by Margery Elfin
It was summer 1986 and we had decided to go to Eastern Europe. The Cold War was mostly over, although it would be three more years before the Berlin Wall would come down. We were interested in seeing what was going on in what was then called Czechoslovakia, a country emerging from Soviet domination. And there was the attraction of music, Mozart’s world.
We were also eager to see friends we had made in Washington – the Rovenskys were journalists from Czechoslovakia who had gone back home a few years back. They were a bright, friendly couple with two young sons who had a major crush on the United States. They proudly displayed their collection of American license plates, which they had picked up on their extensive travels in our country.
Our kids were not so eager for us to go. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown had occurred a few months prior, and they were worried about exposure to radiation. Even without that concern, a black cloud seemed to hover over the trip as we missed connections and lost luggage. We were able to get to Paris, but our flight to Prague was delayed for hours.
Our relief on getting on board soon dissipated. The Czech plane was out of a 1950s movie. The seats did not recline. They looked like padded beach chairs. The smoking section was on one side of the aircraft; non-smoking on the other.
We land safely at the Prague airport though it was raining and the airport was very dark due to a loss of power after Chernobyl. This made signs hard to read. We seemed to be enveloped in gloom. No one smiled. We were able to find customs, and got through. Then we had to stand in the currency line to exchange our dollars for Czech currency whose value was dropping due to the weak economy. And after all that, we could not find our baggage.
To top it all off, Cedok, the official tourist agency, was not there with the promised shuttle bus. We had to take a taxi. We were relieved to get out of the rain and into a vehicle that would take us to our hotel. But shortly after we left the airport, another kind of deluge began. Throughout the trip, the driver demanded dollars. He dumped us without ceremony when we paid him in Czech currency. This would not be the last time we were accosted for dollars.
We arrived at the The Hotel Alcron at 9 p.m. that night.
It was an old hotel which had been completely renovated, but had not lost the over-stuffed mittel Europa décor, despite all the marble. The dining room was quite large; the waiters were in black tie; and a music combo was playing as we entered. Again we were thrown off-balance by the disconnect from what we had just experienced.
That evening we slept so soundly that we missed the morning Cedok tour. The day was gray and cold, perhaps 50 degrees. Wenceslas Square, the shopping center near the hotel, was busy. The low rise-facades and trees, the width of the avenue resembled the Champs, but the shops did not. They were not fashionable, nor were they the stolid communist fronts one might expect.
Avoiding the many cars on the street, we found the food shops filled with prominent displays of wurst and pastries. People on the street were well-dressed, but not chic, and most seemed to be eating – usually ice cream. Everything closed early and many shops were did not open on weekends since almost everyone took off for the country. We were left with the impression that no one seemed to work very hard.
Amid the construction projects restoring old buildings, we walked through the curving, cobbled streets of old town to the Jewish cemetery including a synagogue/museum. The cemetery itself was an unsettling mess – a mass of falling down tombstones – all chiseled in Hebrew. It was difficult to find anything in this disorder, and there was no printed information available other than what we gleaned from our Fodor’s guidebook.
One of the buildings had a Terezin exhibit – drawings of children and photos of the concentration camps. Another had the relics of the religion – ketubas (Jewish prenuptial agreement) and altar cloths. Still another had the history of the synagogues of Prague. There had been at least seven. These were sad reminders of destruction and loss. We saw mostly German tourists at these sites and wondered what they were thinking.
That evening the Rovensky son, 17-year-old Vash, met us at the Alcron and walked us over to the wine cellar to meet his parents for dinner. When we arrived there were smiles and hugs and a lot of catching up to do. We were treated to a formal wine ceremony which consisted of the wine steward and the restaurant manager staring at each other for five minutes. Then ensued a series of formal movements while holding the bottle of wine and acknowledging each other with courtesy.
Country music playing the background was a strange accompaniment to this elegant ritual. The mismatched music and I went together since I was in my sweat pants (due to lost luggage) which were fortunately invisible when seated at the table.
Janna chose the meal, some sort of shaslik, a type of eastern European shish kebab accompanied by rice, mashed potatoes, French fries and coleslaw. We had palatschinken (Austrian crepes) with ice cream and cherries for dessert.
Conversation was spirited, but steered away from politics. They wanted to talk about Washington and life in America. Their older son was having trouble being accepted in the university system, which they felt was a result of his American high school background. Yet both Dusan and Janna had resumed successful careers – he, as foreign editor of his paper, and she in a new job as a TV anchorwoman.
Back at the hotel, the maître d’hotel treated us like visiting royalty. At the end of our stay, he presented us with a small watercolor of a Prague church which everyone signed on the back with expressions of friendship and affection.
We were surprised and touched. It now hangs in our home.
On a sadder note, the dinner we had with our friends was the last time we would see or hear from them. I tried to find them through the Czech Republic embassy years later with no luck.
In looking back, we had encountered was a country in transition from a Soviet satellite to an uncertain future. Three years later, when the Velvet Revolution occurred and Václav Havel rose to power, decades of communist domination came to an end. The Czech Republic established a multi-party parliamentary democracy, chose to look west and established closer ties to the United States and to the NATO countries.