When the steaming soup arrived at the table, I impulsively seized the shallow bowl with both hands, cupped it to my lips and gulped it down.
Moments later I was appalled at what I had done. It was the action of a starving man and I was merely chilled to the bone from hours of walking the frozen streets of Prague. It was March 1992. I had never been colder.
Warmed from the soup and time in the restaurant, I resumed the search for the Vsočany train station that serves Čelakovice and other communities north of the capital. Finding it, Vsočany was squat and spare, and like most buildings bereft of color. Pushing open its heavy weathered door I stepped into a scene from Charles Dickens.
The waiting room was malodorous and poorly lit. Three or four men reeking of drink snored, asleep on the wooden benches that were arranged like church pews. A man’s socks rested on top of a radiator. Another sleeping man sprawled across a flimsy table. When he snored, he jerked and the table’s metal legs screeched against the tile floor.
No one looked up when I entered and sat down. A limp potted palm, its sand base littered with cigarette butts, leaned against a wall. On another wall was a chalk board with smudged numbers listing departure and arrival times. Inscribed into the tiles next to it German language script stated the depot’s elevation, evidence that the station was built before Austrian rule ended in 1919.
Eventually a blue-suited, red-capped station master strode into this bleak tableau. A metal signaling stick tucked beneath her arm, the unsmiling woman looked like a prison guard.
Soon a three-car electric train arrived and a half-dozen travelers climbed aboard. Minutes later we were trundling through the countryside headed for Čelakovice, a half-hour away.
A year earlier that town’s Czechoslovak Management Center (CMC) was a communist party training center. The five-story building—with its furnishings and employees– had been presented to the American aid agency. President Vaclav Havel agreed to being named an honorary board member. The University of Pittsburgh business school became the administrator. From this once menacing place where communist cadres studied Marx and Lenin would come post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first western trained managers.
As a short-term instructor, I was at CMC for less than a week but since the facility had not yet fully discarded of its former identity, it provided a window into what communist life had been.
First there was discomfort, like never being warm. The dormitory like the rest of the facility and town was Spartan. My assigned room consisted of a bed, desk and straight chair. A communist party logo was stenciled on the sheets. A thin, scratchy towel lay on the bed, a sliver of soap placed upon it. There was one wool blanket, not enough for cold nights.
The cafeteria was useful for socializing but the food was basic, served by dour women in white aprons and caps. The trays were metal, the cutlery substandard and so thin that forks, knives and spoons could be bent with the fingers of one hand. Aside from camaraderie, being at CMC in its early days was more punishment than reward.
Outside, the town was similarly austere. Čelakovice’s few shops had little to offer. Stores were still state-owned as privatization was only just beginning. Buildings were universally grey, like the unsmiling people on the street. Western cosmetics hadn’t yet reached Čelakovice. There were few western cars. Most vehicles were Skodas and Ladas, plus wheezing East German Trabants.
Gloomy as life was there was also mounting excitement about the changes that were planned or under way. Freedom was triumphant. Newspapers could print what they wanted. People could travel outside the country and talk about anything without fear. Other than loudspeakers mounted on poles in public places there were few signs of Orwellian totalitarianism.
From Vsocany to Čelakovice my dominant 1992 impression was that life was austere and boring. t was a low level, steady state existence, without highs and lows.
For most Czechs and Slovaks the transition to freedom, democracy and a market economy was bewildering. If you were 35 or younger when the Wall came down and spoke English or German, you were fine. For the elderly the transition was much harder.
Today Čelakovice, Vsocany and CMC sparkle. They’re all well maintained and emblematic of the success of the post-communist transformation. #