The first summer on which I can provide a detailed report started exactly twenty years ago. Until then, two months of holidays almost always looked the same.
On the 1st of July we would leave for our summer house in the Low Tatra mountains and return on August 31st. From there we would sporadically take off on trips to internationally attractive locations, such as Kokava nad Rimavicou, Domažlice or Zemplínska šírava, the latter being known out of pure desperation as the “Slovak sea”.
The westernmost city I had ever seen was called, appropriately, East Berlin.
The idyllic wilderness in the hills around our old house was spoiled only by the constant deafening noise of Soviet pilots flying their fighter jets out of Sliač airport – they were conscientiously protecting us, so that the hoards of westerners seeking a fulfilling life in Czechoslovakia couldn’t get in.
At the beginning of July 1989, we left for the thermal baths in Eger. The word “wellness” didn’t exist yet then. Moreover, as a twelve year-old, the healing waters really didn’t interest me.
I was hoping that I would get some bright green laces for my trainers, some sunglasses (known as “mirrorshades”), and probably a fake Adidas jacket with three stripes.
At that time, we had to prepare as much for a trip to Hungary as drug smugglers would today for a transatlantic flight. We intricately stuffed our tubes of cream and tent posts with wads of West German marks, which we had obtained for some outrageous exchange rate. My mother filled sterilized glass jars with meals for each day of our vacation.
Most of our family’s savings went into a two-week stay at a campground that any serious hygiene inspector would have immediately hermetically sealed.
My childhood summers were as sleepy as party speeches, yawn-worthy, slow as our Trabant on the highway and monotonous as an afternoon broadcast on Czechoslovak Radio. Except that in Eger, everything changed.
The campground was unexpectedly bursting at the seams. The large expanses of grass were thickly covered with sleeping bags and cars. We could hardly find a spot to put up our orange monstre tent, which must have weighed several tons, but which didn’t provide enough room for one to move comfortably or even stretch out.
The other tourists had also come in their East German hard-plastic vehicles made in Zwickau, absurdly marked on the back with the words “De Luxe”. The sibillant sh-sh sounds of Saxony German were everywhere. There was something in the air. An enormous tension could be felt, even in the children.
The horrible bathroom, where anyone would be ashamed to even house their cattle, was filled to the brim with nervous people who, far from having vacation on their mind, were constantly in there conspiring and whispering.
In general, I couldn’t have cared less. My world revolved around chocolate crepes, posters of Sandra and of Michael Jackson – who was still black then and extraordinarily lively – and comic books in a language that seemed purposefully impossible to understand: Köszönöm szépen!
One morning, I woke up sweaty in our tent, which was hot as a solar oven. I sleepily unzipped the entrance flap, stuck my head out and rubbed the sand out of my eyes.
At first, I thought I was still dreaming and wished for another dream with Nsho-Chi, Winetou’s sister, played by the enchanting Marie Versini. It took a moment before I realized that I was actually awake and conscious.
We were the only ones left in the campground. Not a soul around. Just an enormous and staggering silence. Abandoned Trabants stood everywhere. A line of empty cars reached all the way to the border, where the barbed wire had been cut on June 27th. The trampled grass was littered with East German items, but I wasn’t interested in them.
Despite a strong feeling of abandonment and loneliness, I felt a strange and intense euphoria surge in me. I felt a confused but extraordinarily strong sensation that something had definitely changed, not only about this vacation, but about my entire life and the world.
Although I didn’t understand politics at all, it hit me that my childhood had quite tangibly and irreversibly ended, forever, there in Eger on that scorching, sunny morning in the summer of 1989.
Translation: Janet Livingstone. Published in Salon.
Photo: author and Tamas Lobenwein/Archiv Stiftung Paneuropäisches Picknick 1989, Sopron