Travel ban, pah! Try living in existing socialism
At present, our travels are grounded or on hold. There is a travel ban for many countries. Its the virus that now appears to travel faster. It shuts down travel more efficiently than we have dared to think even a month ago in Europe. It is sad, but necessary to avoid all but essential travel.
To many of you, this may be an unprecedented situation.
But many of my nearest and dearest have been in the situation before. You call it existing socialism.
This is meant to be a light-hearted post on the travel ban
No, I don’t want to make a direct comparison between Erich Honecker and SARS-Cov-2. Honecker was never as deadly. There were few mutations in the short line of Heads of State of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). My first travel ban was relative and lasted 17 years. Although I much prefer living in a united Germany, not everything in GDR was bad. That’s not the point of this post. In which I try to entertain you rather than wishing to kick off a discussion about realistic socialism.
Excuse the poor pictures. I had a limited supply of black-and white film only. The more talented state-approved artists may have had better materials but as a budding member if the producing classes, not me. I shot with a generous set of kit. A Beirette100N (which would fall under toy camera now). Sometimes my mom’s lent me her 1960’s Werra3. Finally, I got a super fancy first generation Lomo LC-A. The majority of these were printed in the airlock of my school’s fallout shelter. We were allowed to use it as a photo lab during school holidays. Maybe the the class enemy was less likely to drop a nuclear bomb on us then.
As someone who has lived with travel restrictions for the first years of my life, let me take you back, try and bring a smile to your face and let me reassure you this will probably last much, much shorter.
A day in the summer of an Eastern German high school student
When school is out and you are patiently waiting to go away with your parents to whatever state recreation facility they were allocated. We had hills (Thuringia, Ore Mountains and Harz) or sea (Baltic). I always preferred the Baltic but what you wanted didn’t matter so much. Another option was volunteering at a pioneer camp from age 14 onwards. I did that, too. I worked in the kitchen, overseeing vats of potatoes, frying 1200 schnitzels or loading dishes of aforementioned 1200 occupants into a huge dishwasher.
Or I just hang out with my girl friends by the local flooded gravel quarry. I’m the one in the middle with short, hair. I don’t normally look that thin, but this is just after release from hospital.
Big city trips to East German metropoles
But if you are thinking we were housebound, no no no!!! You could use public transport freely and cheaply for day trips. Accommodation was more tricky and not freely available unless you knew someone very very well.
I used my regular hospital checkups to take the day off from school and look around the big city shops in Halle, my district administration centre. If you saw a queue, you joined it. Because they might be selling Paul Young or Bruce Springsteen Vinyl records or deodorant spray.
The picture on the left is from a trip to Leipzig, site of an international annual trade fair where we would catch a glimpse at Western consumer goods. The other two are from a trip to the Worlitz Garden Realm – quite a frequent summer trip as it was an easy day trip on the bus!
Holidays with your mates
And when you thought these piss poor Eastern Germans never got away other than on state-sanctioned family trips and day trips on public transport, there was a third category: the class trip! Usually taking place once a year and leading to a centrally allocated youth recreation facility, trips always led us south to those less popular hillside resorts that the producing classes didn’t feel too hot about.
Note the sly influx of Western consumer goods like the portable tape recorder which of course is THE thing you take on a hike when you’re 14.
I’m second from left in the picture left and sort of hovering over the group in the right one, Still the short hair which I had decided to enhance with the most forward fashion style, the perm.
All this ended when I left High School after ten years and grudgingly entered another school to do my A Levels because there was no availability of apprenticeships in my dream jobs – pharmacist or optician. It was a tradition to dress very silly on your last day at school before the first “serious” events in life, leaving exams, apprenticeships and the odd teen pregnancy.
Trips Abroad? Moscow if you are super good
Buuut… before that, we were in the super lucky position to go on a final class trip to the Soviet Union. How we did it? Well, not through achievement or particularly close alignment with the Socialist Union Party regime. We were country folk in a village school. The ruling classes didn’t take a terrible interes in us or our political education. But we were also a tiny school class and, together with another tiny school class, we formed a good-sized group to go to Big Brother. Who was very big but somewhat caving in back in 1989.
Many of us flew in an airplane for the first time! Many of us stayed in a hotel for the first time. It’s not that Vegas had the first mega-resort – I think it must have been Moscow. The hotel still exists, by the way! The megacomplex is now split into Ismailovo Hotels Alfa, Beta, Gamma and Vega
Oh, and we had phones in our rooms – as rare as a personal submarine in 1980s East Germany. Something to be recorded in your personal photo album.
What was 1980’s Moscow like?
Aside from seeing the must-see historical sights of Moscow and being carted a rather nice mega restaurant to meet teen members of the Komsomol, we were encouraged to admire the latest space craft and other things. Amazingly, even this place still exists and is now the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. It actually has some very nice architecture from modernist 1930’s through Stalinist Wedding Cake style to Soviet Brutalski Style.
One of the highlights was to escape most nights and enjoy the Moscow nightlife. As our supervisors lost track of 15 kids spread all over two humongous tower blocks of a 1000+ room property, we slipped out after dinner when the last head count was done and did that wild thing, riding the Moscow Metro into the early hours. The metro stations were as good then, but sadly, no good pictures! 400ISO was the absolutely highest rating of film on sale. Here are my best friends at the time, on an adventure together!
My first trip into Capitalism
As we know, the autumn of 1989 brought many political changes and a never known before freedoms to travel wherever we wanted. Okay, money or the lack thereof still played a minor role. I was a secondary school student, my weekend job at the hospital had been cancelled as the GDR went into economic meltdown, and my parents were on short-time work. ONe of the first trips was to Hamburg!
I even found a rare picture of my late dad as well! Strolling the Red Light District, naturally, as this was something the whole family wanted to see, for that kind of activity officially never took place in existing socialism. Only in the foreigners hotels where many hookers were actually spying out the class enemy. Or so we would be made to believe. Anyway, one last picutre of the infamous Reeperbahn in full black and white glory.
My second trip into Capitalism and how I contributed to the destruction of the Berlin Wall
And last not least: How we destroyed the Wall! It is absolutely true that many visitors to Berlin would hack a piece off the wall as a souvenir, and I admit I am no exception. When my friend and I finally managed to visit Berlin in January 1990, the Wall already looked a bit worse for wear. All the good graffiti bits gone. Nevertheless, plenty of wall left to pose for the ultimate tourist shot, by the Berlin Wall – and on the “other side” of it!
I’ve enjoyed thirty years of relatively unrestricted travelling on what is allegedly the worlds third most powerful passport. Yes, SARS-CoV-2 is very serious and as the situation in Europe develops, the question what’s happening to your travel plans becomes more and more a rhetoric one, now is the time to be sensible and avoid all but essential travel. Trust me, a few weeks or months of not travelling will not stop you from wanting to go places. This is just my personal opinion, but once it is safe to travel again, we may be full of plans, and bookings will probably surge.
For probably many of us, our personal circumstances and hesitation stopped us from travelling for months or years rather than the newly imposed travel bans. So, when travel is safe again, finally go on that trip you always wanted to go to!
As we wait how the next weeks, maybe months unroll, you still read travel blog posts? If you have a blog, do you still post them? I’m a little unsure, and I would love to hear your opinion.
Disclosure: My parents paid for most of the trips featured in this blog post, and advertising was officially illegal. I took all pictures except the last one which my dear friend Paul took in 2009 while I posed inelegantly with his cable release. There are no affiliate links in this post. For more information, please refer to my Terms and Conditions.