Getting off the train in Prague in 1988 was stepping into a Kafka story – or a film noir of dark streets, decaying buildings, aggressive shadows, and a constant suspicion that hidden eyes watched. The old train station near the top of Wenceslas Square spilled us onto a flight of grimy steps. Suitcases in hand, we trudged downhill toward where we hoped we’d find our hotel.
Today, the world catapults from crisis to crisis and it seems as if any one of them might turn catastrophic. In 1988, a Kafkaesque cadre of Big Brothers across Eastern Europe insisted that they knew best – or else. Today, groups and leaders – both political and religious – abroad and here also seem to be eager to dictate how individuals live their lives. In 1988, much of the world was on the brink of revolution – but not everyone knew it, yet.
On the train from Vienna we’d shared a compartment with a smug Swiss and a self-conscious Pole in a badly made suit that looked as if its seams would leap apart at any moment. Between Austria and Czechoslovakia, the train stopped twice, once on each side of a viciously fenced no-man’s-land, so officials could check documents, scowl, and intimidate. The wretched Pole looked as if he’d melt in a puddle of fear and despair, but eventually the train lurched on its way with him still clutching the arms of his seat.
The Communist-run Interhotel Ambassador-Zlata Husa lurked two-thirds of the way down Wenceslas Square. The receptionist in her well-worn uniform glumly checked us in and turned us over to a bellboy who, the moment the elevator doors closed behind us, offered to exchange dollars for a very favorable, if illegal, rate. We declined the opportunity – the first of many.
The once-luxurious hotel, built early in the twentieth century, was clinging to the fantasy that it retained its aura of magnificence, despite the fact that we were handed a fistful of cheaply printed vouchers for meals in the hotel restaurants. Food at the various restaurants and cafes would require different numbers of vouchers. If we used them up, we’d have to pay with cash – assuming we could get either a table or anything to eat.
Hiking around the gray city during the next days showed us once again that life behind the Iron Curtain was an endurance contest. Everyone seemed irritable and exhausted, although they tried to be helpful if we managed to communicate with them. We were surprised by how few spoke English – in contrast to West Germany and Austria. Several times, hungry-looking men inched up to me, offering to change money at the black market rate – which, of course, was severely punished, if caught.
Dictators: there never seems to be a lack of them. They come and go, but some of them don’t go fast enough. Today, several (and their heirs) have hung around all too long: Syria, North Korea, Burma, China – the list goes on. Sometimes, we see them self-destruct, sometimes they’re painfully pulled down.
As we’ve wandered the world, we’ve seen what it’s like to live under them. The big bosses behind the Iron Curtain – as we saw in places like Prague – held on longer than many, but even there it wasn’t forever. We’ve visited some of those countries both before and after, and in transition.
The beautiful impoverished city of Prague left us with mixed feelings. We loved walking its ancient streets, but felt sorry for the shabby, hungry people. Before long, we shared that hungry look. One afternoon, by the time we began to seek a place for lunch, every restaurant was either shuttered or just closing. They’d run out of food, they told us.
Finally, we spied a basement establishment down several uneven steps from the street – a café for local workers and their families. Even then we had to wait in line until the waiter showed us to a table already occupied by a melancholy Czech family. They stared, but weren’t unfriendly as we sat down. The menu was faded, dog-eared, and stained with food.
When we finally deciphered it and pointed to what we thought we wanted, the waiter shook his head. All gone. The only thing left was weiner shnitzel and potatoes, same thing everyone else was having. We had no idea what kind of meat hid under the breading, but it did fill our stomachs. The three children and two adults whose table we shared kept eyeing our clothes, but quickly looked away if we caught them at it.
When the waiter brought the bill, tucked safely under a tidily mended napkin on the saucer, I discovered a scrawled offer to change money. Risky or not, everyone seemed eager to swap currency. I had no doubt that if I dared try it, Big Brother would swoop down on both of us. I’d read The Trial and knew very well that all of us are guilty until proven otherwise.
To be continued.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Texas A & M University Press Consortium, and by order from your local book store.