With the luxury of looking back on what happened there and in other eastern European countries later in 1989, it would be easy to introduce this piece by suggesting that I had a feeling when I visited Prague in May of that year that it was all about to come crashing down. But I didn’t really. I was just a young Englishman having a bit of an adventure.
It was an interesting time to be there, though.
Banca Zdenek lived in Prague.
He was a taxi driver.
Before the Velvet Revolution he had an arrangement with CEDOK, the Czechoslovakian state tourist agency, which meant that he was able to supplement his income by offering accommodation to travellers.
I know this because I stayed with him just six months before his country changed for ever.
Travelling independently behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s was a complex and challenging business. I had visited the old USSR on a college trip in late 1984 and passed through the German Democratic Republic during a journey round Europe by train three years later, and, when the opportunity to take off around the continent’s rail network arose again in the English spring of 1989, I decided to see what Czechoslovakia was like.
I found eastern Europe fascinating in those days. It wasn’t that I liked it – it was too colourless, too humourless and simply too grim for that – it was just that it was so radically different from anything which you were likely to encounter in the West, especially as an expenses-paid university student from the middle-class London suburbs. When I went to the Soviet Union we spent most of the long, cold evenings drunk on an intoxicating combination of dirt cheap vodka, ‘champagne’ whose precise origin was uncertain but which had certainly never been anywhere near France, and communist-era beer, which was as strong as it was tasteless. During the bleak, snow-white days we travelled around Moscow, St.Petersburg, Vladimir and Vilnius in a combination of rattling buses, overcrowded trams and gloomy metro trains, the cloying atmosphere of which left you parched by its hopelessness, lassitude and ennui.
Hardly anything worked properly, the people we encountered had to queue for everything, and the metaphorical and often literal spectre of the KGB was always looking over your shoulder. For many people the only way out of the stultifying boredom of their lives lay at the bottom of a bottle. We, however, were just recreational drinkers, and were able to leave and return to the West to enjoy a characteristically capitalist Christmas. Looking back through the refined prism of more than twenty years’ hindsight I’m disappointed that I didn’t ask more questions or reflect more deeply on what I’d seen. But then it took until the New Year for my body to recover, and I had other, much more prosaic, things on my mind, including a driving test and visits to some of the universities which I’d applied to.
In the early autumn of 1987, after spending a week or so travelling around Norway, Sweden and Denmark, I caught a train from Malmo to Berlin. After crossing the Baltic Sea by ferry my train meandered its way through the GDR to the divided city through a landscape of subsistence farms and pockets of grimy, decaying industry. Although the country was sparsely populated, the scrappy, ramshackle buildings and the slate-grey skies combined to give it a cluttered, weary feel which contrasted strongly with the fresh, modern appearance of Scandinavia.
In Berlin I found a youth hostel within a few streets’ walk of Checkpoint Charlie, which in those days was the metaphorical centre of the city. I spent a few days in the western side of the city – strolling down Unter den Linden, biding my time watching some locals play football in the Tiergarten and ascending the rickety old platform by the Wall to look into no-man’s land – before crossing to the east for a day. Having met many of them on trains in the middle of the night, I was used to the implacable expressions and gruff manners of eastern European border officials, but the walk from one side of Europe to the other via the functional hut at the heart of Checkpoint Charlie was an intimidating experience, pregnant with apprehension and possibility.
You had to queue up in the open on one side of the hut, waiting for the officials to call you forward. When they did, you walked into the hut and towards them, always thinking about what they were thinking about you and trying not to look like someone they were going to dislike or mistrust. However, providing your papers were in order – and mine were, thanks to the Transitvisum which had been inserted into my passport by another set of officials on the train – they were content to let you pass into the eastern side of the city.
Once you had crossed the Checkpoint Charlie rubicon you were free to do as you pleased. I passed the day simply wandering around, simultaneously enjoying and feeling confused by the unusual atmosphere of the city’s eastern half. Unlike the Soviet Union there was no sense that the state was watching your every move, and my only negative encounter with authority came when a policeman loudly ticked me off for having the temerity to cross the road at a light-controlled pedestrian crossing before the green man had given me permission. I had no idea what he was saying, but his meaning was clear and my expression of contrition was rapid and genuine.
There were many things to see in East Berlin, but, having been reduced through poverty to living on fruit while in Sweden, my first priority was to get myself a decent meal.
I found a restaurant on the ground floor of the famous Palasthotel on Karl Liebknecht Strasse and enjoyed a long, cheap lunch. As a young man, obviously from the west and on my own, I attracted some attention, but communication with my fellow diners wasn’t easy. I left and spent the rest of the afternoon taking the temperature of East Berlin.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the streets were quiet. The few people that were around took the sort of weekend stroll which would have been familiar to anyone from the other side of the Wall: an opportunity to gather thoughts, enjoy the company of loved ones and prepare for the working week. There seemed to be little of the ferocious despair which so obviously bubbled just under the surface of the Soviet Union but it was probably just the case that those who despaired of their existence would hardly choose to spend their Sunday afternoon in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, with its West German flag reminding them of an alternative universe which they could see but never touch. The photograph which I took at the gate shows a middle-aged couple gazing wistfully, a pair of old ladies shuffling towards the barrier and an elderly man and his wife walking away, any interest which they may once have had in what lay beyond the Wall killed by years of spirit-sapping restrictions and state-imposed discipline.
Try as I might, I just couldn’t shake the thought that unlike virtually everybody else I saw, I could simply walk back into the west at the end of the day. There might be suspicious glances from the officials at Checkpoint Charlie, but there would be no shots. When my afternoon in the east was over I passed through the barriers, produced my traditional British passport (European Union passports were still for the future) and walked back out into a completely different existence.
The following day, with steady rain falling, I caught the U-Bahn out to the Olympic Stadium, the principal venue for Hitler’s games of 1936. Although it was used by the local football club, Hertha Berlin, at the time, it had no visitor infrastructure and I was able to wander undisturbed around the stands and walkways. It had lain largely unmodernized since the Olympics, and was eerily quiet, with the ghosts of Jesse Owens and his compatriots hanging heavy in the air and adding to my feeling of having stepped into a time warp.
After returning to the centre of the city I walked down to the Wall once again. By this time the rain had stopped and the sun was out. I had perfect light in which to take some more photographs at the section where you could see the Brandenburg Gate over the wall, and where memorial crosses had been erected to commemorate the people who had been killed while trying to escape from east to west. At this time, although Gorbachev’s glasnost was well under way, few people had any inkling that the Wall would only stand for another couple of years, and it’s worth remembering that the last person to die in this manner didn’t do so until February 1989.
The next morning I caught a train to Cologne. From there I headed south, reaching Venice via a short stay in Vienna, then returning to London via a few warm late September days on the French Riviera.
For a while after that I didn’t leave Britain, first completing my final year at university and then spending a summer, autumn and winter catching commuter trains to Waterloo and shuffling papers in the redundant former headquarters of the Greater London Council. When, in the early spring of 1989, I was in a position to leave my job, I did so with few backward glances.
I decided to spend another month travelling around Europe by train and sketched out a rough itinerary in my head. I knew that I wanted to sample another part of eastern Europe and for some reason Czechoslovakia attracted my attention, probably because somebody had told me, or perhaps I had read, that Prague was a beautiful and interesting city. I found out that if you wanted to travel there independently you had to arrange your trip via the state tourist agency CEDOK which had a small office in London. I paid several visits to a small room above a shop near Leicester Square, as a result of which I obtained a visa, and, most importantly, somewhere to stay in Prague.
In early May I arrived in Prague from Vienna with the address of someone who lived in the city’s south-eastern suburbs. I established which Metro line to take, emerged from Kacerov station into a grey spring afternoon and thrust the piece of paper on which the address was written in front of a couple of bored taxi drivers who were lounging in the rank outside the station. Without hesitation they showed me the way. There was no common language but none was necessary.
It was only a five minute walk, but, as I passed between a series of colourless and soulless tower blocks divided only by the odd patch of scrubby, uneven grass, I wondered what I was letting myself in for. When I found the right block I was surprised to find that the lift worked, and I soon found myself outside the flat I had come to find. Banca Zdenek’s flat.
I hoped he was expecting me.
The man who confronted me when the steel door opened was in his late forties or early fifties, with longish, greying hair, much of which he had already lost. He was expecting me, and was friendly, or as friendly as was possible when he had no English and I didn’t speak Czech. We settled on some amateurish German, he showed me where I could sleep and conveyed the fact that he was happy for me to come and go as I pleased.
In spite of its drab, forbidding exterior, the interior of the flat was impressive. There were several vintage wooden cabinets containing china and cut glass, and old prints and pictures decorated the walls. Although I knew I wouldn’t be there very much it struck me as a pretty good place to lay my head.
I spent the following three days in Prague. I left the flat early and returned late, seeing little of Banca. On one of the few occasions I can recall us being there at the same time he was visited by a woman. She was younger than him and far from unattractive, although, with her intrusive, over-heavy make-up and predictable dress sense she did little for me, young and easily impressed though I was.
However, I was left with was a strong sense of fascination, lightly tinged with feelings of isolation. I was under the impression – probably, with hindsight, accurate – that not many people of my age travelled independently behind the Iron Curtain in those days so the brief periods I spent in the flat listening to Banca and his friend talking in a language I didn’t understand, gave me a slightly romantic sense of self-importance. I allowed myself to think that it felt like I was a character in a Kieslowski film, but what part I, as a slightly bewildered young Englishman with delusions of uniqueness, would have played, is anyone’s guess.
Memories from the days I spent in Prague are fractured and incomplete. One has me sitting on a terrace in front of Prague Castle in the vivid spring sunshine, listening to The Dream of the Blue Turtles play on a tape loop, Fortress Around Your Heart striking a particular chord on account of something which had been going on in my life before I left my job in London.
Then there was an unpleasant encounter with a sausage dog by the side of the River Vltava. His owner, a lad of about thirteen, was fishing, and I foolishly attempted to stroke his dog, which growled and went for my shins. Some Anglo-Saxon invective, which neither dog nor boy understood a word of, calmed the situation down and I walked off unscathed.
Finally I hooked up with an American couple for a visit to U Fleku,a bar and restaurant which remains a staple of the Prague tourist circuit today. We arrived early one evening and were confronted with a scene of debauchery which could have come straight out of a Hogarth painting. The place was full of East Germans getting stuck into litres of the bar’s unique brew, which was as black as Guinness but which tasted and went down like lager. The drink wasn’t the only thing going down, as several of the German drinkers went spectacularly to ground under its influence.
It was a late night, and one of my last memories involves inching my way back to the flat along an unlit corridor. Somehow I made it, but both my bank account and my tired body (I had been on the road for a month) were starting to suggest that I should head for home.
I left Prague the following morning. Banca shook my hand and saw me off. I caught the Metro back to Prague’s main station, Hlavni Nadrazi, and from there I took a train to Paris.
Life at home resumed and a month later I went to America for the summer. By the autumn I was studying in London. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in mid-November it was obvious that we were living through events which would permanently change the face of Europe, and, where Germany led, other nations followed. One day I came home from college and turned on the TV to reveal the mass demonstrations in Wenceslas Square which became the Velvet Revolution. The report mentioned that the city’s taxi drivers were heavily involved in the revolutionary activity.
Of course, I immediately thought of Banca. I still had his address and for a short time after the revolution I harboured ideas of finding someone who could draft a letter in Czech which I could send to him. There was no World Wide Web then, and things like that were harder to arrange, and I was busy, and I may have felt uneasy about it, and I never got around to doing it.
Somewhere along the line I lost the piece of paper which had his address on it.
I have never been back.