A Victory For A Nation That No Longer Exists – Ivan Lendl & Czechoslovakia’s 1980 Davis Cup Title

The pressure must have been immense. A one party state was relying on a not quite one man team to win the Davis Cup, men’s tennis most prized team competition. The nation was Czechoslovakia and the year was 1980. The Czechoslovaks had come close to winning the Cup just five years earlier when they were defeated by the brilliance of Bjorn Borg who led Sweden to a 3-2 victory in the 1975 final. Now they were back in the final playing against a veteran Italian squad. The final was in Prague, but the Czechoslovak number two singles player, Tomas Smid, got off to a poor start against the uber-talented and temperamental Adriano Panatta, losing the first two sets. He then began to claw his way back into the match. At the same time a small, but vocal group of three hundred Italian fans cheered on their side.

As the match grew closer, tempers flared in the stands. The Czechoslovak police warned the Italians to behave themselves. A ruckus ensued in which a fan bit one of the police. In true communist fashion, the fan was taken away for what was likely to be a good beating behind closed doors. At this point the match took a wild turn. Panatta stopped playing as a form of protest. While the officials were trying to decide what to do next a call came in from Rome. It seemed that the fan who had been taken off was a member of the Italian Communist Party. This was no way to treat a fellow comrade. He was soon led back to his seat and play resumed. Unfortunately for Panatta the tide had turned. Smid came roaring back to win the match in five sets. Czechoslovakia now led 1-0 with the man who had carried the team through to the final due to play the second match. Ivan Lendl was just beginning to realize his immense talent. The 1980 Davis Cup was the start of even greater things to come for him.

Czechoslovakia's 1980 Davis Cup team

Czechoslovakia’s 1980 Davis Cup team

Advent Of The Modern Game – The Rise Of Lendl
Ivan Lendl was a man born to play tennis, coming from a family steeped in the game. Both his parents were excellent players. At one time his mother was the number two female player in Czechoslovakia. Lendl’s game matured at an early age. With his tall, lean frame he could generate a massive amount of power, especially off the forehand side. Coupled with a heavy first serve, the hatchet faced Czech would pound opponents into submission. The advent of power tennis in the modern game really started with Lendl. Add to this the fact that he was a workhorse who loved to play tournaments and Lendl’s ascendance to the upper echelons of the sport was assured.  He played an incredible number of matches. In 1980 he went 105-25 in singles and 39-19 in doubles. That means Lendl played 188 matches in a single year, on average one professional level match every two days. Ten of those matches were in the 1980 Davis Cup and all ten were victories.

Lendl was the linchpin of Czechoslovakia’s 1980 team. This was a strange turn of events, since his record in Davis Cup prior to that year was a desultory 3-5. He began this Davis Cup with a bit of luck. In the first two ties, the Czechoslovaks faced France and Romania, neither of which had their top players available. Yannick Noah was injured and Ilie Nastase was serving one of his recurrent suspensions for bad behavior. Lendl breezed through these first two ties, winning all nine sets he played. In the semifinals, Argentina offered a much stiffer test since the tie would be played in Buenos Aires on slow red clay. The Argentines sported two of the world’s top players in Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. Lendl had never defeated either of them. He had already played Vilas three times on red clay earlier in the year, failing to win a single set. With Czechoslovakia losing the first match, it was critical that Lendl prevail. Surprisingly he did, winning three long, tough sets. The next day he teamed with Smid for another straight sets victory over Vilas and Clerc in doubles. Then on the last day Lendl faced Clerc, who he had also lost to three times without taking a set. He managed to overcome the past, silencing a raucous Argentinian crowd as he beat Clerc in four sets. Lendl’s game soared in the aftermath of this upset victory. He won five tournaments in October and November before taking several weeks off to prepare for the Final against Italy.

The personification of power tennis - Ivan Lendl in the 1980 Davis Cup Final

The personification of power tennis – Ivan Lendl in the 1980 Davis Cup Final

The Weight Of A Nation On His Shoulders – For Nation & Ideology
Once again Lendl would come face to face with his recent past. A year earlier, Czechoslovakia had played Italy in the 1979 semifinals on red clay at the Foro Italico in Rome. After Smid eked out a five set victory in the first match, Lendl split the first two sets with Adriano Panatta. Then the Italian star ran off twelve straight games, a double bagel to win the match. In the fourth match, Lendl blew a one set lead and lost an excruciatingly close battle to Corrado Barrazzuti 7-5 in the fifth set. It had been a harsh lesson in failing to deal with the pressure of Davis Cup play. There were several favorable circumstances for Lendl coming into the 1980 final. The tie would be played before a home crowd in Prague. The Czechoslovaks chose a fast indoor carpet which favored Lendl’s brand of power tennis. Despite the antics and drama of the first match Smid had given the home side a 1-0 lead. Now Lendl took the court with the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

To the communist government of Czechoslovakia, the Davis Cup was a far more important event than any other tennis tournament. This was a team event, a communal competition which they could use to showcase the superiority of the communist system. At least that was what the powers that be in Czechoslovakia wanted the world to believe. Lendl’s performance did not disappoint them. After losing the first set against Barrazutti he put on a devastating display of powerful baseline tennis. Over the last three sets he allowed the Italian only five games. He then teamed with Smid in doubles. They overcame a two sets to one deficit against Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci. The Czechoslovak duo prevailed 6-4 in the fifth set. For the first and what would turn out to be only time, Czechoslovakia were Davis Cup champions.

The 1980 Davis Cup Champions - Czechoslovakia

The 1980 Davis Cup Champions – Czechoslovakia (Credit: Interlaken)

Forget About It – A Czechoslovakian Championship
The government was satisfied, Lendl was a rising star and Eastern European tennis was second to none, at least in 1980. Oddly Lendl would revert back to lackluster performances in the ensuing years of Davis Cup. He stopped playing in Cup competition altogether after 1985 and moved to the United States. He would become an American citizen in 1992. Czechoslovakia was dissolved a year later and memories of their 1980 Davis Cup title largely forgotten.  At the time, the victory was a huge breakthrough for Lendl and his nation, but from today’s perspective it seems more like an aberration, a victory for a nation that no longer exists.

Lost Luxury – The Hungarian Night Train: Passing Into History

Depressing news for travelers came out of Hungary this past week. MAV, the Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Allamvasutak), announced that beginning in December many of the international trains they operate would no longer have buffet or sleeping cars. The reason given, the great financial losses incurred by MAV in operating these services. I was saddened, but not surprised by this news. All over Europe, both east and west, such night trains are getting cut due to their unprofitability. My sadness stems from the fact that once these services are cut, they are likely to never come back. This is what happened in America, unless one includes Amtrak which offers an increasingly rare and less than desirable experience.

Slowly, but steadily, during a century and a half of European railway travel, comfort has been increasingly forfeited and services slimmed down in adherence to the profit motive. Speed, efficiency and the bottom line trump everything else. The romance and leisure of long distance rail travel is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Nothing seems more appealing to a traveler such as myself than departing from Budapest one evening and arriving in Munich the next morning. One day in the not so distant future that may no longer be possible. Then again, from my own experience, at least in Eastern Europe this style of travel went out long ago.

Portal to the past - Hungarian sleeper train

Portal to the past – Hungarian sleeper train (Credit: The Man In Seat 61)

Off Track – Looking Back Rather Than Forward
The Hungarian Railway History Park (Magyar Vasuttorteneti Park) is not exactly on the beaten path for tourists in Budapest. It is located north and east of the city center, an area where people work to live rather than vice versa. Though I have a passion for trains and the history of rail travel, I did not manage to visit the museum until my third trip to the city. The museum is not nearly as well-known as many others in Budapest, mainly because of its location and the fact that it is rather new. It did not open until the beginning of the 21st century, a year after a Foundation was formed to build the museum.  The foundation must have realized that there was much to preserve regarding the history of railways in Hungary. The museum can also be seen as a response to the fact that railway travel might already be in decline. Thus, it was time to look back rather than forward.

The golden age of rail travel in Hungary was the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when the pace of travel was speeding up, but still slow enough to offer a relaxing experience. Many of the rail cars on display at the museum were from this period. The ones that I found most engaging were dining and sleeper cars. The compartments in the sleepers looked so comfortable and cozy that I began to daydream about travel in an earlier era. I imagined myself tucked into bed in the early evening, reading a novel while traveling through a snow covered landscape in Transylvania on an overnight trip to Budapest. One of the dining cars I stepped into was the very scene of elegance. The place settings were immaculate, glasses and silverware sparkling, fine white linen. I imagined that the food would have matched the décor in excellence. Looking at all this served to reinforce the fact that railway travel was not what it used to be. I knew this from personal experience.

Train to Transylvania - leaving Keleti Station at night

Train to Transylvania – Leaving Keleti Station at night (Credit: Miroslav Volek)

Crossing Over – A Painful Awakening
The only MAV night train I have ever taken was the IC407 which runs from Budapest to Bucharest. I took this train to visit the old Saxon city of Brasov in eastern Transylvania. Boarding the train at Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern Station) in the evening I found the train clean and well kept, the compartment functional, but far from luxurious. The dining car was not on my agenda and from the looks of it on no one else’s either. Most passengers stayed either in their compartments or close by. My food selection was limited to what I bought in the station. Other services from the attendant were unmemorable, which meant it was good enough. The compartment was satisfactory, but felt a bit cramped. I had imagined a night train into the heart of Transylvania would be a romantic way to travel, stirring my literary sensibilities. The experience turned out to be much different. After a couple of hours I was ready for bed. The only problem was unlike in the early 20th century, there would be passport control to tear me away from the arms of Morpheus. This meant two stops, first on the Hungarian side of the border, then on the Romanian one. In 1900 there was no border to cross when traveling between Budapest and Brasov. Since that time the situation had regressed. Even with European Union membership for both Hungary and Romania, there were still tedious border controls.

Not long after falling asleep I was awakened by the call of “passports” from a Hungarian border agent. Less than an hour later the same thing happened on the Romanian side, only this time with a good deal of shouting. A drunken passenger had to be roused several times from his alcohol induced slumber to produce a passport. Less than an hour after this disquieting incident, the train pulled into Arad, a city on the frontier of western Romania, for an extended break. It was not until the wee hours of the morning that I finally fell asleep. I woke not long after daylight with stiffness in my lower body from the cramped conditions.

Night trains - from Budapest Keleti

Night trains – from Budapest Keleti

Old Romances – Left To The Imagination
By the time I arrived in Brasov, my romance with night train travel had ended. I was bleary eyed, agitated and ready for a hotel room. This was my jilted romance with a modern Hungarian sleeper train. This experience stripped away any illusions I had about the luxury and refinement of Hungarian night trains. I have had much the same experience throughout Eastern Europe. The night train has not gone away quite yet, but the legendary service and romantic odysseys have largely passed into history. Trying to recapture that past is a futile pursuit. Some old romances are best left to the imagination.

Throwing It All Away – Uwe Hohn: East Germany’s Star-Crossed Javelin Giant

In the annals of Olympic and World Champion Track and Field competitions, the name of Uwe Hohn is missing. Hohn, an East German national, was one of the greatest javelin throwers in history, but he never won a gold, silver or bronze medal at either of the sports premier competitions. It might be said that Hohn came of age in the wrong age. In 1984 when Hohn reached his peak he was not allowed to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, since East Germany joined the Soviet Union and several other Eastern Bloc nations in boycotting the games that year in Los Angeles. As a substitute, East Germany and other nations of the same ideological bent held other competitions, one of these yielded Hohn’s most amazing achievements, a feat unsurpassed to this day.

Uwe Hohn - Ready to Launch

Uwe Hohn – Ready to Launch (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1984-0513-018)

Going The Distance – A Broken Record
On July 20, 1984 at the Olympic Day of Athletics, a track and field meet held in East Berlin, Uwe Hohn launched a javelin throw the likes of which has never been seen before or since. He flung his silver-grey spear so far that it landed on the edge of the field not far from the oval track. A few seconds after releasing the throw, Hohn raised his arms in triumph. He knew well before the javelin had landed that his throw was special. Alarmingly, the throw landed not far from a high jump mat that had been supposedly placed at a safe distance. When it finally landed, the judges rushed over to make the measurement. The distance was 104.80 meters (343 9 ¾ inches), a world record. Hohn had surpassed the existing world record by an incredible five meters. He had become the first and still only person to toss the javelin further than the one hundred meter mark.

Commentators began to worry that Hohn might one day toss the javelin onto the track or into the stands. Just how far Hohn might throw one of his wing tipped spears was open to conjecture. What was not in doubt was that Hohn, like so many of his fellow Eastern Bloc athletes, was capable of record breaking performances that were almost unimaginable. At that time and ever since then, whispers about doping were prevalent. Documentation that has been discovered since the Berlin Wall fell confirms that East Germany administered one of the largest state sponsored programs to provide their athletes with performance enhancing drugs. Some of Hohn’s record breaking achievements were aided by such a doping program. One document that came to light from the East German archives showed Hohn was given 1,135 milligrams of Oral Turinabol, an anabolic steroid, in 1985. The drug was also used to assist weightlifters. There may have been other instances of doping that have yet to surface. How much steroids led to Hohn’s sucess will likely never be known for sure. One thing is for certain though, the track and field record books were never the same after the likes of Uwe Hohn and his compatriots took to the field.

Uwe Hohn - threw the javelin a world record 104.80m in 1984

Uwe Hohn – threw the javelin a world record 104.80m in 1984

Getting Physical – A Barrel Chested Brute
Just two weeks after Hohn’s record throw in East Berlin, the 1984 Olympic Men’s javelin throw competition was held. Hohn was upset that East Germany had decided to boycott the Olympics, so much so that he made it publicly known. He ended up being reprimanded for speaking out. The gold medal was won by Arto Harkonen whose winning throw was covered only 86 meters. That was 18 meters less than Hohn’s, an almost unfathomable distance when it comes to the difference between world class javelin competitors. What accounted for Hohn’s otherworldly throws? The usual answer is performance enhancing drugs. Yet a case can also be made for Hohn’s physique, training and technique. The guy was a broad shouldered, barrel chested brute. He was 1.98 meters (6’5”) tall and weighed 112 kilograms (over 250 pounds). By comparison, his closest competitors looked slight. Hohn matured much faster than the mere mortals he competed against. At the age of 19 he was the European Junior Champion, a years later he was the European Champion.

At the time of his world record Hohn was only 22 years old. A year after setting the record Hohn was champion at the 1985 World Cup meet in Canberra with a throw of 96.96 meters, which turned out to be the best throw that year. It also turned out to be the last great performance of Hohn’s career. In 1986 he was irreparably injured in a weight lifting accident. The weights he was trying to lift fell on him, badly injuring his back. The sciatic nerve damage which resulted led to surgeries, but Hohn was never the same again. This robbed the sport of seeing how Hohn would have fared with the newly designed javelin instituted by the International Association of Athletic Federations around this time. The new javelin’s center of gravity was moved forward, which helped limit the distance it could be thrown by around 10 meters on average. It also led to less flat landings which made the distance of throws much easier to measure.

Uwe Hohn in 1984 at his peak

Uwe Hohn in 1984 at his peak (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1984-0603-003)

The Eternal World Record – Going The Distance
There has never been a 100 meter throw with the newer version of the javelin. It is doubtful no matter how chemically enhanced Hohn’s performance, that he would have been able to throw that far. The closest anyone has come to a 100 meter toss with the newer javelin was the Czech Jan Zelezny with a throw of 98.48 meters at a meet in 1996. The mark Hohn set so long ago on a summer evening in East Berlin is often referred to as the “eternal world record”. Very few believe it will ever be broken. Whether it will be expunged from the record books is another matter. There are recurrent calls for anyone whose name was discovered in East German archival documents in connection with doping to have their records deleted from the books. Even if this is done, Hohn may end up with luck on his side since the type of javelin he set the record with is no longer in use. No matter what happens, Hohn is likely to remain the only man to ever toss a javelin 100 meters. An incredible athletic achievement, that much like the man who did it is now all but forgotten.

You Can’t Run Away From Your Problems – Waldemar Cierpinski: East Germany’s Mediocre Marathon Man

Goalie Jurgen Croy and his teammates on the 1976 East German Olympic Football Team were looking for motivation before they took the field against Poland in the Gold Medal match in Montreal. They needed just the right inspiration to get fired up before they took the field to play in torrential rain. They found it in an unlikely source, fellow countryman Waldemar Cierpinski, who they had just watched improbably run to victory in the marathon. Croy said the team “just sat there staring at each other, thinking that if this living example of mediocrity can lift himself up and win the marathon, and we don’t beat Poland, we are never going to hear the end of it.” Croy and his teammates had found the proper motivation. The East Germans scored two goals in the first 15 minutes of the game and went on to win the gold medal by defeating Poland 3-1. They had been inspired by “a living example of mediocrity”. Little did they know that this mediocrity was not through winning Olympic marathons.

Waldemar Cierpinski - The dubious two-time Olympic marathon champion

Waldemar Cierpinski – The questionable two-time Olympic marathon champion (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-W0801-0126)

The Unexpected Champion – Waldemar Who?
“Who in the world is Waldemar Cierpinski?” That thought must have run through the mind of American marathoner Frank Shorter. Shorter was the defending Olympic marathon champion and looked well on his way to becoming only the second man to ever win two Olympic marathons in a row. The only problem was that Shorter, who had taken the lead long the streets of Montreal, was suddenly confronted by the presence of Cierpinski at the twenty-five kilometer mark. Shorter was shocked that the East German had caught up with him. He became even more rattled as Cierpinski moved in closer to him, a strategy the East German was using to unnerve the American. It seemed to work as Shorter was forced to shove his surprise opponent out of his running space. Cierpinski was eventually able to take the lead and made it to the finish line a minute ahead of Shorter. The finish though turned out to be premature, at least in the mind of Cierpinski who ran another lap after he had officially finished. It turned out that he was confused.

His confusion turned to celebration as Shorter was at the finish line waiting to congratulate him. The American was a gracious runner-up, even though Cierpinski had thwarted his bid for a second consecutive Olympic marathon gold medal. Four years later, at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Cierpinski was the one attempting to win a second consecutive gold medal in the marathon. Once again he would have to come from behind. This time Cierpinski made his move around the thirty-sixth kilometer mark as he blew by the leaders. He kept up a blistering pace right up to the finish, sprinting the last 200 meters in just 33 seconds. With the victory Cierpinski joined the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila as the only men to win consecutive Olympic marathons.

Running to victory - Waldemar Cierpinski making the final lap at Montreal at the 1976 Olympics

Running to victory – Waldemar Cierpinski making the final lap at Montreal at the 1976 Olympics (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0731-0135)

The Recordbreaker – A Shadow Comes To Light
It is said that you cannot run away from your problems, that wherever you go they are likely to follow. In the case of Cierpinski, a two time Olympic champion marathoner, that old saying turned out to be true. Cierpinski’s legacy seemed secure, but then the Berlin Wall came crashing down. That event meant records of the East German Stasi (secret police) came to light. These records were unlike the record books Cierpinski’s name had previously been part of. Rather than recording his athletic achievements, the records turned out to cast a shadow over them. After his two Olympic victories there were a few eyebrows raised about how a formerly mediocre steeplechase runner suddenly became a world beater, but there was no hard evidence against Cierpinski. In addition, the 1976 Montreal Olympics were the first ones to have drug testing, but these tests were for anabolic steroids, not blood doping. This fact would turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

In 1998 Dr. Werner Fricke, a German scientist, gained access to Stasi archives in the eastern German city of Leipzig. From these documents he unearthed State Plan 14:25. This plan for state sponsored drug use by athletes turned out to be on an almost unfathomable scope and scale. It named over 10,000 East German athletes who had been given banned substances.  On page 105 of State Plan 14:25 was the name of Waldemar Cierpinski who had been given drugs in order to boost his performance. Cierpinski’s sudden ascent from mediocrity to Olympic greatness in 1976 took on a whole new meaning.  Now he looked like, at worst just another drug cheat and at best the victim of a state sponsored plan to create Olympic medal winners for propaganda purposes.

Cierpinski may have been incriminated, but in many respects he had been quite fortunate. After his competitive career ended Cierpinsi did not seem to suffer any side effects from the drugs that were given to him. Other East German athletes ended up with diseases, had children with birth defects or were forced to abort pregnancies due to the deleterious effects of steroids and blood doping. Cierpinski became a member of the German Olympic Committee. Though there has been talk of stripping him and other East German athletes of their Olympic medals nothing has been done so far. For his part, Cierpinski has remained almost totally silent on the topic. In a rare interview he said, “As long distance athletes, we had to prove that we had not taken anything before we left the country.” That statement did not lend itself to credibility since Cierpinski would have been proving that he was drug free to the same state that had administered drugs to him in the first place. In this case, the cheaters were doing the checking.

For the record - Waldemar Cierpinski in 2014

For the record – Waldemar Cierpinski in 2014 (Credit: Udo Rupkalwis)

No One Other Than Himself – The Height Of Mediocrity
It is unlikely that Waldemar Cierpinski’s Olympic medals will be taken away from him. If it did not happen in the years after he was first exposed than it is highly unlikely that anything will be done in the future. Just how much these drugs helped Cierpinski will always be open to question. The truth is that the answer can never really be known. Without the drugs though, it can be stated with some certainty that Cierpinski would have remained “a living example of mediocrity.” and an inspiration for no one other than himself.



Formula One For The Common Man – Driving The M Roads In Hungary: Freedom To Go Fast

Driving in Hungary can be an intensely pleasurable experience, a positively frightening one or a little bit of both. Much of this has to do with road conditions which can vary wildly, depending on how they have been maintained. There are roads smoother than silk, while others are so busted and beaten that a wagon would be of better use than a sedan. It is those silk like roads that have stuck in my memory. These are the dream of every motorist with a long journey ahead of them. I have had the pleasure of traveling on several of them, almost all of which are M roads. They have left me envious and wondering why my own car crazed nation cannot maintain highways in such pristine condition.

Open Road - Motorway in Hungary

Open Road – Motorway in Hungary (Credit: Wikipedia)

Mesmerizing Monotony – An Open Road
The M roads are the motorways (autópálya in Hungarian). These are by far the best roads to be found in Hungary. They consist of two lanes in each direction and include an emergency lane, allowing for the highest speeds of any type of road in the nation. The limit is usually set at 130 kph (80 mph). Because they require a toll vignette to travel on them, motorways have less traffic than other roads, especially non-toll roads between large towns or cities. The M roads have no roundabouts, no stoplights, no horse drawn wagon carts or farm equipment to slow a motorist. In short, they offer an unobstructed path (except for other vehicles) between major urban areas. The main problem with the M Roads is that they are insanely boring, especially in the eastern part of the country. There is a sameness to these roads that can be positively mesmerizing, with very little to see in the way of scenery. This situation reminds me of what my grandfather used to say about road travel in the United States.  “If you want to see anything on a car trip, you have to get off the interstate and take the old highways.”

What is true for America turns out to be just as true for Hungary. Speed is the substitute for scenery. Unless a person enjoys endless expanses of tilled soil interspersed with random copses of woods, the M roads leave much to be desired when it comes to scenic landscapes. What the M Roads offer is open road, hundreds of kilometers of wide open road. Ribbons of pavement stretch before the motorist beckoning them forth at the fastest speed they can possibly imagine. This is less dangerous for the speedster, than it is for those drivers that stick to the slow lane. A motorist wanting to pass in the fast lane must be prepared for a speedway experience, a sort of Formula One for the common man. Passing on an M Road requires a driver to worry more about other drivers using the fast lane, than about the vehicle they are trying to pass, quite the opposite of interstate driving in the United States. It is an absolute must for those attempting to pass that they go at least as fast as the vehicle that will almost certainly come roaring up behind them.

The fast lane -sign for a Hungarian motorway (autópálya)

The fast lane -sign for a Hungarian motorway (autópálya)

Life Or Death – In The Passing Lane
The “passing lane” means the “fast lane” on M roads. Speed limits are not nearly as helpful on them as an adrenaline rush. Anyone dawdling will soon find another car pressing up against their bumper. Nothing makes a Hungarian driver quite as irate as someone using the passing lane to go at less than the speed of sound. Expect honking of the horn, fist shaking and fierce, red faced drivers in the Magyar version of road rage. There is no such thing as passing in the slow (right) lane on an M Road. Such an idea is highway heresy to Hungarians. Even when a slower driver moves back over to the relative safety of the right lane, they will find their head spinning time and again, as they watch those using the fast lane for maximum effect. I have personally witnessed cars that had to be going close to 200 kph (120 mph). I estimated their speed by how fast they disappeared into the distance.

It has always perplexed me how these drivers manage to avoid speeding tickets. The motorway police can usually be found waiting beside some lonely stretch of road with their radar guns at the ready trying to catch speeders. A police car may also be situated at some random point with its only inhabitants the equipment used to clock unsuspecting speedsters. Yet for all these checks on fast drivers, I can only recall a couple of times where I saw anyone pulled over by the police. This reminds me of the situation with the Budapest Metro controllers who are doing constant checks for those without a valid ticket, the controllers are everywhere, but few law breakers are ever to be found. I figure that in Hungary such operations are more about employment than enforcement. I cannot say these operations are not without merit though, I shudder to think what speeds Hungarians drivers might attain on the M roads without a set limit.

License to speed - open lanes on the M85 in western Hungary

License to speed – open lanes on the M85 in western Hungary

The Joyless Ride – Endured & Unenjoyed
Even on the M Roads, which are almost immaculate, very few Hungarian drivers seem to be taking it nice and slow so they can enjoy the ride. The truth is, anyone who drives slower than the speed limit on an M Road is risking a life threatening accident. Perhaps that is why besides large trucks, I have so rarely witnessed slow driving in Hungary. Nothing would be more terrifying than trying to survive these motorways at 80 kph (55 mph). The idea of driving in Hungary is opposite that in the United States. It is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. The goal is to get from one place to another as soon as possible, driving in a focused, aggressive manner. I imagine that what Hungarians enjoy the most about driving is the freedom to go fast and release inner angst. Hungarians are serious people and their driving reflects that mentality. The motorway is not a place for joking around, it is there for a reason, to get somewhere and get there fast.

The People You Meet – A Hostel Community: Evenings In Eastern Europe (Travels In Eastern Europe #42)

Beginning with my first trip to Eastern Europe and continuing on for several more visits I decided to stay in youth hostels. It is a misnomer to call these “youth” hostels since many of the clientele, including myself, were well past the youth stage of their lives. I noticed at one hostel in Bulgaria that the “youth” included a couple of 70’sish looking Germans fraus wearing large backpacks and enjoying a complimentary spaghetti dinner. I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s at the time of my hostel stays. At this point in my life I had stopped drinking, thus there was little for me to do at hostels other than converse with fellow travelers. I had to do this in the day rooms or reception area since I very rarely shared a room with anyone. For me, sleeping with strangers was something I have up after completing university, I found myself passing the evening hours meeting a cast of characters that I remember now much more vividly than many of the places I visited.

Visitors From Near & Far – The Spaces Between Us
It was in Belgrade that I found myself staying at an accommodation that was more luxury apartment than hostel. Though it was advertised as a hostel, the common area was a giant living room with large sofas and chairs to relax in. All the bedrooms opened onto this room. Thus I had the opportunity to meet the other guests numerous times, but once would turn out to be enough. First there was a Swiss guy who looked to be no older than twenty. We first exchanged pleasantries, than he nervously asked me what I had paid to stay at the place per night. When I told him and added how affordable it was to stay in such a nice place especially compared with other hostels, he grew exasperated. He was dismissive of my opinion. I asked him if he paid the same, he just nodded and walked off while grumbling. Pardon me, but I thought everyone in Switzerland was pretty well off. Maybe this was how the Swiss stayed wealthy, always looking for a bargain.

This interaction was followed by the arrival of an unforgettable couple. Both looked to be in their late 20’s. The man was Norwegian and his girlfriend was an ethnic Hungarian from Slovakia. They were traveling around Eastern Europe on holiday though they lived far apart. The man was from an extremely remote part of Norway far above the Arctic Circle By the way he explained it his hometown was much closer to towns in Russia than those in Norway. His description of the weather sounded truly awful. It was frigid and icy most of the time, summer sounded like it lasted one afternoon in July. He had been to Russia many times and the Soviet Union when he was in high school for wrestling matches. What he vividly remembered about the Soviet Union was how everyone wanted to purchase his Levi’s and an ocean of vodka was always on offer. The man was super cheerful, perpetually smiling, guffawing with delight and was certainly one of the friendliest people I had ever met. Perhaps that was because he was visiting civilization for a change.

Hanging out at a hostel in Serbia

Hanging out at a hostel in Serbia

Endless & Eerie Conversations – Foreign Affairs
The Norwegian’s ethnic Hungarian girlfriend was even more emotive. It turned out that she was a filmmaker. She went on and on and on about the movies she had made and future projects. She was so effusive while talking that I stopped paying attention to what she said and became fascinated by just watching her. After a few minutes I felt exhausted. I soon came to the conclusion that she should be in front of the camera rather than behind it. How anyone ever got a word in with her was beyond me. This woman was truly overwhelming. It was not long before I dragged myself off to bed. The Norwegian who had piqued my interest a few minutes before had become all but invisible to me. Maybe he went back to the frozen north to recover.

For a long time, staying in hostels was the extent of my socializing on trips to Eastern Europe. Since most people I met while touring attractions in the cities did not speak good English and I do not speak a foreign language my social exposure came while hanging out in commons areas. This was how I struck up a conversation late one night at a hostel with a child psychologist. She worked in social services with youth who committed violent crimes. Perhaps it was the low lit kitchen area we stood in or the fact that the psychologist had a pale complexion and dark hair, but there was something eerily foreboding about our chat. She told me how these young delinquent Poles showed little remorse for the crimes they had committed or their victims. Many of them were devoid of empathy. After talking with her for an hour I was just as freaked out by her as the tales she told. What kind of person would want to spend their career investigating the sick behavior of juvenile offenders?

An evening in Eastern Europe

An evening in Eastern Europe

Point Of Departure – Traveling In Opposite Directions
Most of my conversations were more innocuous, but at the time quite revealing. At a hostel in Lviv, Ukraine I met a couple of college age Belarussian women. When I asked them how they got to Lviv, I got a lesson in the sad state of the Belarusian economy. For them to afford a trip from Minsk to Lviv they were forced to purchase the cheapest train tickets possible. This meant a twelve hour plus trip with multiple transfers in provincial backwaters. Some of their waits were hours long. If they missed a connecting train it might be a half day or longer before the next available train. They wanted to travel more in Europe, but Ukraine was one of the few affordable destinations for their limited budgets. They were young, open to the world and looking for adventure, but economics kept them from going further west.

It was not economics, but time that kept me from traveling and meeting more people at hostels across Eastern Europe. I only had a couple of weeks at a time during those trips. It is a cliché to say that there was so much to see. The reality was that there were plenty of sights to see, but even more people to meet. I cannot recall most of the things I saw in Lviv, Belgrade, Krakow or Sofia though I can still see the faces and hear the voices of that eclectic cast of characters I met in hostels all across Eastern Europe.

Zoo Station – Berlin: In Search Of The Laughing Gas

In the winter of 1992 a friend of mine was listening to music at an ear splitting level in a parking lot at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, North Carolina. He said to me, “you have got to hear this song”. According to him, there was nothing else like it. That song was the opening track from U2’s newest album. What I heard next was not the band that had become world famous for the Joshua Tree album and political anthems such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day. Instead, bursting from the speakers was a surge of sonic post-modernism, a euphoric eclecticism quite unlike anything I had ever heard before or since. The song was “Zoo Station”, a head trip of decadent giddiness. I did not realize it at the time, but this was the sound of Berlin on the cusp of a massive transformation channeled through U2. For me, the song captured the essence of Eastern and Western Europe colliding into a convergence. One world being consumed by another and in the process creating something entirely new. The song turned into a soundtrack of the early 90’s for me. Fifteen years later I went to Berlin, in search of the place that had inspired the song, a trip to the Zoo Station.

Transformation - U2's Achtung Baby

Transformation – U2’s Achtung Baby (Credit: Wikipedia)

By Faith Rather Than Hope – Breaking Into One
Berlin was the pivot point on which the entire world turned for much of the Cold War before the inexplicable happened as communism collapsed. The wall built to protect it came crashing down. Berlin was suddenly forced into another reinvention of itself. The moody and dark crucible of the east-west division slowly morphed into the epicenter of an optimistic, united Europe. That transition though was fraught with anxiety. Into this context stepped U2, a rock band struggling with its own transformation, from a wholesome, earnest, super serious group into whatever they could dream up. U2 came to Berlin looking for inspiration, what they found was a city much like the band, struggling through an identity crisis. U2 was looking for inspiration in a city beset by a gloomy, gray winter. The band’s mood was worse than the thick, heavy skies which loomed over the city. Uncertainty clouded everything.

The band was nearing the point of a breakup, with lead singer Bono and guitarist the Edge pushing hard to change the band’s sound with industrial and dance inspired grooves. They were pitted against the more traditional U2 sound preferred by bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. For months they suffered through recording sessions in the crumbling Hansa Ton studios, a place that had once been a Nazi ballroom, then was later used as creative haunts for the musical heroics of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Now it was little more than a half-dilapidated recording studio with a glorious past and uncertain future. It was there that the band came close to dissolving. By faith more than hope, they managed to stumble upon a moment of artistic brilliance. It came in the form of “One”, a song about breaking up that paradoxically brought the band back together. From that moment onward, the band’s creative spirits soared, the upshot was the commercially and critically successful album “Achtung Baby”. And the first song on that album was the one that drew me all the way from a community college parking lot in the foothills of North Carolina to the underground of Berlin. It took me a decade and a half before I finally arrived at the Zoo Station.

Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station

Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station (Credit: Arne Huckelheim)

Primal Instincts – A Trip To The Zoo
The actual Zoo Station referenced in U2’s song is officially known as the Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station. Found in the district of Charlottenburg, the station gets its name from the nearby Berlin Zoo. Bono, U2’s vocalist, was inspired by a surreal tale involving the zoo during World War II. Due to bomb damage, the animals were freed from their confinement and wandered around the ruined city. Giraffes, lions, zebras and a plethora of other exotic creatures were seen on the streets. The Zoo Station of the song deals with human rather than animal instincts. These instincts happen to be primal ones. During the Cold War, Zoologischer Garten was West Berlin’s Main Railway Station, with the only line going into and out of communist East Berlin. A point of transition, where those coming from a strictly controlled environment were confronted with western decadence. The station was known for its seedy atmosphere, both inside and out. Drug dealers, prostitutes and pick pockets were among the various hangers-on that could be found loitering around the station. It was a place where all the forms of human behavior were on display.

On my first full day in Berlin, I made my way by U-Bahn to the station. Lines into the station included the U2. My expectation level rose in anticipation of what I might find there, perhaps heroin addicts strung out in the station’s bowels, beggars accosting innocents with a litany of mad sayings or transsexual harlots trolling vacant corridors. My pulse level rose as my train arrived at the station. I was, as the song said, “ready for the laughing gas”, that burst of otherworldly energy that comes from giving oneself over to dark fantasies. I imagined stepping back in time to the decadence of something approximating 1920’s era Weimar Berlin, a fairytale-esque world filled with the sultry and sordid.  I got off the train and what did I see? A world of normalcy. The Zoo Station was filled with the usual hustle and bustle that could be found at most any metro station in a large European city. People hurrying between trains or standing impatiently on station platforms. Heading up to the surface I thought things might get a bit more interesting. I was disappointed to find hardly anything of interest. The station itself showed few signs of its former dynamism. There was no tension or transients, nothing but coffee shops, newsstands and people headed in hundreds of different directions.

Station for the U2 line at Zoologischer Garten

Station for the U2 line at Zoologischer Garten (Credit: calflier001)

Lost In Transit – Outside The Zoo
The truth of the matter was that Zoo Station had lost almost all of its former prominence. First, after the wall crumbled. Then later, with the opening of the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof in 2006. The seedy, surrealistic station that U2 had channeled through their song had long since vanished. The animals had all wandered away from the zoo. Physically the station still existed, but the feeling was lost. The only way to recapture a semblance of it was by listening to the song, but its lyrics were a forceful reminder why that feeling could never be recaptured:

Time is a train
Makes the future the past
Leaves you standing in the station
Your face pressed up against the glass



Collecting The Counties Of Historic Hungary – Vanished Traces: Entering The Kingdom (Part Two)

The fact that collecting every county in Hungary only mattered to me, made it that much more compelling and disconcerting. Driven to succeed by this inexplicably strange fervor, I turned off the immaculately paved four-lane known as the M3, one of Hungary’s major highways. Then headed north on a road that immediately became weather beaten, inching towards my ultimate goal while having to navigate through a byzantine web of road construction. This slowing my progress to a speed of not much more than a kilometer every couple of minutes. The road was pockmarked with potholes and badly in need of the ongoing repair.

After ten kilometers bouncing upon this bone rattler, I was ready to return to the M3, but with my goal nearly in sight there could be no turning back. And besides, the road construction could not go on forever or at least that was what I wanted to believe. This drive was not going to be a victory parade. It was a windy, bitterly cold day, as to be expected a week before Christmas. The trees were leafless, the landscape lifeless, the ground bare and brown. The sky was hung with a blinding sun besieged by a spectacularly blue sky.

Somewhere in the distance - Nograd County

Somewhere in the distance – Nograd County (Credit: László Szeder)

In The Distance – Provincial Pressures & Pleasures
It was strange driving through a part of Hungary I had little interest in getting to know. The hills and valleys did nothing for me. The beauty of this region was always somewhere in the distance. It may have been a frontier, a neglected hinterland, but it also seemed incredibly normal. I felt like a local who was going about their daily routine, perhaps traveling to work or running an errand. There was a matter of fact quality about the landscape, forest interspersed with fields that made it look like the essence of just another ordinary place in provincial Hungary, the kind of place where everyone suffered from the same low salary and getting by was a legitimate job description. I had imagined that the approach to my final county would be unique and enthralling, the actual experience was turning out to be rather mundane.

I kept a sharp lookout for the finish line, a coveted Nograd megye sign, which would signal the end of my Hungarian county collecting obsession. It was not long before it came into view. I did not let off the gas pedal to slow down, instead just passing by as though this were no big deal.  Completing this long-time goal left me with conflicting emotions of euphoria, relief and sadness. Euphoria in that first moment of attainment. All the flights, all the trains, all the bus trips and hours behind the wheel led to an intensely personal sense of accomplishment. I must admit that such elation was a rather absurd concept. I just might have been the only person in the entire world that had obsessed over making it to Nograd County. This was the Everest of my ambitions. The relief I felt came from the release of a ridiculous amount of self-imposed pressure to complete this strange goal. More than once it had crossed my mind that I might just fall one county short. If that had occurred, I would have been the only person on earth who felt a void in their life from a failure to visit Nograd County.

Looking at the past - Somoskő Castle 

Looking at the past – Somoskő Castle (Credit: Anna Doczy)

Historic Hungary – The Discovery of Possibilities
The main emotion that engulfed me was an incredible wave of sadness. I had spent years just trying to reach this goal, but now what? Was this the end of my interest in travel to Hungary? Not a chance, but I was at a loss on what to do next. This sadness stayed with me as I wound my way north through the hills and forest of Nograd County. The road eventually smoothed out, the weather was beautiful and I was depressed.  At Somosko Castle, I first set my feet firmly on the soil of the long sought county. The castle straddled the border with Slovakia, the chill air was crisp and clear affording expansive views into southern Slovakia, the land Hungarians still call Felvidek. Looking north, I knew there was a whole new land to explore. Perhaps I could try to visit every county in Slovakia. From my previous trips into the country, I knew that it was a beautiful land. At the moment such an idea provided solace, but little more. Getting to all of Slovakia’s counties seemed doable and that was why it did not interest me at the moment. I wanted the pseudo-impossible, a challenge to challenge myself. At the moment, I was a traveler without a goal. It was rather stupid to need one. Travel was supposed to be about opening yourself up to the world, not checking off arbitrary places on a map. Yet no matter how far I traveled, I could not escape myself. I needed regimentation and rituals, goals and a focus.

It would not be until a few months later that I dreamed up a new county collecting odyssey. Southern Slovakia had given me an idea. A century ago it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary or what is now termed by some as “Historic Hungary”. It was one of the 64 counties that made up a Kingdom which stretched from the shores of the Adriatic Sea to the towering peaks of the Tatra Mountains. Due to the Trianon induced post-World War I breakup of the Kingdom these territories became part of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Romania. By the end of the 20th century they were part of several newer nations including Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine and Slovakia. Collecting (aka traveling) to all the counties of the Kingdom of Hungary would mean crossing borders, cultures and language barriers. My imagination surged with thoughts of exploring back roads in southwestern Ukraine, visiting tidy villages in eastern Austria and hiking up to the austere ruins of castles in the Spis region of Slovakia.

Counties of the Kingdom of Hungary

Counties of the Kingdom of Hungary

Searching For A Lost World – One County At A Time
The difficulty of completing this goal would be exponentially greater, but also that much more satisfying. Soon I found myself staring at a map I posted on the wall at home showing the Kingdom of Hungary and all of its counties in the early 20th century.  I then began to count the counties I had already visited. It did not take me long to figure out that traveling to every county would be a daunting task. Was I up to the challenge? That question would only be answered at some undetermined time in the future.  I liked the idea of a years-long odyssey in search of a lost world whose boundaries had vanished with hardly a trace. This journey would be about more than a strange obsession, it would also be a way to recapture the past by traveling to a kingdom, a kingdom that could still be recreated by collecting counties one trip at a time.

Click here for: Collecting Counties in Hungary – Everywhere & Nowhere: A First Finale To Nograd County (Part One)

Collecting Counties In Hungary – Everywhere & Nowhere: A First Finale To Nograd County (Part One)

Whenever I mention to someone that I love traveling in Hungary, the inevitable question arises, “Where have you been?” They almost immediately provide an answer before I can speak. “Budapest?” This is likely the only place in the country they know because the city is world famous for its beauty and culture. My stock reply these days is, “I have been everywhere.” This usually elicits dubious looks, as though I am exaggerating. To a certain extent I am. No one could possibly say that they have been everywhere in Hungary. It would take years to travel to the hundreds of small villages that dot the countryside, traverse the endless plains that spread out on either side of the Danube or hike through all the nooks and crannies in the hills to the north. “Everywhere” in Hungary for me, means every county. I am the proud member of an exclusive club, a foreigner and an American no less, who has been to every county in the country. This has become my badge of travel honor, being a county collector so to speak. A Hungarian friend of mine who travels widely thinks this kind of collecting is absurd and pointless. I beg to differ.

Where the road goes - the real Hungary

Where the road goes – the real Hungary

More Than Lines On A Map – Crossing Invisible Borders
My interest in counties began when I was a teenager. In eighth grade Social Studies class, the teacher required us to memorize all one-hundred counties in our home state of North Carolina. This was not easy. I spent many days labeling a map and then trying to spell words such as Perquimans and Pasquotank. It was a great way to learn geography and develop muscle memory. It was not until years later that I realized this might have stimulated an affinity for collecting counties. It started in of all places Wyoming. After several trips passing through the state I realized that I had been in every county except for two. Getting those final two required several hundred miles of driving, but I soon checked them off the list. Later I did the same thing in Montana. It only took me fifteen years and thousands of miles of driving. Then it was on to North Dakota. Why North Dakota? For no better reason other than because I could.

It was around this time that I began to travel to Hungary. After multiple trips, I suddenly realized that I lacked only one of the nineteen counties or megye as they are called in the Magyar language. The idea excited me to no end. How many foreigners could actually say they had been to every county in Hungary? I never asked the corollary question of, “Why would anyone care how many counties a person had visited in Hungary? Passion, like love, causes blindness. On the surface, my fixation for seeking out and crossing an arbitrary administrative boundary made little sense. These were just lines on a map. Counties came and went in Hungary depending upon both the internal and external political situation.

Mapquest - the 19 counties of Hungary

Mapquest – the 19 counties of Hungary

Radical Realignments – Trains, Two Lanes & Automobiles
In the 20th century, boundaries for Hungary’s counties had been redrawn on multiple occasions. The most radical realignment took place following the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, with the territories of Transylvania, Croatia/Slavonia, Upper Hungary (present day southern Slovakia) and Lower Hungary (present-day Northern Serbia) severed from the mother country. The number of counties dropped from 64 to 34. Then in 1949, this number was reduced again, to the current number of nineteen. Nineteen counties were not very many to visit, but it was still going to be difficult since Hungary was thousands of miles and an ocean away from my home. Though Hungary is not a very big country – approximately the size of Indiana – it is still large enough that going to every county was quite an undertaking. Fortunately, after five trips I had inadvertently covered large swaths of the country. The reason for this was two-fold, a love of train travel and to visit castles.

To my mind, riding a train almost anywhere in Hungary is always well worth the experience. The rail network radiates outward in every direction from Budapest. I took advantage of it to take day trips everywhere from Szeged to Sopron and points in between. Castles were also scattered throughout the countryside. Sometimes this meant a trip partly by train and partly by bus, such as to Nadasladany in Fejer County. Many castles, especially 18th and 19th century ones were on large estates deep in the countryside. This meant going to out of the way places. I had traveled impulsively to the sites that piqued my interest, with no master plan to collect counties. Somehow I ended up just one county short of having all nineteen. The solution to collecting the final county was to travel there by car. Hungary has plenty of cars, but would never be called a car culture, incomes are modest and public transport is readily available in even the tiniest of villages. Roads in Hungary are generally pretty good, especially the main highways and I was going to make use of them to visit Nograd County, a land of hills and small mountains in the northern part of the country.

Remote & beautiful - Nograd County in northern Hungary

Remote & beautiful – Nograd County in northern Hungary

Nograd – The Pass Though County
Nograd County is the smallest of Hungary’s nineteen counties and has only two percent of the nation’s population. It is the antithesis of stereotypical Hungary, there is hardly any agricultural land. Instead, it is heavily forested. Tourism is relatively undeveloped. The two main exceptions are old ruined castles from the late Middle Ages piled atop many of the hills and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Holloko village, which holds the finest examples of vernacular architecture in the country. Though Nograd County is really not that far from Budapest, the area has never been easily accessible due to the rugged topography. It was little wonder that this was the final county for me to collect. There was little reason to visit or even pass through unless one was traveling to Slovakia. My plan was to visit Somosko Castle right on the Hungary-Slovakia border. It would be the grand finale for me to celebrate visiting the final county. At least that is what I imagined. The reality turned out to be different.

Click here: Collecting The Counties Of Historic Hungary – Vanished Traces: Entering The Kingdom (Part Two)



At All Costs – Communist Style Customer Service: The Voice Of Authority (Travels In Eastern Europe #41)

The legacy of four and a half decades of communist rule can be found all over Eastern Europe. From the towering high rise apartment buildings that ring nearly every city to the abandoned wastelands of heavy industry scattered on the fringes of urban areas to the collapsing collective farms scattered throughout the countryside, communism left physical reminders all across the landscape. These remnants of a failed system are highly visible, but there are just as many mental scars for the generations that lived through the era. Some of these I have detected while traveling through the former Eastern Bloc countries. Older generations seem more suspicious and less welcoming. Forty years ago foreigners were never to be trusted. In some places that is still the case and visitors are treated as suspects.

Service without a smile - customer service meant something different under Communism

Service without a smile – customer service meant something different under Communism

Authoritarian Indifference– Photo Finish
Communism and customer service were mutually exclusive ideas. The individual meant very little in a communist system when compared to the masses. The communists were building a whole new world, one that cultivated the impersonal at the expense of the personal. Serving individual needs did not serve the interest of the masses. Rules of behavior and codes of conduct were rigid. The state was the ultimate arbiter of the way things should be done. Authoritarianism was all the rage. If someone was in a position of authority, they were to be obeyed at all costs. There are still several generations of Eastern Europeans that act accordingly. My first experience with a person who still obeyed these tenets occurred high in the mountains of Bulgaria at a church in Veliko Tarnovo.

There was only one docent for the church, if you could call her that. The lady was a buxom, 60’sish Bulgar who wore a permanent frown on her face. She sold me and a friend our tickets, peeling them off with methodical indifference. She then opened a door allowing us inside to a drafty, but impressive stone sanctuary with rustic Orthodox decoration. As we stood in silent reverence the woman took a place near us, intently watching our every movement. After a couple of minutes studying the church’s architecture I decided to take a photo. Both my friend and I had seen nothing that dissuaded the taking of photos. I raised my camera and focused the lens. The entire time the Bulgar woman watched me with suspicion.

She did not utter a word until I snapped the photo. Then suddenly she exclaimed “No photo” followed by some unintelligible verbiage. She glared at me fiercely. I could feel the white heat of her anger. When I said in frustration, “Why didn’t you say something?” she moved forward to usher us out of the church. I wondered if there was an actual human being hiding behind her scowl. She reminded me of those minders the communists would send with tourists back during the Cold War, who told people what they could and could not do. “No” was the default answer coming from an entire generation.

No photo

No photo – enough said

Keep Your Money – Against Change
Money is another item that elicits strange responses in formerly communist nations. Try using a large bill in some places to pay with and it will likely be rejected. I experienced this most notably in Kiev. At a small shop I tried to purchase a drink and candy bar with the equivalent of a ten dollar bill. The lady signaled that I needed to give her something smaller. I did not have anything. She raised her hands as if to say oh well. Then she returned my money back to me. This seemed utterly bizarre. Ukraine is a land beset by economic woe, one would think that the expenditure of money would elicit helpful customer service or at the very least the making of change. I obviously had disobeyed a tenet of this rigid economic culture. When I reflected on this incident further, I did consider that perhaps the woman did not want any large bills because she was fearful of theft. Either way, she did not do me or Ukraine’s economy any favors.

For citizens of communist countries during the Cold War being photographed by a stranger could send them into paroxysms of fear. This was for good reason, secret police organizations such as the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the Soviet Union’s KGB were notorious for keeping a close watch on their citizenry. Once a person realized they were being spied on, they assumed – usually not in vain – arrest would be forthcoming. Those who came of age during this time have a deep seated and well-founded fear of being watched.  Old habits are hard to break as I discovered just outside the gates of Krakow’s Nowa Huta district in Krakow. While trying to take a photo of the entrance into the district, I accidentally snapped it at the same time a woman walked into the frame. She immediately shrieked aloud and then quickly scurried away. Everyone on the street at that time began to look at me with suspicion. I slinked away into the nearest tram. This ended my potential foray into Nowa Huta.

The customer comes last

The customer comes last

The Pay Up Proposal – A Less Than Humorous Humiliation
By far my most memorable experience with communist style customer service took place in Lviv, Ukraine when I visited the Korniakt Palace which is part of The Lviv Historical Museum. I failed to pay the fee for the photo ticket when I entered. This was an oversight on my part as I thought there would not be much to photograph. That was until I got to the chambers of King Jan Sobieski III where I decided to take a photo of the furnishings. I did not want to walk all the way back through the museum to pay the photo ticket fee so I decided to snap my photo without a ticket. Very soon thereafter I heard footsteps, than a squat and severe woman walked up to me. She barked loudly in a voice of disdainful pleasure, “You do not have a photo ticket.” With the voice of commanding authority, she ordered me back to the entrance where I would pay the fee. I was dutifully marched back up to the front desk. She then turned and stuck her hand out asking for the money. Once I handed over the nominal sum she peeled off a photo ticket sticker which I was to wear. She then told me I was free to go. My humiliation was complete.