Ah, those 25-year anniversaries. As soon as the Wall came down, I was all over Eastern Europe. Not only did I catch the Berlin Wall three months before it fell, but I also approached Berlin from the East in Easter 1990, while everything was in limbo.
But what I remember most from that trip is one of my most embarrassing moments while travelling.
April 1990 found me in Budapest. At the time, Hungary was a very Westernised country, with corner shops where you could buy, yes, chocolate(!) and bars where you could, yes, stay late(!), all of which were missing in Prague. I know it seems incredible these days what with the city overflowing with hipsters, but I remember looking for a snack and a place to drink in Prague One at night and finding none.
[Budapest also had a McDonald’s long time before Prague or Moscow. Of course, it wasn’t like the ones you’re used to. For a start the polyurethane package was re-used. Forget the stiff Big Mac container; mine was so crumpled and worn, it felt almost like the wrapping paper they serve a cheeseburger with.]
Anyway, I digress. I was shocked when a rail trip from Budapest via Prague to (East) Berlin cost me the equivalent of £4.50, but, all smiling, wandered about Budapest for the last time, as my train left Nyugati at midnight. I had a couchette to Prague.
When I arrived at the station around eleven, I was even more surprised. Foreigners at the time did not mix with the still-socialist Hungarian citizens (though the country was in the middle of an election campaign which was to change all that). As I was the only one travelling that day, I had a whole train car to myself, locked from both sides. I have to say that I was a bit creeped out, but, in any case, I bought some overnight supplies from the station and made myself comfortable.
There was one thing though. Walking around all day, I had no chance to relieve myself. So, about twenty minutes after we left the station I went to the toilet. Along with the bogroll, I took my wallet and my passport despite being the sole soul in the compartment. After a bout of spit-cleaning, I sat down ready to –
KNOCK-KNOCK! “PASSPORT PLEASE!”
I should’ve looked at the map, shouldn’t I? Budapest is about twenty minutes from the (then) Czechoslovak border.
Clenching my cheeks in time, I got up, opened the door and faced the Hungarian border guards. I remember they were polite and after a quick check they left me alone.
I sat down relieved and quickly produced a Number Two.
Cursing the Czechoslovaks who came almost immediately after the Hungarians, I shouted “wait”, trying to wipe myself and pull up my trousers.
WHAM! The border guards opened the door from the outside while I was still sitting on the throne.
I swallowed hard and gave them my passport and ticket, feeling very much the humiliated capitalist pig. I remember one of them trying to suppress his chortles and expelling whiffs of air through his nostrils.
So, yes. It was with my pants down that I entered Czechoslovakia.