Prague has been on my bucket list forever. It started with a National Geographic article describing it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I’ve wanted to go there ever since.
Like many places on our bucket lists, however, it was one you’d like to see someday but doubt that someday will ever come. For one thing, it’s not exactly around the corner — 5,311 air miles from Boise, to be exact. And for much of my adult life, it was behind the dreaded Iron Curtain.
The Iron Curtain, for the benefit of younger readers unfamiliar with it, was the term once used for the political barrier separating the communist nations of Eastern Europe from the so-called Free World. For something that didn’t physically exist, the Iron Curtain was an extraordinarily scary thing. On one side freedom, on the other tyranny and oppression.
My first experience with what lay behind it was in what was then communist East Berlin. The first person I met there was a woman in tears. She was crying because her boyfriend had been shot to death trying to escape to the West. Imagine Boise with a wall around it and anyone trying to escape being shot and you’ll have an idea of what cheery places the Iron Curtain countries were.
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So it was with a certain unease that my wife and I rode the rails to Prague. True, it was liberated from communist rule a generation ago. But those regimes were so repressive and lasted so long that the memories are hard to shake. Was Prague the lovely, lively city we hoped to find, or one haunted by reminders of its dreary past?
The first impression was positive. The streets were busy, the sidewalks crowded, the atmosphere vibrant. The desk clerk at our hotel, whose name was Lucia, was friendly and helpful. She seemed perfectly happy to answer questions she’d probably been asked a hundred times and went so far as to load us up with brochures and maps and write out directions to places we wanted to go.
“You’re not at all like people we were afraid we’d meet here,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“We thought it might still be a little bit the way it was under communism. You know, when people were scared and depressed all the time.”
“Oh,” she brightly replied. “I’m too young to remember that!”
Of course. The Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule was in 1989. Lucia couldn’t have been older than her early 20s.
For a firsthand look at the way things used to be, we visited the aptly named Museum of Communism. It was all there: Stalin and other thugs, food shortages, beatings, executions, a culture of fear.
And now? Prague today reminded us a little of Paris. Busy sidewalk cafes, magnificent architecture, cosmopolitan people who couldn’t have been more welcoming. When we asked for directions or information, they were not only willing but seemed genuinely pleased to help.
On our first evening in Prague, we asked Lucia if it was safe to go out at night.
“Of course!” she replied. “There are policemen everywhere.”
There were policemen. But they seemed less like enforcers than participants in an ongoing party. They smiled and laughed along with everyone else enjoying the festive summer evenings. I’ve felt less safe at night in parts of Idaho.
You have to wonder what the henchmen who enforced the brutal communist regime were thinking. And what do they think now when they see the bustling sidewalks, the prosperity, the crowds of people enjoying their freedom?
Do they admit that their system was wrong? Just one generation after its demise, it couldn’t be more obvious.
• • •
A lot of years had passed since I was last in Bremerhaven, Germany, my home for a year while stationed there in the Navy. Seeing it again also ranked high on my bucket list.
It was a place fondly remembered. To a kid from Idaho who had never been much of anywhere, it was impossibly picturesque — quaint buildings, winding cobblestone streets, Old World charm all but oozing from the bricks and mortar.
The dollar was stronger then, and even on sailors’ pay we lived well. I bought a seven-year-old Mercedes for $400 and drove it all over Europe. Good German beer was the equivalent of 25 cents a glass. And sidewalk stands with bratwurst and French fries to die for were omnipresent.
At our duty station, we lived in red brick buildings around a grassy quadrangle lined with stately trees. For a military base, it was almost pretty.
The spacious lobby with the beautiful woodwork I remembered at the train station has been partitioned into a small waiting room and an Asian restaurant. Outside, the only thing that looked familiar was a church in what was once the heart of a charming downtown. The inviting shops and other businesses I remembered have been replaced by an antiseptic mall.
In a city that once seemed to have a busy bratwurst stand on every corner, we saw exactly one. And it was closed.
A woman at a tourist information booth answered affirmatively when asked if she knew how to get to what had once been our base.
“It’s an expensive taxi ride from here, and you wouldn’t recognize it,” she said. “It’s a housing development and a hospital now.”
She was more right than she knew. Almost everything had changed, and I recognized almost nothing. The quaint city I remembered so well has become more modern, less charming.
I’m glad we went there. It’s off of the bucket list now.
But Thomas Wolfe was right. You really can’t go home again.
This is the last of a series of five travel stories. Tim’s column will now resume its normal schedule of every other Sunday and be posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.