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Monthly Archives: December 2007

Crossposted from DamnedCritic

In Czechoslovakia, I was nearly arrested, once. The year was 1991, I think, and I was sitting on the grass outside a train station in Prague, doing what I normal do when I travel — drink a beer and smoke a cigarette. After all, one can tell a lot about a foreign economy by doing exactly that. If the topmost brand of smoke, for example, tastes like charred rope, and if the beer gives you a headache, then you know something. Beer and cigarettes, in Eastern Europe when I was there, were the most commonly bought luxury items by the local population. The cigarette tasted terrible, like it was made of the harshest Turkish tobacco, but the beer was wonderful. (After all, pilsner was invented in Pilzen). After about ten minutes, two uniformed police officers approached me and started saying something in Czech. I shrugged and asked them if they could speak English, and they shook their head “No.” Then, they asked me, in German, if I could speak German. “Nein,” I said. So, I countered in in my very limited Dutch. They shook their heads again.

Eventually, one of them muttered, “Passport?”

I patted the trouser pockets, as well as my Jacket, realizing I didn’t have it. I could picture it though, on a table back at the hotel. I shrugged.


Again, I shrugged.

One of them, gently, put his hand on my shoulder and pointed towards the nearby cop car. “Station,” they said. The started walking, nudging me along with them.

I tried to remain calm, even though, on the inside, I started to feel a little frantic. To say I was stupid would be an understatement; I should have never left the hotel without my passport. Plus, growing up in Western Europe, in an American military community, there were always urban legends about American running into agents of the Warsaw Pact, only to be detained, or, even worse, being accused of being a spy and thrown in jail. Of course, nobody ever actually ever met somebody who that had happened to, but Armed Forces Television’s infomercials still warned it’s viewers to act responsibly and not draw attention to yourself. And that’s what I had done wrong. I had called attention to myself.

As we walked to the police car, I reached into my pocket for my wallet. The policemen stopped, and I pulled out my light brown Department of Defense “Dependent” ID card, handing it to them. They took turns staring at it. One of them kept flicking the lamination with his finger, testing it’s authenticity. Then, the both looked up from the ID and at each other. They burst out laughing, and, eventually they handed my card back.

“Mr. RistOFF …”

I didn’t have the balls to correct his mispronunciation.

“…Had you shown us that a few years ago …” He started laughing again.

And now, I was shocked by their proficiency in English. The earlier bit was all an act.

“…Had you show us that a few years ago, we would have had you questioned as a spy. Go to your hotel. Get your passport. Carry it always.”

The started to walk away. Then, one of them paused and turned, almost as like an afterthought. “In your country, I know not. But here, we respect our train stations. We don’t sit on its lawn.”

And that was it. I was an idiot — I’ll readily admit that. But one thing, however, years later, makes me wonder. Czechoslovakia is no longer an existing country. It has since split into The Czech Republic and Slovakia. But when I was there, Czechoslovakia was very much in middle of a dizzying transition. Those cops, in other words, most likely had to change their standard operating procedure, especially when it came to interacting the with public. At one moment, they are tools of a communist state, and the next, just tasked with law and order. So, in the years prior, they likely did much more than simply arrest people for sitting on the grass.

I saw many other things, while I was there, that showed a bizarre transition. It was hard not to see it on the streets of Prague. Basically, Vaclav Havel and his compatriots had lead what has now become known as “The Velvet Revolution.” The communist regime was toppled by peaceful protests and general strikes. Around the time, 1989, most of Iron Curtain crumbled, and everything seemed to show that. In it’s wake, however, Havel became president, but there were other more noticeable things.

There’s a notorius Soviet that tank that, in an act of artistic activism, was painted pink. Street musicians stood on nearly every corner, guitar in hand and coin filled hat at their feet. If there was anything I grew sick of in Prague, it was hearing R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” sung in broken English. Why that song, I will never know, although the title makes for an interesting metaphor. At one point, I happened on a punk band, all dressed in black. What they played, however, was partly obscured by the grating of the old generator they used to power their amps. There were other things too. Sword swallowers, puppet shows for kids, and so on. My father used to quip, “So much freedom, they can’t take it.” I responded that they were likely out of work, and needed money — after all, Western European tourists had flooded into the city, partly because it used to be exotic, off limits during the Cold War. And with the currency grossly devalued, one could do just about anything in Prague dirt cheap, so long as you had dollars, Deutsch Marks, or Pound Sterling to exchange for absurd amounts of money.

This also made living cheap for American expatriates, which brought other cultural influences. While I was in Prague, I visited an American styled fast food burger joint, this was long before McDonalds or Burger King could wheel and deal their way into Eastern Europe. I had entered the establishment not for the food, but because they served beer, and I wanted a place to sit and read the local English language paper, which featured articles on the night life. Hip Hop had already arrived, and the local clubs boasted bookings of DJ Smile Face and MC Shoe Size, or what ever random English words they could put in front of MC or DJ.

The trip had been lightening quick, though. After a few days, my parents and myself jumped back into the car and drove back to The Netherlands and day to day life. Later, I realized that I was quite lucky to have been in that country, at that time. One of my friends, married (and eventually divorced, messily) a German woman. He and his then in-laws took a trip to Prague, once. Upon his return to the States, I asked him about the pink tanks and the street musicians. All gone. The Czech Republic, he said, looked like just about any other country in Europe.