The Old World in Eastern Europe

I ONCE took a train from Warsaw to Athens, passing through every Eastern European country but East Germany, and watched with wonder as storybook towns passed my view and ancient laborers crowded my compartment. Winding through the Transylvanian Alps at dawn, we came upon horse-drawn sleighs in the snow and whole villages built of timber, the houses tall and balconied and painted in the pastel shades of butter mints.

These areas in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Rumania contain more traces of Europe – Old Europe – than anyplace else on the Continent.

Even the cities – with their cobblestoned streets, their black-suited chimney sweeps, their coal-smoke fogs – seem antediluvian compared with the metropolitan centers of Germany and France. Of course Dwight Macdonald’s maxim ”The tourist’s exotic is the native’s poison” still applies here as much as in the jungle. But there is nevertheless native appreciation for the saved (even if inadvertently saved) sense of history. It was not simply nostalgia that caused Milos Forman, for his film ”Amadeus,” to use Prague as the setting instead of Vienna.

I once asked an Eastern European friend, after he’d returned from his first trip to the West, what he had thought of that Austrian city. Not much, was his reply – the clutter of neon signs and modern advertisements, which he was not used to, destroyed too much of the lovely architecture.

And the ”Europe” in Eastern Europe is not only in the physical landscape. Flowers, no matter what the economic crisis, are bought daily and given year-round. Afternoon walks in the park are taken, as is tea with elderly aunts in prewar apartments. In Poland, men, even students, still kiss women’s hands in greeting and parting. Occasionally men on buses tip their hats when passing churches. Name-day parties are frequent, as are unannounced visits, and people go to the trouble of dressing up after work. Work hours are flexible; talk of work is rude. Joke telling is the best, and most prolific, in the world. Guests coming into homes – especially from abroad – are honored and toasted (with vodka or fruit brandies) before being stuffed with food. People converse knowledgeably about their literature and history. Art exhibitions are important events. Poetry is read, books are cherished. Late-night trams are rickety and safe. Cafes are as cafes should be -smoke-filled. Talk of revolution is not unheard of. The dead are remembered.

Western Europe, by contrast, has become so Americanized that on arriving there many Americans no longer feel the exhilaration that comes from finding yourself in a truly foreign land. Eastern Europe restores that feeling to you.

It can also restore a sense of pride in your own nationality for, while less imitated in Eastern Europe, Americans tend to be well liked there. You can often seek out company at will, and many of the citizens not only speak English but also welcome the occasion to. It is always interesting for Americans to learn that in those countries commonly regarded as our enemies, we are usually much more warmly and genuinely received than in nations that are reputedly our allies. The same American visitor who is shunned as a Yankee imperialist in a West Berlin bar would be kept up all night with questions, food and drink by his gracious hosts in Warsaw.

There is never any forgetting, of course, that the Eastern Europeans live under Communist regimes, a fact that – apart from all the domestic dolor it has produced – is the primary reason that many foreign tourists stay away. Often the visitor’s first and most lasting impression of Eastern Europe is of soldiers toting carbines at the airport. Yet it has always surprised me that this open show of weapons among the military should so unsettle people coming from countries where firearms are more often concealed among the populace.

Once through the cumbersome, though in some ways thrilling (especially for neophytes), customs check, the foreign visitor in Eastern Europe is at large. There are no obligatory tours, no assigned hotels, no ”closed” towns. You can, if you care to, see the countries and their people as they are. Unlike in the Soviet Union, your own experience with Communist authority is primarily in the coming and going – when dealing with the minions of the state – and not felt so much once you are inside, meeting the citizens of the country. And this, inevitably, gives you a better chance to see how the system works on them.

The countries that make up Eastern Europe are as diverse politically as they are geographically and culturally, something we often forget when we lump them into one gray insufferable mass. Poland and Hungary tend to be the most relaxed when it comes to foreign contacts. Rumania – where meetings with foreigners have to be reported by their citizens – is probably the least. But this does not restrict you in going to Bucharest and seeing Nicolae Ceausescu’s imposing Palace of the People on the grand Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism, as powerful a symbol as any of the rude excesses of oligarchies.

In most of the countries people will speak freely of the vagaries of the state, and even when they won’t, there is enough visual evidence from the window of a car or even a stroll through the streets: the unirrigated fields, the lines for bread, the heavy consumption of spirits, the mannequins in the windows of state-run clothing shops dressed only in suit coats because of a shortage of shirts.

IN Warsaw, Budapest and Prague you can find small private clothing shops of high style. Only the prices seem old-fashioned. Tailors, often reached through the inner courtyards of weathered tenements, work from magazines of Italian design. State-run craft stores in the countries vary only in the types of products sold: Poland is well known for woven rugs, linens, and exquisite amber jewelry; Czechoslovakia for leather and crystal; Hungary for embroidery and porcelain.

Restaurant meals can be good and unexpectedly memorable, though perhaps not in the way that they might be in France. I am thinking of one occasion: It was a snowy evening in Warsaw in the midst of the worst winter in a century and, with nothing to eat at home, my wife (who is Polish) and I went out to the restaurant of the largest hotel in the city. The airport had been closed because of the storm, and the restaurant was overflowing with guests. My wife entered and asked if we could be seated – anywhere. She was brusquely turned away. ”There’s no place,” she called to me in English, at which point the waiter who had rebuffed her pirouetted deftly, led us through the crowd and seated us at a table.

It was, to be sure, not the usual response in European restaurants to someone speaking English. It was, rather, a degrading spectacle, for it showed the greed of a people who had learned to discriminate against their own kind. (Knowing me to be a foreigner, the waiter expected a handsome tip.) But perhaps, I thought, the reception we got could just possibly have been an act of genuine hospitality, a touch of Old World courtliness preserved by a fusty caterer in a bustling hotel on the edge of Europe.