FRANKURT (Oder) to BERLIN
OUR EXPERIENCES IN HUNGARY AND YUGOSLAVIA 1972.
WEDS 9th JULY 2014
The weather forecast for today was not promising and if the rain predicted for this morning is anything like the storm we had last night we thought it best to go to Berlin by train in lieu of riding.
There was nothing complicated with regards getting our train tickets as compared to previous days and there was a train every half hour. Whilst on the train we reflected on the amazing river rides we had just completed and one thing we agreed on was travelling by bike and train takes a lot of beating. Travelling slowly and in short hops enabled us to see more and allowed more time to delve into an area’s culture and history. Invariably something unexpected cropped up which absorbed us.
The rides through the Czech Republic, East Germany and Poland have been especially interesting for me because two major events that shaped those countries, WW2 and Soviet domination, happened in my lifetime. I can’t say I remember the events of WW2 as they happened as I was too young but I can remember the aftermath. For example, a once a year celebration in Australia called Guy Fawkes night which involved letting off fireworks around huge bonfires turned into a night celebrating the end of WW2 and the demise of Hitler. Prior to WW2 an effigy of ‘The Guy’ was placed on top and burned but after the end of the war it was replaced with an effigy of Hitler. When the flames consumed him everyone cheered. The burning of Hitler went on for some time after the war ended.
Guy Fawkes was involved in the Gunpowder plot of 1604 in England. Plot conspirators were a small group of English Catholics who unsuccessfully attempted to murder protestant King James and replace him with his nine-year old daughter Princess Elisabeth. The conspirators intended to kidnap the princess and manipulate her in the ways of Catholicism. It’s hard to imagine that up until 1945 Australians were celebrating an event that happened three hundred and forty one years before.
In the Sydney suburb where I lived, Catholic and Protestant kids built separate bonfires and I’m now wondering if the 1604 event might have had something to do with it. Both Protestant and Catholic kids had to mount a twenty-four hour vigil to prevent the lighting of each other’s bonfires prior to the official day. Catholic and Protestant division in the 1940/50s was very intense. We lived next door to a Catholic family and I was not encouraged to associate with the children. My mother used to talk with the lady next door through a hole in the fence but she never went in to her house. My father acknowledged the Catholic neighbours by dipping his cap when he saw them but he never spoke to them at length.
Other things I remember about the post WW2 period were the air-raid siren on a power pole at the top of our street, an air-raid shelter my father dug in our backyard, brown paper strips stuck on windows to reduce the chance of flying glass if a bomb detonated nearby, brick and concrete air-raid shelters at school and searchlights scanning the skies over Sydney. However the most memorable aspect for me was the war disposal shops in George Street Sydney. My father and I often went into the city on Saturday mornings to mooch about the disposal shops, which were full of fair dinkum war surplus goods, not like the imitation gear sold in the so-called army disposal shops these days.
The other event that shaped the countries we have just ridden through was when the Soviet Union took control of them in 1945. The populations of Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria came under the communist umbrella. Many of the people living in the east found themselves isolated from the west by a fence referred to in latter years as the Iron Curtain. The Iron Curtain was about seven thousand kilometers long and stretched from Stettin on the Baltic in northern Germany to Trieste on the Adriatic Sea Italy.
The first use of the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’ is attributed to British author Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Machen used the term in his 1895 novel, The Three Imposters….’the door clanged behind me with the noise of thunder, and I felt that an iron curtain had fallen on the brief passage of my life’.
Many people believe Churchill was the first to use the phrase in his ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech delivered after the end of WW2. This was not the case, however he did give the phrase wide circulation.
Until I prepared the above map I used to ask myself why people wanting to escape communism simply didn’t travel south and cross to the west through Greece and Italy. I now realise why they didn’t. They were fenced in, not only along the eastern borders but in the south as well along the northern border of Greece and Albania.
Along portions of the Iron Curtain there were hidden trip wires connected to unmanned machine guns which fired as soon as the trip wire was touched. In other places there were machine gun-equipped soldiers with orders to shoot to kill any persons approaching the fence.
In 1972/3 Bev and I travelled through communist Hungary and Yugoslavia. Travelling in those countries was very different than today. There was an air of suspicion and everything was difficult. For example, in Budapest, Hungary, we could only stay at Communist Party approved accommodation. We stayed in a room four floors up in an approved apartment. The owner Kitty told us that food was rationed, travel outside Hungary was forbidden and there were secret agents watching the public all the time. Unfortunately for us the taking of photographs was restricted. There were many signs indicating this although I couldn’t see why.
A great proportion of the day for ordinary non-party members was spent standing in food distribution queues. Party members didn’t stand in queues, they were treated differently. They shopped in special stores, ate in special restaurants, took holidays and had access to medical facilities. Ordinary people were desperate for western goods. On a number of occasions I was asked if I would sell my jeans and we were constantly asked if we had any ballpoint pens to sell.
One evening I went out from Kitty’s apartment to one of the special shops for supplies and as soon as I left I was followed by a man wearing a ushanka and a black leather trench coat with the collar pulled up high. To test if I was actually being followed I stopped and looked into a shop window, my follower did the same. I suspect he may have been lurking in the shadows opposite Kitty’s place all the time we were there to observe our movements.
Our other Communist country experience was Yugoslavia. Tito was the leader at the time and because he adopted a more liberal form of communism the country was considered not to be behind the Iron Curtain. Just the same, the streets and buildings were dreary and dull and no matter how brightly the sun shone the cities we visited had a depressing feel about them. In Belgrade (now the capital of Serbia) there were a number of incidents that told us to be careful how we trod. Communist party cars had red number plates and we were told never to walk in front of one and always give way to them at intersections because if you didn’t comply you could find yourself in jail. On one occasion we saw a local punched to the ground by a police officer because he crossed the road in front of a party member’s car.
Our only encounter with party members was high in the mountains one night. Our meeting was by accident when their vehicle, a short wheelbase Landrover, slid off the black ice-covered road and became bogged in the table drain. Avid readers of this blog will know I have had some experience when it comes to de-bogging Landrovers so it was a simple task to get them back on the road. I got in behind the wheel and put the party members to work pushing. In the process of getting their vehicle out I managed to splatter them with mud, something they were not all that happy about.
Black ice refers to a thin layer of ice on a surface. While not truly black it is virtually transparent, therefore allowing black-coloured bitumen just below the surface to be seen through it. We managed to stay on black ice covered roads by fitting chains to the wheels of the Beetle.
Slipping off ice-covered roads was a common occurrence. On one occasion when driving a mountain road in Yugoslavia two men waved us down and wanted a lift because their car had slipped off the road and over the edge. Along the mountain roads there were monuments made from car parts welded and bolted together. Apparently relatives of those who died built the monuments from parts of the deceased’s car.
Fortunately for Bev and I, we had a friend to stay with in Belgrade. She worked at the Australian embassy, which in diplomatic circles was classified as a hardship post, mainly because of the suspicious and repressive nature of the government. Because her apartment was possibly bugged our friend warned us not to talk politics inside or with strangers outside. Before asking her questions about the political aspects of the country and what life was like living in Belgrade she insisted we go outside to the park.
If you had hard currency (money that remained stable, such as the US dollar or English pound) it was possible to buy just about anything, hence the ‘slap-up’ Christmas dinner. During our 1972 jaunt we carried U.S. & Australian dollars, English pounds and Deutschmarks.
There were other happenings too. We wanted to buy a map but before we were even allowed to look at the map the shop attendant quizzed us as to why we wanted it. After convincing the shop attendant that we had no intention of using the map for malicious purposes a map came forth, however we were not allowed to touch it until we had paid for it. The no touch game applied to books, grocery items and when we wanted a bottle of wine we were not permitted to touch the bottle. The shop assistant held the bottle so we could read the label, not that it was of any use trying to read the label as it was not in English.
During the 1970s travellers like us in Communist countries came under close scrutiny. There was always someone watching. On one occasion I walked on the grass in a park not realising it was forbidden and an armed soldier appeared from behind a bush and waved me off. Another time we were reprimanded for acting in a jovial manner near a national monument.
Our 1972 jaunt took us from Hungary into Yugoslavia. At the time we were pleased we had managed to get through Hungary without any encounters with the law but our luck changed once in Yugoslavia when we were apprehended by the secret police after accidently driving through a stop sign and past an armed guard near the Hungarian border. Somehow we had managed to get off track and ended up on a dead end road with a guard tower ahead of us over the border in Hungary.
The circumstances were, in retrospect, rather amusing but at the time the situation was serious. Our ignoring of the stop sign and the armed border guard was because our attention was focused on a large heap of brightly coloured melons on the side of the road. Not paying attention meant we came up unintentionally against the Iron Curtain. The guards in the watchtower looked down on us somewhat bemused I expect. There was no time to consider our situation as the guard we drove past came running from behind shouting. He feverishly waved his weapon and backed us up to the stop sign. I have never been comfortable with people waving guns at me and this day was no exception.
The guard demanded our passports then made a telephone call from a sentry box and soon an officer appeared and took the passports to an adjacent building. The guard who waved us down was not at all aggressive. He slouched over the hood of the Beetle and attempted to communicate and was particularly happy when I offered him a cigarette. Bev and I didn’t smoke but we always carried cigarettes in the event of a bribe being required.
All travellers finding themselves in this situation get frustrated, mainly because they are not told what’s happening. Questions flew through our minds: are we going to be interrogated, jailed or deported. It turned out to be the latter: we were deported.
While waiting we played Scrabble and ironically one word Bev put down was ‘jail’. A baby blue Fiat with a flashing red light on its hood appeared at speed and the driver, a slim, weedy man wearing a trench coat entered the building. A few minutes later he came out clutching our passports. The inspector, as I called him, jumped into the Fiat and drove off at speed back the way he had come. Not wanting our passports going AWOL we followed, pedestrians leapt out of the way as the inspector sped by and people at intersections gave way to him without hesitation, so he must have had some authority.
Trench coats seemed to be the uniform of those in authority and the reason is I think is because they have wide collars and when pulled up the wearer’s identity can be partly concealed. Also having two wide lapels meant a double layer of cloth across the chest: most desirable during freezing European winters. The trench coat was developed prior to WW1 but adapted for use in the trenches, hence its name.
The inspector’s car came to a halt outside another brick building in a nearby town and he disappeared inside. Whilst waiting for an outcome I washed the Beetle using water from a roadside pothole. Finally our passports were returned and we were given an order to be out of the country within 24 hours which meant driving back to the Hungarian border. Once back in Hungary we applied for a new visa and re-entered Yugoslavia the next day.
Experiencing how life was for the inhabitants of Communist countries in 1972 was certainly an enlightenment and even though I had seen poverty in countries such India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle East countries when driving overland in 1970 the poverty in the Communist countries was of a different kind, it was a poverty forced on them ‘by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police’. (From Churchill’s Sinews of Peace speech).
On that note I will bring this post to an end. The next posting will relate to our impressions and a potted history of Berlin and our bike riding experiences there. In the meantime, dwell on the following statement I found when researching life in East Germany during the communist period.
‘In the 1980s, in the communist Eastern Germany, if you owned a typewriter, you had to register it with the government. You had to register a sample sheet of the text out of the typewriter. And this was done so the government could track where text was coming from’.