Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Behind the Iron Curtain

I grew up in the midst of the Cold War. All my life the Soviet Union was portrayed as our dire enemy, and we were constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. Indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was a terrifying event, even for a fifth grader. We had drills at school where we would duck under our desks in the event of nuclear attack. Many people built underground bomb shelters in their yards.

Here is an example of the terrifying images we contemplated.

Even the space race was an offshoot of the Cold War, with the USSR achieving many firsts with Sputnik and the first man in space. The US was very motivated to be first to put a man on the moon to prove to ourselves and the world that we were better than the Russians.

My father was career Air Force, so I lived on military bases growing up and was exposed to the drills and the culture. My older brother also joined the Air Force and made it a career. The Cold War had a huge impact on me and my family.

The Iron Curtain separated the Soviet allied countries in eastern Europe from our allies in the free countries of western Europe. I served my mission in West Germany, and my brother was stationed in West Germany in the Air Force. It was hard to imagine the difficult circumstances that must have existed behind the Iron Curtain--a different world than our own.

Around 1990 we won the Cold War, as the Berlin Wall came down, the Communist regimes fell in Russia and most of its allies, and relatively unrestricted travel became possible all through Europe. It was a scant seven years later (1997) that Suzanne and I ventured a trip behind the former Iron Curtain to Slovakia to visit her distant cousins and the land of her father's ancestors. This was the far eastern part of Slovakia, not the relatively progressive Czech Republic with Prague, nor Hungary with Budapest, nor even Bratislava in the western part of the country. But the further backwaters in the east up against the border with the Ukraine.

Neither of us were novices to overseas travel, but we viewed this trip with a sense of apprehension, as well as adventure. Things got off to a rocky start when our flight out of Portland was cancelled and we had to scramble to alter our reservations for flights and hotels in Slovakia. This was before pervasive internet so we're talking long distance telephone conversations with Slovaks who may or may not speak English. We flew into Kosice in the far east of Slovakia, landing 11PM or so.

Here is the Kosice airport terminal.

We walked out of the small terminal not knowing what to expect, and encountered a taxi, which took us to the city center and dropped us off around the block from our intended hotel. There we were, alone near midnight on a dark street in a very foreign place, nobody around, much less an English speaker, and not sure if we had a confirmed reservation at the hotel.

We walked into the Hotel Europa, went upstairs to a lobby, which was full of cigarette smoke and two uniformed men sitting on the couch (policemen?). Speaking to the attendant in patches of English and German we checked in and went to our room, which was ancient and spartan. The shared bathroom was down the hall. We had most definitely entered a different world.

To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment