Before we left West Berlin, we saw the Soviet War Memorial. This memorial was one of several built by the Soviets to remember all the Soviet soldiers who died in the war.
In 1979, Germany was two countries – West Germany and East Germany. East Germany was communist. After the Berlin Wall came down, the country was reunited and became one Germany.
Our bus went through East Germany to get to our destination, Prague, Czechoslavakia. Czachoslavakia was also a communist country. It was a big deal to go to these communist countries, and we had to apply for visas well before our trip even started. While Germany has reunited since my trip, the opposite has happened with Czechoslavakia. In a peaceful transition, on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia became two countries – the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
We spent the better part of a day traveling and crossing the borders. I can recall certain events but not whether the events happened crossing into East Germany or crossing into Czechoslavakia. I remember we had a long wait. Like four hours. And we didn’t know why we had such a delay. We just waited.
We had to wait on the bus surrounded by lots of vehicles. At one point, we looked out our bus window and saw a girl relieving herself on the side of the road. There were no facilities available nor anyplace for her to go for privacy. We all said, “Let’s look away. Nobody look at her.” And that’s exactly what everybody on the bus did. It was a minor event, but I’ve always remembered the choice we made as a group – to do what we could to leave this girl what dignity she had in that moment. It was another life lesson from the trip which has stayed with me. Do what you can to help others keep their dignity, especially in trying situations.
After a long wait, the border agents came on our bus and walked down the aisle. We were told beforehand not to talk, not to laugh, not to make jokes. We were told to have our passports and visas ready should we be asked to provide them.
After traveling through East Germany, eventually, we made it to Prague. Like the other cities on our tour, we had a tour guide just for Prague. I remember we did a walking tour during the day and in the evening we went to a national ballet. It was the only city on our entire tour where we were told we could not venture out on our own. Not one bit.
During our guided tour during the day, I made an effort to talk with our tour guide. I often did this because I wanted to talk with Europeans as much as I could. Our tour guide’s name was Jorge. During one of our conversations, Jorge mentioned he would be coming to the United States in the future. Knowing my family would love to meet someone who lived in a communist country, I gave him my name and phone number. You’ll read more about Jorge should you continue to follow my blog.
Our dinner that evening in Prague was the worst dinner I ever had in my whole life. Including then and now. The dinner consisted of the tiniest dried up chicken thigh, a small piece of crusty stale bread, and a slice of head cheese – which looked like a slice of fatty substances to me. I ate the chicken and bread.
We all had snacks which we had bought at various rest stops along the way. And we all shared. This was how I sustaned myself during our time in Prague. Somehow, I tried some kind of wafer with lemon icing. Delicious! I hadn’t eaten anything lemon before, but maybe you can guess the result. Lemon is one of my favorite flavors today. I’ll take a lemon cake over chocolate cake any day. And if you want to be my friend forever, offer me a lemon cookie.
Let’s get back on track here.
When our bus arrived at our hotel in Prague, a couple of guys were there to meet us and wanted to talk with our tour guide, Christian. Christian stepped off the bus to chat with them and then got back on the bus to relay the message. He said these guys were willing to give us a really good exchange rate for our American dollars. It might have been four times the going rate. Christian said it was our decision if we wanted to do it. Ever the bargain hunter, I took advantage of the situation and exchanged some dollars for lots of Czech money.
The only issue was there was very little I could do with all this money. We didn’t go very many places, and where we did go, there wasn’t much to buy. We were also told we could not take any Czech money out of the country. I did end up buying a bunch of trinkets I really didn’t want just to spend some of it, but I didn’t spend it all. I ended up leaving Czechoslavakia with its money, hoping I would not suffer any reprocussions from doing so. I still have a sandwich bag of Czechoslavakian money somewhere down in my basement. Please don’t tell the authorities.
Those two guys which met our bus weren’t the only characters we met who were obsessed with American things. Several members of our group were approached with offers to buy their blue jeans. If I recall correctly, these would-be buyers were in the hotel’s hallways, knocking on doors, and offering one hundred dollars for a pair of jeans. To my knowledge, none of us sold our jeans. We were allowed one suitcase on the trip, so the clothing we had was limited. If someone sold their jeans, they probably wouldn’t have any other pants to wear.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include one last Czechoslavakian event. It was the morning we were leaving, and it was a sunny, nice day. Jorge and Christian were saying their goodbyes on the sidewalk. The rest of us were sitting on the bus waiting to leave. Then Christian stepped back on the bus and asked for me to come to the sidewalk. There, I saw a woman standing, holding a bouquet of flowers. My boyfriend at the time had relatives who lived in or near Prague. She had come to meet me.
I only had a few seconds to meet her. We didn’t have any time, and we didn’t even speak the same language. All I could do was smile, hug her and say thank you. I hadn’t known in advance this would happen, and I didn’t have any time to think if there was something else I could do. I got back on the bus, walked down the aisle to my seat carrying the flowers with everyone looking at me. I waved out the bus window to this woman as our bus drove away.
Our time behind the iron curtain was over. We were headed back to the West.
Next up: Back in the West