standing on overpasses waving to us. Do they realize the car is Swiss and not German? Probably not. I'm impressed that there is so much good will on this side, like that last month in the West. I think all this may have something to do with the announcement of visa-free travel for West Germans and West Berliners that just started that weekend.
Lots of heavy industry and military bunkers along the road. Coming into Leipzig, the scene is surprisingly grim. The buildings are ornate but I had no expectation of how much they would be falling apart. They're also far dirtier than the buildings had been in, for example, Budapest. The people flash headlights at our car in greeting. Some pedestrians stare. We get to our hotel, but it's closed. The manager tells us we're their only guests, and they've taken the liberty of making a reservation for us at the Hotel Astoria across the street. The Astoria seems like a grand hotel in the old style and is reasonably western in style, and has Christmas decorations and music. As soon as we get into our room, Mark starts talking about the black-market value of the Ost-Mark, which makes me very uncomfortable. I'm sure there are microphones in the room, although I don't know if anybody is listening anymore. The stench of the air hits you as soon as you step outside; the air is filthy from the brown coal bring burned. The streets are deserted - it's Christmas Eve and we're not really getting the right impression of the town. The city looks unfinished - some parts are very rich and fancy, others are falling apart. The selection in the shops looks reasonably rich but not much variety, and is not displayed very imaginatively. There are Christmas decorations everywhere, which I find surprising. The signs just say 'Happy Holiday,' which I think may be an anti-religious touch, but I learn later that they say that in West Berlin, too. There are lots of people going into the churches: both the Niklauskirche, where many of the demonstrations originated, and the Thomaskirche, where Bach was employed. I'm curious to go in and sit in on a service, but Mark is uncomfortable about this, so we don't. There's a suspicious-looking man standing in the shadows outside a church, smoking a cigarette. I know the government is on the ropes, but it hasn't collapsed yet and I wonder if the man is a Stasi officer. Of course, I could just be oversensitive. The massacres in Timisoara have already begun: banners on the churches urge prayers for Romania; memorial candles burn on the sidewalk. It's also on East German television: announcements on where to send money to help Romania.
We eat dinner in the hotel restaurant, the only place open in town. I pay for dinner with Ost-Marks and the waiter gives a start, as if I had pulled down my pants in front of him. He takes the money.
December 25, 1989 - Leipzig/Berlin
Christmas Day in Leipzig was less depressing than Christmas Eve. The sun was shining and the sky was clear, although the air still stank. We saw one of the culprits: a tall smokestack spewing brown smoke over the city. Mark points out that it looks as if the East Germans' idea of pollution control is to build the smokestacks taller.
We take another turn around the town, see a bus full of German soldiers driving around, look in the window of the Polish cultural center at a selection of calendars. A couple were what one might call 'cheesecake,', which was somewhat surprising. Looking into the store windows, it occurred to me what's different about them. In the West, they only put one each of a lot of different things in the window, giving the impression of more variety. In the East, they put a lot of the same thing, and it's often some mundane household item, like a plastic bucket.
Some of the cafes in the city, which were closed, looked elegant. There were several references in shop windows and plaques to Goethe's Faust, which was set in Leipzig. I ought to read it.
Graffiti is overwhelmingly of the leftist type - against Nazis and racism, although there are a few swastikas and anti-foreign graffiti (against the 'brown plague'). Some of the interior shopping arcades (like Parisian passages) seem like they were at one time quite elegant. On the drive out of town, we pass streets and apartment blocks that at one time were probably quite genteel, but now past their prime. Into the countryside. Now there are more western cars on the highway.
When we were checking out, Mark wanted to pay our mini-bar bill in West-Marks, but wanted change in Ost-Marks, whether for a souvenir or just to have some Ost-Marks in his pocket I don't know. The woman behind the desk looks at us like we're crazy. She says that we surely know that the rate is only one-to-one. We decide to take the West-Marks. She says she'd do the same. This at a government hotel.
Mark thought that many of the stores in Leipzig were privately owned, but I don't think so. In Czechoslovakia we later learn that they are not. In Hungary I learn that many of them are. We never got the definitive answer about East Germany.
Lots of heavy industry visible from the road - many smokestacks. Mark points out that they were once considered a symbol of prosperity.
We decide to get off the highway just before crossing into West Berlin, in order to take a look at Potsdam. Last time I was in Berlin, we could have taken the tram from East Berlin to Potsdam, but it would have been illegal on our day visas, so we didn't. This time we have a perfectly legal visa, so why not. Potsdam is a bit run down, but nicer than Leipzig. We go to Cecilienhof palace, where the Potsdam conference was held, and then to Sansouci, one of the major Berlin palaces. We see lots of Russian trucks and jeeps. Soldiers. Cecilienhof is built in the style of an English country manor; it's quite nice, with a hotel even - and it's right by the Wall. It's strange seeing the Wall so soon and so unexpectedly, and from the other side. Sansouci is very run down, although at one time it must have been quite splendid. It looked a little sad. There were lots of West Berlin cars in the palace parking lot. Have they always come here, or is this connected with the new visa-free travel?
On the way back to the highway, we see lots of kids in their school uniforms going home. What are they doing in school on Christmas? Lots of pointing at the car - we wave back.
We get to the border. It only takes 15 minutes; we're waved right through. Somehow I feel I'm on home ground. The highway is that of a western city, which of course it is. We go to the hotel which seems to be fairly old, not particularly fancy, but with a nice, enormous room.
West Berlin feels 'finished' to me, even though there are still gaping wounds: the Wall, the Anhalter Bahnhof, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtnis [Memorial] Church. I think it's a matter of use of space.
We walk by the old Anhalter Bahnhof. It's kind of spooky. Before the war, this was the biggest train station in Berlin. Now all that's left is the facade and one arch. A sign says a park will be planted there. That's about all they should do with it, provided they still leave the ruin.
We go to the Wall. People are still hammering away at it, like they were a month ago. Most of the lower graffiti, within reach of people, is now gone. There are a number of large holes in the Wall that weren't there before. Some of the larger ones are covered with rusted steel plates; the East Germans don't want people walking through. Large crowds are still promenading alongside the Wall. One difference - lots of people are selling pieces. Kids have cut large, flat pieces out of it and have laid them out on a sheet for sale. Mark buys one.
At a hole in the Wall I see an East German border guard looking through. I smile at him and say 'Guten Tag.' He smiles back and answers. It's nice.
I buy some t-shirts for my brothers and friends. The selection of t-shirts is smaller than it was the last time I was here. The Potsdamerplatz crossing is still very busy, although most of the crowd is people crossing rather than crowds watching, as it was when I was there a month before - the week after the Wall was opened. There are no crowds applauding every Trabi that comes through, and no people giving away free flowers or cookies anymore.
We go to the Brandenburger Tor. There are people passing through holes in the wall in a long line; it was just opened the day before. I approach a couple and ask who can go through. They say only West Berliners with an ID card can use this crossing. They take pity on me and tell me that foreigners can cross at Checkpoint Charlie or the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof, which I already knew.
There are big crowds entering and leaving, but the East Germans had things well in hand, giving out visas from the unusual briefcase/desks strapped to their chests that East German border guards often carry. I heard that when the gate opened, the East Germans had to give up the idea of checking passports; there were just too many people. Kohl and Modrow were upstaged, and had to flee the crowd.
There are people promenading around the Reichstag. It's nice to see people enjoying their city. Near the Reichstag are memorials for people killed crossing the Wall. It's very moving. Some were simply labelled 'Unbekannt,' and later someone who knew who they were wrote their names in. Others who were already identified had life details filled in by friends. Near this was the river Spree with railings and steps along the side, like a swimming pool, so that swimmers who escaped could climb out. Across the river, East Berlin looked like a prison.
On the Ku-Damm, the main street of West Berlin, there's lots of life. People promenading, a Christmas fair, restaurants open. It was great. We went to the Sudstern area, in Kreuzberg, where several guidebooks said that the Berlin 'scene' was centered. I went there a month ago and couldn't find any life, and went back this time looking in different places and still couldn't find anything. Maybe it used to be the center of the scene.
[A short digression on my previous trip to Berlin, the month before. As I said, we kind of planned that trip on the spur of the moment, and took the train from Zurich to Berlin, with a change in Basel. The train went via Frankfurt. The destination signs on the train were an adventure in itself, like something out of 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold': 'Basel SBB - Frankfurt Hbf - Berlin Zoo. - Warszawa - Moskva'. We could have stayed on the train an extra day and stepped off in Moscow. Doug told us later (he had come up to Berlin a day later to join us), that one car on the train was a real old-style car with wooden fittings and Cyrillic lettering.
[The train was full by the time it left Frankfurt; people were sleeping in the corridor. As I mentioned, this was the week after the Wall was opened. In the next compartment were a pair of Americans who were carrying cassette recorders (to record people's impressions) and hammers and chisels (for obvious reasons). We later heard that the biggest building supply store in Berlin was completely sold out of hammers and chisels that weekend.
[We arrived in Berlin Zoo Station in West Berlin after travelling all night. Inside the station it was pandemonium. Crowds of people everywhere, as we expected. We wanted to get a hotel room as soon as possible, so we started looking for the tourist office. We instinctively got on a line, but soon learned that this was a line for Begruessungsgeld, the 100 DM that the West German government promised to East Germans who came west to visit or settle. All over the city we saw these lines - even early Sunday morning in the outlying district of Spandau people were lined up for their money. We heard that the demand was so great that some banks were running out of cash.
[Outside the city is already awake. There are crowds of people walking around, looking in shop windows. From their dress, they're most likely East German. Later we saw them crowded into the giant KaDeWe department store. West Berlin newspapers have published special editions greeting the visitors and advising them on the entertainment and activities going on that weekend. Every political group is handing out flyers, discussing the numerous possibilities for the German future. Near the Kaiser Wilhelm church, the Social Democratic Party is having a rally, with music and handing out posters celebrating Berlin. We get to the Europa Centrum a big indoor mall, where the tourist and hotel office is. Lloyd makes a wrong turn, then comes back and tells us there are hundreds of people sleeping on the floor in there. We get to the tourist office, get out room, and run into a young East German who wants to know where he can get a street map of the city like the one I have. We get a room, and dump our stuff there, then head toward the Wall, which I'd never seen before. We go to the Potsdamer Platz, which was once the busiest crossroads in Berlin, and possibly in Europe. Now it's a no-man's land between the walls. At the place where the Potsdamer Platz used to be, a hole has been cut in the Wall, big enough to admit cars, and a road has been constructed. The East Germans have set up a crossing point there. Around the hole is a big crowd and television crews. Trabis are crossing through the hole, the drivers beaming. Each car that crosses is applauded by the crowd.
[Not far away, a man is handing out packages of cookies and chocolate from the back of a truck, bouquets of flowers are being handed out from a van, and the British Army (this is the British sector) is distributing hot chocolate and soup from a tent. (The weather is very cold.)
[As we walk along the west side of the Wall, along a path that used to be off limits since it's technically in East Berlin, we see hundreds of people with hammers and chisels breaking their piece off the wall. Other people are climbing to the top by ladders and poles. The West Berlin police are trying to keep people from climbing on and hammering the Wall, but as soon as they leave, more people come. When we get to the Brandenburg Gate, there are even bigger crowds. There are rumors that it will open today, and journalists, TV crews, and spectators are on hand. Vendors do a good business in t-shirts and hot mulled wine. Various groups are demonstrating at the base, and there is much new graffiti, even though there are barriers to keep people away. East German border guards walk on the top of the Wall, and one of them accepts a bouquet from a young woman below. A fat man in a ten-gallon hat buys East German money from two East Germans. Everyone seems happy with the transaction, and they pose for pictures. An American woman tells me that her friend came all the way from Scotland to be there today. East German border guards look through holes in the Wall, and tourists look back.
[Anyway, that was the atmosphere a month before. As you'll see, things had calmed down a bit since then:]
December 26, 1989 - Berlin
By the Brandenburger Tor. I came in by the Lehrter Stadtbahnhof and walked along the Spree. I saw a bridge the ended right in the middle of the river, before it reached the other side (and the Wall). Watched trains run along the wall on the other side. One train had both East and West German cars on it. I walk by the memorials again. One of them: 'Ballonflucht: Maerz 1989.' Written under it: 'Denk an dieses Jahr!!! An dem Opfer und dem Taeter!' ('Think of this year!!! Of the victim and the one who committed the act!') East Germans walking along the western side, pointing out landmarks to their children that they've never seen from this angle. A hole in the Wall with two East German border guards looking through. They look like kids. Passing Americans take pictures of them as curiosities: 'Look! There's two of them!'
It occurs to me that this is a wholely appropriate way to remove the Wall. To remove it as a simple government act would be somewhat empty, and would deprive the people of their triumph.
How to recognize East Germans? I'm inclined to think that middle-aged men wearing boxy variations of Greek fisherman's caps are East Germans. Also, people wearing certain types of denim jackets. I know it's superficial, but.... [Later I find out that the most obvious sign of an East German is a certain brand of stone-washed jeans.]
A group of young East Germans posing for pictures next to a hole in the Wall, with a bottle of champagne.
A West Berlin artist shakes my hand, with a piece of clay pressed in between. After he does this with lots of people, he tells me, the clay will be baked, and will go on display at an exhibition in February.
The sound here is wonderful. Just hammers on concrete everywhere.
December 27, 1989 - Berlin
This is a very full day. I'll try to put down as much as I can remember of what we did, along with any impressions I can think of.
The day started early. We went to Checkpoint Charlie and walked right through. It took no more than 15 minutes. No customs, no money changing. We got to the meeting place early and did a little walking around. Noticed that a number of restored buildings were going up. Looked in one direction, towards the Wall, and saw depressing dirty drab buildings. Walked by the House of Soviet Science and Culture. Children were going in for some program. Came back and waited for a while. We were approached by a man in his 60's. Speaking German, he introduced himself as Mr. Ness and said that his daughter would be meeting us, too. Soon we saw her, a red-haired woman in her late 30's named Monika. She works as a proofreader for Neues Deutschland and spoke English. We first went to Academy Square and the French Dome. Along the way we learned that not much work was being done on the buildings because the workmen, in a protest against the privileges of Berlin, had all gone home to towns like Leipzig, Dresden, and Karl-Marx-Stadt. We saw a picture of the Central Committee building. Monika joked that people were wondering why they needed such a large building now that the committee was so small.
As we walk, we talk about the economy. Mr. Ness tells us how the East Germans have to give up all their hard currency to the state in return for 'forum checks,' which can be used at hard currency stores, but are no good in the West.
We walk to the Catholic Cathedral and then to the Pergamon Museum (which was magnificent), where we met Monika's younger sister, Bettina, who works as a ticket taker on the S-bahn. She works a double shift because so many people had gone over to the west. The Nesses are wonderfully generous, not allowing us to pay for anything, although we know this must be a hardship for them. I feel very guilty about this, not for the last time.
A walk to Friedrichstrasse takes us to the S-bahn, which we take almost to the end of the line. Monika gets off earlier to go home. We'll see her later. The train goes through suburban areas of small houses. Mr. Ness tells us this all used to be open space. Now it's fairly built up, with factories and large apartment houses. In the middle of this, you'll see small village centers with about 15 or 20 houses and a few shops. Every so often we see what looks like a small hill. Mr. Ness tells us these are rubble piles from the war, which have been covered over with soil and are now used for recreation - as water slides and ski slopes.
We get off the train at one of these small villages. Plenty of open space, but a fair amount of dust and dirt in the streets. We see small piles of brown coal outside, which Mark says is extremely polluting. (Mark has a PhD in coal combustion, so he should know.) We are told that East Germany is the world's largest producer of brown coal.
We walk a short way down a street to a fairly large house in which the Nesses live. When I comment on its size, we're told that it's shared by two families and that it's fairly cramped. We go inside and are greeted by Mrs. Ness, to whom I spoke on the phone the day before. Joining us for dinner is Bettina's five-year-old son, Phillip. The food is excellent, and our hosts must have put themselves out for this. We have potatoes, cutlets, weinbrand (like a whiskey), beer, pudding for dessert, and home-grown asparagus, of which Mr. Ness, a retired teacher in the building trades, is very proud. All the while, Sesame Street is on the TV for Phillip. He shows us his Christmas presents, which are pretty skimpy as these things go: some white chocolate, which he shares with us, and some match-box toys. Other presents under the Christmas tree look like household supplies, like laundry detergent. The talk at dinner is on everyday life. They ask about salaries in the US, housing prices in Switzerland. I tell them that high housing prices in Switzerland is one reason why I don't want to stay. Mr. Ness shows us his Commodore home computer with lots of software, mostly games (pirated?). He complains that the instructions are all in English. We learn that he has a son-in-law who lives in Paris and sells furniture for an East German firm; he also has a brother in Calgary. Willibald's wife is his niece. There is also family in Karl-Marx-Stadt.
After lunch we thank Mrs. Ness, and take a combination of trains, buses, and trams to Monika's apartment.
Again, we see rubble piles, large greenhouse installations, shopping centers, open space, apartment complexes, and small old town cores. Monika lives in a large apartment complex, in a prefabricated apartment - all assembled as a unit. The apartment is fairly large, with high ceilings. We meet her son Daniel (9-1/2), who speaks a little English (shyly) and their small dog. Her daughter Claudia is not there, having gone to West Berlin for the day with friends. Claudia is a speed skater, and apparently quite a good one. We learn that she is one of the top three skaters of her age (16) in East Germany, she has competed all over the world, and that she hopes to compete in the Olympics. We see her room, full of medals and also other things you would expect to find in a teenage girl's room - posters of movie stars, pictures of boyfriends, stuffed animals. The only privilege we can see is the travel to competitions. She has to practice very hard: 3-4 hours a day.
We later learn, after Monika opens up more to us and talk turns more political, the story of how Claudia once met an Austrian boy at a speed skating competition in Italy and wrote letters to him. Monika was called in to the office of the sports club director and told that Claudia would have to stop writing. He said that the boy had a girlfriend and Monika thought that he could probably produce a letter to that effect if he had to. Claudia wrote the boy one last letter saying she had met another boy. Since then, however, they've met again, and everything's been straightened out.
We have some coffee and cookies at the apartment and arrange to attend a performance of My Fair Lady that even- ing. Monika and her mother will join us. We say our farewells to Mr. Ness, then walk to the train station with Monika and Bettina. They show us the local indoor swimming pool, which is quite nice, and show us the newsstand. I thought that they were being ironic when they spoke of its 'large selection' and agreed that it was fairly small, but I'm not sure that's what she meant and felt a little bad about it.
We get on the train and talk about child care in East Germany. There's day care from six weeks, and a curriculum from one year. Monika thinks they do a pretty good job.
We earlier learned about Trabis. An East German earns about one thousand Ost-Marks per month. The car costs 33,000 M, and takes 12 years of waiting to get. Used cars, which have a shorter waiting time, cost more: 60,000 M. Monika says with some amazement that there are people who just deal in used cars. I think she meant people who just buy a new car and resell it for a profit. What a strange economy.
Bettina gets off to go to work, and we continue on to Alexanderplatz, the big square in the center of the city. We walk to an exhibition space where New Forum and the other new parties have posters and programs and sell publications. I feel like I'm standing in the middle of the nerve center of change in East Berlin. The people there are mostly young and have an air of the '60's about them (something I'll again feel in Prague). There are ecological groups, socialist groups, democratic groups, all against unification as far as I can tell. There are photographs of the big November 4 demonstrations, anti-Krenz posters, signs of solidarity with the people of Romania, and anti-US/Panama signs.
Monika explains some things to us, talks to the people, gets us some literature. We learn that she and her son attended the big demonstration, and also a later one where a human chain was built across East Germany. People are setting up for a Romanian jazz performance, but we don't have time to stay.
We walk to the Palace of the Republic, which she tells us is known as the 'House of Lamps' because there are so many lighting fixtures. I'd been in this building before, which, among other things, contains the Parliament hall, several restaurants and auditoriums and a bowling alley, the last time I was in Berlin, and I was impressed that it was so accessible to the people, but the atmosphere and decor reminded me a bit of a Long Island catering hall. There is a concert tonight, and many people, both ordinarily and fashionably dressed, are arriving. People look very happy. We look in for a short time, then walk to a nearby restored quarter with many fashionable shops - much nicer than anything in Leipzig. I'm surprised; I had no idea that this area was here the last time I was here, and it's right off the Alexanderplatz. It's very peaceful and looks like a nice place to live. It would probably be great with snow on the ground (although I won't see any of that until the very last day of the trip). We walk quickly to the theatre, pick up the tickets (10 M, but maybe discounts). The play was excellently done - in German, but I followed it. The actor who played Henry Higgins was particularly good, and Eliza Doolittle was played with a very thick Berlin accent. We had wine during intermission, saw the rest of the play, and said our farewells. We arranged to meet Monika the following morning in the west.
We walk back, overwhelmed by all the hospitality we've been shown, and by the openness and friendliness of the people. We again feel bad about all the time and money they've spent on us, and hope we can return the favor. I think that, in part, they're trying out some of their new freedoms by hosting some Americans. I think Willibald may be right in that there's a bit of innocence about these people. Monika says that absorbing these freedoms so quickly is a bit overwhelming; it takes some getting used to.
We make a quick detour to see the Brandenburg Gate. The guard at the front of what was once no-man's land says we can actually cross through there. We walk around and under the gate, an angle that, until a few days ago, was impossible to see. The pillars of the gate are still scarred by bullet holes, filled in with cement. Already there's some graffiti on the east side of the wall, some of it American. At the crossing itself, the guard says that we can't cross there after all, but have to go back by Checkpoint Charlie. That's ok. We go home.
January 4, 1990 - Budapest
Seeing an Iggy and the Stooges album in a Budapest shop window reminded me of something that Joseph the American told me in Prague. He said he had gone to the Press Club in Prague to meet friends, and while he was there, Vaclav Havel showed up doing the same thing. This was a few days before he became president. The talked for about half an hour. It turns out that Havel is a big fan of Iggy Pop. There - that's a piece of news that hasn't been printed in any newspaper.
I decided to take the fifth walk in Andras Torok's 'Budapest: A Critical Guide', one of the best guide-books I've ever found for any city. The walk is advertised as a sampling of shopping and residential areas on the outer edge of the inner city, along the Nagykorut, or Great Ring. Although Torok obviously loves his city, he just as obviously things that there's a lot that could be better, and he says it very candidly. The area I'll be walking through, for example, he says skirts an area where 'a lot of lonely hopeless old people live.'
Before I go, I stop by a bookstore (Hungarian word: konyvesbolt) to find a nice picture book of Prague. I pick one in German with what I consider to be evocative color photographs. Only 250ft (about four dollars). Just for laughs, I also pick up a Hungarian translation of Mark Helprin's 'Winter's Tale'.
There are lots and lots of bookstores in Budapest. Many, if not most of them, belong to the AK chain. They all seem to be well-stocked, although the selection is generally similar. Many of them also sell records. There are also lots of booksellers spreading out their wares on the streetcorners. Both here, and in the stores, there's a fair amount of religious literature.
There are lots of newsstands and newsvendors, and their wares seem to be read avidly.
When I came out of my hotel, I saw a couple of policemen walking around. In Prague I hardly saw a single cop; here they walk beats like New York cops, with pistols and nightsticks. They seem pretty benign. In fact, central Pest (the part of the city on the east bank on the Danube) reminds me of the Lower East Side of New York, with the dirt, the traffic, the crowds, the narrow streets, and the small shops and omnipresent and unpretentious shop signs.
Starting out on the Vaci utca again, I was reminded of the description of a Hungarian that a coworker of mine gave as someone who can get in after you in a revolving door, and get out ahead of you. Although the area I visited didn't seem as prosperous as the Vaci utca, the inhabitants seemed to show the same kind of business drive.
I'm sitting in the bierstuebe of the hotel after dinner and listening to an American party at a neighboring table booth talk about their experiences in Bucharest over New Year's. How they were looked after the ambassador, and how people fired weapons from the entrance of their hotel. The contrast between their demeanor and their adventure is disturbing; these are the kind of middle-aged middle-American tourists you see in Paris speaking English loudly and slowly to uncomprehending waiters. I have no idea what they would be doing in Romania in the best of times, much less in the middle of a revolution.
It's surprising how, when you're in Budapest for a day or so, your perception of expenses changes. I think I'll take it easy tonight and go to the hotel bierstuebe (brasserie, beer restaurant), but then I look at the menu and see main courses for 210-600 ft. Even this is around four to ten dollars, I say, 'Forget it!' I got dinner last night for less than 180 ft, and here the same beer alone costs 120! I go back to last night's restaurant (it was good, and I'm feeling lazy) but the wait is an hour, so I come back to the hotel and order a meal with the appetizing name of 'slaughter-day dish.' It's a plate of sausages, including blood sausage, and it's pretty good. (In addition to trying the local beer when I travel, I always make it a point to try the local cheese and sausages.) This'll come to about 600 ft with the beer, which is an unheard-of price for a Hungarian in Budapest, but it's comfortable, not crowded, and I feel as though I can sit for a while and write in my notebook.
The restaurant, hotel elevator, and lobby have piped-in music. I hear Van Halen, the Stones, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Gerbeaud's goes more for easy-listening string versions of 'As Tears Go By.'
Other examples of skewed prices in Budapest: 'Daily News/Naechste Nachrichten' (Hungary's English-German newspaper) goes for 14.50 ft. The International Herald Tribune, when you can get it, costs 80 ft. (Incidentally, the subunit of the forint is called the filler (100 filler to the forint). I can't think of a more appropriate name.)
I just heard the canned music in the bierstuebe play the theme from 'Hawaii Five-O'. Time to go.
Enough digressions - to the walk. My main impression is that there are a lot of shops along the Nagykorut, with a great amount of duplication, and that they compete. Torok says that anyone who wants a license to operate such a store can get one - the authorities hope that it will increase the competition and the quality. Prices of things that are imported are high, Hungarian things are low. Grocery stores had some empty shelves, particularly in the refrigerated foods sections. Butcher counters were similarly bare, although real butcher shops seemed to be well-stocked. Market stalls around the Rakoczi ter (according to Torok, the center for streetwalkers in the evening) also seemed to have good produce. There are a couple of cafeterias that seem to serve dirt-cheap food.
When I was here last, 'Rain Man' was the hot film. now it could be 'Dangerous Liasions' or 'Batman'. There's a big Batman cutout on the front of the Corvin department store.
Every bit of space that can be used for commerce seems to be used. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but it is pretty impressive. The apartment buildings are built around courtyards. Often there's a sign and showcases (often barred) around the entrance, then the store off the courtyard under a neon sign. I followed Torok's instructions and found the smallest shop in town: a record store in the space the size of a telephone booth. I swear there were four people inside, talking nose-to-nose.
I stuck my nose inside the Liszt Academy of Music and the Museum of Applied Arts. You would have no idea of the grandeur of the interiors if you had stayed outside.
Off to the side of the main drag are side streets paralleling it which have one-story buildings. It almost looks like a provincial town on those streets, if it weren't for the larger apartment blocks around. In fact, it was once a provincial town, but Budapest swallowed it up a long time ago.
The air quality is terrible. When I crossed a street, I though I smelled a lot of people smoking cigarettes, but there was no one: just a lot of car fumes. Water quality isn't too good either. Maybe that's why the espresso at Gerbeaud's tastes a little funny.
It's funny to notice some of the plays being advertised. 'Les Miserables', a female version of 'The Odd Couple', and some others which were obviously American, but whose names I didn't recognize in Hungarian. I vowed to get a Hungarian cast recording of 'Les Mis', and I walked out of the big Hungaroton store with my trophy: a cassette for 145 ft ($2.50).
My feeling is that these outlying areas aren't as prosperous as the Vaci utca district - yet. Give it a chance, though.
January 5, 1990 - Budapest
I did a lot of walking today and visited a number of markets. The first was supposedly a cheaper market in a poorer neighborhood, and the second was supposedly in a better-off neighborhood and had a better selection. I really didn't see too much difference between the two, except that the second, which was in a special building, had trucks coming and going, which suggested to me a special abundance you might not expect in the east. The other market was on an open block of land, with stalls and canopies. In both markets you could get vegetables, fruits, meat, beans and nuts, and pickles. The pickles and hot peppers looked great, but they weren't sold in jars, so I had to go back to a supermarket later to buy some. Also looking good were large salamis and Hungarian sauerkraut, which was sold out of large barrels. Not looking so good was the big pile of pig carcasses, although that would probably look good, too, once they were prepared. Fresh food seems to be more abundant, although not necessarily better, at the markets than at the grocery stores, which is probably why so many people shop there.
One thing that impressed me were the old peasant women (at least that's what they look like) who man the tables (not the stalls, where more conventional entrepreneurs and employees work). They stand behind their fruits and vegetables, and hawk them with quiet, almost plaintive voices, unlike Hungarian newsvendors, who shout out their headlines. It's enough to make you feel guilty enough to buy a radish.
I took a long walk through some places I'd never visited before. Starting at the second market, I walked through Rose Hill, an area of individual villas and houses, with a few small apartment blocks thrown in. The houses were large, and some had a fair amount of land around them. Some were in a dilapidated condition, while others were very well kept. I wondered who lived there, although it was clear that some of the residents were diplomats. It's probably the nicest place in Budapest to live.
Passing over the top of a hill, I descended through some woods to the section of Obuda. On the way down, I stopped and looked into a sports club (actually I got lost and wandered into it) that seemed to be pretty nice except that it had a sunken tennis court surrounded by concrete stands that were sagging. I'd never seen anything like it, but it was obvious what had happened: the ground was sinking under the concrete. I was surprised that nobody had thought of that before they built it. It reminded me of something that Jan had shown us in Prague. A popular restaurant located inside an old monastery had been closed. The monastery was on a hill with a complicated drainage, which the monks, who ran the restaurant, attended until the state kicked them out and took the place over. The state doesn't know how to manage the drainage, the hill is starting to fall away, and now the restaurant has to be closed because it's unsafe. Pity.
Coming out of the hills, I passed by what looked like a peasant shack (behind an incongruously grandiose gate) and entered Obuda. The streets of Obuda were lined with the single-story buildings of the village it obviously once was, and this eventually blended in with high-rise blocks as I approached the center. The blocks, incidentally, were done with more taste than others I'd seen. Probably not a bad place to live.
I passed by another market, this one a single-story building of stalls surrounding a courtyard with tables, where I bought a piece of fried dough that I had seen other people eating earlier. It was good and greasy. Nearby was a department store, or rather a multilevel shopping mall. There was a bookstore, some restaurants, and several clothing stores, and the department store, which looked at about the K-Mart level. I saw empty shelves there: the selection of socks seemed very skimpy - only a few were left.
Under the neighboring Florian ter is an underpass with an extensive group of excavated building foundations which might be Roman, but I don't know. After that, one unexpectedly (or it would have been unexpected if I hadn't known about it in advance) is the tiny central village core of Obuda, Fo ter, which contains shops, restaurants, and a museum. The museum itself is found in a palace which is itself unexpected, surrounded by nondescript walls and invisible from the street.
Fo ter, like the castle district, is restored, although I liked Fo ter better. There's a Disneyland feeling in the castle area that I don't get in the old and castle areas of Prague, for example. I know that people live there, but I get the impression that it's a place for tourists, and I can't imagine Budapesters walking around there the way they do in Prague. It's probably not a fair comparison, though, because the Budapest castle area is a little harder to get to, more isolated. Also, the Prague stuff is really old, while most of the Budapest castle was damaged or destroyed in the war. And even the modern buildings around the Budapest castle are done with a sensitivity to the surroundings.
I returned via Margaret Island, which contains a beautiful park. There are thermal springs on the island, and one pond I walked by was steaming in the cold - a very strange sight. I put my hand in the water, though, and it wasn't too hot. I walked by the two thermal resort hotels on the island. In the parking lot were Ferraris and Mercedes, with German and Italian license plates. Some people in the park were flying falcons, something I'd never seen before.
When I got back to the Vorosmarty ter, the central square of the city, near the Vaci utca, I went shopping in the nice grocery store. No salamis, and all the pear brandy was gone. I bought what I could: szlivovice, two bottles of Egri wine, and some pickles and sauerkraut. Coming back to the hotel with my booty, I dropped a bottle of wine in the lobby. The desk clerk commiserated with me and said he hoped it wasn't anything too good. I told him it could have been worse.
So I went back out to track down the rest of my goods. It was 5:00, and the evening shopping rush was on, which made the downtown area of Budapest very lively. On the Vaci utca, a number of elderly women were lined up selling furs. I wish I knew their story. Are they new furs, or are they old treasured pieces that they're selling to foreigners for a little spare change?
Speaking of change, when you walk down the Vaci utca, you can almost always see small clusters of people riffling through wads of bills. It looks vaguely sinister.
I found a grocery store where I bought my salami and hot peppers, then took a walk down the street. I stopped in a couple of bookstores. In one, I looked at a map of Prague by a Hungarian publisher for 14.50 ft. I wondered how it compared with my Falk map, which would probably cost several hundred forint more. I was sure it would be just as good. What I didn't expect was to open it and find the very same map, right down to the Falk imprint (although it wasn't slit and folded like a Falk map). I also went into a Russian bookstore, and somehow, I don't know how, since my recognition of the Cyrillic alphabet is not that good, I glanced at a book and just knew it was a copy of Arthur Hailey's 'Airport'. Sure enough, it was.
Speaking of languages, I've been speaking German to everybody here except at the hotel. I figure it's the foreign language that most people here who know a foreign language are likely to know, and sure enough everybody to whom I've spoken in German has answered in German. Even the old woman who sold me my day ticket for the bus and subway answered me in German. That doesn't really say anything, though, since the same thing could just as well have happened with English.
[On the last trip, I once returned to my parked car after a day of walking around, and found three teenagers standing around it, taking pictures of each other. When I tried to start a conversation with them, I found that only one of them spoke German; the others only spoke Russian as a foreign language. None of them knew any English.]
It may be just the day and the circumstances, but there seems to be more 'real life' on the streets of Budapest than in any of the other eastern towns we visited, more people in the stores actually buying things, or just enjoying the evening. Except for the language, which was impenetrable, I felt more at home there than in any of the other Eastern European cities. In any case, the evening air was brisk, the crowds were lively, and there was an energizing feeling to walking in the shopping streets of Budapest between 5 and 6 in the evening. I walked quite far.
I think I'm going to go home tomorrow. I'm starting to get sick, and I think that although it would be nice to see Ljubljana and Yugoslavia, I really wouldn't get much of a chance to see either one in daylight, since I would be spending most of the day driving to get there. It would be better to make the marathon drive back to Zurich (12-14 hours, I think) and then spend a day at home relaxing.
January 6, 1990 -Budapest/Zurich
[If I had decided to go on to Yugoslavia, perhaps the trip would have continued like this (since that was the way I had returned during the previous time I was in Budapest):
[In the morning, we left the hotel. Interestingly enough, we were staying in a hotel for Eastern Europeans, that being the only hotel IBUSZ in Budapest could book us in on such short notice. We had stayed the previous night in a private apartment, but the friend I was travelling with was disturbed by this arrangement, so we moved to the hotel. The room was dormitory quality, and the bathrooms and showers were not only shared, but were communal, with lots of shower stalls and toilets, like a dorm, or a locker room in a gym. The hotel was full of bus loads of Bulgarians on tours. They seemed to spend much of their time in the lobby drinking. Real party animals.
[We left the town and headed towards Lake Balaton, a large lake in western Hungary which is a popular resort area. We turned into one of the small towns on the lake, which is very long and narrow (the lake is not very visible from the main road), and stopped for a minute. Right after we stopped, a family that had been fishing nearby came over, pressed paper cups into our hands, and filled them with Hungarian champagne. We talked for a while (in German, they didn't know English), the father made lewd jokes and told us we had to come back to see Balaton in the high season when all the tourists were there. I asked him if they caught many fish, he just laughed and said no. They just liked to sit by the lake and relax and drink a little wine, and if they were lucky enough to catch a fish, well, that was fine, too. We left feeling good, this being one of those experiences you like to have while travelling.
[We got to the border and stopped at the Hungarian side first. I was surprised that I could actually change my forints. I bought Yugoslavian dinar at what was probably an inferior rate, but I was happy to get anything at all for the forints. If I thought that the forints were relatively worthless, the dinar were amazingly so; my wallet suddenly became extremely fat, filled with tens of thousands of dinar. I liked the engravings on the notes: they were the expected workers and miners and peasants, but the portraits had a human feeling to them, they were not heroic, but showed people who had seen some pain and suffering and life, which I suppose made them heroic in their own way after all.
[When we left the Hungarian border post, we entered a no-man's land with guard towers and gun emplacements. I began to get nervous. I didn't have a Yugoslavian visa, and although I had heard that I could get one at the border, what if I couldn't get one? Would they let me back into Hungary? What happened to people who were stuck between borders? As we approached the border post, a dapper Yugoslavian border guard stepped up and saluted us with a jaunty 'Buongiorno'. He spoke English, too, and when he asked for the visa and found we didn't have one, he responded with a mock-horror 'No visa?!,' then returned after five minutes with our passports, which now had Yugoslavian transit visas, good for overnight.
[There's not really that much to say about the rest of that trip. We ate dinner in a hotel in Ljubljana, where I was impressed by the brightly lit streets and buildings, the fashionably-dressed people, and the good and inexpensive food. We spent the night in the resort town of Postojna, where there are famous caves, and the next day headed into Italy, eating lunch in Venice and returning to Zurich that evening. It always struck me as a pretty amazing day and a half: lunch in Budapest, dinner and overnight in Yugoslavia, lunch the next day in Venice, and back in Zurich by the evening.
[But back to the trip at hand:]
Driving back from Budapest, I was in a preoccupied mood. I figured I needed gasoline, so I changed my smallest bill: 50 (Swiss) Francs. Unfortunately, every station selling unleaded gas had a long line and I didn't feel like waiting. So I'm driving down the road, listening to the funky music on Hungarian Radio Danubius, up to my wazoo in otherwise useless forints, wondering what to do. I pass a bunch of stands selling furs like the ones I saw in the Vaci utca, but what would I do with one? Finally just before the border I found a Shell station. Unfortunately, it seemed like the rest of the free world had the same idea. I wait.
I've seen a number of trucks coming in the other direction with large red crosses painted on the front, or signs saying 'Rumanien Hilfe'. Part of me feels that's where I want to go, but another part wants to go home, and besides, there's no time left. Also, would I even have the guts to go?
I'm hallucinating that I understand Hungarian. As I was driving back, I heard the DJ on Radio Danubius say something, and from the rhythm I said to myself, 'If I understood Hungarian, I'd swear that he said he was about to play 'Twist in my Sobriety.'' Sure enough, that was the next song on the radio. Maybe he said it in English but I wasn't paying attention. Later, outside Vienna, I do understand everything the DJ says. That's because I'm listening to Blue Danube Radio, an all-English station complete with smarmy, hyperactive AM-style DJs.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I drove back through a pretty snow-covered nighttime landscape of Arlberg ski villages. My reverie was interrupted when I heard the harsh Swiss dialect coming over the radio. I had to laugh, because for all my complaining about it, it made me feel like I was home.
When I got to the Swiss border, my car was covered with the accumulated grime and mud of two and a half weeks in Eastern Europe. I was sure that the border guard would stop me and say, 'Clean that thing before you bring it in here!' It must have been too dark to see, because he let me through without comment.
On the last day, I drove almost twelve hours straight, and passed through four countries (Hungary, Austria, a sliver of Germany, Austria again, and Switzerland). I violated the customs regulations in at least two of them. I carried more than 100 ft out of Hungary (well, if I couldn't spend 'em, I wanted 'em as souvenirs, and I didn't want the Hungarians to save them for me for next time - who knew if there would be a next time, and would the money even be valid then?), and I brought far more than the two liters of duty-free liquor I was allowed into Switzerland. But one of the things people have been talking about recently is free movement across borders, and I was just making my own contribution.
[Coming next: an epilogue, and an account of a trip I took that March to Dresden, when things had changed even more, and the East Germans were about to have their first free elections.]