The Czech consulate stood in the center of East Berlin. A bare marble plinth, which had once held the bust of some old Communist hero, stood in the lobby. Cardboard boxes with files cluttered the corridors. The whole place had an unreal and provisional feeling, like an apartment on moving day. Things were obviously still in a state of flux in Czechoslovakia.
I was the only visitor the day I requested a visa for my visit. The secretary, a nice looking blond who sat doing her nails nevertheless insisted I take a number and have a seat in the waiting room, which like everything in the consulate, was paved with marble of different colors and had an austere and pretentious look about it which seemed ill-suited for this small eastern European country.
I sat down in a chair and examined the dual portraits of Czechoslovak president and prime minister on the wall and drummed my fingers impatiently on the edge of the table. I closed my eyes and thought of Prague, for ten years secluded behind closed borders, now waking up like a fairytale princess kissed by a capitalist prince charming. It was the most romantic city in Europe, they said – city of a hundred spires. City lost and found. Golden Prague. I waited and in my mind I saw myself exploring dimly lit Prague streets swathed in shadows and fog, whiling away my days in smoky Prague cafes in Old Town.
At last the door opened. The secretary poked her head out to tell me that the consular attaché would now see me. I stood up and was led into an expansive, high ceilinged office, where a man in a dark suit and gold tie sat at a mahogany desk aiming a paper airplane at a wastepaper basket. He threw the plane and missed.
“Ach!” said the consular attaché. He turned to face me and threw up his arms in a gesture of welcome.
“How delighted I am that you are wishing to visit Czechoslovakia!” he said. “Of course you are aware of the vast changes which are shaking our small country in the last years. You must know that in Czechoslovakia we are beginning a new era of freedom and worldopeness. A new dawn is rising over Czechoslovakia. Great waves of new possibilities are coming to our country. Czechoslovakia is shaking off her totalitarian chains and rising up to embrace the path of Democracy. The night is over. The morning has dawned and the light of the new day has come, a new day which our people shall labor at the fulfillment of our destiny and enter again into the stream of European civilization. Much work needs to be done. It will not be an easy task. Many years of Communism have filled our heads with much totalitarian mud and cleansing will mean much hard work along new lines. Oh! But it will not be long until we join our European brothers in the community of modern nations! The time is coming. I feel it. Slowly we are emerging from the Communist barbarism.”
The consular attaché sat back in his chair, placed his finger tips tog ether and threw back his head. Clearly it pleased him to sing the praises of his country.
“You will find our country modern, cosmopolitan, openminded and hospitable to all of your wishes. You will find everything marvelously beautiful and marvelously wonderful, in short – just marvelous. Our country is rich in resources. Trade with our European neighbors is becoming ever more lively. Czechoslovak citizens are now learning the English language and making business in the European way so that we may free ourselves from the terrible backward mentality which has been the curse of fifty years of Communist regime.
You will find our capital city pleasant and modern. Prague is rapidly being transformed into a completely worldclass town with firstrate hotels. Now there are many uptodate shops where western goods may be purchased. Peoples of many cultures and nationalities mingle in more or less peace on our streets. No other city has such a great tradition of tolerance. Who wants to make money can easily do so. There are many opportunities in Prague for interesting joint-ventures. My friend! I congratulate you on your decision to come to Czechoslovakia!”
Having concluded his paen, the consular attaché shook me by the shoulders and stamped my passport, handing me a set of coupons to be used in certain designated Prague nigh clubs and massage parlors.
“Goodbye and bon voyage!” said the consular attaché.
It was early in the morning when I left Berlin for Prague. The train journey, I have to say, was breathtakingly dull. After three hours we arrived at the border to Czechoslovakia. A small station graced with a faded red star. Vacant-eyes, inscrutable Slavs looked on from the platform. These were my first unflattering impressions of Czechoslovakia.
After five hours, stiff and weary from the train, I arrived at Prague Main Station. I was immediately accosted by touts offering cheap accommodations, taxi services and local handicrafts. Barefoot Gypsies in gaudy rags cradling squirming naked babies tuggled at my sleeve, hitting me up for change, while men offering rooms fanned out snapshots of their apartments. “American? Deutsch? Francois? Ruski?” they jabbered in various proficiencies of English, French, German and Russian. “Central location historical center best price I offer you no joke.” “Hallo, main Freund, sprechen Sie Deutsch? What brand cigarette do you smoke? Francais? Nein? Eng-lish? Ahhhh: Americhan!! Yessss!!!” “Hello! Hey meester! Change money? No commission.” I nodded politely and set off in search of a hotel.
At a side street near the station I found the Hotel Commercial (formerly Hotel Moskow). Twenty-eight dollars a night, a casino in the basement, a dimly lit and rather sinister and filmnoirish lobby populated by pick-up girls and dubious looking businessmen in sheeny suits. Behind the reception desk sat the concierge hunched over a sporting newspaper. Behind him a stuffed crocodile and a notice informing guests that for their “higher safety and pleasant stay explosive devices are not permitted in hotel rooms.”
As for the room, it was decidedly socialist/ The furniture was some kind of pseudo-wood. There was a bed as hard as cinder blocks under a painting of red flag waving proletarians. The TV worked in a vague and hesitant way. There was no hot water. Outside, across the street, the neon sign of a night club flickered and buzzed, advertising, ‘NON STOP CRAZY CLUB’, ‘ALL NIGHT CRAZY PROGRAM’ and ‘PRAGUE SEX GIRLS’. Somehow despite all this – despite the bed, the cries of street brawlers, the blaring music from the nightclub and the clamor of the traffic I managed to sleep that night, my first night in Prague.
I slept till late the next morning and then had breakfast in the hotel restaurant: two slices of crusty white bread, a cold egg and tepid tea. It was nearly noon when I got outside. The sky was overcast and a sultry torpor hung over the city, so that I felt half asleep and slightly dazed as I walked through the strange streets of Prague, aimlessly wandering through the alleyways of Old Town. I wandered through outlying districts, passing worker palaces, traversing wide-open squares and broad boulevards. I visited several recently opened cafes with names like ‘501’, ‘Night Clab’ and ‘Led Zeppelin Bar’. Huge advertisements for western products draped the sides of pre-fab housing blocks, obscuring the socialist-realist murals of yesterday and offering the citizens of Czechoslovakia new ideals and new models for living.