I did not set out to do an Eastern European "road trip" that summer, it just turned out that way.
From a Mercedes, to Ferraris, from trucks to East German cars and BMWs, I used every kind of transport to cross Europe and meet all classes of people from the top to the bottom, from the richest to the poorest. At the end of my trip I came to realize that people are all the same, they just think they are different.
Nixon and Brezhnev were doing their 1970's tango, the dance of Detente. The American Eagle and the Russian Bear watched each other warily, using secondary countries like Vietnam and Afghanistan as surrogate fighters, to test each other, while Europe waited in the sidelines playing hard to get. The girl who wanted both of their attentions but would put out for either.
Eastern Europe had grown apart from the West, locked in a communist time warp, where crime did not exist, only criminal thoughts, and longing for Western food and cloths. The Western countries were booming, the fruits of the Marshall plan having produced a post war crop of capitalists who dreamed of competing with America. The all mighty dollar had fallen, thanks to Nixon, long live the king. Irony or irony, in the communist countries, the dollar could still buy anything. So I planned to earn from the rich to pay the poor.
In Paris, at his factory, I climbed into the big Mercedes of my art patron and we were off. He drove with controlled fierceness, the power of the German car tightly under control, his precise gear shifts occurring in silence, his leather gloved hands steady on the shift knob, as he navigated down smaller and smaller country roads.
There were few speed limits in France at the time, in the late seventies. He drove like a king. He was rich, so who would stop him? His family sat placidly in the luxurious leather smelling car, wrapped in fur coats, doused in expensive perfume. I sat sandwiched between them, wondering what I was getting into. Gold jewelry and Alexander Salon hair enshrouded the women, the men were Polo and Izod clad. I was the strange American worker who they had kidnapped, my jeans full of holes caused by etching acid baths, an artistic look that became the rage later.
We arrived at night, and I vaguely remembered a castle, and that I was shown into a sumptuous guest room. The next day I took breakfast with the maids and staff who had greeted us in the darkness. They seemed more like family than servants. I was to find out more about this during my sojourn. The sons had a playmate, a factory worker, who they hung out with. He finally had a car accident and they seemed peeved at this intrusion into their idyllic life.
The daughter, a Princess Ann type, had an English fiancee, who was well educated, upper class, friendly. He was a fish out of water like me, but used to money. My host's mother in law was hard of hearing and my patron amused himself by telling her terrible things to her face to which she would smile and laugh.
My task was to draw and paint some of the racing cars in his collection. A racing course, private, encircled his castle, and the cars, all in working order, resided in converted stables. What cars! One of a kind racing Ferraris, the ones that had not crashed. Grand torismo, grand prix, prototypes. All racing Ferraris. All powerful. All beautiful. Everyone in working order. All blood red, need I say, communist color? A tiffossi's dream. My dream. What beautiful machines! Bred for racing, for winning. In perfect form.
I drew them, I loved them, and I drove in them. I admired the man who collected them, who had the balls to drive them himself. One day the French Ferrari club showed up with a dozen beautiful cars that raced around like crazy. Incredible. What sounds, what sights. Flashes of red. The screeching of tires. One guy invited me to take a "tour", do a few laps, and I did. When I got in, there was a problem; no seat belts. Scary. His elbow would hit the horn when he did his steering wheel lock.
One afternoon, my benefactor brought out his piece de resistance, the P 4, all 12 cylinders, a real monster, the Italian answer to the big Ford challenge in the 60's. He prepared to drive it like a Toreador, putting on a gut belt, helmet, gloves. His entourage of mechanics were respectful, deferring. He was magnificent. He was master of his domain, and he knew it. He took the car out on his course and everyone was in awe. It gave a roar from it 4 liter belly, making our hearts stop. This was the most powerful racing Ferrari ever manufactured. The Italian's hope to beat the big American Fords in the 60's.
I went in to the local town for more art supplies, and proceeded to produce a half dozen water colors of different cars. I was regarded as some strange exotic animal, an artist. One of the serving girls struck my fancy, she had a room down from my own. One morning I awoke in front of her room, sleepwalking. My host asked me if I wanted to have girls or boys? I demurred. I finished my art work and had to haggle over the price with him. Millionaires are cheap, I discovered, which is why they are rich. He could not understand why I wanted to go spend his capitalist money in communist countries. I took the money and ran.
I hopped on a little diesel powered local train that wound its way through the Massif Central, taking its time. On the train, I met a girl whose eyes told me that I could have whatever I wanted, no problem. Except I was on my way East. From Clermond Fermond, I hitch-hiked to Munich. where I stayed at a military Hotel, seeing one of the old waiters whom I had known from my childhood. At the autobahn I found women who were doing the same thing, they stopped a truck for me and got a ride for me, the driver was disgruntle, wanting the company of a beautiful young woman. I asked him in my bad German what he had in his tanks. He brought out a bottle of white wine. He was hauling wine by the mega liter.
He let me off in Wagners's town of Bayreuth, where I mixed in with the crowd listening to the Ring cycle. My South African professor would have enjoyed it more than I, his love for Wagner was deeper than mine. I met an English student with long hair in the youth hostel, who hid it under a hat to hitch rides. He got a ride, while I stood in the German woods and I thought I would die of frost bite in mid summer. But I got a lift finally from a young German woman who was driving home to Berlin. Her father was a judge. We talked, as she drove the long dreary stretch of East German Autobahn, and we connected. I invited her up to my room at Tempelhof airport.
Next day, I went to buy blue jeans as gifts, something that Eastern Europeans were hankering for, a taste of captilism, a worker's pants from Gold Rush days. I went to the Kunst Art Gallery in West Berlin to stare at Fine art, soaking it in. This cultural stop made me late for my train, and some American women on the U Bahn noticed my distress. I could not tell them , "I am going to Communist Eastern Europe. Thank you." It would have shocked them; they might have said I was crazy, I would never return from the Evil Empire.
I crossed over into East Berlin, getting off the U Bahn at the train station, under the menacing scrutiny of the Wolks Police, who probably wondered why someone was escaping Eastward. A Youth festival was in full swing under the auspices of the communist party, Yasar Arafat was the guest of honor, therefore the police were on their best friendly polite behavior. No one was to be shot.
When the East German Ticket Taker walked into my compartment, I thought I had died and gone to Wagnerian heaven; she was tall, blond and beautiful. Even in her strict, neo-Nazi outfit she was a knock out. If she had ordered me to fall on my face and lick her boots, I would have complied then and there. Instead she asked for my ticket, which I humbly offered her, so that she could take a bite out of it with her puncher. She must have guessed the effect she had on me, because she even smiled and wished me "Gutten Reisen." Oh yes, in my dreams I will ride with a Valkeyrie with colanders!
Me, sister and Jewish friend
In Poland, the official money exchanger asked me to change money, but I refused, which did not seem to bother him. In Poznan, I got off and found the local youth hostel. It was Polish liberation day, when the Russians arrived to liberate their Slavic brothers, hurrah! I went to a place in the woods, where there were banners of red and white, women and Vodka. To this day, I remember nothing of that night except that I did make it back to my bed and I did leave next day to seek my friend, Ludimer. (We had met in the National Gallery of Art in England, Poles could leave their country, if they posted a kind of bond in Western cash.)
Where was Ludimer? It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I had his address written in Polish. I hitchhiked, took rides on horse drawn carts, and finally, amongst the waving yellow grain fields, I came to his house. I recognized his sister, who was parading around in lacy French underwear. All day, I had not eaten, and I was burdened with a 100 pound knapsack. You can imagine that the sight of a half naked blond babe running around was, to say the least, refreshingly different.
My physical exhaustion and the presence of her grandmother, yelling at her in Polish to 'put some clothes on you hussy,' did little to encourage my ardor. In my condition I don't think I posed a danger to her.
Things were soon sorted out, the mother and father came in from the fields. Papa looked like Hitler, with a postage stamp mustache. Then my friend showed up with his Polish Jewish friend, one of the few who's families survived. He was courageous, having me - an America- as a friend.
We had to celebrate, at his families house first with home made Vodka, then at a local restaurant, rated third class, with more Vodka. I had had nothing to eat all day. And the Polish drink Vodka in one shot, no sipping, like a man. Needless to say, I was soon drunk as a Pole.We made it back to wherever they were staying, a shack. I asked where the facilities were and stumbled to the out house. It sobered me up fast.
Maybe I had an epiphany when I looked down into the shithole and saw millions of maggots crawling over human feces. Maybe the Vodka saved me, it dulled my mind to the image. I still remember it, the maggots that will one day eat us all, the maggots of death that we try to hide from. Reality. Strange that I had just left the lap of luxury, living like a millionaire, and now I was in a real shit hole, with the proletariat, a working class bum. What a contrast.
My friend had to finish work, so they left me with my hang over and the outhouse next morning. I met an old geezer who turned out to have been in the Polish Calvary who charged the Russian or German tanks in WWII. He was dressed in an outfit out of War and Peace, a hero of the people. With medals to boot. It had been a crazy thing to do, a Polish thing.
At the Poznan Train station, I observed the strange Polish queuing technique, people would come in and out of line, according to where they came from or were related to. It was utter chaos, run with a Polish logic.
We traveled to Warsaw by train to stay with my friend's Aunt who worked in the French embassy. She spoke impeccable French and put out an incredible spread of food consisting of cold cuts and pickles for Polish breakfast.
Somewhere we parted company, my friends were off for vacation, and I to see more of Poland. I took the train, or hitch hiked. One time an East German family picked me up, in their Flint stone car, a Trablent, which was the diametric opposite of a Mercedes, all rickety and flimsy feeling, no doubt they had waited years for it and paid a fortune for it, and they were aghast when I told them I was a "Amerikaner." You could see them actually implode into themselves, thinking, what if someone finds out, our lives will be ruined; we have consorted with a devil capitalist! Funny to me, but not to them.
On a train, a mother was practically selling me her daughter when she found out I was from the West. I did learn some useful Polish words; padidesh, means rain. Die yah me yah swear-za means "give me your heart." It works, by the way. Another time I met a priest who had just been released from years of prison, gaunt and haggard. The Polish were mad for catholisism, just like the Irish. There were so many young people, full of life and lust
In Krakow, I found the heart of Poland, and a Polish girl who did not speak English, but we knew what we wanted. We did not need a translator. Our hands, our eyes, talked for us. Our bodies understood. We danced the night and the day away. I learned how to be gallant in the Polish way, to kiss her hand. She offered me more to kiss later. I found out why the Polish girls are called the Swedes of Eastern Europe, why Napoleon had a Polish mistress. They also used abortion for birth control, even when I insisted, she refused any protection.
I loved Krakow, the queen city of Poland, where a fake dragon belches fire by the castle, where the cathedral harbors the graves of syphilitic kings (this information provided by a communist guide), and of course the painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, his masterpiece, the lady with the ermine. The trumpeter sounds the hour until he is cut off by an enemy arrow; I sit in a city cafe with my new Polish girl friend. The city was spared by the Nazis, who build a concentration camp next door. Auschwitz. I didn't go, preferring to reaffirm life, knowing that it would be like Dachau, but bigger. Finally I part form my Polish girl friend who's conversations are limited. She is blond and blue eyed and beautiful. It was enough. We understood enough to know we would never have anything other than a physical relationship, albeit a good one.
On to Wroclaw, I met an East German guy and a Polish girl to whom we are both attracted. What will happen? What will come of this? Perplexed, I shop in the Western currency only boutique for a present for my French girl friend, Ann, and my mother. The rules of my tourist visa oblige me to change money every day in a bank or a hotel.
In a luxurious hotel, I changed money, and discovered the nasty side of Polish communism. In order to obtain hard currency, Western money, all over Poland and in other Eastern block countries, special Western currency shops were run by the state. They were full of luxury goods and only accepted Western money. Hard Currency.
To get the "hard" kind of money, Beautiful Polish women would go to the Tourist Hotels to be with foreign business men and tourists, while their brothers, husbands and boyfriends waited outside next to the family car. It was the first time I had seen men pimp their wives and girlfriends; it shocked me. I was young and naive. I had only travelers checks and was out of luck, even if I had wanted to partake in this sordid business. God they were beautiful, tall and blond and hot to trot.
I remember a thin Polish girl who approached me at a hotel to say in broken French, "je suis la Vierge.!" I am the virgin. I doubted it. My East German buddy thought she was funny. The Polish girls don't like the Russian soldiers, her told me, but East Germans are OK.
I go back to the youth hostel where the Polish girl is waiting for us, an actress, beautiful and wanting both of us. But I must go on, not wanting to stop, like a rock that gathers no moss. I hoped my German friend and the Polish girl became lovers. I imagine them in the hay somewhere, making love, not burdened with Western shame.
I arrive in Prague, the golden city crumbling apart, where the people are drab, crumbling as well and suffering from the "unbearable lightness of being," like the book of the same title. The city was beautiful in it's decaying way, like an old whore who has put too much pancake makeup on to hide the wrinkles, so when she smiles, fissure lines crack her face. I can not wait to escape, a wave of hopeless depression threatens to overcome me, except there is a Polish girl from Gdansk staying at the youth hostel who is a radio operator. She is sending me a message. I turn off her signal. No time.
I go on to Vienna, to plunge into the depths of bourgeois capitalism. What snobs. What a contrast to the communists. I see the Spanish riding school, the jumping horses are incredible, recalling a lost era the Austrians do not want to let go of. I do eat a Sacher Torte, for good measure. A capitalist pleasure I allow myself then leave for Hungary. I walk across the border and hitch a ride with some Americans going to a conference in Budapest. They stay at an expensive hotel, I go to the cheap student hostel. The city is alive, like an Eastern Paris, competitive, open all night, full of people shouting and laughing. Semi capitalist. No dour faces here. What a contrast to Prague. I visit the art museum. I wished I had more time, to see the spas, to ride horses, to travel the Danube. Magyars.
I have a flight to catch home. I hitched a ride in a BMW crossing Germany at high speeds, without stopping, like an express train.
At the French border, I am stopped by the CRS, the French riot police, because I was hitching on the super highway; illegal. They take me into their minibus, and I think I am done for. They are in riot gear, truncheons and guns. They looked through my backpack. now full of dirty cloths, and on the bottom they find the big glass jar of honey that my Polish friend's father gave me. One of the tough looking guys puts his hand into the jar and gets a very gooey surprise. They are embarrassed and let me out on a side road with an admonishment. I keep from laughing until they are long gone, and then I roll on the ground filled with mirth.
An American couple, in a VW bus, picks me up, his wife is crippled and they have their mother in law in tow. They stop for the night at a French camp ground, but not before tasting a bit of France. As we round a corner in a village, a bunch of French teenagers stand watching us from a bar door. One of the guys takes his hand and grabs a girls private parts just as we pass by. My driver's wife and mother see it and laugh, tittering at this Latin outrage. Our driver does not see it and wonders why the women are excited. No American male would dare such a thing!
In the camp ground, they soon make another discovery. Someone has stolen the toilette. They have never seen a Turkish John! At least it is better than the Polish outhouse. I sleep at the Youth hostel.
The next day I hitch a ride with a "pied noir" doctor and he takes me all the way to Paris, talking politics. He is a cynic. Presidential elections in France. He tells me it is "better the devil you know than the one you do not, " the basis of French politics. Probably why capitalism and communism worked, as long as they provided comfortable stability. Both are different forms of dictatorships, only the form is different, the power is the same.