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Tales of Being Behind the Iron Curtain...

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I would be interested in hearing about folks who are old enough to have penetrated the Iron Curtain - Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe - and their experiences.

I made many such journeys behind the Iron Curtain and though all were interesting many were just not that pleasant - travel there was much tougher than western Europe in many ways - even though it was cheaper often you could not even find things to spend the often required daily money amount exchanged as there was often very little to buy!

And store clerks - talk about the complete lack of customer service and even caring about customers - I remember a take it or leave it attitude with clerks, who uniformly seemed to be plump grumpy ladies in not so pure white uniforms - with these perfunctory robot-like clerks literally throwing things at you over a counter - there were very little self-serve stores.

In future posts I'll relay some of my more memorable experiences but I'd like to hear what others experienced in places like Poland, East Berlin and East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the USSR, etc.

Any interesting stories to tell?

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    Sorry - my visits to Russia were both after the wall fell.

    But there were about 12 years between them - and there was a massive difference. The first trip was a tour - had to be either a tour or a private guide, the hotels were incredibly (monty python) bad, the food was awful, there was no free time, and "shopping" for junk in special tourist stores was required.

    The second trip was independent - and although the tourist infrastructure was still poor - even compared to central europe - the rules/regs were barely noticeable (but you did need a visa to get in and out), you could get decent food (but expensive) and you could go anywhere (although we didn't have enough time to get far off the beaten track).

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    I did a lecture tour in the USSR in the mid 1980's. Pretty rigidly orchestrated. Best meal was on a collective farm. Ice cream everywhere was delicious. Best scenery was Leningrad and Pyatigorsk. Aeroflot of that era was pretty darn scary. Strongest memory from the trip is being offered - as an honored guest at a health spa - a balneotherapy session with radon waters. Yep, radon - I confirmed with our guide/translator. I graciously declined, went for the smellier but safer sulfur water.

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    I was in Budapest in 1969. My friend and I had to apply for a visa in Vienna and take a 3-day all-in tour out of Vienna run by the Hungarian state tourist agency.

    We were the youngest people on the tour. I remember it as being fairly well done. The food was good, but our standards were pretty low, the hotel sort of a dusty old relic from the early 1900s, worn carpets and crystal chandeliers with the power of a 10-watt bulb. The pollution from whatever was used to fuel the streetcars was horrendous.

    The bus tours of Budapest focused on war memorials, I remember a large square and of course listening to the party line version of the uprising. I was surprised we could buy "Newsweek" in the hotel.

    I don't remember many consumer goods but we had very little money having shopped the leather markets in Florence a few weeks before.

    We wanted to go to Prague as well but it was the first anniversary of the supression of the '68 Prague Spring and the word was young people couldn't get visas.

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    Fulfilling my widowed mother's deathbed directives, I went to Lithuania in 1975 with three teenaged siblings to meet, for the first time, my grandmother, 9 aunts and uncles and 15 first cousins. We were allowed to stay only for 5 nights in an approved (bugged) hotel in the capital Vilnius and could not go further than 15 miles outside the capital. There were strict limits on what could be brought in: eg. 3 pairs of blue jeans, 5 woolen scarves. Customs in Moscow thoroughly searched every suitcase. To circumvent the scarf limit (for some reason a most desired item), I made a slip out of 24 woolen scarves which I wore on the 20 hour journey. I didn't think about how hot it would be. Into the belt of my dress I sewed in $100 bills. Everything was gifts for the bus load of relatives who came to the airport to meet us. They brought food but there was a shortage of silverware. Fortunately silverware wasn't on the prohibited list so I had brought place settings for 18. Anything not on the forbidden list I had!

    Although it was against the rules, we decided to take a taxi a long way outside of Vilnius to visit my grandmother and the relatives gathered at her house. Trying to avoid detection, we took several different taxis and got out a mile before her house. As we were walking to our destination our relatives came to meet us, telling us that the cab driver had come to their house to let them know that we were on our way! For some reason, the authorities looked the other way for us, though one of the other tour members (you had to be on a registered tour) was tracked to her relatives house in another city and severely reprimanded.

    What an adventure that was!

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    It is not an Iron Curtain country, but we spent 6 months in Franco's Spain.

    The Guardia Civil would march up and down the aisles of trains with machine guns, their menacing presence apparent in rural areas. They were what Garica Lorca called the "Men with the patent lather hats and the patent leather hearts."

    The country was extremely poor due to his fascist restrictions. Blind Civil War veterans sold lottery tickets for their benefit in the streets. Ironically this lottery for the blind has blossomed into a $2 billion successful business in Spain.

    In Madrid if you returned to your hotel after 9 PM, you would clap your hands in the streets and a sereno, an old watchman, would come and open the front door.

    The Valley of the Fallen was built with slave labor and it still a very very controversial place today.

    The longest street in almost every town was named after Franco and the second longest was called Jose Antonio named for the founder of the Falange (fascist) party.

    The reading material of course was restricted although you could get the International Herald, Time, and Newsweek but all the works of Hemingway were available because he had elevated to a literary deity.

    Franco stomped on regional languages and dialects.

    But my fondest memory was dancing the Sardana in front of the Cathedral in Barcelona on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. For some reason Franco allowed this traditional Catalan folk dance to continue, so dancing was an elegant form of freedom and protest in which we participated. And whenever we are in Barcelona on those days we go over to watch them dance.

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    The Iron Curtain almost fell on our necks! My husband and I traveled from Germany thru Czechoslovakia (sp?) and Hungary in Sept. 1989. A friend in Munich lent us her car since it was impossible to rent one to take into the Eastern Bloc. What I noticed was that when we crossed the border from West Germany into Czech. the atmosphere changed immediately. Even the grass looked dirty. At our hotel in Prague someone immediately asked my husband to exchange money. We had been warned of this so didn't follow thru. The hotel left a lot to be desired but was on Wenceslas Square. The old town was still beautiful and the Charles Bridge
    was not crowded. Had a delightful dinner at a restaurant just beyond the bridge. I remember they were thrilled that we paid our bill with American $$. My husband almost sent an officious
    lady newspaper seller into a fit when he asked for the New York Times -:)

    Budapest didn't leave as much of an impression. We stayed at a once grand hotel… the
    Astoria I think. Had some good food, enjoyed a tour of the castle (even tho the martinet guide left us behind when we were just a little tardy returning to the bus.)

    After that we drove on to Venice… a great antidote.

    But, when we were in Munich my friend's husband (who's German) told us that people were being shot trying to cross the wall… and most times it was not reported. Also, on a tour we
    took to Bavarian castles he talked with an older couple who were on a tour from East Germany. He managed to slip them some money since they were only allowed to bring a certain amount on their travel (with a group).

    We went on our own to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1983. September again…. the Korean airliner had just been shot down. We were the only people on our Intourist bus.
    When out of sight and earshot of others our guide wanted to know all the information.
    The atmosphere was definitely oppressive and the food was dreadful. Our travel agent
    booked us in Copenhagen on the way home because she said we would want a good meal.
    Boy, was she right!

    St.Petersburg in June 2001 was a different story. Had a wonderful time with a great tour
    operator (no longer in business unfortunately.)

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    Because of the business I was in I was not allowed to travel behind the curtain, and had to jump through all sorts of hoops to visit some countries outside of it, like Egypt.

    I, however, had exposure to the Guardia in Spain, like Imdonehere. As a member of a party of specialists examining a potential coastal site for a nuclear power plant near San Sebastian we had to have a heavily armed escort because of the threat of Basque ETA terrorists. The escort was made up of military with automatic weapons and Guardia.

    People peacefully protesting the plant, called "Deva", were on site when we arrived. They were trying to hand out pamphlets saying "DEVA NO!". The Guardia immediately rounded them up really roughly. They then made some of the leaders each chew and eat one of the pamphlets on their knees in front of us.

    None of our party had ever felt so ashamed in our collective lives, we agreed, but we could do nothing but stand there grimly and glare impotently at the Guardia as the protesters were further humiliated and loaded into vans.

    BTW our report said it was the crumbiest site for a nuclear power plant on the planet. It was never built.

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    IMDonehere, my fondest memory of Barcelona is seeing the dancing of the Sardana in front of the cathedral. Guess that was in the 80's also. We had a hotel room with a balcony right across from the cathedral. It wasn't luxurious, but oh my what a location! I was especially intrigued by the musical instruments the band used. There was an unusual one I think was a forerunner of the clarinet. Do you know anything about this -:)

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    My big fat Cold War experience was East Germany, about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had a scholarship to Göttingen, then West Germany, from Nov. 1989 to Jan. 1990. This was an area close to the 'deutsch-deutsche Grenze' (the German-German border), and I was billeted one weekend to stay with a family who lived in a town near Kassel. It was one of the first weekends that West Germans were allowed to visit East Germany and so my host family took me to a border town, Bischhausen. There we parked the car and on foot we walked to its East German companion, Bischhagen. We parked in open fields, and crossed the border, which was a grassy strip and high wire mesh fences and barbed wire. An eye-opener for me: apparently only a few weeks earlier, a man had been shot dead trying to escape via that border crossing. In Bischhagen there was a street party put on by the town welcoming their long-lost neighbours, with much festivity and food and drink. The atmosphere was super, everyone was happy. Over the months I was in Göttingen, a steady stream of people kept coursing into town from the east, and information caravans had been set up to help them. Göttingen was one of the first ports of call because of the proximity to the border.

    I went into East Germany again twice more during that trip, via East Berlin. The first time we had to go via U-Bahn, and I remember the sea of people from the West all waiting their turn to go through passport control. They gave you a transit visa which was a loose sheet of paper which was to be collected by them at the end of your time there, and you had to change 25 marks, to be spent in the east. Well, I had trouble spending it - I think I bought a guide book to Berlin and a map and had some small amount of cash left over. We did not venture very far in and mostly just walked around. Later, after my scholarship I came back to Berlin with a friend and on the train through East Germany the border guards gave us a hastily scribbled transit visa, which on the way back they no longer bothered to collect. No-one seemed to care about protecting the border any more. I still have it, along with my 5 Ostmarks.

    During my postgrad studies in the 90s I had many opportunities to return to the neuen Bunsdesländer (the new federal states, as they call East Germany nowadays), mostly Jena, Leipzig and Halle and surrounds. In some ways it was like entering a time warp - in rural Thüringen the rail infrastructure was like from the 1930s, signs painted on the sides of buildings were peeling and there was a general feeling of decay, which disappeared a little with each visit. I liked the time warp feel - I felt like I was seeing something that was ephemeral, and indeed things have changed greatly in that part of the world. In the last couple of years I visited Dresden, Weimar and Berlin for work and although all the infrastructure is there (shopping centres, pedestrian zones), somehow the vibrancy of the west's shopping experiences is lacking. However, I still find it an interesting experience visiting the former east and would go back any time.

    Lavandula

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    I remember traveling to USSR in 1987 - being asked on every street corner to change money... Being asked for my sweatshirt (college logo) and the little kids asking for chewing gum and pens. Pens? Yes, ballpoint pens.

    I remember getting change in a variety of foreign currencies from the official tourist shops. This was an organized "Intourist" tour - flying Aeroflot was frightening. We landed in Moscow an hour early, but they had to find someone to turn on the lights so we could go through customs.

    On the way out, something in my bag looked funny, so they unzipped it and dumped the entire thing on the belt and went through it item by item... I remember the waiter at the hotel restaurant asking me for AC/DC cassette tapes - yes, it still strikes me as odd now. And how you had to ask the little lady minding your hotel wing for your key. And how "monitored" we all felt the entire trip (I roomed with an English girl).

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    surfmom… I forgot those women monitoring the hotel halls.
    After our trip in '83 my husband had a favorite joke vis a vis the "best" restaurant we were
    sent to by our Intourist guide : Q: how do they kill chickens in Russia ? A: they starve them to death.

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    Grandma, this occurred in the early 1970's, Franco died in 1975. What you heard could one of three instruments-the fipple flute, tenora, or tible. Or all three. The band called a cobla, does not always have a full complement of musicians.

    Glad you found the experience so wonderful. The same thing happened to us the first time. We stayed in a very cheap hotel near the Cathedral and suddenly we heard music and we raced to the street. That time we spent a month in Barcelona and went at least once a week and at times we would dance. Most Catalans were accepting but there was always one or two did not like the fact you were out of step.

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    I travelled from London to Yokohama in 1976 via the Trans Siberian. 4 weeks.
    After we got across the Channel, we found the Moscow coach (only one) on the train waiting at Ostende. This contained people from all over Europe and stopped at all kinds of places. I remember chatting in French to a woman who was going to Vilnius.
    We got off at Berlin for a break for a day or so. were met off the train and escorted to our hotel, some not-very-fancy place. We were let off the leash in East Berlin but had to change a certain amount of westmarks into ostmarks which were not refundable. Once we got lost in the underground stations and ended up on a platform on the U bahn we shouldn't have been on and had rifles pointed at us.
    Next we got back on the train to Moscow and spent several days there. Again, met at the station and taken to our hotel. Managed to get around Moscow OK ( I had been before, in 1974), so had a bit of an idea about the place and had a bit of Russian.
    Next to the Yaroslavl station for the Big Train. I remember miles and miles of silver birch trees, flat land, acres of farmland, mainly uncultivated and desolate. Occasional stops where local people ran alongside the train with produce they were eager to sell.
    We got off at Novosibirsk for a few days, Lake Baikal for a few more and finally Khabarovsk. All the while the train stayed on Moscow time and the landscape and faces got more and more Asian.
    From Khabarovsk in those days you had to change for Nahodka because Vladivostock, the actual end of the Trans Siberian, was a closed port because it was the headquarters of the Soviet Pacific fleet.
    From Nahodka we got the MS Baikal to Yokohama and into Japan.
    Lots more to say about this.....impressions of Russia, eastern Europe, the train, the people we met....

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    I spent the better part of the summer of 1983 traveling in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I have loads of stories, but I'm not willing to let Fodors own them, so sorry, not going to share.

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    Two memories:

    - in 1979, a combination of bad weather and pre-Thatcher British strikes made the only option from London to an urgent Luxembourg meeting in a flight to (West) Berlin, train across East Germany to Frankfurt, then another flight. Entering and leaving the East was a painless exercise with polite Communist officials full of "pleases" and "thank you's" (and transport running with an efficiency unheard of in Britain's then state-owned trains or planes).

    Re-entering the West was a nightmare of rude free-world officials and an hour long security check by the Federal (West) German police. And London was still strike-bound when I got back.

    - Ten years later (June 1989), in an East Berlin pub (great beer: inedible food) two days after the Tiananmen demonstrations, reading a fierce editorial by Erich Honecker (then Party Secretary) in the Neues Deutschland (Party propaganda sheet). Unless Socialist governments work together to exterminate capitalist dupes like these silly students, he argued, fascist regimes like the one in West Germany will conspire to destroy all our achievements over the past 40 years. Action must start now.

    Three months later, Honecker was overthrown by a lily-livered moderate. Two months later, Communism was overthrown. Honecker might have been a bastard. But his prophecies were 100% accurate.

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    I can't vouch for the second part of this, because I did not go on the Russian jaunt, but in the 1980's the Russians sent a team of scientists to the Nevada Test site to set up monitors for detecting underground nuclear weapon tests. The Russian scientists were astounded at the opulence they saw and even accused us of "faking a Walmart" in Las Vegas, where they were taken on a tour, because there was not that much consumer goods in any one place in their country.

    They also were impressed at the food they were served at the test site. They said that when our scientists came to their test site we could not expect that level or variety of food. We should bring what we needed, they said. With that in mind, a C-5 was loaded with a great variety of food and off the party went to the remote Soviet test site. Once there the food was turned over to the Russian cooks.

    The cooks were unfamiliar with some of the items, so for the first night the Americans were served boiled lettuce for dinner. At the risk of causing an international incident someone had to diplomatically explain the concept of "salad" to them. Thereafter the crew was served salad at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Not wishing to offend the salad was dutifully and politely eaten at each at every meal. No wisecracks allowed.

    I had some doubts about that story, but it was confirmed years later when one of my friends, working in one of those formerly closed nuclear cities in Siberia, married a Russian rocket scientist. (Really) They landed in Seattle and Zina spent her first few days in the U.S. in our home. I was making lunch and Zina looked at me putting lettuce on sandwiches. "What is that?", she asked. She, a well traveled (in Russia)senior scientist, had never seen it before.

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    I have loads of stories from Russia, first visit 1986, next 1989 and yearly until 1993. Then lived there 1997-1999, have been back several more times since then. Have been very close to Russians so have a very different perspective. For instance, Siberia being so cold doesn't have an abundance of lettuce or salads as we know it, so it is not remarkable that a Siberian would not be familiar with the western style of it. Russians make the most delicious salads using other ingredients. They knew perfectly well what a salad was, in Russian it is even the same word as in English, but they would not have any idea about a western style salad with the awful limp lettuces they have in the UK.
    But I'm not going to share the stories, too long, too personal.

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    I do not have direct experience , but my wife and I sat enthralled in a Paris restaurant as a German at the table next to us explained to a Swedish colleague how he had defected to the West -- all in English, their common language. One morning on the way to work, he got on the S-Bahn with only his briefcase, got off at a West Berlin stop, and never saw his mother again. And in that simple act, you know everything you need to know about Communism.

    I heard a famous mountain climber lecturing about climbing in the Caucasus. The Soviet climbers were all good guys with excellent pitons made from titanium tubes stolen from a nuclear submarine factory. But they were all put up in one of those "Palace of Sport" hotels. The fire escape was a series of steel staples inserted in the wall of an air shaft. You got to them by breaking the glass at the end of the hall. If you broke the glass and climbed out before the people above you, you would be showered with shards of glass. Soviet planning.

    Finally, just at the time when the Curtain was collapsing, friends were asked to speak at an international conference in the Crimea. They were picked up at the airport and taken to the hotel in a stolen ambulance, the only transport the organizers could obtain. Am I sorry I missed this?

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    In 1972 I was travelling in a VW bus with 2 girls from Montreal. On a whim, we decided to head for Berlin. In those days you had to traverse East Germany on an autobahn before reaching West Berlin. You also had to exchange 5 marks into E German currency. It was a lot of money to us at the time.

    We were thoroughly inspected at the border. They even wanted to see into the engine bay but I didn't have the tool needed to open it. Most gas stations did which is how I checked the oil every day or 2. We also had to change the license plates for another fee as East Germany apparently did not recognize West Germany's right to license cars! You kept the old plates. One of the guards went off and returned with a large screw driver. He handed it to me and I managed to
    get the door open and for me to swap the plates. They had a good look inside then motioned for me to go. I put the screw driver in my back pocket as another guard returned our stamped passports. About half the time the van wouldn't start with the key so we'd have to push start it. Of course, this was one of the times it didn't want to start. The girls hopped out and around to the back, I jumped out and started pushing with the driver's door open... once up to speed I'd hop in and pop the clutch with the shifter in 2nd and we'd lurch off as the girls hopped back in. It wasn't as hard is it might seem... the girls were very attractive and invariably men step off the sidewalk, would wave them back in and give us a push. When the guards realized what we were doing they waved the girls back into the van and 3 of them pushed... it was the fastest bump start ever by 3 rifle packing East German border guards. We waved our thanks out the windows and trundled off. It was then that I noticed I was sitting on something uncomfortable... it was the screwdriver! There was no turning back as we were now on the autobahn and it was a few nervous kilometers until we were certain they weren't going to chase us down.

    Upon arrival at the border crossing into West Berlin, after the passport and insurance formalities I had to remove the East German plates and re-affix the West German ones.

    The following day we decided to cross into East Berlin. Again the 5 mark per person currency exchange. Again with the license plate swap. We crossed at Checkpoint Charlie. It was like another world. Gone was the vibrancy and colour of West Berlin. The few people on the streets looked grey and depressed. The buildings looked uncared for and there were remarkably few cars on the streets. The buses were old and belched black smoke and many had broken windows replaced with squares of plywood. We parked on a residential street and walked. We decided we'd get rid of our 10 marks each (we hadn't spent the money from the day before) on cigarettes as we all smoked. We went into a store. There were 4 ladies in white lab coats standing near the cash.
    The store was maybe 30 feet from from to back and 3 aisles wide. The only thing visible on any of the shelves was one lonely jar of pickles. We were able to ascertain that we could get cigarettes at another store a couple of blocks away.
    We blew all our East German cash and decided we'd had enough... the atmosphere was depressing us so we hopped in the van (started with the key) and drove back to Checkpoint Charlie. As I once again went to work on the license plates several guards swarmed in and around the van. They even poked and prodded at the seats... apparently people had escaped to the west by actually getting inside the covering and frame of a seat. At length, passports stamped we were back in the west and immediately felt a weight lifted from us. The whole atmosphere of East Berlin had seemed to weigh on us. A couple of days later we once again did the license plate swap(s) and drove back to West Germany.

    Later in the trip we drove the length of the then Tito led Communist Yugoslavia and back and had a couple of adventures there both on the way to Greece and the way back.
    The following year, back in Canada, a friend and I decided to join the Canadian Army through an officer training program. There were many tests, written, oral and physical. My friend was dropped but I was looking good to qualify. One day I got a phone call from a major whose name meant nothing to me. He told me to be at the offices on Bishop Street in Montreal at a certain time the next day. I arrived and he introduced himself as a member of military intelligence. He was extremely interested in my visits to 2 communist countries only months before. Why did I go? Had I been invited to go? What did I see? Who had I spoken to? Did I like what I'd seen? No? Why?Are you sure nobody approached you? Etc etc. A few days later I got the news that I hadn't been selected as their quota for the program had been met but I was encouraged to re-apply the following year. I didn't, as life had already led me down another path, but I wondered if my visits to East Berlin and the Dalmation Coast might have had something to do with things.

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    I was on a train - a night train that just took off from Basel Bad Hbf - the German train station in Basel - and just at midnight that night the reunification of Germany became official - and I was looking out the window and a conductor just sighs and says in English "Ah it's over!"

    Enough said.

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    We travelled to Moscow from the UK in a group in 1973. This was when travel was just opening up and a UK tour operator was about to add Moscow to its city destinations. A friend of ours was involved with a UK association of travel agents and arranged a trip for 30 TA's, but they only had about half of that taken up. To make up the numbers, we were offered a week in Moscow, full board, travel etc for £49 pp. Even then it was a no brainer.

    It was February and cold, but little wind, so not too bad. We stayed at the Intourist Hotel on Gorky St., a modern (for then) building and we were lucky to get a corner room that was more like a suite. The food in the hotel was fairly dire and all the drinks in the bar were 50 pence, no matter what you had.

    We were bussed all around Moscow to see the sights, on a coach with a vinyl panel on the back of each seat headrest. The one in front of me came off as we turned to look out of the windows and a small microphone was inside. We checked the others around us and they all had one!

    Back at the hotel, we checked the room but cou8ldn't find anything, figuring that in a newish building they were probably in the walls anyway.

    Abiding memories are of old ladies with long metal poles chipping ice off the pavement (sidewalk), being chased in the tunnels under the roads for anything western, clothing, gum, pens etc. We were told we cou8ldn't get a taxi because we weren't in deluxe, whatever that meant. Lenin's tomb with soldiers "shushing" you as you walked round inside, after we'd been told no cameras inside. A German tourist in another group had one in his pocket and was arrested as he came out.

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    Oh yes, and the lady on each floor who had your room key and wrote down your in and out times. Most people spoke German as a second language and we got along with that, few English speakers or those who would admit to it.

    One day we got lost on the Metro(took the wrong platform) and came up in a residential area. The poverty was apparent with diced meat being sold in a metal tray off the floor under the railway arches.

    Towards the end of the week, our female guide, who'd toed the party line all through, asked us for any non Russian currency, ladies tights, jeans etc. etc.

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    Ah, yes, the <<дежурная>> (de-ZHOOR-nah-ya) is another memory. Not exactly a concierge, more keeper of the keys, and most grandmotherly looking women with dour visage.

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    TRANSIT CAMPING PRAGUE

    The epitome of commie bureaucracy gone wild - we were driving a camping van and were camping in Prague - at a main site lovingly named Transit Camping - only those in transit were allowed in - no Czechs - and the registration process was totally inane.

    When we got there there was a line a mile long - OK hyperbole - but we waited for an hour or so and it never moved.

    We went to the registration window and saw two different people counting out every single coin and bill in the till - double work I guess to keep it all honest. But the auditing took at least an hour - and we went and just parked our van to return to check-in.

    at 9 pm the line was still long with some of the same folks standing in as at 5 pm.

    We bagged it and went to our van - next morning the line was still long with some of the same folks from the night before. We finally registered.

    Wow - what incompetence and lack of regard for clients.

    More pathetic was the beer line - each person was allowed two big plastic cups to fill from a keg - the line was similarly really long - to get a max of two plastic cups full of probably not the best Czech beer!

    Ah Transit Camping - will forever be in my mind as a testimony to things gone wrong in socialist Eastern Europe!

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    MORE ON PRAGUE CIRCA 1980

    Prague was a far different place than the Bohemian place I find the city to be now - I mean at that time there was virtually nothing to buy - not even souvenirs.

    Coffee, if you could call it that, was just mud - probably with chicory in it (like my Czech grandparents used to make it with - to make it cheaper)

    and I recall vividly the only thing being sold on streets was watermelon - whole or slices of it being sold from huge boxes and or trucks everywhere - but nada else.

    The city was dingy and dirty.

    a far far different Prague from what today is one of Europe's most pleasant cities.

    The old Czechoslovakia was interesting but were we so SO glad to cross the border into Austria, something that took about an hour's wait at the border as our van was nearly taken apart looking for contraband or I guess with mirrors under it folks trying to flee this then repressed land.

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    "I was on a train - a night train that just took off from Basel Bad Hbf - the German train station in Basel - and just at midnight that night the reunification of Germany became official - and I was looking out the window and a conductor just sighs and says in English "Ah it's over!"

    Enough said."

    Wow. What a fascinating thing to have experienced, PalenQ.

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    Most of my experiences were in East Berlin/East Germany and the small village of Wandlitz where a family friend lived. This was mostly in the early 1980’s.

    I remember many things. The huge contrasts that the wall separated. Trying to buy anything was difficult and the sullenness of those working in shops was normal. They weren’t at all rude, just no smiles. The little stores had net curtains over the windows and when you ventured in they had the smallest baskets to put your purchases in. Those were usually only chocolate as there wasn’t much else that I wanted to buy or could buy.

    Although we did the crossing over by foot we also did it by tour coach too usually when more friends had come along and they wanted to see more of East Berlin. During these the most puzzling thing for me was how the East German border guards used that large pole with a mirror under the bus to check for stow-aways on the way INTO East Berlin.

    The family in Wandlitz had suffered much and one of their boys was a ‘lost one’. He just disappeared. The oldest daughter moved and began studying in East Berlin and had just been accepted at a university there. She got a letter one day telling her to report to the State Security headquarters. There she was shown copies of letters her mother had sent her and she was challenged about much of the contents. I am sure it had something to do with her mother’s comments supporting a church somewhere but I may be wrong. It was enough for those interviewing to say she would not now be joining the university. A week or so later the official letter arrived telling her just that.

    She is now a very successful businesswoman and is the first to admit the wall coming down made her very financially stable. Much of her time is still spent trying to get info about her brother but so far, without any success.

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    Those women monitoring the hotel hallways were a hoot. I had been warned by a friend who had been there the year before to take pantyhose (hugely expensive in Russia) so I went to the local discount store and got 6 pairs of queen size (I was right) pantyhose. When I had to ask for an extra blanket and for larger towels - they were overjoyed with the pantyhose. One even smiled at me.

    The beds came with see through linens (had been washed so much you could read through them in the daylight) one very thin cotton blanket and a large variety of towels. I must have had 10 towels in my bathroom. The smallest was a tiny wash cloth and the largest was a little bigger than a hand towel. They were all different colors and patterns and some were regular toweling and some were like dish cloths (tea towels). But none was even big enough for my head - never mind my body.

    The windows had curtains that were drawn (one) and open (one) and could not be changed since they were nailed to the wall over the window instead of hanging from a curtain rod. Also they were all different sizes and had not even been hemmed - just random pieces of fabric.

    And getting my wheelie to my room was a real challenge. The runners in the hotel corridor were essentially shredded down through the mat to the wood. So you had to either pick up and carry your suitcase (plus carry-on and purse) or risk dragging shreds of carpet in your suitcase wheels.

    And the meals - the hideous meals. Some sort of tough meat in chunks. Boiled (sort of) potatoes and canned peas. We had the same thing for all 3 dinners in St pet. And the beverage was plum juice (you couldn't drink the tap water then due to a parasite). I had been told to take food with me and for 2 dinners made do with cans of tuna fish, a jar of PB and some crackers. And LOTs of bottled water. That's what I got in the souvenir shops - since there (unlike the hotel) it was a fresh bottle, still sealed. In the hotel they collected the bottles and put tap water in them and the cap back on.

    And this was an American Express tour with 4* hotels. (In the US the place would have been condemned.) It was huge - hundreds of rooms along a whole series of corridors. And the lobby was equally spacious. Along with the front desk it contained 3 (THREE) arm chairs with plastic upholstery. One even had 2 legs - but if you sat in it your behind hit he ground (we had to haul one poor older woman out of it).

    On our second trip things had opened up a lot and independent travel was allowed. We stayed in a real (1890s but just rehabbed) elegant hotel (expensive) that had a real restaurant (very expensive) and a casino/club on half the ground floor - frequented by the local mafiosi. Parked out front all night were a bunch of big black Mercedes and Ford Explorers - black with black windows. And one night on the way home from the ballet the cab driver drove us around the block so we could see them - the capos were inside but their bodyguards (with visible hand guns) were waiting by the cars.

    A wonderful, fascinating and exciting place to visit with incredible history - but they don't make travel easy.

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    In 1973-4, I did a year abroad in Munich. Hello to any Wayne Staters out there. I visited Berlin a few times, the first time with a group of students on a coach trip. We stayed in W. Berlin and ventured into the east for either escorted trip or on our own. As a group we say the Pergamon Mus. and a version of Fiddler on the Roof with cast in military uniform. One day, a group of us 19 yr old girls decided to go together through Checkpoint Charlie to see what we could see. As ParisAmsterdam mentioned, we had to change the obligatory amount of money and then could not change it back on return.

    Traveling in the west to Checkpoint Charlie, we took the U-bahn which zigzagged under the border. Under the stations in the east, the train would come to a crawl, but could not stop. Each station was nearly blacked out with perhaps one hanging light bulb and a soldier standing to arms. Eerie. Once we passed through the border, we had a pretty boring time - very bad coffee, little options for lunch, bookstores collecting for the North Vietnamese, but not much else of interest. We were 19, after all. We could not locate how to return and found only a door saying Eintritt Verboten. So, we knocked on it. It was answered by a young soldier, and I guess it paid off being 19 because he smiled and showed us the way. This was all pretty tame.

    Later in the year, and probably a more "mature" 20 yr old, I hitched with a friend and found a ride all the way from Munich to Berlin across the E. German autobahn. So far so, good. To return, hitchers lined up in W. Berlin at the border. Cars did, too, and if mutually agreeable, pooled their resources for the ride back across E. Germany into the west. My friend and I were offered a ride by two young men in an American car. We sat in the back. They drove so fast, that we had to spend two hours at the only rest stop in E. Germany - the trip was timed from border to border. The young men were not interested in talking to us, which was ok, we were tired and wanted to be home.

    As we neared the west, things took a frightening turn. From the various pockets of the car, the men retrieved various substances in plastic bags and secreted them down their trousers. They did not tell us what was going on, but they did not hide it either. My friend and I were dupes (yes, we sure were) to get across the border with. Of course, we all had to play happy young folks at the border, and miracle of miracles, we passed through unscathed. To this day, I get the chills thinking I could have spent my adult years in an E. German prison. And, I did not do drugs - just lots of beer. I have never told my mother this story.

    We were dropped at the first rest stop in the west, where we tried to collect our calm and proceed on to Munich. We were offered a ride by a middle-aged man (in my view anyway) again in an American car. I was in the back alone and my friend was in the front. After awhile the driver started showing my friend some pornographic photos and saying things she could understand, but I could not. We demanded to be let out of the car, but were met with, "It's illegal to stop on the autobahn." We persevered, only to be dumped on the verge, able to see cute onion-domed churches in the nearby villages, but unable to go there as the autobahn was barbed-wired from the surrounding area. We wept and thought that a visit by the police might be the best of all options.

    It was a bright, beautiful, sunny day. After a while, a double tractor trailer passed us - the kind we did not yet have in the States. It passed and slowed and stopped at an overpass down the road. The driver climbed out and slowly walked back to us and said, "It's illegal to stop on the autobahn." We agreed. After some rather avuncular (sure, like my judgement was working at all at this point!) interrogation he offered us a ride straight to Munich to the door of our dormitory - country western music blaring all the way. It turns out he was kindly and did as he offered.

    I never returned to Berlin, and have little interest to this day. My hitchhiking was much reduced thereafter. I did, however, have many more adventures that year! God, providence, the stars, you name it, were surely looking out for me - for which I am so thankful - after a span of 40 years.

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    I have several stories from my visit to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1968.

    I was 17 y.o., traveling Europe solo with a train pass. I visited family friends in Helsinki, then met up with a travel group to which I'd been assigned, and we took a train to Leningrad. Most of my group were adults, all of us Americans, but there were a couple of other high schoolers with parents as open-minded (crazy?) as mine.

    At the border, some items were confiscated. A few magazines (Time and the like), a few Bibles (duh!), a pocket knife. Against all expectations, these items were returned to their owners when we exited the country by train on our way to Minsk many days later.

    In Leningrad, I remember the babushkas sweeping the empty streets with twig brooms. No cars. The architecture of the city was beautiful, all the more so because of the total lack of any sort of advertising, bright lights, etc.

    I met several young Russians who were very excited to talk with an American girl. (I traded my Eugene McCarthy for President buttons for several Lenin and 50 Years of Communism buttons that I still have.) They took me to the apartment of one of them which I realized later was probably a bit risky for them. The building was dreary, no elevator, minimal lighting, and the apartment was small for the number of occupants. The kitchen and bathroom were used by four families. Everyone was very friendly and kept telling me that Russians love Americans.

    The journey between Leningrad and Moscow was by bus and boat. Somewhere along the way, the bus stopped in a village for us to see a row of charming small homes painted in pastel colors. The guide misunderstood our reactions, thought we were disparaging the homes, the language gap widened, and things got tense. Finally, one man in the group pulled the film out of his camera, exposing/ruining the entire roll. I think the guide then realized he'd taken the confrontation too far, and things settled down. While aboard the boat, when I aimed my camera at the Soviet flag flying from the mast, the crew began waving their arms and shouting, "Nyet, nyet!" It turned out there was a smallish bridge in view, and photos of bridges (even this dinky one over a river) were prohibited.

    In Moscow, our hotel rooms had radios that received the broadcast from only one station. The volume could be turned down but not off. We all assumed we were under surveillance.

    We were invited to a party at the U.S. Embassy where everyone seemed starved for conversation with Americans or at least English-speakers. The ambassador's son took us teens on a tour of the offices, including his dad's where he informed us in a loud voice that the room was 'bugged' by the Soviets.

    The GUM store was an obvious Potemkin Village. There were items for sale on the shelves, but there were no Russians shopping or buying. They were all down the side streets, waiting in long lines at the 'real' shops. We didn't shop there either; we were required to spend U.S. dollars only in the tourist souvenir shops.

    Our group got preferential treatment and skipped the line at Lenin's Tomb which obviously bothered the Russians who had been standing there for who knows how long. I also remember getting some sort of special status on the subway which I'm sure likewise caused resentment, but not one local said anything that was audible.

    Arriving in Minsk was like going from winter to summer in one day. People were actually smiling, looking cheerful, wearing bright colors.

    In Krakow, we encountered more people who were excited to meet Americans. We younger ones were basically adopted by some local teens who took us to clubs to listen to local rock music. One band gave me a copy of their latest album which I managed to carry home without damage and still have. When I got home, I mailed a Joe Cocker album to one of the kids. Amazingly, it was received.

    Our next destination was to have been Prague, but the Soviets decided to invade. When our train reached the Czech border, Soviet guards (maybe they were soldiers?) came on board, pulled down all of the window curtains, and we were told not to look out of the train. We rode through the entire country with the curtains down and ended up in Vienna.

    I remember how friendly all of the Russians were and often wonder how they did in the ensuing years, where they are now, etc. I also remember how awful and strange the food was.

    But the greatest and most lasting impact of my travel to Russia has been my now 46-year total aversion to vodka.

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