Making Connections Behind the Iron Curtain

At fourteen I had never traveled so far from home without my parents or siblings. My grandmother made a promise to her sisters before they died that she would visit family in the old country, then named Czechoslovakia (Czechoslovak Soviet Socialist Republic or CSSR), where they were born. We were going to meet family we had never met. Letters and pictures sent across the ocean were the only means of communication that facilitated our trip. The summer of 1971 would be filled with excitement! We were in for the adventure of a lifetime.

As we boarded the aircraft, I asked my grandma if she wanted the window seat, but she declined. However, she was no stranger to mass transit. Born and raised in Chicago, she was used to boarding buses and elevated trains, but she had never flown before. I had but never this far. I could feel her anxiety by the way she held on tightly to the armrests as we ascended into the unknown strange and foreign land ruled by an iron fist. Looking back, it’s amazing how wonderfully the travel plans all came together with no internet or cell phones. By today’s standards communication was painfully slow, especially between countries. Now I know how much planning and courage it took to keep her promise to her sisters.

Our plane had departed Chicago with an overnight in Vienna, Austria. After my first time staying in a hotel overnight, we chartered a bus the next morning to take us through the border checkpoint in Czechoslovakia. Our destination, Bratislava, was located about an hour and a half over the Austrian border. My grandma securely handled our passports. They were kept inside a pocket she sewed in her clothing along with other important papers for safekeeping.

Tension surrounded our travel with multiple checkpoints for reviewing passports and visa paperwork. My grandmother spoke Slovak. I didn’t but quickly learned that a smile is a smile in any language and hugs are universal.

We patiently waited in sparsely furnished, monochromatic government buildings for authorization to travel onward. Memories of those moments are as clear and uncomfortable now as they were then. The six hour overnight train ride through Bohemia from Zilina to Prague still makes my bones weary.

We receive a warm welcome in Prague erased the weariness. On the stone bridge we overlooked the city. It was beautiful and our family showed us the highlights. The beautiful cut glass crystal in the store windows, affordable to only tourists, still glistens in my mind. Carefully packaged crystal baskets were brought home as gifts for our American family.

We climbed the mountainside to a tiny wooden church above the village filled with the aroma of white lilies. We visited local attractions, learned the history of the therapeutic spa town of Rajecké Teplice and had lunch at the tourist hotel where my cousin worked. My young cousins and I folded paper boats and ran along the grassy banks following them downstream until they disappeared. We also ran through farm fields, pausing long to consume fresh gooseberries until we had more than our fill.

Next we flew to Zurich, Switzerland. Our final week was in Europe in France along the Rhine River on the outskirts of the region known as The Black Forest. We traversed sites in Alsace-Lorraine between France and Germany. Across from our lodging in Ottmarsheim stood a beautiful eleventh century stone church, dating back to the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire, whose bells rang throughout the day.

Before and after even after the trip, my grandmother received letters and photographs from our family in the old country and would translate the Slovak news for us. Sadly, with the passage of time and family, connections were lost. She passed in 1988. I often wonder what my grandmother would say to our relatives after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Sovient Union. Much of their land had been seized by the communist government and I wondered if their lives changed for the better.

Recalling this trip motivated me to research my family. With the internet I have reconnected with cousins that live in Slovakia and France. The cousin that I once folded paper boats and ran through fields with is now a grandmother like me and we exchange photos of our grandchildren.

Through a single trip forty eight years ago, my love for geography and social studies has expanded. Who knew then that ten years following that trip that I would become a travel agent? For seventeen years I’ve helped people get to their vacations, family reunions, or business meetings. The business of travel has certainly given me an education well beyond the confines of my fourteen-year-old self.

As I pull out old photos, postcards and mementos to help me remember my travels, modern technology allows me to step back in time.

Yes, the summer of 1971 truly was the adventure of a lifetime.

Written by Eileen M. Hector – Tampa, Florida
Edited by Victoria Jones
Feature Photo by Nappy


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Eileen says:

    Thank you for sharing my story.

    Like

  2. gideonasche says:

    NIce piece

    I was a clandestine intelligence Officer in Ost Bloc from ’76-’87 , mostly CSSR, Romania and Bulgaria but I spent enough time in Moskva and DDR too)
    I never considered what it was like for a regular Western tourist ( as rare as they were in some places)
    who was there for no other reason than tourism.

    Again very nice piece.

    “Bei Uns gibts immer Urlaub”

    Liked by 1 person

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