Crossing the Iron Curtain and Other Nightmares

We have dreams almost every night, but most often we don't remember the substance of our dreams. After waking, we can't recall the details, the logic (flimsy as it is) dissolves, the dreams lose color and flavor really fast. It's as if the Langoliers just passed this way and rendered the dreams into another dimension where the fizz vanishes quickly. But there are exceptions - dreams that linger on and repeat themselves like The Groundhog Day.

I used to have one like that; one that would reappear every so often. The scenario was always the same nightmarish script and it went like this.

Having successfully escaped from the communist Czechoslovakia, I'd established a life in the West (England/Scotland in my case). I have a job, a house and a family. Inexplicably I find myself back behind the Iron Curtain, a situation that is equally pleasant and terrifying. Pleasant because I can meet with my parents and friends, and terrifying because I have no idea how I will get back to my Western life. This predicament is never solved in the dream and I wake up sweaty, wooly-headed and confused.

This dream was always the same and initially it would occur once a month or so, but the frequency diminished over the years to eventually nothing. But it was scary; more scary than a horror movie. I always thought that I was the only one to have this dream and I didn't talk to anyone about it. In the nineties I came across a book by Milan Kundera, a well-known and respected Czech novelist who was also an émigré and lived in stylish and literary Paris, France. Kundera described my dream perfectly. Not only that, my unique dream was apparently common among people who had left their homeland abruptly and faced persecution and/or punishment if they ever returned.

This does not mean that my life in-the-West was always trouble-free or a walk-in-the-park. But even in the most trying moments in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Los Angeles I never, EVER considered the possibility of simply going back and surrendering to the evil police apparatus that Czechoslovakia had at the time. That thought just never occurred to me.

But I did complete the circle eventually.

While in Sweden, back in 1989, my parents came to see me after some 7 years. My father looked frail, but we finally managed to bond one day in my office in Västerås. About that same time, East Germany started to disintegrate and in November of '89 major changes took place in Czechoslovakia. The Communists were ousted in a popular uprising called the Velvet Revolution. Suddenly I was free to go back to the country where I grew up...

Going Back Behind the Curtain: Twenty Years Later
It was one of the lowest points. Ever. Early December in 1988, and I've arrived in Sweden with nothing much, other than a Volvo station wagon that we shipped from California. Yes, shipping Volvos to Sweden, there's a crazy notion! Actually, there was a reason for that, as US Volvos are slightly different from the domestic Volvos; like air-conditioning (that gets used once a year) and other feature refinements. My Volvo soon developed some terminal malady and had to be sold.

I was under some pressure to get a job, but what kind, without knowing the local language. And that is how I ended up at three in the morning sitting in the middle of a deserted street in Västerås surrounded by piles of newspapers. I had become a newspaper delivery person. For the first two weeks, I used the Volvo to pick up four bales of morning newspapers left for me at a bus stop. Then the car died. So I decided to use my bicycle but I'd forgotten one important factor. It's fucking cold in Sweden in December. I loaded my bike with the bales and tried to cross the road that was covered with ice harder than manganese. I didn't get far; the bike went one way, I another, and the bales unraveled. It was total misery only compounded by the fact that I was listening to a tape of a KLOS Radio broadcast on my Walkman that I'd made before coming to Sweden. Yes, it was sunny and balmy in LA, as usual.

I had over 200 newspapers of four different kinds to deliver every day. I was given the exact count and a distribution list that rarely changed as to who got what. Regardless how hard I tried, I either did not have enough or I had a couple newspapers spare. It was a simple task, yet I couldn't seem to get it right. It drove me bananas. I am convinced that my bales were sabotaged by someone at the newspaper printing plant. So I quit. Fuck 'em!

I had quite a bit of architectural design experience, so I applied at the two local architectural firms. Yes, they both hired me for a short time. Problem was that they could not grasp why I would leave that tropical paradise that is Los Angeles and come to Västerås, a sleepy company town about a 90 minute drive west of Stockholm. I had my reasons; the construction industry was in a major dive in California and my Swedish wife wanted to raise our son in her homeland. There was also the pesky Green Card, that I, despite numerous attempts was unable to obtain in the US. I thought this was all valid stuff, but the Swedish architects, who were an odd, elitist bunch, did not understand. I got hired more or less as a curiosity: Let's see what the California guy can do.

I was given lightweight projects; an interior of a medical clinic, a partial roof over a parking structure (with many unfamiliar snow management issues!), and a model home. This last project was quite interesting. Once every two years, the Swedish builders and architects have a competition building homes in a sort a of a community set up for this purpose. There are prestigious prizes at stake and the homes are sold and occupied after the competition.

I was told to conceptualize a couple of these homes, so I drew on my California experience adapting slightly to the local climate and conditions. My concepts included generous garage spaces, unconventional access to the house, a semi-circular tower enclosing a stair and a nifty laundry chute. A kind of Post Adobe California Revival for the sub-Arctic climate. Everything was fine and very interesting, they said, except the laundry chute. That was way too radical for the Swedish homeowner. None of my concepts were adopted and eventually my contract was not renewed. I could not blame them, I did not speak Swedish and I had no knowledge of the Swedish building standards. I was a liability to them, rather than a help.

It was clear that I could not make a living from design or architecture in the rigid and structured Sweden. So I entered the computer business. The concept was simple, I noticed that a personal computer, and the software for it, was priced far higher than in the US. I became a "grey-marketer"; buying software and hardware in the US, importing it into Sweden and selling it through the medium of a mail-order catalog. It was not exactly kosher as I did not have distribution agreements in place, but it was not illegal. Our first catalog was produced as a small booklet on a Macintosh with a 7" screen. Who we sent it to, I can't remember, but I know that the response was not encouraging. There was a simple reason for the lack of response. It was July and the entire population of Sweden was on vacation. The Swedes get a generous vacation allowance of between four and six weeks per year and usually they spend it in Spain or Greece lounging on the beach and getting burnt to a crisp by the unfamiliar sun. The following month, orders started rolling in at a decent volume and we knew that the business had potential.

Meanwhile, there were some very odd developments in Czechoslovakia. Thousands of East Germans came to Prague and camped in front of the West German Embassy trying to get visas as a kind of a back door to "Deutsches Bundes Republik". This siege lasted several weeks and no one knew what it meant or what to do about it. As the East Germans ran out of money, some furious bartering took place. A Trabant car, a a two-door plastic death trap with wire-operated brakes and a tiny two-stroke engine manufactured in East Germany for the domestic market, was worth a pair of Levis'. A car for LEVI'S!! There was kind of devil-may-care atmosphere, a rare grass roots event taking on a life of its own.

Then, on November 9, 1989, the East German authorities announced that East Berlin citizens were free to cross into West Berlin. The Berlin Wall fell without a single shot being fired. The hated concrete barrier was slowly reduced to rubble by sledgehammers wielded by both East and West Germans. I wished I could be there. Instead I watched from Västerås, Sweden with tears in my eyes; incredulous but with a concern that something could still go wrong or that this was just a dream. It wasn't.

The following month I received a letter from the Czech Embassy in Sweden - my first official communication from Czechoslovakia in more than 20 years. It asked me to forgive and forget and return to my homeland. There was an apology for...just about everything the Communists did. It remains a mystery how they knew my address. But I had a business, a home and a family in Sweden, and returning to Czechoslovakia where the future was totally unpredictable did not make sense to me.

But I could visit!

By then we had another Volvo, so we loaded it up and I drove with my wife Lotta and my son Benjamin who was three at the time, to Trelleborg in Southern Sweden to catch a ferry. The ferries that cross the Baltic Sea between Trelleborg, on the southern coast of Sweden, and Sassnitz, on the island of Rügen, are large comfortable vessels; almost luxurious. The crossing takes about four hours so we took a small cabin to relax in and had dinner brought to the cabin. Very civilized way to travel!

As we drove our Volvo from the ferry and into Eastern Germany, things changed fast. Our route was carefully mapped out as "transit"; the shortest way to traverse East Germany and we were not allowed to take any detours. Otherwise there was a risk that we'd see things the government was not proud of.

As we left the ferry, our car developed a sensor fault and a disembodied female voice insisted that the passenger seat was occupied and that the safety belt must be fastened. Lotta sat in the back with Benjamin, but the car thought otherwise. There was no way I could drive the next eight hours with that annoying reminder every few seconds. We stopped and I tugged at the cables under the passenger seat, eventually disabling the warning with brute force.

We were ready to continue. Our route took us through the city of Stralsund. There were traces that this had once once been a thriving Hanseatic city, but now old buildings had peeling facades, mountains of coal and trash littered the sidewalks, stores were empty or closed and a few people just shuffled around. The contrast with Sweden was staggering. Everything looked bleak, depressing, abandoned, souless. As we continued South on a nearly deserted freeway (built by Hitler) there were women combing the fields along the road for leftover potatoes. Often they waved at us.

Near Berlin, I was stopped by the Highway Patrol. Apparently I was speeding on a German autobahn that traditionally does not have a speed limit. A crisp US $20 bill that the officer feigned not to accept, solved the problem within a few minutes.

We crossed the East German - Czech border at a mountain checkpoint near Dresden. The paperwork was mind-numbing and we were still forced to buy a certain amount of Czech currency based on the number of days we were planning to stay. The border guards seemed resigned to the fact that their days of power were over. We continued along the E-55; a mountain road, avoiding the omnipresent potholes. As we reached Teplice, a once elegant spa city in Northern Bohemia, the emerging Czech enterprising nature became evident. Scantily clad women lined the highway gesturing invitingly at all foreign -looking cars. It was barely two months after the old regime fell, yet prostitution was already a big industry due to the economic disparity between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Yes, $20 could avoid a speeding ticket or buy a Czech woman for a couple of hours of sweaty, anonymous sex by the roadside.

It was dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Prague. I didn't really know the way, but suddenly I recognized a street name and in few minutes I was parked in front the apartment building I grew up in. It was 20 years and 7 months since I'd been here last. As my mother opened the door, I was close to fainting as emotions closed in on me. It was a bittersweet moment, a proud homecoming coupled with sadness. My father had died a few days before and we arrived for his funeral.

My old neighborhood, always a bit gritty, looked dirty, neglected, small, sad. My mother had supper ready for us and suggested that I might go and buy some beer - the old way, with a glass pitcher, like I used to as a kid. I didn't know where to go and she said, "Go to U Debila (Idiot's Bar)”, a nickname I'd had for one of the pubs in the neighborhood whose barman featured a particularly noticeable lack of intellect. As I picked up the old glass pitcher, Lotta decided to go with me. No, no, said my mother, she won't like it, it's rough there. But Lotta more or less insisted. So off we went, armed with the old glass pitcher.

The "pub" was a veritable hole in the wall. The place was full of drab people, men mostly, in various stages of inebriation. The only decor in the place was a collection of pornographic posters for German adult movies pinned to the tobacco smoke-stained walls. The Czech pubs were not like Western bars or English pubs. For starters, there was no actual "bar". Instead, draft beer dispensers mounted on an arm above a stainless steel counter were the most common equipment. In the counter surface was a sink, used to clean the half-liter glasses. Clean does not describe the actual process. Dirty glasses were simply dunked in the fluid in the sink, shaken dry and beer was then poured into them. It was a health department and hygiene nightmare.

Lotta and I lined up in front of the counter as I searched for the right words to make my order to the clearly rushed and impatient bartender. My turn came and I meekly handed over the pitcher hoping the bartender would understand what I was after. He started filling it, but stopped after a few seconds. At that point he calmly set the pitcher down, walked from behind the counter to our side and started hitting the man standing next to me. In the head. Hard! The man fell and the bartender continued to kick him in the groin and stomach. As the man went limp, the gorilla-bartender grabbed him by his belt and tossed him outside.

He then returned to the task at hand - filling up my pitcher with beer - as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. Indeed, nobody except us seemed to have noticed the incident, but Lotta watched in horror and wanted an explanation. "He stole" explained someone to me and that was an ample and expected punishment. We made it out of “Idiots” in one piece and the beer was surprisingly good.

We stayed in Prague for a week or so and then drove back to Sweden. I had a few anxious moments at the border - a residual from my immigrant dream - but there were no problems.

And no more immigrant dreams.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions