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Eastern Europe Was a Heck of a Lot Farther Away 22 Years Ago

Twenty-two years ago tomorrow, the first step was taken towards a united Germany (and an Iron Curtain-less Eastern Europe) when the two Germany’s signed a treaty to unite East and West. While the Iron Curtain didn’t actually come down that day, it certainly sustained a major chip.

Thinking back on it, I’m reminded of my own trip behind the Iron Curtain when I was 16 years old. I’m struck by how far away those countries seemed.

In some cases (like Berlin and Warsaw), the actual hours and minutes it takes to get there have shortened, as nonstop flights to these cities are now available from many U.S. cities. But in all cases, the feeling of distance traveled has shrunk significantly.

Nowadays, when you arrive at the airport in Budapest (or Warsaw or Prague), it doesn’t seem all that different from the airport you departed from. There are arrival, transfer and departure signs in the local language and English; plenty of people are smiling at you; and everyone is welcoming you to their country. Chances are you’ll whiz through security and immigration and be on your sightseeing way in no time.

Head out onto the streets of Budapest and Warsaw, and you could be in any major European city. Even Prague, with its charming medieval architecture, is so overrun with expatriates from the U.S. and England that you never feel you’ve traveled too far from home.

But 22 years ago, it wasn’t like that at all. Back then those destinations were sooo far from home – not because of the physical distance but because of how far away from the familiar they were.

Until I went to Budapest at age 16 (back in 1986), I had never seen soldiers walking around with automatic weapons before. I’d seen it on the evening news, sure. But not in places that tourists go.

As a teenager I was used to going through an airport basically unremarked by security. But in Budapest my luggage was checked thoroughly. For what, I’m not sure. We were told ahead of time that blue jeans were a hot commodity in Eastern Europe, so maybe these guys (who were probably only a few years older than me) were hoping to score a pair of jeans or a Walkman!

Once in Budapest, the faraway-ness of it all intensified. There were soldiers everywhere. People walked quickly, with their heads down, and never smiled our way. But the most foreign (and scariest) moment of all occurred when a girl in my group accidentally took a photograph of a police car and two policemen while snapping a picture of an immense building. They immediately came towards us, demanded her camera and then exposed the film.

Never before had any of us ever been subjected to anything like this. To say we were farther from home than just 10 hours or so would have been an understatement. Truly, we had traveled to another world.

Did you ever travel behind the Iron Curtain? How “far away” was it for you?

— written by Dori Saltzman

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