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Looking back, we were so naïve, ignorant, underdressed. Clueless to a country’s people and their fight for a life we not only took for granted but flaunted so ungracefully. I remember this never being more repugnantly obvious than when I found out that someone in our party had stolen the cutlery from a restaurant after being shortchanged by what was to translate to about a dollar. Pitiful behavior, but something they were to get used to I am sure as the West increasingly came to step back in time as they, the East, leaped forward.
This was Czechoslovakia fresh from revolution—and changing really, really fast.
It was a fascinating experience to witness firsthand, not the breaking down of walls but what to do afterward. It was so utterly different to anywhere else I had been in Europe, farther east than ever before and although really not that many miles farther than previous excursions, it was light years away in perception. Preconception had largely been molded by Hollywood I suppose. Television and film conveniently ignore hundreds of years of high culture and European sophistication in favor of good storytelling of the Iron Curtain, repression and mistrust.
This country, though, had an obvious wealth of history that we were not really engaged with in our educational upbringings. If you grew up in the 1970s and ’80s under the shadow of the bomb, eastern Europe had a real sense of mystery about it. It may have been just down the road, but the Soviet era was around long enough to have shaped it a lot. Czechoslovakia was a country with some of the least-bombed cities in Europe during World War II. It had witnessed and survived so much to reach this point, where we, the West, would get our chance to colonize in the name of modernization.
It’s weird how a music album can immediately transport you back in time to a place, perhaps even more subconsciously than a smell, so to me Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume 1” is Prague 1992. I can’t even really remember that clearly why we went. I know it was with a college group and so there was probably some photographic element—all gritty and black-and-white no doubt—but off we went, on a bus, for 17 hours. Through France, then Belgium and Germany, and into the East.
I remember our Dutch bus driver for three things: driving too fast, not liking Germans (especially when they fined him for driving too fast) and playing porn films on his video system when his wife/co-driver had gone to bed. I remember disembarking in Prague into a cold previously unknown to me—a bitter, dry airborne chill almost noxious in its suffocating intensity, like thousands of tiny pins stabbing at exposed skin all at once.
We were shown down a dark and ominous alley that a Hollywood set designer would be proud of and into a little courtyard scene so grim I remember wondering how the accommodations we were (hopefully) being directed to could possibly be half-decent, but also how it could actually be any worse than the unconscious homeless guy lying across an oil drum, slowly and poorly cooking 10 gallons of goulash, being attended to by a huge, bearded man with an insane-looking, toothless grin. He wore a nurse’s hat and apron and stirred with an old spanner and a ladle, and (quite kindly really) he offered it to us as we shuffled past. I declined, but I did have at the back of my mind a scene where refusing the tribal offering meant you ended up in the pot.
Our “gaff” turned out to be an ex-Soviet-era mental hospital complete with bars on the windows and a hose-down room as a shower block. It was filthy and cold, but it was cheap.
We were to stay there 10 days. In that time, I remember wandering around this city of immaculate architectural façades in all hours with a Nikon F3 and a seemingly endless supply of Tri-X film, darting into bars that instead of doors had red velour curtains on rails keeping out the cold, but not the atmosphere. The beer was good, excellent in fact, and on discovering the draft stuff at 10 pence a pint, it suddenly became our first choice over the previous revelation of Budvar bottles at 20 pence a half-liter in the local supermarket. That was to later return to preference when we saw how our glasses were actually washed up between clients—but ignorance, as they say, is bliss, and bliss at 10 pence a pint was bliss indeed.
I feel privileged to have seen Prague at that time. With McDonald’s and Levi’s and Nike moving in so fast, in a new arms race to collect the money that was just around the corner, it wasn’t so much a town plan as an assault on all fronts simultaneously. From the very beginning, we witnessed same-chain restaurants going up together within spitting distance of each other. Kind of sad I thought but exciting no doubt to someone who until that point has only been able to dream of such delights. It should be said that this idealism, from the perspective of a liberal convenience, did wear thin after three days of what was essentially cabbage and vinegar every evening; and, if I am honest, I do seem to remember living off of the French fries for quite a chunk of the trip.
One evening a few of us went off to the movies to see Clint Eastwood re-do the Western with “Unforgiven.” If truth be told, being brought up around the multiplex, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of quality. Quite wrongly it would appear. I assumed Communist Party flick houses probably had ropey old projectors with 1960s speakers and crackly soundtracks. But the surroundings were something else. Lush, blue-velour seats and gold and chrome everywhere. Old and out of date, yes, but clean and solid in a made-to-last-three-decades kind of way—pride in the long term rather than driven by fashion.
As the curtain parted slightly and the lights dimmed, a shadow of a hand prodded a few 35mm slides, one by one, into a holder just in front of the projector bulb and we had a minute or so of each to jot down the details of the local garden specialist or hairdresser. It was crappy and naïve in an age of Dolby surround, but it was what they had as tools, and that was humbling. Then the soundtrack cut in and it surprised us all by how un-crackly it was. But it was when the curtain withdrew for the full-70mm-wide-screen effect, revealing the Soviet-era hammer-and-sickle clock on the red velour wall, and the Warner Bros. logo appeared in brilliant blue and gold of such clarity that we were taken aback. It wasn’t even dubbed, but English with Czech subtitles.
It remains the only 70mm Soviet cinematic experience of my life, but one that has remained with me throughout all the other projections of anodyne digital perfection since. It was wonderfully analogue and rudimentary—a crisp, sharp, old-fashioned visual feast, just like the cinema ought to be. As per usual, my friend Sam and I stayed until the end to watch all the credits as we do in a slightly uptight, partly respectful-of-the-crew ritual, but on getting up, the next feature’s advertisement slides were being loaded in and I just caught glimpse of a local bike shop. I noted the address and, being unable to visit a town without also seeing its bike shops, I planned the next day’s adventure.
Feeling a bit rum for rejecting culture in favor of a bike shop, but accepting I was a kid of the ’80s, I headed out alone the next day on a mission to track down some Soviet bike paraphernalia. After a lot of looking, I didn’t find anything, so I asked some local kids on BMXs if they knew it, but they didn’t. I carried on looking for a while, asking people every now and then, and capturing my journey on film in a kind of breadcrumb trail of Communist-era, concrete-brutalism snap shots.
Almost given up, I turned into a square to head back to the bus and almost by chance stood opposite the bike shop. Getting all excited by what gems might lie inside in, I was ready to uncover a Rossin or Pinarello frame at knockdown Eastern Bloc prices, or some classic Campy in a dusty “things” cabinet that’d nicely fit in my luggage. What I was met with must’ve been clearly visible on my face as I was gestured to take a ticket by a man in a small glass-windowed booth seated slightly higher up than the plebs at shopfloor level. I was now queuing for what I wasn’t sure as you couldn’t actually really see any merchandise other than some chocolate bars on the counter, a pile of tires and inner tubes on the wall, and the odd mismatched wheels leaning against the storeroom window like black-and-white stained glass.
Not really wanting a conversation in a scary language about which inner-tube size I required, I went to grab a chocolate bar and was barked at presumably to wait in line for what now looked like another ticket booth. This one appeared to be taking money off people but not issuing anything in return. The inside of the shop was a kind of semicircular, amphitheater-shaped floor with people in four glass-windowed booths policing it like control towers. This was pretty accurate as it turned out because one-by-one they snapped orders or stamped papers keeping you in line and giving the feeling you were being processed through a system. And all this for a chocolate bar?
I was involved now, so I stuck it out to the next window where my ticket was stamped and I was ushered along to the last one where I presumed I would either be shot or given confectionary along with all the other gray, shuffling products of a system. Arriving at the last window a woman smiled and motioned me to choose one of the handful of chocolate bars on offer. Familiar in appearance, though not taste it would later transpire, I grabbed at a Mars bar and politely handed over my ticket, surprised to find a different one issued and a smile push me toward the door and sunlight outside. My feeling of relief that the encounter had gone probably better than I had imagined it might soon changed to one of deflation. That was it, that was my bike shop, that was the source of the local Soviet-inspired cycling club jersey I was going to be sporting on my rides back home much to the envy of my mates. Sometimes it just doesn’t blow your way no matter how hard you hope.
I have not been back to the Czech Republic. The country has changed, in more than just name. Affluent, exploitative western Europe has moved in for cheap getaways and rule free bachelor parties, while the media focus has been on the outpouring of migrants from the East. I can’t help feeling the charm and humility and humbleness, indeed honesty, of the place as then untouched by western hand that has probably been long since wiped away. I am not meaning to wax nostalgically about a state ideology that would over a few decades shield and brutalize its subjects behind its own Iron Curtain. I’m sure I wouldn’t for one moment trade my English 1980s upbringing for that of a Communist state, but there is something of a balance in there between “them” and “us”—perhaps what we in the West lost a long time ago and was clearly slowed down by the East as a byproduct of implementing something far worse.
It seems paradoxical, but I saw an innocence in that place, much closer to its longterm past, as yet uncorrupted by greed and false ideology based on the need for consumption. Looking back, I was disappointed to not have found my trophy to go home with to show I had been. Going and seeing and recording had not been enough. I had needed something more. It was to take 20 years for that stain to start to wash out, but now I see. Keith Bontrager coined the timeless aphorism: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick Two.” Mine is: “Observe. Experience. Own. Pick Two.” And, like him, I opt for the first two.