Although Katrin and I both live in Prague and have for a long time, we don’t get the chance to meet very often. She’s busy with work and family stuff, and I travel too much. Earlier this summer, she sent me an invitation to an open house at the German embassy in Prague where she works. I was drowning in deadlines and couldn’t make it, but suggested we meet up for lunch the following week.
She chose a fancy Italian place, Pastař, for us to meet, but I didn’t mind. I’d been thinking for a while the restaurant might make a nice addition for a guidebook listing but hadn’t had the opportunity to try it. Besides, it’s across the street from my office.
So that’s what happened. We met, found a table, and started chatting. I’d barely had time to cut into my mozzarella di bufala, though, when she dropped an unexpected conversation bomb: “You know, we’ve known each other now for 30 years.”
“Thirty years? No way. It couldn’t be anywhere near that long.”
It turns out she was right. It was nearly 30 years ago to the day that Katrin and I were both Czech-language students at Brno’s summer school for foreigners: "Letní škola v Brně." She was one of several West German students attending the program (plus a bunch of East Germans) that year, while I was the only American (if memory serves). Judging from the group photo (reprinted here), there were around 80 of us in all that year.
The idea was to spend a month focused on perfecting our (in my case, rudimentary) Czech-language skills. We all lived together in a university dormitory, called the “Družba” ("Friendship" in Russian), conveniently located on a stern, featureless street called "Leninova" (after Lenin). Classes were held in some of Brno’s university buildings nearby.
Over lunch, Katrin and I talked a lot about that program and our mutual friends from those days. She’s been better than me at keeping in touch with people, though both of us have lost contact with most of our fellow students. (If anyone is out there and reading this, please give me a shout!)
That conversation got me thinking about that month in Brno. It was the longest continuous period, until that point, I’d ever stayed anywhere in the former Soviet bloc. I was excited to go, but equally excited to leave when it was over. The experience affected my impressions of Eastern Europe back then and still shapes my thoughts about this part of the world now. This post is about me trying to work out how.
By coincidence, I’d been planning to travel through Moravia a few weeks later to attend a conference of TBEX travel bloggers in the city of Ostrava. The drive over from Prague would take me through Brno. I figured why not pair the trip with a stopover in the Moravian capital? I could carry out some guidebook research for Lonely Planet and also spend time wandering around the city and reconnecting with my pre-Velvet Revolution self.
Katrin was kind enough to email me with some of her old photos from those days, along with some scans of the summer-school program. I’ve included them here in this post. Thank you!
If you’ve read my earlier posts about the 1980s, you’ll know that by the summer of 1988 I was working as a journalist at the Vienna branch of a small publishing outfit called Business International. Earlier that year, I’d been assigned to cover Czechoslovakia, but my Czech was only good enough to scan the country’s statistical yearbook and catch a headline or two from the official communist newspaper: Rudé právo.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to send me to summer school in Brno, but I was happy to go and very much looking forward to learning about the language and country. We were just a little more than a year away from the 1989 Velvet Revolution at that point, but it was clear from my company’s decision to send me that no one there expected any major political changes any time soon. Once I got to Brno, it was clear no one on the other side of the line was anticipating a revolution either.
As strange as it may seem now, the division between East and West was accepted without question by both sides and perceived as being as normal and natural as the phases of the moon.
I was a couple of years older than the other participants, who were still mostly college students, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I got a taste of what was in store, though, right from the beginning: at the Czechoslovak border, after catching the bus in Vienna on a July morning for the trip up to Brno to start the program.
Border crossings were a lot more complicated back then. These days, borders are wide open and buses sail right through. In 1988, however, we'd of course be crossing the Iron Curtain, and all cars and buses would have to stop for a thorough inspection. The whole thing could take an hour or longer.
And so it was on that particular morning, the bus rumbled to a stop and we prepared to get off to show our passports and answer questions from stern-looking officials about why were coming and what we were planning to do. Before lining up for the customs inspection, I wandered over to the bathroom. As I walked in, I was surprised to see a guy standing there and sweating profusely. He was a bit younger than me, obviously foreign, and pretty worked up about something.
“Do you think they’re going to search us?” he asked me (in English, with a British accent).
“I don’t think so," I said, "but I’m not sure." And then I asked him why.
At that point he showed me a small amount of grass (or maybe it was hash) that he’d rolled up in some plastic wrap or aluminum foil, thinking he was going to take it with him across the border. He was suddenly, urgently looking for a way to get rid of it.
I told him I didn't think it was a good idea to smuggle anything into Czechoslovakia, and I believe he ended up flushing it down the toilet. Whatever he did, though, he never got caught. How do I know? Once we got to our dorm in Brno, I found out he’d been assigned as my roommate for the duration of the program. (I won’t mention his name to spare him the embarrassment, but he turned out to be a really nice guy.)
I have an on-again, off-again love affair with the Czech language. After so many years and so many lessons, to my eternal shame, I’m proficient but not entirely fluent. It’s not that I’m terrible with languages (I managed to pick up German fairly quickly in Vienna, and French as a student in Luxembourg), but for some reason I have a bit of a block with Czech.
What I am fluent in, though, is Czech folk music (or, more precisely, Moravian folk music), and for that I owe my gratitude to that summer school in Brno. While our mornings at the school were taken up with hours of rigid instruction in Czech grammar, in the afternoons, we mostly learned and sang folk songs.
Czechs and Slovaks will know my two favorite songs by heart, but they're not well known outside of the former Czechoslovakia: “Vínečko bile” (My little white wine … ) and “Čerešničky, čerešničky” (Cherries … ). (Follow the links here to some YouTube videos to hear how the songs are supposed to sound.)
I can’t tell you how many times over the years this peculiar knowledge of Moravian folk music has saved me, particularly out with friends or on a date in a traditional pub or restaurant. Whether we were in Bohemia, Moravia or Slovakia, the scene would always be the same: we'd order our food and drink, and suddenly in would waft the first strains of violin music from the “gypsy” band performing the night. Not long after that, the guys would be standing at our table, hat in hand, asking for a song request -- and expecting a tip.
Thanks to summer school, what could have been a series of fraught encounters over the years, instead, became child’s play. I always had (and still have) a ready-made list of request tunes in my head, and can even sing along if necessary.
During my recent stopover in Brno, I rode my bike out to the old dormitory, which was just a few hundred meters north of the Hotel Continental, where I was staying. The dorm is still standing (and incredibly still housing students for the summer-language program; the 2018 edition coincidentally started the week of my visit). It's no longer called the "Družba," which in retrospect sounds way too communist, and the street has been renamed "Kounicova," after a Czech count from the 19th century. As for Lenin, there were no signs of him anywhere.
The first thing I noticed was that the outside had gotten a fresh (and garish) coat of paint sometime in the past decade. No matter how cheerful, though, the newish red, yellow and orange façade appeared, the pervasive institutional drabness (that I remembered so fondly) remained intact. You could sense it immediately in the overgrown trees and burnt-out patches of grass in the front of the building. I took a peek inside and got a whiff of the communist-era linoleum cleaner they must still be using, which prompted another rush of memories.
Over the years, whenever I would think back on that old dorm, my mind would drift hazily (like recalling a dream) back to a small beer garden located somewhere behind the building. In my mind, there were a few plain tables and a string of outdoor lights, similar to what you might find at a campground. I don't recall spending much time there, but I was curious whether the place really existed or merely something my mind had invented. I took a walk around the back end and was relieved to find the “Plzeňský Dvůr” -- exactly the kind of make-shift beer-drinking joint I’d hoped to see. The tables, built on steady concrete, had obviously been around for more than 30 years.
Afterward, I cycled around the city, which sparked off more long-buried impressions and memories: of drinking at tacky outdoor terraces up near Špilberk Castle, hanging out at a popular milk-bar called Sputnik (which later, sadly, became a KFC), and grabbing what locals back then euphemistically referred to as “pizza” on the terrace of the Continental Hotel (the very hotel I was staying in on the trip).
Slowly, though, a different kind of recollection began to shape in my mind -- this was not a specific memory of anything in Brno, but rather more of something in me. We'd obviously had fun in our classes and nights out in the pub, but my main takeaway from Brno that summer hadn't really been excitement. It was more a feeling of emptiness.
We had a surprising amount of free time at school (or at least I did), and I remembered taking long walks on my own around some of Brno's older, poorer neighborhoods to the south and east of the center. From a ridge, I'd look out onto the dusty, empty streets in the distance and try to pick up a vibe -- any vibe -- or feeling of familiarity. All I'd get was stillness.
This isn't a knock on Brno (which is a great place to spend time), and obviously there was more going on back then than I was aware of. My antennae simply weren't tuned to the right frequency, and I lacked the experience needed to inform my perceptions.
What I realize now, though, is that I was experiencing something a little different. It wasn't simply emptiness or alienation but more akin to hyper-awareness -- a sensation I think we all occasionally have when we're outside our own familiar cultures. I'd describe it as something like an exaggerated sense of apartness or otherness that allows us -- momentarily at least -- to feel our own existence much more intensely. Expats and long-term travelers will know exactly what I mean. I felt it strongly that summer of 1988 -- maybe for the first time -- and reflecting on those old days in Brno, it came rushing back again.
I wrote about Brno's heritage of modern architecture in an earlier post. Find it here.