The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989 and much of what had been closed-off Eastern Europe opened up to traffic from the west.
In September of 1990, my wife Brenda, her brother Jay and I made a motorcycle trip around Western Europe and decided when we were close, that we had to go over into Czechoslovakia to see Pilsen. The three of us are fans of various kinds good beer, of which there is no shortage anywhere in Germany, and legend has it that the origin of Pilsner, “pils” in German, was in the this town. We had the idea that we would go over for the day, stop at a little cafe and have a ceremonial Pilsner with our lunch and head back into Germany for the night.
At the time, though the border was open, there were still many restrictions. We were told that we could not purchase gasoline with currency, only fuel vouchers, and that lodging still had to be approved for western visitors. No problem, we would fill the tanks at the border, go over and back in a day.
We spent the night in a little gasthaus at the border and the next morning bright and early we made our way to the crossing station. We got through easily and stopped on the Czech side to exchange a bit of money for food. The equivalent of $15 American brought us 400 Czech Kroner. (On the wall in the exchange station was a poster advertising what appeared to be a “Bluegrass Music festival”)
Though the countryside was still much the same across the border, the towns were shocking. Like the scenes in Wizard of Oz where it switches from color to black and white, everything seemed devoid of color. The architecture of the houses and older buildings was similar to that on the German side, but nothing had been done, no paint, no maintenance, for 40 years or more. The full colorful flower boxes that we saw on nearly every German house were completely absent. In the villages we went through, we seldom saw anyone out on the streets. When we did, their clothing was from the 40’s era and they walked with a slow pace as if the act of moving forward was just too difficult. Everything, and this is not exaggeration, was filthy, coated with a patina of dust and grime. Every truck seemed to have a short, open exhaust down at road level belching unfiltered black smoke. As a motorcyclist, I was keenly aware of the coating on the pavement, a mix of diesel fuel, dirt and oil. I did not want to be here if it rained.
We made it into Pilsen, which was not the quaint beer-making village we had pictured, but an industrial town marked by rows of Soviet-era white apartment towers, most of which had at least some portion falling off. On one we could see inside an apartment because the whole outside wall of the unit had tumbled onto the ground several stories below. Nevertheless, there was laundry drying on the balconies of the adjoining units, indicating that the place was still occupied.
There seemed to be no restaurants or cafes open in the downtown area, though it is possible that we just didn’t recognize them. We stopped briefly at a market in the town center, to ask for directions. Inside it looked like a country store from an old western movie, with wooden plank floor, rough wooden shelves on three sides and at the far end, a low wooden counter behind which sat a single bored looking clerk. All of the shelves were empty, except for one small bag of potatoes sitting forlornly by itself.
We paused at an intersection to look at our maps, and were approached by an animated smiling man who explained that he and his companion realized we were western tourists and wanted to practice their English. Their English was far better than our pronunciation of the Czech place names, which was our downfall. After greetings and a brief discussion, we told them that we wanted to head toward Klatovy, south of Pilsen, back toward our intended border crossing. Instead, he gave us directions to Karlovy, which must sound in Czech more like whatever it was we said, going north away from the border. The sky was so steel-gray heavily overcast that we could not see any sign of the sun to orient ourselves and the road signs may as well have been in Sanskrit. So we set off, 180 degrees off course.
By late afternoon we were quite hungry and passing through a village we spotted what appeared to be a cafe.
Not the pleasant little roadside eatery we had seen everywhere in the west, this was a low building, little sign of paint or care, windows dirty and a small parking area dotted with clumps of grass. It would not have looked terribly out of place as an abandoned storefront on an eastern Kentucky backroad, now being used as a weekend flea market stall. Inside, the air was heavy with acrid tobacco smoke. There were several round tables, rough wooden tops with mismatched chairs. Conversation stopped and all eyes turned briefly to as we walked through the door. A young waitress showed us to a table and stood, soldier-like, to take our order. She spoke no English or German, the two languages we had some use of, and we had no Czech.
By mime and pointing, we managed to order meals, though we had no idea what. Brenda was able to sample a local beer, since she was not driving, but Jay and I made do with what we thought was a soft drink but turned out to be more like a Kool-aid from our youth. When the plates arrived, there was a large amount of food , fried meat and limp vegetables, for each of us and as we looked at it and around the restaurant, we could see that we were the only ones that had such large portions. The waitress helped us with our map, showing us by firmly pointing her finger on Karlovy, after we had showed her Klatovy as our destination, convincing us that we were far away from where we intended to be.
When the bill came, Jay looked at it for a moment then smiled and said “I’ll get this one” and paid the entire check with a generous tip for the waitress, with a stack of the Kroner bills we had received at the border, still leaving us with the majority.
Outside, a group of children had gathered around our bikes, holding out their hands as we mounted up. At Brenda’s suggestion, we opened our tank bags and began handing out the German chocolate treats that we often picked up at gas stations, wonderful stuff that would have been premium in the US but in Western Europe as common and inexpensive as Hershey bars.
Back on the road, we could see that the sun was getting lower and we were a long way from a border crossing we could use. We had no fuel vouchers and had been told that we could not have overnight accommodations without prior approved reservations. We picked up the pace, rushing through the forests and small villages headed west as fast as we dared in the fading light. Though there was no real danger, other than wandering wildlife, it took on the image of a film in which the protagonists must flee to the border just in time. I still recall passing a roadside refuse dump where the remains of one of the ubiquitous East German Trabant automobiles had been hoisted into a dumpster.
As the sun dropped behind the horizon, we made it back into Germany. At the crossing station, we exchanged our Kroner back for Deutschmarks, receiving after the exchange fees both ways, about $10 worth for our $15 investment. Jay’s largesse in buying our meals and tipping the waitress magnanimously had cost him about $3.