A Trip Behind the Iron Curtain (October 1988)

[Presented here as written in 1988, reflecting myself and my views as a New York lawyer.  Apologies in advance for a few clueless remarks here.  I’ve matured somewhat in the meantime.]

October 27, 1988

Life As a Set of Bizarre Weeks, Take Three …

I just spent six days on the trains in Europe. Half of that was behind the Iron Curtain.

The price was right. I flew as a courier. $150 round-trip, New York to Frankfurt. And I simply slept on the trains in Eastern Europe.

I cannot say it was a perfect trip. I did not mind lugging around two big camera lenses and nine rolls of film, but it seemed a little silly when I discovered that I had left the camera itself back in New Jersey. Also, there are no attractive women in Eastern Europe.

Things are pretty screwed up in Poland. I spent an hour and a half in line for a train ticket. There were only seven people in front of me, and two clerks working. They just had a lot to do — stamping seven carbon copies of each document with eleven different rubber stamps, using rotary phones to call numbers where no one answered, adding numbers with ye olde hand-crank adding machines. And then, after all that waiting, the ticket cost a lousy six bucks.

I tell you, if we sent in a few dozen Marines, armed with personal computers and touch-tone phones, I think we could seize control of that country. They’d be the clerical equivalent of Rambo.

East Berlin has some pretty impressive monuments. The Wall runs across a broad boulevard that used to be the main street of town, right behind the Brandenburg Gate, which is a big monument in the middle of what used to be a traffic circle before the Wall cut it in two. I guess now it’s a traffic semicircle.

But East Berlin is no charm. It’s gray, the people don’t smile, things are all broken down. It’s terrible, like … well, like New York. In West Berlin, right up to The Wall, every window has flowerboxes in full bloom. But I don’t think there’s a single one in East Berlin.

Krakow, Poland, is not so different. The town square itself is great — a big cathedral in the middle of a pedestrian mall the size of several city blocks. Nothing in the mall but an art show, pigeons, and thousands of college students. The town has a lot of potential; now, however, it’s vaguely reminiscent of Newark, but with less ethnic diversity. I saw one street singer, and he was terrible.

Budapest looks better. Houses seem better cared-for. There are lots of stores, and a lot more traffic and action on the streets. Thirty cents for a big bowl of goulash, but sixty bucks for a toaster, if you can get your hands on dollars. There’s a Hyatt and a Hilton. I shot the breeze with the main dude at the Hilton for a while, told him I’d have loved to have a beer in his bar but my feet stank from three days without taking my boots off. He seemed to sympathize.

Crossing borders was a sheer delight. When I went from West to East Berlin on my way to Poland, the East German border man went through every item in my bag. He’d hold up something and ask me, in a phony-casual voice, “Ah, and what is this?” He’d look at my eyes, instead of at the thing, when he asked. Spooky. Then he took all my papers down the corridor. He was gone just long enough to make me nervous as hell.

In all those Eastern European countries, it seems, you’re forbidden to take currency out of the country. As a result, I was forced to spend my East German marks on a bottle of wine which I drank on the train to Poland.

And then, at each border, you’re sleeping happily in your train compartment, legs finally twisted into some semi-acceptable compromise with the person sitting across from you, and they yank open the compartment door, flip on the lights, and yell something incomprehensible at you. You hand the guy your passport. He takes one look and gives it back. You go back to sleep. Five minutes later, another guy comes by and wants to see it. This is because you’re an American and they’re afraid you’re going to do something seditious, like smuggle Michael Jackson music videos through to Lech Walesa.

The worst was the night when I went from Poland through Czechoslovakia to Hungary. I must have handed my train ticket and passport to fifteen different officials. It got to where I would have handed it to the janitor if he had worn a more impressive uniform. Small wonder that I was a little punchy when I finally made it through to the Budapest Hilton.

Then again, I wasn’t the only one. I was sharing my train compartment with two happy Hungarian couples and somebody’s fourteen-year-old daughter. When the sun came up, they yanked out a bottle of anise or something and took a nip. Offered me some, but I declined. They downed it and danced off, shouting “Arrividerci!” and pretending to be Italian.

I was a regular traffic-stopper. Carrying papers — any papers — in your hand is a sure way to get attention. But it was much better to whip out my microcassette tape recorder and speak into it, like a walkie-talkie, just as I was strolling into the middle of a crowd. Every head would turn. What a trip. I could stop a whole fleet of taxis merely by putting my finger on the “Record” button. Raw power.

They really liked to look into my bag when I opened it. I can’t tell you whether they would have been more interested in seeing a stack of pocket calculators or a dozen bottles of Kaopectate. But they liked Western things, including Western currencies. On the train to Poland, one of the Polish guys wanted me to swap dollars for zlotys. He went up and down through the train, looking for a friend to lend him zlotys for the swap. He came back, looking really disappointed, and said he had not been able to assemble 4000 zlotys to swap for, would you believe, one dollar. I felt awful. I just gave him the dollar. It was all I could do to restrain myself from giving him a five.

Those currency transactions are illegal. So when I found myself lost in the Polish countryside without any zlotys, what I had to do to buy a train ticket was to indicate that I was stuck and I would appreciate, you understand, I would appreciate assistance in getting on a train. The kindly people bought my tickets for me, and then I used Deutschmarks to signal my appreciation to them. My appreciation was appreciated.

It wasn’t all money, though. I was among friendly, curious people. People wore red, white and blue, and garments with sports slogans on them in English, even though they didn’t speak the language. In Poznan, they had a big display with a word which meant, I think, “cooperation,” surrounded by flags of many nations, including the U.S.

I saw some signs of life from a past age. I saw a guy trying to get his cow onto a cart, pleading and shoving; tired-looking construction workers carrying bricks into a building by hand at night; street sweepers using old brooms with twigs lashed to a stick, as though borrowed from the Wicked Witch of the West. I saw shacks that had bathtubs on their tiny front lawns. I thought they might be for watering animals or plants, but then I saw the shower plumbing sticking up in the air overhead.

And I met some great people. One guy walked me three blocks out of his way so I could find my train. Another got off his train, without a coat, to help me find my way, and he stayed to talk to me, in his pidgin German, so long that they closed the door behind him and he had to run down the platform to the last remaining open door. Some old coot spurned my request for directions on a bus, and two other people — neither of whom spoke German or English — practically fell over themselves trying to help me. I saw young girls in elaborate dresses and shawls. There are people who play with their children in the fields in Poland. A lot of people smiled at me there. You’d see platforms full of people waving goodbye when the train pulled out, as though we were troops going off to war.

On the other hand, they sometimes seem like a gloomy gang, the Poles. There were men in uniform everywhere. Most seemed to be soldiers on leave — though, unlike the American servicemen in West Germany, none of these guys were rowdy.

They tolerated the fact that I don’t speak Polish, but then some of them seemed to think that, if they talked to me in Polish for long enough, some of it would sink in. So I’d sit there making helpless gestures for three or four minutes straight, while they jabbered away at me. And then, looking disgusted, they’d give up.

Pedestrian traffic really cooks in Krakow. And, thank God, they jaywalk. The West Berliners drove me nuts. Ten feet down the street from a crosswalk, Berliners will jaywalk in all kinds of crazy directions. But if they are between those painted lines at an intersection, and the sign says Don’t Walk, they won’t, even on an utterly empty street in the middle of the night.

I cannot help feeling that Germany is much weirder than Poland. In Poland, they’re too busy trying to survive. When I got to Munich, the Burger King at the train station seemed to be the center of action. I saw a guy finish his cigarette there, on the second floor, and simply fling it into the crowd below. Across the table from him sat a woman rolling a joint. At the Burger King? Meanwhile, at my table, some guy insisted upon telling me repeatedly (in English) about some author’s ironical and sarcastic style, rolling those words across his tongue as though he could taste them. And I watched the folks stroll by — spiked-hair punkers, tourists, a blond woman whom some of my friends would describe as a “big German chick” with an even bigger black guy.

In Berlin, I went to a bar I remember fondly as “The Bar of the Two Hundred Beer Drinkers and the One Wine Drinker.” I stood at the end of the bar and I personally saw three different men completely miss the let’s-go-home­together signals that their dates were sending them. I think this was the beer hall equivalent of the club-footed stomping and charging that they like to call disco dancing.  At this rate, it would be small wonder if the Germans as a race are dying out.  My personal favorite pickup line in those places was, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

And their music — aagh! Just as you’re settling in to Elton John or Sade, they’ll put on a love song with a title that would translate roughly as “I Am a Lonely German Poet Sitting Quietly Above the Rhine Thinking of Thee.” And when it gets to the most important verse, the singer starts to scream, and the disk jockey cranks the volume all the way up, just to make sure you get the point. Never thought I would miss Barry Manilow so badly.

Make no mistake about it, though. West Germany has its act together. After three days and three nights behind the Iron Curtain, I, like Jonah, needed a good hotel room. And perhaps a big, juicy steak. I needed to get away from the feeling of sheer poverty, from the ancient, dirty East bloc towns. I have never particularly liked old places, and by this time I felt like I was venerating the dead.

I longed for a place like West Berlin. The city sparkles — much more brightly, in my mind, than New York. There are glass display cases in the middle of the sidewalks, containing fancy clothing and accessories. The streets are very clean, yet there are no garbage cans in sight. Nor police. Obviously lots of money in those stores. The same is true of downtown Frankfurt. Munich, the party town, is a little different.

Berliners are a mixed bag. The old lady who put me up was super- hospitable. On the other hand, I tried to tell one frustrated-looking woman that there was another escalator available, and she gave me a look that was more hostile than anything I’ve seen in a long time. People on the bus in the morning are just about as cold as ice. You get crowded off the sidewalk in Berlin about as often as in New York. They won’t yield a seat on the bench in the subway, even though it will hold six. It’s as though they’ve all agreed that five is the maximum permitted, and they sit sideways or stack boxes on the bench to make sure that even old ladies can’t use that sixth seat. In return, the old ladies (in the East, as well as in Berlin) fight like hell to get to the seats, to get to the front of the line, etc.

So I was thinking about these things, there in Budapest, and I decided I just didn’t have the energy for Prague. So, instead, I bought a ticket to Munich. On the train, I met a Rumanian named Otto. He had just received a West German passport. I think he got it because his grandparents were among the quarter-million ethnic Germans who wound up in a corner of Rumania after World War I. He had been making next to nothing as an engineer in Rumania. So now he was going to a new life in West Germany.

It became a little tricky on that train. Turns out that there was another Rumanian in the same train compartment. Only this guy was a big, older fella, wearing a suit, carrying a different kind of Rumanian passport. It was an interesting coincidence that these two, who were among the first people on the train, had wound up in the same compartment. Otto told me the guy had been following him ever since he left Rumania. As Otto and I stood in the aisle, looking out the window, I watched the older guy’s reflection in the glass. Sure enough, every time Otto moved, that man’s head moved too. At one point, the Hungarian police came through the train and shoved Otto out to the back end of the train car and stood there asking him questions.

Otto was a basket case by this time. Very nervous, smoking like a fiend. When I told him I had to switch to another train at Vienna, he told me that, instead of enduring a four-hour layover in Vienna, I should stay on this train with him as far as Linz, where a friend was picking him up, and I could sleep a few hours at his friend’s place near Munich, and then his friend would give me a lift into town.

I think what he wanted was to have someone along in case his friend wasn’t on the platform when the train arrived in Linz. Did he think the Rumanians were going to shove him into a car and head back East? I don’t know. The fact that I was an American, and a lawyer, boosted his enthusiasm considerably. I, no fool, meanwhile gave the blow-by-blow to another American, a woman from Jersey who had spent a week shopping in Budapest and was now on her way to Paris. I showed her the two Rumanians, and gave her my office number and the name of Jim, the guy I work with. I asked her to call that number when she got back to the States, to make sure I had survived this adventure.

But all went according to plan. The big Rumanian didn’t get off in Linz. Otto’s friend was there, and the two of them were ecstatic. This was, as the friend said, like being “born again” for Otto. A new life in the West. Otto said that if he went back to Rumania now, he would face three years in prison for having fled the country.

And in the faces of those two guys, I again saw something I had seen in Cubans and Czechoslovakians in New York City. There is no worshipper more devout than a convert, no patriot more steadfast than an immigrant. These guys acted like they could hardly believe their ears when I said that West Germany wasn’t perfect and that America has problems.

Well, after Eastern Europe, Munich seemed very tame. There were all these Americans pretending to be German and Germans pretending to be American. Not that they had to try very hard. Germans’ faces look American, and they use the same facial expressions. It’s just that what comes out of their mouths sounds different. Sometimes, that is. Lots of them speak English. It was nice, I must admit, to hear country music here and there.

I played the tourist a bit in Munich. I was ashamed of myself for it, but I went to the Hofbrauhaus, the ultimate tourist destination. I sang beer-hall songs and watched people barf their brains out. Some major events in Hitler’s career happened at the Hofbrauhaus. So it seemed fitting to go there on the night before, and then to take a little trip to Dachau on the morning after. Sunday morning. Dachau’s just twenty minutes or so from town. I don’t think they sell postcards.

I mentioned my trip to Dachau when I was talking to an older German woman on the train to Frankfurt. She remembered the war and was willing to talk about it. It was an intense conversation.

She was pretty well informed on American politics. I think that had something to do with her organization, which is dedicated to the legalization of methadone treatment in Germany. Her only son was being treated for heroin addiction. The doctor was prescribing methadone illegally. The doctor was caught and jailed. Her son, and four hundred other heroin addicts, took to the streets. She said that seeing it reminded her of the war’s end. Her son died from his addiction in March. This organization is what she lives for now.

She also said that Otto’s story sounded like life under the Nazis. Afraid to act, afraid to move.

So here I was, arriving at the Frankfurt airport, full of stories of poverty and repression, imprisonment and death. I sat down and waited for my flight. There was a tour group of Americans, fresh back from southern Germany, some of them still wearing Bavarian hats. They seemed incredibly silly and naive. I wasn’t entirely sure that I belonged on the same flight with them.

It took me a little while to wear off the hard edge. When we reached New York, some tall, goofy guy at JFK Airport got all upset when people walked past him to the front of the line for the bus. I felt like telling him to wake up and smell the coffee. I offered my seat to a little old Scottish lady. She hemmed and hawed. “Look, lady,” I said, “I couldn’t care less whether I sit or stand. You want a seat, or not?” “Why, if you put it that way,” she said sweetly, “I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

But Europe is a tough old nut. It’s so shot full of bad history, it’ll be amazing if it ever really gets over itself and moves on. And that, I think, is where the action is. There are too many screwed-up things in this world to spend your time trying to set them all straight. You make your best progress when you choose a good situation and make a solid, new start. And that’s the nice thing, the flip side of what was in those silly American tourists’ heads. They were going back to a land where it’s possible to wipe the slate clean.

It was a hell of a vacation. It affected me profoundly.

Next letter: desperation and fear at Club Med.

[Note: although I did not mention it in the original document reproduced here, I remember something else about that conversation with the woman on the train. I don’t remember what I asked her, but she mentioned “what we did to the Jews.” I think the first part of her statement may have been something like, “God [or maybe the world] will never forgive us.” That could be a self-serving statement, for purposes of getting through a conversation with an inquisitive American, but it seems the German public in general was of a similar view. She did seem to mean it.]

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