Eastern Europe Revisited

It was 1987 and I was a young student studying abroad at the Danish International Studies (DIS) program in Copenhagen, I was just 20 years old and at this point had decided on a major, Business Administration, and not much else. Life was still an empty canvass. Things were much different in those days as personal computing was still very young and immature and there was no internet. We were a lot of na├»ve 20 yr old young adults who had not spent much time out of the confines and comfort of our home country. We were thrust into a foreign environment (a little less so for me as I had visited Denmark many times as I had family there). The excitement was that each day there was something new to learn, to experience. . As students we all relished in reading the International Herald Tribune and discussing political events in Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev was changing the Soviet Union with things like “glasnost” and “perestroika”. The leaders of the big three in the European Union (West Germany, France and the UK) were Kohl, Mitterand and Thatcher were each following different policies. Kohl was moving West Germany to the right, Mitterand was a Socialist (in time it would be in name only), and Thatcher was bringing the UK into the Milton Friedman school of economics. We discussed elections in Europe, we frankly, rarely talked about what was happening in the United States. It was exciting to learn about different democratic political systems. During my year in Denmark, there would be two national elections as the initial coalition elected when I arrived in August of 1987 could not hold and a new election was called for in June of 1988. There are other very high functioning democracies other than our own

At that time the Iron Curtain was still in full effect, the Cold War was still very real. As part of our time in Denmark we studied East-West relations. We had a Danish teacher names Lars Mittek Pederson who taught the course. He was an interrogator for the Danish military. He was 5’4″. Soviets beware. One thing you learned about communist states, unless it was a natural resource they did not have a lot to trade with the west. It made economic relations difficult and you had to be creative to make it work. Currency was obviously an issue as eastern currencies were not wroth much, so they had to do actual trading of goods. The cool thing we got to do as part of the program was in the fall we toured some of the Eastern Bloc countries. One group went to Poland and East Germany and the other group went to Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I was in the second group. So my plans were made to go to Prague and Budapest.

We flew out from the Kastrup airport just outside Copenhagen and had to stop in Budapest before proceeding to Prague. Landing in Budapest was an earie experience, it was dark and foggy outside with a few lights poking through the fog. In was out of a old fashioned Hollywood spy thriller where East meets West. I am sure Richard Burton starred in the film. Even though we were all on a plane, it all seemed very cold. We took off to Prague after spending an hour on the tarmac and landed safely in Czechoslovakia and were whisked away to our hotel on the main street in Prague. Prior to arriving in Prague we had all been given a few hundred Deutschmarks as we would need to exchange currency to the local Korana’s. The Hotel foreign exchange rates sucked but we had been told there was a thriving black market for western currency that offered much better rates. We checked into our Hotel and then hopped on the elevator with the bellhop (yes they actually had a bellhop). The bellhop was young, probably late twenties early thirties and since communism promised full employment we had a bellhop. Half way up to the fourth floor the bellhop stopped the elevator. The black market had arrived. I cannot remember the actual rate but it was significantly higher than the hotel rate. With the exception of one “follow” the rule person we happily exchanged our money. We were college student and understood money, as we did not have a lot.

The first night we ate at the hotel in a nice dining room and were served drinks in large Brandy sniffers. We indulged. It was our Danish guides who understood this would all need to be paid for. I do remember we had guest form the Czechoslovakian government, who spoke to us. Our group consisted of Americans and Canadiens, and one Australian. To lighten up the presentation the government rep asked if “Canada had become the 51st state yet?”. Joke did not go over so well with some members of our group. Following dinner we went out to explore the town. One thing about Prague which was cool was it was one of the few major European cities that was not bombed during the second World War, so it had a very old world feel to it. A first stop was the famous St Charles bridge, which was lined with statues. It was a chilly, foggy night as we walked across the bridge, which just added to the cold war feel of the city. Afterwards we wanted some nightlife and found a place open late. They had security at the door and he would not let us in, so we bribed him. Into the nightlife we went. It was a gay bar, which in hind site thinking about the eastern European attitudes towards homosexuality it was surprising we got in, but we paid in Western currency as every man has their price, especially in eastern Europe. We did not stay long and eventually called it a night.

The next day it was rise and shine and off to the tour bus . We had a lot of ground to cover. As it has been over 30 yrs my memories may be a bit rusty, so bare with me. Our DIS leader was a older business man named Preben Hoffmann, who routinely would fall asleep on the bus rides and wake up with dandruff all over his sports coats (we were all dressed in business attire for the excursion). A second DIS leader was Karin who worked in the DIS office, she was late twenties as far as I could tell. We also had a Czech tour guide, whose name I cannot remember. On this day we stopped at the Jewish cemetery in Prague. I think it was the one opp on the trip we had to see the travesty of WWII. Since Prague, was not bombed during WWII and thanks to communism, Prague had not evolved and certain locations were preserved, not out of reverence, there was juts no motivation to change anything. For lunch we went to a castle and ordered food which took an hour to get, service was not a strength so we chatted for a long time. We finally got our food and were ready to go, but for whatever reason some people needed to order dessert. About 2 1/2 hrs after we arrived we finally departed. We toured a dairy plant. The one image that impacted me was at the end of a production line a woman would wait for the milk case to arrive , which given the pace was about one every two minutes and then put the case on a pallet. In the meantime she stood and smoked cigarettes, she looked incredibly bored and if I were her I would smoke two packs of cigarettes every day, hoping it would speed up my death. But communism guaranteed full employment and there was a cost.

That evening we would go to the famous Estates Theater, which was not far from our hotel. We were to see a opera, the Passion Play, so a biblical event. We were put in one of the private boxes on the second level so we had a front row and were in a luxurious setting. I was somewhat familiar with the theater as it had been used as part of the Academy Award nominated film Amadeus, which I was a big fan of. We were actually set up in two rows, behind me was a fellow student Bill, who had come prepared with a walk man. As the curtains raised I could here a faint familiar sound behind me, it was the opening guitar riff for the B’52’s classic, Rock Lobster. I turned and Bill just smiled. I think Bill really enjoyed the show.

The last day was rather exciting, because as usual things were moving slowly. I cannot remember the issue but our Czech tour guide and Karin had to go to a government office (I think it may have been something to do with Karin’s visa). The line was slow and Karin was getting nowhere. The tour guide jumped in and tried to get the person behind the counter to hurry up, but apparently she did not like his tone and closed the blind on him (at this point we had a clear picture of teller behind an encased space where she had ability via blind to shut people out). This is where the story got a bit odd. The tour guide had a small knife and tried to slip the knife under blind and raise the blind up. The teller opened the blind to see tour guide holding a knife pointed towards her. The police were called and he was arrested. We never saw nor heard from him again.

As we rounded out are stay in Prague a few things struck me. In terms of consumer goods there was nothing that was remotely interesting. I also witnessed lines for food. In terms of consumer activity there was little. In terms of service anywhere there was no sense of urgency (even by European standards). Was there issues of secret police? Yes. One story was on our last day a few students went out with some locals who could speak English and have a beer (interestingly national beer was Budweizer – no direct relation to US Brand). As we were in a small pub our hosts would constantly look over their shoulders to see ho may be watching or listening. Czechoslovakia was know as one of the stricter communist satellites in the Eastern bloc, probably legacy of the Prague Spring of 1968. Thinking back on Prague it was a great experience in learning what freedom means.

From Prague we flew back to Budapest. We already felt as a group we were now more experienced in the dark arts of currency exchange in the Eastern bloc. Highlighted by the fact that I don’t remember the actual exchange, but it was apparent by then that the black market found you, you did not find it. We were greeted by a tour guide, who would be our host during our stay in Budapest. Our Danish leader Karin, who had been traveling with us seemed to play a more prominent role in Budapest as the liaison with the tour guide (I think his name was Peter – I will just go with it from here on out). Perhaps because Budapest was closer to Vienna and the west it had a more lively vibe than Prague, you felt that almost immediately. This of course is lively by communist standards. We upgraded from a slug to a snail.

As usual we woke up and got dressed for success and headed out on the tour bus to take in the sites of Budapest. We went to Karl Marx University, I am sure there were many in the Eastern Bloc. Our guest speaker came in dressed in what looked like a nice wester suit. He spoke impeccable English. It turns out he had studied at Harvard. I cannot remember the substance of the talk but it was impressive that his manor was much more western than many we had already had to listen to. I remember they had a Karl Marx statue, but in hind site it was humorous to have such a western looking presentation at a center of communist thought

From there our tour guide, Peter took us across the river to a castle in a bluff that overlooked Budapest. As Peter explained Budapest was two sides of the river. There was the “Buda” side and the “Pesta” side. I equated the “Pesta” side with having an insect problem. We were in a castle that over looked the city and the Danube river, it was really quite stunning

Another stop was the Heroes Square and The Millennium Monument, where we would get a big group photo in front of this magnificent monument. We were a group of young adults on the go. I don’t know if any of us had any idea what we would see when we got to Budapest (and Prague), it was just part of the program and we were along for the ride. One thing about Budapest that was significantly different than Prague was they had opened a little to the idea of free enterprise. They actually had a fast food burger joint, which we all tried. The Hungarians had done it, they had given new meaning to greasy food. That being said, no it was not McDonald’s, but it fulfilled a craving for fast food we all had.

A key memory for me was when we had some downtime and a fellow student, David Ricardi and I were having a deep conversation of our travels, walking along the Danube in front of some beautiful government buildings. It was frankly one of those things you could only do in Europe. It was one of those moments when you are young and you just appreciate the fact that you are somewhere having an experience. That you were actually living and enjoying a moment. Later on David and I would connect with other members of the group and go our for beers. Afterwards David and I were with our Danish guide Karin, walking back to the hotel. Near the hotel they had a little pizza kiosk (looked like an old Fotomat ) and David and I introduced Karin to the American late night tradition of eating pizza before we go to bed. I think Karin thought it was a bit weird, but she sure enjoyed the pizza.

It was soon time to leave and fly back to Copenhagen, and back to school. We had an extra week and some students went on a tour to the Soviet Union. I would hop a train and go to north to Aalborg and spend the week with family. I would read Pricilla Pressley’s book “Elvis and Me” in Danish (kinda proud of that). By Monday, a week later, talking about our adventures abroad. I just remember our teacher Lars Mittek Pederson saying in class, “I did not want to tell you this before you left, but those eastern airlines go down all the time, it is ridiculous”. Good to know and glad he waited to tell us.

Looking back now over 35 yrs ago, a lot has changed, obviously. Just 2 years later the Berlin Wall would fall and Germany would start the process of re-unification. In 1991 the Soviet Union would collapse creating a group of new nation states (Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia etc…). In 1992 Czechoslovakia would dissolve and become the Czech Republic and Slovakia. NATO and the European Union would begin their expansion eastward Russia would try capitalism and fail. They would not start to gain some stability until the arrival of a good old fashioned Russian dictator named Vladimir Putin. The US would struggle, in its own way, as it is hard to adjust after having so many years of a defined enemy. We seem now to have come full circle with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. We may be entering a much more violet time as the world seems to be moving toward a bipolar power structure after having so many years of just American power. This is being driven more by China than Russia, but that is another topic for another blog post. Eastern Europe is far more free now than when I visited, though there are distressing signs in place like Hungary and Poland. Belarus is very locked down as is Russia. Are we going back to communism, short answer no (a lot of people mistake tax policy for communism). Karl Marx had a huge influence on the 20th century but his philosophies were born unto what was happening in the 19th century. He died in 1878.

Traveling in Eastern Europe gave me a lot of wonderful incites, which obviously had a positive influence on my outlook of the world. It provided me the opportunity to see what was the dying days of the communist system. The daily struggle people lived behind the Iron Curtain. A certain dreary view of the world, knowing there is a lot happening in the west they just are not allowed to participate. It is one thing to read about these things, it is completely different to have the opportunity to experience it. I drew from a fading an aging and fading memory so hopefully you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann

April 12, 2022

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