Posts Tagged ‘the Iron Curtain’

Wild but True Stories from America and around the World Chapter 16: 1979: I travel behind the Iron Curtain, but can I return to the West?

April 6, 2011

It was November, 1979; I had been staying in Mallorca for several months in the village of Soller, located on the north coast of the island. Hana and I met on the final day of her one week island vacation from Berlin.

“Why did I have to meet you on my last day here?” she said with a sense of frustration at having missed out on a holiday love affair.

“I could travel to Berlin next month; I have the time” I said hopefully. She had a pretty face and was well endowed in all the right places. Five weeks later, I called her up and she invited me to come for a visit. I caught a late morning flight from Palma to Frankfurt, then changed planes for a flight to Berlin

I arrived at two o’clock in the afternoon; the winter sky was already dark. It was bitter cold, but I was well prepared wearing a warm winter coat. I have long had a reputation among my friends and as a “candy ass.” I wear my label with pride.

Hana was there to greet me, but she was not alone. She introduced me to her ex-husband Heinrich. He was a man in his thirties, with a pleasant appearance, dark hair and medium-height. I was surprised to see him, but did not form any conclusions.

During the ride from the airport to her apartment, the conversation was relaxed, although I didn’t quite know what to make of the presence of the ex-husband. Communication between Hana and me was a challenge. She spoke Czech and German, with some limited Spanish. I spoke English and French, and a small amount of Spanish. We were therefore required to communicate in our weakest common language. Fortunately, Heinrich spoke good English and was very kind in communicating parts of our conversation in German for Hana’s benefit.

Her apartment was located in a four-story apartment building in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin. The living room faced the street.  Eric, her 11-year-old son ws introduced to me; he clicked his heels together, shook my hand and bowed his head in a formal, yet friendly manner. A great commotion ensued as three daschounds went wild at the sight of Hana. She talked to them in a loving, high-pitched voice that appeared to transport them to a state of ecstasy. The apartment exuded warmth and offered an agreeable contrast to the cold snowy street outside.

Heinrich spent the evening in the apartment, leaving around midnight. It appeared that he was serving as a chaperone at Hana’s request. At no point did he show any affection towards her. He was quite open with me; we discussed his business and he gave me every indication that he would enjoy having me as a friend.

The Charlottenburg neighborhood of Berlin had wide avenues; the coffee shops were clean and the pastries excellent. However, the coffee was a poor substitute for a Spanish café con leche’. My plan was to stay approximately ten days. The next morning, I explored the city, passing the afternoon and evening with Hana and Heinrich. There were hours during when Hana and I were alone, but neither of us made a sexual advance.

On my third day, I had a rather unpleasant experience that could have been avoided had Hana given more thought to the situation. I indicated that I would like to take the elevated subway across the Berlin Wall to see East Berlin, where Hana’s good friend Kristen lived. .

Kristen said that it was fine for us to come, although she didn’t understand why anyone would want to see the East Berlin. We took the elevated subway across the no man’s land between the wall on the West Berlin side and the East Berlin wall that prevented East Germans from fleeing their country. After the train arrived at the East Berlin station, we were required to pass through immigration; this turned out to be a major problem for me,

It was well-known by most locals that East German police harassed visitors to East Berlin , except those passing through immigration at a station referred to as Checkpoint Charlie, where the behavior of the East Germans was more closely monitored by American soldiers. Unfortunately, we were not at Checkpoint Charlie.

The major problem was that my old passport photo presented me with much longer hair and a much larger beard, giving me the appearance of a Russian dissident. A series of ten different police examined me and my passport, asking me to turn my head in different directions. After a while, I became alarmed that perhaps some charge was about to be trumped up. However, all that happened was I was denied entrance and sent back on the train to West Berlin. In a suggestion that was too little too late, Hana proposed we visit Checkpoint Charlie in order to cross without further problems. However, I had had enough interaction with officialdom for, the day, and was unwilling to suffer further indignities.

There were relatives living in Czechoslovakia in the town Brno; Hana suggested we take a five trip through East Germany to Czechoslovakia. At that time, the Soviets were occupying the country.

She visited Brno regularly, bringing clothes and food that were unavailable behind the “Iron Curtain” in Eastern Europe. Her car was an improbable three wheeler that inclined towards the front. The orange and yellow exterior added a further comic touch. She proposed that we make a five-day excursion through East Germany into Czechoslovakia and down to Brno. Ever interested in seeing a new part of the world,   I immediately accepted the offer.

As with most dictatorships, considerable contact with officialdom was required. Hana obtained a transit visa that allowed us to travel on the highway in East Germany leading to Czechoslovakia. A good navigational sense was essential since it was a crime to be found more than two miles from the road, which could lead to one’s arrest and likely imprisonment.

I visited the Czech Consulate the following day to obtain a visa. It turned out to be a very easy process since I was the only one who had come to the consulate that day requesting a visa. In the seventies, Czechoslovakia was hardly a popular travel destination; it was apparently something of a rarity apparently for Americans to visit. During my entire stay, I never saw another American tourist, or at least one recognizable as such.

Hana packed the little car full of chocolate, sardines and other canned goods that were difficult to obtain in Czechoslovakia. “We hate the Russians” she explained. “When they   first arrived, the first thing that we did was to remove all the street signs to make travel more difficult for them. None of the young girls would talk to the Russian soldiers; I heard stories that some of the soldiers cried when the girls refused to talk to them.” said Hana.

We started off on our trip early in the morning on a very cold day. There was no problem entering East Germany at the border; the road leading to Czechoslovakia was in good condition. We passed the cities of Halle and Dresden. Hana maintained a lively conversation while driving. She appeared excited at the prospect of returning to her native country and seeing her relatives and friends.

When we arrived in Brno, which is located in Moravia, Hana said that I needed to present myself at the local police station, a compulsory formality during the Soviet occupation. The conversation there was in Slavic and was beyond my comprehension. However, from the glances of the police in her direction, Hana’s well-endowed features surely counted for something. We left without the police asking me a single question.

Hana explained that for a host of reasons, she recommended that I stay in a government operated hotel, where the room was spacious and comfortable. The hotel itself was a lesson in bureaucracy run amok. Each floor had its own cleaning staff, reception, and accounting operations.  No one appeared to be terribly busy, nor did anyone seen particularly tired from overwork.

Czechoslovakia was proving to be an unsettling experience. Speaking English, French and Spanish enabled me to communicate in most countries in the world, but not here. I did not even have a Czech phrasebook at my disposal since the trip was unexpected. .

The next stop for us was the bank, where I changed money. There were few people waiting in line, yet progress was slow indeed. Hana leaned over and whispered “that teller is complaining to the customer that she is having trouble getting her six-year-old to eat. The clerk next to her is talking about her boyfriend. She loves him madly and is describing how wonderful he is. From the look on the face on the other clerk, it appears she harbors doubts as to the boyfriend’s excellent qualities. Notice the very thin smile on her face that is remaining in one place. It is likely that she has heard this conversation many times before, and wishes she had not done so.” said Hana saucily.

After the bank, we went to a nearby restaurant. What followed was an education in the scarcity of goods in Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. The restaurant was almost empty, with only three patrons sitting at one table. The waiter arrived with large menus; Hana translated the dishes for me. I pointed to the chicken with potatoes; the waiter immediately shook his head and said “not today”. I pointed to two other entrées; neither was available. At that point, I put the menu down, smiled and said to Hana “Please ask him what entrées are available today.”

I studied Hana carefully during the meal; she had a different presence about her in Czechoslovakia than in Berlin. She was dressed elegantly and was wearing makeup. In Berlin, she wore unpretentious clothes, usually blue jeans and a green Army jacket. Of course, with her pretty face, nice legs and her other charms, she would have been appealing wearing anything, including a nun’s habit. Upon further reflection, Hana dressed in a nun’s habit presented erotic possibilities. Was she trying to impress her relatives and friends, or was her behavior designed to increase her status with the authorities?

She had bribed the border guards at the immigration checkpoint entering Czechoslovakia with bratwurst. This was not a profit-making venture, but rather one that provided enjoyment for her relatives and friends. She appeared to be reveling in her role as the rich relative from the West; I was unsure that I cared for the transformation.

Brno offered street scenes reminiscent of a 1920’s movie. An old-style trolley traveled noisily along a wide avenue under gray winter skies. Hana’s relatives were formal with me, well short of friendliness. There was a reserve that may have been due to my long hair and beard, or perhaps to my undefined relationship with Hana. For whatever reason, I felt uncomfortable at the obvious scrutiny and lack of warmth. These were not people I desired to spend time with. During one visit, her brother-in-law noticed that my socks did not match, making an issue of it. I have long had a habit of being comfortable wearing socks that do not match. While I don’t go out of my way to avoid matching them, I am not particularly concerned if the two are different.

They were unhappy people, hardly surprising given the harsh circumstances of living in an occupied country, yet I suspected they might have been unhappy in better times as well. The former Czech government of Alexander Dubcek had introduced a more liberal form of Communist government referred to as “Socialism with a human face.” The changes had not been well received in Moscow; soon the presence of Soviet tanks and troops were striking evidence of that displeasure.

The Soviets ousted Mr. Dubcek, relegating him to work as a night watchman, while placing their own man in power. Meanwhile, the Czechs could do little about it.

I overheard Hana’s cousin Nicole say to her husband “Look at this American traveling the world free as a bird, living in Mallorca and flying to Berlin on a whim, while our store shelves are half-empty.”

Given the uncomfortable welcome and the pettiness of some of the comments, I excused myself, citing travel fatigue, returning to my hotel with a feeling a relief to be away from her relations. After taking a nap, I strolled around town, stopping at a café, where I sipped coffee, listened to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” on my portable cassette player and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude.” This was a better way to spend my time.

That evening, Heinrich and Hana came to my hotel to invite me to an evening at one of Brno’s popular nightspots. It was a huge cave built into the side of a hill and lighted by large torches on the walls. We were soon joined by a Russian named Anatoly, who was the manager of a tire factory in his homeland. He was friendly and gregarious, talking freely about meetings with then Russian premier Leonid Breshnev and production difficulties that necessitated bribing other state enterprises responsible for raw materials that he needed at his factory. It was obvious that he trusted Heinrich and Hana and was clearly ready to have a few laughs and enjoy himself.

I wondered if Hana had cultivated him as a friend to give herself some insulation from the current régime; dictatorships fostered paranoid thinking. Everyone was in a good mood.  Heinrich, usually a man of few words, seemed quite content to join in the conversation. It was hard to know what was going on inside him. I wondered what had caused them to separate, and how they had remained on reasonably good terms. Although Eric was not Heinrich’s son, perhaps he was the reason why Heinrich kept in close contact. I could see that Hana could be exasperating. One night I was just coming into the living room when Hana started teasing him about something. I was surprised when he gave her a hard slap on her bottom. As she walked towards the kitchen, I noticed her rub herself to alleviate the sting. I would have loved to a volunteered for the task!

From their first meeting, Heinrich had been quite friendly towards me, speaking openly about the challenges facing him with his small business, where he employed two workers. It was a shop he had inherited from his father, and one that he was not pleased to operate. At the moment, it was not profitable enough to sell, but at the same time it made enough to pay the employees and provide him with a modest income.

There were indications that, given Hana’s self-absorption, she was not an easy partner. I felt intuitively that Heinrich was a decent man who was wise enough to realize he had made a mistake getting involved with her, but was drawn to her and her son for whatever reason. Back in Berlin, Heinrich always left Hana’s apartment in the evening. Did he have a lover waiting for him somewhere in Berlin? After my second night, Heinrich spent less time in Hana’s apartment in Charlottenburg. Perhaps, Hana concluded that Heinrich no longer needed to serve as a watchdog since I had not made any sexual advances.

The experience with Hana confirmed my suspicion that one of the reasons why the European ladies that I met in Mallorca usually willing were always willing to go to bed on the first night.  Mallorca was not home. They were on vacation and open to adventures, including those of the sexual variety. When they were in their hometown, their sensibilities were not the same.

The more that I observed her, the less I felt inclined to be her lover. The party at the nightclub continued; there was excellent wine, along with music provided by a quartet of violinists. The others were laughing, which I joined in on without understanding the language or the humor. Language had remained a major problem since neither Hana nor I was fluent in Spanish, which was our only common language.

At about two in the morning, fatigue overtook the group; it was time to leave. We went to the coat room to retrieve our belongings. In the presence of Heinrich, Hana suddenly lunged at me, hugging me in a tight embrace and looked expectantly in my eyes as she awaited a kiss. Ever inclined to avoid offense and concerned over the possibility of Heinrich’s discomfort, I gave her a peck on the cheek, gently pulling away from her.

The nightclub was within walking distance of my hotel. I found myself excited at the prospect of making love to her, wondering if I could invite her upstairs to my room. Would that create problems with the hotel staff?  How uncomfortable would Heinrich feel as if he watched his ex-wife enter a hotel with someone else? I had never been in a position like this; the language difficulties prevented me from knowing Hana’s relationship with her ex-husband. Had he left her because she had other sexual affairs? Did she tell him that she was not interested in a relationship with him, but needed his  help during my stay?

There were many opportunities during the first days for us to have made love discreetly. Was her sudden sexual interest designed to provoke Heinrich, or was her arousal simply due to the large amount of wine she had consumed?

It was not worth it. I shook hands with Heinrich, gave Hana a hug, and excused myself, saying I was tired and would see them in the morning. She gave a little shrug, as if to say “well, you had your chance.” Meanwhile, Heinrich’s face remained as inscrutable as back of a Japanese corporate executive.

The returns trip to West Berlin filled me with dread. Would East German immigration  deny me entrance to East Germany based on the variance between my passport photo and my current appearance?  If so, would I be forced to return to Czechoslovakia?

I decided that if that occurred, I would take a train to the Austrian border. How long would that take? My return flight to Mallorca was due to leave in less than two days.

Would these fascists arrest me on suspicion of using someone else’s passport?  Would I receive assistance from the American consulate? Consulate staff did not enjoy a good reputation for helpfulness.

The questions and concerns were churning in my brain. I decided not to share such   thoughts with Hana or Heinrich. They could not do much to help; there was no point in making them nervous.

The car pulled up to the border checkpoint. It was an extremely cold night, probably close to 15° Fahrenheit, yet the guards ordered us to turn off the engine. Travelers were being carefully questioned. I was feeling edgy; would I make it through or would these Fascists in leather hip boots cause me problems?

After an agonizing wait, it was our turn. The officials opened my travel bag and began looking through my books on yoga; perhaps looking for smuggled letters. It was doubtful they were seeking answers to metaphysical questions, or even the mundane question “why should these people have to wait in the cold when the car has a heater?” The uncertainty was taking an emotional toll on my psyche.

Hana was asked numerous questions, which she handled calmly. After a few minutes, the officer waved his arm to proceed. There were no amenities of “good evening” or “good bye”, certainly not the Californian phrase “Have a nice day”.

The remainder of the trip went smoothly.  As we entered the apartment in Berlin, I was surprised to see how orderly the place had been maintained by Eric. Here was an 11-year-old boy who had the ability to prepare my meals, take care of three dogs, go to school and adequately maintain a five room apartment. In the United States, Hana would have probably been arrested for child abuse after the neighbors complained to the authorities that am 11-year-old child had been left alone. The reason Hana gave for leaving Eric behind was that she feared, probably with good reason, that because he had been born in Czechoslovakia, Eric might not have been permitted to leave that country.

Years later, Hana visited me in Mallorca, with Heinrich still in toe. She came to my house in Puerto de Soller on the north coast of Mallorca, where I was living with my current lover. We both spoke more Spanish and were able to communicate effectively, but I continued to feel that I could not sense an emotional connection with her. traveling to Berlin had been an interesting life experience, but I did not expect that we would see each other again.  We never did.