Monday, August 08, 2016
AFTER THE FIRE: A pre-digital Bohemian vignette, 1989.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
For the last five or six years, I’ve had an iPhone. Before this, from around 2002, a simple Nokia cell phone sufficed. During the entirety of this period, never once have I taken my phone with me when traveling abroad.
Rather, as much as possible, we try to stay off the grid when vacationing overseas. Yes, there’s an extremely modern world out there, especially in places like Estonia, which has pole-vaulted from Soviet-era poverty to the front of the hyper-connectivity queue. In a place like Tallinn, it’s very nearly a hardship not to have one’s phone in hand.
However, it makes me all the more determined to pack a tactile guidebook and paper map, and enjoy a merry reversion to prehistory – though not without a digital camera. My skills as a photographer are so greatly stunted that “do overs” are extremely valuable.
When I think back to the decades of the 1980s and my earlier jaunts, images of a lost world predictably crowd into my brain, but what I miss the most was the ability to get lost for months at a time – even in Europe, and without resorting to wilderness travel, for which I’m ill suited.
You can't be serious.
It’s the ability to walk past a pay phone and feel no inclination whatever to connect with anyone. If you were lucky in those days, you’d get a postcard – if I could be bothered to hunt down stamps.
In 1987, Communist Hungary was my home for almost a month. I was to meet my friend Barrie in Moscow for a guided tour, and we’d pre-scheduled a window for me to call him and reconfirm our respective plans. It wasn't clear to me how I'd go about doing it.
The good news: I was in Budapest, the capital.
The bad news: There was no easy way to make an international phone call in Budapest or any other place in Hungary – unless one was staying in a top-dollar hotel, which I emphatically was not.
Even then … well, I heard stories.
Off to the city’s telecommunications center I trudged, because it wasn’t possible for most Hungarians to pick up their home phone and rotary dial the States. The building was big and dingy, and it was like going to a hospital waiting room where no one spoke English, but eventually I was able to reach an understanding, with one critical caveat.
I’d give them Barrie’s phone number and pay ahead for five minutes’ time. When the call actually was being dialed, which might occur 45 minutes or more later, I’d be summoned to a specific numbered booth … with the announcement of the number made in Hungarian over a crackling, muffled loudspeaker.
Szám tizenkilenc készen van.
Luckily, one of the workers made eye contact when the time came, and I had perhaps a minute’s worth of chat with Barrie before the connection fizzled out. It was enough, and I didn’t bother asking for a refund.
Obviously, there were hundreds of lovely and utterly unconnected vignettes amid my European wanderings, when there was time to indulge a genuine feeling of timelessness. One of them came in June of 1989.
Our precise whereabouts in the bucolic Bohemian countryside southeast of Prague were blissfully unknown, but it was a lazy, sunny, aimless lunchtime.
My genial hosts were the aunt and uncle of a dear émigré friend from back home. They both had started the day puttering around their “weekend” house (the Russians would call it a dacha), tending to the garden.
Later, green peppers and onions would be chopped and cooked in a heavy iron skillet with big, fat pork sausages, alongside a salad of shredded cabbage, onions and homemade pickles. There was a football-sized crusty loaf, and plenty of butter.
Uncle Vlasta was the quintessential example of a Czech country boy made good. At the time, he was a proud, unrepentant Communist middle-tier administrator who had adroitly played the hand he was dealt, rising through the ranks to enjoy a solid, respectable and unpretentious life.
In that seemingly placid summer of ’89, there was little reason to believe the domestic scene would ever change. It was entirely unimaginable that a non-violent “Velvet Revolution” freeing Czechoslovakia from its Warsaw Pact orbit – and abruptly rendering Uncle Vlasta prematurely unemployed – would occur at all, much less six months hence.
But it did, although that’s another story.
Uncle Vlasta and his family spent their everyday working weeks residing in an unadorned apartment, albeit one located in a comparatively upscale, 1960’s-era suburb in Prague.
However, their obvious pride and joy was the A-frame weekend house. It had cold running water and a toilet. There was no phone or television. Any excuse to exit the capital city for a few days of peace in the groves and meadows was seized with excitement and vigor, and I was delighted to function as their present-use excuse.
The previous day, we’d taken a day-long, whirlwind tour of Southern Bohemia, Uncle Vlasta’s beloved red Skoda loaded down with supplies. We visited historic towns, sprawling castles and even a hydroelectric dam that he’d helped to construct in the late 1950s as a youthful Community party hopeful.
There were mugs of locally brewed beer, platters of roasted pork, sauerkraut and steamed dumplings, and a steadily encroaching exhaustion. We finally arrived at the family’s weekend house long after dark, and after a few minutes of housekeeping and light snacks, everyone fell fast asleep.
Next morning after breakfast I embarked on my orientation stroll in the nearby woods, returning to find a dirt-smudged and grinning Uncle Vlasta waiting for me. He held up two oversized brown earthenware pitchers and motioned for me to follow him.
We exited the front gate and walked along the rutted road, our ultimate purpose lost to me owing to our language differences.
After a quarter-mile or so, we came to a battered, 1930s-era building clad in chipped stucco, residing in the shade of old, leafy hardwoods. It stood next to the terminus of a single rail line, one that seemed to exist solely for use by the many holiday weekenders in the vicinity.
It became clear that the structure tripled as railway ticket office, grocery store … and pub.
Although diabetic and generally teetotaling, Uncle Vlasta had been dutifully forewarned by his nephew back in New Albany that Roger was an ardent beer lover, and accordingly, throughout my three-week stay, he enthusiastically volunteered to introduce me to various classic pubs for sampling the many brands of golden, hoppy pilsner for which the Czechs remain justly famous.
Soon after my arrival, he taught me a critical phrase in his native language: “Czech beer is better than American beer.” He would drill me on pronunciation just before entering a tavern, and then introduce the visiting foreigner to tavern staff and nearby regulars. I’d smile and utter the words aloud as best I could remember -- and the free beers would begin materializing in front of me.
Uncle Vlasta would shrug, beam with evident satisfaction and drink his apple juice, and while I wasn’t sure whether it was the capitalist novelty of my presence or his “fix-is-in” ruling party credentials that caused such a reaction, I opted to make like the elegant Vltava River and happily drink with the flow.
Consequently, spying the tap inside the rural railway station pub, it made perfect sense to me to have a creamy draft lager and quench my thirst after the morning walk, but as an inexperienced American accustomed to cans and bottles, I still couldn’t quite fathom why we’d lugged the pitchers along.
But Uncle Vlasta chatted with the friendly barman, who began filling them with cool beer for the journey back.
Growlers the old-fashioned way. Some of the liquid didn’t make the trip home. Imagine that.
If only there’d been a selfie.
August 1: AFTER THE FIRE: The devil made me drink it.
July 28 (at NA Confidential): ON THE AVENUES: An imaginary exercise tentatively called The Curmudgeon Free House.
July 25: AFTER THE FIRE: Before the deluge, or knowing how this whole beer business started.
July 18: AFTER THE FIRE: Moss the Boss, his dazzling beer café, and what they taught me about “craft.”
July 11: AFTER THE FIRE: We are dispirited in the post-factual world.