Not one of us is going anywhere much at present so we have taken a leaf out of Xavier de Maistre’s 19th Century work ” Journey Around my Bedroom” and had a look at the various objects which have found their way to les Sarziers as a result of our travels. Each one has a great story attached to it which I am proposing to recount in the following blog posts.
Thanks to our work as tour managers we were familiar with major destinations in Eastern Europe and had accompanied groups to Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and so on throughout the 1980s. Those were pretty surreal experiences – unimaginable these days – in which one was negotiating entirely uncharted territory as far as tourism was concerned, with a complete absence of resources such as maps or guide books and of course no mobile phones, or phones of any kind for that matter.
Trips on public transport with our groups for example, where nothing was written in any language with which one was even remotely familiar were a hair-raising adventure.
Unfathomable bureaucracy and regulations, enormous but dubious breakfast buffets, top quality cultural shows and a general feeling that it was impossible to get to the bottom of things combined to make those trips some of the most rewarding of all my travel experiences. In this context I highly recommend Malcolm Bradbury’s novel “Rates of Exchange”, which captures the period exactly and is extremely funny.
So in the summer of 1991, as the whirlwind of change accelerated, Markus and I decided to take a trip to some more rural areas and smaller towns of what was still Eastern Europe to get a feel for a way of life which was shortly about to disappear for good. For two weeks that August we explored Czechoslovakia and rural Poland, where the harvest was in full swing, almost entirely without the help of machinery.
We negotiated appallingly neglected roads encumbered with horse carts, cows and geese but almost no motorised traffic.
We drank the water at Karlovy Vary, equally enthralled by its faded fin de siècle splendour and the incongruous Yuri Gagarin monument.
We wandered in the grounds of dilapidated country mansions, slowly being engulfed by vegetation, and through the streets of baroque towns crumbling into ruin, many of their beautiful buildings terribly eroded by pollution.
We stayed in a variety of improbable hotels, some of which, smartly renovated and boasting an enviable situation right in the heart of town are now forever beyond our means. On my birthday we dined in Cracow’s top restaurant for the equivalent of 7.50€ each.
Travelling back to France through East Germany we fell in love with Bautzen in the Sorbian enclave. Although extremely run down, it was easy to see what a jewel this town would become again once it had been helped back onto its feet.
Whilst exploring the deserted back streets we came upon this hardware shop which boasted an extensive and dusty array of the sort of items that you don’t need to purchase every day of the week. Galvanized bath tubs, massive wrenches, plumbers’ fittings, antiquated oil lamps – that sort of thing. Our eye was caught by this wash basin, which for some reason seemed to us just what we needed in the bathroom we were at that time building at les Sarziers.
I will never forget the experience of buying that basin. The lady in charge of the shop must have been in her early seventies. She had seen two totalitarian regimes come and go and had lived through the Nazi horrors of World War II and the brutal Communist repression that followed it. She had experienced hardships and shortages which we could only guess at and now suddenly she was being presented with yet another political system, one which she had been conditioned to suspect and despise all her adult life.
She struck me like someone on a log raft heading cheerfully for the rapids. Nothing seemed to faze her any more. When we told her that the basin was going to live in France she just said “Sehr schön”, not as you might expect exclaiming “Ah, just as we thought, you people in the West have none of our modern conveniences!”
We bought a couple of the oil lamps for good measure and she disappeared upstairs to find some suitable packing materials. A surreal moment followed. Bringing down an armful of newspapers she opened out a page. The face of Erich Honecker stared up at us from a photo. “Ach” she cried gaily, “Honecker! Let’s roll him up!” A few months previously she would have been taking something of a risk by simply speaking to us. Now she had nothing left to lose and the log raft continued on its merry way.
It became apparent, once we got the basin home and attempted to install it, that the design made no concession to the provision of taps. Was this typical socialist cussedness or a final attempt by the regime to thwart our Western acquisitiveness? It required a certain amount of creative thinking to devise a system by which the basin could actually be rendered functional.
I often think of the lady in Bautzen and I wonder how she fared in the rapids of the Brave New World that were looming down river when we met her.