Memory Lane: Bussing to the new frontier
16 July 2009
In 1989, after the collapse of the communist regime, Czechoslovakian buses trundled out to the four corners of Europe...and its shopping centres. Lidové Noviny remember a time of adventure galore round the corner from every car park.
Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of the Velvet revolution, when Czech city squares still echoed with the sound of demonstrators' jingling keys and the borders were still decked with the remains of barbed wire fences, citizens of the nascent Republic were immediately overwhelmed by the desire to see what lay beyond the hitherto impenetrable Iron Curtain. Long queues of buses snarled traffic at the handful of western border crossings that had been grudgingly built under communist rule – and an entire generation set out to visit a world that that it only knew from photographs.
In those early years of "free tourism,"at the moment of the fateful transition from East to West, the groups of travelers that alighted to savour their schnitzel sandwiches amid the exhaust fumes would cast an envious eye on the lucky few whose travel agency had actually booked a Mercedes – and not just any old bus. Often you would hear them say, "You're so comfortable in a Mercedes!" Then they would complain about other passengers' food: "It's like a traveling grocer's shop in there. I put my bag under the seat, and now it stinks of rotten carrots."
But at the time, the freedom to travel anywhere abroad was an unheard of luxury. Only a few months earlier, we had seen entire families queue for days outside the state travel agent Čedok so that one of their number could squander half a year's pay on a party-approved tour. The privilege of not having to beg for "an exit visa" or a "foreign currency allocation" to be spent on a package with a name like ‘Holland's ancient windmill's and dykes’ was more than enough to relativize any inconvenience caused by holes in the floor of the Karosa [brand of bus] or the lack of 20 cm of leg room that was only to be had in a Mercedes. A passport could be obtained in just 24 hours, and humiliating interrogations with spotty machine-gun-toting customs officials were a thing of the past. The wind had changed for the border guards. After delicious decades of idly watching the birds alight on the fences of our homeland's impenetrable frontier, they actually had some work to do – and we just sailed on through.
Touch pad telephones and perfumed washing powder
The burgeoning epidemic of wanderlust brought new opportunities in the tourist industry. In 1990, the Czech Republic had only 6,000 travel agents – and that number almost doubled in the course of the 1990s. The wave of traveling that followed the Revolution was marked by a vogue for two types of holiday. The first of these were trips of the Europe-in-4-days variety, which allowed us to catch up, or so we thought, on 50 years of history – but mainly involved long hours spent dozing on buses. Even then, we were thrilled to have left home, and delighted when the tour guide picked up the mic to tell us: "Now we have arrived in Switzerland. If you look to your left you will see the lights of the town of Sion." The second type of holiday was a straight round trip to Venice, Vienna, Munich or any one of a number of major cities that had suddenly become accessible by bus. Now we had a chance to see Saint Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, or Saint Mark's Square in Venice. But more often than not, the charms of such tourist attractions could hardly compare with the exotic allure of the shopping centres and cheap markets that were also on the itinerary. And so we strolled through Shopping City South in Vienna, agog over the goods on show – pushing our trolleys, which we later set aside empty. On the way out, we would shrug our shoulders in response to quizzical looks from the sales staff: What had we bought? Here? "Nichts." In fact, we were saving our money for Mexiko Platz, where we would spend it on such treasures as three-kilo bags of coffee, Chinese touch-tone phones, canned soft drinks, and best of all washing powder that washed and even smelled nice too!
After the summer of 1990, beach holidays were never the same again. Bulgaria remained the favorite destination for Czechs, but now we could also savour the delights of Bibione in Italy, the Spanish Costa-Brava, or even the far flung shores of Greece. However, tragedy lurked in the wings – little did we know that some of us were about to be stranded on the strand. In 1997, the Travela travel agency went bankrupt, and the thrill of traveling was suddenly tempered by worries about getting stuck at the airport. This anxiety was exacerbated by a change of tone in some of our favored destinations. On the coast of the Adriatic, the cheerful Croats began to turn a cold shoulder to paté eating Czechs, and in the Austrian superstores, signs announcing "We speak Czech" were replaced by a less welcoming notice – "Czechs, don't steal!"
Fortunately, the low-cost airlines came to the rescue, and suddenly our holiday budgets could cover more than the mere cost of getting there. That was when we realized that the price of bread was more or less the same wherever you bought it, and we were only to grateful to buy fresh vegetables to replace the packet soups that used to haunt our suitcases. Of course, travel agents can still go bust, but now they have a compulsory insurance policies – and we do not need to worry so much about the possibility of having to camp for an extra two weeks at the end of the holidays. If we compare the experience of traveling today with the situation 20 years ago, I think we can safely say that the adventure of going abroad has mellowed with age.