(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)
I recently watched “Heisser Sommer” (“Hot Summer”), the East German beach movie that took the Eastern Bloc by storm in 1968. There weren’t many Communist musicals, and even fewer that followed the American beach movie template, but this is one of them! It is a fascinating artifact from a bygone age: this link shows one of the better songs. At the same time, one cannot forget that 1968 also saw brutal repression in nearby Czechoslovakia.
I’ve since been to Eastern Europe several times, but the very first time was in 1991 when the world was still adjusting to the fall of the Iron Curtain. This was the standard post-university Eurail/backpacking/youth hostel trip before the Internet: several weeks with little else but a Eurail route map, a Hosteling International booklet showing its network of European hostels, and a “Let’s Go Europe” book to guide me. It was my first truly solo trip and I’ll probably write some more about it in the future. For now, I’ll just share a couple of my experiences from my visits to Yugoslavia and Hungary.
When I was in the southern Austrian city of Graz, I decided to hop a train south to the border station of Spielfield-Strasse. For reasons I can’t remember, I walked from there to the corresponding Yugoslavian border town of Sentilj. There was a reason that I felt rifles were trained on me as I crossed the border: although it wasn’t actually part of the Eastern Bloc, Yugoslavia was about to enter a brutal civil war that would result in the partitioning of the country. Only 6 days after, there were deaths at this very same border and Slovenia would declare its independence. Accordingly, the picture at the top of this post is probably one of the very last photos of the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” sign at the Austrian/Yugoslavian border.
I didn’t do much in Sentilj, as I needed to walk back to Spielfeld-Strasse and catch a train back to Graz that afternoon. I did, however, send a bunch of postcards from Sentilj’s ancient post office; I made note of the fact that Marshal Tito’s picture still gazed paternally from the post office wall. I also bought some Yugoslavian chocolate in an attempt to get rid of my leftover Yugoslavian dinars.
From Graz, I spent some time in Vienna before taking a train to Budapest, Hungary. Along the way, I saw a freight train carrying dozens of Soviet tanks that were apparently on their way back east. The arrival in Budapest was chaotic, as dozens of newly capitalistic Hungarians rushed onto the train to convince passengers to stay in their homes. I pretended that I had already made arrangements and escaped the steamy train. At a comfortable distance from the chaos of the train, a more restrained and seemingly trustworthy fellow offered a room for $5.00 per night (including tram tickets).
Upon arrival at his relatively suburban house, I discovered that the room was shared: the first night’s roommate was from Hong Kong while the next two nights saw a chain-smoking Russian share my space. Although it wasn’t what I had envisioned, it was still a safe place to stay.
While the Iron Curtain had fallen, Hungary was still very much in a state of transition to an open economy. Prices were incredibly low but I also remember ordering a “cucumber salad” in a restaurant: it consisted solely of a single pickle sliced into 4 quarters. Although the restaurant was practically empty, there was still a very large (and bored) contingent of formally-dressed waiters who seemed rather annoyed that I had shown up. Outside, you could still see the beauty of Budapest – it was just obscured by what seemed like decades of gray dust. Nonetheless, I still had some great experiences in Hungary (including a Paul Simon concert!) and was happy to return in 2014 to this proud and much-changed country.