Europe 1979 – 7 – West to East

Soviet War Memorial
1979

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.

Myself, Diane, and two other friends
with East Berlin in the background 1979

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.

A modern apartment building in East Germany
As seen from our bus window 1979

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.

Christian, our tour guide, is on the left and
Jorge, our tour guide in Prague, is on the right

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

22 comments

  1. This was an interesting and enlightening read, Betty. I smile each time something new happens in your adventure that results in a lifelong lesson or a passion. I especially loved how everyone on your bus afforded such respect to that young woman. Headcheese is one of my favourite treats. With a splash of vinegar and some salt and pepper, it’s really very good. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll convince you. I look forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Terry. We had a good group. I’d never seen headcheese before, and it looked like sliced fat to me. Maybe the headcheese you like is of a better quality. Given the tiny, dry chicken thigh and the crusty, stale bread, I’d venture to say the headcheese was likely subpar – as far as headcheese goes. I can still see it in my mind’s eye.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am with you on headcheese. Never eaten it, never will. I did find it interesting watching how they made sheep’s head stew in South Africa, but not interesting enough to want to eat it. I think the story of your boyfriend’s mother coming to meet you is so sweet. Did you pass muster?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we will leave the headcheese to others. It was a relative of my boyfriend, not his mother. His mother probably made the arrangement. It was very sweet. The boyfriend and I eventually went our separate ways, so I guess neither one of us passed the muster, so to speak!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A wonderful story. I can only imagine what your fellow travelers thought as you walked down the aisle of the bus with that bouquet of flowers.

    We hosted exchange students before and I recall the first thing on their agenda in the USA was to buy blue jeans to take back home. We thought it was odd, but they said the jeans are very valuable.

    It must of been both frightening and exciting being beyond the Iron Curtain during that day and age. We were filled with plenty of horror stories of life for those at that time. What a fascinating experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if I ever felt “scared.” While our tour had planned activities and a schedule, there were times when free time was scheduled in. In Prague, we were told we couldn’t leave the hotel. That felt very restrictive in a new way. It was a very interesting experience.

      Like

  4. This is so interesting. East Germany must have been strange to go through, great you could have a glimpse. Talking about Prague, I have been there and funny thinking of it it was a tour from school when I was in my 13th year. Every school leave was allowed to a tour and we chose Prague for 4 days. It was as you described, at the border, a bit scary; the same awful food, the money exchange was dodgy like yours and Prague was actually so dirty. When we got home and washed the hair in the sink, the water was black. The hotel was terrible, the toilets full up and yet, we actually enjoyed it. I do remember we bought lots of bags we liked in a fishing shop – the bags were just really cool then. 🙂 It brings back memories. I was there around 1979/ 1980 ish….. so roughly about the same time as you. I was only 17 then though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am glad this post brought back memories for you! Even though, like you, the food was bad, the money “dodgy”, etc, you are absolutely right – it was a good time. I am glad to have the memories. I don’t remember Prague being dirty, but we were very confined. I wonder what it looks like today. All we did in East Germany was drive through it. It didn’t look much better – at least from a bus window. Thank you for your comment, and I hope you are having a great week!

      Liked by 2 people

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