Fifteen hours on a coach driven fast by a Dutch husband and wife long distance team avoiding German police speed traps was my first and to date only experience of former eastern Europe.
When the driver’s wife took a break and it was his turn to drive us a few hundred kilometres east, he would put on “De porno filmi” and the claustrophobic would become surreal. Then every time we saw a German police car his language would elevate a level, so deep his national dislike of them over the border.
I remember first seeing the freshly named Czech Republic in twiglight in January, which meant flat lands and snow. And a cold no insulated coach could seal out. It was usually at about this point in a journey that I would realise I had under-packed for such climes and I still wearing my small summer evening leather jacket that was already starting to become the poster boy for that personal trait this trip.
Pulling up at your destination in bad weather at night is always the reason opinions and judgements are best reserved for after breakfast on a trip. Here, in a capital city centre alley outside a hostel where an odd man dressed as a nurse wearing a Christmas hat was boiling goulash in an old oil drum and handing it out to anyone that would listen, was neither the time to judge or the place to stop. But we did both. And some even had the goulash. Half expecting not to see them the next morning I along with room fulls of fellow students bedded down to start again tomorrow.
The hostel was pretty stark. It had elements of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest about it that became a realisation that it actually was a former mental health institution, while dressed in deluxe bath towels and carrying shower bags filled with posh smelling toiletries, we naively discovered the shower rooms were a former hose down room with a quickly applied single shower unit attached to the far wall and polished steel mirrors one couldn’t self harm against. Or not in a bloody way at least.
It’s often the smell of something that fastest evokes memory and I shall never forget the aroma of the morning after the arrival of the night before. A kind of fabricated breakfast fruit and yoghurt smell more like a car air freshener than real food. Sweet and sickly and so inedible smelling, now I look back it probably was air freshener cake.
Breakfast was another level but to be fair It did paint a true picture of what was to come. There was no tinsel with this experience. It all did what it said on the tin. The blue yoghurt that I stirred in disbelief only to watch it collapse into an air pocket and mould spores blossom out was crowning of my basic rule of travel anywhere – on arrival immediately find bottled water and German packaged food before continuing.
The fear of every meal being a similar path to a blue blossom did take down our previous evening’s criticism of the new invasion of consumer liberation after seeing a McDonalds sign the night before, turning it into an oasis of hope that we might eat something in the next ten days that was both frozen then nuked so nothing attached could survive long enough to turn us blue.
I was surprised how fast the McDonalds’ and BMWs had moved in actually. Presumably craved from a state of denial while we’d become desensitized by the glitter of Americanisation having started to flake off as the world’s cities became homogeneous.
The overriding memory I have of a brand new McDonalds in a historic capital city square trying to keep up with immediate and ongoing change was how beautiful a people the Czech’s were. In the days before I realised I was actually as feminist as we all likely ought be, I remember thinking any one of the cashiers at that newborn McDonalds playing a role in their new world order could have been a supermodel. That look and those cheekbones seemed wasted on Filet o’ Fish to me, but who was I to project my idea of success or aspiration for a young woman on a populous bereft of choice until recently.
We were spoiled western students by comparison there and since this trip of seeing a polarised society so different to my own, I’ve struggled with the idea of tourist voyeurism for your two weeks’ annual leave. Never was this more embarrassingly clear than my looking at our trolleys in the supermarket queue with a distinct comparison between western tourist choice and local essentials. Twenty or thirty bottles of beer each at 0.20pence a bottle to the invaders and a loaf of bread, a sausage, a handful of carrots and a lose cabbage to the native family behind.
I’ll never forget or forgive the western response to being shortchanged what probably equated to pence to us and more substance to the restaurant owner one evening. But I chose to return recompense of currency separately afterwards such was my feeling for these people having yet another invading army to now cater for.
It wasn’t until I visited a former Soviet controlled country that the meaning for shopping at an Argos become apparent. I’ve always disliked the Argos experience and not really understood it. But after deciding a chocolate bar in order one day then queuing at one till to buy a ticket to take to another till and queue to have stamped, then walk to a third till where choice of choc bar was picked and on to a fourth to exchange my ticket strip for the goods in a brown paper bag made it clear to me – somebody had visited the soviet shopping experience in the seventies and thought it might solve unemployment issues and brought it back to the UK.
This beautiful historic city was to play second fiddle to pints of local beer at a fraction of the previously experienced cost to a 19 year old, which in reflection was expected but a sorrowful wasted opportunity, especially with so much black and white film in my baggage. I think it was hoped we’d meet Josef Koudelka through one lecturer’s connection and ended up hearing local rag time jazz through another’s instead, but all round it was a week that felt like a winter long placement. I remember seeing a grubbier more real side of life to my known west London health and safety comfort zone and choosing not to drink from it, when the on tap beer was served in a huge glass dunked once into a bowl of washing up suds, spit and old beer drainage and un-rinsed. My German packeted food rule then extending to bottled beers I myself had opened. But I do remember it being so cold outside five minutes on the windowsill was refrigeration enough.
I also remember each person dedicating one particular pair of socks to slippers as the floors of our hostel were so dirty that we knew it was shoes or in the bathrooms where they oddly weren’t allowed, a sacrificial slipper that would now end it’s days in the sock graveyard of eastern Europe a thousand miles from it’s native M&S.
There were no doubt countless awful student displays on these beautiful streets so intact of history and unspoiled and my regret is that I didn’t make more photographs there at it’s time in limbo between such bloody totalitarian rule and an inevitable future toeing of the line into consumer homogeny. But I have a handful. And I’ve found this as a home for them as our own part of history plays out and we stay indoors.
I don’t recall much of the return leg in the Dutch coach other than trying and failing to sleep in the aisle. A week in the east hadn’t undone any national stereotyping of the Germans to our drivers but had upped my childhood appreciation of a decent German motorway services it must be said. Never before did chips have such cachet. Something kept to this day.