Excerpts From Europe

travelogue by zoe noe

Submitted by ludd on July 4, 2010

Dispatches from Eastern Europe, autumn 1989

Mosel River region W. Germany 10/8/89

Before I left San Francisco last month, several people were asking me, “Why are you going to Europe in the fall?” as if I'm crazy or something. I'd just tell them that it feels like the right time to go, or else mention how I wish to avoid the onslaught of American tourists, though being near a U.S. Air Force base is annoying as hell when those planes roar overhead about once every hour.

Autumn is a wonderful time to be here--the many trees are turning color, and grape picking season is in full swing. Yesterday I was walking in the town and an older man invited me inside his ancient wine cellar and siphoned me off a glass. It was about the best tasting stuff I'd ever had, and even the fact that we could barely speak a word to each other didn't take away from its magic.

W. Berlin 11/14/89

I'm in Berlin, and everything in the carnival-like atmosphere by the Wall seems to confirm that heady sense of being right in the center of the universe. So many bright lights and television cameras; I wonder are they just following a story, or are they helping to create it just by being here?


I finally made it to the other side of the Wall yesterday. I'd planned to get there sometime in the afternoon, but the line-up at Checkpoint Charlie was so thick that it was dark before I actually got into the city. Wandered around searching for a suitable cafe in and around what's purported to be the East Bloc's most fashionable shopping district. I was curious to see if there was anything resembling the circus atmosphere on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate, but the contrast could not be more stark--the whole place cordoned off by police, and pervaded by a tense, ghostly quiet; with only a few scattered onlookers. I wandered the streets, thinking how unusually quiet it was for a Friday night, when I suddenly encountered a large demonstration. I joined the crowd, and though I understood little of the words, I liked one particular banner picturing a can of Coca-Cola, asking, “Is This All?” The timing was particularly apt, for many East German activists are already beginning to fear that their revolutionary movement is being diluted by the appeal of consumer items from the west.

As the rally ended, I was invited to a party by some folks who told me it was the DDR's first-ever big student demonstration where students had gathered from all over the country. Some of them had come all the way from Rostock to be here. The party was very joyous and simple; sort of like an urban barn dance. I feel a kinship and respect for the East Germans who choose to stay rather than flee. At least 3 different people offered me a place to stay, but alas, my day visa required me to be back in West Berlin by midnight.

Prague 11/26/89

I rolled into Prague yesterday evening; alone with a language that offered me no clues. On the platform, while wondering how to get situated, I saw a pair with big backpacks speaking what sounded like English! They were a couple of Australians looking just as confused as I felt, so we teamed up and found accommodations together.

Jubilant pandemonium has surrounded us from the moment the subway sped us to Wenceslas Square. Every subway wall, and many a store window is practically wallpapered with typewritten manifestos, petitions, homemade posters and political cartoons, stickers, tricolor flags; and such a profusion of candles and flowers that practically every corner is a shrine. It's hard to believe we're in a subway station. I wish I could understand Czech! Most of the manifestos are dated, and though I can't read them there's still this obvious sense that things are moving so fast that if something is more that 2 days old it's pretty much ancient history. This is the spontaneous free press, and a plethora of posters are announcing tomorrow's General Strike (Generalni Stavka) from noon to 2.

Ascending into Wenceslas Square, we gawked at the enormity and fervor of a chanting crowd surrounding the monument. Somebody clued us in that this wasn't the big demonstration; the big one had taken place hours earlier. Later, during dinner at a pub (with a psychic waiter who kept slamming full mugs of beer on our table before we'd think to open our mouths), the next table was erupting between about 8 shitfaced guys still delirious over Jakes' resignation the previous day. A while later most of them attached themselves to our table, boisterous and eager to try out their English on us.


Yesterday was the General Strike. At noon, the whole long promenade in Wenceslas Square was jammed so thick with people that you could hardly move. And it wasn't just the students; I got the overwhelming sensation that the whole city of Prague was right there. I was particularly moved by how many old people were present, who never thought they'd see a day like this! Remarkable to be in such a mass of people, where nearly every face has the look of having changed so dramatically in just one week.

In the evening I was fortunate to walk into a place called Laterna Magicka (Magic Lantern Theater), where the Obcanske Forum (Civic Forum) holds its daily English-translated press conference, which was just convening. Even though it was packed, I had no trouble getting in. (I told them I left my press pass in Berlin.) It was amazing to see some of the questions these Western journalists ask: “What will you do if the government rejects your demands?” As if anything in these circumstances can possibly be figured out that far in advance! After the press conference, I wandered around, and was drawn by chance to a banner-covered building. The door was open, so I climbed the stairs and went inside. Many of the art galleries and theaters that are on strike are now being used as headquarters and workshops for the Movement. This was one of those places--it seemed to be a clearinghouse for the underground press, a makeshift yet efficient operation. I particularly loved all the slightly incongruous elements; a vaulted ceiling with a delicate fresco on it that's 200 years old, a computer in the next room, along with a fleet of manual typewriters, including a couple of those black “iron horse” varieties from the 1920s.

Everybody here puts in such long days (and nights)! When I showed up last night, they thought I was a journalist wanting to interview them, and they were apologetic that they were finally ending their workday just as I showed up. But actually it was perfect, for they were just beginning to party and unwind.

“Sorry we can't help you, but would you like a beer?” said one.

“Prague is such a beautiful city; you should come back and visit sometime when we're not busy having a revolution!” said another.

Vienna 12/10/89

This is the first weekend that Czechs are permitted to travel more freely, so of course Vienna is literally swarming with them, although personally I don't know why any of them would want to leave Czechoslovakia at such an exciting time as this.

What a comedown it is to go straight from Prague, where the streets are filled with young people demanding freedom, to Vienna where the streets are filled with middle-aged matrons in full-fur coats out doing their Xmas shopping!

Even the architecture is different--in Prague centrum the buildings seem to be built on a human scale, whereas here the buildings are so much more imposing, like they're designed to make you feel small, less sure of yourself (even if they're roughly similar architectural styles from similar periods). Even the statues in Prague seem so much more alive and sensual--here they just seem to be made of stone.

I would have stayed in Prague longer but I only had a transit visa this time, and I did stretch it; stayed an extra day or so beyond what I was supposed to, and they did look at me kind of funny at the border, and made a cursory glance through my pack, but they didn't ask me any questions.

It was interesting this week to note some visual changes in Prague after a week and a half away; the store windows and subways are still just as plastered with posters and all kinds of stuff, but more of them are printed now, and look a little slicker, not as homemade. The gallery space now has a name, N.T.S. (roughly, an acronym for “Independent Press Center”). They now have 2 computers instead of one, and also a huge photocopy machine which is constantly in use.

Most inspiring is to see and feel the sensual splendor of that ancient city, and realizing that this is now that moment when the people themselves are coming alive enough to match the splendor of the city. Sometimes I think that I live just to see Prague again.

-- Zoe Noe